This November, the American Orff Schulwerk Association (AOSA) will celebrate its 50th year at the annual National Conference. I’m honored to be part of a panel discussing the next 50 years of Orff Schulwerk and though this is months away, the Muse struck today and you don’t mess around with her. When she talks, you listen! And write it down.
So here is my first draft talk for that event:
“In preparation for this panel , I read the transcript of a similar panel trying to predict the next phase of the Schulwerk. The year was 1985, the place was Kansas City, the venue was the National Conference, which happened to be the second one I presented at. We were all so much younger then! The topic was titled Focus on the Future and the future the panelists predicted is now the past we’ve lived through. Isn’t that interesting?
One of the panel members was the then-MENC President Donald Corbett and I liked his opening remarks:
“To forecast the future is difficult. Most of us are having a hard time trying to understand the present!”
Ain’t that the truth! But it’s actually in trying to understand the present that we create the future. We can babble all we want with our predictions, but who ever would have predicted in 1985 a two-term black President and what has followed? So best to look as deeply as we can into what’s happening right here, right now, knowing our sight is short and we’re too deep into it to see it all clearly.
One thing is clear. We live in a fearful world. Between nuclear holocaust, terrorists far and near (and I’m included the mall shooters here), climate change, overpopulation, the sense that the only qualification to be in charge these days is to be unqualified, well, there’s a lot to be afraid of. And the stakes are high. Not just attacks on our own freedoms and safety and quality of life, but grave threats to our children’s and grandchildren’s future.
But fear is not a good place to live. When fear kicks in, we are biologically programmed to shut down our higher thinking and deeper feeling skills to go into survival mode, down to the base of the brain where instinct takes over and we essentially are given three choices: Fight, Flee or Freeze. Our system gets flooded with chemicals to support us in any of the three choices and all of this is good. It’s part of how we have survived as long as we have.
But this is only good as a short-term response. If the threatening signal, real or imagined, continues, at either high or low levels, we are reduced to a perpetual state of non-thinking, just reacting impulsively with our fists or our running legs or our frozen self cowering in fear. When the fear comes from thunder or the bear at our campground or the truck hurtling out of control, we react quickly and then exhale when it’s over. But if the threats come from the way we’ve organized our cultural life and are ongoing, it’s a deeper problem. We have to be cognizant of this atmosphere of ongoing fear, much of which is purposefully manufactured to keep people under control, keep them from questioning, keep them from thinking, keep them for feeling too deeply and most important of all, to keep them shopping.
And it seems to be working. The rise of religious fundamentalism, the shift from a public discourse of measured conversation to rhetorical rants and insults, the giving-over of one’s personal power and individual thought to the first demagogue who promises to fix it by getting rid of the people who don’t look like you, these symptoms of fear are everywhere around us. And it’s good for exactly no one.
And the children are suffering. They’re like the canaries in the coal mines, their free, unfettered innocent song of delight now silenced or reduced to tweets on bleeping screens. Kids come to school worried about peers bullying them, worried about teachers shaming them, worried about parents pressuring them to perform—and most crippling of all, worried about a shooter entering the building. And unlike Forest Gump, they can’t run for three years straight or stay curled up in a ball or keep their hands clenched and their fists up all day long. So these manifest as stress, anxiety, depression and even suicide and the rise of all this in our children is well-documented. It’s not a pretty picture.
There are only two ways to fix this that will actually work. One is to work collectively to reduce , to change, to do away with the institutional practices of attacking, harming, hurting, refusing to see the humanity of, the children and adults in our culture. We’ve done it before when we passed the Child Labor Act, when the Civil Rights movement dismantled Jim Crow, when the ERA was passed, when people who loved each other who happened to be of the same gender were allowed to marry and so on.
The second is to replace fear with fun, to replace insult with welcome, to replace blind faith with cultivated thought, to replace ugliness with beauty. The only antidote to a child or adult who is shut down because they understandably are trying to protect some tender part of themselves from the brutal attacks of others, is to bring them into a safe and protected and loving circle, where fun is at the forefront and they are not only allowed, but invited to discover the beautiful expressive parts of themselves and show it to the community and be affirmed and welcomed and loved. That’s where real healing begins. And that’s what we hope we are doing in Orff classes worldwide.
Turning this all to education, we see that fear is again getting the upper hand. Administrators are fearful that teachers don’t know how to teach and are making them teach some scripted lessons made by “experts” who know exactly nothing about what that child in front of you right here, right now, needs. And believe me, it ain’t a script. Teachers who signed up to share their love and passion are having to jump through more and more unnecessary hoops with either the goal or consequence of killing that passion. Our scientific bent, which rightly belongs in places like helping solve climate change, is out of its league when it thinks that teaching can be reduced to a system and learning assessed by computers. The thought that teaching is about relationship, a relationship that by definition is unpredictable, messy, somewhat uncontrollable and not a problem to be fixed, but a dance to be practiced, this is a difficult thought for the think-tankers who want to solve things with systems, formulas and machines. But let’s be real. At the end of the day, kids don’t need a curriculum or an i-Pad or a sure-fire kid-tested lesson. They need a relationship with an adult prepared to see them and invite them to discover more about themselves that they even knew before. Relationship, not systems. For anyone who can look me in the eye and say that computers and 26-step programs will make it all work, I dare you to tell me about your marriage.
But this is not to say that we’re subject to the whims of capricious emotion in our teaching. There is a great deal of structure and thought and logic to the classes we create and cultivate, it’s good to have a coherent plan and curriculum, it’s fine to have a few clear and measurable goals and this is part of what any good Orff training is about. But it’s not the whole story. We also have to develop our own artistry, feed our own passion for our art and for teaching our art, bring the music wholly into our own body and voice and gesture and facial expression and communicate directly to the children from vibration to vibrations. We need to become friendly with our own spontaneity, our own responsiveness (the responsive classroom), our own attention to what’s going on in this moment right before our eyes and ears and with that quirkly little person called a child. That’s where the art and science of teaching meet and that’s where the children can begin to feel safe and nurtured and held in the arms of something that is not only about mastery, but is about community feeling, is about beauty, is about the unequalled joy of creation.
I’m concerned that the success of Orff Schulwerk in American schools is coming at a price. We’re starting to march to the school board’s drummer, use all the ugly-non-poetic words trying to prove that we taught something worthwhile, submitting our lesson plans to people who don’t understand them, teaching with the required Smartboard or formula of blah-blah-blah lesson objectives told to children who don’t care. Orff began as a radical antidote to all of that. Instead of trying to fit in with the bean-counters program, we need to show them how to grow the garden.
If I had any advice for today’s and future Orff teachers, I’d say “Stay on the edge.” And walk your administrator there to show him or her the view. When we are teaching the way Orff and his descendants proposed, there’s not a single new education-du- jour approach that we’re not already doing—and often much better. Trust that. Keep Orff weird, as the T-shirt says. Not to be cool and eccentric, but because children are weird, art is weird, good teachers are weird—in the best possible ways.
So here’s my prediction for the future. It will be exactly as wonderful as today’s and tomorrow’s class. Our job is not to be talking heads pontificating about the next 25 years, but to be engaged citizens, thinking people, feeling human beings working every moment of the blessed time granted to us on this fragile planet to be the change we want to see in the world, right here, right now, with the children by our side."