The first time I came to teach the Special Course in Salzburg, I
stayed in a farmhouse in the outlying village of Anif. It was a 45-minute walk
to the Orff Institut, a 20-minute bike ride, both along enticing pathways
through village back-roads, a beautiful park and Hellbrun Allee where Julie
Andrews skipped merrily along. If I wanted to go downtown, it was another
20-minutes in the other direction and a late dinner or concert meant 40 plus
minutes riding home in the dark and sometimes in rain, sleet or snow. My
farmhouse hostess didn’t speak a word of English and me no German (or rather
thick Austrian dialogue), so communication was a challenge. If I had one class
in the early morning and another late afternoon, I either had to do another 40
minute bike ride or hang out at the Institute or go somewhere else. In short,
it was utterly inconvenient, sometimes challenging and not ever completely
And I loved it.
But the next few visits, I succumbed to practicality and found
another place closer, though still funky enough to have some charm and the
bonus of being on the river. Still later, I opted for the Youth Hostel, a bit
closer yet—20-minute walk/ 10 minute bike—and less homey and pension-like, but
good wireless connection, a youthful energy and close to the Old Town.
This time, worried about it being cold and not being able to
rent a bike, I succumbed to convenience and tried Motel One a mere 4-minute
walk from the Institute. Convenient and comfortable it is, but way too slick
and modern for my taste. No paintings on the wall and instead a TV screen with
a video of a fire, complete with fake crackling sounds. Bright lights, overlooks the
Merkur (great view of the fruits and vegetables) and the only close restaurant
is across from McDonald’s on Salzburg’s most strip-mallish street and complete
with disco-beat music.
The fact is, I’m immersing myself completely in the 2 to 6 hours
daily I’m teaching and we are certainly creating our own kind of beauty in
every class, musically and otherwise. But truth be told, I’m suffering a bit
from BDD—Beauty Deficit Disorder. I’ll solve that this weekend with long walks
and bike rides. But in retrospect, I loved the way my home in Anif made beauty
part of the daily routine and me with no choice in the matter. When a friend
visited Salzburg once and I took him on that bike ride, that I used to do every
day, he paused and said, “Doug, this is beautiful,” affirming the happiness I
felt living that brief life of biking daily through beauty.
I think BDD is a real thing (am I the first to name it?). I felt
it at the beginning of this trip in the Philadelphia outskirts in the typical
American strip with no place to go but drive to the mall and even a bit in
Barcelona in a more modern hotel fare from the true character of that marvelous
city. Brugge was the exception, a room that just made me happy every second I
was in it, which was only two short nights. It seems that my Soul needs a
certain ground base of aesthetics to feel wholly itself. And I think we all do.
I think the uglification of my country is part of our problem.
Because humans are so adaptable, we lower ourselves to the next standard of
ugly expediency and stop noticing what we’re missing. I believe it makes us
less capable of intelligent feeling and a feeling intelligence, less able to
distinguish between the nuances of genuine aesthetics, the subtleties, the
shades of beauty’s many faces. Instead of Chopin’s intricate dynamics, we fill
the restaurant with the never-changing pounding disco beat, serve bland or
artificially-flavored food, have scattered conversations while checking our
superficial text messages. We numb ourselves to intricacy and complexity and
indeed, how can we make measured decisions about our future if our present is
And I can understand how that can happen, having just myself
traded the Anif bike ride of beauty for the Motel One convenient short walk. But
at least I’m noticing my BDD symptoms and am determined to overcome it. What
happens when we’re incapable of even realizing that we’re missing something?
It is my virtue and vice to make music work as my Secretary of
Freedom, constantly transposing its musical lessons to life itself. I’m like a
modern day John Muir, who once said something like: “When I try to pick out
anything by itself, I find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
Welcome to my Orff workshops.
Here in Salzburg, working with these most marvelous 16 teachers
from 7 countries, I’m moving them through the Evolution of Human Consciousness
and Development through the vehicle of scales and textural and harmonic accompaniment.
The Drone places our feet on this Earth, connects us to the ground of our being
and lets us know we are home and we belong. Our first tentative flight from the
nest is a safe one, sheltered in the first two overtones of the harmonic
series, sol and mi. The ambiguous La comes next, sends us fluttering a few feet
away. Then the Re, the next in the overtone series after the others. And that
completes the Pentatonic Scale, our training ground for future flights, always
hovering close to the nest and the comfort of Mother.
Put in less technical terms, the kids playing on these five
notes on the Orff instruments have removed all potential dissonant notes so
that whatever they play sounds good. They have their whole life to deal with
tension and conflict, so why not start them off with some comforting pleasing
sounds? And so we do. Though we also learn that there are three distinct worlds
(at least) inside of these five notes that can speak to three different moods
we may have and that’s why music is so necessary to unleash, evoke, affirm and
extend our emotional life.
Somewhere around 4th grade, they’re more prepared to
face the realities of tension in the world, so we let them put the F’s and B’s
(Fish and Bananas/ Fa and Ti) on the instrument and learn how to pass through
them without getting too involved in their tense and anxious characters. We
still have the drone to ground us, even after the drone itself starts to get
restless and move to its neighboring notes. But now we’re flying further from
home and armed with the knowledge of which parts of the forest to avoid.
Finally, we enter the territory of our cousin’s house down the
block, the V7 chord that takes us squarely away from the comfort of our own
room and into the adventure of the other. It’s exciting and a bit scary, but
once we understand the route, we can handle the tension of the F and B/ Fa and
Ti tones sounded together in the Devil’s interval of the tri-tone. Left hanging
by itself, it is sheer hell, a straining tautness yearning for resolution, the
F leaning toward E, waiting to fall in its arms, the B reaching upwards to
embrace the waiting Do. (Try it on the piano and you’ll know what I mean).
And that’s where today’s title came from. We may feel like we’re
in a Hell without end (read U.S. politics today or our own personal sorrows),
but there should be some comfort in knowing that Heaven is but a half-step
away. Let us fall into it or rise up to it—not a giant super-human leap, but a
mere half-step—and in the glory of the homecoming, the sun will shine out and
help erase the memory of all those storm-clouded days. Let Fa to Mi, Ti to Do
be our mantra and play our new national anthem: One Half Step to Heaven.
It's my second glorious day with 16 beautiful souls in the Orff Institute Special Course in Salzburg. Five from Iran, three from Colombia, three from Turkey and one each from China, Canada, U.S., Finland and Czech Republic. Today when we were supposed to be playing “Roses Are Red” on the
xylophones, we stumbled into a conversation about what’s going on in the U.S.
and the world. Students from China, Iran and Turkey reaffirmed what I already
knew. That right now in their country, if they spoke out critiquing the
government the way I do in my Facebook posts, blogs, T-shirts I wear, classes
with kids, comments in workshops, I would be in jail.
I don’t feel that as some might, as another pat on the back that
the good ole U.S.A. is the land of the free. But I do recognize that such free
speech has been a fairly constant freedom— in the press, in songwriting, in
novels and poems, in speeches and lectures. And I appreciate that.
There have been many ways that people who say unpopular truths
can be and have been punished in our culture’s history— the
McCarthy hearings, murders and assassinations, people losing their jobs or
being ostracized in their communities. But I don’t believe there has been a
time in the past century when the powers-that-be officially banned free speech, took completely
control of the media, dictated what artists could or could not say and openly
imprisoned or executed those who dared to question and critique. And that’s at
least a sign that there is perpetual hope that others might eventually actually
listen and be educated to consider another point of view from the ruling
So if this level of free speech is a privilege, then it also is
our responsibility to use it and use it wisely. If my constant humanitarian
comments often called “political” are tiring or wearisome or tedious or
predictable or boring to some, I apologize only for rendering them ineffective
by too much exposure. But I feel more motivated than ever to speak on behalf of
justice and healing and beauty and genuine freedom in whatever forms and
opportunities present themselves and would be shirking my duty as a citizen to
shut up just because I’m afraid I’d offend or bore someone who would rather
hear about the great restaurant I went to.
I continue to be mightily impressed by these folks from these
countries, people who don’t have the freedom to speak as openly in their
country, but carry in their actions and private conversations a high level of
care and concern. Shame on us who have the freedom to move the needle of
justice further to “go” and don’t take advantage of it. What's the point of free speech if we don't have anything intelligent or kind to say?
And some deep talk with a woman from Iran about my perception
that the people I’ve met from her country seem untouched by their society’s limitations. Though their law
narrows the choices of a woman’s personhood to a small slice of their full
possibility, but when they leave the country to be somewhere like Salzburg, that
freedom they feel inside instantly blossoms. I think that’s extraordinary. I
think of the Yeats’ poem, about the courage and awareness necessary to escape
other people’s defiling definition of you:
The finished man among
How in the name of
Heaven can he escape
That defiling and
The mirror of
Casts upon his eyes
until at last
He thinks that shape
must be his shape?
In a land of free speech, it feels like some people are less
free than some of their counterparts in Turkey, Iran, China and other places
where such speech is limited and controlled. I don’t know how, but there is
some level of education, of culture, of hard heart-work that goes on in these
places to produce people of strong moral fiber, artistic sensibility, humor and
capacity for love. At least the ones I’ve met.
Of course, it’s simplistic to generalize, but all I can do
here is speak from my experience and offer my deep respect and admiration and
friendship with these folks. I’m honored to know them. Meanwhile, America,
let’s step up to free speech and use it to revive culture, tell truth, educate
the ignorant, resist the unjust policies rolling out of Washington like a
flurry of bowling balls determined to knock down the pins of democracy.
And in case you’re wondering, we did play “Roses are red”
and when we got to “sugar is sweet, and so are you!”, I pointed to each of them
and meant it.
The above the title of a great Thelonious Monk ballad. In his
deep way, and in his unorthodox chord voicings, he showed that there is some
“ugliness” in beauty and some beauty in “ugliness.” And that pretty much
captures my state of mind after seeing some recent photos of me. In some, I
recognize the familiar decent-enough face that has been with me most of my
life. Not stunningly handsome, but reasonably attractive.
But in others… Ay! It’s shocking how hideous I can look, sagging
neck flesh, weird expressions, bad posture, bulging belly. Damn! You would
think in my mid-sixties, vanity would fade out, any concern about looking
attractive would have outlived its usefulness and I could re-focus on the more
important and lasting inner beauty. You would think it, but apparently it’s not
quite true. It’s hard to adapt to feeling occasionally hideous. Not that I see
it in disgusted looks of people who I teach or pass, but dang, those photos!!!
(I WILL NOT post them here.)
I suppose it’s a lesson in non-attachment to temporal forms. I
remember a quote from my mystical younger days: “That which is introduced into
the domain of Time is subject to the ravages of Time.” Ain’t that the truth!
But the reminder is to focus more on that untouched by gravity and the lion paw
of time raking across the face—that feeling of inner beauty that the absence of
mirrors and cameras allows to flower.
And that beauty finds
expression not in the face, but the words fathered forth by the heart’s
imagination and the tones coaxed from pianos with fingers, the intuitive mind
and feeling heart. So I struggle to
redeem this whiny post with a vow to work harder on Monk’s tune and remind
people to listen, not look.
Still though, if you have or have seen any of those photos referred to
here, please delete them immediately!