The Children Will Lead: Ruslan on the Sousaphone

24 Dec

by Peter & Charlie

When you see this short clip, you may say to yourself “Cute kid, but what’s the big deal?”

Well, the big deal isn’t the clip per se, but the story of how an 8 year old gained the easy confidence to pick up a gigantic horn and march around the back yard playing a song. This is symbolic of a very, very, big deal which is that every child has it in him or her to do the same.

It is widely recognized that music education — think performing, playing, and experimenting more than “Music Appreciation” — gives many skills to students, but it also improves thinking ability, which transfers over to all the other core studies such as math and science. Students with experience in music have higher SAT scores and lower instances of substance abuse. To put it another way, “The musician is constantly adjusting decisions on tempo, tone, style, rhythm, phrasing, and feeling — training the brain to become incredibly good at organizing and conducting numerous activities at once. Dedicated practice of this orchestration can have a great payoff for lifelong attentional skills, intelligence, and an ability for self-knowledge and expression.” Ratey, John J., MD. A User’s Guide to the Brain. OK, enough – I could write volumes about this, and nobody is disputing the truth of it anyways. The puzzling thing is how music, and the arts in general, are underfunded and undervalued in our schools. We know music education will help students do better on math tests, but we cut the music program so there will be more time to study for the math tests, and everybody in education understands that this ultimately results in lower math scores. Kind of like eliminating soap, so everybody will have more time to wash their hands.

OK, back to the video. Ruslan isn’t worried about wrong notes, proper technique, marching “in time,” or his reputation as a performer. In other words, nothing has discouraged him from playing. Encouragement, enjoyment and participation are what he knows. Here’s how Charlie Keil, a key figure in this encouragment, describes it:

Put “Ruslan Sousaphone” in the google slot and click on the vid of the kid with the ‘phone beyond trombone in his big green backyard. Ruslan announces “This is how you play the — prompt from his older brother, ‘sousaphone’ — Sousaphone!”

He doesn’t know the name of the instrument for sure; he’s never played one before, unless he puffed on it a few times just before somebody said “let’s do a video of this,” but he is very confident that he can show you how it is played. Then he says “Let’s do ‘Peace is the Way’!” and off he goes with a horn generously barter’d to me from ethnomusicologist Steve Feld, once evaluated by trombone legend Ray Anderson, currently on loan to Ruslan’s father. May the gift circulate!

Never mind that the instrument is bigger than he is. Never mind that it weighs about as much as he weighs, (this is brass not light weight white plastic). Never mind that he hasn’t got the lung capacity for it. Or a big enough mouth to fill the mouthpiece. Or that it will be hard to push the big valves down quickly. Never mind that he is going to parade and dance with it and try to pump air through it and try to hit the exact pitchs of it all at the same time. For the first time ever.

I think one key to this apparently quick and easy accomplishment of an impossible task is in the apostrophe s of “Let’s do Peace is the Way”. Ruslan (‘Roos’ to some friends) says it is “us” doing it, a “we” that is not the royal “We” but a very powerful family/community “we” which bolsters his confidence that if, by any odd chance, he can’t do it, WE can.

The “us” that Ruslan has in mind, or in his subconscious, may include dozens or hundreds of people. It includes a mother who was there in the kindergartens when I was trying to teach dumbek drumming to 5 year olds, a mother who is a fine dancer, now playing all the percussion parts as needed. It includes a father who is learning to play the different horns that keep a brass band going and is full of good taste and good time at the drumset. These are parents in love with the idea of their two boys learning to drum, dance, sing, play instruments, perform as much as they want to, pick up skills as quickly as they can or care to; parents who don’t push but just nudge consistently in good directions. I know it includes Jonny G. who is practicing the born-to-groove principles, (e.g. Untune Nobody!) in all his affairs and who gave up a pocket trumpet when Ruslan asked for it. Ruslan: “Can I have that?” Jonny: “Yes.” And not “maybe when you grow up” or “once you know how to play it.” No stick, no carrot, just “yes.” I know it includes everyone who has taught Ruslan some drumming patterns over the past few years. It includes the piano teacher who comes to the house to give his older brother lessons; same wonderful person he meets as a music teacher at his primary school. Of course this paragraph could stretch into a book, the biography of an 8 year old who received a lot of conscious and unconscious encouragement, and very little discouragement, if any.

Another special source of Ruslan’s courage and confidence, perhaps, is that he has been learning “in public” a lot and nobody tells him that he is making “mistakes,” or that he needs to stop and start over. For example, I remember a time, about a year ago, when our brass band was playing at a community center and Ruslan was out in front in a big red hat that came down over his eyes, trying to get the hula hoop going around his swiveling hips. When he first succeeded in getting a couple of turns of the hoop around his middle, a cheer went up from the small crowd of maybe a dozen people. Sounded like Yankee stadium to him, I’ll bet. And so he was immediately trying for 3 turns of the hoop. More response. And so it went. Many a cliche comes to mind, but I like “nothing succeeds like success.”

And nothing succeeds like Whole Body Involvement. I’m giving it capital letters because it’s a lesson I have had to learn over and over again throughout my life, and, I’m realizing just now, in December of my 72nd year, that I still don’t stress it as a basic principle whenever I’m teaching or coaching musicians of any and all ages. I usually have to look at someone and notice that they are too focussed on the “task at hand,” e.g. getting the tamborine shaking on the 8th notes and accented on the 2 and 4. “You need to walk or strut with it.” Or, “at least tap your foot” I say. Especially for children, the “fine motor skills” need to be attached to “gross motor skills.” Oops, I’m still looking at it backwards. As I do when I’m trying to teach 40 or 50 year old professional horn players in New York City how to shake a shaker for samba in the streets. Many of them have a hard time doing that, because they stopped doing “gross motor” movements decades ago and all their “chops” are in finger tips and lips tips. They are expert at configuring lips in coordination with fingering valves, and not experts at moving their whole arms with a shaker in each hand. Whereas some 4 and 5 year olds have to stand up AND move their feet in time to the music AND use their whole arms in order to shake a shaker at all. (Gradually their big movements get smaller and subtle, going forwards.) They are usually much quicker and better than the 40 or 50 year old professionals at shaking shakers.

So Ruslan showing us how to play a . . . . . “sousaphone” . . . . . immediately sets off “walking in time” and circling the backyard. You don’t need to know the name of the instrument. You do need to know, at some level, that this tuba was designed to be walked inside of. And this knowledge is not unrelated to this writer knowing that this last sentence is one that can end on “of.” The rhythms of poetry and prose are a big component of carrying meaning, of “good writing,” of letting the non-verbal elements of communication (93% of human communication) suffuse and energize the verbal elements (7%). A sousaphone is meant to be carried on the shoulder, freeing the arms and fingers to “play” the horn; another way to “carry” a tune, and “carry the message.” On the receiving end of this particular video via youtube, I’m getting a bunch of inspiring messages all at once. Ruslan could be a “good writer”, a good teacher, a good musician, a good dancer, a good example of living life to the fullest as he grows up — he has a lot of choices about “voices” that he can make any time he wants to express himself.

When Ruslan can’t play the two riff/melodies of “Peace is the Way” exactly as he wants to, he stops and sings one of the riffs, tries the alternate riff on the horn, then sings the first riff again. “End” of video. When you hear a BaMbuti person of the rainforest singing alone, they may skip back and forth between registers, yodel, call and respond, alternate tooting & singing, do whatever they have to in order to sound like more of a tribe, to get that “we” feeling going.

“Let’s do Peace is the Way!”

Let’s save the world.


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