Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Hardest Thing About Teaching Music

The hardest thing about teaching music---is that if you are constructing a suitably challenging piece of music---which might include interesting vocal contours, orchestrations that both complement and contrast with the rhythms/melodies of the basic song itself, and movement that accurately reflects the mood of the piece----the students you are teaching cannot imagine this piece of music in its completed form.  And since teaching often means breaking down complex ideas/motives into their most basic components---you can't begin by teaching them everything at once---you have to give the piece to them in parts.  One week--learn just the melody---or perhaps only part of the melody if it is particularly challenging.  One week---learn the orchestration---in bits and pieces---one ostinati at a time.  Be sure a part can be performed in isolation, before attempting to layer in the next part---and while each subsequent part might be performed easily in isolation---when performed together--simultaneously---one finds the challenge greatly magnified.  And still another week---work on creating movement to reflect the music. Ask the students how should it reflect the music??  Should it reflect its tempo---so that fast movements accompany a briskly paced tune---and slower, more lethargic movements accompany a more quiet, wandering tune?  Should the movement reflect the contour of the melody----Using higher space when the melody is high---and lower space the melody is low?  Should the movement capture both these aspects at the same time---or focus on some other intrinsic part of the music entirely.  Should the movement try to capture some other--harder to name---elusive spirit of the music---some piece of the music that cannot quite be analyzed---that is more a feeling than a word??  And how---how can we really reflect what we can barely describe in words---or is it because we can't describe it in words---that we must do so in some other fashion.....The hardest part about teaching music is that what we are working towards in the class is so much more than the sum of its parts.   And all of the above processes described briefly above----they are hard work---rewarding, yes---but the reward is one of delayed gratification.  You can't really enjoy the fruits of your labor---until the labor is complete---when you spend a half hour meticulously refining repetitive rhythms on your instruments---being sure that all performers perform at the same tempo---with ears inclined towards balance---and a million other things to make everything line up just so---so that you can have a rewarding's hard work---and students can't always imagine towards what.....That comes later---when all is put together----and even then---the end product really depends on the efforts and skill of the class who have been working on it.  A conscientious class who has been steadfast and persevered through difficulties--that has used the weeks of practice to refine their talents and to strengthen their weaknesses----that has worked in good faith---even though they couldn't imagine the end product---if they work carefully on the building blocks---they can create something that is nothing short of magical.  And once they do---and if they feel that magic that happens----they are more likely to do more good work---to create more beautiful moments that we can enjoy together, as a class---in this brief little time we have with them in our little grey classroom that finds its colors in the music that fills it....  Of course, if there is a class who can't get past the idea of---this is all I see this week---so this is all there must be.  A rhythm or two performed in isolation from the entirety of the piece---is no magical thing.  And yet--they must be performed in isolation before they can be performed in the context of the entire piece if students are to have any hope of performing them accurately---in their most rewarding fashion.  And a class without faith that there is something beautiful to be made out of all of these rather insignificant looking building blocks strewn haphazardly about---a class like that can be difficult because their performance will not hold the same magic---and they will feel that their efforts (even if they were feeble efforts) were in vain.  And it will be more difficult to convince them to work harder the next time for something more substantial and meaningful.  Because until they step out on faith---that the music will be more than the sum of its parts----they won't be able to experience anything but the parts---they'll never be able to put them together and enjoy the true sum---the heart of the piece.  And that's my challenge---finding ways to build the encourage students to imagine what a song will feel like when all of its components weave in and out of each imagine the realize that the work is worth it...

As I'm reflecting on these things---it makes me hope that I can serve God as I'm teaching---even in a public school setting.  I hope that, through His grace, I can teach just a little about faith.  Because being a person who has faith----who can believe in something one can't understand right away----well that's something we all need.  To accept a Good God in a world of uncertainty, violence, and fear---we need faith.  To work hard quietly---when things aren't going well---and seem to have no hope of going well---to not throw one's hands up and say--Why bother??---we need faith.  To accomplish anything at all that lies outside the realm of the familiar and routine---we need faith.

Remember the man in the Bible who said:  "Lord I believe---but help my unbelief"  Sometimes I feel overly optimistic for hoping that I can "teach" faith---because on so many occasions in my own life---faith has been something given to me when I wasn't looking for it---even when I was foolish enough to be running away from it.  Faith itself---was not something I could manufacture for myself---God had to step in and "help my unbelief."  And surely if I cannot manufacture it for myself---I cannot manufacture it for anyone else.

Still---I like to think that faith itself---it's a part of the Real world----not the surface one that the darkness would like us to remain tangled in.  And though I can do nothing on my own---I am not on my own---and all I can hope is to somehow reflect back a tiny bit of the light that God has shown me---I know that's what God hopes for me anyways (perhaps he would prefer it not to be "tiny"--but the idea is the same) And so maybe He lovingly provides me an opportunity to do that---in a small way.  And just as I have to teach in a logical sequence from simple to complex---one piece at a time---then glue them deftly together----maybe faith can be taught-- or given if you prefer---in a similar fashion.  Maybe having the chance to teach students to be people who can believe in more than what they can see----maybe that plants the seed for them to be people who can accept a Good God who looks to redeem a world that is anything but Good.

Perhaps it's ridiculous to look for the lines God connects throughout our lives----I'm certain they are too numerous to count---too subtle to even see at times---and too beautiful to comprehend at this time.  Still---maybe that's part of growing the faith---thinking about ways that a Good God can work Good from me---even though at many times---I am anything but Good.  And the only good thing in me---is Him.

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