“I said it! I meant it! I’m here to represent it!” — From a rap song
The annual Spring Concerts have come and gone and I must say they were magnificent. Every child—almost 200 to be exact—from 1st through 8th grade had their moment on the stage proving that they are a musical being and that when they join with the 15-30 other musical beings from their class and present it to the public, the results are impressive. For two hours on Tuesday night with the elementary students and another two hours on Thursday night with Middle School, the world was filled with beauty, humor, hope and joy. If anyone lucky enough to be in the audience was not lifted up and had their faith in humanity restored, well, it’s not my fault. Every minute was a testimony to the humanitarian promise of the children who will carry their best selves into a more resplendent future.
Or at least show us the best they are at 6, 10 or 14 years old by playing music, singing, acting, dancing just right for their developmental stage. Indeed, part of the genius of this Orff approach well done is that children are not trying to narrow the gap between their undeveloped musical skills and Bach or Chopin, but instead are playing the music that fits their technique, understanding, hearing at the precise age they are, that allows them to wholly be the child they are in the moment, ever upward-striving, but not trying to jump over some random pre-arranged bar of a non-changing dead white guy score. They are composing, creating, improvising and mastering the music that fits them at this glorious moment in their development. And each age has its own level of glory, so that 8th grade is not one note more musically satisfying or awe-inspiring than 1st. Do you understand what I mean here?
Of course you don’t! Not if you haven’t witnessed this yourself or more to the point, experienced this yourself in an Orff workshop or lived a life trying to re-orient your strange inherited notion of music as learning what buttons to push as you read dots on a paper to something much larger, much more artistic, much more expressive and certainly, much more fun.! A big shout-out to my extraordinary colleagues Sofía Lopez-Ibor and James Harding who like me (at least until recently with my SF Jazz debut!), have dedicated themselves to using the full range of their considerable intelligence, imagination, musicianship and love for children to make music of the highest caliber with the little ones. The way they wove together drama, poetry, visual arts, film, dance, music, song, kids’ composition and improvisation and more into one glowing whole simply has to be seen and heard to be believed. And the video won’t capture the tangible feeling of the room that something sacred and simple and extraordinarily complex is happening in here, will miss the vibrations of being present for the real deal. Anything that a school should care about—intelligent thought, heart-felt feeling, social communion, individual and collective expression, trained articulate movement and physical mastery, a connected curriculum of themes explored from multiple angles, discipline, spontaneity— you name it, we got it. We not only talked the talk and walked the walk, but we danced the walk and sang the talk! People, it simply doesn’t get any better than that.
Before the 8th grade rehearsal, I was trying to re-direct some of the boisterous almost-out-of-here energy (and believe me, they’re ready, but they’re also deeply, deeply aware that the school has gifted them with a life and a blessing and a sense of belonging that tragically most kids in most schools don’t get) and gave them a little speech. As follows:
What we’re doing here isn’t all about you. Of course, a large part is, inviting you yet one more time to show the full range of your talent, your character, your dedicated hard work that has brought you to the musician you are. But it’s about so much more. When you step on stage, you’re representing that best self and that’s the only self we want to see. But you’re also there to represent your class and to show what you have accomplished together. You’re there to represent your family. You’re there to represent your culture and your ancestors. When Cody sings the Kang Ding Love song and Joel sings La Llorona, that’s what you’re hearing when you feel some extra bit of soul beyond just singing the right notes with a pretty voice. You’re there to represent the school and carry on and even improve a bit 43 years of our dedication to the arts and all the hundreds of kids who have been on this stage before you—some of those alums who will be in the audience tonight! You’re here to represent what lies ahead for the kids younger than you, the future generations who will come onto this stage after you’re gone. You’re there to represent the countless hours, so many outside of our paid time, that James, Sofia and myself have put into drawing out your musicianship, some of you for eleven whole years. You’re there to represent the music itself and play it so well with such interesting new twists that Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Scott Joplin, Benny Goodman, will feel your energy from that other world and want to peek in to see what’s going on. Like the movie Coco shows, you are keeping them alive and happy by remembering them and playing their songs.
Finally, you’re there to represent intelligence itself. What it looks and feels like as you negotiate the complex structures and patterns and forms of music. You’re there to represent imagination itself as you reveal the lie of separate subjects and show how all things are connected and how there are no boundaries when human beings start to dream out loud. You’re there to represent our humanitarian promise as you show the deep levels of the way we’re connected by the way music demands such connection to be able to speak its piece. You’re there to represent the power of diversity, the way we are enlarged and refreshed and made so much better when we accept and enjoy music from China, Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil, Jamaica, Spain, Greece, New Zealand, Ghana, South Africa and beyond. When we enter the worlds of Handel and Vivaldi and Stravinsky and Philip Glass, of blues and ragtime and swing band music and jazz standards and jazz rock.
Intelligence. Imagination. Humanitarianism. Commitment to diversity. Culture. Each one of these qualities seems like an endangered species in our country today. By taking them seriously, by representing them, you are committing a much needed, radical and dangerous act that subverts the move to get us to stop thinking, stop imagining, stop feeling, stop caring so that rich and powerful people can keep doing their self-serving, greedy work to kill democracy as we have dreamed it. What we do here tonight can have echoes far beyond a cute Spring Concert. It is an act of resistance.
All of this is in our school Mission Statement: “To celebrate and cultivate the intellectual, imaginative and humanitarian promise of each student in a community that practices mutual respect, embraces diversity and inspires a passion for learning.” But hey, every school has a nice sounding mission statement. Tonight is the time to show the real deal, to make it come alive in three-dimensional form, to live it in front of an audience that will witness it and if we do our work well, leave that theater with their faith in humanity restored.
That’s a lot to put on your shoulders! But I believe you can handle the weight. You were just thinking it was another day in the life when you get to go up and play a few songs and fool around with your friends. Well, at the end that’s exactly what I want you to do—though make sure the fooling around is contributing and not taking away! But you are mature 8th graders representing, we hope, the best that this school has offered in over 50 years of a glorious vision. So before you step on stage tonight, give a moment’s thought to everything that you’re representing and go out and grab it and swing it around by its tail. As the song says,
“I said it! I meant it! I’m here to represent it!!”