Saturday, September 10, 2022

The Rules

The sheer pleasure of working with young people continues to be one of the highlights of my week. In a short reflection at the end of yesterday’s class, a young man said something like, “I didn’t think I could ever improvise and after today’s class, I realize I can!” The kind of sentence that gives a teacher permission to sleep peacefully at night. 


In the recent classes, my colleague and I are giving the children both the tools to improvise coherently with seven notes over a drone and the time to try things out in a relaxed atmosphere. The last is so essential. In yesterday’s class, we had three rows and eight columns of instruments, with the 1st and 2nd rows playing quiet supporting parts and the 3rd row improvising melodies. With everyone playing at once, none of the improvisers were exposed to public scrutiny and could just experiment freely. At the same time, the way it’s set up, it sounds relatively harmonious when all play together. Then we call out a column of three and only those three play. Now we can hear each improviser one at a time without losing the flow. A short 16 or 32 bars and then we call another column. And so on. 


Teachers, take note. It’s a fantastic way to assess each kid and hear how they’re doing (teachers, if possible, literally take notes! But discreetly), with the intention to understand where they are, praising what they do well and understanding where their next step is for yet more coherent melody-making. Then after each column has soloed, all return and aim for a satisfying ending. You can guess what happens next— staying in the column, back row moves to middle row, middle to front, front to back and the whole process begins again.


When one of the students moved to the front row, she called me over with an anxious look and said “I don’t know how to do this!” I went over some of the guidelines we established and simply said, “Just try it out. I’m sure it will be great.” And it was. When it was her turn, she did a lovely solo and at the end, I winked at her and gave her a thumbs-up. The smile on the face deserved a photo to be framed. Children are so starved for sincere blessing when they do something worthy— or even, at least take the risk of trying. Aren’t we all.


Another student’s solo quote part of the melody of a children’s game we began class with. We heard it and acknowledged it and talked to her afterwards, saying, “Did you mean to do that or was it just a coincidence?” She said she did it on purpose, but was nervous that she was breaking the rules. We laughed and said, “No, no, no, that was brilliant!! People are always quoting other songs in their solo. Someday we’ll watch Ella Fitzgerald scat-singing ‘How High the Moon’ and point out all the songs she quotes and works into her solo. The student said “Whew!” and looked so relieved. 


So there it is. Either you have kids who feel confined by the idea of rules and refuse to learn them or kids who are nervous about following them to the letter. But in music class, the rules exist not to make the student conform or blindly obey or check off someone else’s list of correct behavior, but to help focus their creative impulses and allow them to express themselves yet more coherently. Every artist learns scores of rules related to technique, theory, phrasing, etc. And then discovers how sometimes they must be broken for a more interesting effect or more true expression. They’re provisional guidelines, not cemented dogma. 


These kids are getting both in these classes— clear guidelines that are clearly helping them understand how to create musical melodies and the permission to play around with five or six notes and trust their intuition when something doesn’t quite fit, but sounds great. From their successes, they’re feeling the power of their intelligence and imagination. From teachers noting and publicly praising these successes, they’re feeling the blessing of being seen and known for themselves, the relief of being given permission to claim their character. (For example, during some of the trio solos, one child was conducting with his mallets in a playful, but actually very expressive way. Again, something that wasn’t in the instructions that another teacher might criticize him for, but we told him how much we enjoyed it.) 


In my book, this is good education. This is fabulous education! This is the education the kids need, the teachers need, the world needs. Can we all please give more of it?

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