Thursday, September 30, 2021

Indigenous Wisdom: Part III

And so the healing. It’s an enormous job and one that has barely put its toe in the waters of the national discourse. All we seem to know how to do is shout at each other across an ever-widening divide, depend upon laws to make us do the right thing or the wrong (Texas!), depend upon malls and media to keep distracting us from the needed conversations (with ourselves and each other), keep on doing what we’ve always done without considering the needed refusal to stop the harm.


And yet, there are good signs of people waking up, of youth speaking up, of groups getting together and joining their gifts and perspectives (as in the recent Collective Trauma Summit). Had I been invited to that summit, my perspective would have been “get it right the first time” as a strategy to avoid perpetuating the traumas big and small that we inflict on our children. Like grades in schools, tolerance of bullies, stressful competitions in the things that don’t really matter that much, looking at numbers instead of children, keeping the arts away from them. 


In my little world of Orff Schulwerk, I inherited the intuition of my teacher Avon Gillespie that the Orff approach to music education could be—and should be— so much larger than the effective teaching of musical skills. That it had everything to do with building a joyful community and inviting individual expression and revelation of each’s unique gifts within that community. And so starting from Avon’s foundation, I set off to create classes for kids, ceremonies for my school, rituals in my teacher-training courses that attended to each of the seven pillars of Indigenous Wisdom. 


• Our summer course has several moments reminiscent of Initiation ceremonies in which the Level III graduates emerge different people that they came in at Level I. 


• The Schulwerk is a contemporary reincarnation of Oral Culture, treating the body as an instrument of knowledge, the voice as the carrier of rhythmic speech and melody, the listening ear as the vehicle of learning, away from the black dots on papers and mere duplications of what others have written, impossible to wholly learn on Zoom. 


• Eldership is not well understood anywhere in America, but from the beginning when I attended Orff Conferences as a brash, young man, it was felt that the elders knew things we didn’t and yes, there was a clear respect for their work born from years of experience.


• Continuity became a cherished value at my school as school ceremonies repeated over 45 years kept evolving and growing and increasing in depth and meaning. And always changing, but the innovations were small and always came from need and clear ideas about improvement, never from the shallow idea “we’ve done this a long time, so why not try something different?” Likewise in my music classes, new versions of old ideas, new ways to teach familiar material, new material to teach familiar concepts kept things flowing and growing. But there were the old warhorses—Old King GloryIntery Mintery, the Stations game and some 150 songs— that kept threading through decades of joyful music-making.


• The annual school camping trip in the foothills of the Sierras was the high point of the year. The kids who felt too confined by the indoor school thriving out in the woods and fields and streams. (Sadly discontinued due to diminished teacher energy and legal fears). 

The outdoor space at school, with gardens and ducks and chickens and annual baby goats helps keep things real. Likewise, our summer Orff course in a retreat center in Carmel Valley with weekend whale watching gives a different flavor than the low-ceiling fluorescent lighted University classrooms such courses often are held in. While falling short of the deeper connections in the natural world that occur when one grows and gathers one’s own food and comes to know the weather cycles and contours of the land and fellow animal life, it still is given a place at the table of the joyful community.


• While diverse religious upbringings prevent a common understanding of the role of the ancestors, still there are echoes of these practices. I always begin our summer Orff Course invoking and thanking my teacher Avon Gillespie (who left us in 1989) and we end the course as he ended his, spiraling while singing (and weeping) a beautiful farewell canon. We take care to tell the history of the Schulwerk, acquaint the students with Carl Orff, Gunild Keetman and others. And with the kids at school, particularly in my 8thgrade Jazz Course, I introduce them to their American ancestors that the culture at large seems to think are optional people to know. No one leaves without come connection with Louis, Billie, Duke, Ella, Monk, Miles and beyond. Likewise, Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky and more. And when those goosebump moments arise in the music class, I feel that as the presence of the Ancestors come to watch and listen and bless the miracles that are happening.


• Everything happens within the circle of community and the things we do in Orff classes are some of the fastest, deepest and most memorable ways to feel connected to each other, to feel part of a greater whole. People—of all ages— who sing together, who dance together, who play music together, who play games together, who create together—are people who create lifetime bonds and build their own sense of belonging. Stand out/ blend in are the two poles of my music class goals, so that kids can feel the deep pleasure of both giving their small self over to the large group sound and motion and also express the unique gifts of their deep self through improvisation, solos, shared ideas. Most communities aren’t authentic communities because they require people to check important parts of themselves at the door, the price they require to belong to a narrow set of ideologies or dogmas or party lines. Here, we encourage each child to contribute the medicine of their gift to heal the greater body and to be healed by the greater body in return. 


What would happen if each field of human endeavor considered how to integrate some or all of these pillars into their particular job or workplace or neighborhood? Teaching music to kids and adults via the Orff approach may appear unusual, small and esoteric, but couldn’t workplaces bolster more community instead of cutthroat competition? Bring the natural world and the consequences it faces to the table of decision-making about continuing to manufacture those little (or big) plastic water bottles? Consider what is worthy of continuity—like the principles of democracy and the Constitution— and what needs to be radically changed—like refusing to continue the legacies of racism, homophobia, misogyny, unchecked greed, etc.? You get the idea.


Now just get out there and do the work.

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