A few posts back, I quoted the old cowboy song “Back in the saddle again, back where a friend is a friend…” and while that referred to getting back on the bike after a two-day rest, now it perfectly describes the feeling of giving my first workshop outside the U.S. in over two years. After singing the praises of three weeks of traveling as nobody in particular, now it’s time to shout “Hallelujah!” as I resume my life as somebody in particular, that traveling music teacher taking the reins of the horse and steering in the direction I’ve been traveling my whole adult life. Following the yellow brick road to the magical land of Oz where music, children, teaching converge and the wicked witches don’t dare enter. (Though here in Verona, I have to take special care with the horse, as horse meat is one of the staples of the menu!)
My two day workshop is focused on the role of improvisation in Orff Schulwerk, in all its varied and glorious facets. Improvisation with the speaking voice, the singing voice, body percussion, movement, Orff instruments, any instruments, drama and beyond. What a joy to teach in person and do all the things that don’t work online! Singing, speaking, body percussion in canon! Circle dances. Small group movement choreography. Live Orff instrument playing with multiple parts. Back in my role as the man behind the curtain pulling the levers to create the feeling of magic, a magic that’s not an illusion, but is real and tangible and just needs the structures I’m offering to be released.
After many activities, with the help of my friend who translated, I thought that if we were going to spend two days exploring improvisation, it would be a good idea to have some kind of definition to clarify what we’re doing and consider why it’s important. So I came up with one on the spot.
Improvisation is meeting the needs of the moment using everything you know and everything you don’t yet know.
Not bad. In the music class, “the needs of the moment” are simply how to extend a given rhythm, melody, set motions, musical accompaniments, music and/or dance structures to make it personal, to expand the form, to make it come alive far beyond simply duplicating what someone else has created, to become co-creators of a piece of music or dance. Naturally, we bring everything we know to the task— our technical skills, our musical understandings, our ways of thinking and feeling musically. Everything we already know. And then enter the world of imagination, where the things we don’t know or didn’t know that we know, come into play and we surprise ourselves and others with creating something in the moment that we have never quite done before.
This brings a whole different kind of involvement in the music study, a whole different feeling beyond simply reproducing what others have done and feeling tense and nervous about getting it right while the strict teachers glowers at us if we make a mistake. It affirms that we are indeed imaginative beings capable of more than most people have ever given us credit for, that our ideas count, that our creations—from an 8-beat scat singing of the first sound of our name or a short improvised movement to a full blown composition or choreography— are worthy to be shared, that they matter, that we matter. Not only does it feed the enthusiasm and interest that every teacher dreams of in their students, but it inspires the motivation to practice and refine and improve that any art form demands. Instead of doing it as a drudge and a chore, it becomes a joy and a pleasure and damn fun!
Everybody wins. And for those nervous teachers wanting accountability from their students, making sure they are understanding the essence of the lesson, improvisation is always the final exam that reveals precisely what we know and can do and gives the hints as to what the next step in our development is.
Being who I am, I imagined outside the box of the music class to the quality of improvisation in our life, meeting the needs of any moment with the whole of our heart and intelligence. The entire pandemic was an exercise in improvisation! The needs of the moment— how are we going to survive this? How are we going to spend what we thought was two weeks isolated in our homes that became two years and get through it with some measure of sanity? And so we brought everything we knew to the moment—thank you, Dr. Fauci and others— and everything we didn’t yet know, calling up resources we didn’t know we had to grow more comfortable with solitude, to discover not only TV series and jigsaw puzzles, but our capacity to walk outdoors five miles a day, to educate ourselves about Black Lives Matter beyond what we ever did in our busy lives, to awaken our political selves and awaken our poetic selves and awaken our spiritual selves.
Knowing how to improvise in music or dance certainly doesn’t automatically cross the bridge to articulate and needed improvisation in life, but it’s a good start to consider both.
So here in Verona, fifteen lovely and dedicated music teachers set out to do just that and yesterday’s results were simply spectacular. In 30 more minutes, we set off again.
I enjoyed my time off the horse (and on the bike), but dang! It feels good to be back in the saddle again. Yee-haw!