Thursday, February 21, 2019

Almost Enough

It’s a cool early morning 78 degrees in Singapore. The orange rooftops of Little India are not yet reflecting midday heat, the world seems young and full of promise. Another breakfast mixing India, China and Switzerland and waiting for my driver for the final day of two two-day jazz courses. “Gratitude is what turns what we have into enough”— a lovely quote that came my way and if I counted all the blessings that made today possible, it would certainly more than enough. 

And yet. In the past few weeks, there has been a new series of cricks in my neck that don’t seem to be going away on their own. Not bad enough to incapacitate me, but noticeable enough that I don’t feel wholly my usual physical self. I’m dreading the thought of a long series of tests to reveal some deteriorating spinal disk or suggestion that I re-train the way I walk or sit or work. So while still happy teaching these folks and swimming after work in the hotel pool and having some hotel room solitude, I’m feeling this canker in the midst of the gratitude I should be feeling. It makes it hard to accept that my life exactly as it is in this moment is wholly enough. It’s almost enough. But can I get my old neck back, please?

During question and answer time, one of the students asked me how old I was. A bit off-topic, I thought, so I asked her why she wanted to know. She said that she and her friends wondered how I had the stamina I had and where it came from. So I happily confessed my 67 years and answered simply, hands outspread, “From this. The chance to make great music and make it joyfully in a way that complete strangers feel like friends after the first 20 minutes together. From the way you all are giving energy back, having so much fun being kids again doing clapping games or improvising motions while making up scat solos with the first sound of your name. The clock ticks on, but when we’re like this, linear time is suspended and we’re in a world that has no age.”

All of the above is true. But when the class over, my neck shows up and reminds me:
” You’re 67.” And “enough “then turns into “almost enough.”

Nevertheless, I persist.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Elevator Music

How different life would have been without the elevator! Every day here in Singapore, I am driven from the Academy of Singapore Teachers (an impressive institution devoted entirely to professional development) to my hotel. I pass downtown with its forest of skyscraper banks and fancy hotels with their penthouse views and always feel a sense of homecoming as we arrive in Little India, where most buildings (except my 14 floor hotel!) are two stories high. Back in a world of more human proportions, more intimacy, more down-to-earth (literally and figuratively) feeling. 

It was the elevator that made our thirst to ascend to the heavens a concrete (and steel) reality. As New York City walk-up apartment dwellers can testify, 5 floors is about the limit of human upward propulsion—and accompanied by curses if you’re on the 5thfloor carrying groceries or the suitcase of your guest. Without Mr. Otis, the World Trade Center tragedy and the visual blight the Sales Force Tower has imposed on San Francisco would never have been. The movies King Kong, An Affair to Remember and Sleepless in Seattle would have had to be re-filmed. And the English language would be one phrase smaller, would have to get along without the term “elevator music.”

Speaking of which, I received an e-mail from a Canadian music teacher sharing her enthusiasm for some material she had learned from me in a workshop. And more meaningful yet, sharing her students’ enthusiasm. She wrote: 

Hello, Doug!  I hope this finds you well.  In the spring of 2018, I introduced my middle school (grade 8) students to your arrangement of Soul Sauce, which we performed on stage to an audience of almost 1000 in our city of Calgary, Alberta, Canada.  It was a smashing success!  95% of my students are from India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan and of course, have never experienced such music.  When I introduced it, they thought it sounded like “elevator music”, but after a couple of weeks, one student concluded, 

“If this is elevator music, I don’t wanna get off the elevator!”  

So even as I lament the havoc elevators have caused in human culture, their invitation to leave the soil and soul of mother earth and dwell in some abstract world of money and privilege, their weird invitation to stop climbing stairs so we can take the elevator to the gym on the 15thfloor and work out on Stairmaster, I now have a new image of my life’s purpose: to initiate children into elevator music so vibrant and hip and soulful that they don’t want to get off of the elevator. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Walls of Jericho


(Another version of the thoughts from the last post that I shared in Facebook)

Walked through the streets of Singapore on Sunday hearing Hindu chants, Muslim calls to prayer, Christian church choirs, Buddhist intonations. Inside the synagogue, the Jewish cantors were singing, in another building, a Balinese gamelan was rehearsing and the next day, my class of teachers were joyfully playing Step Back Baby on their way to the blues. All the many facets of our common Divine Spirit were alive and vibrant and not a single vibration was claiming itself as the only true and worthy one. Amidst all the shameful shouting and posturing and toddler-tantrum demanding of taxpayers money to fuel yet more division with the Wall, we need to realize that the wall has already been built, in the sense that Duke Ellington said long ago:

"Of all the walls, the tallest, most invisible, and most insidious… is the wall of prejudice."

The mandate of our times is to fight the battle of Jericho, play the trumpets—and sitars and djembes and Bulgarian bagpipes—that will make those walls come tumblin’ down. Let that be the mandate of the music education of the future! 

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Prayer in All Languages

This morning, part of me awoke in a Singapore dawn. Another part was still trying to catch up to my corporeal body all the way from San Francisco, where it was late afternoon the day before. Musically speaking, my body is in canon with itself, waiting for unison in a day or two. 

I sat my customary morning meditation and chanted my customary ancient Sino-Japanese chants designed to restore the world to harmony and keep hurting loved ones wrapped in healing thoughts. Down I went to a (multi-)Continental breakfast—Indian flatbread with coconut curry, Chinese noodles, Swiss muesli and good ole eggs and potatoes. Then out into my Little India neighborhood, following my feet which led me to a Hindu Kali temple. I entered to the sounds of men chanting in ancient Sanskrit—different rhythms, melodies, syllables, syntax singing the same message as their Buddhist cousin. 

On I walked and some 10 blocks later, heard “Hallelujah!” being sung inside the Hinghwa Methodist Church. A few blocks away was Singapore’s Arab neighborhood and my timing was off, but earlier or later I would have heard the Muslim call to prayer coming from the mosque. And certainly some cantor in a Singaporean Jewish synagogue was intoning “Baruch Adonai.” Like my breakfast, it was a multi-continental song of devotion, of praise, of people plucking a moment from their daily pursuit of ambition to consider how small we are and how large and unfathomable the universe is. To try to catch at least a spark of the infinite heat and light of some divine force that has and needs no name. To sing and chant their way to a short spiritual renewal and refreshment that will see them through the week, to be reminded yet again the following Sunday having forgotten it all in the pushing and pulling of the daily round. 

And what is the common thread joining these diverse calls to Spirit? Why, music, of course! Dogma divides and faith can be childish wishing and hoping and prayer can be self-centered and selfish, but music is the house Spirit lives in. The rhythm of these songs and chants awakens the body to receive the Spirit, the melodies open the Heart, the syllables go beyond literal meaning to musical meaning, all of it tied with silken threads to connect us to our fellow choir members. And if the song be in earnest and true, it will connect us to all choir members of all denominations, drill down to the common ground we share and insist that we stop all this squabbling about whether Allah or Yahweh or God or Krishna or Buddha are the correct names. What matter if the rhythms resounding throughout a Singapore Sunday are in different meters, melodies in different keys, words in different languages? Doesn’t that make the glory of Creation, whose hymn is diversity, yet more alive, more vibrant, more true? And don’t stop at the usual big Five. In villages in the South American rainforest, throughout the African continent, in the peaks of the Himalayas or the beaches of the South Seas, there are a thousand other ways to sing praise and gratitude, a thousand other names for the Divine Spirit.  Welcome to them all!

My walk through a potpourri of prayer was as delicious as my breakfast. All you frightened dividers of humanity, come join the party. It’s much more fun that hatred and walls and government-manufactured fear. Honest. The real National—and International— Emergency—is purposeful exclusion and insistence that only one name is correct. I propose 5.7 billion dollars be spent to bring the unbelievers to the mosques, temples, churches, village drum circles and teach them the songs that reveal our common humanity. What say you, Congress?

Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Daily Grind

“Life is a grindstone. Whether it grinds you down or polishes you up depends on what you’re made of.”

A friend posted this and though it seems somewhat Hallmark card-ish, I actually like it. Gives a whole new meaning to “back to the grind.” I’ve experienced both reactions to the coarse grain of the daily round, but would like to think it has leaned mostly to the polishing side. 

Today is the last day of an intense 6-weeks back at school and then I’m off on a plane to Singapore. 17 hours. And 20 minutes. Truth be told, I could almost imagine sleeping a good deal of that time. Suddenly, I’m feeling a bit on the worn-down side. Between the non-stop rain and the 2ndgrade play and trying to figure out the schedule for the next few months at school, I’m ready for a break. 

But mostly, it is polishing work (even more so with my shiny head from my new too-short haircut!). I love it when new sequences organically arise that flow just perfectly and are happily shareable with adults in my workshops. My review of the last 6 weeks with the 5thgrade today was such an occasion, impressive not only in its sense of artistry, but in its revelation of the great musical distances we have travelled. It has been a wild ride on the Orff transport vehicles—body percussion, speech, song, drums, Orff instrument ensemble, recorder and recently, ukulele! We’ve unveiled the power of 16thnotes, I-IV-V chords, canons, improvised modal scales and more concrete skills and concepts while making powerful music each step of the way. A lot of polishing going down!!!

Three different adult workshops ahead, but also time at the poolside and all of it welcome. Sunscreen cream instead of harsh grinding stones. I’m ready.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Edge of Comfort



I’ve endured my share of rigorous marathon-like exploits in my life. 

My first 7-day Zen meditation retreat, for example, atop a wintry Mt. Baldy in thin robes, awakening at 3 am, going to bed close to midnight, sitting with pained legs for most of those waking hours getting whacked by a stick if I moved and meeting the enigmatic, non-English speaking Roshi four times a day to be immediately dismissed after giving the wrong answer to his unanswerable questions. 

Then there was Day 2 of the Machu Picchu hike, a steady ascent in the cold rain on stairs made for giants while the native porters whisked by with heavy loads on their back, the equally painful descent, all of this with a bad stomach for some 26 miles and me 62 years old. 

I should throw in the terror of being asked to teach 30 preschoolers in Taiwan whom I had never met in front of 150 teachers and parents watching. For an hour. 

You get the idea. 

So when I treated myself to a walk through my old beloved city on a sunny day after constant rain, I was mildly complaining about the cold—it was perhaps 44 degrees out! Okay, it’s a 100 degrees more than many places in the Midwest recently, but still it felt cold to me. So as I walked by Aquatic Park, I couldn’t help but notice the members of the Dolphin Club swimming in the freezing cold water—without a wet suit. I had three reactions:

1)   I feel ashamed that I was complaining to myself that I was a little chilly. What a wimp I am! I’m amazed by you willingly subjecting yourself to this and admire your strength and daring and ability to endure something so painful. What discipline! What determination! What fortitude!

2)   I am indeed impressed by your iron constitution, but hey, to each his own. It’s not my way. And perhaps sitting on the meditation pillow or hiking by my side up Machu Picchu and certainly standing in front of those 30 Taiwanese preschoolers, you might be admiring me.

3)   Are you people out of your freakin’ mind?!!! What’s wrong with you??!!! Why in Gods’ name would you ever willingly throw yourself in that water when you could be at home by a warm fire reading about an expedition to Antartica?

But I do get that there is a strange kind of pleasure in testing the limits of the human body, of going far beyond reasonable comfort and testing your mettle, of feeling more alive when you’re doing something hard. As for me, I’m not the least bit interested in scaling Mt. Everest, but neither do I seek life on a beach 24/7 sipping Mai Tais. I like to go to the edge of comfort, be it physical, mental or emotional and see what’s out there. Sometimes cross over into yet more danger and excitement, sometimes just peek and be happy to sit back down.

But there’s no way you’ll get me to join the Dolphin Club. Give me the Taiwanese preschoolers any day.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The End of Vanity

A couple of years ago, I left my wife for another woman. To cut my hair, that is. My wife always did it somewhat reluctantly, so she was thrilled when I found someone a few blocks away who did a better job in a shorter time for a mere $15. 

But just when I went to see my new locks-and-tresses-trimmer yesterday, she was on vacation and someone else was in her place who convinced me she could  do a good job.  I took a chance and emerged with the haircut from hell. Way too short and not a good look for me at a time when I could use every square inch of good looks. 

But really, what’s the point? Physical attraction is designed to ensure a mate to help hold the ladder while washing high windows, keep you company on long, lonely rainy nights and if you so desire, partner in continuing the species and creating children who will entertain you and visit you in the Old Age Home. At my age, whatever good looks I had has done its job. Why care about my appearance? 

I was devastated when I first noticed a receding hairline at a tragically young 19 years old, one that kept diminishing so I went from a virile Samson-like shoulder length hair to officially bald by 30 years old. But I had time to get used to the new look and though my granddaughter often brings it up, “Pop-pop, why don’t you have any hair?” I can’t say that I’ve noticed that people seem physically repulsed by my presence or loved me any less because I failed the George Clooney test. I comfort myself with the fact that Gandhi was not exactly our definition of handsome and somehow Frank Sinatra still inspired school-girl crushes. 

Yet to be honest, some measure of vanity persists in me. The mirror that  keeps not showing the face I think it should seems even more broken than usual. I think I’ll be wearing my Spanish hat both indoors and out for the next few weeks.