Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Velveteen Rabbit Test

A colleague who was my student in the Orff Institut Special Course presented a lovely workshop yesterday sharing some of the ideas and inspirations he picked up in that intensive year of study. He told me how he did the same workshop back in September and how different this one felt because between September and April, he actually worked with the material and ideas in his classes with children. And that’s when it became real.

Just like the Velveteen Rabbit. No matter how clever the idea, the teaching process, the new ap for the Smart Board, the cool song, it doesn’t wholly come to life until it has been hugged and squeezed and dragged through the dirt and generally worked over by the children. Once it passed through their exuberant bodies and imaginative minds and love-struck hearts, then it becomes wholly alive, becomes authentic, becomes real. There is no shortcut and no way to sidestep this process and still be honest presenting things in a workshop.

School boards, take note. I am so weary of the next “latest and greatest” in education that is cooked up in conference rooms with the windows shut and bad coffee. Nothing, and I mean nothing, of value in education can be of value until it has passed the Velveteen Rabbit Test. The kids need to work with the ideas, ideally adding their own and the teacher needs to note their reaction. Do they generally care for that stuffed rabbit they’ve been offered or is it just another doll in the heap of neglected toys? Do the teachers notice how much love is present when they hold the doll in their hands? Do they help sew the arm back on or instead, buy an electronic mechanical doll that talks in pre-programmed sentences rather than through the imaginative voice of the child playing with it?

So in my role as a teacher speaking on behalf of children, I propose the Velveteen Rabbit Test as the standard by which things are judged, accepted, approved. And note that even if the kids in this class love the doll, the kids in that class might not. The alert teacher might need to shift to the Raggedy Ann doll or the Koala stuffy.

Friends, let’s keep it real.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Making a Motion in the Legislative Body


Back in my home territory, an Orff Conference, this one the Carl Orff Canada gathering in Niagara Falls. A day spent going from one workshop to another finding out what delicious cuisine the chef-leaders have prepared and how much they’ve helped us learn how to cook it ourselves.

The last one was a movement workshop from a lovely German teacher (and by that I mean not just lovely in face, but in spirit and artistry) Irina Pauls. We did some simple things that I have done before—all walk a medium tempo, one person stops and all stop. One person starts and all start. Then at fast tempo. Then in slow motion.

What does such an exercise invite? Awareness of body in space, awareness of breath, awareness of tempo, awareness of the group (noticing when to stop and start) and the simple pleasure of moving with awareness. Her offering was not a six-course five-star French cuisine prepared by harried and angry sous-chefs in a high-pressure kitchen. It was a stroll out into the garden and the picking and tasting of a perfect just-ripe tomato, with time to savor the juicy sweetness exploding in one’s mouth. Isn’t that enough? Yes it is.

Someone made a comment about legislative bodies doing this exercise before deciding on the fate of the nation’s policies and laws and the term struck me. Legislative body. Listen to our language. A body should be a body, coordinated in all its limbs and all its systems working together to create a sense of wholeness in the whole body, a feeling of health when all the separate parts work together. Instead we have a collection of talking heads. Or bodily systems constantly at war with each other. The heart not talking to the head, the digestive system demanding more time than the respiratory system, the legs not in accord with the arms. You get the idea.

And earlier in the day at a meeting, there was the question: “Will someone make a motion?” A dangerous question in an Orff Conference! There should have been an explosion of movement and shapes in the room. But people knew what it meant. Or did they? Making a motion means making a motion to set things in motion and to feel the need to keep things moving and flowing to avoid stasis. Not random motions just to release energy or mindlessly change direction, but purposeful motions with a focus and clarity of intention. In short, like the activities of a dance class.

And so to be true to our own language, legislative bodies should act as bodies and make motions in order to make motions. And in the process, increase the awareness of the other until the other disappears into just a beautiful part of the whole. The way music and dance work.

To my mind, this is the deeper layer of why music and dance belong in schools. Not just for the marching bands and cheerleader moves, nor just for the jazz band and string quartet and ballet or hip-hop concert, but for the training of all people to move towards awareness of self in space, of breath, of tempo, of intention, of the others we share time and space with. And to bring that awareness into all aspects of our life.

"I move that the arts be central in all schools everywhere." Anyone second that motion?

Claiming Identity—The Mardi Gras Indians


I can tell there will be echoes from this New Orleans trip for days (weeks, years?) to come.
Today I got to thinking about the Mardi Gras Indians and the fact that it’s an all-black tradition not open to whites, Asians, Latinos, etc. In today’s world, that could be felt as exclusive, discriminatory, racist and so on. So it requires a little reflection.

There are many, many reasons why the exclusive Mardi Gras Indian tradition is different from the country club that excludes Jews and blacks, is different from the redlined neighborhood, is different from anything that could be called “black supremacy.”

White supremacy is based on the arrogance that one group can have the power to define another group. The purpose of this abomination began, in my reading of the matter, from an economic base, creating a mythology to justify an oppressive system that served the economic needs of one group. Free labor? For a few centuries? Hey, good deal! Now we only have to create a foundation and scaffolding for this and look, the priests, scientists, politicians are more than willing to help! Come up with their theories of racial superiority and their surety that God decreed that one Master race was destined to rule over and take care of in their own weird way, claiming that the unfortunate inferior children are better off in the plantation than in the jungle (which actually barely exists in West Africa). Voila! We did it! And now we can boast about America being the great superpower because we built on a few hundred years of free labor! Aren’t we special? And yes, the black folks can raise our children and carry our suitcases and clean our rooms and serve our meals (while we paint them as lazy and shiftless) and entertain us with music and dance even when official slavery is over and we’ll keep up the free labor by putting them in prisons because God wants it that way and Science confirms that this is their rightful place and Right Wing Talk Radio keeps the lie going and fools the poor whites who would benefit from an alliance. And if something happens to contradict that—if there’s a crack in the carefully constructed edifice of racism because some people are noticing the courage of a Harriet Tubman or Rosa Parks, the brilliant minds of a Frederick Douglas or W.E. Dubois or Cornel West, the kinesthetic brilliance of Jack Johnson to Jesse Owens to Wilma Rudolph to Steph Curry, the musical intelligence of Louis Armstrong to Josh Redman and Esperanza Spalding, the moral mountain of Martin Luther King, we’ll find a way to conveniently not notice it. And at least we have math, golf and modern art to …oops! Damn that movie Hidden Figures and Tiger Woods and quilters of Gee’s Bend and Thornton Dial.

So back to the black Indians. Their identity is not based on the racial inferiority of whites, is not built on raising themselves up by putting others down, is not based on the refusal to acknowledge that they could get to know and be friends with someone of a different skin color. It’s about claiming a tradition that came from their solidarity with Native Americans who welcome escaped slaves, allowed for some intermarriage and assisted in survival in a brutal situation. It is passed down within a family like royalty of old and as such, not a club that anyone can join. But the exclusion is like an affinity group more than the country club, a rare place where an oppressed group can claim their own identity without being defined by others and without feeling the need to define others.

I remember visiting a Hopi Village years back and witnessing a ritual that had to do with snakes. It was right up my alley in terms of my fascination with music, dance, drama, ritual, culture and healing and I asked if white folks could ever study this tradition. The answer was immediate and clear. “No, this is for us.” But then the beautiful second sentence. “But I want you to know that we do this ceremony on behalf of healing all people in the world.”

So this white boy cannot presume to become a member of the tribe and that is correct. But I can dance in the second line and if I play a mean enough trombone, I might be welcomed into the brass band that joins the parade. In short, whatever level of racial harmony New Orleans has achieved (and I’m not being na├»ve here about some fantasy land where all is fine—the nefarious claws of centuries of racism still are digging into the culture here like everywhere) comes from a mixture of exclusivity and inclusivity and knowing where and when each is appropriate. At the beautiful Community Sing I attended led this one time from Ysaye Barnwell, they announced two sings a month—one for everyone and one for people of color. That felt right.

Yes, the lessons of New Orleans continue to echo. That such a place can be in the United States is an extraordinary blessing. May it continue and evolve!

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Two Pleasures


It has been said that there is a Puritan hat hanging on every coat rack in the United States. In other words, the ideas and ideals of our Pilgrim ancestors continue to echo throughout each corner of the culture and the result is not happy.

Like anything, the Protestant Puritan strand begun by fun-loving party folks (not!) like John Calvin probably has a few good points. A work ethic, a study ethic, book-learning and schools and good posture. But the whole disdain toward the body, the whole idea of the flesh as sinful and stifling the Spirit, the whole fear of sensual and/or sexual pleasure, has wreaked its share of havoc. Somehow this hatred of all things earthy and all people who lived close to the earth and danced and thought intuitively and imaginatively and were at home in their bodies and not ashamed of healthy libidos, all of this helped pave the way to witch-burning and Native American genocide and slavery and corporal punishment in child-raising. Exuberance was to be corralled and put down, humor had no place in this dour life-hating way of life based on 24/7 restraint in the sensual pleasures of food, drink, dance, rhythmic music, sex, colorful celebration. Believe me, the Puritans were not big fans of Mardi Gras.

But when the gates of restraint came down and unabashed hedonism came in, well, I can’t say that this was much better. Constant indulgence, excessive drinking, drugging, eating, no restraint in use of language, the entire porn industry and casual sex, the President’s genitalia being discussed on the nightly news, the constant assault of bright lights and loud music and extreme yoga and extreme everything. Is this really an advance in civilization?

All of this brought on by my resolve to lean further toward restraint in my eating. I’ve enjoyed the pleasure of satiation and thumbing my nose at the scales and thinking, “Oh, yeah? You think I shouldn’t eat ice cream? Well, check this out!” But as the numbers on the scales creep up, I’m not exactly winning this little battle. But my resistance to the Puritan hat wants to keep insisting that life is too short not to eat chocolate and indulge in related pleasures. I don’t want to make myself miserable to just bring down some numbers and keep true to my pant size.

And so my win-win solution. The trick is not to forego pleasure, but to transpose the pleasure of satiation to the pleasure of restraint. For example, I went to a restaurant tonight and just had a smallish salad and I’m not 100% full by any means, but I’m not starving either. I’m feeling this 1/3 emptiness as its own kind of pleasure and my ability to say “no, thank you” to dessert as a way to be in control of desire rather than be controlled by it. And that’s a form of pleasure.

So in your face, Puritans! I’m enjoying eating less! And my half a beer is just fine. And yes, I’ll continue to dance and play rhythmic music and hug friends and trees and be entranced by the Black Indian parade in New Orleans with its colorful costumes and enjoy what’s left of my libido.
Restraint and fulfillment. Both pleasurable in their own ways. And no thanks to the dour, angry, repressed denial of the body and the senses. And no thanks to “anything goes.” Life thoughtfully lived with pleasure and enjoyment as part of the Spirit.

Chocolate, anyone? You decide.

How to End Democracy


I’m on the road again. Three days back in San Francisco after a New Orleans trip that is still echoing on in my thoughts and now off to Niagara Falls for the Canadian Orff Conference. Where apparently Spring means temperatures in the 30’s and 40’s.

So I’m here in Chicago Airport and I just signed on to Wifi and as we all do, I accepted the terms and conditions without reading a single word. In these days, maybe dangerous to give ideas to the fascists, but if they really want to bring down democracy as we know it, I know a simple way:

Just bury in the long paragraphs of Terms and Conditions things like, “By accepting these terms, I am agreeing to relinquish all participation in the democratic process and give absolute power to our supreme leader. I relinquish my right to an attorney, my right to free speech, my right to vote."

Done. A bloodless coup. Now excuse me while I check my mail.