Sunday, January 26, 2020

Catching Up

My 6thworkshop in three weeks (on top of teaching at school) and such a pleasure to work with 25 lovely souls in Sacramento. The two founders of that Orff Chapter were teachers I trained and I both encouraged them to create that chapter and gave the first workshop for it in 1992. Both of them came to yesterday’s workshop and wasn’t that satisfying to feel us still working side-by-side to carry this forward some 28 years later! And equally great to feel the energy and enthusiasm of the vibrant young new Board members and the excitement from some participants in the workshop who were having their first initiation into this marvelous world. I equally love opening the door and inviting people in to radically change their life and walking through the rooms with the veterans pointing out some details I might have noticed that they might have missed. (And them back to me as well.)

But while I’m out there working so hard and having so much fun doing precisely the things I seem to have been born to do, life’s little details start piling up— from the laundry to the answering of e-mails to the preparing for my 4 week  mid-year “Summer Vacation” as I once again go to spend part of February in Singapore, a land of welcome warm weather, clean streets, safe malls, good food and pleasantries abounding. Though I don’t wholly endorse the political price of it all, still wouldn’t anyone find this refreshing? I have the added perk of three days free in San Francisco before the 17-hour flight, so a bit of leisure to prepare well and maybe even ride my bike again after weeks of no exercise. 

But first, much housekeeping still to do. Finish 4thgrade report forms, meet with my colleagues about our book project and the summer Orff course, start to gather information for filing taxes, check on using my phone abroad, mail books to Hong Kong (along with Singapore, workshops in Hong Kong, Macau, Bangkok) and so on. (Dear reader, I know you couldn’t be possibly interested in these details, I’m just trying to help myself remember here!)

Yesterday's workshop ended with yet another soul-stirring rendition of "We Shall Overcome"
and from that height, down to overcoming the list of small things to be done. More manageable and more easily done! On to the laundry.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Waiting for Superman

And so we had our Martin Luther King ceremony at school and wasn’t that lovely. It alternated between song and speech, included kid singers and speakers, some faculty and me reciting Langston Hughes’ epic “Let America Be America Again” backed by powerful images gather by our librarian in a Powerpoint. Close to the end, I gave the following talk and after watching the last 2 minutes of Dr. King’s iconic speech, 200 children stood, crossed and joined hands and sang from the bottom of their soul “We Shall Overcome.” The tears came as they should and wasn’t that a fine thing? Here is a version of my talk:

Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Look! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman!

When I was a kid, I loved to watch Superman on TV. I thrilled when mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent went into a phone booth and changed into Superman. Now I need to stop here and explain that in the old days, there was something called a phone booth because believe it or not, all phones had wires and if you were out in the world and needed to call someone, you had to put 10 cents into a slot from a public phone. The booth was made of glass and to give you some privacy, you went in and shut the door. One of the big mysteries of Superman wasn’t how he had such super-powers and why kryptonite could weaken him—it was how he could change clothes in such a tiny phone booth. That was see-through and anybody passing by could watch.  I’m still trying to figure that out.

But why did I love Superman so much? Because I was a little kid in a world of big strong adults and sometimes it was a scary place. Most people were bigger, stronger, with bigger voices and with the power to make me do things— eat my spinach, get to bed because the clock said so, get out my math book and so on. They could send me out of class out into the hall if they thought I misbehaved—and I did spend almost all of third grade out there— and older, bigger kids could grab me and steal my Halloween candy and I couldn’t do anything about it. And mostly from watching TV, I learned that the world was filled with bad people who lied, cheated, stole things, hurt people, were greedy and took more than their share. 

So Superman was my hero. “Oh yeah?! You think you’re going to get away with that? Just you wait! Superman will come flying in and knock your heads together!” How I thrilled when the music swelled and he arrived on the scene and all those big, bad bullies starting quaking in the knees and turned into whimpering, sniveling little cowards they were.

Don’t kids today still love the superheros? And so many more to choose from these days! Wonder Woman, Black Panther, the Hulk and lots more— each with special super-powers that will be useful when the bad guys are at it again. So I totally understand why we love superheros. But someday we grow up and realize that no one is going to save us. And that none of us is invincible. 

Martin Luther King seems like a super-hero, but he was a very human human being who loved his wife and kids and sometimes made mistakes and did things that hurt them. And the bullet from the gun didn’t bounce off like it did with Superman. No, it didn’t. He was a strong, courageous man whose life and actions and words can help inspire us to stand up and face people with clubs and guns blocking our path across the bridge. But he was human. One of my favorite images—and saddest— is that just before he stepped out on that balcony in Memphis, a place he came to support garbage workers, he had a meeting with his team. When Andrew Young came a bit late to the meeting, Martin Luther King playfully threw a pillow at him and suddenly, everyone was bonking each other on the head with pillows. I love to think that this was the last thing he did before he left us. Had a playful, joyful and human moment. And then stepped out on that balcony. Where was Superman then? 

So we love superheros because we feel powerless and we love their invincibility and power. But then we grow up and realize was are vulnerable and so is everybody we meet. We realize that the only power that counts is the one that we create in ourselves. How can we feel our own power? What kind of power are we looking for? How can we use our powers? How do we respond to others who have the power to hurt us? 

Some people have outward power, be in money or position—a President, boss, head of a group. And we hope those people will use their power wisely, with understanding, compassion, intelligence and a vision to help others. Not all of us will get that kind of power nor do all of us want it. 

But the truer power is the inward power, the power to make an effort to be better, the power to practice something you love so you can master it, the power to face yourself and others honestly, the power to see beauty in the world and to see the best in others. That last is a teacher’s power . Goethe once said “When we treat a man as he is, we make him worse than he is. When we treat him as if he already were what he potentially could be, we make him what he should be. “      

One of the worst things about racism or sexism or ageism or classism or any ism is refusing to see a person for who they really are, dismissing them in a category, arrogantly thinking that any human being has a right to define another based on anything but the proven character of that person. It feels terrible not to be seen or known, whether it’s from strangers far away or people close to you that miss seeing the essence of who you are by believing in who you have been and who you yet might be. As Meg Wollitzer said, “That’s what the people who change our lives always do. They give us permission to be the person we secretly really long to be but maybe don’t feel we’re allowed to be.” 

That’s what a good teacher does, what a good person does. Bless you, praise you, believe in you and gives you permission to be the person you know you are deep down, but the rest of the world wants you to hide. So whether it’s outward power or inward power, the question is the same. Will you use it to hurt and harm, or  help and heal? Is it bringing more beauty to the world and making it uglier? These are important questions. 

So we have to stop waiting for Superman. He’s not coming. And even if he did, there’s no phone booths anymore for him to change in. We have to stop waiting for something to save us.. I-Phone 15 is not going to save us. A political party is not going to save us. The Messiah is not going to save us. 

Everything we need to save us is right here in this room. Everything we need is right here in our own mind, our own imagination, our own heart. We are the people we have been waiting for. And when we sing We Shall Overcome, we’re not just talking about stopping the evil actions of greedy, power-hungry people. We’re talking about overcoming our own shortcomings, our own lack of courage, our own refusal to be our whole self because it’s too scary, our own refusal to love because we’re afraid we’ll get hurt. Yes, we have to work to stop the bad guys—and gals—not through head-knocking, but through speaking out, writing to and calling Congresspeople, gathering in the streets and most important of all, voting. But if we don’t pay attention to the bad parts in ourselves, nothing will change. Nothing. 

I have a dream too and this school has been the place to try it out. Sometimes it has been truly a heaven on earth and sometimes a hell on earth and sometimes both in the same day. Freedom lives in the human soul and that’s where the most important work takes place. That’s the work we’re trying to do in this school and sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it terribly wrong, but the important thing is that we keep making the effort. All of us. From the youngest to the oldest, all in it together. And it is that courageous effort that will finally free us from the tyranny of our own smallness and make us the beautiful beings we are and deserve to be. That’s when we are free at last. 

Is That So?

There’s an old Zen story about a young woman who gets pregnant and refuses to tell her parents who the father is. Under great pressure, she finally names a local Zen monk. The parents confront the monk and he responds “Is that so?” When the baby is born, they leave him with the monk and demand that he care for him. “Is that so?” he replies and takes the baby in. A year later, the young woman confesses that the identity of the real father and comes to the monk to take the baby back. “Is that so?” he says as he hands over the child. 

Who amongst us has that equanimity to accept whatever life hands us even when we know it is unfair, unjust, damaging to our reputation and just plain wrong? Certainly not me. And yet, in a recent series of events in which for the third time, I’ve been unjustly accused and punished for utter nonsense, my character and reputation attacked, my lovely final year at the school on the edge of disaster, I waffled back and forth between utter outrage and marshalling my forces for a major battle and trying out this “Is that so?” posture. Believe me, it was not easy. But in the end, it proved to be the right response and frankly, I’m astonished that I was able to pull it off. Though I stumbled and fell often, my feet walked mostly on the high road when others took the low. And it turned out to be a better path. 

But take note. “Is that so?” doesn’t mean a casual “whatever. I don’t care.” It comes with the price of still caring deeper than the norm, still feeling the full force of betrayal and injustice, but growing large enough to put it in perspective and diminish its power to throw you down. There was a period in both jazz and counter-culture where “cool” was in, a detached persona that glided through hot-headed emotion. But mostly that was shutting down feeling rather than letting it burn red-hot and containing it so it didn’t burn oneself and others. 

Hope this little Zen story may be useful to you someday. I had a great week at school and my sense of who I am and what I have to offer grew three sizes bigger. Sometimes we not only learn to accept those who transgress against us, but ultimately thank them for making us work harder to re-commit to our work and vision. I won’t forget, but I will forgive. Happy weekend!

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Demise of National Discourse

 I was talking to someone about Garrison Keillor of the former Prairie Home Companion and he had heard of neither. In recent workshops, I referenced the movie “Where’s My Roy Cohn,” and no one had seen it. I find myself talking to folks about a book I read recently titled “The Coddling of the American Mind” and no one had ever heard of it. 

At the moment, I’m reading a book by Rob Kapilow (who?) titled Listening to America: Inside the Great American Songbook. This look at musical theater mostly covers territory I know quite well, but always interesting to hear a few new stories and get a couple of new insights. And the one that really struck me were these passages: 

“The iconic status of the Wizard of Oz reflects one of the most important trends of the 1930’s— the development of a shared national culture.(Boldface mine) Before the 1920’s and 30’s America’s voice was largely a compilation of diverse regional voices. Country and western music, jazz and the blues grew up and flourished in different parts of the country, and cultural activities were locally defined.. However, new technologies like the automobile, records, radio, and films made it possible for the first time for a single message to reach the entire American population at once. People listened to the same music, heard the same radio programs, read the same news, followed the same sporting events, and saw the same movies…the end result was the creation of a common set of cultural references, a common, national voice that became the American voice.”

It was the technology of radio and movies and later television that created this new possibility, whereby a local singer in Mississippi or Harlem or Texas could become a national icon heard and/or seen by many outside of their locality. Likewise, the increase in national literacy, a thriving book industry and national newspapers contributed as well.  And part of the move to a shared national culture came from the people in the various media who had the power to define who and what was worthy of national exposure. One would hope that there were folks in charge who had the ability to distinguish between quality and pap and that there would be a public discerning enough to affirm or negate the choices based on their response. And though we will never know what geniuses may have been unfairly tossed to the side, the rise of poets, musicians, dancers, actors, filmmakers, etc. that ended up defining the American mythic landscape is proof that someone was doing their job. 

Of course, the downside was that national mood of the time could both be affirmed, sustained and created by folks in power who thought it was just fine to film singers in blackface, cast most every African-American as a porter or housemaid, make Indians the bad guys, make Tarzan a hero and on and on. And yet that same media could make films like Inherit the Wind, Stormy Weather, A Gentleman’s Agreement, Adam’s Rib, It’s a Wonderful Life (where Trumplike Potter is the bad guy!), The Defiant Ones, films that had the power to shift the national discourse towards more inclusive and just attitudes. Likewise, books like Native Son, 1984,  songs like Strange Fruit, Mississippi Goddamn, the long legacy of free speech given voice and often rising to prominence in the national discourse. 

The point is that growing up in the 50’s and 60’s up through the 80’s, it felt like the country had a shared point of reference. There were a few nationally-known newspapers,  a couple of short (not 24 hour) news shows so just about everyone knew Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace, 3 major TV channels, a limited number of radio stations, a dozen record labels and just about everyone knowing about the Beatles and Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan and Miles Davis and Joni Mitchell and John Coltrane and James Brown etc. Not everyone would have read Soul On Ice, but most folks knew about Catch 22, The Catcher in the Rye, would understand references to Mary Poppins, the Sound of Music, the Graduate and more. 

Fast-forward to today and the new technological breakthroughs that have radically changed culture. Amidst all the pluses and minuses is the breakdown of a shared national culture. We have become again a "compilation of diverse regional voices" only now we are choosing our region of like-minded or similar-looking people. Now with the dizzying array of choice, everyone and their sister can make a Podcast, write a Blog (!), stream their music on Youtube. TV has some 500 channels, news is 24 hours and many channels (FOX news) with the manufactured lie of  being “fair and balanced” when they clearly have a biased agenda, the chance to talk only with your Facebook friends who agree with you. Add to that the fuel of identity politics and groups hunkering down to connect only with the same race, gender, sexual preference, political persuasion, etc. and what we have is a complete breakdown of anything approaching a shared national discourse where we tend to know the same things and be exposed to common references. As I mention in the opening paragraph.

This topic too big for a mere short Blogpost and too much to wrestle with to bring into coherence. For now, suffice it to say that I believe we are suffering from the loss of shared points of reference and any possibility to engage in meaningful national discussion when we know and are exposed to such different things. For now, just food for thought—with 27 different brands of mustard to choose from as a condiment.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Education or Catastrophe?

Three years ago, it was the Women’s March in San Francisco that turned me from despair to hope in the recent election of the wrong person for our country. He fulfilled every prediction I (and others) made and then some even worse ones. So here we all were again, still taking to the streets to exercise the voice that he hasn’t been able to shut down yet. And again, it felt good to be amongst such fun, interesting, varied and thinking people.

Quite a contrast to a Trump rally, where no one makes a personal sign and all wear the same Heil Hitler hat and follow the script of mindless cheering to any drivel that comes out of the guy’s mouth without a moment of reflection. And if they dare to think or look puzzled by something he says or whisper to a friend that they don’t agree and happen to be on camera (like the Plaid Shirt guy a year or so back), someone comes and escorts them out and replaces them with a Stepford-Wife cheerleader. Politics as a TV script and mass hypnosis. Full frontal public view of brainwashing at work. How is this okay?

But at the women’s march, people mostly make their own signs and they are often clever, witty, artfully designed, creative and thought-provoking. I found two others that almost matched mine exactly! (And for the public record, my wife actually made the sign that I suggested and the other side was her clever list). 

So who do we want to be? Independent thinkers or brainwashed goose-stepping yea-sayers? Which fulfils our country’s founding vision? Which fulfills Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World warning of a dystopian future society, now here and viewable on the TV news? Do we want educated people capable of distinguishing truth from lies or couch potatoes who believe everything FOX News tells them so that the rich and powerful can protect their unearned privilege to wreck the world and play golf? People capable of thinking for themselves or those who are easily duped by self-serving leaders? Do we want to educate people so they use the full measure of their faculties—intellect, imagination and humanitarian promise—or keep caring only about right answers on irrelevant tests? Two quotes:

“We are in a race between education and catastrophe.” — H.G. Wells

“Those who don’t stand for truth will fall for lies.” (This on a sign yesterday, but didn’t get a photo of it.)

Here are some of the gems from yesterday. Keep thinking! Keep speaking out! Keep taking to the streets as needed! If we’re so luck as to make it, be prepared to tell your grandchildren: “I was there. I spoke. I helped turn it around. And all for you. “










Saturday, January 18, 2020

Less Is More


For a Masters in Music Ed project, a student from Canada interviewed me by phone yesterday. We talked for almost 90 minutes with me answering the questions she posed below. It was satisfying, but afterwards I felt that with a bit more time, I could have answered each more succinctly. (One of my favorite quotes came from someone writing a letter to a friend explaining a complex idea and saying, “Sorry I don’t have time to make this shorter.”) So later that day, with some more time on my hand, I challenged myself to give a one-sentence answer to each. Here it is: 

        1)  Please provide me a little bit about your childhood and earlier life. This can include where 
            you grew up, information about your family, as well as any characteristics you are 
            comfortable sharing about your upbringing that contribute to you who you are now.  

Gifted with Bach and Beethoven, grew into James Brown, Brubeck and Bird.

       2) Who, or what, have been some of the most influential people or events impacting your 
              teaching?  

Avon Gillespie and every student I’ve ever taught. 

        3) Could you please describe how you generally sequence curriculum from one grade to the 
               next (from one year to the next)? 

Teach a skill/ concept/ style that grows from the known and moves toward the next unknown. 

        4) Would you please summarize what your average music class might look and sound like for 
               a few different grade levels? I know this varies every day, but I am looking to get a sense of 
               how your classes start off, progress, and conclude each day. 

Enticing beginning, connected middle, satisfying ending. 

          5) Can you please tell me how you assess your students, describing the logistics of assessing 
                each student and the types of criteria you use?  

Watch them, see what needs praise or adjustment, give it to them.

         6) Do you have any classroom management strategies you can pass along to me?

Don’t “manage them,” but release their joyful musicality and guide and shape it.

        7) What are your top pieces of advice you have for beginning music teachers?

Reflection. Reflection. Reflection. And forgive yourself everything the first year.

        8) Do you have a student success stories you could share with me? Feel free to share more than 
             one if there are several that stand out. 

A thousand plus children who were happier at the end of class than they were at the beginning.

        9) Why do you teach?

It’s the favorite shirt that fits me perfectly, makes me feel good, look good and keeps me warm.

       10) Can you please tell me about some of your philosophies surrounding music education?

Teach like it’s music, making everything that makes music necessary and blissful—connection, communion, conviviality—present in each and every moment of music class. 

After the one-sentence exercise, I thought it would be even a better challenge to reduce each answer to one word! Here's my attempt:

1. Bach. 
2. Avon. 
3. Sequentially. 
4. Fun. 
5. Observe. 
6. Fun. 
7. Enjoy. 
8. Yes. 
9. Love. 
10. Play. 

Friday, January 17, 2020

Letter to My Blog

Dear Blog,

There have been several days of silence and perhaps you feel like newly fallen snow waiting for some human tracks to appear. Of course, in the actual world of fields and snow, that’s a beautiful sight. But the empty blank page has a lesser beauty. There is that moment of invitation and possibility, but only for a short while and then, “Come on! Let’s go!” 

My modus operandi is that my companion thoughts start trekking across the synapses of the brain and then I shoo them out the door and tell them to go out and play— either in my still-handwritten journal, an article (or book) I’m writing, but mostly, for an average of 25 times a month, in this modern form of publication that you are. And just about every day these past 9 years, some thoughts show up that are worthy of some form of sharing. 

But sometimes the ideas are too complex or vague or out-of-focus to squeeze into one page and sometimes not that interesting and occasionally (rarely), they don’t show up at all. Or sometimes I’m too busy to find a moment to bring them into the form and substance of a blog post entry. You understand. 

Right now, I’ve been hit with a stick of injustice that didn’t come from the Zen practice of waking me up or a firm loving reminder, but appeared from incompetence granted power beyond its due. And either I write 20 posts about it or try a new thing— put on my impermeable emotional raincoat and let the water drip off and not penetrate. I’m trying it out and it’s kind of working—except for when I wake up at 2 in the morning. I wasn’t even going to tell you this much, but some kind of expression, getting it out into the air, is often needed as we wend our way through the mine field of life’s unexpected explosions. In the fairy tales, the advice is: “Tell it to the stove.” Of course, someone is often hiding behind the stove and hears it and the plot thickens. And if this blog is the stove, then I know others will indeed be listening. In which case, the punch line is this:

Sometimes you need to let go the dignity and sureness of being right in a situation (believe me, I am in this one!) and just play the game and let it go. It will sort itself out and there’s more important work to attend to. I’m trying that out here and it’s not feeling too bad. And certainly better than diving into the deep drama and outrage. 

So, dear Blog, hopes that I’ll return to my routine with you and we can go romping across the newly fallen snow soon. Almost literally, as it hailed here yesterday! 

See you around town!

Love,

Your faithful writer