This is an article I posted on the old website back in 2005. I think it bears reposting now, particularly in regard to the importance of words, names and labels that clearly separate historic traditions from new endeavors.
Traditions, Rituals, Routines: Knowing the Difference (and when to let go)
Monica Dale (December, 2005)
This Thanksgiving, like so many before, I kept up my one tradition: creamed peas and onions. It’s not that anyone likes them very much; in fact, sometimes I’m the only one who takes a bite. But my father used to make it, and since I don’t eat turkey, it’s a little bowl of comfort and memories I make sure is present each year.
In our work, there are also traditions we’ve maintained for various reasons, along with routines and rituals. Some still serve a purpose, while others may not; some are practical, while others are a bow to history; some we inherited, while others we’ve created ourselves. How and why are we using traditions and rituals in teaching, practicing, creating, and performing?
Routines and Rituals of Preparation
One form of ritual involves a preparation for a class or lesson. It’s an experience that bridges people from the outside world to a distinctly special time. It relates to the idea of preparing to enter the artistic temenos, or sacred space, unique among places and experiences.
These can be very simple rituals. For dance classes, it involves donning clothing that’s not worn ordinarily, and entering a space with a special floor where a unique activity takes place, with its own rules and language. For piano lessons (at least in my studio), it involves washing and drying hands, giving the teacher the written assignment from the previous week, adjusting the bench, and perhaps performing some technical exercises before playing the literature – all at an instrument different from the one at home, especially in the sense that this piano comes with a teacher’s ears attached .
And for Eurhythmics classes (at least mine), special preparation involves taking off shoes and socks, gathering in a circle, and “warming up.” The warm-up is less a physical matter for young children, and more a psychological one. They sense, “Now we begin.” They wonder with anticipation, “What will happen next?” And they trust that a unique experience will unfold, quite unlike any other experiences.
Routines and Rituals for Performance and Creation
Many of us find similar rituals that aid in our individual preparation for focused work. Performers may have “good luck” items or routines, or may want to eat something specific before performing. Certain jewelry or such, worn for luck (“I wore these earrings when I won the lottery, so now I wear them every time I’m doing something important!”) may amount to mere superstition. On the other hand, they may also provide some placebo affect, or influence calm and confidence simply from the belief that they can.
Creative work may also come with preparatory rituals. Some find a certain place or time conducive to inspiration. (Think of all those writers who went off to remote locales to create some novel or play.) Even before sitting down to practice or compose, we may order our space in a certain way, or perform ritualistic actions; playing scales and exercises may perform a function beyond a technical, physical “warm-up.” As another example, some people who transition to a home office find it helps them to dress in business attire during work hours. They feel a need to separate “going to work” from being at home, and believe they act differently, speak differently on the phone, and maintain greater focus when they maintain elements from their experience working in an outside office.
All such rituals are ways of transcending the ordinary and entering into an separate, out-of-the-ordinary experience.
Traditions are a bow to the past. They may or may not function today as they did in the past. Creamed peas and onions used to be something people actually enjoyed at Thanksgiving; now, for me, they are more of a comfort than a culinary delight.
In ballet classes, students literally bow at the end of class. This tradition, called the “reverence,” brings the class to conclusion, like a final cadence. I’ve taught young children that the reverence is a bow to the tradition of ballet. Applause for the teacher at the end of a dance class is also a tradition of etiquette. And in one ballet studio where I taught, students lined up to take the teacher’s hand, curtsey, and say, “Thank you, Miss Monica.” (That came as quite a surprise to me the first day.) All of these traditions come from a long history.
Music has an even longer history than dance, and so we have traditions that may be taken for granted. Sometimes we don’t even think of them until a student asks a question like, “Why are all these words in Italian?” Solfege syllables were derived from the Hymn to Saint John, not from a deliberate design for sightsinging; and the American national anthem is based on a drinking song, not a melody created for patriotic singing by the masses. Tasked with creating such things anew today (or even a century ago), people would come up with something entirely different. The reason these are in use today is essentially about tradition.
Examples of tradition occur in music education methods, as well. Why this approach, these instruments, these songs? Because it’s what we do in the xyz tradition. Reasons are given for various elements within each method (fixed do vs. moveable do; using “si” or “ti;” adherence to any number of peculiarities specific to any one method). The specifics grew from the broader philosophy, shaped by cultural influences, and are collected together in a box clearly labeled by name. Should you disagree with any of it, or see other options that fit with the philosophy, it’s still only fair to respect the solidity of the box that holds all the aspects of the method. It shouldn’t be represented any other way, if only for the sake of clarity and history. There’s room to create new materials, but picking and choosing among elements, swapping or changing definitive tenets, alters the contents of the box and muddies a method’s posterity. It may be that the box contains some elements that educate 21st -century American children in wonderful ways; and yet it may also contain a large dose of tradition born of another place and time that no longer functions readily or effectively in our world. Nonetheless, it is what it is. As long as we’re using a particular label (whether Suzuki, Orff, Kodaly, or Jaques-Dalcroze) and representing our work as a strict representation of such, it seems only right to maintain all the traditions within the respective box as much as possible.
Knowing the Difference
There’s a story of a woman who always cut the ends off of a pot roast before placing it in the pan to bake. That’s what her mother always did. Years later, her mother came to visit and saw the woman making pot roast. “Why are you cutting the ends off of it?” the mother asked.
“Well, you always did! So I do it the same way.”
“I always did because we had a pan that was too small to fit the whole pot roast, so I had to cut the ends off,” explained the mother.
Traditions, rituals and routines may or may not serve us today. It’s helpful to consider why we do what we do, whether there’s a purpose to what we do, and whether it makes more sense to let go of something that worked in the past if it is no longer effective.
Drawing another example from ballet, the traditional order of a the barre includes grand plies very early on in the class. Physiologically, we now know this is not the best practice for the body; there are many better ways of starting off. And yet, the tradition continues.
Methodologies for teaching piano, general music, and other disciplines carry their own traditions which may or may not fit our time and culture. We might ask ourselves some questions about the products and processes today from methods created decades ago in Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, or Japan (or for that matter, the processes used in today’s universities and the materials produced by large commercial enterprises). In evaluating a product or result, it’s worth considering its price in terms of process; and in evaluating a process, its worth considering its value in terms of the product or result. An impressive product may have resulted from a process that may have been tedious, mechanical, painful, even injurious in some ways; a sensitive, humanistic, enjoyable process may result in a low level of skill, theoretical understanding, or accomplishment. As we look at traditions today, it’s important to look at both sides of that equation.
The key is knowing the difference between benign bows to tradition and history, and elements that preserve tradition while standing in the way of progress. In figuring out that distinction, we become clear on what we are doing and why; and that in turn allows us to make conscious, reasoned choices.
I could keep making those peas and onions for my own comfort, without anybody really eating them. But my father’s purpose in making them was for people to eat and enjoy them, as they did back then; he’d have hated the idea of a wasteful bow to tradition for its own sake. So next year, maybe I’ll add some garlic and sun-dried tomatoes, perhaps some fresh basil and a dash of parmesan. Preserving a tradition without preserving its purpose is fruitless.
The same goes for Jaques-Dalcroze traditions, in my view. If we preserve every aspect of his method as he taught it, yet lose his essential purpose, are we really doing what he’d have wanted, or becoming the very thing he despised – stagnant traditions unsuited to contemporary place and time?
As I’ve written before, I believe there are aspects of the Jaques-Dalcroze method that are no longer optimal for the realities of 21st-century America. I consider it worthwhile to think of establishing new rituals, routines, and traditions — as well as materials, approaches, and resources — that serve our students more effectively today. However, such endeavors must be labeled honestly, and not represented as strict models of the traditional Jaques-Dalcroze method. Hence MusiKinesis’ movement toward a separate label, with due credit to Jaques-Dalcroze’s work as its basis.
The box that hold the Jaques-Dalcroze method, in a cryogenic way, is well-protected. It is sealed and labeled with permanent ink: “The Methode Jaques-Dalcroze.” But the philosophy lives beyond those confines, inspires us beyond his lifetime, and encourages those who hear the broader message of all his writings, and indeed his life’s work, as this: “Think outside the box, move outside the box, teach outside the box.”
(Just keep the labels clear.)