Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Conference of the Birds

The dreaded day is upon us. To watch or not to watch, to boycott, to respond the next day with the strength of millions, everyone is plotting their strategy to survive, to stay afloat, to keep hope alive. Some move toward political action, some toward soul-work, some to education, some to “all of the above.” All of it is needed.

The word "Inauguration" comes from "augury," the practice of interpreting omens by observing the flight patterns of birds. In Roman times, if things did not look good, the ceremony was postponed. But we moderns are tied to pre-set dates regardless of the signs of the times and the catastrophe will go on as scheduled.

The omens could not be more ominous. The crows and vultures are circling, the canaries in the mine have stopped singing, the white doves are now dirty pigeons swarming through the city’s parks. The attack on the children in the schoolhouse that Hitchcock predicted is poised to begin, with Betsy DeVoss in the lead. For me, for many, tomorrow will be a day of mourning, a day of international shame, a day to renew all vows to stand up, speak out and not give up.

But some corner of me still believes that majestic eagles will rise and disperse the scavengers, that the songbirds will sing their sweet songs no matter how tiny their voices are alone, that the ostriches with their heads in the sand will finally look up and see what’s coming down, that the parrots mindless repeating everything they heard on Fox News will shut up and listen. Out of this swamp will rise some graceful egrets and herons and the full measure of winged creatures will meet, confer and help restore the balance of nature.

They will not clip our wings and stifle our song. We were made to sing. We were made to fly, Another inauguration is in the works that the TV cameras will miss, as we swear each other into the office of protecting, sustaining and moving further the progress we fought so hard for.

May it be so!

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The New CIA

I’ve posted these photos on Facebook and “likes” far exceed the reaction to posts about my political outrage. No surprise there. It feels better to stand up for something than to stand against something. Both may be necessary, but the uplift from an international group of beautiful souls held together and singing in concentric circles is happier than the latest disaster news. One is a hot, hearty, healthy soup on a cold night and the other is liver and onions (with beets!) on a summer’s night when you wanted ice cream. One is a flowering mountain meadow with children running happily through the fields, the other is grim-faced soldiers standing in formation. The latter may be necessary to protect the former, but what is the proper balance between the beauty and the readiness? (If you compare our country’s defense budget next to our military one, is it too much to suggest that the ratio is way out of balance? In the U.S., 54% of the national budget is for defense nine times greater than the 6% for education. In Switzerland, it’s 5% for military, 7% for education—and 22% for social welfare—quite a different ratio. Food for thought.)

So back to these photos from The SF International Orff Course. For two weeks each summer, teachers come from some 25 countries to get further trained in how to bring joyful music and dance to children. That’s what the brochure promises and it’s real. We do this work well and people leave with new practical ideas, materials and pedagogical tips as to how to teach better. And then back for two more summers to take the next steps.

But as these photos suggest and these teachers will testify, it is so much more than professional development. The love, laughter and lifelong friendships is the larger part of the whole deal. And in a world gone mad, it’s no small achievement to get people from every continent together, not to just “tolerate” each other, but to delight in each other. Of course, it’s easy to live in peace and harmony when it’s only two weeks and we’re not competing for resources or mandated by law or custom to distrust each other. But still, it’s a triumphant story of the change that might because for two glorious weeks in the California countryside, it is. Are there any lessons here for the rest of the world? Consider three:

C is for Children, the small mostly innocent people these teachers hang out with for most of their days. Because the profession offers no fame, fortune nor promise of easy work that you can just coast through, most people who sign up come to it with a love for the little guys and gals. Of course, not all—I see you remembering some of your cruel teachers who perhaps signed up for sadistic purposes or for lack of any other career opportunities—but the folks that I meet mostly are committed to improving the planet one child at a time.

I is for Imagination, Intelligence and Intuition, the three I’s (and eyes) through which the artist sees the world. As music teachers and particularly as Orff Schulwerk practitioners, we cultivate all three. Imagination helps give us the capacity to imagine the other as part of us, intellect helps us cut through the propaganda and brainwashing that keeps us apart, intuition helps us to trust that if it sounds good when this note goes with this chord, it is good, that when it feels good to be around so many diverse people with new songs, stories, tastes, languages and ways of thinking, it is good.

A is for Art, that powerful faculty that helps “thaw the frozen sea within us” (Kafka), that helps us to live in the flow of life, welcoming and responsive to changing circumstances. In art, as Duke Ellington quipped, our favorite composition is always “the next one,” because to be fully alive is to perpetually create. And then when we share our creations, particularly music and dance, we connect with others below the belt of difference and dogma, align our steps, blend out voices and play together in the marvelous dance of co-creation. There’s simply nothing like it to bring a group of people profoundly together.

I would like to rename our course The International Institute of Peace, Harmony and Social Justice Through the Orff Approach to Music and Movement. It’s a bit clumsily and the acronym IIPHSJTOAMM doesn’t exactly swing. But that’s what we’re about. And we have our own CIA Agency to build trust, empathy, hope and action. And if the old CIA comes to investigate because we're a threat to the powers that be, why, first they have to play, sing and dance with us. Wouldn't that be interesting? 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Old ABC's

Amidst a thousand depressing things about the current political climate, our extraordinary failure to educate our citizens rises to the top for me. Schools have long been the breeding grounds of obedience, mindless competition, willful ignorance of our own history and apathy and it’s frightening how masterfully they’ve done their job recently. I’m doing my best to listen to the “other side,” but all I’m finding from the Trump apologists is misinformation as the basis for decision-making, misplaced fear and willingness to give over independent thought to whoever most convincingly makes promises they never intend to keep. And because they’ve been trained in the old ABC’s, they are the dupes for the rich and powerful who have no intention to care for the very people who voted for them (except their fellow rich and powerful people). The old ABC’s that still are being taught?

 Acquiescence—“That’s just the way life is. Can’t do anything about it.”
 Brainwashing— “If you say it’s true, I’ll believe it without fact-checking.”
 Compliance—“I’ll do whatever you say.”

I’m reading George Fredrickson’s important book A Short History of Racism. (Is this required reading in all schools? In all workplaces? A prerequisite for voting? Why not?) The central theme is a look at the governments that have taken our natural initial distrust of the other and turned into a social program of winners, those who deserve to inhabit the planet and receive basic rights and human dignity, and the losers, those who don’t. The top three winners are the American South (both in slavery and Jim Crow times), Nazi Germany and South Africa during apartheid. Each had different levels and means of intolerance, but they all shared similar points of view and mostly used similar methods.

The one that we white folks have agreed to be most outraged about is the Holocaust and we would do well to pay attention to these passages from the book (pp. 122-123). Substitute Hitler for you-know-who and the warning is clear:

“More amazing than the fact that a paranoid and delusional heterophobe like Hitler could find others who were prone to see the world in the same way was his success in making himself the absolute dictator of a modern and seemingly enlightened Western nation…Hitler’s appeal was broad and varied in that he offered solutions to problems afflicting various sectors of German society…he professed sympathy for workers being exploited by ruthless capitalists and promised to address their grievances…what Hitler and the Nazi leadership required from most Germans was acquiescence rather than direct involvement.”

To the horror of six million human beings, it worked perfectly. So here we are in the U.S.A., 2017, and the campaign to dismantle democracy and roll back the progress of human rights and dignity has already begun before the guy has even entered the Oval Office. He and his cronies will be able to accomplish everything they set out to do if we remain faithful accomplices by being acquiescent, brainwashed to believe without back-up facts and compliant.

Perhaps 50 years from now, they’ll be making movies about all the "Good Americans" who let it happen and the Oscars will go to the inspiring stories of the scant few who responded with Activism, Beauty and Compassion. It will make for good drama, but at the expense of a land laid to waste and the suffering of countless people. Let’s not go there. We need massive resistance, clear thinking that refuses to be brainwashed, non-compliance and deep compassion, active participation defending the dream our flawed, but visionary, forefathers crafted: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” The new ABC’s, people!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The New ABC's

The Martin Luther King Day celebration at The San Francisco School has always been a powerful experience. We’ve had some noteworthy guests over the years—Melba Beals and Minniejean Brown-Trickey (two of the Little Rock 9), Clarence Jones (“I Have a Dream” speechwriter), Mary Morgan (wife of Dr. Spock, who was Dr. King’s running mate in a plan to run for President), Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir and more.

Each year, we dust off the old songs from the 60’s and the kids never fail to bring new life to them with their passion, enthusiasm and great singing—Free at Last, If I Had a Hammer, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free, Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, Woke Up This Morning, One Little Step Toward Freedom, The Dream of Martin Luther King, We Shall Not Be Moved, Down By the Riverside, You Better Mind (music teachers, are you taking notes?) and of course, closing with We Shall Overcome. This year we added Imagine by John Lennon and Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan.

As I said, it’s always a powerful ceremony, but this year the meaning of Dr. King’s work carried new weight and import. We decided not to show his “I Have a Dream Speech” and accent the history of the Civil Rights movement, but bring it all to the new movement that is gathering forces right here, right now. Not to use Dr. King as an historic legacy, but as a springboard into the action our times deserve now. To begin to form the next generation of social activists, right here, right now. And watching these kids deliver their individual and group poems in the ceremony, I’d say we’re off to a great start. (One of the highlights was my daughter’s 5th grade class sharing their group “Letter to the President.” Hope to feature it soon as a guest blog).

We always judge this ceremony on the basis of the number of tears shed and yesterday was a waterfall from parents, teachers and even a few kids. The words in these songs carried so much more power than usual and spoke even deeper truths. It’s as if they were written with one unnamable man and his brainwashed supporters in mind:

”How many times can a man turn his head, and pretend that he just doesn’t see?…”

“You goin’ around from door to door, talking ‘bout things that you really don’t know…”

“I wish you could know what it means to be me…”

“I’d sing out danger, I’d sing out a warnin’…”

And so the new ABC’s. Activism. Beauty. Compassion. The purpose of education, of learning to read and write, add and subtract, paint and sing and act, is to develop the capacity for genuine thought tied with care and kindness, to marry mind, body and heart on behalf of life and love and laughter. We don’t force children to march to our agenda, we invite them to think and then give them the tools to act. We don’t demand they create something beautiful, we give them skills, models and encouragement. We don’t yell at them to care and be kind, we show them that Golden Rule is real and they we all become our better selves when we feel known, cared for and loved, when we can learn to know others, care for them and love them.

Radical Islam fundamentalists are brainwashing children to hate the other and be rewarded in heaven. Radical Republicans are brainwashing children to hate the other and be rewarded with privilege. But you can’t brainwash children to love and care and be fully informed. Brainwashing is a “method of controlled systematic indoctrination based on repetition or confusion.” ( Our mission is to reveal the beauty and intelligence and caring we all carry, not to hide the ugliness and lies and ignorance that the power-hungry purposefully mask.

Dear reader, amidst the shame of what is now our international disgrace, please know that 10-year old kids are gathering to be the change they want to see, even in the face of this country’s shameful attack on Dr. King’s work. It gives new hope and meaning to our closing song. 

Friday, January 13, 2017

Bach Again

I almost fell asleep driving back from work yesterday and stumbled into my house exhausted.
I had three choices for revival:

   1) A nap
   2) An uncharacteristic cup of coffee
   3)  Bach’s English Suite No. 6

I went with Bach and stood up after two hours at the piano fully alive, alert and energized.
This man surely was a Divine Messenger and though (thankfully), no church with dogma has arisen around his works, the practice of his music is every bit as effective a conduit between Heaven and Earth as the most devout Christian prayer, the most dedicated Buddhist meditation or Hindu yoga.

His lines are threads that stitch together the torn fabric of the world’s ragged cloth. They course through the nervous system like electric wires, sparking our dulled senses and bringing light and warmth. Fingers that waste their promise pushing buttons and texting come alive in patterned calisthenics and radiate their full intelligence.The mind content to sleepwalk through the predictable changes and vapid melodies of pop music awakens to intricacies worthy of its 10 billion possible neuron connections. (Try memorizing a Bach piece to realize just how complex the configurations are.) And the heart. Compared to the Romantics, Bach may appear cold and calculating, but deep inside the Sarabandes and Arias are emotions worthy of the most sensitive poet.

Of course, Bach is not the only show in town. Nor should he be. All good music is the meeting of body, mind and heart and each piece or style, rightly heard, unlocks another faculty of the soul. (Stealing from Coleridge here). But Bach is my go-to guy to revive my slumping self. When you find something with the restorative power of naps, coffee, meditation, exercise and lovemaking combined, you know you’re on to something good.

Bach is reason enough to keep making the kids go to piano lessons and my advice to people retiring is to forget golf and dust off your own forgotten piano chops from 50 years ago and return to the hidden treasures of Prelude No. 1.

Thank you to my parents, my piano teacher Mrs. Lutz and J. S. himself for the gift that keeps on giving.