Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Place Just Right

First day of school and our glorious opening ceremony. I teared up several times, which is maybe odd for the first day of school, something more reserved for departures than arrivals. But still. When we were singing the song Simple Gifts, I felt these lines more deeply than usual:

“…And when we find ourselves in the place just right
It will be in the valley of love and delight.”

The ceremony began with the school head invoking John Lennon and playing a recording of John Lennon’s Imagine. Nothing of value is ever set in motion without beginning with the dream, with imagining something beyond the norm. I believe we all have lived for a time in the land of dream at some point in our life. First as a child, then a teenager, then a young adult. Our vision so limited because we’re so young, but we can see the horizon and hear the beckoning voices just out of sight and imagine what song they are singing to us, what dance they are asking us to do. And then if things are aligned just right, if we are gifted with the possibility of “coming around to where we ought to be,” we discover that the gift comes with a price—our own efforts to put feet on the wings of vision. As it says in another song in the opening ceremony:

“Gonna build me a day dream, from a little hope
Gonna push that daydream, up the mountain slope…”

To imagine, to dream, is a verb. It requires an active effort and one that defies gravity’s urge to bring us down to a lazy inertia. Anybody can dream, but to actively build the dream is something else, to push it up the mountain slope is the next necessary step.

So in my case, I had a vision all some four decades back of a nurturing school community that would be fun, challenging, artistic, intellectually rigorous, connected, that would wrangle with the difficulties of human beings sharing a time and space and dance through the challenges. I took on the role of creating and sustaining a ceremonial calendar that helped us push that daydream onward “side by side.” Nothing was accomplished by me alone, let me be clear about that. But I was the one who took responsibility to shape it and re-shape it and to learn when to lead ceremonies and when to step aside, when to involve other teachers, how to involve the kids. And that was a slow, arduous process full of small wrong turns, but always moving forward. One of the parents at the ceremony today is an alum who as a Middle Schooler used to call this “candle crap.” She confessed that part of her today remembered that 13-year old cynical self and the rest of her was weeping from the beauty of it all.

As was I. Listening to the voices of my colleagues speaking so eloquently, watching the kids ring gongs, pour water, dance with an Earth Ball, hearing the room filled with voices raised in song, the world stood still for a moment and I knew I had arrived. I was in the place just right, a place of love and delight. A place I helped build brick by brick, a place that in so many ways is stronger and brighter and better than it ever has been. Nothing left for me to do but “to bow and to bend” with deep gratitude, amazement and determination to spread the good news.

It's a good way to start the year.

Monday, August 21, 2017


While in the Toronto Airport, I posted on Facebook my gratitude for a remarkable summer—six Orff courses over seven weeks and still a couple of weeks to vacation with family in Morocco, Oregon and Michigan. Now there is a fine line on Facebook between a sincere sharing with friends about the ups and downs of your life and a narcissistic boasting of your glorious life and its sumptuous meals. Sometimes the line between the two is thin and though I like to think that I’m firmly on the first side, let’s face it—when people comment that they admire certain things about me and my latest exploit, well, I don’t mind the praise.

But it struck me when some 10 of the 15 comments used the phrase “You are amazing!”
While it’s true that sometimes I’m impressed by my energy and ability to sustain a demanding workshop schedule, there really is nothing to take credit for. It simply means that I’ve had the good fortune to find the work that perfectly suits the way I’m put together and uses every inch of everything I’ve cared about enough to work on and cultivate. What’s so amazing about that?

But it got me thinking about that word and went to my trusty online Etymological Dictionary and found that is comes from an Old English word amasian, with these definitions and associations:

1.     To confuse, surprise.
2.     To overwhelm or confound with sudden surprise or wonder.
3.     Stunned, dazed, bewildered.
4.     Stupefied, irrational, foolish.

Huh? Not what I expected! But then I connected it to the word “maze” and it made more sense. While wandering in the maze, one doesn’t know where one is. You hit many dead ends, get disoriented, walk about a bit dazed, bewildered, confused. Where am I? Which is the right way? You make foolish choices and are driven by some irrational desire to find out what’s at the center. And when you do stumble upon it, you are wholly surprised and …well, amazed that you ever lucked into finding the glory that awaited you at the end of it all.

So that’s a pretty good description of a life that led to the immense pleasure and energetic vigor that allows me to teach 6 hours a day for 5 straight weeks with unflagging energy. That’s amazing! In the old sense of the word.

Now let’s see if I can wind myself through the school year ahead. 

Who Is the Who?

In defiance of my wife’s objections (“No more room on the shelves!”), I still buy CD’s. I’ve been browsing record stores and bookstores my whole life and surfing i-Tunes just ain’t the same. So yesterday, I walked into Amoeba Records with a vague idea of looking for a recording of a Poulenc piano piece and see if any of my favorite artists had put something out since my last visit. Couldn’t find the Poulenc and the other answer was no, but my browsing paid off. An album by a favorite jazz pianist (Fred Hersch) playing jazz interpretations of Russian classical pieces and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. While in the store, an old rock song was playing and I eventually figured out that is was the Who. ("What?” you say. “No, the Who!” “Who?” “Yes, the Who.” “But Who is the group?” “Yes, that’s right.” And so on.) So I sauntered over to the rock shelves wondering if they had Tommy and there it was, for $4.95.

Now Tommy was my listening companion for all of July, 1969, in company with Tracy Cunningham, my starter first girlfriend. She taught me how to drive her stickshift Volkswagen bug and we tore around the backroads of Watchung Reservation in New Jersey listening to Tommy on her 8-track. I thought it was a work of sublime genius and yes, it was partly due to the fact that it was the soundtrack to a budding romance and some horizontal explorations in the cramped backseat of that Volkswagen bug.

The human mind and memory is an extraordinary thing. I listened to it in my Prius automatic shift car through its Bluetooth device while driving to school today and damn if I didn’t remember just about every note and word! Almost 50 years since I last heard it, but there it was, etched in the grooves of my neurons and carrying me back to the 17-year old in that remarkable summer between high school and college. There was Tracy on the seat beside me, there was hair on the top of my head beginning to flow down to the shoulders and I hadn’t the slightest idea what the world held in store for me, but had the intuition that it would be mostly good. And that proved to be true.

How did Tommy hold up musically? Well, it was an interesting experiment, that constant carpet of pulsing 8th notes with a few cool bass riffs and chords moving to sometimes unexpected places. But Bach or Coltrane it was not. You could feel The Who ("Who?") stretching toward something more artistically interesting than the 3-minute song—it was a Rock Opera after all. But musically, it only went so far. And from my now more-evolved musical perspective, it wasn’t far enough.

But still it was fun to think of Tracy, who ended up betraying me with a good friend. I visited her once the next year in Wellesley College and never heard from her again. I thought about searching for her on Facebook, but really, what’s the point.

Meanwhile, I’m desperately looking for some room on the shelf to put the Tommy CD. (Shhh! Don’t tell my wife!)

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Measure of Silence

“The job of the citizen is to keep his mouth open.”  -Gunter Grass

It’s happening. As 45 continues to take moral decency and intelligent discourse to new lows, people are finally starting to speak up. Not enough—and certainly not enough Republican congress-people—and not loud enough and not quickly enough and not often enough, but slowly but surely, they are beginning to speak where they once were silent. Civic organizations are cancelling events in Trump buildings, the Presidential Arts Council resigned, as did a group of science advisors earlier, the founder of SF Jazz recently posted an eloquent critique and even John McCain spoke up. It’s happening.

In my experience, people pretty much agree on what constitutes evil. Where they differ is in how much they are willing to excuse. And as the politics of ignorance, exclusion and hate edges closer to everyone’s doorstep, those who had the privilege and luxury to choose “not to get involved” find themselves having to choose between the dangerous compliance of silence and the dangerous decision to dissent. White privilege is about as real as it gets and has let millions of the hook of speaking up and speaking out. But so is male privilege and straight sexual preference privilege and abled-body privilege and economic privilege and Christian privilege. But as the rhetoric continues to insult people of color, women, gays, disabled folks, poor people, Muslims and Jews and then threaten their rights and even their life, suddenly the “alt-left” is simply the person next door or even you. So if you’re Jewish and you were relaxed about the Klan, suddenly they’re marching with Neo-Nazis. Now do you know who your friends are? If you’re poor and one of the 23 million the Republicans you voted for wanted to cut off from health care, are you starting to get the picture? If you’re raising young girls and the boys are having fun grabbing whatever they want and insulting your daughter, is this still okay with you?

What is most broken about our country and our culture and our politics was revealed by the events of November and a shock and surprise to many of us. What is durable and worthy and hopeful has been equally revealed, first in the January Women’s March and now in the millions working tirelessly to get involved, turn this around and save some shred of decency that we’ve taken almost 250 years to build and preserve. Each person that habitually speaks out in all the ways that we still can without fear of imprisonment or murder—letters, blogs, articles, comments at business meetings or school staff meetings, songs, signs, T-shirts, difficult conversations with family members—is casting a vote for Hope. Those who continue to hide and stay quiet will have much to answer for in the face of the explosion lit and fanned by the Commander-in-Chief himself post-Charlottesville and popping up in Hate Marches nationwide.

In response to a friend’s Facebook post about the necessity to speak up, I responded spontaneously with a sentence that felt worthy of putting in italics. As follows:

If silence were measurable and we could see precisely the number of injustices fueled by its permission, that might make us think twice before shutting up.

You may quote me. With due credit, of course.

Blue Tape on Red Rubber Mallets

Beginnings. Yesterday 6 hours spent preparing the music room for the year ahead. So much satisfaction in the small details. Sorting, dusting, labeling, arranging and re-arranging, fixing. Things that bothered you every day, but you just couldn’t think about in the midst of the storm of teaching, now able to attend to in the calm of a quiet room with no children. Things like putting pieces of blue tape on the 8 old red rubber mallets that were a different (and preferred) hardness from the new red rubber mallets so they’d be instantly identifiable. Putting the blue yarn vibraphone mallets in their own glass vase instead of picking them out of the larger mallet-filled coffee can. Getting the books out of the baskets (who put them there anyway?) and onto the shelves with spines visible and in ordered groups. Finally deciding to throw out the star chart of kids’ skill mastery from 1978. (Well, actually I moved it to the garage.) Organized the visual noise into a more ordered visual music and letting the room breath again. Like I said, so much satisfaction taking care of the details that will soon be swallowed in the delightful mess of creative work with a few hundred children.

“All things are created thrice” I once wrote, and each incarnation has its own beauty and  pleasure. First comes the dreaming and the preparation. Imagining the class to come and preparing it physically. Then comes the living, the moment of putting feet and muscles and breath to the airy vision. Finally comes the reflection, writing it down in the green book, thinking and re-thinking about how to adjust and improve, restoring the room to neutral.

Sometimes I dread the beginning of the year where we gather as a staff and go through the year calendar and because of the power of the imagination to live things before actually living things, I often already feel exhausted after the first few hours of gathering together again. But these past few years, I’ve missed these opening meetings (my protest against us starting too early in August and our slowness to bump things up a week to back where they should be. Instead of cancelling my Toronto course, I stubbornly insist I keep doing it and thank my colleagues James and Sofia for representing the music department!). May I say it feels just right to begin with the physical work in my own classroom and soon my green planning book will arrive and I’ll handwrite the new schedule and choose a photo for the front cover and take a moment to consider those white pages about to be filled yet again (the 43rd time!) with the record of the small and big miracles we call music class.

Beginnings. The anticipation of new possibilities, another chance to get it right, the freshness of returning from a summer of deep rejuvenation, the satisfaction of putting one’s shoulder to the wheel to get it rolling and the excitement of the trip to come, made easier by finding the good red rubber mallets because of the blue tape.