Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Fire Up the Neurons!


Let’s face it. War is a horror, but part of us gets a thrill from “the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air.” We love the noise, color and excitement of stuff blowing up and sparkling. I just added a new arrangement of a game I made up to my new book and suddenly, it’s 4th of July and Chinese New Year together in my brain. I feel more alive, alert and vibrant, especially after the down time of Thanksgiving that was lovely, but found me thumbing through magazines, restless and lethargic at once. Why does it feel so great to create?

My amateur look into neuroscience tells me that the brain loves to make new connections and when the brain is happy, the rest of us follows. In an intriguing book with an intriguing title, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, author Jonah Lehrer makes some convincing connections between the intuitions of the artists and the laboratory findings of the neuroscientists. In the chapter on George Eliot subtitled “The Biology of Freedom,” he talks about animal experiments in neurogenesis, the ability of mammals to grow new neurons and new connections between neurons. At the end of describing various experiments, he concludes: “The mind is never beyond redemption, for no environment can extinguish neurogenesis. The brain is not marble, it is clay, and our clay never hardens.”

Well, almost. In a recent discussion with a friend about how people get more and more fixed in their ways and their thoughts as they age, I talked about the need to keep your mind as flexible as your body. What’s the equivalent of Yoga, Pilates or jogging for the brain? I suggest reading, writing, new experiences, learning new things, meeting new people, traveling, developing and maintaining a habit of constant questioning, reflection, expansion. But best of all is creation, whether writing a poem, improvising a jazz solo, painting a picture, cooking a new meal, planning a new class. This is what pours water on the “clay of the brain” and along with our effort to sculpt and shape ourselves, helps keeps the brain alive and vibrant. And here, I would like to find a new way to say what I keep saying over and over again in almost everything I write: Bring the arts into schools, give children the tools and exercise to keep their already flexible minds alive and alert, creating the habits that will help them resist the calcification of adulthood. And a word to us adults: be a model of a supple thinker who is constantly curious and questioning.

Lehrer goes on to note that some recent antidepressant drugs work by stimulating neurogenesis, “implying that depression is ultimately caused by a decrease in the amount of new neurons. For some reason, newborn brain cells make us happy.”

There you have it. That’s why I’m so happy today. A new tune poured out of my fingers on the piano, I transferred it to Sibelius and put it together with a new game I recently made up. “Doug is my name.” “Ho-la!” answers the group. “Jazz is my game.” “Ooh-aah!” Off we go around the circle to find out what each person’s “game” is—ie, what do they love to do that makes them happy—hang-gliding, baking, massage, etc. (For more details, you’ll just have to buy my upcoming book.) Great fun and a great way to find out new things about the people we’re with.

Lehrer concludes: “Neurogenesis is cellular evidence that we evolved to never stop evolving.” While it doesn’t scan so well, you could say it like this:

“The Brain is my name. “    “Ho-la!”
“Neurogenesis is my game.”  “Ooh-aah!”

Or something like that. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Back in the Stacks


Time for another confession. A transgression almost as serious as removing the tag from the mattress. I can see your wheels turning. “Did he knowingly receive those videos of movies his Dad taped from TV? Feed his parking meter? Help himself to thirds at the Trader Joe’s sample table?” No, I’m afraid it’s something far more serious.

I let my library card lapse.

There. Now I feel better. And I really feel better because I went to the library today, confessed my sins and awaited my punishment. Had it lapsed so far that I wasn’t in the computer system, I could have applied for a new card for free. As it turns out, I was in the system and because of that, I had to pay ONE DOLLAR to be re-instated! Oh, the shame! The agony! And yet it helped cleanse my guilty soul. Now, with one card tucked into my wallet and a nifty mini-card attachable to a keychain, I was back in the stacks, baby! Oh, how sweet it was!

Fact is that I had loved the library just about my whole life. I went habitually as a child, spent some of high school and college working at the carrells and tables, feeling as if the mere presence of those books surrounding me was enough to seep into my skin, sitting at the epicenter of a knowledge energy-field. It was an odd combination of private and public, each reader in their own world as the black lines on white paper transported them to a world of imagination, of ideas, of places and people brought to life by the acrobatic feats of the author and yet, all of us gathered together, keeping silent company with fellow travelers with their furrowed brows, smiles of imaginative delight or mouths open in book-soaked stupor. I loved the smell of the books, the maze of the stacks, the mythos of the glasses-on hair-up librarian waiting to be swept away into the larger world. I loved the sensation of wandering in search of some Holy Grail or Philosopher’s Stone or bearded storyteller to keep me company, the anticipation and wondering what would appear, the satisfaction of that pile of books in my hand at the check-out desk.

And so when I arrived in San Francisco as a young adult a couple of lifetimes ago, I continued to be a loyal patron of the library. I mostly frequented the main library, thumbing through those drawers of file cards when I had something in mind, wandering when I didn’t. I discovered the musical score collection, the record collection and occasionally went into the deep tombs of the reference archives to find something yet more obscure—and thus, more valuable. I loved that old library, with its columns and wide steps ascending to the stacks like a Jacob’s ladder to literary heaven. I love the thick oak tables and yes, before I wax too nostalgic, sometimes the odor from the homeless seeking refuge was a bit too strong for my taste. But I passed many a pleasurable hour there and came home with many memorable books to help form my fledgling self. And they did, from the novels to the non-fiction, the poetry, the recordings.

So when did I stop going and why? The first blow was building the new main library. I just never warmed up to it. It felt more like a big store in a mall, everything too spread out and too well-lit and hard to find things. And the computers swallowed the file cards and in the children’s library, swallowed the kids more inclined to the screens than the books. It just felt too big and impersonal and still does.

But the branch libraries are cosy— why not just go there? Well, I did for a long time with my kids when they were young. But when I started reading non-fiction, I liked making notes on the pages. If I found a good novel, I liked to pass it on to other family members. As for poetry, it simply needed repeated readings. And as a budding author, I got the notion that it’s good to actually buy books and support authors. And so after many years of finding myself more in bookstores (until they began to disappear one-by-one—that’s a whole other Blog), I let my card lapse.

Why reclaim it now? Well, the kids are gone, there’s no more room on my bookshelves and a friend just recommended two new novels that are only out in hardcover. Too impatient to wait, I thought I’d find them at the library. So off to the computer to see where they were and found out that they were on hold by some 100 people in line before me! Oh well. Off into the stacks and back out with something that called out to me. No more little card to fill out and tuck in the back, the file cards are long gone, but the librarians are still nice and helpful and some wear their hair down.

So thank you, public libraries, for welcoming me back into the fold. You are one of the finest institutions in modern civilization, adapting with the times while still offering free access to all. Well, almost free. I’m still hurting from that dollar charge.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Declaration of Interdependence

When you’re sitting in airport or planes for 18 hours at a stretch, you have a lot of time to think. When the flight attendant brought my meal, I started to think about all the unseen hands that brought this food to me on this plane. And once you follow that thread, it’s a bit like counting stars in the sky—you feel overwhelmed by the enormity of it all, humbled and somehow grateful to be a part of it.

Consider. A simple piece of bread on your tray. Who baked it? How did it get from the oven to me? Who transported it? Who wrapped it? Who received it? And then back in the other direction. Who grew the grain? Who milled it? And the yeast? And salt? Perhaps a dash of sugar? And who transported each of those items and how and to where? What kind of vehicle transported it? Who made that vehicle and all its parts, down to every last screw? Who painted it and where did the paint come from? Who mined the ore and manufactured the steel and made the plastic? Who made the road that the truck drove on? Where did the asphalt come from? And where did the gas and oil come from? And at what price? (Now there’s a big topic worthy of investigation!)

But back to the bread on my tray. Who made the tray? Not to mention my seat, the plane, the airport or my clothes, my backpack, the books in my backpack and on and on and on. And what about the movie I’m watching? And the music soundtrack? Who made the recording equipment and the building where it was recorded and the instruments used in the recording? You see what I mean? Thousands and probably millions of people working apart, but connected to bring to each of us the things we use each day. A giant orchestra of interdependent harmonious parts— but the orchestra members don't get to meet each other. Each plays their own part, but they don't get to hear it in concert with the other parts and thus, the totality of the music is mostly inaudible. 

And that’s the missing piece of civilization. We get the convenience of the goods and services without the pleasure of hearing the whole music or knowing who sits next to us in the orchestra. That was my big revelation in 1979 living in Kerala, India. More than ever before and more than ever since, most of what people needed and used each day was visible and understandable. The main house of the little rice plantation where we lived always had something happening on the front porch that was in process—rice being husked or coconut being dried. Each day as we walked into the center of the 2,000 person village of Cheruthuruthy, we would pass the rug weavers working with coconut husk, the potters shaping our bowls, the spinners making the thread, the dyers coloring cloth, the farmers growing the food, the drum-makers, the match factory workers, the carpenters. Visible people with names we could come to know, visible processes of creation, visible community endeavors. An interdependent music we could hear and see and feel and touch.

One needn’t go to India for that. How about an Amish barn-raising or folks in the North Carolina mountains bringing their apples to make cider together while playing fiddles and banjos or urban gardeners offering up their surplus zucchini. And having been an urban dweller in the 20th and 21st centuries, it would be disingenuous to critique modern civilization when I have enjoyed—and continued to enjoy—so many of its benefits. But no way to escape my Aesopian conclusion here, with four points:

1)    Despite our fantasies of independence and wrong-headed “I don’t need nobody”
     definition of freedom, we are inextricably necessary to each other and entirely  
     interdependent. Those we think we shouldn’t like or are named enemies by our
     politicians or seem to wish us harm nevertheless have probably helped bring that bread
     to our tray. 

2) As possible, keep things local and visible, close at hand and close to home. Let’s  
    envision a future with less hands traveling shorter distances without need of
    soldiers (see gas/oil above). This not only makes sense ecologically and
    politically, but also aesthetically. While I sometimes appreciate the Trader Joe’s
    ready-to-go packaged meal when I think I’m busy with more “important” things than
    cooking, what is more important really than living a whole and connected life?
    When I take time to cook a meal using the arugula I grew on the deck, the bread
    I kneaded and baked, the beans I soaked overnight to make soup with vegetables
    picked out at the local farmer’s market, there is a tangibly different weight and
    texture to the pleasure of sitting down to eat the meal. 

      3) Try the exercise of following the steps that brought the simplest thing to you—
           a piece of paper. a thumbtack, an apple. Or if you’re really adventurous, a piano,
           a refrigerator or a computer. If you teach children, spend a week or month
           showing them what a big, marvelous, complicated and interconnected world this
           is and how much effort and teamwork is needed for even the simplest thing that
           we use and enjoy. As the boss in a factory or bakery or auto repair shop, help the
           workers connect the dots with their little piece of the whole, feel pride in their
           contribution and connection to the other unseen workers completing or
           complementing their work. In short, try to make the invisible a tad more visible,
           the music of how this world actually works a bit more audible.

      4) On so on Thanksgiving Day, take a moment to reflect and imagine all those hands
           who brought the food to your table, from the farmers to the truck drivers to the road
           builders to the construction workers to the truck builders to the auto mechanics
           to the store owners to the plants and animals themselves.

And thank them all. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Odds and Ends


Just finished a two-day course with 35 teachers in Salou, a beach resort an hour south of Barcelona. A lovely town, but apparently quite deserted in November—we found one open restaurant in the whole town and enjoyed a fabulous meal of grilled vegetables with local goat cheese. Many folks in the course new to the Orff approach and it's always a pleasure to open the door to the wonderland of possibilities beyond the norm. As often happens in Spain, I found these teachers from the local music schools to be socially warm and humorous, intellectually sharp and probing, musically bold and skilled. A highlight for me was playing some of the improvisational games I usually do on Orff instruments with violins, recorders, clarinet and more. 

Now winging home after a marvelous two weeks of sharing music with some 200 kids and 120 teachers. Awaiting me back in San Francisco is a Thanksgiving dinner with my sister and family, a visit from my mother-in-law, a Skype visit with my new grand-daughter, colder weather than Spain and Portugal, the final touches put on my new book and holiday films at the Castro Theater. Meanwhile, a 4 a.m. awakening, quick flight from Barcelona to Frankfurt and now a few odds and ends before boarding the long flight back home.

• Frankfurt Airport is enormous. Employees ride bicycles. (Though a subsequent Google search found it much smaller than Denver area-wise and 9th in terms of passengers. Oddly enough, Atlanta’s airport is the busiest in the world in terms of number of passengers.)

• There is no row 13 on my United Flight.
• Some people at the airport bar are drinking beer at 8 a.m.
• These tiny glass smoking rooms would make a Martian pause: “What the hell? *$%@”
• European passport control rocks! Grab, stamp and wave you through. End of story.
• European security rocks! Get to walk through with shoes on!
• European hotels rock! Featuring:
   Small TV’s that don’t lord over the whole room.
   Two or three pillows instead of 15.
   Reading lights you can read by.
   Breakfast with real food and real plates and silverware.
• The term “odds and ends” came from lumberyards—odds being pieces irregularly cut at the sawmill and ends the pieces trimmed from the ends of boards.
• This is a rather odd posting, but luckily, I’ve reached the end.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Apologies to Lisbon


Fact: Five T-shirts hand-washed in the shower with shampoo and soap, wrung from soaking-wet to extremely-damp, tamped in towels, blasted with hot air from the hair-dryer and hung in a closet are still very, very, very damp 24 hours later. Laundry continues to be one of my biggest issues in modern travel and after vainly searching for a laundromat and refusing to pay the exorbitant per-item hotel price, I decided to take matters into my own hands (literally) and try the above improvised method. It took a long time and my thoughts vacillated between praising the pleasure of the physical work, the range of hand motions, the fun of beating wet shirts against the tub walls, the sensual feel of soap and cloth and wetness and thinking, “I’m sure women who have had to (or still do) do this every day would erect an altar to the inventor of the washing machine and give thanks daily.”

So after a memorable Fado evening (see last posting), I had the morning to myself before heading off to Barcelona. I packed the five damp shirts in a cloth bag and took them with me to the river. I had hoped to walk far and long down the beautiful riverside path close to the Golden Gate’ish Bridge with a view of the Rio de Janeiro Corcovado’ish Christ statue on the hill, but first priority was to dry my shirts. So I draped them over some stones in the sun and hoped the rays, open air and fresh breeze would finish the job. Meanwhile, it was nice to sit in the sun myself and watch the world go by.

On the river were sailboats, a lone kayaker, a crew heading upstream. Along the path were the walkers, the joggers, the occasional bikers. Though November, it felt like a warm Spring day inviting me to simply sit and absorb and observe, unmindful of the ticking clock. But I had a plane to catch and had to keep track of the 30 short minutes available to settle into traveler’s mode.

Fact: Travel is a state of mind. Simply moving your body from one place to another is not enough. The travels I have savored are the moments when all the accumulated baggage of a human personality living out its drama in its always-complicated web of relationships is left behind. I move invisibly amongst the crowds, tasting the new sounds and sights, drifting, wandering where my feet will take me, following the clock of hunger instead of the watch on my wrist, the tiredness of my feet instead of tracking my miles. Nobody knows me, I know no one. The hotel awaits me as a refuge when needed, a place to re-group before leaping back into world, a time to just sit and read and write away from all the waving hands of my lists back home shouting for attention.

Such a state of being doesn’t come for free just because you’ve stepped off an airplane. It requires some cultivation, some pre-dreaming, some anticipation. The traveling music teacher at the center of this entire Blog history is a great blessing— a chance to travel, get paid for it, meet great people, do good work and offer it up and know that it will reach some children somewhere. But it’s still work and just because it’s in Lisbon means nothing unless I give myself the time, space and intention to explore this truly intriguing and quite lovely city. The Fado night was a tiny baby step in that direction, but sitting with my five T-shirts along the river for all of 30 minutes falls pretty short of what Lisbon deserved. And what I would have enjoyed.

Not that Lisbon cares. But still I apologize for not making the time to know it better. I keep thinking “Well, I’ll be back” but goodness knows I’m not getting any younger and there will come a time when I can’t casually pass it off to the future. Meanwhile, they’re announcing my plane as I write. On to Barcelona! Or rather, more work in Barcelona.

PS. My shirts are still damp.

Letter to My First Grand-Daughter


Oh, Zadie, you are only one-day old, but you’re already changing my life. I’m sitting in a Fado club in the Barrio Alto of Lisbon and thinking that I’m going to take you here some day. When you’re 12 or 15 or some such age, we’ll go to Europe and take the cable car up the Lisbon hills and go to Club Luso. We’ll sit at our table, enraptured by the beautiful sounds of the three guitars and the sensuous singers whose words we might not catch, but whose meaning is clear: “This life is full of beauty and wonder and sounds, dances, songs that grew in Portuguese soil, but can touch anyone’s heart.” Maybe they’ll invite me up on stage again as they did tonight holding a wreathed arch and I’ll do tricky little dance steps that will surprise the musicians and impress the tourists and maybe you’ll be proud of your old Grandpa and not roll your eyes the way my children were required to do. We’ll take a cab back and chat with the amiable and knowledgable taxi driver who will tell us, as mine did tonight, how the ukelele came from Madeira to Hawaii and how Music, Mathematics and Metaphysics are the three most important things in life. Then we’ll walk into the Hotel Opera, where two men will be singing arias in the lobby and you’ll think, “This is definitely not the Ramada Inn!”

The next day, we’ll walk along the river looking at the bridge so much like the Golden Gate Bridge and if the future unfolds as I would like it to, I’ll show you where the monument to Columbus used to be until people finally decided to not pay homage to such a cruel man or celebrate such a greedy bid for power and money that caused so much harm. Perhaps we’ll go to the coast and I’ll tell you the story of how your great-Aunt Ginny and great-Uncle Jim slept on a beach in a sheltered cove in their newlywed European year abroad and then were awakened with water lapping at their sleeping bags, realizing just in the nick of time that the tide was coming in and narrowly escaping.

Or we’ll head north to Galicia and I’ll show you the park where Grandma Karen, Aunt Talia, your Mom and I had a perfect picnic lunch on our journey through Spain, close to the spot where I abruptly stopped our rented car and jumped out to see the Galician bagpipers and then show them my Bulgarian one. Who knows? Maybe by the time we take our trip, I’ll have actually learned how to play that thing decently.

You see what you have done? Given me something new to dream about and made me giddy with anticipation of sharing with you all the things I love in this world. The trip to the Cherry Bowl Theater in Michigan will have new meaning with you in the back seat ready for your first Drive-In Movie. I can’t wait to take you on my favorite bike ride in Salzburg or ride the Staten Island Ferry after visiting my old home in New Jersey or go see the elephants at the Pooram Festival in Kerala, the place your mother was named for.

I’m reserving tickets at the Castro Theater for the Sound of Music Sing-a-Long, anxious to show you the Calaveras Big Trees where we all used to camp with 60 SF School kids, ready to take you to the chicken place in Madrid after a day in the Prado. Oh, the places we’ll go and the sights that we’ll see!

So little Zadie, hope your first day was a happy and healthy one. Drink your milk, get plenty of sleep and grow up to be big and strong and ready to travel with your Grandparents. Maybe if your Mom and Dad are nice to us, we’ll let them come along too.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Most Beautiful Statistic


I love statistics. As much as I’m a heart-on-sleeve guy, a champion of the intuition, a spokesperson for beauty and minister at the marriage of the heart and mind, part of me is very practical and loves to get the real numbers on what’s going down in the world. I’ve been reading Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, and am in the section where one character is talking about overpopulation. Apparently, the 3 billion folks around when I graduated high school have increased to 7 billion. Yikes!! No wonder it’s hard to find parking!

Reason enough for depression, but then this morning I went to a lecture at the ECIS Conference in Lisbon by Hans Rosling. He confirmed the above statistic, but gave some absolutely fascinating details that made it feel a tad less depressing (mostly regarding clear signs of leveling off—after another 3 billion!). Plenty to say about him as a teacher (fantastic!!!) and about the power of the Google statistical charts that could move year-by-year before your eyes (now there’s a remarkable teaching tool!!) and I do recommend that everyone check it out at www.gapminder.org

Naturally, one would leave a lecture like that thinking, “People!! Stop having babies!!” Unless your name is Kerala Goodkin Taylor and that baby Zadie is your first child and your Dad’s first grandchild and she was born—TODAY!!!!!!!

That’s right, folks, I’m an official blood Grandpa and here in Lisbon, my smile is wrapping all the way to Washington DC where I greet my grand-daughter with long-distance adoring eyes. Even the mind-numbing statistics I heard today can’t trump my joy at this perfect little being come to bless the world with her presence. And especially poignant to be born on Nov. 18th, her great grand-dad Ted’s birthday (who we lost this last April) and one day before my Dad’s birthday (gone four years now). Certainly some level of reincarnated souls is happening here.

I’ve received one photo so far and recognize the eyes of the adoring parents gazing down at this 9-month-minus-10-days awaited marvel. The same eyes my wife and I had for Kerala and then Talia, the extraordinary wonder of this kicking imagined presence in the belly finally in your arms. If there is a miracle in this life great than that, I’d like to know about it.

It’s a challenging world little Zadie is entering, but then again, when hasn’t it been? Today’s statistics showed an average world-wide life expectancy of 70 years (probably twice as much as humanity’s average in the long haul), a 2.4 child birthrate and generally greater prosperity. So the news isn’t all bad. But it looks like it will be harder to get into college. And as for parking, forget it!

So, little Zadie, welcome to this world. You have chosen two loving, caring and intelligent parents who will care for you, protect you, make reparable mistakes and one day set you free to find your own place in this big, beautiful, messy, sorrowful and glorious world. You have adoring grandparents who already love you beyond any reasonable measure and can’t wait to pamper you and spoil you and sing to you and dance with you and do art projects with you and take you out to the garden to pick lettuce and read to you the old books brought up from the basement and later make you sit through old Hitchcock films. From too far away, on this first day of your life, I whisper the same words in your ear that I said to your mother, spoken millennium ago by a wise man named Buddha.

In this body there is birth and death and liberation from birth and death.
Be a light unto yourself.

And a few more of my own:

Zadie Taylor, you are loved and blessed Welcome!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Lone Ranger Meets Johnny Appleseed


Today a six-year old looked at me and exclaimed, “I remember you! You taught us this song called Funga Alafia!” I was stunned. That would have been two years ago when she was four and met me for exactly one 30 minute class. It struck me that one way to look at what I’m doing in these guest residencies is to pass on a sturdy repertoire worthy of children and memorable to them. I may think I’m demonstrating intriguing process for the teachers to observe, but what the children remember is the specific song, the dance, the game.

That said and done, the process turns out to be essential to the memorable feeling. When it’s invisibly stitched into the lesson so that things are flowing, inviting, exciting, the way a song is taught attaches itself to the song itself and becomes part of it. That will not only link our heart with our head, but also entice us to remember. It is now accepted fact that our emotional state at the moment of learning is called forth each time we revisit the thing learned. If we were in an open, joyful state of flow, we will be more likely to revisit the thing learned time and time again to call those feelings back up again and add new ones as well.

This is powerful news for teachers. I recently heard that children who take a test in the same place in the room where they learned the information do better. Interesting. We think we’re just relaying abstract information, but as is increasingly evident in brain research, mind and heart and body are much more interconnected then we think. The totality of our experience while learning something becomes inextricably linked with the knowledge itself.

I’ve worked hard my whole adult life to teach music in a way that captures children’s attention, fires their imagination and helps them feel successful. I’ve given the same attention to choosing worthy material, much of it from the child’s world. A joyful process with contrived, forgettable material is incomplete. Great material poorly taught will not resonate or be remembered with pleasure. Turns out that the two need to be side-by-side.

Teaching as a visiting guest artist or workshop leader, I often feel like the Lone Ranger, swooping in on my horse and then riding off into the sunset. But now I think it’s more like Johnny Appleseed or the Lupine Lady, dropping seeds that I won’t see come to blossom and fruit, but hopefully will beautify the landscape of children’s lives. The seeds are the memorable songs and games and dances that may (or may not) take root in the children's hearts or the greater school culture. Ironically, many of them are from a kid’s culture swept away by the tide of electronica and here I come, the 60-year old kid bringing them back into the playground. 

And today, one six-year old girl remembered. Hi Ho, Silver!



Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Can I Get a Witness?

What a day! While the inspectors (see yesterday’s posting) commanded the teachers’ attention, focusing on achieving the perfect curriculum wrapped up in a standardized ribbon, they all missed the real deal that was going on outside their door. Like the 4-year olds I was singing with: “Okay, let’s see who is a good rhymer. Sing out your answer!”

“Oh my, I want a piece of _______.”

“Cheese!!!!” shouted the three girls in the front row, with photographer smiles to match.

“Very nice. But remember it has to rhyme. Let’s try again.”

“Oh my, I want a piece of _______.”

“Cheese!!!!” they all now shouted in unison.

I could see I needed to change my strategy. “Hmm. Okay, let’s try this.”

“Oh, please. I want a piece of ________.”

You guess it. “Pie!” they shouted out.

Kids. You gotta love ‘em.

And the inspectors missed it.

On to the Funga Alafia welcoming song and the invitation to dance one at a time in the middle with all copying. The feisty kid who was restless and unfocused during the other songs now jumped in the middle and tore up the dance floor.

And the inspectors missed it.

Then the 7th grade and the Cookie Jar game. New to most of them, but they learned quickly and we had the three-circle semi-finals, followed by the 6-person final, with promise of an ice cream sundae if any of them beat me. “But we don’t have sundaes in London!” one American student informed me. “Well, I’ll make you one then.” Out they went one by one until just Shannon and I remained. The 25 middle-schoolers gathered around in pin-drop silence. What drama! Of course, I won within two rounds, but still Shannon was proud to be the 7th Grade Cookie Jar Student Champion of the Day.

And the inspectors missed it.

There were the 4th grade recorder students who mastered a Philippine melody in 25 minutes, the 2nd grade kids joyfully dramatizing Old Man Mosie and then finding it on the xylophones, the 6th grade kids improvising on a Renaissance harmonic pattern with tubas, trombones, trumpets, French horns, saxophones, flutes, clarinets, violins, guitars and xylophones. Then another group showing their knowledge of geography, fruits, musical instruments, movie stars and more in the Concentration Game (they knew much more about stores then classical or jazz musicians) and ending by singing a Calypso song about all the nations that love bananas.

And you got it—the inspectors missed it.

I’m like the kid on the playground shouting to the grown-ups “Watch me!” and they’re checking their stupid text messages. Or more accurately, the teacher in the musical playground shouting to the people walking by to come in and watch the children. You would think that I would just accept by now that the world is mostly obsessed with the wrong things and constantly missing the miracles at their fingertips.

But I don’t. I find myself unsatisfied to be the only witness to the joy and humor and insight that come out of the mouths of babes and frustrated that more people are not peeking in the door. And yet more frustrated when they do peek in and don’t get it.

If they did open themselves up to truly seeing what’s going on and what’s possible, it would mean changing their life. Once you commit yourself to a life pitched at the miraculous, you’re vulnerable to all the grief and loss and disappointment that lives in the same room as the joy and exultation. Better to lower the bar and just get through, don’t ask so much of the world, don’t set yourself up for failure by trying to change it. Something I seem to be congenitally incapable of.

Meanwhile, it’s okay to go off on my feisty rants, but also time to hold my own feet to the fire and consider all the miracles I’m missing each day. Like the muted red sun setting through the fall-leaved trees on the school’s expansive grounds. 

I hope the inspectors noticed it too.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Fontal Freedom


I’m back at the ACS International School outside London guest teaching for four days. Last time I was here, the Iceland volcano had blown and various teachers and families trying to return from Spring Break couldn’t make it back. This time, it’s an eruption of a different sort—the school is in the midst of its second visit from an inspection team. Instead of being able to pay attention to what I might offer, teachers are whisked off into meetings and are all in a tizzy. They had just been through a week with the British Inspectors and today was the first day of the Americans.

In the teacher’s room, some acknowledged that such inspection could be a good thing, a chance to share what works well at the school and get some outside feedback on what might need work. But, as one teacher put it, the first team (British) seemed to be snooping around with clipboard in hand trying to “catch us out. They made us jump through their hoops and told us things like ‘We don’t accept this font you used in your report.’” They were hopeful that this next team would be more friendly.

This is another face to the “consultant culture” I ranted about in an earlier posting—the outsider who doesn’t know a community’s history, population, values, intentions, dreams, offering advice or demanding compliance. When the team comes in with the pen of judgment poised, things get tense. When they come eager to partake of the fruits of a school culture, ready to listen and offer suggestions, things relax and some good work can get done. We can all use an outside eye to give us perspective, to both affirm and challenge.

But tone is everything. Conversation, yes. Conversion, no. The goal of any such team should be to assist a school community to become even more itself. When it gets twisted to complying with the way everyone else dots their i’s and crosses their t’s, things start to go awry.

I have long been an ardent fan of local control, guided by the story of the Roman arches. In ancient Rome, the architect of an arch was required to stand beneath it when the scaffolding was pulled away. So much of the nonsense of outside intervention is justified with the illusion of accountability. But standing under the arches of your own decision-making is the ultimate accountability. So to the inspectors and evaluators and assessors and other nosy parkers, I say, “Don’t tell us how to build to your specifications because you will walk away next week with the scaffolding and leave us here standing under them. That’s why we don’t like you outsiders snooping around in our business. We know what we’re doing and we can handle the situation. (And notice I’m writing this in MY preferred font!)”

But is local control really always the best? Were white Southerners right to resent the intervention of those damn liberal Northerners as they imposed anti-lynching laws, the end to school segregation and the like? The child-abuser justified in wishing that Child Protective Services would get out of his business? The corporation dumping toxics in the river correct to be offended by the Environmental Protective Agency official knocking at their door? Maybe locals don’t really always know what’s best and we sometimes need some outside intervention to set and enforce certain standards of health, accountability and human decency.

In our human ignorance and moral shortcomings, even our best intentions can turn to mud and start to cause their own kind of damage. The stories of bureaucrats from these outside agencies slavishly following rules with little or no intimate knowledge of a local circumstance are many—some merely frustrating, others causing great harm. Where is the middle ground?

The bottom line is that laws and the agencies enforcing them should serve to protect our health and freedom of expression and limit our power to cause damage to the land, the air, the water and each other. They should maximize freedom of expression within the boundary of the common good. But without thinking, feeling living human beings standing behind these laws and working in the agencies, none of it will do exactly what it intends. Fact is you can’t legislate thinking, mandate compassion, order people to adhere to a national standard of morality. We can draw the black and white lines of justice and infringement, but each community will have to negotiate all the grey areas of cultural health and happiness.

Life will always be a gamble and when we reach the crossroads of decision-making, we rarely know which path to really take and how it will turn out. All we can do is carefully consider consequences and be the architects of our own community, willing to stand under the arches we have built. Then instead of inspectors or evaluators, we’ll open our door to visitors and let the conversations flow.

In any font we choose.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

City of Bridges

Old ideas die hard. Say “Pittsburgh” to me and up pop the images from my childhood of cold, grey skies filled with the smoke of steel mills. Imagine my surprise to arrive here for the annual Orff Conference and see a beautiful city tri-sected by three rivers, hills with Fall leaves still intact and bridges, bridges and yet more bridges—446, to be exact. Excellent (though quite pricey) restaurants around the Convention Center, a funicular ride up the “incline” to impressive views and I’m sure much more that the indoor Conference life didn’t let me check out. But I have learned that Pittsburgh is the home of Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood, Heinz ketchup (and first, pickles), the place where rags-to- riches tycoon, Andrew Carnegie, made his fortune and of course, the 2008 Superbowl champs, the Pittsburgh Steelers. It also was the birthplace of Getrude Stein, August Wilson, Michael Chabon, Rachel Carson, Annie Dillard and Andy Warhol amongst others.

I can report from my limited experience that Pittsburgh has some honest cabdrivers (one drove back after dropping us at the funicular to return a pair of glasses left in the seat), helpful pharmacists (this one from CVC ordering a cab for us when one of our party’s sciatica prevented her from walking more) and a good recycling system at the Convention Center.

But as often happens, Conferences tend to be their own self-enclosed worlds unless you make the effort to break out and see the local sights. A time to go to workshops, network, shmooze, shop the exhibits, gather at the evening bar, with the added perk we music teachers have of singing, playing and dancing together. All the dramas that are common to any group of people that gather—the flirtations, the cliques, the gossips, the rivalry of factions—happen here as well and have from time immemorial. There are indeed folks from the other side of the river, but in this City of Bridges, one can hope that some time is devoted to crossing and re-crossing and connecting and feeling part of the same larger neighborhood. I know Mr. Rogers would want that.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Modest Proposal

“First kill all the consultants.” So is my modest proposal for restoring health and sanity to our institutions. It seems like every official institution I’m deeply or loosely associated with is being sold down the river to the “experts” who tell us na├»ve primitive village people how to do things the right way. Never mind that we have been successfully running our small enterprises and accomplishing extraordinary things in our own unique style for decades. They tell us that today’s world is complex and beyond the understanding of the average human being and requires a consultant (or personal trainer) to help negotiate you through the maze of how things get done these days. At an exorbitant salary, of course. And why do we pay it? Because “they” must know better than “little ole us.”

What gets things done? I would say that vision is the engine of expertise. Passion is the fuel and a group of like-minded folks who care about the same things is the vehicle that gets us moving down the road. I’m at the annual American Orff Schulwerk Conference and have been at every one since 1982 and it never fails to impress me how a group of volunteers can put on a 2,000 person 3-day party where everything basically works. And yet the word on the street is that a marketing consultant has been hired and told us that we’re doing everything wrong. The school where I have worked these 36 years was founded on the same spirit of volunteerism and built year by year by it, both physically and culturally. Now it appears that some decisions are being based on recommendations from loan companies, independent school conferences, “best corporate practices.” We are told that this is the way the world is now and we simply need to change with the times and accept it.

But I don’t. And I don’t think you should either. It stinks. It smells of good old-fashioned colonialism and imperialism and missionary work, folks from outside a culture coming in and running the show with no motivation beyond their own profit or questionable conversion plan. They plant a flag, show their sales pitch or gun or Bible and suggest that the natives shouldn’t “resist change, but go with the flow.” In those days, jail or death would be the consequence for native non-compliance. Now it’s simply being dismissed as an old hippie or being shown the door in your workplace.

Virtually every artist I know has had to get her or his hands smeared with a little legal ink, needed to tally up and keep track of money and goods, needed to sit at the kitchen table alone or with friends folding flyers and licking (yes, the old days) stamps. We’d rather be tap dancing on bubble-wrap or walking in the woods looking for our next poem, but we live in the world and need to deal with business and administration. And so many of us find ourselves climbing the steep learning curves of non-profit tax status or updating Websites or hustling our next gig. And guess what? We figure it out. We’re smart, we’re motivated and we’re committed enough to get through the boring stuff. And when we need help—which is often—we learn who to ask and how to make friends with (or marry) a lawyer or accountant or graphic artist. And occasionally, even a consultant!

It’s a question of balance. These business folks are a wonderful, if not necessary, part of our getting our passion out there and running in the world. Carl Orff, for example, was an absolute genius—or a very lucky man or both—at finding the people who would build his instruments, publish his books, record his music, put him on the radio, offer him (actually, more his colleague Gunild Keetman) a space to give children’s classes, build him an entire building in the middle of a Salzburg field connected to a prestigious Conservatory. None of what I enjoy today with my students would have come to fruition without such collaboration.

But order is all. The vision comes first and runs the decisions. The details get things in motion, but always at service to the vision. What I object to in the consultant culture is the imbalance of power, the consultant suddenly the “expert” with the poor innocent artist nodding his head with an “if you say so” weary look. What the consultant lacks is relationship with the passion, a shared vision, a deep love. They can fake it, but when they’re hired for their knowledge of details, it simply isn’t enough. I have stories a mile long to back this up.

I just came from a workshop about the brain and the latest research shows that the details don’t build the big picture. The big picture is there from the beginning and the details give it strength, clarity and conscious understanding, but we don't grow the forest one tree at a time. Children first understand the world through the big picture-style of the brain’s right hemisphere and then slowly develop the capacity to analyze, break-it down and understand the details farmed out to the left-hemisphere.

We volunteers have worked in much the same way, starting with the big picture vision and figuring out tree by tree how to sustain the forest. The move toward hiring experts reverses the order and is good for no one—except the consultant’s families, who will be able to pay their mortgage and hire a consultant to suggest a good car model.

And so let me modify my modest proposal. We don’t need to kill the consultants, but we do need to consider how much power we give over to them, be wary of any one who doesn’t already share our passion, be careful about how much we pay them after working for free ourselves all these years. And consider whether we need them at all and if so, precisely for what. If we need help, we should ask our neighbor or sister-in-law, friends or community members first before bringing in the hired guns.
We are smarter than we think, probably in exact proportion to how much we love our craft. 

If you resonate with these ideas, you can hire me as a consultant to present them to your institution.
After all, I got a mortgage to pay.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Still Feisty After All These Years


“Pissing watching a waterfall.” This is the first poem I heard Gary Snyder recite, way back in 1971 at a treading he gave at Antioch College. Since that little gem showing our proper relationship to the natural world (different sizes, same idea), I’ve read just about everything this fine man has written. His particular blend of Zen practice, deep ecology, anthropology, poetry, the American counter-culture and more is not quite the same gumbo that life has served to me (though many shared ingredients). But it is the blending I admire, his model of connecting apparently disparate fields into a unified vision of how we two-legged creatures might live together lightly and joyfully on this earth. My list includes music and education, but the end hope is the same and his words and ideas have inspired me my entire adult life.

And so I went to hear him yet again, along with our San Francisco poet-laureate Lawrence Ferlinghetti, at Club Fugazi in North Beach. The evening begin with a rare filmed interview with Gary Snyder from 1965, followed by his reading some of his more recent published work. He was his usual friendly, warm and expansive self, with a voice rich in overtones, both authorative and inviting. Mr. Ferlinghetti followed with his more declarative and dramatic style, as befitted his feisty poems brimming over with political indignation and outrage, but leavened with a healthy dose of humor and appreciation for beautiful women passing by. They each made one more appearance with recent unpublished work, some written just a few days ago. At 81 and 92 years old respectively, they are both fully active, still creating, still sharing their genius with the public, each in their own inimitable styles crafted, refined and deepened over their long lifetimes.

In short, they both modeled for us youngsters (ha ha!) what a true Elder in this American culture might look like. At once wise and graced with hopeful innocence, feisty and gentle, outraged and accepting, deadly serious and lightly humorous. They both have been chewed up in the push and pulls of life, known their share of sorrow and suffering, sat helplessly by like the rest of us as greed and power ascended to the center of public discourse, felt their life’s work trampled by ignorance, crafty Machievellian intelligence and just plain stupidity. And yet they persevere with such grace and wisdom.

I walked out of Club Fugazi refreshed and re-invigorated. Crossing the cable car tracks to get to my car, I heard the cables humming underground, perpetually in motion. The cable car hooks on and can defy gravity as it climbs up hills. Likewise, it can go down the steep hills without crashing at the bottom. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, the sense that we need the motion of the underground counter-culture that can climb against current of mainstream thought and also ride it downhill without getting swept away. All of us feisty folks can’t easily change the world, but we, like Mr. Snyder and Mr. Ferlinghetti, can help minimize the damage, reveal the beauty that awaits us if we but pay attention, “stay together, learn the flowers and go light” (from a Snyder poem).

In an interview, Mr. Snyder was once asked how it felt to always go against the grain and replied, “I’m in line with the larger flow.” We old hippies need to remember that. Some of which surfaced in the 60’s was a re-surfacing of values and ways of being that have always been with us. In fact, so much of our contemporary culture is the anomaly and what Snyder calls “The Old Ways” the norm.

Well, why keep quoting him? Read him yourself. And Ferlinghetti too. Two feisty wise elders who make me proud to be an American. Thank you, sirs.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Time Change


I’ve run out of adjectives. The last show of my Festival Season, 15 of our Salzburg-group kids performing alongside folks from Bali, Greece, Brazil, Turkey and more in the last show of Keith Terry’s International Body Music Festival. (If you missed the show, maybe you can see a little at www.crosspulse.com) Before that word was reduced to pulp, I might have used the word “awesome” and anyone witnessing what the body, voice, imagination and intellect is capable of was indeed properly awed.

“What do you do?” asks your airplane seatmate and their next question when you answer “I’m a musician” is always, “What do you play?” But music is so much more than wiggling your fingers on metal or ivory keys. A musician will find music in everything and anything and it turns out the body is a remarkably expressive instrument capable of things far beyond just clapping your hands and stamping your feet. Besides the nuances of sounds you’ll discover if you take the time to investigate (that more than double when you add the voice), there’s all the ways to change the time and time the changes.

And speaking of time changes, the clocks turned back yesterday. I came home to cook a favorite black bean soup and that inward-turning that began in the Fall settled another level deeper with the day darkening at 6 pm. (Can we get an extra hour every day, please? Loved it!) Even in the midst of 21st century urban life, some deeply buried part of ourselves still aligns itself with the natural world. The days turns inward toward the darkness, the colder air has the body gathering around its own inner hearth and cooking soup with Chopin nocturnes playing brings a pleasing glow to the scene. It is moments like these when my love for humanity burns brighter, that feeling that we will need each other to fortify ourselves against the cold and keep each other company during the long winter nights.

Roasting a poblano pepper to add a bit of spice to the soup, I suddenly and achingly missed my children, far-flung out into the world in Washington DC and Buenos Aires. They’re living exactly the lives they’re meant to live, doing wonderful things that both feed them and help heal the world, in company with the people they’re meant to be with. But yet so far away. How I wanted them by my side to help chop vegetables, set the table, put together a salad. Then after dinner, sit down for yet another failed attempt to beat them in Boggle, something I haven’t been able to do since each of them turned 12.

Ah well. It’s a new day, the air is crisp and chilled. Yet another reason to learn Body Music—you get artistic endeavor and warmth at the same time! Onward.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Pursuit of Perfection

When it comes to talks on why music is important, I thought I had heard it all. And so I was delighted to encounter a new twist in Bruce Pearson’s talk at the Saskatchewan Music Conference. In comparing music with athletics, he notes that we admire a baseball player with a .333 batting average. Hitting the ball one out of three times is sufficient for adulation and a seven or eight figure salary. But we musicians are expected to hit that Bb every time. Likewise, who would go to a concert where the orchestra started and stopped three times and then had to punt? 97% right earns an A+ in the academic world, but means a dissatisfied audience in the concert world. Get the idea?

We are thrilled by the athlete’s mere attempt at perfection, the discipline to try to swish the ball through the net every time or get the golf ball in the hole in three hits or so in each of 18-holes. But we don’t expect them to achieve it. Music also sets a high bar, but is less tolerant when the musicians fail to leap over it. Perhaps if we recognized this, music would be given its due as one of the most demanding and exalted of human disciplines and given its proper attention in schools.

Though the athlete and musician share discipline and training in common, I like to think that the musician has the trickier task. We admire style in athletes, but it doesn’t really matter so much as long as they score the goal, make the basket or cross the finish line first. But for the musician, it’s not enough to just play the notes impeccably. There is an invisible element outside of the practice room that makes or breaks the concert, that intangible but deeply felt element of soul, of magic, of something else present. And that aesthetic element, that spiritual element, is different from perfection. In fact, perhaps it’s the opposite, the presence of our vulnerable imperfection even as we play the passage with practiced technique.

I’ve always leaned heavily to the side of inspiration and spontaneity and feeling in my small pursuits of perfection and it is only in my older years (too late?) that I’m understanding the value of attention to detail, practice and discipline. I think this was my reaction to the dull and mechanical way music students are often led to the gates of mastery. All that practice and someone who grew up singing (not practicing) in church gospel choir can communicate with so much soul. But we need both. Neither perfect notes nor heartfelt feeling alone are enough. It is in the conversation between the pursuit of perfection and the acceptance and embrace of our imperfection that things get interesting.

I imagine it is all the years of teaching children that has allowed me to understand both sides. For children are nothing if not reminders of the imperfections of us human creatures. We can work for hours weaving the strands of the Great American Lesson Plan and a tiny three-year old can unravel it all in five seconds. The pursuit of that perfect plan is worthy, honorable and necessary, but the understanding of how to adjust to the actual needs, mood, chemistry of each kid and group of kids is where the real art lies. These days, young teachers are being strangled in someone’s fantasy of the perfect lesson and neglecting to watch the children. But this is the subject for another posting.

Dr. Pearson’s point is that the focus, discipline and sense of purpose that pursuing perfection entails creates students that are motivated and engaged, students who feel connected to a larger community and part of the team, students who we are proud to claim as leaders of the future and give us hope. Students who miss the experience of being part of the band are vulnerable to all the things we fear for the next generation. And yet we continue to cut music programs nationwide.

More to say, but I have to go practice the piano. With feeling. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Geese Over KFC

I’m back at the Strip-Mall. In my American “Confessions of a Traveling Orff Teacher” mode—except it’s Canada. Regina, Saskatchewan, to be exact, but who would know it by walking out the door to the same old ugly boxed buildings selling bad food and cheap goods? I set off down the non-sidewalked edges (what? You’re walking?) and see a V-formation of geese overhead. Canadian geese, I suppose. Are these the same geese poet Mary Oliver says will announce “over and over my place in the family of things?” Do I feel any sense of place here? Do I belong to this cheap corporate family? Do I feel Burger King as my long-lost uncle? Do the geese fly over KFC thinking “Sweet!” Or are they, in some recess of their tiny geese brains, thinking like me, “Damn! That’s ugly!”

I’ve complained so much about the strip-mauling of the world that I’m even tired of my own voice. Could I learn to love it? Or at least accept it? Do I have a choice? Well, as long as there are still places left in this world that have character, beauty and soul, I think not. I’ve taught in beautiful wood-floored rooms with fresh air and natural lighting, with windows looking out to mountains and wholesome food artistically arranged at the breaks, and believe me, it makes a difference. Having just spent the morning in the bowels of the Travel-Lodge in a low-ceiling no-window forced-air thick-dirty-ugly-carpet room on a Strip mall, I feel that difference. Of course, we humans are so adaptable that still we could make our morning-star-lights shine dancing Shoo Fly, feel the thrill of the groove as we Boom chick-a-boomed and laugh our way through a Swedish conflict resolution dance. The people were lovely. The setting was not.

Ah well. Someday I imagine these buildings will crumble in the dust and the resilient natural world start to grow reeds and grasslands and call back the wild geese and all the creatures evicted from their homes. The humans will still need restaurants and shops and movie theaters, but will remember how to craft them with beauty as well as utility, keep them in walking distance, let Mom and Pop run them and keep those far-away corporate executives on the endangered species list—and happily so. They never should have been, those folks running things from far away without any sense of consequence because they don’t live where they build—if you could call these monstrosities buildings.

Meanwhile, back to my room with its view of the Burger King sign. If I'm lucky, maybe I'll see some wild geese flying over it. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Bulgarian-Bagpipe Body-Beatin' Banjo-Bloggin' Blues


It has been quite a couple of weeks. I performed blues and standards with a jazz quintet in an intimate concert hall and then sat on the other side of that stage a few days later listening to jazz pianist Fred Hersch. I joined the standing ovation for the Keith Jarrett Trio ovation in Zellerbach and then stood on the stage on the other side of a standing ovation at the World Music Festival, having played bagpipes and xylophones. I blew my bagpipe again at the Intery Mintery Halloween celebration at my school, a ritual with 100 kids and no audience and later told a spooky story accompanied by banjo. I walked up and down the magical swirl of kids and adults on Belvedere Street on Halloween, a neighborhood tradition of trick-or-treat with a twist. I taught a Body Music workshop and will perform again this Sunday with the Salzburg group at the International Body Music Festival. I gave an Orff workshop to 15 teachers in Cupertino, combining kids' games like One Potato with new theories of motivation, brain rules and models of how to wrap education around the way children actually think and feel and move and learn. And of course, I played piano for and with my friends and mother at the Jewish Home for the Aged.

From the giant concert venue to the intimate concert to the casual gathering around the piano, from the school ritual to the neighborhood celebration to the participatory workshop, from the 3-year olds to the 93-year olds, the folks of all races, classes and ethnic backgrounds, from the bagpipe to the body to the banjo to blues piano, the two weeks have been a microcosm of everything I care about and have spent time working on brought to harvest, a cornucopia of color and magic and mystery in all sizes and shapes of communal celebration.

I love the concert format, a time to set aside the practical details of the daily round and devote yourself to pure listening. (The word “audience” comes from the root audio, ie, “the act of hearing.”) Such venues, however, are a relatively recent invention of human culture. Throughout most of our history, and still today in cultures and cultural pockets worldwide, music and dance are more community participation than passive listening. I’ve loved every concert I’ve attended and given this Fall, but the classes with kids and the Orff workshop with adults where we all make music and play together is where my heart is.

We need both. But I’m more interested in musicalizing all of society and that requires a lot more than just buying concert tickets or downloading tunes. We need the folks at the top of the aural food chain who devote their lives to mastery of sound and the intricacies of form and we equally need to join the circle ourselves and sing what we can and clap and dance and create music as we are capable. And may I report that in four decades of releasing people’s sleeping musical selves in Orff workshops, we are more musical than we think. With the right kind of guidance and structure, people who have never practiced a single instrument more than 15 minutes at a time can come up with surprising and supremely musical creations.

What a pleasure to both teach and perform, to join hands in the circle and stand up on the stage, to gather around the piano and sit in awe in the audience. It’s been a marvelous two weeks indeed.

PS If you want to exercise your creativity, I’m offering a contest. Who can write a song with this refrain? “ I got the Bulgarian-bagpipe body-beating banjo-bloggin’ blues…”

First prize— a Bulgarian bagpipe. 
Second prize—two Bulgarian bagpipes!
Third prize? You guessed it—two bagpipes and a banjo!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Kids in the Cafeteria

The World Music Festival has come and gone like a shooting star in the night sky and with the same sense of awe. “Amazing!” someone shouted out from the audience on Sunday’s show, but that word was far too small. I thought about asking my new-found friends from Azerbaijan, Kyrgystan, Burkina Faso and beyond for a word from their language that might capture the experience. I'll get back to you if they find one.

As beautiful as it was to share the stage with these fellow musicians from far and near, I couldn’t help but notice that everyone tended to huddle with their own group during the breaks. It reminded me of a book (or was it an article?) titled “Why the Black Kids Sit Together in the Cafeteria.” On the one hand, that title implies a failure of our vision of social harmony and a new world. On the other, it’s the most natural thing in the world, a non-negotiable part of our genetic make-up. I certainly believe in aspiring for something beyond the way the world currently works, but it must be based on the way human beings really are. (That’s why I couldn’t take the book “Siblings without Rivalry” seriously. I mean, dream on!) From the firm footing of how we’re put together, we can begin to ascend to our next level of possibility.

Let’s face it. We all gravitate to our own kind. Check out the school parent meetings, the boys and girls sitting in a circle, the people on the bus. We are magnetically drawn to those who look and talk and dress like us. Why? Probably something to do with our deep urge for stability, security, familiarity and a sense of belonging. That tendency is hard-wired, given to us for free. But the one we have to work on, the one that takes some effort, is the question of “How do we deal with the other?”

“You’re making history!” shouted out someone else at Sunday’s show and that was half-true. Because history mostly tells us, “Watch our for the Other!” And with good reason. When the Mongol Hordes or Christian Crusaders or McDonald’s Franchisers invaded, it didn’t always work out to invite them in for tea and ask them to teach you a song.

But as the Festival showed, that’s exactly what would have happened if they sent the musicians first instead of the soldiers or traders. This Festival—and many like it, including the Body Music Festival this weekend (check it out— www.crosspulse.com— SF School kids perform on Sunday!)—is a step toward a new level of cultural exchange, one made possible by jet travel and electronic access and made necessary by a shared ecological crisis. The former shows us what a pleasure it is to start talking to each other and sharing the gifts of our particular culture, whether it be in musical sounds, words, images or dance steps. While rooted in the familiarity of what we know, it is thrilling to step toward new forms of expression. The latter suggests that such conversation is no longer a luxury, but a dire necessity. We'll need the collective wisdom and imagination of all people to deal with the challenges that lie before us.

The audience response to the show was their visceral intuition that the confluence of a cultures on the stage was that vision made tangible. A historical moment to move from his-story to our-story. But still,
what to do about the “tribal huddling” off-stage?

When we were rehearsing with the kids we took to Salzburg, I noticed that at every break, they divided up into separate corners as predicted—6th graders here, 7th there, 8th over there. But by the end of the week in Salzburg, that no longer happened. What changed? Time to hang out and do lots of different things—play cards together, go swimming together, go shopping together. That’s the next step for the World Music Festival. We should go on retreat and cook together, play volleyball, play games. To be fair, we did have some lovely together moments and fun mixing off-stage as well, playing some name games and singing some Halloween songs. We just need more time to mingle to bring the whole experience one step closer to the “we” we’re aiming for.

As for those kids in the cafeteria, I did have the remarkable experience of sitting with all those black kids in 8th grade because I made friends with Lumpy Blackshear. It was the beginning of a lifetime of trying to get to know “the other.” And what have I discovered?

There’s no such thing. We are all tied through our mutual joys and sorrows, dreams and failures, epiphanies and griefs. The accent may change, the rhythms may have different flavors, the melodies different scales, the cooking different spices— and Viva la Diferance! How deadly dull and boring it would have been for me to stay in the comfort zone of familiarity day after day! But after the initial thrill of the exotic, we’re all just folks struggling to make our way through a complex world. And we need each other to do it. All of us. 

PS Those wanting to view some of the show, go to: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/18223826