My first experiences with the Orff processes were like cracking out of a “me-shaped shell” to discover how very flexible and comfortable I could be. Learning through play seemed the most natural thing on earth, and sculpting the potential situations in which children would share these experiences seemed to be my life’s calling. From the first moment I stepped out of Level I, I began to think of ways in which I could guide students to make their own discoveries in music through play. We often say that the Schulwerk is a process, not a method, but for me it represented much more. The type of people who were drawn to this type of study were open to sharing, collaborating, and evolving. I did not learn to be someone new, but rather found a community in which I could be the person I had always been. It was the first time I had ever been welcomed into my educational community by my peers, and not just my instructors. For me, the Schulwerk embodies the possibility for terrific processes with great foundations and references, but, more than that, the “Orff approach” is a way of life.
As my training continued, my processes became more and more seamless for my students, and my planning became more and more complex. Lessons went from beginning with a simple entry point and going through a couple of lessons to becoming experiences that evolved over the course of months, sometimes even years. Though the work did not necessarily get easier, as my expectations were ceaselessly growing, it never became any less exciting.
The potential to draw in folk stories and cultural awareness has always been a strong focus in my classroom. Before I began down my chosen path as a musician, I made a long study of anthropology and foreign language. Cultural studies from an empathetic perspective have captivated me since my childhood, and I sought out books, documentaries, songs, and stories from other cultures; specifically, those that have touched my own, such as those of the Native Americans and West Africa. To this day, I still have my first picture book of West African folk tales, and I still use it with my students. Needless to say, I was overjoyed to be chosen as the recipient of the Beacon Scholarship, which gave me the opportunity to study Ethnomusicology with the esteemed Kofi Gbolonyo and his staff at the Nunya Academy in Dzodze, Ghana. I was certain I would learn wonderful things to bring back to my students. I could have never anticipated the impact the experience would have on my education about myself and the potential of humanity.
Our very first lesson with Kofi was about the Baobob tree. This tree is the only tree that thrives, rather than suffers, when the bark is stripped away and put to good use. Its roots go down as deep as its branches reach out. It symbolizes education, and how everyone benefits when knowledge is shared, rather than “protected,” or hidden away. I remember thinking to myself, “Well of course. This is the way we do things in our Orff communities. The tree of my own education has such a strong foundation because of my training, but I have received so many branches and roots from those who give their knowledge and materials freely, because we ALL want what’s best for EVERYONE’S students.”
Then came the performance. The very first performance we saw was presented by the children of Nunya Academy. These children, from elementary to high school age, performed astounding dances to pieces of music with rhythms so complex that I, with my many years of training and two degrees in music, was not able to process them all. How did they do it? Over the course of the following two weeks, I came to see that their experiences went much deeper than those we are able to provide for our students here in the United States. The education begins during infancy, tied onto a mother’s back (or possibly an aunt, or a sister, as caring for children and one another is a family affair), as she dances and sings with the extremely complex rhythms and patterns.
Music and dance permeate nearly every part of life. Although Church services were, for a long time, strictly European in content, the hard work of a handful of incredibly brave activists has brought Ghanaian tradition into worship. Even in church, young children are experiencing traditional styles. The games they play with their friends outside are fast paced and filled with song, body percussion,
dance, and improvisation. As all children do, they mimic the behavior of adults. The difference between these children and the children I teach is that many of the adults they are mimicking sing, dance, and drum on a regular basis. I often found myself attempting to video Kofi playing a particularly difficult section of music, only to find myself recording, instead, the four-year-old next to him, playing away on the drum, often putting the rest of us to shame!
With such strong foundations, the children who choose to become musicians in these traditional forms have all of the tools they require. With the guidance of instructors, they are able to piece together what they already know into something artful, intricate, and incredibly powerful. Many times during our sessions, instruction was changed to suit the needs of the participants of my class. We never used notation, but our teachers tried any process to meet us at our level until we could understand. We were told, “this is the African way.” In fact, I received what I consider one of the most beautifully processed Orff lessons I have ever seen by an African dance and drum instructor, Dr. Sylvanus Kwasi Kuwor, who apparently has no training in the Schulwerk whatsoever!
Obviously, having had none of the foundational experiences that a Ghanaian child would have, my classmates and I struggled to digest and perform the material. Some of us wondered aloud if we should be embarrassed to be “butchering” the pieces and dances during our learning process. From our teachers, our Ghanaian friends, and even the hotel staff, came a resounding “No!” They were all impressed that we were giving it our best effort, and happy that we wanted to learn about their culture. This was surprising to many of us.
In North America, we struggle to find the balance between cultural appreciation and appropriation. As a White American having attended University in Mississippi, I am all too familiar with the idea that someone else’s culture is not for me to explore. I wondered how our cultural studies were perceived by Ghanaians, and in particular, the Ewe People (pronounced ayway or ayvay), the ethnic group with whom we had the most interaction. In this, I was awakened to the most astounding generosity of spirit.
We did not simply visit tourist attractions in the capital city. In Dzodze, a small Ewe town, we visited Kofi’s family home, met the Chief of his clan, and had dinner in the home of his Uncle, a former politician. We attended festivals, went to the local market and attended both Catholic and traditional Ewe religious services. We went to people’s homes to see how they processed local crops, made palm oil, and wove kente cloth, and learned about trades which were passed down through generations. In each and every place we went, we were welcomed with smiles and handshakes, and made to feel like family ourselves. We were allowed to take pictures, record videos, ask questions, and often participate in dances and song. We were never treated like intruders, but rather welcomed guests; ambassadors meant to carry back a message. “This is the beauty of our people. Here is how we live, what we value, and how we care for one another. When you are here, you are one of us, and we care for you too.”
Those who know me know that I am a great animal lover. While I was in Ghana, I was constantly asking, “What is the name of this lizard? This snake? This insect?” I was becoming frustrated to find that the Ewe language does not distinguish one species from another, and so it was difficult to learn about the local species. They often joked with me saying, “Beth, Lizard is lizard! Snake is snake! Monkey is monkey!” But what I discovered was that, although these animals were all given only one name, people were given a plethora of names. Ewes have a Christian name, an Ewe name, a name for the day of the week on which they were born, and in some cases, a nickname or ancestor name. Your Uncle is also called your father, and your nephew your son. These words are interchangeable. There is no need for words like second or third cousin, because the bonds between people are too close for such distinctions. Cousins are considered more like siblings. In Ghana, everyone on Earth is your brother or sister. This is the value of the human being over all else.
When someone in the family is in need, the family shares freely, just as most of us, as educators in the Elemental Music community share freely. Unlike much of the business world, which is predominated by a sense of “if you have something, that means I don’t have it,” we tend to be led by a mentality of “what is good for your students is good for my students” and vice versa. I believe that our quest for discovering and sharing knowledge is a way of life, and my time in Ghana showed me that a freely giving spirit is not limited to our educational community. The people there gave me faith that we can cultivate our capacity for human kindness and generosity in all aspects of our lives.
Beth Brewer holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education from Mississippi State University and a Master’s Degree from George Mason University with a Concentration in Orff Schulwerk. She received her Certification in Orff Schulwerk at Mason in 2015 and attended the Masterclass with Steve Calantropio the following year. She is currently beginning her second year at Bristow Run Elementary School in Prince William County, Virginia after teaching five years in the Boyd Schools of Montessori in Fairfax, Virginia.
This beautiful Beth. You are such amazing person. Hope to see back again.
This beautiful Beth. You are such amazing person. Hope to see you back again.
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