Dispatches from Ghana VI: Level I, Level II, Level Me

Turns out I’m not as advanced as I like to think I am.

Teaching elementary music, it’s easy to forget that the main reason I appear to be so good at the skills I teach is that I’m a grown-assed adult who’s studied these things, while my students are children experiencing them for the first time. When I teach my body music unit, it usually only lasts for one or two classes before I run out of material, but that’s plenty of time for children to marvel at the speed and complexity of the rhythms I can play on my body. Similarly, as we drum and learn about African musical culture, I’m the expert in the room: I spent two weeks in Ghana four years ago, after all, so I know some stuff.

That’s the confidence I brought to the International Body Music Festival, which ended yesterday (for me—I’m midway through the 36-hour odyssey of my journey home, so what day it is is a relative thing). It took just two workshops to put me in my place, and remind me that some people have been doing this a lot longer, more seriously, and with far more experience and talent than I.

Workshops at IBMF were presented by performers, none of whom was an elementary music educator. That means the skills presented were much more advanced than I anticipated. It also meant the workshops were paced for fellow body musicians. Workshops were labeled Level I and Level II, the first level being aimed at beginners at whatever skill was being taught, the second more advanced. For my first workshop, I went to Level II Ghanaian drumming, and I was fine: it all came back to me, and I had no trouble keeping up. What came next, though, blew me completely out of the water: a Level II workshop led by Molodiy, a team of African-Americans steeped in the historic Black college artform known as “steppin’.” I’d done some of this before, but within minutes, realized the pacing of this workshop was simply beyond my ability to keep up. I wound up frustrated, struggling to remember all the parts in the one portion of the routine my small group was being taught.

The frustration continued with a Level II Ghanaian dancing workshop, led by two faculty members of the Nunya Music Academy. Within minutes, I knew I was completely out of my depth, even as the rest of the group—most of them completely knew to Ghanaian dancing—had no trouble keeping up.

I did better with workshops in circle singing, and a Level I music-and-dance workshop by Evie Ladin. This led me to think I could handle her Level II workshop—but as with the Ghanaian dancing workshop (and this applies to their Level I, which was really just the same as their Level II; apparently they didn’t realize they were supposed to go easy on people at that workshop), I quickly realized I was not going to be able to keep up. This time I decided not to stick around, and went instead to a Level I gumboot workshop the pacing of which far better matched my abilities.

So it continued for the entire festival: I did well with even advanced workshops on singing, providing there were no advanced body percussion or dance steps involved. In every other case, I opted for Level I classes, finding they were the only movement or body music classes in which I had a chance of coming out educated, rather than frustrated.

Which leads me to acknowledge one of the many things I learned about myself this week: humility is a good thing. As we had our closing circle, many of the body music pros thanked me for my willingness to throw myself into activities that were clearly new to me. Sticking with it, even as I find a task challenging, can yield great results—or remind me of the limitations of my middle-aged body, another important lesson. During our final collaboration, with the drummers at the University of Ghana, we were taught the drummer dance, part of which involves picking up the drum and dancing with it as a partner. I had no trouble learning the steps of this dance, but after just two times through, my bad shoulder was beginning to twinge, so I set the drum down and watched the others instead. Even so, I suffered that night for the few times I picked up the drum and danced with it, my shoulder becoming especially painful after midnight.

Which brings me to Level Me. There is no humiliation in accepting that some things are too hard for me. It’s possible I may, in time, learn to do them recognizably, though it’s doubtful I’ll ever be up to the brilliance of all these performers. There’s also nothing wrong with asking a presenter to slow down or repeat something: the teacher of the drumming dance understood this, and used repetition as well as any Orff-trained teacher. As I come back to the classroom in six weeks, I’m going to remember these lessons, especially as I find myself tempted to move too fast, or to cover too much advanced material, in any single class session. Every one of my students has a Level Me. Finding the sweet spot that keeps the advanced ones challenged enough not to be bored, but simple enough not to frustrate the beginners, is the real art of teaching.


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