Two Great Tastes

These guys really need to meet: Pat Short of Comedy Sportz Portland and Doug Goodkin, master Orff Schulwerk educator.

I move in different spheres: Music education. Orff Schulwerk. Improv. Jazz. United Methodism. Clergy. Outdoor recreation. Running. Cycling. Body Pump. Science Fiction. The Anderson family. Survivors of divorce. Beer. Preacher's kids. Summer camp alumni. Willamette alumni. Trekkies. By "sphere," I mean an activity, occupation, or status shared with a group of people that is a frame of reference for understanding the greater world, and which has a knowledge base unique to itself. Two people meeting each other for the first time who both went to camp as children can reminisce, nod knowingly, find common ground with each other.

Many of my spheres overlap. I know a lot of United Methodist clergy, and we share experiences both of our education and work and of simply being United Methodist. Star Trek fans usually have a taste for science fiction in general. Some of them are complementary: older runners benefit from cross-training, and cycling is one of the best exercises to use to lighten one's running load without sacrificing fitness, so as we age, many runners become active in the cycling community, too.

And then there are the spheres that are a match made in heaven, that should be percolating with each other, because if they did, both of them would benefit to a spectacular degree--but just don't.

I'm talking, of course, about Orff Schulwerk and improv.

I first experienced improv through a television program, "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" which I saw in its original version while I was living in England. From the first episode, I began applying ideas from this show to the art form I was most invested in at the time: preaching. My sermons eventually became extended long form improvisations. But then I left the ministry, and my improvisational bones were limited to the piano. This was fine, for awhile. I returned to teaching music, and for two years did it with very little improvisation, using whatever curriculum was available in the schools where I taught. And then I discovered the Orff philosophy, and never looked back.

The Schulwerk, as we in the Orff sphere like to refer to our curriculum, is founded on improvisation. Carl Orff began this whole movement because his university music students could play with technical perfection from a written score, but couldn't improvise their way out of a bucket. At my first two Orff workshops, I witnessed presenters who were brilliant at engaging large groups of people in long-form musical improvisations, and I was hooked: this was exactly what I'd been seeking. Orff teachers even knew about and used the kind of improv games I'd seen on "Whose Line," though they always tweaked them to make them more rhythmic, beefing up the musical side of the games.

Four years after my introduction to Orff, I became part of the comedy improv world when I met Amy Milshtein, the woman I will marry in a month. She was a true believer in Comedy Sportz, an international improv franchise that uses a competitive format to make short-form improv games more audience-friendly. I loved what I saw. A few months after Amy and I began dating, she took me to a Comedy Sportz party where it was discovered I can improvise at the piano. Soon after that, I began playing keyboard at shows. Amy gifted me with a class, CSz 101, taught by Pat Short and Herb Spice. I was startled by how similar these classes were to Orff workshops, and immediately began looking for ways to bring these two spheres together, because clearly, obviously, in a not-rocket-science level of "duh!"ness, improv and Orff were a match made in musical, pedagogical, philosophical, comedic heaven.

You'd think it wouldn't be all that hard: Orff teachers love to get down and dirty at workshops, throwing themselves into games and activities with every bit as much gusto as improvisers do at their own workshops. This includes trying out things that are new and, maybe, a little scary. One of the most delightful things about an Orff workshop is just how willing participants are to look silly, to set aside all their western-European reticence and just take the plunge. Add to this the fact that many Orff presenters, the master teachers who lead workshops and courses, are themselves natural improvisers, and the Venn diagram overlap of these two spheres should be a no-brainer.

And yet, of all the hundreds of Orff teachers I've met, only three that I know are active in the improv world. That includes me.

That's why, from the moment I became a part of Comedy Sportz, I began talking it up with the Portland Orff Schulwerk Association board, telling them we had to get Pat Short as a presenter at a workshop. It took four years, but in April, I finally succeeded, and as I expected, it was a fantastic success: the teachers at the workshop plunged into every improv game with as much gusto as they would anything taught them by a certified Orff presenter--until, that is, they had to start making up songs, where we discovered that, as creative as they can be with improvising melodies, making up words to go with them can be quite frightening. Even so, I like to think, and hope, that the April workshop will be an entree for many teachers to the wonderful world of improv.

That's a long introduction to the topic that inspired me to write this essay. Last week, while I was in Ghana, Amy taught two summer camps, one for elementary-aged children, the other for high school students. She reported to me that the younger children were much more eager to try out improv games, and often blew her away with their creativity--something I'm quite familiar with from teaching them music the Orff way. The high school students still had great ideas, often very sophisticated, but had to overcome some natural developmental barriers around silliness. Again, I'm well-acquainted with this phenomenon, not only from teaching teenagers but also from having been one who wanted very much to be able to relax in silly ways at camp and in drama class, but just couldn't get over myself.

This tendency, common to many teenagers, becomes even more evident in adults. "I don't want to look silly" is implied in the posture, expression, and attitude of many adults who hold back from playing charades, participating in role-plays, dressing up in costumes, going to theme parties. This is just speculation, but I think we came blame Protestantism, particularly the Calvinist variety, which infused its ethic of serious holiness into many western European cultures. Mediterranean cultures, on the other hand, are far more demonstrative--as is their Catholic heritage.

Setting this speculation aside, an American upbringing wrings the playfulness out of children starting in their early teens. Seventh graders can often be quite silly, but at some point in eighth grade, kids become self-conscious about how they appear to each other, and by high school, the need to be cool can trump the improvisational impulse in all but the most theatrical of young people.

Contrast this with what I experienced in two weeks in Ghana, where the children, youth, and adults we met, whether or not they were part of the performing groups at our evening events, threw themselves without reservation into the games we taught them after the performances were over. They loved to play these games and mastered them quickly. It was like every group we were in was made up of Orff teachers or improvisers who could easily set aside their adult reluctance to be silly and just start playing. Clearly Ghanaian culture, despite the growing influence of Protestant Christianity, has managed to avoid the trap of coolness.

Much of the purpose of the Orff-Afrique course was to show us teachers a culture that, unlike our own, is infused with both music and playfulness, and maintains its passion for these qualities from cradle to grave. Seeing it, experiencing it, feeling it, we came away wondering how we could help our own cultures to become more like that of Ghana: embracing creativity, singing, dancing, playing together in ways that unite and inspire. It's a tall order: we're not about to start bundling babies to the backs of mothers who are dancing at town celebrations that last for hours, and restoring music to its once-honored place in the curriculum is work that will take generations to accomplish.

For us Orff teachers, though, I have a suggestion: improv.

We played some improv games last week, and all who participated had a great time. Whenever I see Orff teachers play these games, I know this should be happening all the time. Orff teachers should be taking improv classes, going to workshops, playing on stage. Improvisers will benefit from the Orff presence, too: we know some things about musical improvisation. These two spheres are so compatible that it's a crying shame they're not working hand in hand.

I'm going to speculate some more now. Please pardon these hypotheses. Someday someone will write a dissertation on this, but for now, I don't know that anyone has research to back up what I'm going to imagine.

Suppose you started teaching improv to your kindergarten music class. I don't just mean playing around with a pentatonic xylophone; I mean improv games of the variety that Comedy Sportz plays in their CSz for Kids shows. Suppose you affirmed these small children's belief that play is what it's all about, that make-believe is a good thing, the best thing, that it's actually cool to be silly and make stuff up. Suppose these games became a regular part of your music class curriculum, and you continued to have children playing them all through the primary and intermediate years, then passed them on to the middle school where you had encouraged the music teachers and, oh hell, why not every teacher in the school to take improv training and start using it in their classes? Suppose this movement carried on over into the high school, and now it's not just the drama nerds who play improv games, but they're part of English classes as they figure out how to understand Shakespearean dialogue, history classes acting out important events, math classes stretching students' brains so they won't have to think so hard about how calculus works and can just get inside it. Suppose these young people, now with thirteen years of learning to be creative, take it with them into college, the workplace, the household, their relationships with spouses, children, their families and friends.

Just like that, we've got a culture that has relearned how to get over itself and have some fun. And it only takes a generation.

I may just have found my life's work. Stay tuned.


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