One of a thousand reasons why I am so happy teaching the Special Course at the Orff Institute is that I get to share just about the full 100 yards of everything I’ve worked on and cared about. In an insane condensed form with just two weeks to enjoy the banquet. But nonetheless, a pleasure that I would wish every person have in sharing the fruits of the career with others on their way up.
So after leading folks through diverse body percussion, fun games, models of flowing musical process, clear sequences on xylophones, structures for coherent improvisation, folk dances taken a few steps beyond the norm, a taste of jazz, a sip of world music, philosophical backgrounds to effective pedagogy and more, yesterday I got to have a Singing Time with them. And that might have been the most fun of all.
Though I’m light years better on piano than guitar, facing the group sideways or looking over the top of the big instrument always feels more distant than the direct encounter with guitar—or banjo or ukulele— in hand. And though I’m not much of a singer in terms of any God-given voice way, I think the group—kids or adults—feel how much I enjoy it and a festive energy always fills the air. And because the songs I choose to sing are never just songs, but opening doors to further explorations—motions, dances, new words, improvisations, stories and beyond—by the end of the gathering we will have awakened and exercised each and every intelligence—mathematical, linguistic, kinesthetic, visual-spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal and of course, musical. We will have touched on history, geography, grammar, vocabulary, mathematical sequences and structures, foreign language, morality and ethics and even profound life insights.
So walking to “work” this morning, I found myself thinking: “A song for every story. A story for every song.” Bicycle stolen? Let’s sing “Fietsie Foetsie.” Worried your job might be given to a machine? Time for “John Henry.” Your pet bird died? You can choose between “Mi Gallo” or “Cock Robin” or “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.” When you build a storehouse of songs by singing every day with children as I do at The San Francisco School, you have 150 ways to move through joys and sorrows, to find the song you need at the moment and feel the way it offers affirmation, comfort, healing.
And likewise, a story for every song. I hardly ever teach songs at my workshops or even in my school without telling how I learned Fietsie Foetsie and searched for some 20 years before discovering who wrote it. How John Henry can quiet the most rowdy group of 5-year-olds in two minutes and how their sadness is connected to the insight that he lives on in the song and every time they sing, it’s like the movie Coco suggests—John Henry stays alive and well in the other world. And of course, I have to mention who Aunt Rhody made 4-year -old Brittany cry and how it’s a perfect example of how a song in the major scale can still be sad.
So by all means, sing. But not just a little and not just the narrow spectrum of pop radio and not just by yourself in the car or the shower. Learn the stories the songs are telling. The words themselves, but also between the lines and behind the words, the story behind the story.
And when singing with others, share how you learned the song or with who else you sang it and what it means to you and who you think of when you sing it again. I can testify: A life lived singing daily with children, collecting and sharing hundreds of song that hold the stories you need and that you hold dear, of telling the stories that the song evokes, is a life rich with purpose, color and …well, music.
I’m sure there’s a song about this theme of a song for every story and a story for every song. If not, maybe I’ll make one up. Meanwhile, it’s a good time to sing either April Showers, I Remember April or April in Paris. Happy April!