This was my second year at Orff Central.
That’s not what we really call it. Its complete name is the AOSA National Professional Development Conference, but in the nine years I’ve known about Orff Schulwerk, my colleagues have all referred to it simply as conference. It’s an annual event that alternates between sides of the United States. Last year, my first, it was in Denver; this year was Nashville; next year will be San Diego; and the year after that, Atlantic City. Wherever it’s held, the real draw of the conference is the workshops, as veteran Orff practitioners condense their best ideas into 75-minute sessions. For those of us who serve on the boards of our local chapters, these workshops are like previews of what the presenters would have to offer at an all-day event. Last year I came away with just one name of a presenter I’d like to come to Portland. This year, there were two.
Even the less successful workshops provide useful ideas, and I’m coming back to Portland tomorrow with a briefcase full of them. I’ll be making major adjustments to my equipment order, shifting my focus to some items I’d never have considered before, but now see can make a huge difference in my classroom. More than that, two workshops in particular—one on teaching music to children on the autism spectrum, the other on teaching children of a different ethnicity from my own—have me rethinking many things about the way I present lessons, feeling even a bit chastened at some of the things that have frustrated me.
This was a better year for making connections, and feeling like I have friends here. Thanks to my trip to Ghana, I know a dozen more people at this conference. There are also more Oregonians in attendance, not to mention more people I recognize from courses I’ve taken in the past. I’ve felt more capable of relaxing and talking with strangers who aren’t as strange as they seemed a year ago, and I’ve taken more risks doing things that might embarrass me.
Overall, then, it’s been a good time for me. I’m coming home much more secure in my identity as an Orff teacher, feeling like I’m coming into my own in the leadership of my chapter and school district. Next year I’ll be here as president of the Oregon chapter, a distinction that puts me at a different stratum of participation, and I think I’ll be ready for it.
There have been frustrations, too, of course. Holding a music conference at a convention center means being in rooms without windows and acoustics that just aren’t favorable for either performances or community singing. The full schedule also makes it difficult to get out of the building and into this lovely city and, most frustratingly, the shuttle bus schedule to my hotel eliminates the possibility of staying out listening to live music. Add to this the cold one of my personal incubators (also known as students) gave me sometime last week, and it’s been an uncomfortable and inconvenient week in many ways.
Set that aside, though, because the heart of conference is actually not the workshops or the performances, but the solidarity with colleagues who actually know what I’m talking about. In my district, I’m really the only trained Orff teacher. When we have music teacher gatherings, we don’t really have much in common with each other apart from the administrative realities of our situations. They’ve got no idea what to do with their mallet instruments (though I’ll be doing my own mini-training for them in January), many of them use textbooks, and only one, the newest and youngest, really gets the Orff difference. Here in Nashville, though, I’m surrounded by hundreds of teachers who strive to create holistic communities of music that fulfill the Orff ideal. We can talk much more than method with each other: we can get to the heart of the Orff way.
That’s something I couldn’t really accomplish last year in Denver. I was still caught up in the first year blues, and I don’t just mean my first year at conference. Teaching elementary music after a four year gap, and having to do it in a gym with students who’d had no music education for almost as long as I’d been out of the field, was wiping me out. I came back to Oregon with ideas, but I needed much more.
This year, I really feel like I’ve come into my own as a teacher, and doing it the Orff way has become as natural for me as preaching once was. This is something that comes with experience and experiences. Workshops, levels trainings, and conference are all experiences that contribute to that overall sense of knowing who I am as a teacher, and knowing what to do in any given moment in my classroom. I wasn’t in this position in 2009, the year I was laid off, though I was on my way. Now, though, I feel like I’m entering my prime as a teacher.
With that came a sense of really belonging at this conference. I no longer feel like a novice in Orff circles. I'm nowhere near having enough experience to be a trainer, but I'm definitely part of the team. I know the language, have an ever-growing knowledge base of the best national and international masters, an ever-expanding circle of Orff friends, and feel comfortable giving advice to the true novices. The traditions of conference, this one time when an entire nation of Orff teachers comes together, are becoming my traditions, as well. I can sing "Viva la Musica" in three parts with the rest. I eagerly move out onto the dance floor, improvise recorder obligatos to gospel songs, recognize the national leaders of our organization, move around the exhibit hall coveting all manner of instruments and teaching aids that I know exactly what to do with.
This being Nashville, we finished our closing ceremony by singing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” It was the perfect way to wrap it up, a room filled with the rich harmonies one finds whenever music teachers sing together, rejoicing in the time we’ve had, feeling a pang of sorrow that we’re parting again. It’s been good, being with my people. But it’s also going to be very good to get back to my classroom, with my students, and bring to them some of the magic I’ve soaked up here.
Though I really will miss these people. The biggest part of belonging is the sadness that comes with goodbye. "I will see you again," promises Kofi as he hugs me and does a full Ghanaian handshake with me, complete with snap. "Until next year," says Russel, and we try the same handshake, this time with no snap. "Maybe I'll see you on the streets of Portland," says Doug, who comes north frequently to visit his daughter and grandbaby. "See you in San Diego!" says Bea. And on it goes, one goodbye after another. To all of them, I have three words: viva la musica!