Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Tempo


Estevao Marques performs with Sandra Salcedo and Jackie Rago at the AOSA National Conference in San Diego.

One does not go to a professional development conference for a philosophy lesson. And yet, that's the most important thing I brought back from San Diego.

This was my third American Orff Schulwerk Association conference. After each of my previous conferences, I came home with a boatload of ideas which I eagerly transformed into lesson plans, some of them so productive that I got entire units. I went to San Diego hoping for more of the same, and I did, indeed, get some ideas that I'll be incorporating into my lesson plans.

For once, though, the content was not the big takeaway. Maybe it's that I have had, for the first time in my career, enough time with the students I'm teaching, and enough experience with the methods I use, that finding new ideas for lessons is not a problem. Like most Orff teachers, I create my own curriculum, teaching concepts through performance and play. The concepts are the same from year to year, the difference lying in my choice of music and which activities I'll draw from that music. After teaching this way for a decade--with, it must be admitted, a four-year interruption that gave me little opportunity to practice my vocation--I'm feeling secure in trusting my intuition on how lessons are going, what will work best with each age group, and how reasonable my expectations for progress can be.

Which set me up perfectly for what I really learned in San Diego.

If this were any other conference, I'd be thrilled with the stack of content I brought back from the fourteen sessions I attended. There's enough stuff there to create several months' worth of lessons. What made this conference different for me, though, was a sense I got during the first of my two workshops with Estevao Marques, a Brazilian performer and educator who shared ideas and pieces that used an absolute minimum of equipment.

Estevao uses very little language during his workshops. In part, I'm sure that's because he speaks very little English. Much more than that, though, he understands that the best music teaching is wordless. Using gestures, pantomime, movement, and vocal sounds, Estevao taught us dances and games that challenged me physically. There was one game that involved crossing my arms and holding my nose and one ear, folding my arms, then reaching up and, with arms crossed again, holding my nose and the other ear. This proved far more difficult than it sounds. I'm very ambidextrous--I have to be to play the piano--but I just couldn't get my hands to cooperate. I kept winding up holding both ears, or groping around trying to find my nose with either hand. I felt like an intoxicated driver trying to pass a sobriety test, and I was not alone: all around me were other Orff teachers, all of them, like me, trained movement and music teachers, who couldn't find their noses. It was hilarious and, at the same time, profoundly frustrating.

Clearly Estevao understood this. In fact, he gave us time to play this silly game with partner after partner, starting at a slow tempo, gradually picking up the pace, drawing it out until everyone in the room was successful.

And that's where I had my breakthrough.

Most of the workshops I attend at these conferences go down smoothly for me. I'm an old hand at Orff training now--all three levels, several master classes, the trip to Ghana, and dozens of local workshops--and all of that is on top of a lifetime of learning and playing music. From time to time, though, I encounter something that challenges me. Keith Terry's body percussion classes have done that, as he has participants play complicated patterns that switch back and forth between the right and left sides of their bodies. I've found myself becoming frustrated and anxious in these classes, working and working until, suddenly, something clicks and I've got it--or at least have enough of it that, with practice, I know I can perform the patterns with some consistency.

In Ghana, the challenge was learning songs in languages other than English taught orally. If I have a text in front of me, I can usually learn it fairly quickly; unfortunately, that's not how music is taught in most folk traditions, and even after two weeks of singing those songs, I was still groping for words that many of my fellow participants had learned on the first day.

Experiences like that--and like the workshop with Estevao--laid down a lesson for me that I didn't understand until I'd had a day for the workshop to percolate through my mind. It's something that, as a musician, I should've understood long ago, especially as I came to see that an Orff lesson is, itself, a piece of performance art: tempo matters.

Teach a piece too fast, and you'll lose some students. By too fast, I don't mean playing or singing it at a breathless, breakneck pace. I mean expecting students to get the concept, and moving on to the next part of the lesson before they're ready. Students who haven't mastered the concept before the lesson moves on to the next one are left in the dust, become frustrated, are more likely to give up on trying and, once they have, become bored and disruptive. The lesson has left them behind, but they don't want to be abandoned, so they drag down the rest of the class with them. Ultimately, it means the lesson can't succeed: the bored disruption of the first students to give up spreads quickly, derailing the lesson.

Deep learning, especially of a new skill (like holding one's nose and ear at the same time), takes time. A skilled teacher knows this, knows how to look for the learning to happen, and makes the space and time for the learning to settle in with the entire class, not just the most talented.

There's a trade-off in this, of course. I don't know how many games Estevao meant to teach us, but I'm sure he had more in his plan than we were able to get to. Permitting students the time they need to learn often means postponing or scrapping other activities that were intended for later in the lesson. If one has limited time--in San Diego, a single hour-and-fifteen-minute workshop; at Margaret Scott, for most classes, just one half hour a week--one simply can't cover as much material as one really wants to. That's more frustrating for the teacher than for the student, though: the satisfaction of learning to do something well more than offsets the desire to learn more things shallowly. 

So that's what I've brought back to my students: the commitment to teach at a tempo that makes it possible for all of them to learn these concepts. It means I won't get to all the concepts I'd like to teach, and that is, of course, frustrating to me. On the other hand, it means my students will be learning the most important lesson of all: the joy of making music well, of learning to play and sing something with all one's heart, mind, and soul, and not just with whatever fraction of one's brain was able to engage. I've been moving in this direction for awhile; yesterday and today, I applied it. And it was marvelous: my students clearly appreciated being to go deeper on a song I began teaching them two or three weeks ago, rather than having something new presented to them before they'd had a chance to master the first song.

Teach deep, my friends. Take the time to do it. Your students will thank you for it, and you'll thank yourself, too.

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