Friday, January 27, 2023

Why Are We Here? Part 1

Today I stumbled on an opening address I gave at the Ontario Music Educator's Association in 2007. It was hosted at Deerhurst, a town outside of Toronto (hence the Canadian reference below) and once again, surprised to see that some of the stories and ideas presented from over 15 years ago are the same as I recently shared in Australia. I keep imagining I'm discovering new things, but a look back often reveals the same old things given an occasional fresh change of clothes. But they're worthy things. They hold up. And so I share that talk here, in two parts.

(Begin with Funga Alafia welcome song.) It feels appropriate to begin the proceedings with a song, this one from the Hausa people of Nigeria extending a welcome. Words of welcome are, of course, conventional and expected, but taken on a different power when lifted into song. This is the great beauty of our chosen field— sending the message directly to the nervous system, the blood, the muscles, no interpreters necessary. To sing together is to welcome each other and feel welcomed and create a sense of shared belonging. Secondly, we welcome each other through the meaning of the text—‘Lafia is a casual greeting amongst the Hausa, Ashay, a deeper more spiritual greeting also found among the Yoruba people and people who practice capoeira in Brazil. Thirdly, the meaning is amplified by the gestures— I indeed welcome you with my thoughts, which now must be carried in my words and spoken with the language of the heart. And there is nothing up my sleeve here in terms of trying to convert you or sell you something, not even my own point of view. I simply want to say a few things that can open important conversations, conversations within each of us and between each of us. And so we begin.


Meanwhile, let me say that it is a pleasure to be back in the land of good health care, regulations on assault weapons, schools that still prefer education over testing and great-hearted, intelligent and good-looking people. I hope that you all will consider giving aid to one of the developing countries most in need—like that big one just south of the border. 


Of course, we are all developing countries, developing cultures, developing people. One of my favorite quotes comes from the Zen Master Suzuki-Roshi: “You are perfect as you are—but we all could stand a little improvement.” And I imagine that’s why most of us are here— to find the next answer that leads to the next question that keeps us developing as teachers, as musicians, as human beings. 


I come to you in my 33rd year of teaching music to children from 3 years old through grade 8, all at the same school. Many people marvel at the statistic, never thinking that the reason might be that I can’t get a job anywhere else. And I can happily report that I’m as delighted to be working with children now as I was when I first began—in truth, much more so, since now I know a little bit more about what I’m doing and not faking it as drastically as I used to. 

One of the things I imagine a lot of you love about working with children as much as I do is those pearls of wisdom that drop from their mouths. One of my favorites comes from my colleague, James Harding. In his first year of teaching music to children, he went to meet the three-year-olds down at their classroom. He led them down the long hall down to the music room, entered the room, brought them into a circle and sat them down. Just as he was poised to begin the first activity, one of these tender young souls looked up at him with great dismay and a few tears and said in his plaintive voice, “Why are we here?!!” James was speechless, struck by the profundity of the question. Why, indeed, are we here? 


At the beginning of any venture, this is always a good question to ask. What drew us here? What do we hope for? Will we leave a slightly different person than when we came— and by different I mean one inch more clear about our purpose, one inch more of understanding in our field, one inch more connected to our colleagues. So turn to your neighbor and give the shortest explanation you can muster about why you are here, what you hope to learn. (Pause) Let’s hear five answers.


What I suspected were many layers. At the top layer would be things like:

• My school district requires it.

• I needed time off from the kids or family or everyday workaday world.

• It’s a beautiful place and there’s a great restaurant on the way.


No comments need be made about these.


In the next layer.


• To reconnect with our colleagues.

Music teaching is one of the loneliest and most isolated jobs in the schools. Classroom teachers can gather in the teacher’s room and share their excitement about the books their kids are reading or the science experiments they just did, but music teachers tend to be alone in their work. We are hungry for colleagues who understand what we are doing and conferences like these are essential to remind us that we are not alone.


• To improve our musicianship.

A tax accountant may arrive at the end of his or her field, but a musician, from your 6-year-old student to Yo Yo Ma, Bobby McFerrin and Wynton Marsalis never reaches the end of musical mastery. 


• To get new material.

This is the bread and butter of the profession, keeping on the alert for the next new arrangement for choir, band, orchestra or Orff ensemble. Many of us, especially general music teachers, have to create our own repertoire and curriculum and gathering new material is essential to our craft.


• To get new ideas.

Rehearsal techniques, strategies for student involvement, a detailed process for teaching a lesson— most of us realize that it is not enough to know our discipline and choose the repertoire, but we also must know how to communicate, motivate, engage and develop our student’s promise. This is true of all aspects of music teaching and is one great contribution the so-called alternative approaches to music education—Orff, Kodaly, Dalcroze—have to offer; attention to the process of developing a musical idea or lesson with the children. How you teach is as important—and indeed, possibly more important—than what you teach. 


• To stretch beyond our own discipline. 

This is one that probably didn’t make your list and I invite you all to consider it. Perhaps some of you may have been worried that I am called an Orff teacher and would use this time to convert you to our way. Nothing could be further from my mind! I do think that at some point, we all have to choose where to pitch our tent in this vast world of music and music education. I’m in the Orff field because I happen to like the view and the particular wildflowers that grow there. But I take many day hikes to other camps and always return refreshed. I thank Orff and his colleagues for leading me to this spot on the mountain, but I know full well (and so did he) that no one spot has the whole view. We are long overdue to go beyond the polarizing and debilitating effects of “I’m a choral teacher, I’m a band teacher, I’m an early childhood teacher, I’m a Kodaly teacher.” Those are but the places we lay our heads at night, but during the day, we better get up and walk around if we want to be what we truly should be—a music teacher. And not just a music teacher, but a teacher. And not just a teacher, but a human being who is part teacher, part student, part mentor, part friend, always fallible and always growing with others to the impossible goal of being more fully human, on the way together to cherish every minute of this life. So spend some time in this conference talking to someone outside of your discipline and ask them how they do what they do and see what that might mean for you.


• To get refreshed and renew our vows.

 Why are we here? Not only why did we come to this conference, but why were we called to music and why did we choose to teach it? In our day-to day life, we are constantly walking amongst the trees and it is a rare moment when we telescope out to see the whole forest. We can argue for hours about whether phonetics works better than whole language methods, whether 6/8 should be introduced before 3/4 or whether zone defense is better than man-to-man (or person-to-person) and forget the purpose behind it all. It is the rare teacher that constantly reminds students why they are spending their precious hours wrestling with numbers, words, shapes, notes or moves on the basketball court. 


My hope is that all your reasons for attending are met by your experiences here, but what would serve us all the most—and more importantly, what would serve the children we teach— is to pause and climb up to a lookout and think about what we have been doing and how we can do it better. And return to the workaday world with renewed vigor and vision.


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