Empowerment and Improvisation

This year my students have given me the assignment of making EMPOWERMENT the theme of their Arts Night performance. This has brought me to face the question of how I feel empowered in my own life. For in order to impart a quality to our students we must tap into our own possession of that same quality. In what ways do I feel empowered? How has music making influenced this quality in myself?


Certainly the act of standing on a stage with a microphone has been empowering. I came to music making with little else than passion. But I also had an education. Literacy. Telling my own story through song writing has been empowering. But it has also been alienating, debilitating at times. I had to expand my skills to learn how to read and write music, to learn how to take the sounds in my head and share them with other musicians. And ultimately, asking people to listen to those stories and hope that would enjoy them was an intimidating experience. One I still struggle with today.


One thing I have learned from my Montessori colleagues is that if students ask a question for which you don’t have the answers it is your role to join them on their journey of inquiry and become fellow travelers in the pursuit of knowledge. Get down next to them and research.


In Orff practice we begin and end with improvisation. Children in First Year are asked to create soundscapes. They work with a known experience and create music to reflect it. The point of departure may come from the environment such as the park, or a forest or perhaps the story found within a field trip. This year the first grade has identified storm systems as “powerful” and we instinctually understand how to create rainstorms with our most basic percussion instruments. First we used our bodies to create wind and rain and thunder. This easily translates to rhythm sticks and hand drums. I am routinely struck by observing that their enjoyment of being quiet matches their enjoyment of being loud. They learn that loud requires quiet in order to make an impact. Sweet needs sour.


On the other end of the spectrum the older grades can work with poems to create melodies. As we improvise our music to match the words the motivation to make decisions and write them down leads us naturally to practice our music theory. We continue the exploration by arranging the songs through experimentation and collaboration. When the piece is solidified and ready for performance I do believe the students feel empowered by the process of creating, and memorizing their piece towards articulate presentations. I find they often leave elementary school feeling confident in their ability to play, read and write music. I regularly hear from returning graduates that they felt comfortable when asked to learn new pieces on new instruments in their middle schools. They have also shared how they feel confident in their ability to be patient as their new ensembles review basics, making sure the whole class is up to speed. They understand by this point that it is necessary to review and collaborate towards more complex music making.

When these experiences are related to me I in turn feel empowered by the facilitation process. I become a more practiced musician with each class I teach. I feel bolstered by the use of my voice and the sharing of my experience so that the students may find their own self-expression. To be in the privileged position of helping others and receiving their gratitude is empowering indeed. I take this increased confidence back to my own work with “professional” musicians in the bands I work with. I still need a lot of help in order to pull together a performance of my own. I need accompanists and collaborators with expansive knowledge and experience to really flesh out my songs. And so the cycle of empowerment works in this way: asking for help, being willing to role model inquiry, collaborating towards satisfaction, offering our own gifts where they may be of use, and asking for help again.

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