Sunday, May 20, 2012

Ode to Marlin Perkins

Anybody remember Marlin Perkins? He was the host of the TV show Wild Kingdom, a naturalist who went to the far corners of the world’s wild regions to study, observe and film the wildlife. The show was sponsored by an insurance company and so in the middle of his comments, he would segue into the commercial with some corny connecting piece like “Just as the mother cheetah protects her cubs, so will you want to protect your children with a good policy from Mutual of Omaha…”

I loved that show and once bet my sister $25 that I would grow up to work with animals. My mother took that seriously and somewhere around my junior year of high school, took me to a Biology Professor in a nearby college to find out what I needed to do to follow my dream. When “take lots of biology classes” was step number one in his answer, my dream died right there and then. I hate biology class! Was terrible at dissecting frogs and didn’t enjoy much of the rest of it. I was interested in learning and living with the animals in the wild and had no patience for plucking them out of their homes and putting them on the dissecting table so I could label their parts. I suspected that the real animal was not merely a sum of its parts, but was animated by some soul-force behind, over and underneath it all.

In many ways, that informed the way I think about teaching music. The music itself is so much more than an analysis of its scales and chords and formal structures, a living, breathing entity that unifies its separate parts into something much grander and larger. Later I realized that Marlin Perkins and Farley Mowat and in another realm, Jacques Costeau and their ilk indeed had done all that cold, analytic work to inform their experience and understanding, just as I needed to do the same in music. But there was a hierarchy to it all, the mind servant to the heart and soul of the matter.

Yesterday, I had the kind of biology class I love, walking in the woods with an experienced guide whose ears and eyes were tuned to pitches I couldn’t hear on my own. He pointed out a dazzling variety of beautiful birds, showed us the plants that would harm or heal us and told stories of how they all interacted—the wren who lived in the tree with the thorns that attracted ants, the birds (Tolito?) with the charming mating habit of two males on either side of the female singing, then switching places, singing again and eventually the female choosing one to fly away with. I told the boys, “See how important it is to learn how to sing and dance well?”

It was a day of such walks, Spanish classes, a swim in the refreshing waters of Lake Apoyo, skits in the early evening and a night-time walk searching for tarantulas. With one moment when we turned off our flashlights and were dazzled by a forest filled with fireflies, more than I had ever seen at one time. Extraordinary! While some of us were walking, others had what proved to be a dangerous hanging-out time and we returned to little clusters of girls reminding us that “Hey, we’re 8th graders” and some grand drama unfolding with the beginning practice steps of the tumultuous girl-boy relationships to come.

So I gathered the boys and went to our little retreat center in the woods, got them settled on the back porch, lit a candle and re-directed their attention to the world of “once upon a time, once before a time, once inside a time, once when time stood still, there lived a King, Queen and young Prince.” Not a sound for the next 30 minutes except for the thundering rain that had me nearly shouting the story of Iron John. Then my colleague Peter and I sang some songs with the ukelele as lullabies to these large-bodied children, what the kids back in the day of the Calaveras School Camping Trips used to call The Wandering Nostrils (the real word was Minstrels). Just as effective and just as needed for 14-year olds as for 8-year olds and such a pleasure to tap back into that feeling of storytelling around the campfire and tucking the kids in under the stars, serenaded by crickets and frogs. 

Now remember: “ Just as these children long for the comfort and security of being cared for, so will Mutual of Omaha serve all your insurance needs. Call your local office for your policy now!”

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