Monday, July 13, 2015

To Be of Use


I once met a musician in Edinburgh, Scotland who was an accomplished player of Ugandan music. Though outside the culture, he spent years and years paying his dues and was acknowledged by Ugandan musicians as a worthy transmitter of their music. I asked him if he was teaching the music or performing in Scotland and no surprise, there wasn’t a huge market for Ugandan music there and he was doing other work. (Perhaps he could transcribe some pieces for bagpipe?) I couldn’t help but feel that it must be a bit sad to have such knowledge and talent with no one close by interested.

Lately, just about every situation I find myself in calls forth every strange little piece of expertise I’ve worked on for a lifetime. Of course, the Orff workshops like the one I just helped lead in Turkey. But then playing piano in the park (see the blog Twelve Pianos) and yet another visit to the Jewish Home for the Aged. Off I went from there to a family reunion with 55 people of all generations. The first night, I led a name game with the adults in a circle so we could begin the week learning each other’s names in a fun way (these reunions happen every five years and we often don’t see each other in-between). The next day, I sang alongside an excellent guitar player (me with my ukulele) with the 30 and 40 year olds singing old folk and folk-rock and rock songs. (Dropped out on a few of the 80’s and 90’s tunes). Tonight, I sang lullabies to the 8 or so toddlers and then led a “singing time” with the 5 to 12 year olds. Nothing planned or formal, but a great way to gather folks together and send the kids off to bed. Later this month, I will officiate both a wedding (my second) and a memorial service (my fourth). In short, the eclectic group of skills I’ve needed to be a functioning Orff music teacher have proven useful in all sorts of situations with all sorts of people with folks of all ages.

Recently, Britain’s Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said:

“The arts and humanities were useful—we were told— for all kinds of jobs. Of course, we now know that nothing could be further from the truth, that the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock doors to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects. Too many young people are making choices which will hold them back for the rest of their lives.”

 And thus she advised the next generation to put down that clarinet, close the pages of To Kill a Mockingbird, put away the paints and get serious about studying the subjects that really count—Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

Well, Ms. Morgan, I beg to differ. I own a home in San Francisco (world’s prime real estate!), sent two daughters through college, have traveled all over the world and come back with money by spending my time learning children’s rhymes, clapping games, fun folk dances, by playing drums, bells, xylophones, bagpipes, banjos, accordions and jazz piano. I’ve gotten more mileage out of The Itsy Bitsy Spider than I ever did from 12 years of math study.

And yes, that doesn’t mean that job opportunities abound for those who can improvise verses to Aiken Drum. But those STEMMING their way into the job market would do well bringing the expressive discipline, human connection, attention to beauty, sense of play and fun and inquiry and exploration that good arts training provides into whatever job awaits them. Don’t you think?

Meanwhile, it is a blessing beyond my capacity to be grateful enough for it to have found my eccentric combination of skills to be of use. I have the honed ability to help bring a group together, to help connect them, to create an atmosphere of fun and frivolity and deep seriousness to any gathering of people, any place, any time, any cultural background, any age. Random strangers in Golden Gate Park, seniors in any home, kids in the Colorado mountains, adults in the Turkish countryside. I never could have foreseen the use of it all, but it has proved useful nonetheless. Not to advance my “career,” but to bring pleasure and joy and laughter and tears to any occasion as needed. Isn’t that enough, Ms. Morgan?

And to top it off, I can also teach one Ugandan xylophone piece to people in Scotland.

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