Sunday, May 3, 2020

“Why am I Here?” The 5 Pillars of Orff Training

And so the calendar turns to May, another month of sheltering awaits and I have begun my new life teaching Orff workshops online. Yesterday I spent three glorious hours with 65 people from all six continents and then another hour and a half with 300 plus teachers from Canada. And I loved every minute. Surprisingly, I feel at home talking into my screen and joking and reacting to people and singing/ clapping/ gesturing/ playing music with mics turned off and sharing stories and sometimes pausing to let some tears subside. 

In my next post, I’ll share why I think this is. But meanwhile, I began just spontaneously listing five things that I think people look for in workshops with the idea that I’ve planned the time to try to deliver all five as best I can. At the end, people wrote their “takeaways” in a chat and several commented that they liked thinking about those five things. So naturally, I wrote a little article. And here it is:

When my colleague James Harding was a new teacher at my school, he meticulously observed the ways in which I organized my classes to direct the flow of the children’s energy. He led the three-year-olds down the hall in a line singing a song, entered the music room and danced them into a circle, sat down showing different sitting postures until they all were seated cross-legged and ready to begin. So far so good.

But for a three-year old in his first music class, new to the school and getting used to the routines, that trip down the hall was like a trek to Siberia. He was sitting next to James and looked up at him with a pained face and exclaimed “Why are we here?!!!!”

Ah, the wisdom of children. Wouldn’t we all do well to ask that question often in our lives? At the boring staff meeting or in a noisy bar or waking up next to someone? 

And so, as we venture into this new world of the online Orff Workshop, I think it’s a good time to ask the same question. And that starts with reflecting on why we come to Orff workshops at all? I suspect that most of us are looking for five things. See if you agree.

1)   Material:We’re all looking for great songs, dances, games, Orff arrangements. The Orff teacher is a lifelong collector of repertoire and workshops are the place to shop. When participants leave with material they can’t wait to try out on Monday, they feel that their time was well spent.

2)   Process: Orff offers more than just the song, piece or game—it shows models of both the many different ways one can teach it in a way that is engaging, surprising and effective and the many ways one can extend it and have the students create something new—improvise new melodies, compose new accompaniments, choreograph a dance, act it out in drama, the whole limitless possibilities of “What can we do next?”

3)   Understanding:Music holds a vast storehouse of specific knowledge—techniques, theory, stylistic considerations, histories. If a workshop offers new insight as to how music works, both specifically and generally, it enlarges out capacity as teachers of music. 

4)   Inspiration:The beckoning finger of someone further ahead on the path is often the impetus we need to keep walking. The details that they reveal that we might miss walking on our own, the secret beauties they show us, the testimonies and living examples of how this path has sustained them, blow new breath into us (the etymology of in-spire) and help us feel more alive and determined to keep moving forward.

5)    Connection: The act of singing, dancing and/or playing music together with fellow human beings is one of the simplest and most powerful means of connection, that deep longing that we all equally share to feel that we belong, that we are a needed, valued, welcomed member of a community. And yet music teaching in schools can be a lonely profession as we walk into the staff room with no other music teachers to share our day’s stories with. One of the central delights of Orff workshops, conferences, courses, is simply to be in company with people who share similar experiences, passions and ways of being in the world. And sharing ideas and material and understandings as well. While much of the learning is transmitted vertically from the expert teacher to the workshop participants, as much (and sometimes more!) is passed on horizontally between the teachers. 

Notice that “credit” is not on the list of essential things that teachers are seeking when they give up a Saturday to come to a workshop. So many courses in Universities or other trainings so often feel like hurdles to jump over without taking any pleasure in the jumping beyond checking it off the list for the ultimate goal of a certification or a degree. Your passion is to become a chiropractor but you can’t arrive without going through the land-mined territory of organic chemistry. That’s not our wayWhile it’s true that not everyone will equally love learning recorder or movement or orchestrating arrangements in their Basic Orff class, there mostly is joy and pleasure in each step of the way. And if there’s not, it’s time for the teacher to reflect on their own process of teaching and/or the student to reconsider “Why am I here?” In short, 9 time out of 10 that answer is, “I went to a workshop and a world opened up that I didn’t even know could exist—and yet I imagined it possible my whole life and now have found it.

Two more things a worthy Orff course often offers:

1)   Affirmation“Yes! I do that!  I had doubts as to whether I was on the right track and here is this famous teacher doing the same thing!” And so some sense of encouragement that your intuitive way of working is grounded in deep pedagogical principles and is worthy of continuing  and developing.

2)   Challenge:“Hmm. I never thought about that.” Or “A ha! That’s the detail I was missing.” If a workshop is only affirmation and one challenge, one gets complacent. If only challenge and not affirmation, one gets discouraged. Some balance, some sense of “I can do that!” mixed with “Back to the drawing board. I better get to work!” makes the whole effort to attend a workshop a worthwhile endeavor.

When the five hungers of a workshop participant are all at least partially fed, with that needed balance of affirmation and challenge, the workshop teacher benefits, the workshop participant benefits and most importantly, the children awaiting the next music class benefit. The Saturday when one could have slept late, the expense of registration, plane flights, meals, hotels to attend the Conference, the two weeks in the summer when you could have been tanning on the beach, all pay back mightily from that investment of time and energy. Perhaps the metaphor of an economic transaction is to too coarse, too narrow, a way to talk about it. More poetically, being held in the circle of singing fellow music teachers is that tropical paradise you’ve always dreamed of, that little glockenspiel solo as refreshing as a gin and tonic, that simple folk dance a moonlit stroll on a beach. The motivation soars like a graceful gull over the mundane world of credit, professional development, graded homework assignments, to its true nesting place— love, pure and simple. 

That is why we are here. 

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