Late last spring I got one of those invitations that just makes you want to shout, "YES!"
My friend Amy Baker, a fellow parishioner at St. Gregory’s, San Francisco is Program Director at Old Firehouse School, Mill Valley. She wondered if I’d want to lead a half-day in service for all the teachers at Old Firehouse. She wanted the work,
- to be rooted in brain development (why music is so fundamental for humans, why young children respond so well to music and rhythm, how we can use early childhood development to make our teaching lives easier/better/etc…)
- very practical (specific songs, but more emphasis on learning useful principles and musical basics that smart teachers can take and use creatively)
- and very reassuring and unintimidating (so that even people who think they know nothing about music and/or who have been told they can't sing will be comfortable integrating sung and other/rhythmical music into their classroom lives)
What a great invitation to share Music that Makes Community’s work and discoveries with teachers who already sensed that singing together shapes our humanity! And to encourage them to risk singing more in their classes! Yes! Yes! Yes!
So what in the science would help us find our way?
Could our noticing free us from the interpretative restraint of the commonplace computer metaphor for the brain and thinking - data delivery, data storage, and data retrieval?
Could we shape a fragment of practice and experience that would help us discover “people-making” in our singing together (borrowing systems theorist Virginia Satir’s wonderful name for the mutual formation that we are always offering one another).
Would we hear whispers of “tacit knowing,” scientist-philosopher Michael Polanyi’s description of the knowing and truth that’s there before speech and gives life to personal knowledge?
After we’d sung “What We Need is Here” together, I said the theme of our first hour of song and reflection would be “It all begins in love, and therefore I am because you are.” And I suggested we sing wondering how natural compassion, empathy, and affection shapes us for communication and communion. I reminded us that Herbert Spencer summarizing Darwin’s theory of evolution as “survival of the fittest” laid the philosophical foundation for social Darwinism, but also prompted a century and a half of philosophers and scientists to counter his reductive image of human nature and society, gathering evidence that our capacity for compassion and communication is as significant an evolutionary advantage s competition, and arguing that capacity to love opens the evolutionary path to music and eventually language. Loving is as natural and essential to who we are as our drive tocompete. As we're singing together love touches us and we hear ancient echoes (and dim personal memories) of the rhythmic, tonal babbling and coo-ing conversation of mother and tiny child?
And with that question and cue in mind, we sang simple melodies in our first hour, leaning in to the beauty of simplicity, noticing how we listened to one another. We played with echoing simple body percussion rhythms. We improvised a melodic stem for each of our names and sang it to the group for all to echo. We learned the lovely melody of Ana Hernandez’s “Open My Heart” (just the melody, at this point without words). And of course we noticed how the basic forms of pre-print, paperless/oral tradition (and preschool!) music practice are person-to-person relational, even before or as we’re creating a sense of self and of the different challenges of our many distinct human experiences (hopes, longings, frustrations and all) learning and singing together. And we ended our first hour learning and singing Ana Hernandez’s “Teach me to be love.”
In our second hour, I reminded us of mirroring, the evolutionary and developmental discovery that each other is another self (“theory of self”). We can watch our primate cousins and some other mammals making this discovery or showing us it’s in their thinking as we observe them repetitively engaging their own image in a mirror. And in our work with children (or anyone we’re singing with) we can watch how mirroring, imitation and deliberately repeated imitation moves us our curiosity and imagination to play.
So titling this hour with jazz trumpeter Clark Terry’s wonderful description for how to make jazz – “Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate,”we ventured into call and response (“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Green Grow the Rushes Ho!”), rounds and layered songs (“Frere Jacques” and “Don’t put your muck in my dustbin, my dustbin’s full,” and returning to “Open My Heart,” and this time we sang with words and we sang all three parts).
We noticed our uncertainties and sometimes frustrations in “not knowing” as we felt ourselves, others, and the whole group risking failure learning together. We noticed our how we engaged our memories and our imaginations in a layered learning process. We saw and felt the group coming to fully know and understand what we were doing ahead of any of the members of the group. We had one of the teachers teach us “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” (modeling lovely gestures we danced as we sang) and felt the joy of coming together as we learned and relearned it. And as we broke for lunch, I taught and led us singing, “There is Enough.”
The group’s delight in one another over lunch, the laughter the storytelling, the appreciation of Old Firehouse School’s committed practice of providing plenty of good food all witnessed to the spirit we’d touched on and that had touched us in our work together.
As we reconvened (with song) after lunch, I told them our third working block would be “All Play and No Work, Finding Community in Improvising,” and explained (with a bit more theory and unveiled pedagogy than I have done in other settings) how I needed leaders – percussionists and three lead singers to guide us improvising a mini-opera on the text of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.Along with exhilaration at everyone’s courageous, risk-taking participation, one choice noticing in that session was a teacher saying how moved she was to be playing with her teaching colleagues and professional peers seeing and showing together how they all worked in with the children in their classes. We finished up our hour singing and dancing Kerri Meyer’s “Go on Your Way in Joy, My Friends.”