Thursday, November 19, 2020

Reversing the Ratio

“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.”                           – Michelangelo


Having just come from my 38th  Orff Conference (and the first Virtual one), I couldn’t help but notice in the chat comments all the affirmations—"Wonderful!  Amazing! Love you!” There is this effusive, overflowing, gushing sense of affirmation in the Orff Community, people who feel they’ve found the El Dorado of adult professions constantly reminding each other of how wonderful we are, how wonderful the Orff approach is, how wonderful it is that we get to get up and move like chickens or make bird sounds on recorders or play xylophone improvisations with no wrong notes. 


And it is. All of that is great, as far as it goes.


But I couldn’t help but feel a little discomfort that we were in a constantly self-affirming cultish kind of loop and that our rush to affirm and celebrate each other and our work has perhaps tipped too far. Yes, I prefer it to mean-spirited criticism, cutthroat competition and people stepping over each other to climb up some ladder of success, But might swimming in the sound-bytes of superlatives with multiple exclamation points  weaken our sense of muscular criteria for what is truly worthy of admiration and appreciation? Might we be rushing too quickly to praise and sidestepping constructive critique? Might we be diminishing the meaning of applause if we give a standing ovation to the orchestra simply for picking up their instruments and playing the first five notes without a mistake?


In my book Teach Like Its Music, I have a chapter about the importance of Repetition, Repetition, Repetition, Variation. There is no exact formula, but one commonly found in music is the 3 to 1 ratio:


Skip, skip, skip to my Lou.

Skip, skip, skip to my Lou.

Skip, skip, skip to my Lou.

Skip to my Lou, my darling.


On the other side of “Fantastic!” is “Nicely done, but have you considered this?” “Okay, but that section needs some re-thinking or further practice.” “Hmm. How can we do this better?” The thoughtful inhale is as important as the exuberant exhale and indeed, perhaps more so. Our 3 to 1 ratio seems to be “Amazing! Amazing! Amazing! Is it possible to consider how can we do this just a little bit better?” What if we reversed it? 


“How can we do this better?

How can we do this better yet?

How can we do this even better?

Nice job.” 


Perhaps an occasional “Amazing!” for the fourth line, but I suspect that if we’ve paid close attention to the details and worked hard to craft our lesson, we wouldn’t feel it as “AMAZING!” but simply as the natural result of work well done. The “awesome/ amazing/ incredible” exhalations are confessions of sorts that we are overcome with your genius as a teacher because we have no idea how you did it. And that means we can avoid considering the steps and simply admire your innate talent or charisma, worship and adore you in the celebrity sense and excuse ourselves from finding our own genius. Of course, coming from a culture that daily gives over our innate power and beauty to “the stars,” be they entertainers, athletes or politicians, it’s no surprise that this leaks into every corner of our collective life. And so it takes an extra bit of awareness to avoid that trap. 


So the next time you say “Wonderful!” after a workshop, remember Michelangelo’s quote:


“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.”


and reverse the 3 to 1 ratio.







PS: I worked really hard on these thoughts. Aren’t they wonderful?!!!!!




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