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Music & Origami

How paper folding complements music teaching.

David You/Pexels
Source: David You/Pexels

Some 15 years ago, a very dedicated and thoughtful young student came to learn the piano. His curiosity and sensitivity to the instrument and to making music made a lasting impression on me. During one of our piano lessons, the student offered to teach me how to make an origami crane. I was fascinated not only by the concentration, deliberate motion, and procedural memorization that he demonstrated in folding the crane out of a small square of paper, but also by how that origami interlude affected our music lesson. From that time on, we took time to make origami in each of our lessons.

My teacher, the late Paul Schocker of Easton, Pennsylvania, was a master teacher. He was aware of the power that stepping away from the lesson had on learning. Often, he would pause our lesson at the halfway point to listen to a music recording, to perform a piece for me, or to cut paper snowflakes as a gift to take home to my mother. There was something similar between Paul’s paper snowflakes and the origami interludes that my student had taught to me. I have continued to include origami, and sometimes watercolor painting, as a part of music lessons with both adults and children.

Eric Kenneway writes, “Just as the influence of Zen—that Japanese approach to self-awareness through meditation and the development of intuitive knowledge, which is characterized by a preference for simplicity over complexity—can be seen in other traditional Japanese activities, so it is apparent, to a degree in origami.” It seems to me that paper folding and music are complementary activities. Both involve spatial-temporal reasoning, as well as the faculties involved with concentration, memory, and both physical and emotional sensitivity. Beyond the meditative nature of origami, there is the contrast it provides within the music lesson. A sort of key change, an A-B-A format; from music lesson to paper folding to music lesson, provides the beneficial distance from which we can return to our task refreshed. It is found in our thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, or our exposition, development, and recapitulation. The analogies are plentiful.

Music is not only arithmetical but it is geometrical. Ratios, contrasts, and Gestalt seem to be the place where meaning comes from in music, and these geometrical qualities are shared between music and origami.

Whatever is happening when we include origami or watercolor painting to our music lessons, it is something that feels right intuitively. I once knew of a trumpet teacher in New York City who would have his students read a poem at the beginning of each lesson. There is something grounding about the experience, something that allows us to transcend the technical and to become artists.

I found a letter from 20 years ago that my teacher had written to me while I was in music school. When I recently opened the envelope, I discovered a small snowflake he had cut for me. It seems that the most important lessons we must learn about making and sharing music can be learned from a paper snowflake.