Sunday, August 19, 2018

Thank Lowell Mason

“If you can read this, thank a music teacher” says the bumper sticker with some music notes on it.  But there should be another bumper sticker that reads:

“If you are a music teacher, you can thank Lowell Mason.”

Lowell Mason was born in 1792 and as a young adult, worked at a bank in Savannah, Georgia while collecting material for his first published book of sacred hymns. In 1827, he moved to Boston, led several church choirs and became president of the Handel and Haydn Society. He devoted himself to teaching singing, both sacred and secular works, continued to compile hymns and composed some of his own. He founded a singing school for children that he taught for free. His first class of 8 children performed in public to such acclaim that a few years later, the school had grown to some five hundred children. In 1837, he volunteered to teach singing classes in the newly-created first American public schools and one year later, the school board voted to include music in the public school curriculum and named Mason superintendent of music.

So if you are a music teacher in the public schools, you can thank Lowell Mason for your job. 180 years later, music still is theoretically part of all public school curriculums. The reality is quite different due to our country’s callous indifference in fully funding education and the unspoken agreement that music is a frill to be cut first in any budget crunch. In California, a thriving public school music curriculum was effectively cut dead by the property tax initiative Proposition 13 some 40 years ago and the road to recovery has been slow, to put it mildly. Perhaps all California earthquakes in the past decades are really Lowell Mason turning in his grave.

Meanwhile, I discovered in Richard Crawford’s book America’s Musical Life that not only was Mr. Mason an effective mover and shaker and visionary teacher/ musician, but that his pedagogical principles were pretty well-aligned with the Orff approach that has revolutionized American General Music programs in the past 50 years or so. The Orff practice of sound before symbol, of making music over learning about music, of experience before theory, of developing a clear sequence of emerging rhythmic, melodic, expressive skills, were all things he thought about some 60 years before Carl Orff was born. His pedagogical principles (in his own words) were:

1.     Teach children to sing before they learn the written notes.
2.     Make students active rather than passive learners, by having them imitate sounds and observe their properties
3.     Teach one subject at a time, such as rhythm, melody or expression and practice each separately
4.     Help students master each step through practice before moving on to the next
5.     Teach principles and theories after the practice.

Isn’t that interesting?

Thanks, Mr. Mason, for your hard work and clear vision. Despite all obstacles, there still is some effective music education happening in this country and we’re still working on carrying that ball further down the field.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Sounds of Silence


Seven full, exhilarating and occasionally exhausting days with the grandkids. And now they’re gone. Left after lunch and I was feeling genuinely sad to see them go. Went to the back lake to drown my sorrows in a long delicious swim and came back to the house and it was empty. And quiet. And clean. No legos strewn all over the floor, no screams of “Nooo! Zadie!!! Stop it!!!!”, no wondering where Malik moved my hat or camera or deck of cards.

Truth be told? It was kind of nice. I felt like the bear in the story I used to read the kids called “Peace at last.” It was a wild and joyful ride, filled with long hours at the beach, games, delightful conversations and more (see the Third Childhood post). But the pleasure of grandparenthood is the return to the empty nest and its welcome silence and the clean lines of an ordered room. I got to play some piano without one of you banging the keys alongside the Bach. Had a game of Solitaire without you stealing my cards. Now ready to eat dinner on the deck without any bribes for the Clean Plate Club to be made. No cameras poised for the next cute moment. And the possibility of an evening video. Storing some serenity until the next rambunctious romp with the little ones.

Zadie and Malik, I miss you already! But also glad for space and silence. That's how it goes.


Killing the Glow

My son-in-law is reading a book called Glow, an autobiography of musician Rick James. The title refers to the charisma of his larger-than-life personality and the way people are hungry to bask in its light. No surprise that all of this led to a life of excessive drug use, alcohol, womanizing and an early death with 9 drugs found in the autopsy—cocaine, Valium, meth and so on. In his eulogy, someone wrote:

“…the excitement of show business, the thrill of adulation, the intoxication of wealth, the battery of lethal addictions had driven him to dangerous places.”

To put it mildly. But here’s a question: Is it possible to radiate that glow without being burned up by one’s own light? What is it in our culture that turns all that toxic and contributes to the demise of the musicians? Let’s unpack that sentence below within the framework of music in Ghana, for example:

Excitement of show business: Why does a culture turn our musical promise and talent into a show? In Ghana, music is not reserved for the stage with a separation between performer and audience. It is more common for the circle of participation, with all contributing through song, dance, clapping, drumming, etc. Believe me, that does not diminish its excitement one bit. It brings up the glow on everyone participating and if anyone has an extra dose of glow, it is appreciated, but not idolized.

The thrill of adulation:  As above. No need to adore or idolize that which we all already possess. Such a disparity in relationship comes from people who neglect their musical gift and promise and depend on those who develop it. Instead of lighting their own candle, they steal from the glow of those who devote their lives to lighting their fire. Some level of admiration and respect is normal and healthy, as all of us will chose one quality to develop and those who value that will appreciate those further down the path. It’s a question of degree. When the distance between the superstar and the ticket-buyer is too great, the thrill increases for the star, but the danger of too much adoration increases as well. The jazz greats playing in clubs would come out to the bar between sets and chat with the customers. A whole different deal than Elvis being whisked away in a limousine to his penthouse suite.

The intoxication of wealth. I hope that this will find its way into the list of pathologies—excessive wealth is addictive and healthy for exactly nobody.

The battery of lethal addictions: Sustaining the pace and withstanding the pressure our star-based culture creates often calls for uppers and downers to keep it all going. The number of jazz and rock musicians and movie stars brought down by drugs is legendary. Don’t see this as a problem with the Ghanaian musicians I met, folks with every bit the same talent, skill and electric energy I find in American musicians. But minus a culture that turns it all to tragedy.

I often have felt that Michael Jackson dancing in the center of the Ghanaian drumming circle, Elvin Jones sitting in with the drummers, James Brown singing and dancing along, would all be appreciated and given the customary paper money put on the forehead (about 25 cents in U.S. currency), but none of them would have screaming fans idolizing and adoring them. None of them would need drugs to keep their energy up, none would be greedy for wealth, none would demand top billing on the stage. They could keep their musical glow shining brighter and brighter without all the trappings of fame and fortune. Not saying any of this as well as I would like to, but for now, food for thought.

Staff Photo

Monday is the first day of staff meetings and I won’t be there. They’ll take the staff photo and for the second year in a row, I won’t be in it. Nobody has suggested photo-shopping me in and that’s fine. But when I do arrive at school, I’m there 150% and still feel like I’m part of this grand adventure, as I have been the last 43 years.

The balance between work in school and the work I do outside of school continues to ebb and flow. Between the year 2000 and 2013, I shared the job with my colleagues James and Sofia so that we each had three months off during the year. That’s how we continued our international teacher training and written the books we have. In the last five years, we all have been present for the Fall Intern program and then gotten 6 weeks off each to continue the international teaching. And now this Fall, we’ll take a year off from the Intern Program, something I suggested so I’d have enough time to write again, with as many as 3 to 5 books feeling ready to be written and lacking only time to do them. So I will have this Fall to get as far as I can on these projects.

Usually at this time of year, I begin having the school nightmares and it’s interesting being with my daughter Talia (5th grade teacher at the school), who is continuing that tradition. But my wise subconscious knows that I won’t be officially teaching at school again until January and has left me alone. Likewise my wife who retired two years ago.

The question of a final retirement from The San Francisco School (hopefully, never from my work in general) continues to haunt me and I keep wondering why some voice doesn’t definitively tell me, “Now!” I suspect once I close those doors, other doors might open that have been waiting for me and my biggest fear is wondering whether I should have done it earlier. But truly, the work with the kids still feeds me, the participation in this community still feels mostly good and short of a world tour with my Pentatonics Jazz Band, can’t imagine much that I’d love to do that I’m not already doing.

But this much is clear. Monday is the Staff Photo and I won’t be in it.  

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Third Childhood


Truth be told, my first childhood was quite happy. It wasn’t all roses and rainbows—I didn’t love school , I didn’t have Orff music classes, I ate too much candy and Swanson’s frozen TV dinners and the only foreign place I visited was Toronto, Canada. But I grew up in a time when parenting was not yet a verb and my friends and I had free reign of the 200-acre park a block from my house. We chose our own teams for neighborhood baseball or football, played tag and hide-and-seek, skipped stones, caught falling leaves, trapped fireflies in jars, sledded down wintry hills. My mother left peanut butter sandwiches for me in the milk box (yes, that outdoor box where milk in glass bottles was delivered) and fed me three meals daily, my father had Beethoven records I loved to listen to and an organ where I learned to play Bach. On rainy days, we had board games and card games and of course, television where I learned about people like Eddie Haskell and Dobie Gillis and had a wicked crush on Shelly Fabares and Annette Funicello. I got into just the right kind of mischief that kids are supposed to get into without anyone getting hurt—well, not too much.

Fathering my two daughters was indeed a second childhood, getting to play all those kid games and watch all those kid movies (The Parent Trap! Lady and the Tramp!) and read all those kid books (Charlotte’s Web! The Wind in the Willows!) and play Go-Fish and War and later Boggle and basketball and summers swimming in Lake Michigan and foreign trips far beyond Toronto, Canada. And lo and behold, my second childhood was as happy as the first , minus the carefree innocence.

And now here I am in my third childhood, right now, back on Lake Michigan doing the same things with my grandchildren I did with my own children. With Zadie, 6 ½ years old, a small sampling of our activities:

• Long hours at the beach.
• Swimming in the lake and witnessing her first successful 20-foot-without-a-lifejacket doggie paddle.
• Canoeing on the lake.
• Climbing up the Sugarbowl Dune and running down.
• War card game and teaching her Solitaire.
• Reading Nancy Drew to her.
• Her reading my colleague Pamela’s Elf books to me.
• Our first piano duet (that black key piece that begins with your fist.)
• Clapping plays like Miss Mary Mack.
• Songs, songs, songs.
• Paddleball (10 our record).
• Going to the Drive-in Movie Theater.
• Building with legos.
• Applauding the drawing and sewing she’s doing with her grandmother.
• And more…

With Malik (3-years old), some of the above, splashing around in the lake with him, throwing a football (10 throws and catches our record!) and marveling at the things he ends up saying. One dinner when one of (unnamed for the moment) was grouchy, he said, “Why are you so sad when everyone else is happy?” And tonight when I came back to our cottage to prepare dinner and told him he could stay at the neighbor's where everyone was, he said, “But you’ll be lonely!”

And so my third childhood is turning out to be as happy as the other two. And isn’t that a blessing?