Monday, January 18, 2016

Almost Famous: Terry, Oprah, Wynton and Me


Yesterday, Fred Newman, the sound effects guy on Garrison Keillor’s radio show Prairie Home Companion, gave a fabulous workshop at our school. He had visited us once before and when we found out that the show was coming to San Francisco, we wrote to see if our kids could be on it. He did his best to advocate for us, but Garrison didn’t take the bait. The consolation prize was this wonderful workshop with some 15 teachers in our school music room. An intimate time off the national radar that was the real deal, filled with laughter, intelligence and soul.

And yet. I’ve been hungry my whole working life to have this powerful approach to music education get into a more national spotlight and get the attention it deserves. Why wouldn’t Garrison, whose life has been so touched by music, take the little daring step to have kids from San Francisco from a music program as old as his radio show perform instead of those three young women from Portland? Would it have been so terrible to give five or ten minutes of attention to an enormous following and get them thinking that maybe more kids in our schools should have experiences like this? Just wondering.

I had the same almost-famous one-step away moments with other people who have the power to shine the light on this. Marcus Printup, trumpet player in Wynton Marsalis’s Lincoln Center jazz Orchestra, came to our school to check out my work with a radical new approach to jaxz education and left both uplifted and impressed. But somehow he couldn’t get Wynton to do the same. I went to a talk by Terry Gross once and when she mentioned her husband's interest in jazz (he had written a book on the blues I had read) and her own admiration for teachers, I was convinced that my work would be interview-worthy. I wrote a few letters and sent in some samples, a school alum parent who knew her said he'd put in a word, the bait was on the hook and the line in the water, but she didn’t bite. As for Oprah, well, no connection there, but I think she’d be thrilled to see what’s going on not only in our music classes, but in the school itself.

Then there’s the world of jazz. Bobby McFerrin was a parent at our school for six years, Milt Jackson came to visit, as did Stefon Harris, Jim Nadel of Stanford Jazz Festival was a parent for a year. Stefon did invite our kids to play with him at Herbst Theater and had me teach a workshop at New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Jim Nadel had my group the Pentatonics play at a couple of Family Jazz Concerts, Rebecca Mauleon of SF Jazz has me doing a series of workshops after the Family Jazz Concert, so there is some movement afoot. But it’s so slow—music education for kids apparently is just not sexy enough or anywhere close to the radar screen of our national discourse to be of interest.

Of course, it could be me. Maybe I’m too bald or the wrong persona or my lifetime of dedicated work not as good or interesting as the people in workshops tell me it is or the kids in my classes show me it is. And believe me or not, my lingering bitterness at being “almost famous” is not my ego’s disappointment, but my sense that the work itself deserves more attention. If some Brad Pitt or Scarlet Johannson kind of guy or gal who did authentic work in this field was getting the national spotlight, that would be fine with me.

On some level, I’m exactly famous enough to get to travel around the world with my portable temple of small workshops that lift people up into their highest possibilities, held up by a community of spirit. I sell just enough books to keep my little publishing business afoot, have just enough blog readers (about 100 a day—thank you!) to help me feel I’m not just talking to the wind. I don’t need to wear sunglasses in public or live up to any inflated image of myself. 

But still, part of me is that little boy doing tricks on the monkey bars in the playground shouting to the adults “Look at me! Look!” I’m just slightly bitter that someone writing a blog about trying to cook like Julia Childs will have thousands (millions?) of followers and a movie made about her but the amount of time, effort and thought I’ve put into trying to fulfill children’s deepest needs is not considered as interesting as making the perfect omelette.

Okay, I’ve confessed myself clean here and now back to work. Somewhere deep in my heart I know that size doesn’t matter. Still, if any of you have some contacts…

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