Thursday, October 3, 2013

I'm Here All Week! Try the Wiener Wraps!


I work a tough room, two sets a day. Some days I kill; other days I bomb. Most days I reach probably 75 per cent of my audience, and of the remainder, I have very few complaints. Other performers would be thrilled with a success rate like this, but it eats at me, so I'm always tweaking my performance, trying to reach more of the room.

And no, I'm not a comic. I'm a music teacher.

For the first two years that I taught elementary general music, I drew heavily on whatever curriculum was on the shelves when I arrived at my school. I was creative to the extent I could be with those materials, but it was far from ideal. If, in those days, I had graded my teaching on performance guidelines, I would have been extremely unhappy with it. I was surviving, but I was working with sub-par material, and I had no real idea how to hone it and fit it to the population I was serving. Then I discovered Orff Schulwerk, and my teaching was transformed.

What hit me from the first Orff workshop I attended was the sense that teaching the Orff way is, itself, an art form. Orff teachers don't just present lessons, they perform them. The improvisation that is so important to children's participation is also vital to the teaching of those lessons. Lessons that look great on paper can collapse under the weight of ignorance. A teacher who cannot improvise is like a comic whose material does not connect with the audience, but has to fill the time anyway.

Case in point: I had no idea when I arrived at my new school how well my students would function in small groups. I'd had limited success with such groups in other schools, but it had been years since I tried them. The educational model of the learning station, where individuals or small groups cycle through a series of contrasting experiences all tied into the same lesson, is present in many disciplines besides music, and is often presented at Orff workshops. So I gave it a try at Margaret Scott. And it bombed.

The concept was simple: groups of six or seven students would sit down with some instruments, pick a few of their names to create a rhythm (something we've practiced many times this school year), then play that rhythm on the instruments at their station. Each station had a different family of percussion instruments: metal, wood, scraper, shaker, drum. I tried the lesson out on fifth, fourth, and finally third graders, and none of them had the capacity to cooperate to the extent I needed. The result was musical chaos, a headache-inducing mélange of loud noises and screaming children in an echoing gymnasium, with me running from station to station, struggling to get the idea across. I tinkered with the lesson, but clearly it wasn't working, so midway through my second day with it, I scrapped it in favor of something else: a single percussion circle, divided into quadrants, with students rotating through those families of instruments. A set of hula hoops on the floor provided visual cues for when they would be permitted to play those instruments.

I'm leaving out the most important part of this revised lesson: yours truly.

Ideally, lessons should be student-centered, but at Margaret Scott, I'm coming to realize these children need much more structure and guidance than independent learning can provide. So for this lesson, I was the one hopping from hoop to hoop, demonstrating through body and vocal percussion what rhythms each group should play, using gestures to show when students should and should not be playing, and how the different timbres were to be combined. This followed a brain dance in which each stage of the dance was signaled with a clap of my hands or a hiss into the microphone I wear. Through this lesson, I find I've finally arrived at something I've aspired to since I first experienced Orff: teaching without talking.

During the brain dance, to Bobby McFerrin's "The Train," there comes a point at which all the fundamental movements are finished, and it is up to the dancers to improvise. Using my own body, I directed students to gradually move toward the center of the room, where they really wanted to go (because that's where the instruments were), then scooting them back again and again--much to their laughter and delight. This set the stage for me silently directing them, from the center of the circle, to play just these instruments, now these, echoing the rhythms I clapped. The only times I used my voice were when I needed to instruct them to rotate (something I believe I will be able to do with gestures in the near future), and when I solicited some names to create a rhythm for the percussion.

Teaching without talking is far more satisfying to me than instruction with words. Explaining what we're going to do loses these students very quickly, as I find myself having to repeat the simplest of instructions again and again. I don't know if it's attention span, the acoustics of the room, or the presence of a high percentage of students with learning issues distracting the rest of the class; but the more I talk, the less I communicate. Working with gestures, on the other hand, I capture far more students' attention, and those who do not quite get it find themselves corrected (sometimes sharply) by their peers rather than me. At the end of the lesson, I can rest assured that most of my students got the concept--and had a great time learning it.

Apart from the satisfaction of a lesson well-taught, there's a deeper enjoyment I derive from this: I'm performing again.

Preaching was always a performance art for me. When I stepped away from the pulpit and stood liturgically naked in front of my congregation (wearing an alb, of course!), no manuscript, no furniture, just me and a microphone, I was performing. In the beginning, I worked more like a comedian with a certain amount of material; in fact, I wrote out all my sermons for the first ten years that I preached, though I never looked at those manuscripts once I stood up to preach. Over time, though, I began to realize that I could take it to another level. At some point, I stopped writing, and began improvising. I knew the source material backwards and forwards, and simply reading the scripture text aloud primed me to preach. Once I left ministry, and especially once my piano job at the Church of the Good Shepherd ended (where I was blessed to be not just a pianist, but a once-a-month preacher for that small African-American congregation), I lost this primary outlet for performing.

And then I saw master Orff teachers performing lessons, and I knew what I really wanted to be.

I'm rusty at doing this: it's been four years since my last Orff classroom, and I hadn't really mastered the silent teaching technique at the point that I was laid off. In the intervening years, though, I've become a far better piano improviser, and I've plunged into the world of comedy improvisation, though almost exclusively as a musician rather than a stage improviser. And I've taken my Orff certification to the maximum level available.

After this week, I can optimistically but tentatively say that I've figured it out, and it works. When I step in front of my classes, I am fully in the same mental space I occupy when I am creating an opera at Comedy Sportz. For the next half hour, these students will be guided through this lesson by a teacher who is musician, storyteller, guide, dancer, and clown, and by the time I'm done, a good majority of them will have had a wonderful time and will have learned something in the process. Not a good enough majority--I've still got plenty of room for improvement!--but far more than I ever had when I was teaching out of canned curricula.

So thank you, my lovely young audience! You're very kind. I'm here all week, and every week until the end of the semester. Try the wiener wraps. You can catch me live again in two days, when you're next in my room for another lesson. Until then, keep your feet dancing, your fingers snapping, and your voice singing.

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