Friday, July 5, 2013

Dragged into the Future, Kicking and Screaming--or Singing and Dancing

I am an early adopter.

Just to be clear, I'm not a first adopter. I don't buy the latest tech when it's hot off the freighter from whatever Chinese mega-plant it was assembled in. If possible, I try someone else's early-adopted purchase first, then give myself some time, just to be sure the kinks are worked out. Sometimes that means getting a second- or third-generation version of a promising technology. But I do like to be in the front of the pack on these things.

Thus I became a Macintosh user shortly after user-friendliness was introduced to the personal computer world, but waited six years to be a Mac owner. The Macs I learned on were located at the library of my seminary. I typed most of my papers on them, except one that had to be done on a manual typewriter due to a power outage. Getting access to a computer was still too inconvenient for me to learn to compose on one, so I would write my first draft on notebook paper, then type it into a word processor. Composing at the keyboard came later, but once I had it, I quickly lost the ability to write in even marginally legible longhand.

At the same time I bought my first Mac, I also purchased my first music software, a program called MusicProse. It was a budget version of Finale, to which I finally upgraded five years later. I had bitten off a huge independent study project for my final semester of seminary, the composition of a massive complete setting of a Methodist Sunday service. Learning the program took me more than a month, and wrestling to make it do what I wanted it to do consumed me for the remainder of the semester. I barely got the project in on time.

I've early-adopted many other technological advances since then: CDs, DVDs, cell phones, iPods, iPhones, digital cameras, electronic keyboards, Wi-Fi, a BluRay player, a flat screen TV. I still drive a conventional car, but I'm sure I will at some point (when the technology is proven and affordable) upgrade it to an electric car with full Bluetooth connectivity to all my devices. I also expect there's an iPad in my future, which will most likely replace print books and magazines, as well as providing me with conducting scores I don't have to clothespin to a music stand during a windy graduation ceremony.

For all my caution, I do have a tendency to move too fast on decisions (witness my two divorces), to buy a gadget before the price has really bottomed out, or before the proprietary technology it implies has become universally accepted. This has, at times, saddled me with obsolete devices, hot twelve months ago, that I can't give away today. I've gotten better, cooled my impatient jets, and haven't had one of those bungles in a few years--though I can't help noticing that, had I waited a few months, I could've saved hundreds on the camera I purchased a year and a half ago.

All of this is to point out I'm no fuddy-duddy. I like cool new things. Technology rawks.

And on that note, I will pivot the discussion to the elementary music classroom.

I came into elementary music through a back door. I reactivated my teaching license in 2002 because I had to: I was about to run out of disability benefit from my exit from ministry, and I needed to be established in a job before that happened. Over the course of a year of subbing, I found, to my surprise, that not just music classrooms, but grade-level elementary classrooms were fun places to be. I felt very much at home with them, in fact. In 2003, I went back to school to earn an elementary classroom teaching credential, a program that, I was told, I could complete in just over a year, while continuing to sub. I took summer classes, then headed off with my kids to New England for a vacation with my parents, who were doing genealogical research in my mother's homeland. The day before our return to Oregon, I had a call from Beaverton School District about a long-term sub job as an elementary music teacher.

That sub job became a full-time temporary position that I kept for the entire year. It was hard work at a Title I school, with tough kids who didn't care for the canned curriculum (Share the Music) I was using. And I have to admit, I don't blame them: sitting in chairs, holding books in their hands, listening to lessons on a CD player, is no way to learn music. When they got to play with real instruments--a recorder unit, and, thanks to a Beaverton program, violin and clarinet units--they were irrepressible. (I think they also did some damage to my ears during those instrumental units--more about that later.) I cobbled together enough electronic keyboards to have a piano lab unit, as well, and overall, felt good about the year. By the end of the year, I had also given up my attempt to be a classroom teacher. Why would I need to do that when I could be a full-time music teacher?

The job went away then, but I almost immediately found a position at a Catholic school in Vancouver. There I again used a canned curriculum--it might have been Silver-Burdett, but don't quote me on that--as well as importing and refining the "Recorder Karate" curriculum I'd used in Beaverton. I had them out of their chairs more, and put more instruments in their hands, than in Beaverton, but it was still mostly a "sit and learn" approach.

That job also ended after a year, and now it was on to Hood River. I also began dating an Orff teacher, and that is how I was introduced to Orff-Schulwerk, attending workshops which she, as vice president of POSA, had helped to plan. My first full workshop was led by Doug Goodkin, whom you will hear more about shortly. He blew my mind. To be fair, so had the local teachers who put on "Orff 101," the free half-day introductory workshop POSA sponsors every September. What I saw them doing, and what Doug did masterfully well, was pulling every learner into the experience, which was utterly hands-on, participatory, improvisational, and utterly non-electronic. This, I thought, is how my professors back in teacher college believed things ought to be, and hoped they would be someday when politicians finally got over their fascination with testing. It was the future of education, available now in the music room. And I wanted it in mine.

I convinced my principal to pay for Level I Orff training that summer, and the PTO to buy me a set of Orff mallet instruments. For the next year, it was all Orff, all the time in my classroom. I left that position to take a full-time gig in Banks, closer to home, and again got the PTO to buy me Orff instruments. The following summer, I put in for Level II training, but the district told me there wasn't enough money for that--though there was enough for me to take Doug Goodkin's jazz course. I went to San Francisco for a week, learning how to integrate jazz into my Orff classroom, and came back with enough inspiration to devote the entire year at Banks Elementary School to jazz.

Then came the budget cut, the lay-off, and I haven't been in an elementary classroom since. I took Level II, then Level III, in San Francisco, learning more from Doug and his colleagues at the San Francisco Orff certification program, but two years after that Level III certification, I still have not found an elementary position. Instead I'm a band director, good, rewarding work, with kids I love, but not really where my passion lies--and, at half-time, not much to build a pension on.

Around the time I got laid off, I found myself in a new relationship, one that is now in its fifth year, and which has enriched my life in more ways than I can count. One of those ways was an introduction to comedy improv, which has turned my world upside down in much the same way that Orff Schulwerk did four years earlier. Like the Schulwerk, improv is a full-body, hands-on thing, done both individually and collectively, often musically, and with a deep sensitivity to relationships. It's supportive, creative, and magical; and in many ways, it feels to me like the future of live theater.

At first glance, both these worlds--Orff and improv--seem counter-technological. Great improv can happen on any stage, with no props at all; and despite the many wonderful percussion and melodic instruments that make for a full Orff experience, the best Orff lessons require nothing but the body and the voice. I've participated in Doug Goodkin lessons that went on for a full hour without speech or instruments, and held everyone's rapt, utterly engaged attention for the entire time.

However, technology does play a role in both these worlds. At ComedySportz, we use two screens flashing one-liners and images to enhance the audience experience. We also use sound amplification, a sophisticated computer DJ system, lighting effects and, most significant to me, an electronic keyboard with hundreds of sounds. The technology doesn't replace the essential act of improvising; that is always what it's about, the sole reason people are in the seats, the sole reason, as well, that people are on the stage. But the technology does help: it smooths transitions, underscores scenes, inspires great moments, enhances the overall experience. I could do a lot of this with an acoustic piano, but it sure is nice having the bells and whistles there to heighten the effect.

Similarly, I have yet to go to an Orff workshop--even with Doug Goodkin--that didn't rely at some point on technology. In fact, I bought my first iPod because of the effective use my Level I instructor, Kerry Lynn Nichols, made of hers, providing us with soundtracks for movement, playing us occasional examples, always having easy access to an entire library of music that fit in her pocket. Besides musical playback, I've seen Orff workshops use PowerPoint effectively, and recording technology certainly has a place in the music classroom; but Orff teachers have been technological pioneers since long before electronics entered the school. The mallet instruments--Doug Goodkin calls them a child-sized orchestra--that, for many people, epitomize the Orff method were inventions of Carl Orff and Gunild Keetman, teaching and performing tools that, to everyone's delight, translated beautifully to the educational realm when the Orff approach moved out of the dance studio and into the classroom. Again, it's very possible to teach the Orff way without every picking up a mallet, but oh, how it enhances the experience!

Doug Goodkin inspired me again today, with this piece of writing: Respect Your Elders, by Doug Goodkin. Doug is concerned about steps the American Orff Schulwerk Association is taking to modernize their structure and mission. The article he references, found in the current edition of the Echo, AOSA's professional journal, is an appeal by outgoing president Karen Benson for association members to adapt to technology now, before it's too late. Doug seems most bothered by the implication that master teachers should be learning from novices, rather than the other way around, and I am sensitive to that concern. I wouldn't be an Orff teacher if it weren't for educational geniuses like Doug and the local masters I've had the privilege to learn from and serve with on the POSA board.

After reading the article, though, I found myself not nearly as worried as Doug. I understand his concern that workshops and levels courses could be replaced with electronic alternatives: there really is no substitute for learning to do these things as a community, in the presence of the master teacher. This doesn't mean there is no place for electronics in the curricular process; as Doug acknowledges, it's far easier to learn a folk dance from watching it on YouTube than to figure it out from a textual description. I understand his suspicion of electronic devices, and I have done my own share of pushing back against administrators who want to know why I'm not integrating computers into the music room. Telling them it's better to make music with hands and voices than electrons usually does the trick, but there is still a fear on their part that non-electronic lessons may not grab this plugged-in generation.

So I'll close with this example of how I used technology to enhance the experience of my high school choir:

We had just about a month left to the school year, and one concert yet to perform. Most of the songs for that concert had been thoroughly learned. Rather than continue going over and over and over those songs, I asked the choir if there might be a piece of popular music they'd like to help me arrange for them. Instantly one of the seniors came up with a title: "Radioactive" by Imagine Dragons, as interpreted by a group called (you'll love this, Orff teachers) Pentatonix. With my permission, she pulled up the video on her iPhone, and I watched, stunned by the sophistication of what I was seeing and hearing, as a string quartet played in the ruins while singing a rock ballad about the end of the old age, and the beginning of the new.

I downloaded the sheet music the next day, scanned it into Finale, and projected it on the wall of the classroom. Over the next class period, the entire class participated in making choices to arrange this music in ways that worked for their unique combination of voices. After that class, I cleaned it up, did some work on the accompaniment, and printed it out for them. The entire process took three class periods. Its performance was a highlight of the spring pops concert.

Whether we like it or not, young people are gaining a richer, more diverse musical education than has ever been possible through their connection to the internet. The folk music of today's children is the viral music video. When they share this music with each other, they typically do it by playing it on their phones. There's no need to wait until they get home to boot up the computer, or (going back a generation before even that) to put on a record. They're learning intricate arrangements, complicated lyrics, and elaborate dance routines from their phones. The learning doesn't end there: many of my high school students' favorite lunch time activity was to come into the music room and practice the "Cup Song" from Pitch Perfect using actual drinking cups.

I don't think you need to be afraid of this future, Doug. It's coming, and we've got to adapt to it, adding its technology to that which we already use. No, we should absolutely not allow ourselves to be turned into yet another canned curriculum for sedentary study; but we can be just as hands-on with our smart phones as we are with our mallets, and as long as the heart of the lesson is the same--learning music through our bodies--the deep, elemental learning will still take place, for this generation and the next and on and on.

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