Sunday, January 7, 2018

Apples and Oranges


For most of my thinking adult life, I find myself attracted to those who cross boundaries and make connections between disparate fields not often made. Subjects like the “Tao of Physics” or the “Tao and Mother Goose” or “Zen and Social Justice” intrigue me. In my own work, I talk about therapeutic healing through the lens of the children’s rhyme “Old Man Mosie,” about African-American history through the story of collecting eggs in the henhouse from the song “The Old Lady of Brewster,” about inner spiritual power as the goose that can’t be killed in “The Grey Goose” and so on. My book about what I consider inspired education draws parallels between effective schooling and a jazz band, a Zen monastery, fairy tales, xylophones and more. Often in my workshop, the simplest activity will take a leap into larger issues of social justice, depth psychology, ecological and mythological diversity and suddenly, we’re on some yellow brick road to Oz before being jolted back by a sentence like, “And that’s why the pentatonic scale is so important.” Boom!

So yesterday I was leading the group in my workshop through the distinct worlds of the diatonic modes—ie, the different scales and tone-sets that are created if you changed the starting and ending note to the next white key on the piano. You can try this yourself without years of piano training. Take a song like Twinkle Little Star and play it starting and ending on C. Now repeat starting and ending on D, using only white notes. Then E (again, white notes only). And so on. Did you notice how each one sounded distinctly different? (The one exception is that C and G sound the same because the different note in the G mode is not played in the Twinkle song). If you’re interested in the mathematics of it, the differences have to do with the placement of half-steps and how they change their order in the hierarchy. But more important than understanding why is experiencing how each one is its own distinct world, with a markedly different flavor, color and character. This becomes even more apparent if you play the C version, then D and then go back to C. When I do this on xylophones, I watch the faces of the people and their astonishment and delight at how strong the contrast is.

So while we took a simple folk song through these different modes, it struck me forcefully what a fabulous experiential way this is to view diversity and taste its beauty and power. We learned the song in C and then became our home, our familiar ground, our comfort and sense of belonging. And all of that is well and good. We could play it in C for a long time and find new ways to decorate, new corners to highlight, new places to move the furniture to. In musical terms, add different accompaniment to the melody, different timbres and combinations of instruments, different tempos or meters or rhythmic feels. If we get bored with our own home, there are plenty of ways to re-decorate.

But following the haiku poet Basho (feel me leaping here?), who wrote

Deep autumn—
            My neighbor.
How does he live? I wonder.

we can simple move next door to D and enter a whole new world. Isn’t that refreshing? Why would we ever not be curious about our neighbor’s life? Or worse yet, try to keep her out of our neighborhood? Or out of our country? What a loss to keep ourselves so narrow and not even want to taste this different, but equally interesting and beautiful world she lives in?

And with music, it becomes so obvious that the only chaos is when both modes are trying to speak at once. If you give each their time to talk—and even better, learn how to talk in each language, then it becomes patently obvious that not only is it possible to live with a multiplicity of voices, but that life is richer, more interesting, more colorful and yes, more just and fair, when we do so. Why can’t I give this workshop in Congress? Why do we always have to stay inside our narrow boxes and keep the futile arguments circulating in their own small world?

Of course, some apples and oranges don’t go together. The American fantasy that a self-obsessed greedy businessman would know the slightest thing about diplomacy and running a government is the kind of line-crossing that is an unmitigated disaster. But to have poets and musicians and mythologists share their deep insights into the human psyche and how culture might flourish is precisely the kind of mixing of apples and oranges we need to get out of our rut.

I’ve spent my lifetime developing the skills and material to widen the conversation and find myself constantly pleasing to give Orff workshops at the U.N., in Congress, in Mid-East Peace talks. If each of these gatherings started and ending with my leading activities like Funga Alafia, Boom Chick a Boom, the Beanbag Game, the Stations Game, Old Man Mosie, Oxdansen, the song Gonna Build Me a Mountain, the Estonian lullaby and a few dozen more, I believe all the discussions in-between would have a very different tone to them. Perhaps finally the needed necessary new ideas would be released from their confining boxes. I believe that the sense that though there will be conflict and disagreement, we might come to understand that us against climate change and other threats to survival and peaceful co-existence is more important than Republicans against Democrats. And if my activities failed in their more lofty ambitions, at least people would have a bit of fun.

I know it’s rare in this life for someone to just call me up and say, “Hey, Doug, I think we could use you now.” And I have neither the time, contacts or skills to make it happen. But who knows? Perhaps one person reading this does. If so, give me a call.

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