Saturday, December 7, 2019

The Communist Manifesto

"From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."  —Karl Marx

Mr. Marx lays out his political/economic vision of a just society in this one pithy sentence. Yesterday, I felt its wisdom in the humanistic sphere. 

From each, according to his ability.” The grand adventure of education, the one we so often miss in the confusion of grades and tests and the day-to-day getting by, is for each child to discover what talents deserve his/her efforts to nurture them and then consider how to gift them back to the world. There is one 8thgrade boy who went to his first ballet class at 3 because his sister did and discovered that this was a world that had something he needed. She quit soon after, he persevered and 11 years later, is dancing in the Nutcracker with the San Francisco Ballet. So when one of our teaching Interns gave a lesson to the 5-year-olds on the Nutcracker, it was a great opportunity to feature him. And so he came in and danced a bit and then the kids all got up and copied him and wasn’t that just the best of the best? Yes, it was. Times a thousand. 

The day before, we started a new jazz piece with 8thgrade and it’s always interesting to arrive at the moment when kids choose between bass, drums, melody, chords. I take care to open up the one-of-a-kind instruments—stand-up bass/ piano/ drumset/ etc.—to kids who haven’t played them yet and who seem most genuinely enthusiastic. And so on this piece a boy who already showed great energy as a singer opted for the drums. And he was great!! I asked him if he ever played and he said it was his first time. 

In the next group, I asked a girl who had been doing great work at the vibraphone on melodies to try the drums—partly to encourage girl drummers and partly to see how she’d like it. She tried it for about five minutes and decided she’d much rather play vibraphone. I followed her lead and back she went to the vibes.

Note my responsibility as a teacher in these scenarios.

1)   To give kids chances to keep trying out new things to discover what excites them and what fits well with their way of thinking, perceiving, doing. 

2)   To honor the truth of each child’s innate sense of what they’re interested in at the moment and what fits them, even as I challenge them to try new things.

3)   To look for opportunities to present their gifts to the greater community—be it singing a solo or leading a dance and soloing on guitar in our recent Orff Conference Concert or coming in for 5 minutes to the preschool music class to share your work. 

“To each, according to his needs.” Here Marx suggested an economic justice, but this also works on the humanistic level. I have standards of behavior in my class that make things go smoothly, but kids enter with their own issues and their own needs and while I need to keep them on one-side of the line that harmonizes with group energy, I also need to honor their particular need. And so a girl who has been figuratively kicking and screaming in each piece insisting she can’t do this or that (she can and she has), running out often to the “bathroom,” always looking for something different to do, picked up an instrument she found close to her— a melodeon, kind of an air-blown little keyboard—and started messing around with it. The kids know they’re not supposed to pick up instruments I haven’t invited them to play and that we had a specific task of learning the right notes to our new song. But she started to mess around and in the middle of the kids practicing, started to play a “fake solo” with great body language, great joy and great smiling energy. And so I told her I was going to feature her in the solo and she should do just as she did, but now, at the right time for the right amount of time. Her “real solo” wasn’t quite as fantastic as her spontaneous playful one, but worked pretty well and I think we’ll keep it in the piece.

Again, note my responsibility:

1)   Here was a moment to bend the rules because she clearly needs something different than the other kids. Instead of reprimanding her for picking up that instrument, I turned a negative behavior into a positive one.

2)   Had I yelled at her, our relationship would have turned dark, the adult in power putting down the teenager who felt misunderstood. Instead, she felt how I affirmed both her need and her jazz spirit and celebrated her energy while trying to fit it into the formal context of the piece. 

3)   I will also show her a few key notes that will make her sound even better. 

Despite Marx’s grand vision, actual Communism did not work out so well. Artists in Russia got sent to Siberia, artists in China were also exiled and murdered in the Cultural Revolution. Life reduced to mere politics and economics was drab and dreary and the special spiritual/ artistic/ humanistic abilities and needs of people got swept under the rug. But in my classes yesterday, the principle of honoring each person’s unique abilities and needs, making a space for them, honoring them and celebrating them and folding them into the community worked out quite well. Well, better than well. Deeply moving and inspiring. 

A good beginning to a future book project: The Humanitarian Musician. Stay tuned.

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