It was late in the evening for a group of young students. The dressing room had been small and cramped. The whole idea of a dress rehearsal was new to many of these tiny choristers, and there they stood - nine 1st and 2nd grade girls on a giant stage, imagining what their audience would look like, singing a folk song.
I teach folk music. It's the foundation of the method I studied in graduate school and it's what I grew up on. Folk tales are stories of "the people" and are passed from one person to another. Folk music is just like that. It's music of "the people" and it is passed from one person to another. For this reason, variants and extra verses abound in our literature. A rhythm might be one way here and another way there. A turn of the tune might be sung one way by my grandmother and another way by yours. Folk song variants are as unique as the people who teach them to each other.
I can remember falling in love with the idea of a folk based methodology. It was about 9 years ago and it took me by surprise. I'd gone my whole life having only heard the name "Kodály" a few times. When I met my first Kodály teacher I was 19 years old and on my way to a career in the church. She told us about helping children to embrace music theory and culture through the joy and playfulness of folk tunes. After I'd observed a few classes I knew it was my next step. I had to learn to teach this way.
My students teach me all the time. Almost any thoughtful educator would probably say the same. If we're paying attention we can't help but learn from our children, who see the world with still-new eyes. But I was surprised during my first year teaching when I realized that my students would be teaching me about musical perception. They would reveal to me the nature of first loving music. They would help me understand why my adult choristers were rushing some things and dragging others, why it's so tough to hold a part or sing in tune. They'd help me see music as a creative endeavor again, which is (unfortunately) a point of view we often lose touch with as we go through college and graduate school. Recitals and requirements, however necessary, have the power to drain us of our joy in the creative process. Our childlike wonder is something we have to protect.
My littlest choristers followed me out onto the stage on the night of our dress rehearsal and stood tall. They watched everything I did all semester and I saw them, standing before me in their uniforms, trying their best to be just like they thought I wanted them to be.
They opened their mouths and sang a gorgeous little two part canon from Hungary. It was tuneful, legato, well supported singing. They did not rush. They did not tarry. After that we launched into one of our favorite North American folk tunes and everything fell apart. I was stressed and frustrated and couldn't think why this would happen after so much practice. They were rushing, pushing the tone, and not hearing each other. They weren't looking at me and weren't helped by my conducting. I had them run through it a few times and it never quite recovered. We left the stage and I put it out of my mind as the next number rolled around.
A few hours later we were back in our dressing room. As the girls sat down in their seats they began to sing and I noticed that a few of them were keeping the steady beat by patting their knees. I remembered telling them not to pat their legs or clap their hands right before we'd gone out onto the stage. I realized, in that moment, that the folk song we'd been singing was begging for body percussion. They'd always been allowed to keep the steady beat during class and rehearsal. Indeed, the song tends to make a person feel like dancing or clapping anyhow.
It was unnatural to stand still and sing this folk tune like a concert piece.
I apologized to my students.
"I'm sorry, girls. I know why our song wasn't working the right way earlier. I told you not to keep the beat, but you really should! It's a folk song. It wants you to tap a toe or clap your hands. So we'll keep the beat on our knees when we sing it tomorrow night. Let's try it right now!"
It was perfect. Everything that had gone so horribly wrong on stage was erased in an instant.
The next night they marched out on stage, did their Hungarian piece, and tackled the American folk song with no trepidation.
Friends, good music tends to sing itself. It speaks of a place and a time. It carries the burden of whatever tradition produced it. Those of us who teach music are tasked with respecting not only our pupils, but also our art. Since the creation of music is a human behavior it is full of human error, human emotion, and the same liveliness that sets our hearts to beating.
Every now and then we all stumble across something that will become a vivid memory. For me, this was one such moment - there in a crowded dressing room with my littlest students, repeating an old lesson to myself: "Music is a human art. Music is a human art. Music is a human art."
I don't have enough "thank you's" in my heart to cover the gift of humanity my students offer to me over and over again.
Music is a human art.