Voiceless


Assuming I'm well enough to get out of bed tomorrow morning, I will spend the day teaching music without the use of my voice.

It's not that I have no voice at all; I can speak (croak) well enough to be understood. Ask me to repeat myself, though, and you'll find me pointing at my throat and shaking my head. The best I can do right now is whisper, and even that takes an effort. I've also got the sniffles and a persistent cough, not to mention a slight headache, but none of that is severe enough to keep me home. The two days I missed last week have already set me back too much. So tomorrow, barring a fever, I will get up at 5 and drive to school, where I will teach seven half-hour music classes without using my voice.

Sounds (ha!) ridiculous, doesn't it? And it certainly feels ridiculous. But I've done it before. I've taught general music, preached sermons, even led choir rehearsals with laryngitis. Every time I get a cold, it eventually moves to my chest, which means coughing, which means laryngitis. Teaching in a new school, with hundreds of new students, means exposure to a host of microbes I've not previously encountered, so this is probably just the first of many bouts of voicelessness I'll be facing this year.

How does one teach music without using the voice? Some might think that instrumental music can be taught voicelessly, but when I'm conducting an ensemble, I sing more than I speak, modeling everything I want my players to do to improve their performance. I also have a habit of singing along as I conduct, which is not a good thing, especially during quiet passages. Of course, I'm no longer band directing, so that can go back to not being an issue--except when I'm leading a choir, which I'll start doing soon in my new assignment (though not until I'm over the laryngitis!).

Elementary music is both instrumental and vocal, and at the same time neither, at least not at this stage, as I'm in a school that has had hardly any music for years. There's not a need to rehearse pieces yet, as we won't be preparing for a performance for several more months. Most of what I've been doing for the last two weeks (when I haven't been out--I missed three days between wrapping things up in Banks and coming down with this cold) has been an introduction to rhythm, using both body and instrumental percussion. I was going to begin vocal exploration later this week, but instead I'll be drawing out the rhythm work with drum circles.

Teaching voicelessly is an Orff trick I coveted from my first introductory POSA workshop. At that event, I found myself in a drum circle led by a master teacher who led us in creating a complex improvised composition without ever using her voice. I was hooked within minutes. I've just introduced my students to percussion instruments--in fact, most of the classes I'll see tomorrow haven't even had that introductory lesson--so this could be dicey. I could end the day with a splitting headache. Or I could blow a lot of little minds.

That's what I'm hoping will happen. I'll lay out the instruments, alternating wood-metal-shaker-scraper-skin, so that every student has one. I'll use large gestures, counting on my years of conducting to give me the body language necessary for the task. I may not even put on my microphone (I've got a room amplification system so I don't have to raise my voice). I'll lead each class into a circle, pass out the instruments, and begin offering up rhythms for them to play. We'll experiment with dynamics, contrast, texture, polyrhythms, and whatever else catches my fancy--and theirs.

It's possible this won't work at all, and I'll finish the day with my head on my desk, promising myself never to try that again. But I don't think that will happen. I think there will be some magic tomorrow, and the students will leave the gym enchanted by what they've done, and asking for it again. There's nothing like the group mind of a drum circle to turn people on to music--especially if they're hungry for it, as these kids are.

As for me: I will have saved my voice. Much more than that, I will have reminded myself that music can be taught with the body, the face, the hands, that the voice, essential as it is to the making of music, can occasionally be set aside in favor of other means of communication.

Wish me luck.

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