Thursday, April 24, 2014

Parallel Universes

Blow this image up, zoom in on the far center of it, and you'll see a man with very little hair, wearing a purple shirt. That man is Doug Goodkin. I Googled him in hopes of finding an image of him working with children, but came up dry. Even though teaching elementary music at The San Francisco School is Doug's day job, our modern anxiety over posting pictures of children seems to have limited images of Doug to his weekend and summer job, teaching adults how to teach music to children, something he does all over the world.

There's no need to blow this image of a different man who, like Doug, has little hair to conceal his busy head:
I'm talking about the tall man in a red jersey (sorry, Andrew). His name is Patrick Short, and he is the founder and co-owner of ComedySportZ Portland, an improv troupe that performs fast-paced shows every Friday and Saturday evening, as well as teaching improv classes to children, teenagers, and adults. Like Doug, Pat travels extensively to run workshops. There are many other similarities between the two: both are ardent believers in the philosophies they teach. Both will jump up on their soapboxes to promote the ways in which those philosophies can save the world. Both have similar ideas about what's wrong with modern culture. And both are teaching pedagogies that lean heavily on improvisation, but using that improvisation to inform many other fields of study.

Last Saturday in Portland, Pat led an improv workshop for Orff music teachers, bringing these two philosophies into one space. Yesterday I wrote about what these two philosophies, and their cross-pollination, have meant to me personally. Today I'm going to get theoretical. My text will be Pat's "Seven Habits of Effective Improvisors," principles I believe he also sometimes refers to as the "Seven Pillars of Improvisation." I'll discuss each in the context of the Orff classroom, then wrap things up with a pretty bow.

• Yes, And... When two improvisors step on a stage, they start with nothing more than a one- or two-word suggestion. One of them starts the scene by saying something to the other, endowing the other with a name, a gender, a personality quirk or occupation. The other responds to the first with a complimentary set of endowments. Each of these statements is loaded with "offers," building blocks for the scene that is to follow. If allowed to develop organically, these scene will quickly become both concrete and fantastic, as a whole world grows from the creative energy between these two performers. It seems like magic to the audience--if it's done acceptingly. If, on the other hand, the second improvisor to speak denies the offers, and goes off in his or her own direction, the resulting scene will be chaotic, argumentative, unreal. The magic of improv boils down to a two-word creed: "Yes, and..."

"Yes, and..." means accepting whatever a situation offers and building from there. That "Yes" is not necessarily literal: sometimes the natural thing for a character to say when asked a question is "no." The "no" we're avoiding here is rejecting the situation entirely, creating a separate reality that does not work with the one offered by the scene start.

In the classroom, I am daily confronted with situations that were not part of my lesson plan. Over the years, I've been teaching myself not to get hung up on all the things I want to happen. I keep a general outline in my mind, but sometimes what the kids tell me is "We can't go there today. We need to go somewhere else." This means that my lesson has to say "yes, and..." to a rejection on the part of my scene partners, who are, say, a class of fourth graders: "We're too messed up by our sugar crash from all that Easter candy yesterday to be able to focus on a recorder lesson." All right, then, we'll set aside the recorders on focus on learning a playground song--from which we'll eventually develop an Orff orchestration, a percussion accompaniment, and, in a day or two, a recorder part. The result may very well be far more amazing than whatever I was going to try to teach on the recorder on this particular day. If I stuck to my guns and insisted we learn the recorder lesson I had planned, we'd both wind up frustrated, hating today's music class.

"Yes, and..." can be a life saver.

• Be Flexible: This may seem at first glance like another way of saying "Yes, and..." but in fact, it can also mean holding onto your plan for a scene (or lesson) because you do know where it needs to go. A ComedySportZ scene is supposed to last about three minutes. It's more satisfying to the audience if it has some sense of movement, a beginning, middle and, if possible, end. With practice, seasoned players can adjust offers and their responses to them in ways that both honor them and maintain the flow of the scene toward a point of closure. They don't always get there--often the scene will be edited, and sometimes concluded, by another player or referee who just decides it needs to stop because it's gotten to a highpoint, or because it's not going anywhere fast--but the overarching structure remains intact.

Similarly, even if I do have to make major adjustments to my lesson plan due to squirrely kids, accidents, technological issues, or something that would never occur to me when I'm making that plan, it's important that I keep the concept I'm teaching at the center of the lesson. I can both honor the random offers that come my way and stay true to what I'm teaching. This is a skill that is learned through practice, both on stage and in the classroom; the more I get, the more flexible I become, and the easier it is to keep myself sane in a setting where all sorts of things can happen without warning.

• Be Present: Of all the things I've learned from both Orff and improv, this has the deepest connotations for my life. When I'm teaching music, whether it's in a classroom, a gym, or someone's living room (where most of my private lessons take place), the world outside of the teacher/student zone ceases to exist for me. If my phone vibrates during that time, I ignore it; sometimes I'm not even aware it happened. Similarly, when I'm playing for a CSz show, every bit of me is focused on my on stage partners, tailoring the music to fit what they're doing: adjusting my volume, altering tempo so no one notices they're rushing or dragging or missed a chord change, vamping as needed until someone gets on board, changing modes to match the lyrics they're improvising, thinking ahead just enough to know that someone else is about to make an entrance and (if it's opera we're playing) will need a suitably dramatic diminished seventh chord to announce the arrival of this new character. That's how I perform all the time now. It's the Tao of both performing and teaching: being utterly in the moment, with just enough of me invested in what comes next that I've got that under control, too. The holistic result is a sense of being more in tune with myself and freer to just be in whatever moment I'm in. It's the spiritual practice of presence, and it's immensely rewarding.

It should, but unfortunately doesn't, go without saying that devices can disrupt this practice. That's why when I'm teaching at school I leave my phone in my office; and when I'm teaching lessons, it only comes out afterward to schedule the next session.

• Experiment: Trying new things is what keeps any kind of teaching from becoming drudgery. The same is true in performing. Yesterday I listened to an interview with Brian Henson and was delighted to learn that, faced with a growing staleness in muppet performance, he started requiring his puppeteers to get improv training, and began having wholly improvised shows open to the public. It's easy to fall back on warhorses, pieces and lessons that have proved themselves over the years; and I do roll out "The Freedom Bird" every time I change schools. I've got other bits I do frequently, and some of them work every time; but if I chain myself to them, or don't allow myself to do new things with them, eventually my own enthusiasm for them is likely to flag, and that in turn will erode the quality of my teaching. When I'm playing for an improvised musical or opera, it's tempting to fall back on chord progressions I know will work--the four-chord turnarounds of "We're In the Money" and "With or Without You" have served me especially well--but that allows both me and the players to become lazy and sink into a rut. So I experiment. I try new ideas. I teach songs I've never taught before, play games I've picked up at workshops, send up trial balloons to see what flies. Not everything does, and that's okay. (See the seventh pillar about this.) The worse that can happen is failure and the decision to either tinker with it or just scrap the whole damn thing.

• Use Your Intuition: Thinking too hard about what's happening when I teach or perform is a surefire way to get bogged down in my head and have everything come crashing down around me. The less I think my way through a lesson or song, the less my head rules my actions, the more creative I can be. Sometimes in the middle of a lesson an inspiration will come to me, and I'll find myself knowing exactly what to do differently, what adjustment needs to be made, and everything will just fall into place. This is not something I was born with. It has come with experience, as, year after year, I train my heart and my body to do this thing without thinking about it. It's another side of being present: the side that really makes stuff up, that knows exactly what has to happen next.

• Make Others Look Good: Often our most successful games at CSz involve volunteers. They may not be games that call for a heavy dose of skill: silly games like Oracle or Spelling Bee can be huge crowd pleasers, and the offers that come with Moving Bodies or Audience Sound Effects can be startling in their originality, even though not that much is demanded of the volunteer. Whatever it is that we plug a volunteer into, the goal of all the players is to make that person a star. Some of our most ardent players started their improv lives by volunteering for a game during a show, and loved it so much they signed up for CSz 101 and worked their way up through the ranks to the Pro Team. Whatever we do, we don't want that volunteer to walk away thinking "Well, that sucked," or "I feel like such a fool."

This is even more true in the classroom. On Saturday, Pat talked about people who've grown up believing they can't sing because someone told them this when they were children. Who would do such a thing? Tragically, unforgivably, it may have been a music teacher. I never criticize a singer's native ability, and as a choir director, I've erred on the side of inclusiveness, permitting singers in my volunteer choirs who really were tone deaf. I'd rather have someone making a confident, joyful off-key noise than hiding his or her enthusiasm under a bushel. Sure, the performance won't win any critical raves, but it's more important to me that everyone have a part. As an accompanist, I can even work to make these people sound better, adjusting my playing to help them out. As an Orff teacher, I can adjust my arrangements, simplifying at times, adding or subtracting parts, until the result is something my students can be proud of. It's far more important to me that my students believe they're rock stars than that their parents think of me as a rock star--though it certainly is sweet to have my students treat me as one when they see me in the hall!

• Dare to Fail: Pat Short and Doug Goodkin share a common disdain for the culture of perfection that has taken over this country. Always having to be the best, competing to be the next American Idol, feeling crushed to be number two, and in our schools, testing, testing, always testing, striving for higher and higher performance on standardized tests at the expense of health and arts education, are turning the United States into a nation of anxious Type As who never have fun at anything.

This trend is counter to the principles of both Orff and improv. In our Orff classrooms, we set up students to try new things and, while they may not always be successful, to know that the world doesn't end with a bungled final chord or a too-fast tempo. We try new things. We ask our students to suggest new ways of playing or singing musical games, to improvise accompaniments and melodies, to move freely with props and scarves, to be always experimenting. Not everything works, and that's okay. Sometimes something works spectacularly, and our world is transformed by it, but we'd never know it if we hadn't made it clear from the beginning that it's okay to fail.

If an improv game crashes and burns, nobody is hurt. Maybe the laughs aren't that good. Maybe we get some harsh notes on the forum. So what? It's not the end of anything. We'll play again, and next time, we'll listen better, embrace that offer more fully, be less talky; or maybe we'll be more daring, try something out of left field. The worst that can happen is the scene flops, and we move on to the next game.

In the classroom, we are charged with making sure nobody gets hurt, but part of that--the biggest part, I would argue--is assuring our students that failure is a natural part of life, and that only by trying something and failing can we learn to make it better. Being obsessed with perfection means never trying anything new, because there is no way to learn a new skill without occasionally, even frequently, failing at one's attempts to do it.

I've had plenty of classroom failures. This year has seen more than I've liked, largely because I'm teaching in spaces that were never meant to house a music class. As the year has progressed, I've learned from those failures, and if I have to teach in a gym next year, I'll be much better prepared, will be able to intuit what activities are most likely to succeed, what behaviors I need to teach from the first day, and so on. Had I not embraced the offer of teaching here, I would not know these things. When I finally get back to a proper music room, I expect to be much stronger as a classroom manager for having had to manage music in a gym. That's the gift of hardship, of failing again and again, but getting up every time, making an adjustment, and trying once more: we get stronger, smarter, better.

The final lesson I have to offer on the link between improv and Orff doesn't come from Pat's seven pillars. It's something I figured out for myself: my students are my scene partners. Every time I step into the gym with my students, we create something new. They make offers all the time. Some are laden with promise. Others are just obnoxious. Finding ways to affirm them and work them into the lesson is what makes teaching Orff different from anything Silver-Burdett or MacMillan can put in a colorful book, a CD, or an interactive app. My students and I create eight different pieces a day. Most are moderately successful. Some stink. A few rise to the level of brilliance. Doing this work with them, being utterly present, drawing them out, listening to what they have to offer, honoring it in the ways I adjust the lesson, creating something magical toward the end of our half hour, is what keeps me loving this work, day after day, year after year.

Embrace your scene partners, my fellow teachers. And while you're at it, go see some improv. Take a class. And maybe, one of these days, I'll see you on stage making some improv magic.

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