Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Spectacular Failure

My whole life, I’ve kept an eye out for the next work by artists/ thinkers I admire. James Hillman’s next book, Keith Jarrett’s next recording, Barbara Kingsolver’s next novel and so on. One of my longest-lived anticipatory pleasures has been Gary Snyder’s next book of poetry or essays. So imagine my delight when at 84-years old, he’s offered a new one: Nobody Home: writing, buddhism and living in places.  This a collection of essays, interviews and letters with a South African named Julia Martin.

Leafing through it, I noticed a little conversation where she asks about his vow at 15-years old to “fight this cruel and destructive power and those who would use it, for all my life.” Sixty years later (the time of the interview), he comments:

“Well, I tried. And it didn’t work, did it? I’ve been living my life by this and I guess it didn’t come to anything—in fact, it’s worse than ever!”

I imagine folks like Pete Seeger, Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou and other crusaders for social justice and human rights must have felt the same at the end of their days. Consider: this year marks the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and yet don’t millions continue to build walls between themselves and their neighbors with armed guards atop the barbed wire lookouts? Walls between their own spectacular promise and their daily failure to rise to it? Likewise, the end of apartheid was an extraordinary event, but those ground down by decades of poverty and racism couldn’t suddenly turn themselves around with focused effort and enlarged compassion— a huge leap worthy of celebration yes, but then the cycle of violence continues in different ways, with no easy end in sight.

I suspect that Mr. Snyder will put his above statement into a larger container and look at the value of the effort and the many victories that indeed alleviated human suffering and open up human freedoms. That has been one of his great gifts as a thinker, looking at the larger context and always coming down on the side of hope built by clear thinking and hard work. But still you can feel the discouragement leaking in and who can blame him?

If indeed he, and others like him, have failed, at least it was a spectacular failure, caused by a vision so high and wide and deep that it was worthy of falling short of the mark. Imagine if you had succeeded in your largest dreams— I suspect then, those dreams would have been too small. Something like “i-Pads in classrooms across the country!” or “instant access to TV shows past and present.” Where’s the glory in that?

In my own small corner of the world, I have held a vision of a music education that not only delivers what it promises—i.e., “music” and “education”— but also inspires a model of community and humanitarian promise far beyond learned specific notes on particular instruments. And one that is freely available to children (and adults) in all places, at all times. A music education that enlarges the definition of music and education, that brings humor, joy and palpable love into each and every class, that transforms the nouns of Spirit and Soul to active, living verbs, that brings immeasurable pleasure to all.

And in 40 years of attempting just that, I have failed— spectacularly, I might add. Proposition 13 crippled music education in California in the Bay Area and some 36 years later, most public elementary schools still have no music programs to speak of beyond the old, tired band pull-out program for a selected few. Almost 15,000 people have seen my short TED talk about why music is important and as far as I know, the only impact was one administrator deciding not to cut a program after watching it. (But in my mind, that made it worthwhile!). All these years I have been trumpeting the Orff approach as the enlightened path to dynamic, inclusive and far-reaching music education and yet, the things I see and hear in Orff’s name (like the book “That’s So Orff!!!”), make me want to crawl into a hole and hide. In regards to music ed in the U.S., I believe I could borrow Mr. Snyder’s comment above and have it apply equally.

But hey, I did try. And will go on trying for as long as I’m graced with breath. In the effort is great joy and the true victories are always small, but (hopefully) significant. I had many today with 4th grader’s improvising on xylophones and explaining how they thought about it, with 8th graders trying to stump me with questions about Louis Armstrong, with the five-year olds running into class like it was Christmas morning (see yesterday’s blog). I once put an Emily Dickinson poem to music in a three-part choral arrangement and it’s a good response to spectacular failure. As follows:

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain.
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain.

Or help one fainting robin,
Unto his nest again.
I shall not live in vain,
I shall not live in vain.

Thanks to Gary Snyder for a lifetime of unbroken vows. May there be more to come!

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