Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The University of Intimate Spaces

“I went to a college where I got credit for hitchhiking in California and wine-tasting in France, “ I used to boast in the ‘70’s. Then I began to feel mild apology and made fun of it in the conservative ‘80’s—until I went to a college reunion and felt such pride in my fellow Antioch alums who were making a splash in the world on their own terms, with humor, character and an eye for social justice. And so I once again fully embraced the notion that learning is by no means confined to the courses in the syllabus carried on in brightly-lit official classrooms (now equipped with smart-boards).

Indeed, a look back at my post-graduate work in the University of Real Life reveals a very different pattern. I studied South Indian drumming in my teacher’s modest home in Nelluvai, Kerala, took Philippine kulintang classes in a church basement in San Francisco, played for two years in the community gamelan Sekar Jaya in someone’s home in Oakland. Jazz piano was in Art Lande’s living room, Bulgarian bagpipe in Hector’s kitchen, Middle Eastern drumming in Mary Ellen’s dining room. Tingklik bamboo xylophone study happened on a front porch in Peliatan, Bali, Ghana xylophone under a tree in Legon, more Bulgarian bagpipe lessons in a hotel room in the Rhodope mountains of Bulgaria. 
I sat on one of the twin beds, my teacher on the other.  

This past week, I took a short lesson in xylophone music from Burkina Faso in someone’s home in Saratoga and then observed a Chinese Guzheng (a 21-string zither harp) lesson in a modest home in the Richmond District (of San Francisco). And this is what got me thinking about this. The six girls playing Guzheng astounded me with their precision and virtuosity and walking by this house in the Richmond on the way to Walgreens, who would have guessed what extraordinary things were going on there? I imagined all the other homes where groups gather to pursue their art, not only in music lessons, but groups of artists gathering in someone’s backyard studio or writers meeting at a café. No signs posted outside, no official credits given, no computerized registration process—just folks who want to know and folks who want to share what they know coming off the street into someone’s house and enjoying tea and cookies at the break. Intimate, warm spaces and the joy of honing a craft together.

These are my people. This is my way. I have had a modest success in my particular field of music education, all with a dubious (to some) college degree, no teacher certification, no Masters, no doctorate, a few books with established publishers and the rest self-published. I tried my best to fit in with several Universities and teach within the System— The San Francisco Conservatory, San Francisco State, Mills College—but they all eventually closed their doors to me without an inch of remorse. I know good colleges and Universities with good teachers exist and that good learning can take place there, but it hasn’t worked out for me.

And so, like Frank Sinatra, I keep on keepin’ on “My Way.” Not only in kitchens and living rooms and under trees, but also in elementary school gymnasiums and cafeterias and joy of all joys, my own music room at the San Francisco School, my little church that indeed used to be the chapel of the Baptist Church the school bought in 1968. What miracles have happened there no human tongue can tell.

For me, the health of a school is measured both by the happiness of its students and a sense of intimacy in its physical space. The kitchen remains one of the centers of my school’s life, the place where staff gather for hearty talk and good gossip drawn by the good smells of freshly cooked food. The music room is another center, the living room where the stories are told and the songs are sung. The classrooms are decorated like a collective kid’s bedroom and the outdoors have the wide-open spaces and secret nooks and crannies that we kids growing up in the vacant-lot ‘50’s used to know. When my step-grandson visited the school this summer, he just took in the physical spaces and wisely commented, “This is a place where a kid can really learn.” And he’s right.

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