What kind of relationship do you have with the Ancestors?

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

In the River of Sound: Nature, Music and Children - Julia Priest

"This drive to connect with nature, especially animals, appears to be universal in families around the world, from city to suburb to desert to seashore."

Our modern world, with all its bells and whistles, with all its mercenary calls to "connection" and its distractionary (I made up that word) disconnections, often lays like a confusing template over our Ancestral integration with the world wide web of life.  Forever....animals have lived and flourished in our mythologies, our cosmologies, our stories and our songs.  They have guided, informed, instructed, fed and sustained us on many levels.  Julia Priest brings us a watery reflection of the deep wisdom of our young ones as they enter the physical world seemingly so aware of our relationship with the animal world, with a world inspired by sound, movement and meaning.  Our children are a lesson in wisdom for us and we can benefit from their learning as we support and guide them. - Ukumbwa Sauti


"Leaping and dancing, the fish are in the river;
Leaping and dancing, to see a baby born.
Leaping and dancing, the fish are in the water;
Leaping and dancing, now that spring is here
Brincan y bailan los peces en el rio;
Brincan y bailan de ver nacido un nino.
Brincan y bailan los peces en el agua;
Brincan y bailan de ver la primavera."

I’ve been teaching this song to parents and preschoolers for fifteen years, yet I don’t always feel confident that I’ve helped them to love the song as much as I do.

I teach early childhood music in a Boston suburb. This means classrooms full of babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, with their parents or teachers. Many of our students are so young that they haven’t even visited a petting zoo yet in their lives. Strikingly, they all adore pictures of pigs and chickens, songs about roosters and ducklings. Children seem to be born with a passion for nature, especially animals. Parents almost universally feel driven to quiz their toddlers: “What does the cow say? The cow says moo. . . What does the sheep say?” Even Ylvis asked, “What does the fox say!”

This drive to connect with nature, especially animals, appears to be universal in families around the world, from city to suburb to desert to seashore. Even in a world where we are increasingly out of touch with the people and places that provide us with our food—whether omnivorous, vegetarian, or vegan--parents sing and read about animals to their children!

The powerful fascination with animals is seemingly as universal as the drive to learn language or the drive to adorn ourselves.  Could it be coded into our genes? It almost seems like an attenuating echo of the necessity for non-industrial traditional peoples to pass large, complex bodies of herbal, culinary, medicinal, and animal-husbandry knowledge down through the generations.

As a music teacher, I savor the special affinity which children feel for animals. By imitating the extreme high sounds of a meow or the low sounds of a moo, the lip trill of a horse nickering, the uninhibited hooting laughter of monkeys and apes, we warm up and challenge all the extremes of our larynx, our voicebox. I delight in children’s early forays into imaginary play when they take the role of an animal and imitate how it both sounds and moves. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a roomful of four-year-olds swim on the floor like polliwogs and then hop across the room like frogs. Messiaen imitated bird song; Saint-SaĆ«ns’ Carnival of the Animals includes an Aquarium. . . there is a natural tie between music and animals too.

Despite all this, I felt slightly blocked for many years about how to make the Spanish-language text of Brincan y Bailan immediate and real for Anglophone parents and children. The song was at an even further remove from its original context because, due to some arcane music-theoretical aspects of our curriculum’s internal logic, I need to introduce Brincan at springtime even though the original is a Christmas carol! The concept of “rebirth” was, I feared, a bit too abstract for little ones who have seen winter give way to spring once or maybe twice, and maybe haven’t even experienced the arrival yet of a baby sibling of their very own!

I guess that what I needed was a concrete experience in my own life to bring it all together for me. This April, entirely for fun and without a thought that it might relate to my song curriculum, I hopped in a friend’s car, off to the Nemasket River in Middleborough, Massachusetts. There, alewife herring have been swimming upstream to spawn every spring for millennia. Indigenous people built weirs to nurture as well as harvest fish here. Many townships in the area built dams in recent centuries which have inadvertently doomed alewife to near extinction, but the Middleborough community wisely built fish ladders and therefore is still rich in herring. And so I saw with my own eyes, for the very first time, how fish fight the current and jump up over barriers to reach their first home, to make babies. Although the exertion is great, the drive will not be denied.

In comparison with human mating, fish insemination might seem rather remote and not at all sexy. Fish parenting may not seem very cuddly from our human, mammalian perspective. Yet to a fish, the urge is ineluctable. I can’t help projecting human-centered feelings onto these creatures, imagining that when they finally they leap into their childhood beds, paired in matrimony, they sigh with watery, bubbly contentment.

Bringing this story, this information, and these images back to my classes made the song an easy sell. The children could easily imagine the joy with which fish head homeward. Now my students might, I think, start to love the song as much as I do. This outing into nature brought renewal to me as a teacher. Perhaps it will also inspire somebody to get out into nature and enjoy a body of water. Maybe that somebody will be you!

Thank you, Julia, for the great modeling!

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