The traveling music teacher, that fellow who kicked off this Blog’s theme, is back! This time to Orlando, Florida for the American Montessori Institute’s Conference. Not my usual venue, but having worked at a school founded by the Montessori Method for 45 years, I certainly had something to say on the subject.
First off, I have long been an admirer of Maria Montessori’s brilliant observations about children and Mt. Everest level of articulation in her writings. Few before or since have rivaled her vision of children as the future of a more cultivated humanity through the means of meeting their dignity and delight at each stage of development. The principles of the Montessori Method are sound and have been proven many times over, with first-hand evidence from the hundreds of children I’ve taught (including my own) at my school.
As determined as she was to develop the full 360 degree promise of each child, no one person could do that all and indeed, it was clear to me from the beginning that she fell short in her ideas about music, movement, drama and visual arts. As a scientist, she was a genius at nurturing the intellectual and practical side of childhood, developing materials that allowed the children to explore their way into discovery of which shape block fits into which shape hole without the teacher’s interference, to come to conclusions about the way size, weight, shape, the varied pitches of the scale and more work, to gain the longed-for independence to be able to tie one’s own shoes, cut carrots, take care of the space and bake some hurry-up cake. All effective, useful, helping the child gain confidence and mastery of the world around her at her appropriate developmental stage of understanding.
But there’s more to the matter. In my workshop, I described and shared a video of my 5-year old students discovering their “secret song.” In Montessori fashion, I left them alone to explore the material, in this case a xylophone set up in pentatonic scale. But my goal was not to have them discover the order of the tones, the proper mallet technique (yet), the difference between metal and wood. All of which they will discover later, as is proper for music education.
Yet at the beginning of the venture, armed with an unshakeable faith in their innate musicality and intuitive sense of how to create a coherent melody before learning a single rule, I set them free to “uncover” the secret song waiting inside the bars for them to reveal. The goal is neither practical mastery nor intellectual understanding, but imaginative flight into self-expression. This is the balancing act that a good Orff Schulwerk program can offer a good Montessori program.
Montessori classrooms are set up with children at individual desks working alone with the material and why I imagine many (like my school) have some kind of circle time and certainly outside time when children play together, the Orff approach leans heavily to group work, not desks in pods, but children seated or standing or dancing in circles. Children (and adults) who play music, sing and dance together form a social connection in ways that only music can provide and the Orff approach in particular accents the social side of the community— clapping games with partners, small groups creating pieces, large groups dancing in unison and yet larger groups singing in parts. The Orff-Montessori blend is a lovely complementary experience, not an either-or but a both-and.
In the workshop I gave there was an interesting moment of conflicting views. I invited the participants to treat percussion instruments as drama props and while clear to them (and even clearer to the children!) that they couldn’t toss hand drums as frisbees, they could make the motion with the drum or use it as a pizza being delivered or a mirror or a hat or a mask or a boat to sit in and row (these drums are durable). The participants came up with some great imaginative uses of the instruments to a cartoon-like musical score and one of them commented later that she felt her joyful inner child re-awakened and loved watching how happy people were when given the invitation to imagine beyond the norm.
But in the discussion that followed, a few felt that Montessori would have heartily disapproved as the exercise went entirely against the grain of learning the proper way to hold or play or treat each piece of material (in this case, an instrument). Whereas Orff would have applauded heartily. In the Maria/ Carl marriage, you can imagine the interesting conversation that would have ensued when the kids went home!
Perhaps they simply would have concluded, as Sly Stone did, “different strokes for different folks.” While honoring those who felt funny about it, I also invited them to step to the side of the sound principles edging toward dogma and trust the joy and happiness that such activities release in both children and adults. Indeed, this was Montessori’s most brilliant principle— to observe the nature of the child and build your lessons around that. While considering that perhaps her conclusion about the child’s nature might be different than Orff’s (or Steiner’s or Dewey’s, etc.).
In addition to a three-hour workshop, I got to do another 90-minute closing session where I led the 75% who said at the beginning that they were not musical through an activity that they agreed at the end was indeed musical— and that they were successful. And then showed videos of my then 2-year old granddaughter, my 5-year old class, my 4thgraders, the school middle school students performing in Salzburg and my adult jazz class playing for and singing with 90-yr.-olds, each video a testimony to the joyful, body-based, relaxed, improvisatory, connected spirit that a good Orff program releases and nurtures.
Was it worth the fossil-fuel, the combined 28 hours of round-trip travel in a three-day period, waiting for 15 minutes to check-out while someone’s credit card didn’t work and another 15 minutes for the taxi company to answer the phone?
I think both Maria and Carl would say, “Yes, it was.”
And I agree.