This summer I took a big step in my music education journey. I completed step one of my Orff Schulwerk Certification, an approach to music education based on creative, music-play. My colleagues in our district's other two elementary schools are Orff-certified educators so it made a lot of sense for me to learn more about this so we can continue to provide a streamlined and consistent approach to music-making for our students. Read more about my transformative, two week-four credit course below.
"The Orff Approach is a unique way of teaching children and adults of all ages to think, act, and move musically by exploring music "from the inside out" through expressive, goal-oriented creative play and group performance, including dance and drama."
Eithne Stover, Fall 2016
This summer I got my heart broken open. It flew into a million glittering pieces and lay shimmering in shock on the floor for all to see. I had never seen my heart like this before….raw pulsating beauty, open, exposed, free. I looked at it, all of it scattered everywhere and realised, there is no way I can put it back together the way it was. There was no turning back, not now, not ever…
Villanova University, July 2016
I had anticipated this opportunity for what seems like an eternity, the opportunity to attend my first levels course. I don’t look like most level 1 students. The march of time has seen to that. Yet, here I was, beginning my fifth year of teaching general music in a public school setting and feeling old(er) but oh so new. Any self-consciousness I may have had was quickly put at ease by the incredibly gifted level 1 team at Villanova: pedagogy classes led by Beth Ann Hepburn with the assistance of Diana Hawley; movement led by Janie Vance with the assistance of our own Griff Gall; and recorder led by the amazing Nick Wild whom we all affectionately called “Unicorn Nick” as we quickly succumbed to his recorder magic. Right away these artful facilitators created a safe and risk-free space for our student cohort to bond in community, as well as reflect and grow in our craft and musicianship. We did so much growing….
Beth Ann expertly introduced us to the artful intricacies of arranging for the instrumentarium. Within a few days I was immersed in a world of expressive text, complementary rhythms, rhythmic cadences, ostinati layers of contrasting length, and color parts, with a new-found understanding of how to write for each instrument type. The years of attending chapter workshops and observing many presenters was starting to make sense. Elementaria by Gunild Keetman was one of our anchor texts and as I got deeper into the reading I experienced many moments of clarity and insight. I embraced Keetman’s emphasis on active constructivist learning as she advised “Control and correction should come from the children.” “What do you mean?” I thought, “Isn’t that my job?” But then I realized that our teacher-facilitators had been modelling this beautifully throughout the week by allowing us to explore rather than telling us what to do or not to do, keeping the student at the center of his/her musical experiences. One of my favorite quotes from Elementaria is by Thomas Werner and comes from the foreword “...working with Schulwerk does not entail the study and performance of melodies and songs with ready-made accompaniments, but rather a continuous ars-inveniendi, a spontaneous art of discovery with a hundred ways and a thousand possible structures.” I felt the heart shift begin.
Towards the end of the first week I was sitting in recorder class when Nick said something that literally took my breath away. I gasped out loud! It was the simplest thing and yet the deepest thing. He told us “every step in the process should be musically satisfying in itself.” Of course it should! This is what had been modelled to me in class all week. Yet, I had been missing this in my practice. Typically I find myself starting out a piece with great enthusiasm and big ideas for layering-in several parts, using a variety of media, while planning for it to unfold over several weeks. I begin with good intentions of honoring the process, but sometimes it gets boring either for me or the kids or most likely both and it sort of fizzles...and I get frustrated. My vision of what it could be doesn't always match reality. But Nick’s comment jolted me awake. What if I stopped looking towards the end as the goal? What if I planned to do less with a piece, while each of my little ‘perching points’ along the way were more musically satisfying in themselves so that they could absolutely and independently stand on their own? Hmmm….in that moment I realized an adjustment I needed to make to my practice. I needed to let go or get out of the way of my students’ creativity. This is a huge shift in perspective for me. It inspired me to go back and look more closely at my current material. Where do I need to insert a little more creativity or a sprinkling of something to make each step of the process feel complete in itself? How can I let go of my goal-oriented process while creating clear parameters that are elastic enough to work for my students?
At the end of the first week my heart exploded. It happened on the dance floor, right in front of Janie, Griff and my Orff community. Our task was simple…create movement in response to the music while also mirroring and building off the movement of others. During that seven minute dance my body entered into deep musical communion with my Orff community and with itself. In the middle of stretching and growing and shrinking and twisting and mirroring, my soul expanded and my heart shook and popped out onto the floor for all to see. You see, it had been encased in a place of control and constraint, a very deep place. But that place was too small for it now as I found myself peeling back layers of my life and peacefully letting them fall away. My heart was free.
As I write this article I have seen most of my classes twice and they notice a change in me. We needed to make more room for our hearts so I removed the big risers from my room. We have space to create, explore, be free. Now we begin and end class with movement activities that both ground and stretch our classroom community. My students’ repertoire of movement ideas is already growing. There are fewer behavior disruptions during this more “unstructured” class time as the students’ movements becoming more interesting and varied. They are engaged, exploring more, taking more risks. My recorders are always within reach: sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor, bass, as I discover the magic of playing for my students when I introduce a song or during their transitions. They are so attentive! They have already engaged in rhythmic improvisation and have devised new ways to experience some of the new activities I added to my teaching toolkit at Villanova.
I learned so much in my Level One class about process, and sequencing, and arranging, and movement and recorder, and so much more, but in the end what I remember most was how it all came together in that moment of explosive freedom. In that moment I felt deep in my body how much I need active engagement in the arts to help me survive this thing called life, and how much now, more than ever, I want it for our students. Our modern lives are lonely. Through the Schulwerk I found ways to nurture classroom community, mutuality and respect and passion. Through the Schulwerk I found ways to cultivate a generosity of heart and spirit and acceptance of the present moment in our classrooms. So you see there is no turning back, there can’t be...not now, not ever.
Thank you for breaking my heart!