Thursday, May 11, 2006

Music for People, Part I

Ah--it's the last day of classes of the semester. I have only a couple of hours of teaching today, and a little more time to think and write.

Sunday night I returned from a Music for People weekend. Music for People was started about 21 years ago by Bonnie Insull and David Darling. Bonnie (if I understand correctly) was a classical flutist who had attended some workshops with David at the Omega Institute. She was so profoundly affected by David's teaching of a humanistic, personally-affirming, self-expressive approach to making music, especially improvising, that she organized Music for People . The organization has served ever since both to introduce people to this approach and to train others to lead workshops incorporating both the MfP spirit as well as the specific activities that have been developed over the years. Also of fundamental importance has been Jim Oshinsky, a clinical psychologist who has invested a tremendous amount of energy in documenting David's teaching and analyzing the interpersonal dynamics and responsibilities involved in leading workshops, especially workshops conducted in a humanistic approach. Bonnie moved on to other projects about ten years ago, coming back for occcasional visits. The organization she began continues to thrive, with Eric Miller serving as executive director, Mary Knysh as the other primary teacher along with David, and Julie Metcalf running the ongoing programs in which participants work on developing skills through various "homeplay" assignments, support from more experienced mentors, and three or four weekend workshops during the year.

David often uses the term "humanistic" to describe the environment he's worked to create in Music for People. There are many ways in which the MfP approach exemplifies the ideals of humanistic education.

There are, of course, any number of definitions of humanistic education. One common element among those I've read is the fundamental importance of a non-threatening environment in which to learn, with an emphasis on the teacher serving more as a facilitator of a process of self-discovery than as an authority figure who makes pronouncements and judges work.

When teaching, David constantly reminds participants to let go of "negativity." His workshops are structured to make participants feel comfortable, to encourage self-trust, to foster mutual acceptance and support. In his workshops, David is masterful at creating an atmosphere of empowerement, and at avoiding throwing people into what Arthur Hull (another masterful, humanistic facilitator, who is the father of the American facilitated drum circle movement) calls "student crisis mode."

All of which is vital to creating an atmosphere in which adults can engage in a process of creative recovery. The Music for People handbook, originally written by Bonnie Insull and since heavily revised and updated by Jim Oshinsky, is called Return to Child. I was just reading a 1932 article by Émile Jacques-Dalcroze (1865-1950), the founder of the Dalcroze movement, which puts very well the need to “return” to a child’s freedom in making music.

Now, experience has proved to me that that children love improvising on the piano, thus proving that they are able to do it. We are surprised to note that their melodic and rhythmic inventiveness is far more original than that of adolescents. Their entirely fresh mentality has not yet been chained by arbitrary rules. The child is capable of creating, simply because his brain is untrammeled. And this is also why the adult creator reveals the whole of his individuality only when he has succeeded in forgetting rules and his brain has once more become free. [italics original][1]

What all the leaders of Music for People do so well is to create an environment in which one’s brain can “once more become free.” The body is involved—there’s a tai chi-inspired movement to “release!” fear and negativity. “There are no ‘wrong’ notes,” is a constant mantra. What happens when something goes other than the way you wanted? Smile and laugh. When a leader demonstrates something for participants to imitate, there’s a frequent reminder that, “I’m doing what I‘m doing, you’re doing what you’re doing.”

Well, time to go make some music. I’ll write more about Music for People soon.

[1] E. Jacques-Dalcroze, “Rhythmics and Pianoforte Improvisation,” trans. F. Rothwell, Music and Letters, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Oct. 1932) 371-80, accessed March 29, 2006 through JSTOR,

Friday, May 05, 2006

Back soon.

It's the end-of-semester crush. The status report on my Faculty Fellowship project was due this past Wednesday, so I was in overdrive working on the draft of my book, writing a number of sections I have yet to post.

I'm off now to a Music for People weekend. Some time for creative insanity. Improvisation is the absolute best thing to do field research on! I get to go be with "my people," as my exwife calls them. (Well, she calls them, affectionately, "your people.") I also hope to catch Sunday afternoon's Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center concert on the way back for the last week of classes.

I'll be back, but it may be a week or two!

I must say that the process of writing this book-by-blogging has been stimulating and empowering. Thanks to everyone who's given feedback and suggestions so far.