Goofball Island: The pedagogical power of silliness

You may have seen the film Inside Out this summer.  If not, I encourage you to see it.  In it, we get to see the inner workings of eleven year old Riley’s emotions.  Aspects of her personality are represented by islands in her brain.  There is family island, friend island, hockey island, honesty island, and my favorite - goofball island.  I remember considering what my own islands would be.  Friends and family would certainly be there along with music, and most definitely a goofball island.

There wasn’t much communication between music island and goofball island for a while.  This was especially true when I was earning my degrees.  I wanted to be taken seriously, to be acknowledged as a “real” singer - whatever that means - and I was terrified I wouldn’t measure up.  In retrospect, I can see that many of my favorite and most effective teachers displayed their own playfulness and so gave me permission to do the same.  

Let’s face it, singing in front of another person - especially if that person is a supposed expert - is a terrifyingly vulnerable thing to do.  Put on the added pressure of adolescence, perfectionism, or too many episodes of American Idol with Simon Cowell and the simple act of singing becomes truly daunting!

As a teacher, the first thing I have to do is create an atmosphere in which learning can take place.  That means connecting with the student(s) in a compassionate way and creating a sense of safety.  A little visit to goofball island usually does the trick!  Animal noises, ghosty noises, exaggerated emotions, going too far on purpose - all of these things keep teacher and student in a state of play.  Play is fun.  Play is not scary.

Can a person learn while “keeping one’s nose to the grindstone” with the “learning is hard work” philosophy?  Probably.  By why on earth would anyone prefer that?  If practice or rehearsing is becoming drudgery, do something to mix it up and make it fun again.  Some teachers and conductors are great at this - but it is not all their responsibility.  Students would do well to ask themselves, “How can I make this process more fun and enjoyable for myself and the people around me?”  I should also add that this needs to serve the quality of the music making.  Silliness that distracts from the task at hand is never appropriate.  Should the process be giggles all the time?  No.  The learning process often requires a great deal of patience and attention.  But a little goofball is the perfect antidote to taking yourself too seriously!  

In the comments, tell me:  Do you have a goofball island as part of your personality?  If not, why not?  How do you foster a sense of play in your music making?