Monday, September 25, 2023

Playing to Learn

A friend told me about a wonderful class she was taking called “Drawing to Learn.” Boom! For someone like me always searching for the perfect phrase, the reversal of “Learning to Draw” was brilliant! I’m definitely going to borrow (steal) it to describe what sets the Orff approach apart from most music education. 


“Playing to learn” well describes much of the way we make learning music so fun, so joyful, so effective. Every class I teach, every workshop I give, every book I have written, begins with games, the child’s (and adult’s!) preferred mode of learning. Inside the games are just about all the skills, techniques, understandings, stylistic characteristics that any music teacher would be thrilled for their students to know and master. No fancy equipment or instruments or notated scores needed— just voices, bodies and a circle of people of any age willing to play. 


By starting with the game, we connect the group, relax the anxiety of playing notes correctly, release our forever-child’s delight in playing. The air is charged with excitement, laughter and gleeful participation as speech, song, gesture and movement combine and re-combine in artful variations—do this partner clap with your eyes closed/ switching partners each phrase/ fast as you can/ in slow motion as if you’re underwater. The ”out” games provide the needed motivation to be more alert and attentive, the partner-changing games feeds our pleasure in socially mixing, the rhythms energize and coordinate our muscles and nerves, the sung melodies open the heart and join us in harmonious vibration, the movements exercise the body and oxygenate the brain. It’s win-win-win all the way around and back again.


It has now been three years since the pandemic when I began singing on the streets once a week with my neighbors and their children. Even when the pandemic was over and many had moved away to nearby neighborhoods, we still met once a month or so to keep connected with song. The kids kept growing and the song repertoire became our community connection. New friends and neighbors joined in and now each meeting attracts some six or seven different families with kids from 1 to 11 years-old. We met yesterday for the first time since June and I strangely found myself less enthusiastic than usual about sitting around singing the now familiar songs. 


And so I decided not to bring my guitar and play games instead. What a great choice that turned out to be! There were three new families and I essentially gave a music class, starting with a name game in a circle and going on from there to draw from my repertoire of some 40 games of all kinds. Clapping games, quick reaction games, chase games, counting games. The kids were in heaven, but the adults even more so as they let their long dormant inner children out to play with a refreshing zany energy. While the kids were playing to learn, the adults were re-learning how to play. 

We adults have so many worthy groups in our organized meet-ups— singing in choir, speaking Spanish, sketching, line-dancing, exercising, taiko drumming (like the group of over 60 years old women I saw at a street fair yesterday!). But I’ve never heard of a group of adults getting together to play children’s games. Is this my new retirement project? Trust me, it would be a fabulous way for people to get together, in fact, combining in one place just about all of the above! Song, texts in other languages, choreographed dance, exercise, rhythms, drawing shapes and images with our whole bodies, socializing and yet more. 


Would you sign up?


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