Friday, November 24, 2017

Over the River

“Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go,
 The horse knows the way, to carry the sleigh, through the white and drifted snow…”

After several years with the grandkids in Portland, Oregon, my sister and I revived our Thanksgiving tradition and we went to her house in Sebastopol. Back to her classic sweet potato in orange halves, her husband’s brussell sprouts, my wife’s apple and pumpkin pie, my incredible (ie. water/sugar/ cranberries) cranberry sauce and of course, the turkey. For our moment of grace, my sister and I both invoked the same awe and sweet nostalgia that we were eating on the literal table of our childhood sitting in the same chairs next to the same sideboard and under the same painting my Dad painted that hung in our New Jersey dining room. While folks our age continually are astounded that we’re so damn old, there is also a sensation of deep awe that we are still here gathered around that same table. Such ripenings and blossomings and so many cycles of so many seasons behind us. It’s simply miraculous.

And then today, off to the airport singing that song from my childhood, but now it’s the grandchildren’s house to which I go and no horses bounding over snow, but jet planes flying over the California landscapes. A second Thanksgiving dinner with my oldest daughter, husband and two kids and my sister’s oldest child with his wife and kid. How it goes on! More brussel sprouts and different cranberry sauce and yet more stuffing and turkey and pies. The more frenetic energy of a 6-year old and two 2-year olds than yesterday’s dinner, sometimes calmed and brought into focus by my repertoire of songs accompanied by ukulele and subsequent dancing. Sang my first Jingle Bells and Rudolph and Frosty and Dreydl song of the season and felt like a good crowd with which to kick it off. Zadie her usual explosive self, but also starting to read and as I write, entertaining herself independently, as she can do so expertly, with some Russian nesting dolls. Malik a different person altogether from four months ago, able to engage in real conversations and tell coherent stories. It’s an exciting time.

So three days ahead of stepping into the grandparent role and happily so. Swimming indoors tomorrow next to a possible search for Santa and my usual pilgrimage to Powell’s bookstore, for starters. And just on the other side of November, some 25 traditions and dates on the calendar that we’ve created, cultivated and sustained over these long years. Standing at the center of all the converging lines of past, present and future as we head to the close of the year and isn’t that a glorious thing? May the holidays truly be Holy Days!

First World Pleasures

Re-reading my early journals, I would say things like:

“Feeling wholly aligned with the ten thousand things, at one with the world.”

“Excitingly close to being fully present in the moment.”

During zazen meditation, felt like each breath was taking me one step closer to the doorway of enlightenment.”

Now these are the kind of things I write in my journal or share with my friends.

“ Drove 101 North all the way to Sebastopol with no traffic!!”

“ Got TSA approved this morning at the airport. Score! Didn’t need to take off my shoes.”

“ Found a burrito place that still sold burritos for under $6!”

 “ Replaced my hard-drive in the computer and it’s so fast now!”

“Season 4 of “The Good Wife” just came in at the library. Yeah!”

How far I’ve come. And mind you, I’ve still resisted the i-Phone. Otherwise, I’d be crowing about my new aps or boring you with Instagram photos.

But hey, a pleasure is a pleasure, whether it be cosmic or trivial, planetary or first-world. I take it as it comes. And check it out:  I’m about to board the plane to Portland in first class, a ticket I bought to maintain my Gold card status so I could continue to have the privilege of Priority Baggage.

Life is good.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Bring In the Children: Step 5


The Orff workshop is usually an adult-only affair, with an occasional child here and there when a participant can’t find babysitting. And yet the room is filled with children of every age.
They’re hidden under the layers of the adult years, for all of us have that 5-year-old, 9-year-old, 13-year-old still with us, for better or worse. And the "better" is when the playfulness, humor, innocence, confidence, delightful weirdness that used to be us but got covered over by adult responsibilities and expectations of civilization comes out to play again. I see it all the time, adults joyfully playing Miss Mary Mack or competing in The Cookie Jar or singing The Ants Go Marching with unbridled happiness and gusto.

So when working with children, enter their world. Lead them to a plateau where you as the adult know the territory and they will enjoy the view. But start down on the ground where they are and meet them on their own terms. And when working with adults, it’s the same, but a bit different as you have to coax the child to come out and play instead of focus actual children’s overabundant energy.

In either case, the key word is “play.” Not practice-scales-play-the-piano kind of play, not rack- up- points- on-Play-station kind of play, but “I wonder what I can do with this?” kind of play, where the curious hand meets the imaginative mind and genuine play emerges, the kind with no initial wrong and right answers, the kind that computers cannot touch, the kind whose only standard of success is the amount of fun plus the actual aesthetic, artistic result.

The question to ask of any class is “Where are the children?” You’ll know it when you find them, because there will be a buzz and an energy and a palpable excitement in the air. When the children are not present, you’ll notice the urge to look at your watch or yearn for coffee to keep you awake and stimulated.

So concludes my 5-step program, though of course there are many more I could add to the list.
But today is Thanksgiving and the festivities await. Take your time and read these all again before Monday’s classes.

There will not be a test.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Worthy Material: Step 4

After a lecture, an admiring fan gushed to mythologist Joseph Campbell, “You’re incredible!!” He humbly replied, “It’s not me. It’s the material. When you’re working with the great myths of humankind, how can you go wrong?”

Of course, you can go wrong and the work he did to research, connect and communicate the depths of this material was indeed praiseworthy. But it is true that when you’re working with great material, it almost teaches itself. Your job is first and foremost to find worthy material by knowing what you’re looking for and keeping your antennae up. Then shine the light on the essence of the chosen piece or song or dance and then get out of the way.

And what are you looking for? In the Orff world, there are four baskets in which to place melodic/harmonic material that I have found work wonderfully when following the developmental needs of children and the evolution of musical style. The first are games, songs, chants, rhymes, dances that unleash the music stored in the body and meet children in their world of fantasy and play and movement and extravagant expression (more on this in Step 5). Next comes pentatonic material accompanied by drones and ostinato, then modal material with shifting drones and triads and countermelodies and then harmonic music with the vertical motion of chords underneath the horizontal motion of melody.

Because you’re working with children who come to music class because it’s on their schedule, you need simple material in which they can feel immediately successful, but not simplified music, like Bach or Bird minus the hard notes. Orff called this elemental—simple but musical. You’re looking for pieces with much repetition, with logical sequences, with immediately comprehensible patterns.

Another criteria is picking material that you love. After all, you have to listen to the kids playing for a long time! And if a piece has a personal meaning, by all means, share it with the students. These things are infectious and will mean more to the kids if they know it means something to you. And keep going with the story of the music itself, where it came from, who created it, what it meant to people of that time and place.

And finally, pick something with teeth, with bite, with energy beyond the notes. Folk music that has withstood time’s efforts to erase it, been renewed by each generation because it’s worthy is a good starting point, but also composed music. Just be wary of the overly cute and contrived. We have so little time with the kids, they deserve the best.

And then when the kids and parents praise you, you can reply:

“It’s not me. It’s the material.”

The Class As Music: Step 3

One of the world’s most baffling contradictions is the fact that something as joyful as music can be so tortuous to learn. Many an enthusiastic young musician has had their initial excitement brutally murdered by unkind, weird or angry music teachers who are never convicted of their heinous crimes. Their victims come home whining to their parents, “ I hate music!” and then go in their room and listen to music. What they’re saying in kid talk is, “I love music so much that I hate the unmusical teaching of music.”

And that’s what I was put on the planet for. To stop this stomping down of joy, the squelching of enthusiasm, this brutal murder of music’s gifts by the unthinking teaching of music so unmusically. And no question that my quest was aided enormously by my encounter with the dynamic pedagogy known as Orff-Schulwerk, a way of teaching music, of thinking about music, of making music, that stands in direct opposition to the mindless tedium of scales, teachers yelling at students to “Sing with joy! Or else!”, students cowed and afraid and beaten down by Whiplash psychopaths who think that the words “Good job” kill a student’s motivation.

Most people who encounter Orff Schulwerk are struck by the fun of it all, the relaxed atmosphere, the permission to try things out and feel comfortable taking risks. When in the presence of particularly inspired teachers, some notice that the very process of drawing music out of participants is an artistic one and has the quality of music itself. That is to say that the teacher has created an enticing beginning full of mystery and wonder that beckons the student to step into the dancing ring, that there is a connected middle where one thing leads inexorably into another with a musical flow and develops towards a climax, that there is a satisfying end and return to silence that announces that the journey is over and we have now returned to clock time. In short, that the very class is treated as a piece of music that has an enticing beginning, connected middle, satisfying end and the flow is not interrupted by too much talk and explanation.

Such classes may seem the property of master teachers touched with genius, but in fact are available to all. If you think of your class as a piece of music and plan it with as much attention to detail as composing a piece of music, you'll find that your teaching will change radically. In the summer Orff training, after modeling many such classes like this with my Level III students before they teach their 15 minute Practicum lessons, I remind them when planning to pay attention to that beginning and prepare everything in the body and the voice in a circle. And then to move things along with that musical flow, never stopping to say, “Now we’re going to…” but keep the engine running. That’s one of music’s gifts, the way it moves through time without stopping until the end, always flowing, always developing, always revealing the next nuance of sound and motion. Since we wouldn’t shut our car off everytime we reach a stop sign, why do we so often stop the music and the teacher goes blah, blah, blah, play for another few minutes and then blah, blah, blah? It’s anti-musical! And yes, of course, there are times where it’s necessary and needed, but far fewer times than we think. Finally, I remind them to aim for the sensation of a climax, the satisfaction of a realized cadence.  (And yes, there is a sexual parallel for all of you who I know where thinking that. Or perhaps sex is just copying music.)

At any rate, the fact is that both the model and the ideas spoken out loud make a big difference in the lessons that follow. Each year I witness some 20 musical lessons that actually feel like music and everyone is refreshed. But it takes a lot of thought and reflection and determination to stop teaching as we have been taught and consider this radical new idea (but duh! why didn’t we realize it before?):

The teaching of music should be musical.

Convicted music teachers, show me you learned this lesson and I’ll pay your bail.