Thursday, March 23, 2017

Confessions of a Non-Coffee Drinker

 Note to self:

• Drink coffee at 3 pm

• Up for an hour at 3 am

• Don’t repeat.


The first time I came to teach the Special Course in Salzburg, I stayed in a farmhouse in the outlying village of Anif. It was a 45-minute walk to the Orff Institut, a 20-minute bike ride, both along enticing pathways through village back-roads, a beautiful park and Hellbrun Allee where Julie Andrews skipped merrily along. If I wanted to go downtown, it was another 20-minutes in the other direction and a late dinner or concert meant 40 plus minutes riding home in the dark and sometimes in rain, sleet or snow. My farmhouse hostess didn’t speak a word of English and me no German (or rather thick Austrian dialogue), so communication was a challenge. If I had one class in the early morning and another late afternoon, I either had to do another 40 minute bike ride or hang out at the Institute or go somewhere else. In short, it was utterly inconvenient, sometimes challenging and not ever completely comfortable.

And I loved it.

But the next few visits, I succumbed to practicality and found another place closer, though still funky enough to have some charm and the bonus of being on the river. Still later, I opted for the Youth Hostel, a bit closer yet—20-minute walk/ 10 minute bike—and less homey and pension-like, but good wireless connection, a youthful energy and close to the Old Town.

This time, worried about it being cold and not being able to rent a bike, I succumbed to convenience and tried Motel One a mere 4-minute walk from the Institute. Convenient and comfortable it is, but way too slick and modern for my taste. No paintings on the wall and instead a TV screen with a video of a fire, complete with fake crackling sounds. Bright lights, overlooks the Merkur (great view of the fruits and vegetables) and the only close restaurant is across from McDonald’s on Salzburg’s most strip-mallish street and complete with disco-beat music.

The fact is, I’m immersing myself completely in the 2 to 6 hours daily I’m teaching and we are certainly creating our own kind of beauty in every class, musically and otherwise. But truth be told, I’m suffering a bit from BDD—Beauty Deficit Disorder. I’ll solve that this weekend with long walks and bike rides. But in retrospect, I loved the way my home in Anif made beauty part of the daily routine and me with no choice in the matter. When a friend visited Salzburg once and I took him on that bike ride, that I used to do every day, he paused and said, “Doug, this is beautiful,” affirming the happiness I felt living that brief life of biking daily through beauty.

I think BDD is a real thing (am I the first to name it?). I felt it at the beginning of this trip in the Philadelphia outskirts in the typical American strip with no place to go but drive to the mall and even a bit in Barcelona in a more modern hotel fare from the true character of that marvelous city. Brugge was the exception, a room that just made me happy every second I was in it, which was only two short nights. It seems that my Soul needs a certain ground base of aesthetics to feel wholly itself. And I think we all do.

I think the uglification of my country is part of our problem. Because humans are so adaptable, we lower ourselves to the next standard of ugly expediency and stop noticing what we’re missing. I believe it makes us less capable of intelligent feeling and a feeling intelligence, less able to distinguish between the nuances of genuine aesthetics, the subtleties, the shades of beauty’s many faces. Instead of Chopin’s intricate dynamics, we fill the restaurant with the never-changing pounding disco beat, serve bland or artificially-flavored food, have scattered conversations while checking our superficial text messages. We numb ourselves to intricacy and complexity and indeed, how can we make measured decisions about our future if our present is so one-dimensional?

And I can understand how that can happen, having just myself traded the Anif bike ride of beauty for the Motel One convenient short walk. But at least I’m noticing my BDD symptoms and am determined to overcome it. What happens when we’re incapable of even realizing that we’re missing something?

Tomorrow, a long walk and hello, Salzburg!!

Heaven Is But a Half Step Away

It is my virtue and vice to make music work as my Secretary of Freedom, constantly transposing its musical lessons to life itself. I’m like a modern day John Muir, who once said something like: “When I try to pick out anything by itself, I find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Welcome to my Orff workshops.

Here in Salzburg, working with these most marvelous 16 teachers from 7 countries, I’m moving them through the Evolution of Human Consciousness and Development through the vehicle of scales and textural and harmonic accompaniment. The Drone places our feet on this Earth, connects us to the ground of our being and lets us know we are home and we belong. Our first tentative flight from the nest is a safe one, sheltered in the first two overtones of the harmonic series, sol and mi. The ambiguous La comes next, sends us fluttering a few feet away. Then the Re, the next in the overtone series after the others. And that completes the Pentatonic Scale, our training ground for future flights, always hovering close to the nest and the comfort of Mother.

Put in less technical terms, the kids playing on these five notes on the Orff instruments have removed all potential dissonant notes so that whatever they play sounds good. They have their whole life to deal with tension and conflict, so why not start them off with some comforting pleasing sounds? And so we do. Though we also learn that there are three distinct worlds (at least) inside of these five notes that can speak to three different moods we may have and that’s why music is so necessary to unleash, evoke, affirm and extend our emotional life.

Somewhere around 4th grade, they’re more prepared to face the realities of tension in the world, so we let them put the F’s and B’s (Fish and Bananas/ Fa and Ti) on the instrument and learn how to pass through them without getting too involved in their tense and anxious characters. We still have the drone to ground us, even after the drone itself starts to get restless and move to its neighboring notes. But now we’re flying further from home and armed with the knowledge of which parts of the forest to avoid.

Finally, we enter the territory of our cousin’s house down the block, the V7 chord that takes us squarely away from the comfort of our own room and into the adventure of the other. It’s exciting and a bit scary, but once we understand the route, we can handle the tension of the F and B/ Fa and Ti tones sounded together in the Devil’s interval of the tri-tone. Left hanging by itself, it is sheer hell, a straining tautness yearning for resolution, the F leaning toward E, waiting to fall in its arms, the B reaching upwards to embrace the waiting Do. (Try it on the piano and you’ll know what I mean).   

And that’s where today’s title came from. We may feel like we’re in a Hell without end (read U.S. politics today or our own personal sorrows), but there should be some comfort in knowing that Heaven is but a half-step away. Let us fall into it or rise up to it—not a giant super-human leap, but a mere half-step—and in the glory of the homecoming, the sun will shine out and help erase the memory of all those storm-clouded days. Let Fa to Mi, Ti to Do be our mantra and play our new national anthem: One Half Step to Heaven.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Free to Speak

It's my second glorious day with 16 beautiful souls in the Orff Institute Special Course in Salzburg. Five from Iran, three from Colombia, three from Turkey and one each from China, Canada, U.S., Finland and Czech Republic. Today when we were supposed to be playing “Roses Are Red” on the xylophones, we stumbled into a conversation about what’s going on in the U.S. and the world. Students from China, Iran and Turkey reaffirmed what I already knew. That right now in their country, if they spoke out critiquing the government the way I do in my Facebook posts, blogs, T-shirts I wear, classes with kids, comments in workshops, I would be in jail.

I don’t feel that as some might, as another pat on the back that the good ole U.S.A. is the land of the free. But I do recognize that such free speech has been a fairly constant freedom— in the press, in songwriting, in novels and poems, in speeches and lectures. And I appreciate that.

There have been many ways that people who say unpopular truths can be and have been punished in our culture’s history— the McCarthy hearings, murders and assassinations, people losing their jobs or being ostracized in their communities. But I don’t believe there has been a time in the past century when the powers-that-be officially banned free speech, took completely control of the media, dictated what artists could or could not say and openly imprisoned or executed those who dared to question and critique. And that’s at least a sign that there is perpetual hope that others might eventually actually listen and be educated to consider another point of view from the ruling party’s line.

So if this level of free speech is a privilege, then it also is our responsibility to use it and use it wisely. If my constant humanitarian comments often called “political” are tiring or wearisome or tedious or predictable or boring to some, I apologize only for rendering them ineffective by too much exposure. But I feel more motivated than ever to speak on behalf of justice and healing and beauty and genuine freedom in whatever forms and opportunities present themselves and would be shirking my duty as a citizen to shut up just because I’m afraid I’d offend or bore someone who would rather hear about the great restaurant I went to.

I continue to be mightily impressed by these folks from these countries, people who don’t have the freedom to speak as openly in their country, but carry in their actions and private conversations a high level of care and concern. Shame on us who have the freedom to move the needle of justice further to “go” and don’t take advantage of it. What's the point of free speech if we don't have anything intelligent or kind to say?

And some deep talk with a woman from Iran about my perception that the people I’ve met from her country seem untouched by their society’s limitations. Though their law narrows the choices of a woman’s personhood to a small slice of their full possibility, but when they leave the country to be somewhere like Salzburg, that freedom they feel inside instantly blossoms. I think that’s extraordinary. I think of the Yeats’ poem, about the courage and awareness necessary to escape other people’s defiling definition of you:

The finished man among his enemies?
How in the name of Heaven can he escape
That defiling and disfigured shape
The mirror of malicious eyes
Casts upon his eyes until at last
He thinks that shape must be his shape?

In a land of free speech, it feels like some people are less free than some of their counterparts in Turkey, Iran, China and other places where such speech is limited and controlled. I don’t know how, but there is some level of education, of culture, of hard heart-work that goes on in these places to produce people of strong moral fiber, artistic sensibility, humor and capacity for love. At least the ones I’ve met.

Of course, it’s simplistic to generalize, but all I can do here is speak from my experience and offer my deep respect and admiration and friendship with these folks. I’m honored to know them. Meanwhile, America, let’s step up to free speech and use it to revive culture, tell truth, educate the ignorant, resist the unjust policies rolling out of Washington like a flurry of bowling balls determined to knock down the pins of democracy.

And in case you’re wondering, we did play “Roses are red” and when we got to “sugar is sweet, and so are you!”, I pointed to each of them and meant it.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Ugly Beauty

The above the title of a great Thelonious Monk ballad. In his deep way, and in his unorthodox chord voicings, he showed that there is some “ugliness” in beauty and some beauty in “ugliness.” And that pretty much captures my state of mind after seeing some recent photos of me. In some, I recognize the familiar decent-enough face that has been with me most of my life. Not stunningly handsome, but reasonably attractive.

But in others… Ay! It’s shocking how hideous I can look, sagging neck flesh, weird expressions, bad posture, bulging belly. Damn! You would think in my mid-sixties, vanity would fade out, any concern about looking attractive would have outlived its usefulness and I could re-focus on the more important and lasting inner beauty. You would think it, but apparently it’s not quite true. It’s hard to adapt to feeling occasionally hideous. Not that I see it in disgusted looks of people who I teach or pass, but dang, those photos!!! (I WILL NOT post them here.)

I suppose it’s a lesson in non-attachment to temporal forms. I remember a quote from my mystical younger days: “That which is introduced into the domain of Time is subject to the ravages of Time.” Ain’t that the truth! But the reminder is to focus more on that untouched by gravity and the lion paw of time raking across the face—that feeling of inner beauty that the absence of mirrors and cameras allows to flower.

And that beauty finds expression not in the face, but the words fathered forth by the heart’s imagination and the tones coaxed from pianos with fingers, the intuitive mind and feeling heart.  So I struggle to redeem this whiny post with a vow to work harder on Monk’s tune and remind people to listen, not look.

Still though, if you have or have seen any of those photos referred to here, please delete them immediately!