A Summer Dance

The birds put on a dance this morning.

Looking out my kitchen window, I noticed a flock of several hundred small white birds floating on the nearby lagoon.  I was enjoying a lazy summer morning in a small beach town and was working on my second cup of tea.  When I went outside to get a closer view I saw that it was low tide, with long stretches of sand bars exposed.  The birds were clustered together on the open water in three tight groups, each shaped into an elongated oval.

Suddenly they were all in the air, flying as one being (with only one or two struggling to keep up).  They moved in large arcs high in the air, to the left and then to the right.  As they shifted direction, their color changed from bright white to dark as their wings caught sun or shadow.  Then they flew straight toward me, directly overhead, and the clear blue sky was filled with white wings.  They curved left and away, and drifted off to a distant point above the lagoon.  I watched as they gently descended and fluttered onto the water, a mad frenzy of wings and water.  With a slow diminuendo, they settled onto the glassy smooth surface of the lagoon and the dance was done.

The individual was part of the whole.  There was a balance of repetition and surprise.  There were moments of both lilting grace and power, and there was a deeply satisfying conclusion.  Perhaps all the work that we do – the dances, the words, the music or the visual art, is simply a struggle to connect with that effortless beauty.

~ Liz


A recent New York Times article discussed the newest trend in advertising to children.  The writer, Pico Iyer, attended a speech entitled “Marketing to the Child of Tomorrow,” and was surprised to learn that the main concern of the advertising executive was stillness.


Yes, it’s come to this.  In this time of information overload, advertisers are actually looking for ways to sell children gadgets that shield them from their world.

As music teachers, we probably are not one of the average Americans who spends eight and a half hours in front of a screen, but perhaps some of us have teenagers who send or receive an average of 75 text messages a day. Many of us follow the 24-hour news cycle, and regularly text and update our Facebook pages.  We all have seen school parents who are texting during volunteer time or school performances.  As Pico Iyer puts it so clearly, “the distinctions that used to guide and steady us — between Sunday and Monday, public and private, here and there — are gone.”

The article quotes Nicholas Carr, from his book The Shallows, about the effects on the brain of slowing down. After people have spent time in quiet rural settings, they  “exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper.” And even more interesting, according to neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio, empathy depends on neural processes that are “inherently slow.”

Empathy cannot be developed unless we slow down.

So here’s an idea:  more music in schools.  More time singing together, and listening carefully to see if the group is singing in tune.  More instrument conversations between two children, where they must pay close attention to what the other instrument says before they answer.  More time playing the steady beat, and listening to see if the group can sound like one instrument.

Stillness, slowing down, empathy.  The answer to an overwhelming world is not an iPad for every child so they can play video games to learn math facts.  The answer is not more entertainment or more distraction.  The answer is to make the music class a place to slow down, to become aware of the breath and the body, to listen for quiet sounds, to join in with voices and rhythms so that the lines between self and other blur, and for a moment, there is a place of connection and rest.

~ Liz

Click HERE for a link to the New York Times article, “The Joy of Quiet” by Pico Iyer.

Calming the Wild Beast

The children come in the door of the music room. One child is angry at a classmate for cutting in line. Another was hurt at P.E. and has a scraped knee and a leaky bag of ice. Two girls can’t sit next to each other without constantly talking. Three children are simply exhausted from the rigors of the day, or perhaps not enough sleep the night before. It’s a normal day in the music room.

How about this… try this simple focusing message and see if all those discordant energies can be brought into alignment.

“When we’re outside, our bodies are large and moving and full of energy. Let’s bring our bodies into this room, and make them smaller and quiet. Our voices outside are loud and yelling, let’s bring them into this room, and make them smaller and quiet. Our minds outside are as big as the playground. They’ve been thinking about friends and lunch and homework. Let’s bring them into this room, and make them smaller and focused.”

These simple words might possibly transform a class of wriggly, disconnected children into a quiet and calm group of children who are all sitting on the floor, looking at you. Class can now begin.  ~ Liz

A Moment of Beauty

wheatIt is the privilege of teachers, and especially of teachers who deal with the arts, to have experiences of beauty in the classroom. Probably many of us have experienced these moments of grace… of flow… of spirit.

At the end of the year in my elementary music classes, I invite those students who take music lessons to play informally for the class. The point for me is to bring the students’ out-of-classroom music-making into the classroom. Oftentimes the offerings are modest, beginning pieces, but I honor them all. The theme from the James Bond movie is a perennial favorite, and I usually hear Für Elise at least a dozen times. The students play their simple pieces, and the class gets to practice being an attentive audience.

violin200I offer this opportunity every year, but I don’t remember a moment of beauty entering my classroom through this activity until this past June. “Alex” brought in his violin. He also brought in his composer/violinist father. The two of them together played a “Bourrée” by Handel. There was a note here and there that was out of tune, and “Alex” rushed one section, but there were moments that just grabbed my heart. I closed my eyes, and there, in that simple music classroom of 3rd graders, there was a moment of transcendent beauty.

How does this happen? Why does this happen? Why do these moments fill us with such joy? These moments can occur in the most surprising places. In fact, the surprise is part of the deep pleasure of the experience. This is not something that you can create with your will. It is something that just happens. From last spring I have a mental snapshot of 9-year-old “Roberto” dancing across the classroom with such grace and abandon that my heart was seized. Something happened – something that was connected with joy and spirit, something connected with guilelessness and pure intent.

marinhillsOf course these moments are not limited to the classroom. Several months ago, as I was walking in the hills north of my home, I watched the wind move the grass so that it rippled like ocean waves. It brought me nearly to tears. These moments of beauty can happen listening to music, or looking at art, or in the midst of the mundane events of life. But there is something about a music classroom, where attentive listening and creativity are nurtured, that creates a fertile ground for these connections.

I get annoyed when I meet someone new and they say naively, “Oh – you are a music teacher, how fun! You get to sing and dance all day.” Arggg! If anyone has spent any time in a music classroom, they would know that it is not all sweetness and light. A classroom full of 20 – 30 active children, each with their individual issues of not enough sleep, too much sugar, different learning styles, different levels of music and movement experiences, feelings of rejection or anger, lack of impulse control, (not to mention the ability to sing on pitch or not, and the ability to control their bodies in space) – all of these factors make the day of a music teacher lively, to say the least! But… there is also, in the midst of schedules and canceled classes and lice checks and report card assessments – in the midst of all the hubbub of the day – there is the possibility for one of those elusive moments – a moment of beauty.

~ Liz