Amongst many memorable moments in the recent Orff Conference, one was a gathering called the Meeting of the Minds and another called Memory Hour. The first was six elders, mostly retired from “active duty,” sharing reflections about their life in Orff Schulwerk. Such wit, such humor, such intelligence in their talks, the gathered fruit of a life well lived and stamped with each person’s particular character. “Olders” are people who have physically survived time’s passing and grown old, but “elders” are the folks who have lived authentic lives rich with reflection, who truly marry intellect with character to create something called wisdom. Though the audience was small and I wished more young people to witness what this looks and feels like, I love that this organization makes time for such things and truly honors something the culture rarely does, that rare and elusive thing called the wisdom of the elders.
Equally important is time set aside to honor those who have passed on and this year in particular was rife with loss, some eight people who contributed immeasurably to the evolution of the Schulwerk passed on to the next world. Each had someone formally speak about them and then the floor opened for the stories that keep their presence alive and vibrant. I spoke spontaneously about Tossi Aaron and read portions of something I had written about Richard Gill, an extraordinary Australian teacher who left us too young at 77 years old. Below is the whole eulogy, beginning with a poem:
I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns,
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.
What is precious is never to forget
The delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs
Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth;
Never to deny its pleasure in the simple morning light,
Nor its grave evening demand for love.
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.
Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields,
See how these names are feted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud.
And whispers of wind in the listening sky;
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s center.
Born of the sun, they traveled a short while toward the sun
And the left the vivid air signed with their honor.
I imagine we all have had the experience of being in the presence of someone we admired and feeling tongue-tied, shy, nervous, hoping that they’ll notice us and throw us a small bone of blessing. I’m not talking about movie stars here, but about the people who are living the life we imagine for ourselves but haven’t arrived at yet. We encounter them many times over the years, but often find it hard to shake the sense of being slightly uncomfortable and hoping we just said or did something to impress them. For me as an emerging Orff teacher, jazz musician, writer, there have been five such people in my life. And Richard Gill was one of them.
I first met Richard in the early 1980’s when Jan Rapley, the founder of our local San Francisco Bay Area Orff Chapter, brought him and his family to Chico State a few hours north as a guest teacher. During the few years he was there, he came many times to give workshops to our Orff chapter and I was present at all of them. He and my true mentor Avon Gillespie both presented at the AOSA Conference in Portland in 1982 and I believe that was when he introduced the French time-name system of rhythmic syllables, something that I still use to this day. In 1984, he and I were roommates at Hotel Circus Circus in Las Vegas at the AOSA Conference in which I first presented. Not that we were close friends, but that male teachers were few and far between in those days and he simply needed a male roommate. I don’t remember if he came to my workshop or if he did, whether he said anything about it. Because the truth of the matter is that I respected him and admired him greatly, but I never did receive that blessing for my own work. And I believe that was how it had to be.
Not that he was ever mean or dismissive to me. It was simply that we were following stylistically different stars in the Orff firmament. There is a kind of resonance when the elder recognizes his or her own particular genius in the younger and the younger sees her or his desires actualized in the elder and that’s when the dance of true blessing begins. That’s what I felt with Avon Gillespie. But thought I learned much from Richard and continued to respect and admire his approach in all the years that followed, we were indeed following different stars.
I did take a 5-day Master Class with Richard at Hamline University in the late 1980’s and that was a great pleasure, though that sometimes baffling distance between us continued. I believe we crossed paths a few times in the 90’s at various Conferences and in 2002, we were, along with Mary Goetze, headliners in the Australian National Conference in Brisbane. Some 20 years after I first met him, I still found myself hoping he would be impressed with my work and offer a word or two of blessing or encouragement. To my memory, it never came.
Again, I believe this was an honest reaction on his part. But as I continued to grow deeper into my own particular way of doing this work, I often wondered if I could be around him and finally feel comfortably and wholly myself. I was excited to hear that he was scheduled to come to Cincinnati, looking forward to his wise words about 50 years of AOSA and curious as to whether that funny dynamic would still be there. Alas, it was not meant to be.
I first heard about his cancer from Stephen Abernathy, a mutual friend who brought Richard to the Taipei International School so many times he became an always-anticipated part of that program, so loved and respected by students and teachers alike. The report soon after was that after treatment, he was doing well. And then came the devastating news that the cancer had returned with a vengeance and finally, Richard chose to be at home with his loving wife and family to end his days with dignity surrounded by love. I was on a train on my way to the airport when my colleague Sofia called me with the news. Though it was not unexpected, there is still that moment of profound realization when someone who lit up the world with their exuberance and wit and energy simply is here no more. I can still hear him say in that Australian accent after someone in a workshop improvised well, “It was a knock-out!”
What impressed me so much about this remarkable man? He had a fierce intelligence and a golden tongue to express it. He had a strength of character that burned brightly to illuminate the supreme importance of arts in children’s and people’s lives. He carried that gift of charisma with good grace and good humor. He had a low tolerance for ignorance and stupidity coupled with that mirthful sense of humor that helped him suffer the fools of this world. His particular passion was the European Classical Music tradition and in a day and age when dead white men were being disparaged and world music and jazz encouraged (by people like me), he held fast to the idea that the extraordinary legacy of music that featured grand intellectual design, nuanced shadings of human emotion, technical mastery worthy of our disciplined practice was still—and hopefully forever—of value. His training at the Orff Institut and time spent teaching children helped open the windows to that serious music and bring some fresh air to the enterprise with improvisation, humor and movement. He was too large to be confined to the title of Orff teacher and spent most of his later career conducting symphonies and operas, always with attention to some level of music education.
“Too soon!” I feel all those who knew him shouting and I join that chorus with sincere lament. And though there are no casual words to ease the grief, there is deep truth in the fact that while his absence leaves us brokenhearted, the gift of his presence is beyond his mortal body and will indeed carry forth in our memory, our work, our determination to carry on his legacy on his behalf. I think of Richard when I read Stephen Spender’s poem, feel him as that rare soul who is “lips still touched with fire told of the spirit clothed from head to foot in song,” a long lightning flash across the sky leaving “the vivid air signed with his honor.”
Richard, at the end of the day, without a single spoken word from you to me, I do indeed feel blessed by having known you. May you fly on the wings of song to the next world.
- Doug Goodkin Oct. 27, 2018