Today I taught a piece to 4thgraders that I first worked out in 1983. Hadn’t really done it since then, but it held up. Then walking through my colleague James’ class, I noticed he was doing a piece he created in his 2ndyear of teaching back in 1992. Also a winner! And this got me thinking of Picasso’s quote:
“I don’t develop. I am.”
Meaning there are hundreds of ways in which we can improve as artists, teachers, athletes, etc., but mostly those who achieve something noteworthy had everything ready in place in seed form. The acorn held the blueprint and the first little sprout of the oak was as mighty in its way as the full bloom of the tree. And that particular acorn gifted to them came from another world, from an unfathomable, mysterious place, but real nonetheless.
This is a hard truth to grapple with as a teacher trying to believe in the potential of all children in all subjects. But truth be told, there is no program of development that will turn a pine cone into an oak tree. There is an ecology to the forest of human potential in which its necessary that there be a quota or limit of people who rise to the top. If everyone was a musician, who would ever get work at the club?
Yet for everyone to be musical, well, that is a worthy and doable goal. For everyone to be handy enough to fix a few things around the house, artistic enough to get pleasure in drawing, eloquent enough to write a poem or two. I believe all people would be refreshed by the opportunity to improve their powers in these ways and the culture would as well. But when it comes down to the fundamental questions like “What calls to me and how do I heed that call?” we have to notice how we fit with numbers or words or tones or images or motions and note how our way is just a cut above our neighbor’s. And if we’re lucky, someone who has been further down the path will notice us and give us special attention, in defiance of the fantasy of being “fair by the clock” that modern thinking would have us do.
When you are fortunate enough to find a perfect fit, as myself and my colleagues James and Sofia have in this strange esoteric world of Orff Schulwerk with its unique combination of skill, there are some other signs that it was all meant to be. If you can stumble out of a plane after 17 hours of travel and teach 40 people for 6 hours the next day, that’s a sign. If you can show up at school with head-pounding and sinuses dripping and still bring some joy to 5-year-olds, why, there’s another. If you can sit down to try to figure out in the midst of 30 unattended things on the list to check off what to choose and what to leave out and how to order them in an upcoming workshop and come up an hour later with a coherent plan for the full day, that’s because this is simply what you know how to do. None of it makes you special or brilliant, but all of it makes you lucky that you found your work Soul Mate and were loyal in spite of his or her poor income, status and fickle love.
I am sure I am a better teacher in general than I was 44 years ago or even yesterday and a better jazz pianist after all those years trying to work things out. But when I look back at some old work with kids or listen to a crackling cassette tape of my fledgling jazz improvisations, I hear myself pretty much exactly as I am.
I think the hardest lesson I’ve learned as an adult is to give up on the naïve hope that people really change. When you’ve spent a lifetime arranging your life to support the way you feel safe and invulnerable, you’re not going to give that up and re-consider without some dramatic catastrophe to shake you up. And even then probably not. I even had a few (very fleeting) moments when I thought Trump would wise up in a few areas, but …well, no comment needed. It sounds a bit cynical, but it’s real.
For me the punch line is for me to invest energy in people in my field who already “are,” or to put it more precisely, are aligned with the way myself and my colleagues work. No judgment—a pine is a pine and that is fine. And oak is an oak and that ain’t no joke. The big mistake is to think that you can get oaks from pine cones and pine trees from acorns. Ain’t gonna happen.