Monday, June 27, 2011

Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief

“To prepare ourselves for how we will be needed.” The poet David Whyte once said something to this effect to remind us how to plan our day. Not that we necessarily choose our career from altruistic motives. More likely, we simply follow some call we hear, track down that “glimmering girl who called me by my name and ran and faded through the brightening air,” as Yeats so beautifully describes it. If we follow her with persistence and dedication, we may someday walk with her and pick “the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun.” Not just for us to savor and enjoy, but finally to offer them to whoever is nearby and hungry.

How lucky I have been! I followed that glimmering girl far down the path of “Orff music teacher” and lo and behold! it has proven to be of use to others. The children first and foremost, but these days, reaching far beyond the walls of the schools to people of all ages in all sorts of circumstances. It turns out that the skills needed for teaching a decent Orff music class can be of service in many other parts of life. “Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief” goes the old children’s rhyme (also the name of a Hoagy Carmichael song) and there is a little of each in my job description.

Take doctor. Music as a healing art is as ancient as the shamans in the forest and contemporary as the neuroscientist in the laboratory. Because music involves physical vibration, it works directly on our nervous system, our muscles, our heart rate and breathing, our brain waves. The details of precisely how and the stories of music’s healing power are freely available in many excellent books, but really, who needs proof? All I have to do is look at my mother’s face as the notes from the piano wash over her, listen to my 80-year olds friends as they sing the songs of their youth, watch their bodies sway to the waltzes and bounce to the swing tunes. The other day in Ann Arbor, I played at the home where my father-in-law passed away three months ago and seeing the difference in the faces of the folks there before I played and after was proof enough.

As for lawyer, music teachers these days are more practiced than most in defending our profession. We need to speak on behalf of our client, research the facts, connect the main ideas and speak with both passion and articulation to convince the jury that the schools are guilty of crimes against the young when they get rid of music programs. And when the verdict of “Guilty!” is brought in, we should let the punishment fit the crime. For all the politicians and school board members making these decisions, we would ban music from their lives for one month, put them in a virtual prison where not one note of music may be played, sung or sounded. Then they’ll understand (I hope) how vital it is to our sense of health. But I’d prefer to put them in reform school, where they had to go to an inspired Orff class every day for a month. Then they would get it.

And finally, political correctness aside, Indian chief. In my school, the music teachers often are the ones who hold the tribal lore, caretake the customs, teach the community songs and tell the stories. In the old politics, and still in traditional villages, it is almost always that way. Since the ways of a people are stored in ritual, dance, poetry, music, storytelling, the leaders must be practiced and trained in them all. And it turns out that these are precisely the skills the modern Orff teacher needs as well. Interesting, yes?

All of this is prelude to the second memorial service we held for my father-in-law Ted.
Having just put some of his ashes in a cemetery in Ann Arbor, the family wanted some scattered “up north” at the summer cottage by Lake Michigan they named “Ted’s Place.” They invited some of his summer friends and acquaintances, but being connected to no church here, who would minister the ceremony? Orff Music Teacher to the rescue!! I had the skills and experience to work with groups of people, knew the songs and could lead them, had lots of poetry at my fingertips and a musical sense of how such things might begin, develop and end. The details of the actual ceremony might be worth sharing as a model of sorts for others, but exceed the etiquette of Blog-length. Maybe tomorrow.

But back to the opening thoughts—to prepare for how we will be needed.  I’ve been accused many times in my life off taking too much of the spotlight and I’m sure some apologies are due. But I can’t help but wonder if this was a necessary step toward the ultimate purpose of it all, what Joseph Campbell called “being transparent to transcendence,” letting the light shine through you rather than on you, in service to others. It is such an unexpected pleasure that I’m prepared to walk into a senior home/ preschool/ university class anywhere on the planet and have something to offer. That I can officiate a memorial service, lead dances at a wedding, articulate inclusive decision-making processes at a staff meeting. I can’t help fix my mother-in-law’s plumbing, take charge of her finances or edit her old super-8 home movies on i-Movie, but it turns out that I can be useful to others in my own eclectic ways. Who could ask for anything more?

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