Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Two Roads to Truth

One way we find out something about who we are and who we might become is to notice who and what we admire. What characters in books or films do we identify with, which people attract as friends or lovers, which artists catch our attention, which teachers did we love? Which music do we find beautiful, which poems speak to our condition, which art pleases our eye? The road to the truth about who we’re meant to be is filled with folks who beckon us forward, some directly with a wave of the hand, some who might never know we’re following them up the path, but represent something we care about, something we need, something we aspire to. Our universe is peopled with heroes, mentors, role models, guides, a community that we build slowly over time and eventually inhabit as our rightful home. We choose the ground to stand on that helps us know what we stand for.

But there is a second road to the center of our character and that is noticing all the people who repel us, who we find distasteful, unpleasant, maddening, outrageous and sometimes downright evil. From the ogres and demons of the fairy tales to the teacher who didn’t understand us to the friends who betrayed us to the lovers who jilted us to the artists whose work feels ugly, we learn something about who we are by who we don’t want to be. We project evil out to the people we can’t stand and sometimes discover that it is the parallel qualities in ourselves that we are reacting to. That’s a hard lesson.

We all carry our list of what’s wrong with the world and our ideas about who the bad guys are. That’s natural, normal, universal. What’s dangerous is when we take it literally, dismiss and lash out at the people rather than the behavior and the values they are carrying. Of course, it’s an easy mistake to make when those people are in your face, treating you shabbily, threatening your well-being, judging you unfairly and even more so if they rise to positions of power to cause yet more harm and wreak havoc to everything that you hold dear.

The third debate just ended and thank goodness it’s over. I am so tired of reacting to this dangerous, narrow-minded, small-hearted man who has dominated the national mood for over a year. I will happily pray for his soul after he loses the election, but will continue to oppose him with everything I have—humor, speech, music and of course, my vote—for the next three weeks. Someday we all might thank him for revealing all the undigested hatred and bigotry and grief in this country, for helping every citizen willing to reflect about the actual principles of a democratic nation discover what we should never become through the back door of seeing clearly how low we fell when we cheered him on or excused him.

Again, the Via Negativa is a viable path to self-discovery. But I, for one, am ready to resume a constructive, pro-active life more centered on what I stand for than what I stand against. The two do live side-by-side in me—the first helps temper the second and the second helps clarify and articulate the first. But there is a certain balance that makes for a proper proportion and the constant reactivity to the next outlandish statement is wearing me down. It’s wearing us all down. Three more weeks of waiting to exhale. May we come to our senses!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Edge of Your Craft

Some 80 music teachers gathered at a weekend workshop I co-taught and I asked them:

“How many of you feel like your job allows you to teach to the edge of your craft? That pretty much everything you have to offer the kids is given the necessary time, space, materials and support to actually give it to them? That you have the satisfaction of seeing your students grow to the height of their musical promise?”

Three hands went up. And two of them were myself and my colleague James Harding, both teaching at the same school.

That is sad news. Here are these teachers giving up a Saturday to improve their teaching, advance in their craft as both a musician and a teacher, learn the 1001 necessary details to give inspired and effective classes— and then go back to jobs on Monday that don’t wholly allow them to teach fully.

A few weeks back, I went to a workshop with an accomplished Orff teacher how sees 600 kids in his school, each class once every six days with class sizes of 25 to 30. Can he teach to the edge of his craft? Does he have the satisfaction of playing music with his kids at the high end of accomplishment? Can he casually throw out, “Basses, work out a drone, altos ostinato, glocks color part, let’s play the melody twice and then who wants to solo?” and get some stirring music happening with 3rd graders within five minutes? Can he call out, “12-bar blues in F with a II-V- I turnaround. Go!” and start jamming with the 8th graders?” Can he see which of the 30 kids in the recorder group needs some extra help with fingering?

I don’t think so. And it’s not his fault. The fact of the matter is that more of the music teachers I meet are in a situation like this than not. Why do they accept it? Some are simply happy just to have a job in a field where so many colleagues’ jobs have been cut. Some just love kids so much that they’re willing to accept less than they (or the kids) deserve. Most have the kind of flexibility we music teachers need and will take one for the team, as it were.

I encourage them to educate their administrators and school boards as to what the bare necessities of an authentic music education require. I even posted an article on my Website titled “The Ideal Orff Classroom” as a guide to what to ask for, in hopes that each year, one little item gets ticked off the list.

But is that fair? Aren’t we music teachers busy enough? Does the reading or math teacher have to beg for enough time in the schedule to actually get the kids to be able to read and add and subtract? Does the computer teacher have to plead for a couple of machines in class?  Something is rotten in the state of Denmark here.

I cannot begin to describe the joy of actually nearing the edge of your craft, the supreme pleasure of throwing out a ping and the students returning a game-worthy pong. Without sufficient time, space, support or realistic class size, teaching music is like trying to play ping-pong with someone who can’t hit the ball back or get it on the table or sustain a volley for more than two times. Frustrating for teacher and student alike. But when the teaching and the support system is genuine, you can serve a challenging Scott Joplin or Jelly Roll Morton to the  8th graders and they’ll hit it right back and keep the volley going—the games is on and it’s glorious! You can play 10 games with 5-year olds that flow one into another and change the form and make variations on the motions and throw in a new verse and they’re right with you—30 straight minutes of volleying back and forth. Such joy! And mind you, this is with music classes only two times a week (Oh, why oh why can’t I have them every day??!), but in a dedicated music room with all the appropriate technologies (grand piano, drums, recorders, xylophones, beanbags, etc.) and an ideal class size of 12 to 15. And why not? Don’t the kids deserve it? Don’t the teachers? Doesn’t the school and culture?

More I could say about advocacy, but I have an hour of work ahead to plan for 15 minutes of tomorrow’s class. I couldn’t tolerate it if no one hit the ball back, but they do and it’s a fun and satisfying game.


Monday, October 17, 2016

"Douglas Is Very Annoying:" My Life in Elementary School

Last night I dreamt I was back in my old elementary school. It was the opening day of the new school year and there I was, not as a young child, but in the here and now giving a talk to the kids. It was the old school auditorium somewhat modernized and I stood before the crowd without a prepared speech and just started talking. And it went something like this.

Hello, kids. Hard to believe, but some 60 years ago, I sat where you sit now. The seats were wooden instead of plastic and none of us carried backpacks or i-phones. Our sneakers were U.S. Keds and cost probably $5 instead of your $150 Nikes. We carried pencils instead of i-Pads and brought metal lunchboxes with pictures of Roy Rogers on them. But the halls of Harrison School back then looked pretty much like they look now and we had to learn the same state capitals and times-tables and such that I hope you still do now.

Kids, a teacher is one of the most important persons in your life. You will never forget them. I remember every single one of mine from all those years back.

I had Mrs. Levy for kindergarten and I remember circle times and finger-painting and sometimes all lying down on the floor for a rest. First grade was a bit of a shock, with reading time and math time and right and wrong answers, the real deal of school. Mrs. Williams once put me behind the piano with a dunce cap, but she also brought me up to Mrs. Tomsu, the second-grade teacher, to show off how well I could read. When I got to second grade, Mrs. Tomsu one day decided I was talking too much and I had to wear tape over my mouth for an afternoon.

In third grade, we got to go upstairs to the 2nd floor and I had Miss Rice (these the days before “Ms.”). We did not get along well and I spent more time in the hall than in the classroom. She wrote on my report card (I still have it) “Douglas is very, very annoying.” The principal was Mr. Feinberg who was bald and who we cruelly called “Fuzzy Feinberg.” When the hall wasn’t punishment enough, I spent much time in his office and he wasn’t abusive, but it wasn’t fun either. But I do remember an activity from Ms. Rice's class where you walked up to a box and selected a photo and then wrote a story about it. I liked that.

Fourth grade was the nicest teacher to date, Mrs. Hendrickson. We made marionettes and put on a little play. Mine was an Eskimo (now called Inuit). It was my one and only drama experience in elementary school (except for something in second grade when I was a clown and did a somersault and my pants split. I took them home to my Mom at lunch to sew for the afternoon performance and they split again.) One day in class, someone was tapping me on the shoulder while I was talking to a friend and I swung my arm back to get them to stop and realized I had hit Mrs. Hendrickson! She was somewhat good-humored about it.

Fifth grade was Mr. Anderson, who had thick glasses and was strict. When I did something wrong—and I think you’re getting the idea that I was on the naughty side of things—he made me duck-walk down the hall and back or stand up for an hour in class. The saving grace was a sweet substitute teacher named Miss Graziano who I and my fellow boy classmates had a huge crush on.

Sixth grade was Miss Conover, a no-nonsense strict teacher with high standards who made the boys wear string ties to make gentlemen out of us. I remember some kind of science fair project about a volcano and standing out in the hall with Patty Brooks, one of the two African-American girls in our class, who was delightfully sassy and bold and told me how she’d be kissing her boyfriend right in the hall if he was out there with her.

Harrison School used to end at 6th grade and then you went on to Abraham Clark High School from 7th to 12th. But that year, they decided that all the town's elementary schools would add 7th grade. So I had two teachers that year, Miss Richmond, who uncomfortably reminded me of Miss Rice and Mr. Reuter, who was way nicer than Mr. Anderson.

Meanwhile, we had gym (P.E.) with Mr. Salcito, my favorite of all teachers probably because I liked sports. He also ran the summer program, where anyone could show up for free and play tetherball or Nok-hockey or baseball or such. I was on the Harrison Chiefs baseball team and the low-point of my athletic life was a game against our mothers. 9th inning, bases loaded, two outs, we’re down by one run and I’m up. I pictured my Babe Ruth moment and swung too hard on each pitch and struck out! Oh, the humiliation! Mr. Salcito also still owes me a prize that he never delivered for winning the pie-eating contest, the beginning of my sense that the world wasn’t always going to be fair and that adults were not always reliable.

Don’t remember much about art except Mr. Friedman yelling at me too uncomfortably close to my face. Music was with Miss Saruya who liked that I could play piano. We mostly sat in desks and sang forgettable songs badly. The only two I remember are The Erie Canal and a song where the boys got to chime in with their fake-deep husky voices, “Baked potato!” Since I became a music teacher, I see how much better those classes could have been if Miss Saruya had crossed paths with the Orff approach. But the timing was off—that seed didn’t drop in American soil until 1962.

It appears I didn’t like school that much and that was partly right. I was intensely curious about the world and read books and listened to Beethoven and played Bach and started a rock collection and drew animals from National Geographic magazines and played pick-up baseball, football and basketball with my friends, laying the foundation for a lifetime of independent learning. But I do have fond memories of the school fair, throwing ping-pong balls into fish-tanks to win goldfish, my Mom telling fortunes, cartoons in the 5th grade class. I loved Field Day across the street in the playground and eraser tag on rainy days and the Debate Club where I took everyone on my team’s turn to respond because I had a rebuttal and the excitement of seeing it snowing out the window and the buzz in the room when we were working on something interesting and getting our Harrison Echoes, a school-published kid literary magazine (still have some in my file drawer!). I liked the assemblies and still remember a theater troupe doing a puppet show about the Upside Down Family and the song, “Oh, we’re upside down. We like to be upside down. We want to be upside down. So we’re upside down.” I liked joining the bike club, where in order to qualify, you had to memorize the ten rules even if you didn’t understand what they meant. (1) Keep to the right. 2) Have white light on front. 3) Give pedestrians the right of way. Etc.)

I remember on the last day of school in 7th grade wondering if the teachers were going to talk about all the kids in my class and send us off in ceremonial fashion. They didn’t. But when I became a teacher and found myself in a school where the teachers could decide what kind of community we could be, some part of me knew all the things that didn’t work for me in my school and was determined to make them work for the kids I taught. I started many rituals and ceremonies and celebrations that had the fun of the Harrison School Fair, the mystery of snow out the window, the zaniness and humor of the Upside Down Family, the imagination of the stories written from pictures, the documentation and sharing of creative work of the Harrison Echoes, 100 songs as memorable (and many more interesting) than“Baked Potato” and “Erie Canal,” the speaking about each kid at graduation that I didn’t get. And so on.

So Harrison School students, I hope the school has changed enough to give you some of these things that you deserve. Meanwhile, I thank all of my teachers for their efforts, no matter how much they fell short in my eyes— you can see how much I learned from them.

And yes, I’ll be happy to stand here before you and finally receive my pie-eating contest prize.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Permission to Rant

How to be fierce in defense of the vulnerable without getting caught in the muck of the evil-doers? How to be honest in my exasperation with lies, hatred and willful hurt? How to understand without excusing or accepting purposeful ignorance and malevolent ideas and actions? The rant I really want to make would be filled with expletives and caps and exclamation points. I want to Howl like Allen Ginsberg, scream like Pharoah Sanders in Coltrane’s Meditations, swing my sword of justice like Hercules cutting off the heads of the Hydra or Rama vanquishing Ravanna. In most of the real world, good and evil are dressed in countless shades of gray, but sometimes it’s as simple as black and white and this time, black is the good guys. But that Mr. Nice Guy I carry with me has trouble letting it all hang out in a public blog. So below is my tempered rant I wrote after reading an article trying to explain the Trump phenomena. As follows:

I am so tired of hearing all the reasons, rationales, excuses, justifications, analysis and theories about why apparently perfectly normal decent people would choose to vote for Trump. Yes, it’s important to consider, to analyze, to think about what needs more attention in the future, but from where I sit, there simply is no excuse for an adult human being closing down the multiple pathways of the thinking brain to just obsess on one thing. Never mind the blatant insults to and sexual harassment of women, never mind the vitriol hurled at the handicapped, Latinos, blacks and Muslims, never mind the inability to answer a direct question or develop a single coherent thought beyond spouting out about the liberal “disaster,” never mind a pathological inability to apologize and take responsibility, never mind the idolization of a Russian despot, never mind the insane denial of climate change, never mind the arrogant boasting about how smart he is to avoid paying millions in taxes while ranting about our economic problems, never mind the absence of a single coherent political plan, never mind his casual attitude about nuclear weapons. None of that matters as long as he promises the lie that the working citizen will pay less taxes and make them feel better about their life by raising them one notch higher than all the rapists, terrorists and violent folks that make up his fantasy of people of color.

I’m tired of hearing excuses from and about these people, I’m tired of trying to understand the reasons why they act like they do and make the choices they make, I’m tired of listening to a psychoanalysis about why they so fanatically hate a woman who has devoted a lifetime of service to trying to make this government run better for its citizens. They have adult bodies and the responsibility to match them with adult minds, minds capable of discerning fact from fiction, minds open to discussion, minds adept at the basics of rational thought. They have adult powers and responsibilities that they have to meet with hearts that care beyond their own discontent with their life. Some part of them signed up for a human incarnation and that means following nature’s invitation to keep growing neuron connections, to develop the frontal lobes capable of empathy and compassion, to consider consequences beyond their unfocused anger at who they are and who they aren’t. They boast about their good fortune about landing in a democratic nation without looking at the responsibilities, knowledge and good citizenship that requires.

I’m sick of trying to understand them. And I know that they’re not trying to understand why people would vote for Hillary because that would mean talking about actual real things like job qualifications, political proposals, voting records, ideas about making government work better. I’ll have a good healthy discussion with any of them with honest and open-minded points that we can equally consider about each other’s experience, but I won’t have a shouting-match or name-calling session or casual agreement to disagree when the stakes are so high.

People, the stakes are so high. No one takes time to understand the experience of people fleeing from a burning building or running to put out the fire. Trump has proven six ways to Sunday that he is the least qualified and appropriate candidate in the entire history of the United States and it is the responsibility of every adult voter to think beyond their own one issue and their own strange anger and their own casual irresponsibility.

After the election is over and Trump loses—by a landslide, I hope— and we can all breathe again, then I will want to understand his supporters. I know it sounds arrogant that I and my kind think that we're 95% right and they're 95% wrong, but the truth is that this is not a respectful disagreement between two political points of view. It's a contest between a point of view and a knee-jerk, desperate, fanatic, unthinking, vengeful misuse of democratic power for all the wrong reasons. It's a battle between thought and ignorance, between people who can defend the pros and cons of Hillary's offerings and people who are shouting "Hang her in the streets!", between folks who want to keep the moral arc the universe bending toward justice and those who are punching black folks in the face for attending their rallies, openly encouraged by their candidate. 

When this bad nightmare is over, then I will re-commit to educating them—or more importantly, their children. And yes, I'll be happy to hear why they thought this was okay and listen to their frustrations and calmly look at why hatred and simple-minded non-solutions would not have solved them. But not now. All I want to say to them now is please stay home and don't vote. I know it sounds anti-democratic, but voting is a privilege and responsibility earned by citizens who take it seriously enough to understand that we cannot build a wall on our border and no, we cannot make Mexico pay for it. Or as one Trumpette thought, we cannot make China pay for the Mexican wall. Don't get me started on that list.

Rant over and back to work.

Ode to Melody

There is a temple in heaven that is opened only through song.
-The Talmud

My good friend Fran at the Jewish Home is not wholly herself. Her 90 years are catching up with her and she's having some trouble with her voice. When I come to play the old jazz standards on piano, they’re just not the same without her singing them. And so I bring my “Classical Fakebook” and sight-read through some of the 800 melodies and make up the left hand parts shown as chords.

It’s extraordinary how many melodies I recognize, but can’t place why I know them or where I know them from. Some surprise me: “Why, Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette was the theme song for Alfred Hitchcock’s TV show! Fucik’’s (yes, that’s his name!) Entry of the Gladiators is the archetypal circus music! Borodin’s Theme from Polovetzian Dances is the song Stranger in Paradise!” Some I recognize the melody but never know the composer: Delibes Pizzicato Polka, Gabrielle-Maries’ La Cinquantaine, Gossec’s Gavotte, Meacham’s The American Patrol. Waldteuffel’s Skater’s Waltz. There’s the old familiar melodies by Sousa, Strauss and Saint Saens and then the slow haunting melodies that stop time: Bach’s Arioso, Bach-Gounod’s Ave Maria,  Offenbach’s Barcarolle, Saint-Saens The Swan, Schubert’s Impromptu.

So many beautiful melodies and such comfort we all feel in the room because we recognize them. They bring us back to a time and place and feeling we can’t always name, but have some muscle memory of that moment when the music stopped the clock and brought us into some happy place of contentment and warmth and meaning. As a jazz improviser always looking to expand, elaborate, play around the melody, it’s a nice change to simply play the notes as written and dig deeper into the beauty of each tone and the way it moves inexorably to the next.

I’m noticing that in my teaching with the kids, I’m almost always beginning a piece or game or dance with everyone learning the melody. Of all the musical elements, melody is the most central because it holds the rhythm and the harmony and the form. Embedded in its notes is the blueprint for all accompanying rhythms, harmonies, bass lines, counter-melodies, color parts and more. It hits us dead-center where music lives, in the feeling heart and the imaginative mind taking flight on the wings of melody. If there are words, it’s the melody that sings them out to the depth of their meaning and carries them home to the listening heart.

I’ve noticed that if I learn West African rhythms as abstract patterns without a song, they don’t stick in my memory and I don’t understand their context and meaning as deeply. Same with learning dances as just a series of steps. And if I’m at a jazz jam session and someone just shows me the chord changes to a song, my improvisation will not sing out as true. Melody is the queen of the music palace who holds the power and the beauty and the soul of the whole kingdom.

The rain is falling outside the window, Bizet’s exquisite flute melody from Carmens Entr’ Act III sings out over the accompanying harp. The violin’s counter-melody joins in, the bass plucks its foundation, the harp outlines the chords, but it’s the flute that lifts me up and sets me down into that forever home where everything makes sense and is true and is beautiful. There is beauty in gamelan melodies, Ghanaian songs, Bulgarian folk music, blues laments, but none of them carry me back to my childhood where I heard these strains coming from old movies, TV shows, my parent’s record player or the radio driving at night to the Staten Island Ferry after visiting my grandparents.

In short: There are temples in my personal heavens that can only be opened by song. And there are some rooms in the temple that can only be opened by certain kinds of songs. And so on this rainy Sunday, I step through the gate, delivered by that most extraordinary of human inventions, musical melody.