Saturday, August 27, 2016

Ancient Moral Gold

It’s rare that I have a workshop that I don’t look forward to with 100% enthusiasm and excitement. Today’s wasn’t exactly an exception, but after an intense five days with a group of people, it felt like I had hit the final chords and this added-on one-day workshop with 15 teachers from China felt like an unnecessary coda. I dug back while planning into material I hadn’t done in a while that was fresh for me, as well as counting on some of the tried-and-true warhorses.

Whenever I’ve had a sliver of doubt about a workshop or course—is it worth it missing the opening of school and should I have planned some down time at the beach instead of adding yet one more workshop?—invariably something happens that confirms that this simply had to be. And so it happened again today.

While lunching with the students, one told me that my reputation was large enough in China that someone had translated my name. They showed me the three characters and then the phonetic (pinyin?) translation—Gu De Jin.

“Gu” means ancient. Well, I wasn’t insulted. Yep, I’m old, but here I assumed old as in an “old soul,” in line with ancient wisdom. I certainly have a healthy respect for the Old Ways and sense of antiquity when visiting Machu Picchu or the Taj Mahal or the Roman Coliseum. I’ll take ancient.

“De” means morally upstanding, being a person of great integrity. Sounds good to me. Not in the finger-wagging scolding morality kind of way. I’m much more into situational ethics than hard and fast and unbendable rules. But I have kept in constant conversation with an integral vision and I think I’ve done a reasonably good job of holding true to it, speaking up when it was slightly dangerous and speaking out when people preferred me to be silent (for the wrong reasons). Sometimes when sending a brief bio, I quote a student (hmm. I think she was from Toronto!) who wrote “his work is a long, earnest and continuing struggle to present music of integrity in a way that affirms our collective humanity.” And there it is—integrity.

Finally, “Jin.” That’s gold and though I’m not in a King Midas search for riches, gold is the metaphor for the standard of worth and beauty. The king’s crown is gold, reflecting the light of the sun that brings heat and light wherever it shines. Gold is good.

That was the first notable moment. Since “Doug” carries no deep story or association with it (my Mom just liked the way it sounded), I like the idea of being named and like it even more when it connotes something worthy and positive. Thanks, China!

The second notable moment came when we had just finished playing my soul-stirring arrangement of “Jelly on a Plate.” Ha ha! No, it’s fun and useful and easy language for non-English speakers and musical enough. But when I asked someone to sing a pentatonic Chinese folk song, one woman stood up and stopped time with her beautiful voice singing a poignant melody. I’ve said before that I never met a folk music I didn’t like because the ancestors are present in it, I can hear the ancient (!) ones thickening the sound of the lone voice in the present.

And that was exactly the feeling in the room. We then added tasteful accompaniment on the Orff instruments and here was the moment when the past met the present to move forward into the future. When teaching Orff Schulwerk in cultures beyond the U.S. or Canada or its native Germany, one must be careful not to arrive with too much Western cultural baggage. Someone told me she grew up in Hong Kong thinking “Lightly Row” and “Hot Cross Buns” were Hong Kong folk songs. So the above was a great example of reminding folks to look beneath their feet at the same time that they fly from Shanghai to Toronto to further the music profession in China.

In short, it was a day well-spent and a good way to end a summer of extraordinary teaching and learning. I spent quality teaching time with some 200 teachers in Ghana, Spain, California and Toronto, helping change the world by attempting to present ancient and modern music with integrity. That’s gold.

Life Lived in Five Days



From the opening “Guten Morgen” song to the closing “Vem Kan Segla” with its line “Who can say goodbye to a friend without crying? “ (we couldn’t), we lived a life together in five days. “Orff Through the Ages” was the course’s title and we passed through them all, playing, singing and dancing literally with 4-year olds and 94-year-olds and also releasing all the layers of the children and adults we have been and have yet to become. We became our old 4-year old self, laughing with unbridled delight and got pin-drop silent in the midst of exquisite music that sang the beauty of the sunset of our lives. And every age in-between, with a song for every occasion, a dance for each situation we might encounter, a piece of music to unlock every faculty of soul lying dormant in our breasts awaiting the awakening kiss of the fairy-tale prince or princess. From the first gesture of our enticing beginning to the last hug of our satisfying end, each moment in the middle connected to the one before and led to the one after, the five days an unfolding symphony with a central theme that was announced, developed and recapitulated. Like a good piece of music, we left refreshed and changed and ready to re-enter a chaotic unmusical world inspired to bring more order and beauty to it.

From the one-day workshop to the five-day course to the two-week training, that’s what my workshop life has become. A chance to live a whole life in condensed form, one rich with meaning and alive with laughter and awash with tears, making a joyful noise unto the Lords of whatever names people choose and sitting in deep Zen silence listening to the music of a revealed world. We both feel the freedom of being a nameless small part of a glorious whole and standing in the center of it contributing with the full force of a character and personality and destiny that only we ourselves can be, fully claiming our little corner of creation in full sight of our comrades and companions.

Along the way, we dove into the refreshing waters of some 50 pieces of material, all worthy of children and intended to be carried back to them. We traveled back some 800 years and across borders to the cathedrals of Rome to the mountains of Bolivia, the fields of Bulgaria, the beaches of Nicaragua, the nightclubs of Ghana and flew on the wings of Mother Goose from Britain to the U.S. and Canada. We ran into the barriers of racism and social in justice and ignorance and the degradation of children and started to climb over through honest talk. We heard stories of our first unrequited love and the children we couldn’t reach and then did and the juicy gossip of the human drama held together by Old Doc Jones, the keeper of the line between fact and fiction.

That’s my life these days, creating an instant community with group after group, part of them all and each person in the group forever connected to each other person. (Sometimes literally—more than a few have gotten married!) Amidst every reason to be cynical, these people, along with the kids I teach, keep me ever hopeful of humanity’s promise to live together peacefully and joyfully. And if we have a conflict, why, we know the perfect dance to help deal with it, the perfect song to bring us back into accord. And we also know that dissonant tension is part of the beauty of music and necessary to that beauty.

Thanks to each of the 28 souls who walked that path together these last five days. May you bring a bit of the splendor into your year with children.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Toronto Tidbits

• A man walked down Bloor St. with big rain boots on wearing a T-shirt that said,
   “I hate rain boots.”

• I brought Canadian pennies from my foreign change drawer at home and discovered that no one takes them anymore. Prices can still be $8.61 or $9.98, but they just round up or down.

• I spilled some seeds from my Starbucks oatmeal and a sparrow checked them out and rejected them. Hmm.

• Ex-Toronto mayor Rob Ford was even more outrageous than Trump. Still the Canadians are stupefied about what’s going on South of the Border. They’re thinking of building a wall.

• The Steinway piano in the room where I teach at the Royal Conservatory of Music is the most exquisite instrument I’ve ever shared a workshop room with.

• The Royal Conservatory is the very place where Carl Orff and Gunild Keetman came in 1962 to drop the seed of Orff Schulwerk in North America (the first and only time they came to North America). Though I worry that the hearty wildflower that grew so abundantly in Canada and the U.S. has become a genetically modified domesticated houseplant, still I’m doing my part to keep it healthy and hearty. And meaningful to do it in the same place where Orff and Keetman stood over a half-century ago.

• We ended the course with a beautiful song and wet eyes all around. We decided that this song was in the Tearian Mode.

• Treated myself to a night at the movies before one more day of teaching 12 visiting teachers from China. Matt Damon, let me be honest here: Jason Bourne compared to Good Will Hunting is a downward career spiral. I will not be seeing the sequel the ending implied.

• Toronto is the first foreign city I ever visited. I believe it was in 1963. If it was one year earlier, I might have bumped into Orff and Keetman. (Hmm, wonder if I could pull off an “Old Doc Jones” tale about that—workshop participants, you know what I’m talking about!)

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Granny Grammy

Today the “Orff Through the Ages” class took a field trip to the Hazelton Retirement Residence in Toronto. People asked me before the trip what my technique was working with older folks and I replied, “I just play great songs and see if they enjoy it.”

And enjoy it they did! One- hour non-stop music and faces alight with joy, hands dancing, toes tapping. I do have some strategies—like playing without written music, moving immediately from one song to the next and thinking in groups (20’s jazz songs, happy songs, travel songs, waltzes, etc.), being alert to variety (major/minor/ slow/ fast/ 4/4/ 3/4 etc.) and just generally keeping the flow going. It helped to have 27 music teachers with me, who jumped up to dance the Charleston or played great alto sax on the jazz tunes or accompanied the ukulele songs with spoons or played a flute duet. It was a rich and joyful hour and from the first minute, I kept watching a woman who knew all the words and sang with such joy—and stood up and danced on one number!Afterwards I thanked her and she thanked me and we kept thanking each other and when I complemented her on singing with such happiness, she said, “Well, this was my music. How could I not be happy to sing it again?”

When the residents left, I huddled with the teachers to de-brief. They were moved as folks always are when I take them to such an event and I took the opportunity to remind them that they had chosen a field that offers perpetual refreshment. If you know how to get straight to the music without worrying about winning the competition and remember to watch the people or children receiving it with such joy, then you open up a two-way exchange. What you put out comes flowing back to you, often amplified as 20 people echo your solo voice. If you teach with passion and energy, the energy comes back to you.

It’s like a pond fed by an underground spring that keeps the waters fresh and moving. A pond that stands alone with no input and output is stagnant, but music sets up a cycle where the freshwater comes in, fills you to the brim, then flows out to the greater ocean, eventually coming back through the water cycle to that spring. That’s how I can teach for 41 years and still be excited about tomorrow’s class. That’s how I can get into Toronto at 4 am, sleep 4 hours and teach a full day without sagging.

As I was leaving, two of the residents asked, “So when are you moving to Toronto?” I’ve applied a few times to be considered for the Music Education Grammy and not surprisingly, am always passed over. But a response like that was Grammy enough. Let’s just say I won the Granny Grammy. 

Progressively Unnecessary

I believe it was the German Orff teacher Wilhelm Keller who said something to the effect of:

“ The best teacher becomes progressively unnecessary.”

The aim of education is to pass on the necessary lore of the culture, the vital skills, the defining visions. If you structure your classes in such a way that the students are constantly asked to re-create the information in their own way of understanding and doing and creating, then you endow them with the power of becoming increasingly independent. Like the chicks in the nest, they gain confidence and strength and the necessary things to launch them out of the nest and fly on their own. That’s Nature’s way and that’s human culture. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie took Miles Davis under their wing, then Miles in turn took John Coltrane and Coltrane in turn took McCoy Tyner and so it goes on.

In my beginning 3-year old classes, I’ll ask each child’s name in turn and show a way to clap or pat the rhythm. After about five or six kids, I’ll ask the next one, “Can you think of a way to play the rhythm of your own name?” If not, I’ll happily do it or let another child volunteer to do it. It just means they’re not ready yet to figure it out without me—but I know they will be soon. Likewise, I can conduct a singing time and initiate a song with a breath and then ask the group if they together can take the initiating breath or one child come up front to be the conductor. Much further down the path, 8th grade to be exact, I might play a recording of a jazz tune, ask the kids to figure out the melody and supporting parts and put it all into a simple form and leave the room for 20 minutes. A risky experiment that must be carefully prepared, but when it works, imagine the excitement as the kids take on that responsibility and the pride in how much they were able to accomplish without me.

The goal is progressive independence and it simply is the story of how we evolve. From the first tentative toddler steps away from the mother to the first trip alone to the grocery store to the first time driving alone to the parents dropping the kid off at college to renting the first apartment (“Dad, can you believe I have to pay money for water and gas?!!!)

So my colleague Sofia wrote to me about the opening day ceremony of school yesterday, one of the first that the teachers did without me. It’s one of my babies, an idea and structure that I initiated many years ago that many contributed to, but I continued to oversee and emcee various parts. Her report:

“Fabulous opening session! Teachers happy, children happy, strong presence of the interns. Eugene did a great job with the water ceremony and so did Laura. Talia (my daughter) represented you so well in the teacher meeting afterward…”

How did this make me feel? 99% fantastic! As I knew they could, they all carried on fine without me. My work in crafting these ceremonies and make them an indelible part of school life that others will continue when I am gone achieved its purpose. I have become unnecessary. Isn’t that great?

Well, yes. But I’d be less than honest if I didn’t confess the 1% “Dang! I have become unnecessary!” It’s not healthy for anyone to hang on to being in the spotlight, to keep people dependent on you so you can feed your false identity, to resist passing on the baton and wanting to do all four legs of the relay yourself. To become unnecessary in the right way is a glorious victory indeed. Hooray!!!

But I’m still coming back there to teach on Tuesday!