Some years back, I was asked if I would submit my name as a candidate for a local music organization’s board. “Sure, why not?” I answered and forgot about it until someone called me and said the Board meeting is next Saturday. “Does that mean I won?” I asked and they admitted, “Well, no one ran against you.” And no one had also informed me about the election result until this call about the meeting.
In those pre-GPS days, I set off and had trouble finding this obscure building out in the middle of a proverbial nowhere some two hours away. When I arrived late, the meeting was already in progress and as I entered the room, no one stopped to notice or acknowledge my presence. I found one empty seat and sat down as they continued with their business. At one point, someone said, “Next on the agenda is the Elementary Division clinicians and schedule for our upcoming Conference.” A moment of silence. And then I said, “I think that’s me. But no one has told me anything about what my responsibilities are or the procedure for Conference planning. I’m pretty much in the dark here.” “Oh, you need to contact so-and-so. Okay, next item on the agenda.”
At the break, not a single one of the fifteen people came over to introduce themselves or welcome me and I had to seek out the phone number of the person I was supposed to contact. And I thought, “What the hell is this?”
Both in my school and the world of Orff Schulwerk, I was used to a culture that welcomed people, be it a new child, teacher or visitor. In my own workshops, I paid deep attention to the beginning of the venture, often silently gesturing to people to form a circle, hold hands and follow me through a series of steps that end in some joyful music-making, dancing and singing 20 minutes later, all without a word of instruction. Then a spoken greeting and right into a name game, so that the participants who now knew a bit about each other through the temperature and pressure of hands, the eye contact and smiling faces, the unique styles of moving, the personal voices of singing and so on, could now learn each other’s names in a musical and playful fashion. And often find out a little bit about each other: “My name is Doug.” Yeah!” “I like to bike.” Yeah!” “And when it’s raining.” “Yeah!” “I take a hike.” “Role call!”
I pay equal attention to the ends of workshops, not only often offering space for a round-the-circle sharing with each person’s “takeaway,” but ending in some stirring canon, perhaps moving into a spiral or leaning each other’s heads on our neighbor’s back to feel the vibrations of our singing voices. A moment of silence as the last sound fades out, a hand-squeeze and we’re done.
These kinds of things are the threads that stitch together community, that both helps people feel like they belong to each other and that likewise their individuality is honored and welcomed. It helps them feel a bit seen and known by people interested in seeing and knowing them and taking time to do so. The music workshop is an especially powerful vehicle for these kinds of greetings and farewells because music itself is the sacred ground of both blending in and standing out. But any occasion where people gather can include such musical activities and there are also simple ways to greet and say goodbye without music at all.
All of this reflection is inspired by my wife’s story when she returned last night from a 5-day art retreat in the Sierra Mountains. She praised the teachers to the sky, loved the setting and enjoyed her fellow participants, but she noted that there was no introductory gathering and it took her three days to learn people’s names just through hanging out with them. At the end, they did have a nice sharing of their work and then suddenly, the teachers just said “Okay, have a nice night.” She was missing those little gestures of opening and closure that any gathering deserves.
I’m astounded that people don’t habitually think this way— be it a family reunion Zoom meeting, a 70th birthday party, a first or last staff meeting at a school. But I’ve discovered that even in the most enlightened circles, this can be off the radar. At the school where I’ve been volunteering, I offered to lead a closing or opening gathering of the 100 or so teachers and staff. It didn’t happen and it seems like after the last day of school, people just walked off by themselves into summer.
It really is very simple. For example, at the 70thbirthday party mentioned above when different people from the person’s life gathered in the park, some of whom had never met each other, each circle of friends mostly chatted with each other with perhaps a moment introducing themselves to me if we happened to be getting a drink from the cooler at the same time. Finally I said, “Can we all gather in a circle and one-by-one, introduce ourselves, and tell the story of how we met Marlene?” Couldn’t be simpler, but the result was all began to connect the dots of Marlene’s various friends from different parts of her life and the stories gave the occasion the warmth, humor and appreciation of Marlene the occasion called for.
If it’s the end of the class, a short reflection on the most important takeaway and the next step in learning each person is inspired to take goes a long way. If the group is too big, it can happen with partners or in small circles. If people aren’t comfortable with a song or a dance or the leader is not comfortable leading it, a simple moment holding hands in a circle while the teacher says some final words or recites a poem, a final hand squeeze and it’s done. My teacher Avon Gillespie ritually ending with clapping “Shave and a haircut” and the group responded with “Two bits.” Sometimes I end with the Boom Chick-a Boom echo— “Uh huh!” (Uh-huh.), Oh yeah! (Oh yeah!) All right! (All right!) That’s all!”
I felt terrible after that “business as usual” music board meeting and in contrast, see how uplifted my students, be they kids or adults, feel when we greet them with these welcoming games and say goodbye with some measure of what we accomplished, gratitude for their participation and acknowledgement of how fun or important or moving it all was. It’s one thing to talk the talk of helping people feel welcomed and valued, but the devil is in the details and it’s not a good sign that so few think of these simple gestures when people gather that make a big impact.
Some of these ideas are threaded throughout my books, but Priya Parker beat me to the punch by collecting her own in a fine book called The Art of Gathering. If you’re intrigued by these thoughts as you plan your next gathering/ meeting/ dinner party/ family reunion, it’s definitely worth checking out.
Okay, readers, let’s all gather in a circle and hold our electronic hands and share your reflections from this little Blogpost. Thanks for reading and see you at the next!