Sunday, January 30, 2011


We are hardwired for comfort. Isn’t that what we’re always dreaming of, working so hard to achieve? A cozy house with central heating, a dependable job, all the latest electronic gizmos to keep us entertained and everything insured? But we seem to have an equal need for risk to keep us on our toes, help us feel more wholly alive. Risk runs the gamut from skateboarding down San Francisco hills at rush hour to trying out a new dish at your favorite restaurant—some of it is foolish, some of it is tame, some if it is asking for unnecessary trouble and some of it is asking for the right kind of trouble, the kind that calls forth the full range of our attention, intelligence and character.

I’ve often thought that the only way to advance in your chosen craft is to put yourself in a constant state of risk. Teaching children is already like that—you never know what they’re going to come up with!  So when I was asked a few months back to teach a group of Japanese deaf children, a situation I never encountered before, I accepted without hesitation. And then as the time drew near, I thought, “What have I got myself into?”

To begin with, working with children you don’t know in front of strangers is already the first big step out on the tightrope. Working with children whose language you don’t speak ups the ante—though perhaps a moot point with deaf children. Doing music with deaf children—something I’ve never done nor witnessed—was cause for some worry. And then holding their attention for two hours upped that sense of anxiety. My safety net was all the years of practice making music with strangers immediately through the body with no intermediate speech or explanation, a large repertoire of games and rhythms and experience watching all types and ages of children and reacting to their needs and impulses.

Instead of me working with a group of deaf children with adults watching, it turned out that only three children could attend and that the adults would participate. And so it was just like any other workshop, with kids thrown into the mix and some attention on my part to give even larger visual cues than I usually do. Needless to say, it was marvelous! The kids’ sense of rhythm was strong and they fully participated with great enthusiasm and excitement—especially when they got to do things like conduct the ensemble of percussion instruments or teach their own rhythm ideas to the adults and shape a performance. This they did at the end, complete with formal conductor bows to the audience—which included their smiling families.

At the end, the adults gathered and after reviewing what we did and how we did it and why I chose those activities and ways of presenting them, they told me that it was a custom at the end of a workshop for each participant to tell the teacher what touched them. There’s a risk! This practice assumes both honesty and the assumption that someone was touched! But the people were eloquent and perceptive, impressed by the children’s joyful participation, the flow of the class, the clarity of thought behind it all and the affirmation yet again that music is equally important for everyone, regardless of through which door you enter.

After seven straight days of teaching, it is my day to be a tourist. The sunshine beckons and armed with a neighborhood map, off I go to do what I love best—wander aimlessly through back alleys, sit in a park, look into a temple or museum and see what the day brings. 

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