Monday, July 16, 2018

Rising and Falling

As mentioned yesterday, I finished the Madrid Jazz Course on Sunday night and began the Barcelona Orff Course on improvisation Monday morning. This is my idea of fun. 

One of my big principles of music education is to teach each class, each series of classes, each year—well, heck, each lifetime!—as a flowing piece of music that has an enticing beginning, connected middle and satisfying end. So I have a repertoire of pieces that are great to start off the venture, songs-games-or dances that give a feeling of welcome, of inclusion, that get the energy flowing, the laughter bubbling, the connections between people in the group going and set the tone for the delights to come. (Likewise, another repertoire to finish a course, that captures and focuses the emotion, the joy of having been together, the sadness of leaving, the period at the end of the sentence, the explosive or trickling off note that transitions us from paradise back to clock time.)

95% of the time, I begin in silence and teach with gesture, tone, movement, sound immediately copied. But today, I wove an opening talk into teaching the came Down in the Valley. It felt good. And so here it is:

There are two directions we go in this life— up or down. Rising or falling. (Sing “Rise, Sally, rise.”)
Why are we here on summer vacation instead of at the beach? I think we all have a desire to rise higher in this life, to climb the mountain of possibility and get a better view of what’s around us and see more clearly, to not be content with who we are, marvelous as that may be, but to actively work to create a slightly better version of ourselves. So we have given up our beach time to improve in the craft of teaching for the excellent reason to teach our children better, to give them more of what they truly need, to help them feel welcomed and appreciated and known and ultimately loved. It’s glorious on top of the mountain and the view is breathtaking, but the path is steep and it takes an effort that needs some encouragement. And so we sing “Rise, Sally, rise!”

But it also turns out that just as we rise up the mountain, so do we need to go down to the valley. (Sing “We’re going down to the valley”). The view on top of the mountain is lovely, but there are details at our feet that we also need to pay attention to and notice. We need contact with the earth, need to observe the ants carrying leaves to their nests, need to get our hands dirty in the garden and work the soil so we can feel the soul of this life. We need to peel back the layers of the adults we have become and remember the child inside at the bottom of it all, the one who is perpetually fresh and curious and dreaming of what yet might be. So often at these workshops, that neglected child springs back to life and not only are you personally refreshed, but the children you teach will recognize that re-awakened child in you as you share music and dance with them.

(Sing: “We’re going down to the valley, one-by-one.”) So we start off alone on the journey, fill out the registration form sitting at our desk and then arrive here at the workshop site with others who have done the same. (Sing “Let me see you make your motion, one by one.”) And here you are, in a class like no other. Because here we want to see who you are and how you move and how you sing and how you think and how you feel and there’s no place to hide. So you show us your motion, just choose one of the many motions you are and then we sing “”We can do your motion…” and you see yourself reflected back 80 times by the circle. Whether you love the attention or are terrified by it, you will have the moment when you are the exact center of the universe. But don’t get too attached. There are 80 other centers of the universe. And so we sing “Now you go and choose another, one by one.” And what’s the next verse? “We’re going down to the valley two-by-two…”

When you find something good, share it! So now we have two and soon we’ll have four and then eight and then sixteen and so on. The momentum is powerful and suddenly all this joy and freedom is not just personal, but collective, a whole community celebrating together. And when you take it back to the children, another geometric progression begins. This is one of the most powerful ways we can begin to heal a broken world, from 1 to 2 to 4 to 8 to 16 and it doesn’t take long for that number to multiply into the hundreds, thousands, millions. So let’s go!

 A nice way to begin an Orff course. And so off we go!

Rhyming in Spanish

I’ve been teaching in Spain on a somewhat regular basis since 1991, so in those 27 years, many people have studied with me. Since I began teaching with nothing more than some rusty high school Spanish, that means they’ve observed my progress in mastering the language. And basically, teaching for a week or two once every year or so is more or less how I’ve learned the language. I’ve never stayed in a Spanish-speaking place for more than three or four weeks and though I’ve at times regretted not taking that missing step towards real fluency, it has mostly worked out.

But here’s something strange. Many people commented that my Spanish has improved geometrically from the last time I taught here in 2016 and that is baffling. I’ve made no conscious effort to improve it, used it in my recent course in Mexico for 4 days and another 2 -day course in Barcelona last year, but none of that accounts for a leap in fluency. But it’s true that I’ve found myself speaking much faster without the usual hesitation and darned if I know why.

Today, starting my next course in Barcelona one day after my last one in Madrid, I gave a little talk and stumbled into a cool rhyme! In Spanish!

“Estamos aqui para crear el futuro que queremos,
 No seguir con el presente que tenemos.”

Ooh. I liked that. “We are here to create the future that we want, not just continue with the present that we have.” El futuro que queremos, no el presente que tenemos!

Pues, a lo mejor voy a empezar a escribir estos “posts” en Español. O no.


Saturday, July 14, 2018

Through Another's Eyes

I was 22 years old when I first came to Europe and except for two brief “training trips” to Toronto and Montreal as a teenager, this was my initiation into the world of the “other.” Of course, I had traveled frequently in my imagination to various European countries, got to know Peter Rabbit and Peter Pan, Hans Brinker and Heidi, Oliver Twist, Pip and David Copperfield, Eloise and Ferdinand the Bull, Don Quixote and Narcissus and Goldmund, transported by both children’s and adult literature. Through the wonder of movies, I met Gigi, the Lady Who Vanished, Zorba the Greek, witnessed Death in Venice and a Roman Holiday and An American in Paris—and then later, the world of Truffaut, Bergman, Fellini. Of course, there was always music, the fjords of Norway singing in Grieg, Strauss telling Tales of the Vienna Woods, Beethoven taking a Pastoral trip in the forest, Debussy painting the French sea, Bizet evoking Carmen’s Spain (even though he was French) and more. I was prepared to love Europe before I even set foot in it and then I only loved it more. I was struck by the history, the charm, the romance, the architecture, the art, the attention to long meals savored and company enjoyed, the sounds of its multiple languages, the cobblestone streets and outdoor cafes.

And so tonight, I was sitting at the outdoor restaurant enjoying a well-cooked risotto dish with my new friends Prosper Gbolonyo and Tom Pierre, looking out at the Escorial Monastery (where I am staying), listening to the buzz in the air, watching the children playing freely in the plaza—at 10:30 at night—and felt myself falling in love with it all over again. It was Tom’s first time in Spain and Prosper’s first time outside of Ghana and it was so fun to be with them as they sampled their first paella, drank their first wine cooler, enjoyed a café cortado.

I first met Prosper’s brother Kofi in Salzburg and this was also his first trip to Europe. I remember being so fascinated by his questions and observations. So I asked Prosper what surprised him the most and struck him the most so far about his time in Spain. His answers:

• The light. Ghana is near the equator and it gets dark pretty much around the same time all year around—between 5:30 and 6:00. He was amazed that we were eating at 10:30 pm and that it was still light out.

• The architecture. Ghana definitely has a highly developed visual aesthetic in its fabrics, but not so (yet) in its architecture. Prosper was mightily impressed by the attention to beauty in the houses and stores and hotels and cathedrals and I might add that coming from slap-dash mall culture in America, I still am too.

• The cleanliness of the streets. I agree and again, it is so much better than San Francisco.

• The mall where we shopped for gifts yesterday for his wife and daughters. So many goods in one place, at once overwhelmed by the choices and astounded by the possibilities. And all with fixed prices—no bargaining!

• To my surprise, he added “the kindness of the people.” I can’t imagine a people more warm or welcoming than the Ghanaians we met, but here he was feeling the same from the Europeans welcoming him. And I have to say that dining out with two black men and not feeling a single hint (affirmed by both of them as well) of anything approaching racism, I ask my country, “Would they feel the same visiting us?” Well, Tom is from Washington D.C., so he knows the answer to that question.

• Prosper’s biggest criticism was the people smoking. I told him he was so lucky he didn’t come here 10 to 15 years ago when smoking was allowed inside restaurants. And told him of going to Kineopolis, at the time the world’s largest megaplex with some 30 theaters. To get a ticket, you went into a giant lobby where some 1,000 people were getting in lines—and almost every single one was smoking!!! I inhaled more second-hand smoke in those 15 minutes than in the rest of my life combined. And back then you could still smoke in the balcony inside the theater!

Thank you, Spain, for keeping the romance alive and treating my friends so royally. I know it’s not the whole story, but these days, I take my hope and appreciation from wherever I can find it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018


My friend Miguelito on the Orff-Afrique trip showed me some of his photos and compared to mine, it felt like the difference between Da Vinci and a 5th grade drawing. Besides his superior camera, he also seemed to have a superior eye. And a lot of it came down to close-up shots.

You know how it is. You are on the top of a mountain with a stunning view and you take a photo and somehow, it’s too much. Doesn’t capture the experience because it’s too broad and general. Same with videos of the Spring Concert or Holiday Play. You set up a camera in the back to see all the children all the time and the result is… well, boring. Especially after being used to the close-ups used in TV and movies.

So the next time I took a photo, I tried to zoom in and it did seem more satisfying. This was from a traditional religious ceremony where they folded in some Islamic prayer (even though they’re not Muslims) and this little boy was sitting in the midst of this sea of women.

The forest is interesting, but the real stuff of life lies in each unique tree. In my own teaching, I concentrated on the panoramic view of the general group energy, but as I progressed in my field, started to pay more attention to each child in the group. In fact, both are important, but the real impact comes from those close-up moments. And it’s not the camera that does the real work (though high-quality ones can help), it’s the eye and the attention. It’s about focusing on the details to remind us of the moments that stand out.

In photography, teaching and life, a reminder to look closer.

Choosing Identity

I’ve been in Ghana four times now, but I’ve come to Spain some 24 times at least. So it’s no effort to shift from Dzodze to El Escorial outside of Madrid, to go from jolof rice to gazpacho, from wet heat to dry heat, from English (with a dab of Ewe) to Spanish, from water in plastic bottles to water from the tap, from bargaining at the market to fixed prices at the store. But the wheels of what defines cultures and what makes each unique and what parts of human possibility get opened, left alone or shut down, are still turning in my brain.

In the Orff-Afrique Course, I gave a lecture on Orality, Literacy and Electronic Cultures and it’s a worthy topic to understand how people are formed in each. Too long for here and I’m considering a small book on the subject. But the differences are real and interesting and awareness of them provides a lens into who we are and how and why. And equally a peek into who we might be armed with this knowledge.

My last full day in Ghana, we went to a village and the Body Music folks gave a workshop for the local Ghanaians and also performed for them. Then the locals performed for us, as they always do and then we tried a five-minute collaboration joining the two worlds. Which was actually quite funny, because as the Western folks played a body percussion pattern, the Ewe musicians said they had some patterns that fit well with that and started to play. Of course, we couldn’t hear the relationship between their parts and ours, a bit like two separate worlds colliding, until Kofi grabbed a bell and started playing a loud beat. Well, that helped. But it was hardly a seamless new piece born from the confluence of two distinct cultures!

This stimulated much casual discussion afterword, especially the response—or apparent lack of response—from the elders in the village to the performances, which included clowning, body percussion improvisation without a song, beat boxing and more. At best, they seemed mildly curious, but it struck me forcefully that for some of them, this might have been the first live music different from their own that they have ever heard. (Probably the younger folks are hearing some on Youtube and such, but to see it live is different). And since music for them is tied to very specific meanings, occasions, stories and cultural practices, the idea of listening to something just for the aesthetic pleasure of a pleasing combination of sounds is something quite foreign to them. Since music and dance are truly a language for them, the idea of listening to someone stand up before them and speak Swedish is perhaps intriguing for a minute, but holds no interest after that.

And this ties into the profound difference between an unbroken oral culture and a literate one. In the former, the meaning of music, dance, images, textile designs, craft, stories, recited text and more is almost always an inherited collective meaning. It ties the community together, affirms the ethnic identity of each member of the community and sends the culture forward into the future by its connection with the past.

By contrast, a literate culture offers choice. Yes, literacy in the West began with a communal bond of reading the one published book, the Bible, but it wasn’t long before the tool of literacy spread scientific thought, mathematical formulas, myths and fables and history and fiction and poetry. As libraries grew, three significant things happened:

1)   In oral culture, knowledge is specific to the immediate environment and what is needed to be known to survive and thrive. No hunter-gatherer is marginalized because they don’t know how to farm and certainly no farmer needs to know what the exports of Chile are or no desert dweller need be curious about how wine is made. Likewise, no Ewe villager needs to experience Bach, Bird or the Beatles to be a complete member in that community.

By contrast, in literate culture, knowledge is expanded beyond one’s immediate surroundings and experience. One could imagine oneself into a different time and place through literature and art and travel documents, be exposed to ideas outside the scope of one’s local knowledge, know things second-hand through other people’s experience and thought.

2)   In oral culture, the elders tend to hold the cultural lore and again, need not know things beyond what is useful, practical and necessary to their identity—the creation myths and stories of gods and ancestors and such. In short, they need to know precisely what they need to know to carry on their inherited identity. In literate culture, identity can be cultivated beyond one’s inheritance through the act of reading books, viewing art, listening to and playing music, eating different cuisines, investigating other religions.

Thus, a New Jersey Jew may end up wearing a Sari, changing her name to Sita and living out her life in an Indian village. A Japanese person may become a world-class banjo player and a Brazilian may become an expert in Taiko drumming. You get the idea. In short, identity in literate culture can be consciously crafted and cultivated.

3) Since it’s impossible for a single human being to read every book ever written or play every
    style of music, the role of choice is paramount. What we read, what music we listen to or
    play, what art we view or make, what food we eat or cook, what clothes we wear, what
    religion or religions we practice, where we travel and how much, who we choose to love,
    etc. is the way some of the more interesting identities are formed in the Western world.
    To be well-read and well-traveled and well-educated in a variety of arts is a value in our
    literate and post-literate world, but it doesn’t necessarily make sense for the Ghanaian

 So when we have cultural encounters like we just experienced in Ghana, the two groups are coming from two very different perspectives, two very different needs, two very different appetites in getting to know a larger world. The explosion of interest in djembes and African-inspired dance in the West is a known fact, an addition to our (necessarily)  narrow definition of music that awakens bodily responses and emotions that Beethoven can’t reach. We hear it, have some a-ha moment that says, “Ah, this is what I was missing!” and start saving money to go to Ghana with the Orff-Afrique course. By contrast, I suspect the Ewe villager is not hungering for Bach or if he or she hears it, is not thinking, “Ah, that’s what I’ve been missing in my life.” (Of course, it could happen that some indeed might have the experience, but I suspect that the vast majority don’t. I don’t believe the elders in the performance the other day were thinking, “Hm. I want to get me a recording of that vocal bass solo Bryan did. It was really cool!”)

Does any of this make sense? No judgment, but hopefully an interesting perspective. And this from a guy who has built a life on an ever-expanding circle or art, literature, music, travel and more that has given me so much more than my childhood “Leave It to Beaver “TV show promised me. I'm not smarter or more interesting or larger than the Ewe villager who has absorbed the full measure of their inherited identity without even leaving their village. It's not necessarily better to be more well-read, well-traveled, schooled in diverse perspectives. It's just different.

At the same time, because the vast majority of the world has chosen the literate route, the ability to negotiate diverse perspectives and points of view will serve to better navigate through the world we have now. As this photo shows, the ancient practice of welcoming visitors through a specific ritual with the local chief lives on, but note what the man in the sunglasses is doing. That changes everything.

More food for thought.