Forget the Rules, At Least for a While

The room was filled with 120 kids, some already restless and cavorting in their seats, others hunched over as they battled first-day jitters, and still others in a snit about getting sent to music camp instead of soccer camp.

The director didn’t say, “Hello, my name is Mr. Stutzman.” He didn’t say, we are here to learn music. He didn’t tell them the rules or the consequences for breaking these rules.

“This,” he said, “is my voice.”

Wiggling stopped, and heads went up.

“I am the boss of my voice,” Mr. Stutzman said. “I can make it do what I want.”

The smiling started.

“I can growl,” he said, dropping his voice to gravel at its bottom.”

Campers began leaning forward, more and more of them as he sent his voice, bright and light, to the top of his falsetto and then slid it back down to its bottom. He kept showing ways he could boss his voice: staccato and flowing, whispery and resonant, vibrato and straight-toned.

“Do what I do,” he said.

So their voices began echoing his tongue trills and pitch glides and vocal sirens and lip buzzes.

I could see self-consciousness fade. Boys forgot that their voices were sure to crack, first-year campers lost the fear they couldn’t perform, and kids who liked to keep moving relaxed because they had something to do, something fast and changing and unpredictable.

“As you can see,” Mr. Stutzman said, “I’m here to help you boss your voice.”

And he had them.

The first minutes of every class at every level should be like this—opening what’s closed and bringing greater wonder to what’s already open.

This is why I quit starting class with the rules and introductions and SMART goals and reminders of high-stakes test and the syllabus. I turned instead to story and mystery and demonstration and paintings and music. After I had their hearts, I found, they were willing to bend their minds toward learning.

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