Monday, August 13, 2018

Poetry, Music and the Opening Door


I lucked into a coffee table book called Giving Their Word: Conversations with Contemporary Poets edited by Steven Ratiner. It brightened my day to read the one with Mary Oliver. Near the end of the interview, she says:

“…there may come a time when the poem that is the little handle that opens the great door is found—and everything in one’s life, thereafter, is different.”

How often I hear testimony like this after these intensive Orff trainings! “This changed my life.” And that doesn’t come just from learning a cool nursery rhyme and Orff lesson plan. It has to do with the way I and my colleagues drill down to the essence of the matter, get down to the musical core of elemental simplicity and grow things to a complexity and intensity that charges the room with electric energy, all without a single plug. It has to do with the way we keep human promise and possibility at the center, help lead people to discover that they can do things that they hadn’t dreamed were possible. Or dreamed, but lacked the key to open the gate. It has to do with the way the whole show blossoms inside the circle of community, so that all can see and all are seen and all can support and mirror and reflect and encourage and enlarge that simple musical impulse tossed in the center.

Neuroscientists claim that there are only two fields of human activity that light up all the areas of the brain when one is engaged in them. You guessed it—poetry and music. The two are linked, of course, in song and generally share even some of the same vocabulary—meter, rhythm, form. The way poetry attends to the sound of language, tuning the ear to alliteration, consonance, assonance, rhyme, is exactly parallel to the way the composer chooses instruments to carry the melody and decides on accents and rhythms and such. So it’s no surprise that they both carry the same power to unlock and send one through that great door of life lived at greater intensity.

Of course, they do depart, poetry skating along on the pond of images and ideas as well as music, music speaking emotion that words cannot reach. But at their heart, they share the same foundation of intent, a similar process of creation and a common power to quiet a room and get people listening as if their lives depended on it.

Again, there is no formula in that small word Orff that guarantees epiphanies of this sort. It is the teacher fully living the life of the artist that allows for that possibility. And though many an artist would fail to see how planning a class can be an artistic pursuit, I would beg to differ and invite them to witness it. So when Mary Oliver discusses what gets her up in the morning, it feels exactly parallel to the way I feel when planning my next workshop. Her words:

“What I’m interested in, what I’m vitally interested in, is the poem I haven’t written yet, but maybe will tomorrow or the next day. The poems I have written—some of them, of course, give me satisfaction, various levels of satisfaction. But it’s poetry and language and what it can do that has been the salvation of my life. And what I think is at the center of human life—we can speak, we can tell each other momentous things to such a fine degree. It’s amazing and it’s sustaining. We can listen to each other and learn from each other.

Also, there is an absolute joy in being involved in good work, so that you lose yourself. That whole sense of losing yourself, immersing yourself, vanishing into the work, is sufficient reward for the labor.”

Always a pleasure to hear words to frame experience and Ms Oliver captures well that pleasure of planning the next class or searching for the next piece amongst the 88 keys or keeping all senses open and ready to receive the next poem. She also speaks what so many felt in these past two weeks at the Orff Course— class after class that served as the little handle that opened the great door.

Poetry and music, two powerful handles that can unlatch the mystery. But also swimming in the Great Lakes and playing with the grandchildren and shucking corn on the back porch while the sun sets. That’s my life at the moment and it is welcome.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Two Graduations


Yesterday was the Orff Course Level III graduation. After it was over, I said my goodbyes, rushed off to a farewell staff lunch and then the three-hour drive back to San Francisco. Arrive at 6:30, got a quick haircut (10 minutes!), re-packed, went to the airport and took off to Portland, Oregon and arrived at my daughter’s house at 12:30 in the morning. Woken up the next morning by my grandson Malik and off in the car for an hour drive to see my son-in-law’s graduation from three years of Occupational Therapy School. Two graduation ceremonies in the past 24 hours. And the differences between them worthy of comment.

Ronnie’s graduation was the traditional pomp and circumstance (including that song!). There were caps and gowns, a Scottish bagpipe procession, a Gonfalon flag with the institutional insignia, the academic mace carried by the President of the University— all iconic paraphernalia and rituals dating back as far as Medieval times. There is a significant moment of moving the cap tassel from the right to the left, the handshake with the President and draping of a scarf, the walk across the stage to cheering friends and family. The dominant facial expression is a smile and the whole atmosphere is charged with happiness. These people have worked hard and now are done with their studies and ready to enter the workplace and apply their knowledge. I suspect that there is a big exhale of relief—no more late night studying, no more tests, no more hoops to jump through and no sense whatsoever of “I’m going to miss all that!” On the contrary, these were the less-than-fun but necessary knowledges to be absorbed, the obstacles between on-the-way and a future career to be surmounted, the difficulties in the moment to be endured with promise of some future pay off. So again, mostly that satisfying joyful exhale of relief—“I’m done!!”

All of this is well and good and the way things go in the first stage of life— the building of the ego, the strengthening of the will, the discipline of work, the commitment to earning the money to pay all expenses, to feed and nurture a family (optional), to put yourself on the track of a career.

Level III Orff graduation was a very different kind of affair. The “procession” was the graduates bowing down and going through a tunnel of Level I and II teachers singing a Somagwaza, a South African song traditionally welcoming back the youth from their initiation ceremonies. The 30 of them then face the others and receive their diplomas one at a time from me. But instead of a handshake, we hug—strongly— and I say a word about each to try to capture some quality of character with the teachers playing a live version of Orff’s Streetsong composition. I then say some words and this year they went something like this:

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to witness the marriage of these people with the work they were born for. For many, coming to their first Orff workshop was like entering a room and seeing someone and immediately knowing, “That’s the person (work) I’m going to marry.” And so this whole thing began with romance, a falling in love and they stuck with it and found it was a good choice and here they are ready to commit to a lifetime “in sickness (holding hands with the kids in the dance who just blew his nose) and in health, for richer or for poorer (the latter: they’re music teachers), for better (“Can we do that again?”) or worse (“I hate this song!”), to love and to cherish, till death do them part… or they decide they liked the Kodaly Method better." So yes, this ceremony is a marriage and a commitment to get through the choosing instruments battles and who will drive the kids to the concert and who will bake cookies for the bake sale.

But it’s also a funeral, a death of the way these folks used to teach and continued to teach even when it didn’t work or made themselves or the kids miserable. It’s a burying of “I have to do it this way because that’s the way it was done to me,” of “I have to do it the way the school board tells me to,” even of “I have to do it the way my Level III teachers said I had to.” It’s also a farewell to the “I can’t” voice— “I can’t play without sheet music, I can’t improvise, I can’t sing, I can’t dance, I can’t create imaginative classes, I can’t figure out how to like my students.” And so on.

And it’s also a birth. Hence our little ritual of coming through the birth canal of singing people, born into a new day where work is play and play is fun and fun leads to understanding and understanding leads to deeper expression and expression awakens emotion and emotion connects body, mind and soul. It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for these 30 beautiful souls completing this stage of the journey on the path that has no end. In short, not your typical graduation ceremony, but a blend of a wedding, a funeral and a birth.

And so this graduation was a different kind of affair, an initiation into the life of the soul following a pedagogy of love. It’s a journey following a calling more than a career. It’s a way to build a future life not merely paying the rent, but giving coin to the soul’s deep questions.

And as such, there were more tears than smiles, a great sorrow that six weeks of joyful play, deep community, intense emotion and extraordinary connection had to come to an end knowing that there are few places in the world that welcome them. This work was about diminishing the ego to reveal the larger Self, about growing smaller back to one’s childlike self and a growing larger to one’s emerging Self. Of course, there’s a sense of purpose accomplished and justifiable pride in such accomplishment, the feeling of “passing” an initiation where the right questions are valued more than the right answers, but mostly, instead of the euphoric “I’m done!!!”, there’s the sobering “I’m done? No!!! I want more!!”

At the end of the graduation, all three levels spiral into a circle singing the beautiful canon “in living fully, one finds peace…” and this never fails to elicit some tears. But this year, all three parts were flowing and suddenly, the entire first section of the canon, mostly teachers and Level III students, seemed to stop singing. When I looked up to see what happened, I saw that almost every single person was weeping. I mean the kind of weeping that is so deep that you look bad. And since it’s impossible to weep and sing, the song was suffering.

But the people were not. They were fulfilling the promise and purpose of the ceremony. At the other graduation, the President’s voice caught for a moment and she said, “I apologize. Please forgive me. I sometimes get a little emotional at these things.” But in the Orff graduation, the only apology would be, “Please forgive me that I’m not crying.”

So there you have it. To paraphrase Robert Frost:

Two graduations diverged in a troubled world.
And I took the one less travelled.
And that has made all the difference.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Let It Flow

Too immersed in living the intensity of this training to reflect and write. But it has been a heaven and hell week, mostly heaven with one brief detour to the flames of misunderstanding and sense of betrayal (now worked out). But turns out that heaven is not the place where everyone is happy all the time, but the place where deep joy and deep grief hold hands and dance, where the tears flow as freely as the laughter ripples. The mirror neurons are firing big time as the waterworks have begun. One person sniffles—many times me in front of the class—and our built-in capacity for empathy fires up and the room is awash with tissues. I say, “Let it flow!”

And it’s only going to get worse. Last night was the Untalent Show and both my piano pieces did their work well of lubricating the room with emotion glistening on wet cheeks. This morning, I did it again in class—several times— while still summoning up the presence to keep moving and not melt down into the floor in a puddle. But tomorrow, the Kleenex corporation will enjoy increased profits from our closing circle and then the tsunami of tears will be unleashed in the final closing circle with my teacher Avon’s song, In Living Fully.

Water is meant to flow, people are meant for feeling opening with some salty teardrops and no one should ever say, “I’m sorry” when the flood gates are opened, as if we need to say, “Excuse me for feeling the fragility of beauty and the swiftness of time and the sorrow of saying goodbye and the bitter-sweetness of longing fulfilled and then yearning multiplied. I’m sure we will all enjoy returning to the world of discussing the kids’ soccer pick-up or deciding what ap to buy, of collapsing on the couch and turning that machine on and ordering ‘Entertain me!’

But not yet. Tonight is the formal sharing from all three Levels, a little bit of pressure mixed with the pleasure of reviewing and sharing some of what we’ve done. It will be glorious.

To be continued. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Gifted Quote

Some words fell together out of left field and I liked what they expressed so clearly. There was no context, no event or situation that precipitated it. But ours is not to question when something like this comes our way—just accept and pass it on. So the next time some political or personal discourse turns to some homophobic situation, you might respond like this:

“You are concerned about who someone chooses to love.
I’m concerned about who someone chooses to hate.

Now can we talk?”

Monday, August 6, 2018

Peddle and Paddle

And so we turn the corner for Week Two of this marvelous Orff Course. The first day always feels like a week, the second week like a day. Such is Time.

The weekend was a welcome and needed rest. Mission Impossible movie Friday night, kayaking with the teachers on Saturday and Eighth Grade movie that night. The kayaking wasn’t as wonderful as it sounded, slogging through seaweed, my seat popping out, a posture that was uncomfortable for my back while paddling. But I did enjoy passing the playful sea otters and seeing some jellyfish near the tip of my paddle.

Sunday was renting electric bikes and zipping around the Monterey coast, mostly the 17-mile drive through the Pebble Beach Golf Courses. Last time I rode one of these was in Salzburg some 7 years ago (wrote a blog called Acoustic Bicycles) and I remembered the same sensation of pedaling and getting that extra little electric lift, like the wind at your back effortlessly doubling your effort. I liked it. A metaphor for your guardian angels or all the seen and unseen hands that gently push you forward in the direction you’re pedaling. However, a bit dangerous, as you can get spoiled by it and when it gives out (electricity did run out on one of our four bicycles), you’re stuck with a heavy bike that’s harder to peddle. Better stick to the acoustic versions, depend on nothing but your own effort and enjoy the wind at your back when it comes.

That’s my DTOF (Deep Thought of the Day) as I turn towards today’s classes. 400 years of Western music history sung, played, danced and analyzed in 90 minutes. On I go, peddling and paddling through the promise of a new day.