Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Czech List

Though I fancy myself an improviser and pride myself on spontaneity and my ability to respond to the needs of the moment with humor, wit, musicality and occasional intelligence, I am also a creature of habit. Every year, I begin the decoration of the Christmas tree with the same ornament from my childhood, a delicate red ball that says Silent Night and has been in my family some 65 plus years. And I put on a record—yep, a record on my still-functioning-but-rarely-used-turntable of carols sung by the Prague Madrigal Singers. One side is a mix of European carols and the other all Czech carols. The singing is pitch-perfect and beautiful in the way that mid-European singing can be and the accompaniment tasteful and just right, including an orchestra, organ and occasional bagpipes.

Daughter Talia happened to be over for dinner and she sang along with the Czech carols—the melody, that is. These are songs that are not well-known the way other carols are—like the English 12 Days of Christmas, Welsh Deck the Hall, German Oh Christmas Tree, Austrian Silent Night, French The First Noel. (Looking these up, I was surprised to see how many carols I assumed were European were actually composed by Americans in the 1800’s—Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, I Heard the Bells, We Three Kings. Then there’s the American jazz-influenced songs of the 20th century—White Christmas, The Christmas Song, Let It Snow, Winter Wonderland, all written by Jewish composers!)

But back to the Czech record. I have never celebrated Christmas in the Czech Republic, nor in any European country for that matter, but there is something that comes through in these songs.
Suddenly it’s not just a random collection of tones and scales and chords and timbres, but a music that sings an entire mythology, songs that proclaim that we are in this world and it is wondrous and it is beautiful and we belong and that the snow is not just cold and inconvenient, but an exquisite song of silence and the lights are not just telling us to buy things, but are bringing the heavenly firmament down to earth and that the gathering of people in a church is not about who’s in and who’s out, who’s on top and who’s a loser, who’s cool and who’s pretty, but about warm bodies ensouled by their collective singing voices. Each song is a testament to the simple miracle of life, rich with meaning and the indisputable sensation that God, i.e. the Spirit that infuses each atom of the material world, is in his heaven and we are in that heaven and in spite of every news article, all is right with the world. That’s what comes through for me hearing these songs once a year at the right time, in the right place, with the right lighting and the right feeling in the air.

And never for a second do I wish they were jazzier or had a djembe beat or were played on a shakuhachi flute or accompanied by electric guitar. They are precisely the right songs in the right style sung the right way for the right reason—to wholly express one tiny facet of the jewel that a human life can be. In three notes they say more clearly and deeply and profoundly what I’ve taken four paragraphs to try to capture in words and failed so miserably to do. That's the power of music.

At any rate, I could add spending Christmas in Prague to my bucket list and that might be quite interesting. But as long as my Silent Night ornament holds together and my turntable still works, it’s just fine to travel to heaven at the drop of a needle. I believe I’ll keep the Czech carols on my ritual check list. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Kiss Me, Pretty Protoplasm

Well, that was a first. I’ve spent many hours off and on memorizing poems, but never in my dreams. Last night, I had an extended dream in which I was re-learning a poem I had once memorized and by the time I woke up, I had it. How strange is that?

More interesting is “Why that poem? Why now? Oh, Dr. Freud or Dr. Jung, what does it all mean?”

The poem was one my Dad liked to recite whenever an occasion called for it—and often when the occasion didn’t call for it! It’s from a novel called Finley Wren by Philip Wylie and is a delightful scientific meditation on love, good eating habits, the activities of living cells and mortality. There are at least ten $50 words that need time and a dictionary. Hence, a good way to impress friends and acquaintances as to your high IQ. (Although these days, intelligence seems to be a cause for apology and something to hide. Using a three-syllable word could get you in trouble with Homeland Security.)

Perhaps the dream was simply a message to me to post the poem because some reader out there needs it at this moment. It could be you. Enjoy.

Life is just a passing spasm
In an aggregate of cells;
Kiss me, pretty protoplasm,
While your osculation dwells.

Glucose-sweet, no enzyme action
Or love-lytic can reduce
Our relations to a fraction
Of hereditary use.

Nuclear rejuvenation
Melts the auricle of stoic:
Love requires a balanced ration—
Let our food be holozoic;

Let us live with all our senses
While anabolism lets us—
Till—with metaplastic fences
Some katabolism gets us.

Till, potential strength, retreating,
Leaves us at extinction’s chasm:
And, since time is rather fleeting,
Kiss me, pretty protoplasm.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Bah Humbug?

And so the madness begins. In fact, began after Halloween, when the sterile shopping malls were already churning out the insipid carols and our whole sickness of consumption ratcheted up ten fold. People cursing in crowded parking lots, fighting each other in Black Friday Walmart stampedes, all the stress and anxiety and tension of buying presents for the kiddies or spouses or office workers that they might think they want, but often don’t and certainly don’t need and the planet keeps choking on plastic and discarded Barbies. The extra stress of the Christmas card list, the weird antiquated so-last-century displeasure of standing in lines at post offices, who usually have two people working behind the counter, but at the Christmas rush, change it to—one. Signing cards and getting copies of the photos of the fam and sending it off to people who you don’t care about enough to get in touch with more than once a year. And then having to read the Holiday newsletters of Jimmy’s soccer practices and how cute Tanisha was in her pink kitten ballet show and Darrell’s work going well and his volunteer Bible study group and Betsy’s taking up knitting and how they all love the i-Phone 10. Really?! Who cares?!! And don’t get me started on the Peace on Earth hype while we keep letting the NRA sell assault rifles to looney mass killers and our very own Godless leader posts hate videos about Muslims and fantasy murders of CNN reporters. Christmas is coming and the goose is not the only one getting fat and please to put a penny in this old man’s hat because I’ll need after paying the December credit card bill. So there you have it—hypocrisy, enough stress to create a new syndrome—Holiday trauma— rabid consumption, overeating, Santa hats covered in vomit on your doorstep (happened to a friend of mine yesterday after the Santa Pub Crawl), too many parties that just aren’t that fun, the mandatory sappy Christmas movies, and Jingle Bells up the whazoo.

And I love it.

Really, I do. One of the few times when fellow citizens actually know some of the words and melodies to songs beyond Happy Birthday, the city aglow with the glitter of lights (including, of course, the Hanukkah menorahs), that sense of anticipation, the tiny tots with their eyes all glow and despite all the commercialism and efforts to trivialize it, for me at least, a sense of magic in the air. Some of the music—both American and European—is genuinely beautiful and the pleasure of thinking about your loved ones and what little gift would be just right for who they are and what they want to move their wonderful self forward an inch is real. And yes, I’m not in touch with my childhood friend during the year, but the annual card gives me a moment of fond remembrance. And though it’s absurd to call ceasefires during Christmas and then go back to killing each other and robbing each other and hurting each other in the name of Christ (or other deities, take your pick), hey, I’ll take two weeks of Peace on Earth anytime. And I’m happy to sit with hot cider and popcorn and be artistically reminded that it indeed is a wonderful life and there are miracles on 34th Street and beyond and Tiny Tim still might get the health care he needs and the dreamer support in spite of all current efforts to the contrary.

And so the festivity begins. Happy Holidays!


Faith is the instructor. We need no other. 
 – Mary Oliver from her poem Spring

The Interns in our program have just finished their teaching. So satisfying to see their work and their progress. All without exception had better second classes than first ones, which shows they were paying attention. And our efforts to put language to the details that worked well and those that worked less well, to shine the light on the stumbling places on the path, to diagnose the little symptoms that the children announced in the way they responded—well, it worked! I used to think that the Orff way of having the teachers being trained as if they were the children in the class, to experience the pleasures or frustrations first-hand, was enough to help them understand how to better organize and teach their own classes.

Not so. Without the language, without making conscious the unconscious experiences, most teachers will revert to their old ways and not even notice why they’re not working. And the language also is not enough. You have to get out on the field and be heartily tackled by the children, drop the ball, get your passes intercepted, before the new ways of effective teaching start to take root. There is no better path than failure after failure for the alert teacher.

And then there’s Mary Oliver’s advice above. At the beginning and end of the day, it is faith that sees us through and teaches us everything we know. And what is faith? A belief that doesn’t insist on scientific proof and then begins a lifetime of proving it. A firm conviction that something is right even if others don’t share it. An intuition that this makes sense and is worthy of being the North Star of each and every decision you make.

But generic Faith is too abstract. What kind of faith guides the music teacher? Take your pick—or consider them all.

• Faith in the musicality of each and every child. An unshakeable confidence that every child is musical and your job—and theirs—is to discover precisely how they are musical.

• Faith in music itself as a faculty necessary to complete a human being. Faith in its power as a language, as a poem, as a meditation, as a connector of fellow humans, as a spokesperson for emotion, as the awakener of feeling, as a singer of beauty, as a comforter of sorrow, as a coordinator of fingers and lips and tongue and hips, as the key to unlock all the doors in the House of Soul.

• Faith in the humanitarian promise of each and every child. Getting close to the root of the child fresh from Creation before the dull, deadening, murderous techniques of brainwashing set to work, before their radiant 360 degree personality gets sliced down by the adults threatened by its brilliance, before the surgeon’s knife of religion, of society, of psychology’s fantasy of normal starts to cut away the exuberance, wonder and curiosity, before politics kills the kindness and business steals the imagination and substitutes it with goods.

• Faith in your own power to effect change, to make each class memorable for children, to learn to love them and celebrate them and praise them and bless them. That’s what will see you through all the hard days.

• All of the above.

Faith is the instructor. We need no other.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Beyond the Steps

When I was young and just coming up, I briefly got excited about an approach to folk dancing developed by Phyliss Weikart. Ms. Weikart was a P.E. teacher who abstracted some of the archetypal steps found in European folk dances and developed a simple vocabulary to teach them—things like side-close-side step, side-touch-side-lift, in- 2-3- and out-2-3, etc. She developed a systematic way to teach where you said all the steps in the dance, then said them while you danced and then later, just danced. I thought it was a much-improved model from the way I first learned folk dancing at Antioch College—jumping in on the Friday night folk dance and trying to figure out what everyone was doing. Or rather, jumping out and dancing behind them until I was ready.

Ms. Weikart’s approach had its merits. But soon I realized that the method began as described above and then at the end, they put on the music. As if the actual phrasing of the melodies and timbre of the voices and instruments and feeling in the rhythms was incidental to the steps. I remember watching one of the teaching videos, all mid-Western white folks (mostly women) in some bizarre generic uniforms circling while intoning “side-behind-side-touch…etc.” and thinking, “These could be the Stepford Folk Dancers” (Check out the movie “The Stepford Wives”)— so robotic and homogenous and no sense of style or energy. Because while it’s true that “side-close-side-touch” exists in dances from quite diverse traditions, the HOW of how that’s done is essential to the dance. Is there a subtle bounce? Body straight or bent? What is the handhold? What is the relationship to gravity? How are the inner rhythms of the music expressed in other parts of the body? It’s fine to say “side-close-side-touch,” but can you do it with the music on and feel the music in the way you say it? At least that?

The turning point for me was offering a folk dance class at a summer music camp and going through my little vocabulary shtick. Two young African-American girls came up and were standing on the side watching. “Come join us!” I said enthusiastically. “No, thanks,” they said. I persisted, “Why not? Come on, don’t be shy.” And they let me know in no uncertain terms, “We’re not shy. We just thought you were going to dance!” Bam!!!

In short, they were rightfully not impressed with my little dog-and-pony show and made clear that whatever it was we were doing, it was not dance. And they were right. Since that time, I used Ms. Weikart’s vocabulary very sparingly and always teach the steps in connection with the music, singing the melody as we dance. And doing the best I can to model the difference between a Bulgarian style and a Ghanaian one and a Renaissance one.

This story came to mind again after the recent National Orff Conference where I saw so many workshops with clever steps to eventually arrive at something like music, but never feeling music at the center. "Music" meaning like the way my colleague Sofia belted out a Brazilian song Mae Praeta and our Middle School kids jumped right into the center of it, feeling how the melody and its phrasing and its rhythm and its drive and its energy and its style evoked a certain dance in their bodies and a certain energy in their voice and from that raw, direct, powerful impulse, the precise steps would emerge organically. The problem I’m seeing with so many American teachers is the lack of foundation, of being brought up in a vibrant, living musical tradition in the family and neighborhood where the music is not learned through deciphering dots on paper or pressing fingers in the right places on strings as the first step or 20 minutes of conversation about time signatures followed by one-minute of music-making or some clever Orff teacher  walking the students through a series of steps, now often posted on Powerpoint, with a “now do this” and “now do that” and “now listen to the 4-bars of music we made” and then “now add some dance” approach. In these classes taught by university-trained music education students, one is hard-pressed to feel the beauty and power of the family sing or neighborhood barn dance or juke-joint jam session. There is no charge in the air, the students’ bodies are slumped and faces unexpressive, the talking about or preparing the music takes more time than the music itself.

Well, not at my school. Not in my workshops. Not in my elder sings (see yesterday’s post), Not in my world. Live, kinetic, vibrant, dynamic music is at the center and yes, I have my steps to help prepare it and shape it and refine it, but I know that the steps are not the music, the steps are not the dance. They’re just steps.

As those two girls suggested, “Come on. Let’s dance!