Friday, January 13, 2023

Jumping Off the Jetty

Walking out to the end of the jetty, I passed a large group of teenagers perched on the rail. I stopped to watch and sure enough, one by one, they jumped off and splashed into the water some 20 feet below. No adults supervising, no signs prohibiting it, no lawyers nearby rubbing their hands with glee. Just that deep human need for risk, to test oneself at the edge of our comfort zone, to invite just the right bit of danger into our bland, too comfortable lives. That’s what inspires us to sky dive or climb Everest or skateboard down steep hills. 

Can you remember the things you’ve done like that? Naturally, Everest is extreme, but the difference is only in proportion. Perhaps you decided to run a marathon or rock climb or hike the Pacific Coast trail. In my 60’s, I hiked Macchu Pichu, biked 60 miles in one day, backpacked in the Sierras with my daughter and granddaughter and in the way that such things are when we accept a challenge, each was memorable. 

But though the physical risks are the most obvious— and dangerous!— the grander dimension of risk is simply that courageous act of stepping off into the unknown with both faith in your own resilience and resources, the kindness of strangers and a little help from your friends. Going to my first Zen retreat at 22 years old, traveling around the world with my wife with $6000 between us at 28 years old, having children (!) were just some of the life-changing decisions forever etched in memory and still echoing on to this day.

Watching the kids jump off the jetty came just after a discussion with fellow teachers about how Risk Committees in schools confined kids—and teachers— to those flavorless mild middles that would either prepare them to endure boring desk jobs for decades or drive them to truly dangerous risks in their hunger for some spice in life— riding bikes without brakes, indulging in mind-altering addictive drugs and so on. 

So we would do well to consider training kids to take the kind of risks in which no one gets hurt. In my field, that could mean trying a new instrument or stop hiding behind your instrument and get out and dance or improvising a solo in front of a group. To create classes in which the depth of learning is proportional to the height of risk.

Orff Schulwerk has a built-in way to grow comfortable with discomfort. Because it demands the impossible— that every teacher be equally adept at body percussion, singing, dancing, playing a wide variety of instruments with a wide variety of techniques, be knowledgeable about a wide variety of music and dance styles, speak eloquently, know poetry, folk tales and myths, etc.— no one can be an expert in it all and thus, keeps in touch with a perpetual beginner’s mind and body. Ideally, you’re also teaching people of all ages, not only kids from preschool through middle school, but perhaps pregnant Moms, babies, high school and college kids, teachers of all ages and seniors from 60 to 100 years old. 

If you have the good fortune to teach internationally, as I have, the risk factor increases as you meet folks from different cultures speaking different languages teaching in different kinds of school systems. All of this is grist for the mill in your own development and while it’s delightful, let’s be clear: it’s also difficult, risky and challenging. 

And thus, memorable. For whatever reason, I am never nervous before teaching  a class, just feel so comfortable and at home with that role that it’s like putting on my pants. But there have been a few times when I’ve paused and thought, “Hmm. I'm feeling just a little bit nervous here.” Amongst them:

• Teaching 50 preschoolers in Taiwan with a translator for an hour in front of 200 teachers and parents observing. 

• Teaching a high-level adult choir in Soweto, South Africa.

• Teaching body percussion to 80 high school students in Soweto.

• Teaching a jazz piece— music and dance— to 40 kids in Dodze, Ghana.

• Giving a music lesson to a deaf Japanese boy in Tokyo.

• Performing for a few hundred families at SF Jazz Center.

• Giving a music workshop to Zen monks at SF Zen Center.

• Giving a TED talk in Southern California with a 10-minute time limit.

Each one like jumping off the jetty. And always finding the water immensely refreshing.

And still here to tell the tale.


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