A new perspective on the use of world music in the classroom, By Louis Persic, 2016 recipient of ACEMM’s Beacon Scholarship
I wondered, “How is it possible that these children, who have little or no music education in school, can perform such rhythmically complex music at such an amazing level?”
I am humbled and grateful for the opportunity given to me by the American Center for Elemental Music and Movement. The Beacon Scholarship made it possible for me to attend the course Orff-Afrique in Ghana, which helped me to see the music of West Africa in a new light. This was my fourth time traveling to Ghana to study the music and dance, but with the last trip being 13 years ago, I was looking at it from an entirely different perspective this time. The Orff-Afrique course allowed me to see outside the box in which I had placed world music, and helped me reframe its purpose in my classroom. The course, which was led by the brilliant Professor of Ethnomusicology and African studies, Dr. Kofi Gbolonyo, assisted by Doug Goodkin, Sofia Lopez-Ibor, James Harding, and others helped me to see countless new ways to incorporate the rich, vibrant music and culture of West Africa into my teaching.
My journey to Orff-Afrique began with the Afrique portion. Early in my career, long before I came to learn about Carl Orff and the Schulwerk, I was introduced to the music and dance of Ghana. I quickly fell in love with this music that is all about community. Even though I had no previous experience, and was not a percussionist, I immersed myself in learning the music and culture, because I knew I could use it to build community within my school. I strove to give my students authentic cultural experiences by learning about the people of Ghana through their traditional music. Early on, our charge for incorporating world music into our classrooms dealt primarily with culture – ‘include music that represents our diverse population while giving our students experience with music from other cultures through which they learn about the people.’ These are important goals. By learning about each other’s culture, we show that we value one another, thus developing mutual respect, and the ability to live together peacefully.
While I believe many of the lessons I have taught on the music and dance of Ghana were great experiences for my students, I wasn’t happy that they were limited to isolated units, lessons, or extracurricular activities. I wanted them to be better integrated into the curriculum, but I struggled to understand why they weren’t fitting in the way I wanted them to. This was one of many factors that led me to have what you might call a mid-life teaching crisis about a decade into my career. I considered leaving teaching, because I knew I was not achieving my full potential as a teacher, and was not doing the best job I could for my students. I knew something was missing, but I didn’t know what it was. Fortunately, that’s about the time my eyes were opened to the benefits and possibilities of the Orff-Schulwerk approach. It truly saved my life as a music teacher. For me, Orff was the missing piece of the puzzle. Or to be more accurate, Orff was a whole new section of the puzzle, with countless pieces of its own, I didn’t even know existed. With this new section revealed, the entire picture looked different. Orff opened up a whole new world of creativity and fun I hadn’t yet figured out how to access with my students.
As a new Orff teacher, many of the puzzle pieces began to fall into place, and the picture started to come into focus. But the music of Ghana continued to be one part of the original puzzle I struggled to fit in with the new larger picture. When teaching an African music lesson, it felt as if I was taking off my Orff-teacher hat, and putting on my African-music-teacher hat. I had a mental block that was keeping me from seeing the full potential of using the music of West Africa in my class. Perhaps that block came from the fact that I first learned Ghanaian music for a specific purpose. Or maybe it was because the music of Ghana was so close to my heart, that I had trouble stepping back to get a new perspective. It is true that sometimes we need to go far away to change our perspective, and this journey to Ghana allowed me to do just that.
My new understanding developed gradually, and it didn’t come in the form a new song or dance. It didn’t come from practicing a difficult lead drum rhythm. It began as a question in my mind. After seeing several amazing performances by children who were the same ages as my students, I wondered, “How is it possible that these children, who have little or no music education in school, can perform such rhythmically complex music at such an amazing level?” I realized the answer as I watched children playing singing games. Play! Much of their music education takes place on the playground. Through game songs, children in Ghana explore and discover the world of music, learning through play. The games build self-esteem, while developing social skills, such as respect, kindness, teamwork and cooperation. Many games require improvisation and a need to think on your feet. And I’m not talking about simple games like Ring Around the Rosie. These games incorporate syncopation and polyrhythms, along with complicated stone passing, handclapping or dancing patterns. Children learn so much through play, and West African culture has mastered the use of play to develop and nurture musical ability.
The Orff-Afrique experience has helped me to see how I could blend these two disciplines. I was reminded that children learn music in Ghana in a way that is very similar to the Orff approach, and play is an important part of that. What I discovered I need in order to connect the puzzle pieces, and truly get the most out of using African music within an Orff Schulwerk setting, is to have my students play the singing games of Ghana much more. Because I have limited time with my students, I often want to get right into teaching an Orff piece on barred instruments, or African rhythms on drums. But so many of the basic skills students need for those ventures to be successful and fun, can be developed and practiced through the use of Ghanaian singing games. The music of West Africa is some of the most rhythmically complex in the world, but I was more focused on how I could use the music to teach about the culture than I was on how I could use the music to teach music. By artificially placing it into the social studies category of an integrated curriculum, I was looking at it through the narrow lens of helping students develop cultural awareness, and was not seeing the incredible potential this music, particularly the games songs, has in helping my students grow musically. Of course, I will continue to strive to provide authentic and diverse musical experiences, but I will be more focused on what opportunities the music provides to develop essential musical skills in my students.
Game songs in Ghana can be extremely complex, requiring an amazing combination of movement, language, and musical skill. It’s no wonder, as children grow older, they can often simply join in with the adults. Of course, there are other factors that allow the children of Ghana to develop musical language differently than my students. Active participation in music making is much more pervasive in Ghanaian culture than in ours. It is common to see a baby tied to his mother’s back, sound asleep, feeling the beat as she dances, or children imitating the dance moves of adults at community drumming. I’ve seen a 4 year old boy, while his mother cooked dinner, playing rhythms on a plastic bucket that he heard me attempting to play at a lesson earlier that day. Children in Ghana are experiencing and taking it all in from the very beginning, even while still in their mother’s womb. Game songs are the first experiences for children to make music together. It is through these games that children in Ghana begin imitating the community they see as their parents make music together. Through these songs, they explore the world of music in their own little community, while naturally and playfully developing music skills. They don’t need to go to music class. They don’t need to take drumming lessons. They learn from observing, experimenting, imitating, and of course playing. Time for my students to play more!