The density and intensity of the last three days have been nothing short of astounding, and yet, par for the course in this strange extraordinary life I’m blessed to live. Wednesday night was the ritual Orff Course “Untalent Show,” a term I credit to Sue Walton, my colleague from Cazadero Music Camp days. As she always explained, the “un” meant “uninhibited, unprecedented, unbelievable talent” and that’s what if often is. Each year it seems more remarkable than the last and this year was no exception. People who sit happily in your class playing “G – E – G-G- E – “ on a glockenspiel suddenly are fiddling their way through virtuosic Handel variations, singing the blues like (or better than) Janis Joplin or singing a hilarious tour-de-force opera duet with “Me-ow” as the main text. It ended, as it always does, with me at an exquisite Steinway piano playing some tender jazz ballad in the dark (this year, Time on My Hands) and everyone lying on the floor. And lately, some under the piano, where the vibrations are richer.
The next night was the formal sharing from each of our three Levels—recorder, Orff Ensemble, movement and all combinations of above. Again, the artistry was above the tree line, a reminder that even as we learn the scientific details of a sequential curriculum, the psychology of child development and the sociology of community-building, our mission begins and ends with artistry, with the deep urge to express the unexpressible far beyond where mere language can take us. And to share it in performance.
On the last day, my Level III had our closing circle with a Kleenex box in the middle that ran out of tissues after the first five people spoke. It was the time to speak about their “takeaway” from the last two weeks and/or the last three summers of their Orff training. Believe me, no one talked about how they realized it’s important to teach 3/4 time before 6/8. Each in their own way talked of self-doubts made larger and then smaller through the breakthroughs of their steady effort and the constant support of a loving community. With eloquence, honesty, broken voices and wet cheeks, the hurts and traumas of a loveless education and a cruel surrounding culture surfaced, but redemption over-rode all that pain, a victory hard-won and often unexpected. They came to the training hoping to figure out how to teach kids just a little bit better and left with a firmer conviction in their own goodness and beauty, modeled by their teachers, mirrored in their fellow classmates and waiting to be revealed anew with their new eyesight in the children they would return to teach.
An hour and half later, we emerged from the pool of tears to the larger community (Levels I and II) awaiting us in the theater and there we walked through the living tunnel of singing souls welcoming the Level III’s as we birthed them out to the greater world. This is the Graduations Ceremony we have crafted over the years, a bittersweet event in which the graduates feel proud and honored and happy in their accomplishment, but sad to leave the womb of these summer gatherings, anxious about being pushed out to the cold, cruel world, back to their isolated classroom where even fellow teachers don’t always wholly understand them, never mind administrators and school boards and decision-makers in Washington DC.
But there they sit in front of the others and one-by-one, I call them up for a diploma, a rose and a hug line of their teachers from all three years. And I speak briefly about each and try to find the words to capture the essence of their particular genius and how they do contribute and might contribute to this worthy craft of music for children. It is no simple thing and a bit scary to put myself on that tightrope, trying to make sure I honor each of the 24 people equally without resorting to cliché (they are never “awesome”). But I do it because it’s part of the work that I’m trying to model for all. To use music and dance and song and drama as a way to see into the core of each person’s uniqueness. After all, you can learn more about a kid—or an adult—watching them dance a solo or improvise a melody or act out the royal queen or mean troll than you can looking over their math sheets.
I closed with some final words about the difficulties of re-entering the world of posturing politicians and ignorant decision-makers and groups of people that don’t take the time to see each other and value each other and risk in front of each other and make each other into something larger and more beautiful than any of us can be alone. And remind them that the echoes of these two weeks will be their rock, their comfort, their solace. And that the only antidote to everything that is wrong with the world is to live more fully everything that is right. That’s how we will find peace, will come to love as we go our separate ways.
And that’s when song takes over again, Beethoven (the melody) meeting my teacher Avon Gillespie (the words) as we sing the rousing canon “In Living Fully” in full robust voices. The song is moistened by tears as we spiral into a tight web, throw our arms around each other and hit the final cadence of those glorious harmonies. A moment’s silence— and it’s over.
I have not been thoroughly trained as a musician by institutional standards and yet I’ve managed to make music of all sorts with people of all ages, cultures and musical backgrounds. I’m not a therapist or a shaman and yet there seems to be a great deal of healing that emerges from my classes. I’m not a spiritual leader, but somehow Soul and Spirit are everywhere I teach and I sometimes find the right words to greet them. I’m a musician without a bandstand, a therapist without an office, a preacher without a pulpit. But miraculously I have found a way to join them altogether into some vocation that has no name yet. (But might soon, as I’m toying around with the them of “The Humanitarian Musician.”) With officiating a wedding behind me and a memorial service in front of me (tomorrow), that elusive combination ratchets up yet another notch. I suffer a bit from not being wholly in any club, but love living at the meeting point, living at the crossroads of multiple paths and making it up as I go along. And such glorious company— fellow pilgrims, both teachers and students, willing to expose themselves to the elements on a musical Camino de Santiago, without the T-shirt at the end.
Life at the crossroads. It’s a good place to be.