Though I never was in Boy Scouts, I like their motto. The slightly longer version:
Be Prepared: in Body by making yourself strong and active and able to do the right thing at the right moment, and do it.
I would add “in body, mind, heart and spirit…”
In my profession as teacher and specifically music teacher, that means learning all the details of my craft, practicing them, striving to master them. You know the drill. The correct fingerings, the scales, the harmonic understanding, the phrasing, the attention to dynamics and timbre, the hours put in to learn a repertoire. This is the what of any music curriculum and though necessary, I’m sorry to report (no surprise to any of you who have suffered through these kinds of lessons) that the discipline of learning life-enhancing, joyful, soul-stirring music is often dull, tedious, grueling, a trudge through swamp with a heavy backpack instead of a frolic in the field.
But it doesn’t have to be. Enter my life’s work of the Orff approach to music education, a chance to have your cake and eat it too by “playing” your way through the necessary skills and understandings and discovering, “Hey! This is tasty!” Orff teachers often (though not always) are far ahead of their colleagues who are throwing erasers at their students who squawk out of tune and miss the rhythm, tend to have more fun and join the kids in the circle to try things out, fail, laugh, try again.
This is a good first step to remediating what I consider wrong-headed thinking in music education. But it is only the first step. The next question—So What?— is the one that invites us to consider far beyond pleasing the parents at concerts why we’re doing this work and why we think it’s worthy to pass on to children. A question we don’t ask often enough. And here’s one answer:
To be able to do the right thing at the right moment.
For me, this kind of preparation has been a mysterious inner voice that has guided me through record stores and bookstores, browsing until something calls out to me from the bin or the shelves and I think, “I’m going to need this someday.” And lo and behold, 95% of the time I do! And the other 5% is still patiently waiting for its moment!
It is the same impulse that has led me to learning folk tales and myths, memorizing poetry, learning to play and sing hundreds of folk songs, learning some 400 jazz standards on piano, memorizing a few pieces each from the dead white guys in Europe, playing rudimentary banjo, guitar, ukulele, dulcimer, accordion, bagpipe, recorder, tinwhistle and percussion instruments of all types. None of it is to step on to the concert stage or dazzle the world with my (non-existent) virtuosity. All of it is preparation for an occasion I can’t predict, but know it will be needed and will bring the right thing to the moment. At my school, we often say “A song for every occasion,” but the same is true for “A story for every occasion, a poem for every occasion, a musical piece for every occasion, a dance for every occasion.”
And then comes the Now What? Are you alert to the need? Do you step forth and offer what’s needed? To you fulfill the last few words of the Boy Scout mandate?
To be able to do the right thing at the right moment—and do it.
So yesterday, I joined the 5th grade class on their 7-mile walk to school, a once-monthly ritual my brilliant teacher daughter created and caretakes. Even before mile two, one boy was in tears insisting that he couldn’t do it. And so I leapt to his side and began telling him a Korean folk tale about patience and perseverance. When that ended, there were still miles ahead and so told him a longer German folk tale about hiding one’s gold until the time is right.
On one level, it didn’t really matter what the story was. The simple act of immersing oneself in story helps you disappear into another world where you don’t notice your hurting legs. But it also helped to choose stories with images, characters, situations and messages that are useful to building a character, to guiding a soul. And while I could make a fuss about how wonderfully multi-cultural I was being, how I switched some genders to achieve balance and so on, none of that was the point. It was simply the healing art of storytelling. And my wise decision to follow that inner guide that suggested I have stories at the tip of my tongue, that I wasn’t dependent on a book or my phone. I went on to sing him a relevant song and had there been more time, probably could have pulled up a poem for the occasion.
At the end, I told him that if he was having this problem on a walk sometime and I wasn’t there, that he could tell the story to someone else. Whether telling or listening, the effect is the same. And so my dedication to having kids learn a couple of hundred songs, memorize and recite a few poems, learn some dances that might be just would an occasion calls for. Help them be prepared in body, mind, heart and soul “to be able to do the right thing at the right moment and do it.”
May I recommend you consider the same? Learn a few stories, poems, songs that are easily accessible to all? Of course, your own way to be of use may come from another place—giving a needed massage, offering useful medical advice, cooking a meal or simply calling up your capacity for deep listening. But if you believe, as I do, that we are here to be of use to each other, to offer our unique way of service, to discover the particular ways we can help others, then remember the old motto: