Saturday, December 14, 2019

Shaped By Absence

In talking about the time and place and culture in which we grew up, poet David Whyte notes how we are shaped by the presence of certain values and influences, but adds this intriguing thought: we are also shaped by the absences. In my case, for example, a music education based on deciphering written notes while seated at the organ or piano and singing (poorly) forgettable songs seated in desks at school eventually developed a hunger for what was missing. And my life’s work became cultivating the kind of music education I wish I had had— more body, more soul, more intuition and imagination, more intellect and improvisation, more ensemble work and convivial community connections, all qualities found in my unconscious search for and discovery of Orff Schulwerk. The presence of Bach and Beethoven in my childhood was significant and echoes down to this day, but the absence of West African rhythms, Bulgarian meters, Balinese interlocking parts, Brazilian dancing and jazz omni-present in movies and radio making its way to my own fingers was equally influential in shaping the direction my life eventually took.

Likewise, some deep sense of spiritual connections that came to me in moments of grace didn’t fit into any prevailing notions of Jesus as my savior or a vengeful Yahweh including me as one of his Chosen People. Thoreau and Whitman gave me some of the first language of a sense of belonging to something larger than the daily round and this later opened the door to a Zen Buddhist practice. There was nothing growing up in New Jersey in the 50’s and 60’s that would have aimed me in that direction. Indeed, it was the absence of a way into spiritual belonging other than unthinking faith and belief in an old story surrounded by empty ritual that got me wondering if there might be another way in which I might be able to experience directly my place in the cosmos. 47 years after my first Zen retreat, I still sit every morning and breathe my way into a connection that needs no dogma. 

Finally, my painful sense that school was so much less than it could be got me searching for the language to describe it, found first in the books of A.S. Neil, John Holt, Jonathan Kozol, later in the earlier works of Maria Montessori, Rudolph Steiner, John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead and then put into motion by the immense good fortune of landing in a school where fellow teachers and parents were driven by the notion that “there must be a better way to do this.” 45 years later, that moving target is still moving as we add, subtract, adjust, refine, widen, deepen an ever-evolving culture trying to give children what they so deeply need. There is so much present in our offering that still echoes on in the lives of our alums. And yet, by necessity, there are also the absences that keep them seeking for the things we missed. And so something as close as we can get to alive, alert, caring, kind and just plain fun human beings is released into the world. 

Shaped by presence, shaped by absence. Which defines your own life journey and how? Good food for thought alongside your breakfast today.

Friday, December 13, 2019

A Good Day's Work

Having taught together for some 41 years, my wife and I never went through the “how was your day, dear?” routine. But now in her 4thyear of retirement, it has become standard practice when I walk in the door. 

“How are you feeling?” she asked as I walked in the door at 7 pm and a 2-second body-mind scan revealed, “Exhausted in the way you are after a 12-mile hike or a day of vigorous physical work. A good kind of tired.” But still, not the kind to generate scintillating dinner conversation and she graciously understand when I left the table while she was still eating and just sat in the corner looking over the new Orff Echo magazine that came through my door. 

It was an intense day that went exactly as described in the morning’s post, with the added miracle that everything went fairly smoothly and the 4thgrade actually got to a place in their play preparation that helped me feel, “They’re going to make it!” I managed to do reasonable service to a few of Bach’s French Suites at the Jewish Home for the Aged, went back to school to put the finishing touches on the stage my colleagues set up (looks great!), drove home in the dark and rain and now the evening ahead. My wife and I started watching The Crown and hey, why not just release myself into someone else’s drama? Goodness knows I earned it. 

And then more winter dreams with the bonus of getting to sleep late on Saturday. Life’s small pleasures magnified larger around Play Production time. And this time next week will be the other teacher’s pleasure—two weeks off and for me, the grandchildren in the house again. It’s a wonderful life—and made more wonderful by hoping I’ll take Zadie to the Castro Theater to see that film! 

Winter Dreams

With the relentless rain, encroaching cold and darkening days, sleep is a robust tea bag and dreams are steeped under warm blankets, rich, colorful, varied and endlessly interesting. But not to anyone else. No one wants to hear of me trudging last night in the snow at 15,000 feet, trying to steal some phrasing from a jazz pianist who used to be my student and now is in the midst of changing genders. But when the light dawned enough for me to open my eyes, I would have preferred to throw the covers over my head and keep watching the unfolding story on the mind’s screen.

But here I am, 68 years old and still beholden to the morning schedule of morning oatmeal and off in the car for the daily commute playing my little game with traffic lights. The children are awaiting, 6thgraders reviewing Holiday Songs, 8thgraders eager to practice their St. George and the Dragon play, 5-year-olds wondering what new rock-paper-scissors game the Intern will teach to them today. The TGIF lunch awaits, but no time to relax yet, with 22 4thgraders needing to get through their whole Phantom Tollbooth play without dropping a line. Then off to the Jewish Home for some piano playing to take us out of time, that ticking clock ticking yet louder—like Captain Hook’s crocodile—singing its song of mortality until overpowered by Bach or Gershwin. 

Then would be the moment to feel the pleasure of work well done. But not today. Back to school to help set up the stage. This the life I signed up for, the life that continues with its “whatever it takes” demands, the life that will shift next June, not wholly with an exhale of relief, but some questioning and mild regret while looking forward to the possibility of staying curled up in bed this time next year, steeped in winter dreams. 

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Are You With Me?

We all have our habitual little things we say and “by the way” is at the top of my list. But lately when I’m giving a talk in a workshop, I find myself saying “Are you with me?” It’s a nice way to check in with the audience, get them to feel like they’re vicariously participating in the ideas presented and wake them up a bit. 

It’s also one of the worst feelings a teacher can have when a class is not with you. You’re talking about something you think is important and they are looking everywhere but at you, side-talking, tuning out. The psychic scars of not grabbing the attention of your students are real and exhausting and discouraging and dispiriting and even with my enormous bag of tricks and endless years of experience, it still happens to me. Like on Tuesday with both the 8thgrade and the 4thgrade as we worked on respective plays. 

I know the routine. I can get angry with the kids and start talking to myself about how terrible kids are these days (not like when  was a kid ha-ha!) or start self-talking about how bad a teacher I am or how it’s time to hang it up, etc., etc. and etc. Or I can shake it off and prepare myself to be more present myself, to infect the kids with my sense of how fun this is going to be, to joke with them while still being clear about what they can be doing better, occasionally to read them a short riot act about consequences with a firm but friendly voice because after all, we know each other well and come on, let’s have a good time together.

So Tuesday, both groups were with me 100% and what a difference that made! We could mess up in 50 different ways—like the hilarious failures of my 8th grade group of six sword dancers trying to weave the magic star and getting it wrong 10—count them!—10! times in a row before we finally figured out who was messing up and how (and to set the record straight, it wasn’t Sam or Oliver) and still have a good time and insist that we master the particular thing we needed to master. The 4thgrade was open to all sorts of direction as to what would make the scene come alive—simple things like “use your arms,” “react,” “ feel the rhythm in your group”— and miraculously, actually remembered these notes the next time, resulting in a much more alive presentation. 

Life is so much better when the crowd is with you and for the right reason (Trumpies, take note) — you’re doing something worthwhile that brings happiness to everyone involved. 

By the way, I have a question for you, my readers: “Are you with me?”

Monday, December 9, 2019

A Small Glass Ball

To hold in your hand a small glass ball and hang it from the branch of a living tree brought indoors—a whole lifetime is contained in that simple, small act. Memory streams back to that same hand that held the same ball over 60 years ago, but  a smaller hand, less wrinkled and imprinted by the passages of time. The same act of hanging it on a tree branch, but in a different room with parents now gone then present. Perhaps the same music playing— carols sung by Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra or Sammy Davis Jr.. Outside may have been snow instead of rain, but in both places a mere half block away a park that invites wandering and exploring. 

Back then, all was possibility and future and mortality was a thing for storybooks. Now, so much is past and mortality a more vivid presence, but possibility has not left the room—still there are dreams of some glories to come. Back then, there was gleeful anticipation, those visions of sugarplums dancing in the head, the moment of fulfillment, the aftermath of time off from the greys of daily routine and everything heightened in color, shape, sound, taste. Now the same cycle is renewed, the visions more the vicarious sharing of the grandchildren’s delight, but still the sense of renewal of a more affectionate and kind humanity, a more vibrant edge to all the senses, a comfort that amidst the swirling chaos of all our failures daily displayed on the news, there is something beautiful to be savored in the small act of hanging a glass ball on a tree branch. 

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Bach's Children

The past 10 years or so, I play some Bach pieces when I sit down at the piano—usually French or English Suites, Partitas, Goldberg Variation. Every day I am astounded anew by his genius. He probably composed more notes than any composer before or after (Guinness Book of World Records, have you looked into this?) but besides his incredible quantity of compositions, written without Sibelius programs, copy machines, electricity to work easily at night, etc. , every single one of those notes is in its proper place in a harmonious and intellectually and emotionally satisfying relation with every other note in the composition. It simply boggles the mind. 

It’s well known that Bach had 20 children and the next question is: “How could he have done all that work with kids around?!!! Not just one or two, but twenty!!!” And the answer is… 

Well, you probably figured it out. I imagine in his patriarchal time, he wasn’t preparing meals or changing diapers or playing catch or card games (though he was giving some music instruction). I’m pretty sure all that fell to the two different mothers. Still though, imagine a household of 20 children!

But it turns out there weren’t 20 children in the house. 10 of them died between childbirth and three-years old. This was fairly common in those days (between 1685-1750), but I suspect that this didn’t make it any easier to lose a child. In my book, it’s one of the most heart-breaking things that can happen to a human being. Losing one child would echo throughout a lifetime in an inconsolable grief that would soften with time, but never go away. Imagine losing two children. Or three. It really is beyond my comprehension. 

But 10! How does one hold all that sorrow? Bach lived in a time where the universe was seen as meaningful and comprehensible, the work of a just and merciful God. He himself was quite devout and perhaps he consoled himself with some sense of some divine plan. Who knows? I have a book called The Bach Reader which tells of his life through Letters and Documents. But this particular book, at least, is all about the details of building organs, applying for jobs, composing this piece of that and I can’t find a single reference of his grief of losing his children. In some future leisure time, that’s a research project I’d like to undertake. 

But if you believe, as I do, that music can hold the extremes of our joy and sorrow, I can only imagine that his non-stop composing was a record of feelings too hard to face directly, but possible to feel in the sounds and silences of music artfully shaped. Which gives me yet a greater respect for this towering figure. 

Has anyone else talked about this? If so, let me know. Meanwhile, belated condolences to the Bach family. 

PS It did occur to me that I may have been taking my usual naive, rosy view of human nature and that perhaps Bach was an indifferent, callous or cruel father who didn't care anything about his children. Looking through a book about his cello suites, I found a letter he wrote to a town official asking him to excuse one of his son's conduct in regard to an unpaid debt. He wrote:

"Since I have now opened my heart to Your Honor, I have every confidence that you will not impute to me that bad conduct of my son, but will recognize that a devoted father, whose children are dear to him, will do everything he can to help promote their well-being."

So back to compassion for his many losses. 

Life Close Up

Thanksgiving at my sister’s in Sebastopol included a walk down Florence Ave. marveling at these whimsical metal sculptures in people’s front yard. I started snapping photos (do photos “snap” on an i-Phone?) and for some reason, started taking close-ups of the art work. To my eye, these were much more interesting and engaging. Which captures your attention more, the first photo or the second? 

So last night at the Magnificat Choral Concert, we were seated far back in the church (cheaper price) and I felt so disengaged. The sound was far away, the people were far away, I sorely missed the sense of participation that being up close creates. After intermission, we snuck up closer and it made all the difference in the world.

I’ve felt this before, the difference between seeing a jazz musician in a jazz club and in a symphony hall. I also feel it in my workshops, the change between 150 people in a circle and 20 or 30. And even in my daily classes, the kids sitting on the risers is different from all of us down on the floor in a circle or a clump. 

In short, intimacy matters. We are made more for participating in life close-up than observing it from far away. Proximity yields different feelings than distance, emotionally, aesthetically, humanistically. We are the new-age Romans, more prone to big spectacle—the Super-bowl football game, the rock concert, the Oscars awards—than the playground pick-up game, the chamber-music concert or jazz in the club, the awards dinner at the small restaurant. Well, they all have their place, but at the end of the day, I know which one I prefer. 

And you?

Deposuit Potentes de Sede

Last night was a concert of Bach’s Magnificat and it was. It was a time to get off the wheel of current events and dip into the timeless. But still, one can never wholly escape. So when I heard the Tenor solo and read the text in the program, I felt it as a hopeful sign that Congress, aided by some invisible hands nudging the moral arc towards justice, will do the right thing and follow God’s suggestion: 

He hath put down the mighty from their seats and exalted them of low degree. 

Followed by the Alto solo: 

 He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away.

Hungry for food, health care, jobs, affordable housing, etc. but also hungry for justice and hungry to restore democracy to our founding vision. 

Then another sign in my nightly reading of Dicken’s Nicholas Nickleby, where the greedy, avaricious, cruel Ralph Nickleby is confronted by his nephew and told: 

I warn you that misfortune and discovery are thickening about your head: that the structures you have raised through all your ill-spent life are crumbling into dust, that your path is beset with spies and your hoarded wealth (and power—addition mine) will go down in one great crash!

All the signs are in place. Congress, heed them! 

Saturday, December 7, 2019

The Communist Manifesto

"From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."  —Karl Marx

Mr. Marx lays out his political/economic vision of a just society in this one pithy sentence. Yesterday, I felt its wisdom in the humanistic sphere. 

From each, according to his ability.” The grand adventure of education, the one we so often miss in the confusion of grades and tests and the day-to-day getting by, is for each child to discover what talents deserve his/her efforts to nurture them and then consider how to gift them back to the world. There is one 8thgrade boy who went to his first ballet class at 3 because his sister did and discovered that this was a world that had something he needed. She quit soon after, he persevered and 11 years later, is dancing in the Nutcracker with the San Francisco Ballet. So when one of our teaching Interns gave a lesson to the 5-year-olds on the Nutcracker, it was a great opportunity to feature him. And so he came in and danced a bit and then the kids all got up and copied him and wasn’t that just the best of the best? Yes, it was. Times a thousand. 

The day before, we started a new jazz piece with 8thgrade and it’s always interesting to arrive at the moment when kids choose between bass, drums, melody, chords. I take care to open up the one-of-a-kind instruments—stand-up bass/ piano/ drumset/ etc.—to kids who haven’t played them yet and who seem most genuinely enthusiastic. And so on this piece a boy who already showed great energy as a singer opted for the drums. And he was great!! I asked him if he ever played and he said it was his first time. 

In the next group, I asked a girl who had been doing great work at the vibraphone on melodies to try the drums—partly to encourage girl drummers and partly to see how she’d like it. She tried it for about five minutes and decided she’d much rather play vibraphone. I followed her lead and back she went to the vibes.

Note my responsibility as a teacher in these scenarios.

1)   To give kids chances to keep trying out new things to discover what excites them and what fits well with their way of thinking, perceiving, doing. 

2)   To honor the truth of each child’s innate sense of what they’re interested in at the moment and what fits them, even as I challenge them to try new things.

3)   To look for opportunities to present their gifts to the greater community—be it singing a solo or leading a dance and soloing on guitar in our recent Orff Conference Concert or coming in for 5 minutes to the preschool music class to share your work. 

“To each, according to his needs.” Here Marx suggested an economic justice, but this also works on the humanistic level. I have standards of behavior in my class that make things go smoothly, but kids enter with their own issues and their own needs and while I need to keep them on one-side of the line that harmonizes with group energy, I also need to honor their particular need. And so a girl who has been figuratively kicking and screaming in each piece insisting she can’t do this or that (she can and she has), running out often to the “bathroom,” always looking for something different to do, picked up an instrument she found close to her— a melodeon, kind of an air-blown little keyboard—and started messing around with it. The kids know they’re not supposed to pick up instruments I haven’t invited them to play and that we had a specific task of learning the right notes to our new song. But she started to mess around and in the middle of the kids practicing, started to play a “fake solo” with great body language, great joy and great smiling energy. And so I told her I was going to feature her in the solo and she should do just as she did, but now, at the right time for the right amount of time. Her “real solo” wasn’t quite as fantastic as her spontaneous playful one, but worked pretty well and I think we’ll keep it in the piece.

Again, note my responsibility:

1)   Here was a moment to bend the rules because she clearly needs something different than the other kids. Instead of reprimanding her for picking up that instrument, I turned a negative behavior into a positive one.

2)   Had I yelled at her, our relationship would have turned dark, the adult in power putting down the teenager who felt misunderstood. Instead, she felt how I affirmed both her need and her jazz spirit and celebrated her energy while trying to fit it into the formal context of the piece. 

3)   I will also show her a few key notes that will make her sound even better. 

Despite Marx’s grand vision, actual Communism did not work out so well. Artists in Russia got sent to Siberia, artists in China were also exiled and murdered in the Cultural Revolution. Life reduced to mere politics and economics was drab and dreary and the special spiritual/ artistic/ humanistic abilities and needs of people got swept under the rug. But in my classes yesterday, the principle of honoring each person’s unique abilities and needs, making a space for them, honoring them and celebrating them and folding them into the community worked out quite well. Well, better than well. Deeply moving and inspiring. 

A good beginning to a future book project: The Humanitarian Musician. Stay tuned.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

The New Three P's

A day after seeing Dark Waters at the movie theater, I watched The Informant on Netflix and it doesn’t take a genius to recognize that our obsession with money is our national sickness. Americans have long flocked to Europe to get a peek into a different world where quality of life superseded quantity of money amassed. The legendary long family lunches where people could be working to earn more money but don’t, the leisurely evenings out in the town square instead of checking stocks online, the attention to art and beauty and leisure that form our romantic notions of life in Paris or Rome—well-documented in classic films— is the takeaway lesson from a generation of Americans who had the good fortune to taste a different mode of life. And then another generation going to villages in Ghana or Bali or Bulgaria to get a different view of culture, community, time to make art and music, time to savor and enjoy. All the cultures who look with pity at the frazzled Americans and thing, “Well, you have the watches, but we have the time.”

This is a spiritual problem, but it also is a collective economic and political problem as those with big money push the world around with their heavy shoulders of power. I wrote about this last month is my 3P post about Profit, Power and Privilege. And then soon after, my daughter Kerala surprised me with another 3P idea that’s out in the world and starting to brand certain businesses who organize around the premise. A much happier 3P’s: People, Planet, Profit. A quick look at each:

People: The question a good-hearted and clear-thinking business should ask: Does our product, our process of running the company, our way of doing business help people or hurt them? Does it add to their quality of life or subtract? Do our customers feel valued? Do our employees feel valued? It’s a simple question to ask, but a difficult one to confront when there is a conflict between a product that seems to help folks—like Teflon allowing their eggs to cook without sticking to the pan, but the mode of disposal when making it contaminating our water and land and endangering our health. If you’re a genuine 3P product, you would stop the moment you find out that people are harmed.

Planet: Is this product necessary and important enough to justify the use of valuable resources? If we can make more money creating it in a short-sighted way that pollutes the land, air or water or make less doing it more responsibly, which should we choose? The new 3P is clear. Be a steward of the planet and factor this in all decision-making and economic ventures.

Profit: For a company to be sustainable, a certain amount of profit is necessary. If the first two are aligned, there is no shame in earning money. (For example, I’d be quite happy if my books sold a million copies instead of two thousand.) So by all means keep profit in the conversation, but watch out for the Rockefeller conundrum: When asked how much money is enough, he replied, “Just a little bit more.” And notice that Profit is last  in the list. If it’s first and becomes more important than people or planet, well, that’s when the trouble starts.

So listen up corporations, let’s see if we can have our cake and eat it too. (From organic, properly farmed ingredients, of course.) And consumers, shift your allegiance to these 3P companies. Most companies would never choose to change decades of profit-at-the-center-at-all-costs thinking, but if they lose money because we are flocking to the 3P corporations, they’ll have to change their ways. 

Food for thought on a Thursday morning.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Guest Artist

Truth be told, my first granddaughter was not the happiest of children in her first five years of life. She was feisty, explosive, unpredictable and spent a significant amount of time in time-out. My theory is that she wanted to grab the world and shake it by its tail, but she was too young to have the power of expression. 

Now all that has changed. She’s reading up a storm, can play lots of games, has learned a few things on the piano, can shoot baskets, ride a bike and kind of swim, loves numbers and loves to draw. Now that she has more control over the exciting possibilities swirling in her mind and body, she has the power of expression and can channel and focus her various energies. 

Here is an example of her emerging cartooning, in my biased mind, quite sophisticated for a second grader! I especially love the changing expressions. Can’t wait to read her next installment!

Monday, December 2, 2019

Into the Darkness

December is the doorway into the darkness. And so it began yesterday walking in the rain to the movie Dark Waters. A superbly-rendered whistle-blower film, one of my favorite genres where the bad guys get their just desserts. But at what cost? So much needless human suffering, death and destruction before the heartless corporate greed-driven people have to cut into their profits to pay back—and then generally charge more to their customers to make up for it. 

The pattern is always the same. Profit is the bottom line, the top line, the center of the whole enterprise, human decency be damned. So even when a mistake is innocent and they think they’re advancing human civilization—like the invention of Teflon—when things come to light that show that it’s hazardous to human health—in this case, releasing dangerous carbon-8 into the air and dumping it into the earth and having it leak into the water, they cover it up and go to great lengths to keep it covered. Always thinking that they themselves can live far away from the destruction and not caring about the “receptors” (euphemism for human beings) who bear the brunt of the damage. Whether it’s the nuclear energy industry in Silkwood and The China Syndrome, the tobacco industry in The Insider, PG &E in Erin Brokovich,a chemical company in Michael Clayton or Dupont in Dark Waters, the pattern is always the same. Make money by hurting people and places “over there” and cover it up at all costs. But in this last film, the not-funny joke is on Dupont—99% of the people on the planet are carrying some level of the toxic C-8 in their bodies—including everyone employed by Dupont. There is no “over there.”

I’m sure there isn’t a reader of this post who doesn’t know someone struggling with or dead from cancer and there’s no doubt that the epidemic spread of this deadly disease is due partly to our environment contaminated by these heartless bastards who hide under cheery slogans like “We bring good things to life” and “Better living through chemistry.” Two kids in my school just lost their father to cancer yesterday. An Orff colleague was just diagnosed with a surprise Stage-4 cancer. An alum student has to choose between an operation that will leave him voiceless or death. It’s hard enough to accept mortality as the price of living, but harder yet when we ourselves are creating the conditions that hasten its coming. All so a few guys in suits can buy big houses while the government looks the other way and trusts them to “self-regulate”—no accountability, no consequences. Sound familiar? The same drama going on in the Impeachment Hearings.

Hail to the whistleblowers and enough of a justice system that occasionally does the right thing. But let’s start at the root and educate the next generation in morality over money, truth over lies, courage over cover-up. That’s the long term solution. But meanwhile, let’s make sure we get the heartless bastards who know exactly what they’re doing and don’t care. We can pray for their souls and be compassionate for their mistakes but only after they’re rotting in jail. Go see the movie and you’ll know what I’m feeling.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Dear Diary

My plan to catch up after a week of not-writing almost worked. But time marches on and just a little bit faster than I can manage at the moment. So before November comes to a close, a short synopsis for the historical record:

• Saturday, Nov. 23: With no workshops to teach and no kids to perform with or take care of, I had a delightful day actually going to workshops. Some from former students in our summer training course (hooray!), some people I didn’t know and hadn’t seen teach, some I had seen teach doing something different. It was mostly fun, but truth be told, by the end, I was not excited about getting into small groups and making something up. I just wanted someone to tell me what to do and in the last workshop, she did—and it didn’t turn out to be much worth doing. Oh well. 

There was a closing session that deserves its own entry, a continuation of the shift-in-the-wind feeling of the Conference with 4 out of the 5 teachers people of color and leading us into helping three quotes come to life in speech, song and movement. The quotes? From Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela. We ended with concentric circle singing and the tears were flowing. As they should.

That night was the annual banquet and the by-now usual kick-ass dance band and everyone kicked their shoes off and got down to it! Fun! The only thing missing was the ritual conga line and truth be told, I didn’t miss it. Post-banquet, happened into my California peeps and headed up to their hotel suite (someone had perks) and played a fun 14-person game of Cheers Guv-nor! Until 1 in the morning. Most of these folks in their 30’s and 40’s and all my former Orff students and I love ‘em to death. And was both grateful they let the old guy hang with them and proud that I could!

• Sunday: A meeting of the Summer Course teachers with small group discussion about where we should be going in the next 50 years. (My world music sharing from that discussion in the last post.) Again, where often there is discord and a sense of different camps, “we” was the predominate pronoun. Hooray for that.

Lunch with my old Orff buddy Pam looking over a draft of her Orff/ Bali book I hope to publish with my Pentatonic Press and off to the airport. But not home. Straight to Portland, where my daughter and two grandchildren met me at the airport and whisked me off for the first 5 hours of our 12 hour drive to San Francisco. Wheee!

• Monday: Woke up in Grant’s Pass and off we went in my preschool-music-class-in-the-car as I worked on engaging my 4 and 8-year old grandkids. Three stories, a few rhythm games, many songs, some recorded stories and songs and the seven hours whisked by—well, not that rapidly, but we made it. Barely, it turns out, as the car was doing weird things up hills and we took it to a mechanic right away who noted the oil was almost out (a separate problem) and had we driven another hour, we would have ruined the engine. Whoops. 

• Tuesday:  A morning of hanging out with games, drawing, eating, etc. and then a film crew came for the afternoon to interview me and then later my wife and two daughters. Part of a project chronicling my last year at school and I’m pretty casual about it, but the film folks (led by a school parent) are pretty serious and already have some 15 hours of filmed material—classes, performances, interviews and more. Yikes! That night, off to daughter Talia’s house for dinner and a family celebration of her 35thbirthday. Yikes again! (My second daughter is 35!) Our first rain came and how it came! Arriving at Talia's house, there were twin rivers running down the hill, almost too wide and swift to cross! (And apparently, we will have rain for 13 out of the next 14 days! But of course, we can always use it.)

• Wednesday: Spent a lot of energy thinking about kid-friendly things to do in San Francisco and opted for just walking down Irving St. while we did little errands, stop for a lunch of fresh dumplings (inspired by a Japanese story I read to them 4 times!), visited Talia’s new apartment where she will soon move, came back through Golden Gate Park. Perfect grandkid time and no tickets needed. Son-in-law Ronnie flew down that night.

• Thursday: Thanksgiving at my sister’s house in Sebastopol. A lovely family time and great walk on Florence Avenue where all these fabulous metal sculptures are (see photos below). Talia, Karen and I drove home while the Portland crew spent the night to get a head-start on their 3-day drive back home. 

• Friday: My house was so quiet! And clean! I love the little kid energy, but find myself quite happy to get a break from it as well. Spent the day getting e-mail down to 0 and other such business-like things and treated myself to the Tom Hanks “It’s a Beautiful Day” movie that night.

• Saturday:  Drove down to San Jose to gather at one of the Interns’ house. We’re all getting a bit sad that we only have three-weeks left of this marvelous four months together, so nice to have some time eating Chinese and Persian food, playing a card game about sushi and sashimi. Came home and played Bach for two hours, realizing how much I’ve missed the piano. 

And now here I am. December a mere 3 hours away, I bid farewell to a vibrant and memorable November and prepare myself for the next round of intensity before the Holiday break. Breathe in. Breathe out. And off we go!…………

The World Music Foundation

…is not a non-profit organization designed to promote, support, sustain that mysterious non-entity called World Music. It’s a description of what the elemental foundations of the Orff Schulwerk gifts to people interested in expanding their musical universe beyond the narrow borders of pop and past the horizon of the harmonic European classical tradition. 

Still back-pedaling on this blog to try to unpack some of the exciting suitcases we brought to the Orff Conference. James and Sofia did a session on Stravinsky that included modal improvisations, I did one looking at pentatonic melodies from northern Ghana and the southern Philippines (with an Emily Dickinson poem I arranged as a choral piece thrown into the mix) that offered unique compositional devices. But the most important thing we offered was the Middle School children’s concert showcasing music from India, Bali, Brazil, Cuba, Ghana, Philippines, Spain alongside the work of two contemporary European/American composers and the American genius, Duke Ellington. (See "Culture Bearing" post for the actual concert set list). Not your standard fare for an Orff Conference and I remember thinking during the show that the audience reaction seemed lukewarm. I’ve heard folks cheer so loudly for kids who did cute things passably well partly because the kids deserved it and partly because it all was comfortably familiar for the teachers attending the conference. I think for some, our presentation was a bit of a surprise, showing material and expertise and dynamic kid energy that was a bit outside of people’s frame of reference and thus, received in a different way. (And, by the way, there was significant cheering by the end and all of it much appreciated.)

We have presented 6 concerts like this at Conferences between 1991 and 2019, so from our point of view, this was nothing new. But as I mentioned in “A Shift in the Wind,” there was something about the timing of this that made it precisely what people needed to see and hear to consider how to move forward into the greater diversity that we’re starting to hunger for. The audience was prepared to look at it with new eyes and hear it with new ears and consider it with a new mindset and feel it with a new heart-feeling. Or at least, that’s what I’d like to think. 

In a meeting on the last morning with the teachers teaching the summer courses and giving workshops around the country, we looked at the beginning of the next 50 years and considered where we wanted to go. In my break-out group, I gave the concert as an example of where I hoped we might be heading and laid out how the Orff approach is the perfect foundation for this work. We just need to start framing the building and filling in the details. 

This is a book in itself and indeed, my next project with my colleagues James and Sofia. But the short version of the marriage between “World Music” and Orff is as follows:

• Instruments: The Orff instruments themselves were initially inspired by similar models in West Africa, Indonesia and Germany. What a pleasure to mix the original grandfather Ghanaian gyil with its grandchildren. And in general, Orff Ensembles integrate recorder and percussion instruments worldwide— a perfect foundation to study further the technical demands of the conga, gourd rattle or triangle as practiced in Cuba, Ghana and Brazil. Additionally, our program integrated traditional Western instruments— a string quartet, piano, saxophone, trumpet, trombone and flutes. 

• Elemental composition: Most of the pieces we presented were based on pentatonic or modal scales, layers of ostinato, color parts and drones, exactly the elements of Orff and Keetman’s compositional style given new—and old—voice. 

Tradition: The Bobobo dance and drum patterns of the Ewe people we learned in Ghana and passed them on to the children in their traditional form. Likewise, the Coco dance and song from Brazil. Passing on the tried-and-true is part of our responsibilities as music teachers, alongside giving a taste of cultural practices as they have been and continue to be in diverse communities.

• Innovation: At the same time that we honor tradition, we take seriously Orff’s invitation to innovate and create something new. Making body percussion patterns from South Indian drum syllables in the context of a “West Side Story” drama, combining Balinese kecak with ball-passing routines, adding new instruments like Thai angklung to a Philippine kulintang piece are just some of the ways we used our creative license.

• Integrated arts: Following Orff’s axiom that “elemental music is never music alone, but forms a unity with movement, dance and speech,” virtually every piece had movement and many had props—balls, fans, sticks, bamboo poles. There were choreographed dance routines, a film, body percussion and a bit of story and drama. 

• Child-centered: The show was crafted around the particular talents of the students who signed up. Some were featured as singers, as dancers, as solo viola players, as dancers, always with a sense of each child’s particular strengths. The kids mostly crafted the particular dance routines and the energy throughout was playful, as children are. 

• Repertoire: The show was also crafted around our unique Middle School curriculum—World Music in 6thgrade, European (and beyond) classical composition in 7th, American (and beyond) jazz and improvisation. Besides mastering examples of these diverse genres, our students also study a bit of history, geography, culture, learning the context of where a particular music come from and often touching on themes of social justice.

• Composition: “Let the children be their own composers” Carl Orff (theoretically) said and through exposure to diverse compositional styles, children begin to compose their own music from a broad palette of sonic possibilities. 

In short, the whole concert was a model of the kind of foundation a good Orff program offers for further study and development. The bad news is that it isn’t easily packageable and transmitted through a mere book of pieces. It requires a fiery curiosity and determination to study, imagine and apply new ideas to one’s old pedagogical habits. The good news is that there are plenty of courses—many of them under the umbrella of the San Francisco International Orff Course I direct—that open these doors to the willing teacher. Many of these courses flow two ways, helping people with a background in a specific cultural music to experience how the Orff approach can help communicate, introduce and extend the material, while simultaneously helping those with a background in Orff pedagogy learn some culturally-specific music to widen the playing field of their repertoire and expand their own musical skills. Both the Orff-Afrique Course in Ghana and my Jazz Course in New Orleans/ San Francisco/ Newark are examples of these unique opportunities. 

The foundation is laid. Now comes the building. And then the housewarming party. Finally, the life lived in these marvelous rooms. 

And if you're not yet convinced, look how happy these children are in their post-concert joy!!!

Chimaltenango and the Calendar of Faith

The first trip my wife Karen and I took (before marriage) was to Guatemala in 1975. We were enjoying the known tourist spots, but got an idea to pick a random town on the map and go where tourists usually don’t. So we got on a bus and got off at Chimaltenango. We looked around for a few minutes and immediately re-boarded the bus. Nothing about the town looked the least bit appealing and we quickly figured out that there was a reason that Chimaltenango was not on the tourist list. It became a metaphor for future situations where we thought that things that didn’t pass some test of time and experience were as interesting as those that did. And then finding out they weren't. (I actually believe they might be if you look at them differently and know where and how to look, but that’s another discussion.)

So yesterday we took a welcome bike ride to the Legion of Honor Museum to see an exhibit by 19thcentury French painter James Tissot. I had never heard of him and by the end of the exhibit, I knew why. He actually was a very technically accomplished painter but the subject matter of French women’s fashion, followed by a late-life obsession with Biblical images, left me feeling like he was the Chimaltenango of French painters. There was a reason why his name is not sounded alongside Renoir, Degas, Manet, Monet, Seurat, Gauguin, Pissarro, Cezanne and others. But I did like an early painting of the Dance of Death, complete with bagpipes and a later one of two people holding a light at a séance that seemed like it was truly a light shining out of the canvas. 

From there, went to our beloved Green Apple Bookstore to get next year’s calendars. I’m not at the age yet when I wonder about buying an unripe banana, but well past the 50-yard line on the mortality football field, I did feel a twinge of buying calendars as an article of faith. A faith I’m happy to profess as I look at its blank pages, imagine how they will be filled in both familiar and unknown ways and hope that the fates will be kind and this time next year, I’ll be buying the next calendar. 

Meanwhile, on I go with my bucket list and I’m pretty sure that Chimaltenango is not on it.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Mentionable, Manageable, Musical

“If it’s human, it’s mentionable. If it’s mentionable, then it’s manageable.” 

One of the choice nuggets from the new “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” the Tom Hanks version of Mr. Rogers trying to name the elephant in the room to bring its silent rampage under control. As also mentioned in the movie, Mr. Rogers may come across to many as a goody-goody, but he really did deal with dark and difficult themes with precisely the idea that saying them out loud to children—and adults— got them off the merry-go-round of under-the-rug-repression or off-to-the-side-distracting-entertainment. And then proceeded to give some advice about expressing one’s sadness, anger, frustration in ways that don’t hurt others or oneself. 

He mentions pounding clay and banging on the low keys of the piano, but I would add shaping and sculpting clay and playing Bach or the Blues on the piano. Repression certainly doesn’t work but neither does unbridled “Primal Scream” (remember that?) expression. But art or meditation that takes the raw energy and cooks it into something nourishing and tasty is a third option that I would recommend. Whether it’s music or art or poetry or a walk in the woods or following the breath, it is the effort to face and name the darkness and to work with it in some way or another that begins to help us manage it. The very act of making an effort makes us larger and makes it smaller, so that it’s still with us, but its impact is diminished. 

The habit of the “unmentionable” has been with us at least since the Medieval Parzival story, when the naïve young knight stumbles upon the Grail Castle in the midst of the Wasteland and meets the grail King who is carried out on a litter with a wound that bleeds day and night and neither kills him nor is healed. Trained to be polite, Parzival says nothing about the wound and the next morning, the castle has disappeared and Parzival is doomed to 30 more years of wandering before he finds it again. This time he says to the king, “What ails you?” and the very act of asking the question is the beginning of the healing. 

Whether it be psychological, cultural, political or spiritual healing, Mr. Rogers had it right. Start by mentioning it and then begin to manage it. And may I suggest again the third M— make into a music that soothes, comforts, expresses, deepens and enlarges all who play it and all who deeply listen. 

And that’s what will make it a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Heater Wars

It is seriously cold in San Francisco! For us, that means in the 40’s, which folks in sub-arctic temperatures will laugh at. But keep in mind that our houses—or at least my house—is not well-prepared for cold temperatures. This one heater (see above)  heats our whole house and there’s usually about 5 days a year when it’s chugging all it’s might and barely keeping our noses warm. Of course, we’re in a habit of shutting it off at night, so the drama begins anew the next day and technically, we don’t have to do that. Like I said, it’s a habit. 

But during these cold snaps, there is a little passive-aggressive war going on between my wife and I. I turn it on and an hour or two later, I find it turned off. Or I turn it on full-blast and mysteriously, it has been moved down to the low heat position. Makes me wonder if any couples-therapy groups have thoroughly discussed the role of different temperature tolerances in their compatibility studies. Relationship is all about compromise, but when it comes to freezing my butt off, I’m not feeling generous in the negotiations. Just sayin’.

I could discuss this more here, but I have to go check the heater. 

More Is More

It doesn’t take a literary specialist to note that modern writing is more condensed, more pithy, more leaning to the soundbyte than the long, flowery sentence. Sometimes this feels like a decline, a capitulation to our shortening media-tranced attention span and inability to hold a long thought in our mind. Othertimes, especially in the hands of artful writers, it feels like a haiku kind of condensation of the “less is more” variety. In short, the number of words alone are not so important as how they are constructed and what they have to say. But certainly modern writing teachers will steer their students toward the shorter sentences and modern readers will mostly be impatient with overly-long sentences. 

I was worried when I resumed my Fall Dickens that my own tolerance for lengthy phrases would be diminished, but mostly, it has been a great pleasure to re-enter his genius for both plot and poetic writing, for character and conversation. But I did have to smile reading this one—I repeat, one, sentence last night. Check it out!

But now, when he thought how regularly things went on from day to day in the same unvarying round—how youth and beauty died, and ugly griping age lived tottering on—how crafty avarice grew rich, and manly honest hearts were poor and sad—how few they were who tenanted the stately houses, and how many those who lay in noisome pens, or rose each day and laid them down at night, and lived and died, father and son, mother and child, race upon race, and generation upon generation, without a home to shelter them or the energies of one single man directed to their aid—how in seeking, not a luxurious and splendid life, but the bare means of a most wretched and inadequate subsistence, there were women and children in that one town, divided into classes, numbered and estimated as regularly as the noble families and folks of great degree, and reared from infancy to drive most criminal and dreadful trades—how ignorance was punished and never taught—how jail-door gaped and gallows loomed for thousands urged towards them by circumstances darkly curtaining their very cradles’ heads, and but for which they might have earned their honest bread and lived in peace—how many died in soul, and had no chance of life—how many who could scarcely go astray, be they vicious as they would, turned haughtily from the crushed and stricken wretch who could scarce do otherwise, and who would have been a greater wonder had he or she done well, than even they, had they done ill—how much injustice, and misery, and wrong there was and yet how the world rolled on from year to year, alike careless and indifferent, and no man seeking to remedy or redress it;—when he thought of all this, and selected from the mass the one slight case on which his thoughts were bent, he felt indeed that there was little ground for hope, and little cause or reason why it should not form an atom in the huge aggregate of distress and sorrow, and add on small and unimportant unit to swell the great amount. (p. 791)

1 sentence. 23 lines. 358 words. 28 commas. 10 hyphens. 1 semi-colon. 

But note the content—concern for social justice, timeless meditations on the world’s ways, rich descriptive adjectives (ugly griping age/ crafty avarice), poetic alliteration ( honest hearts/ gaped and gallows/ remedy or redress)and imagery (an atom in the huge aggregate of distress and sorrow). It’s a mouthful, but worth the effort. Next time you’re in such a hurry that you’re texting things like “Lol. Tx!,” think about Mr. Dickens.