Friday, August 23, 2019

Love at All Ages

Usually I describe the beginning of school as putting my shoulder to the wheel of the year and pushing its heavy weight, straining to get it rolling. This year it was like a gentle nudge from my finger. Two days of meetings, three days with kids and it’s rolling and I’m loving the ride. First classes with 5-year-olds, 4thgrade, 6thgrade and 8thgrade and each one a jewel. The double pleasure of having yet again 4 wonderful Interns to witness, enjoy, participate and contribute. 

Today they asked me which was my favorite age and I said, as I often say, “3-year-olds and 8thgrade.” But then quickly added, “Well, I’ve really grown to love the 5-year-olds and 4thgrade is great and I enjoyed 6thgrade today and though I haven’t taught them in a while, I’ve always loved 1stand 3rd. And then there’s the 4-year-olds and 2nd and 5thgrade."  In short, I love them all. After all these years, I’ve finally figured out the kinds of things that hit them where they live and isn’t that part of the trick, to find the dignity and delight of each developmental stage? 

Musically as well as in other ways. Truth be told, we—the 5-year olds and I—composed a piece based on their names and it was as musically satisfying as the Bach Partita I started the day with. I did a similar name game with 4thgrade with percussion instruments and had to grab my camera to video a particular tasteful combination of rhythms and instruments. I got the 8thgrade grooving on my Boom Chick a Boom beginner’s jazz piece and 20-minutes into their first formal jazz experience with me, they were deep in the groove. And when an Intern and his friend pulled out their saxophones and started soloing over the top, the kids were as lifted up as I was—"Dang! 20 minutes and we sound great!!!!” 

Our first elementary singing time with 100 kids had many goose-bump moments and wasn’t it so joyful to be back at preschool singing? Yes, it was! And then ended the week as I do when I’m in the school rhythm—a glorious hour of music at the Jewish Home for the Aged where I’ve found the perfect things for that age. 

Truth be told, I’m having a little “buyer’s remorse” announcing my retirement in June. Why would I ever leave this? Should I reconsider? Well, one day at a time. Meanwhile, gratitude abounds. On to the weekend!

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Life on the Mountain

We had another marvelous Opening Ceremony at The San Francisco School. One hour of song, ritual, speech and music. In the “Earth Day Rap” part, the 4thand 5thgrade teachers talked about stewardship of the planet, starting with the little things—"recycle, bicycle, don’t you drive by yourself.” Next up was a song called “Gonna Build Me a Mountain” (it’s on my Boom Chick a Boom CD if you’re curious!) and I gave this talk as a preface. The opening about the bicycle was picking up from the teacher talking about riding his bike to school. 

 If you ride your bike in San Francisco, you might notice there are a lot of hills. This is good! It’s hard to ride up them and that makes us strong. It’s also fun to ride down them, to feel the wind in our face, to coast without pedaling. But you can’t get to the downhill without the uphill. In biking and in life. And sometimes the road is just flat and that’s good too. Like here on Gaven Street. 

But don’t be fooled. There’s actually an enormous mountain here. Its address is 300 Gaven St. It’s a mountain that people have been building for 54 years. We’re standing on it today as a gift from the teachers, students and parents of the past, which includes as long ago as 1966 and as recently as last year. Anything that’s good about this most remarkable place came from the hard, hard work, the vision, the wise choices that those who came before us made. Also the foolish choices— we probably learned the most from them!

Standing here before you, I want to salute all of these people. Every single one. And I know almost all of them! I grew up with them and am still growing up with them. Kids who I taught are as old as 50+ and the results are in—we did good work. 

Our job is to keep building that mountain beyond what they were able to do. To work hard with clear vision so that people 50 years from now might thank and remember us. To savor and enjoy who we are now and consider who we are not yet. 

Martin Luther King said in one of his speeches that he had climbed to the top of the mountain and seen the Promised Land. That’s one of the benefits of mountain climbing. We can see further than what’s right at our feet and get a bigger perspective about who we are and why we’re here. And I can say that I also have climbed to the top of the mountain here on Gaven Street and I, too, have seen the Promised Land. It turns out that it’s not far away like some shining Oz, but right here, right now, right where we are and with all the people sitting next to you. This is Heaven. It really is. I’m here to testify that there is no heaven finer than this.

But Heaven is not a place, it’s not a noun. It is a verb, a work in progress, a place we make in our hearts by how we live and how we live together. And this is important to understand: There is no Heaven without Hell. We make Hell by all the ways we suffer when we misunderstand each other, disappoint each other, betray each other, treat each other less kindly that we should. And of course we will do all of that. We will wound and we will be wounded. We will hurt and we will be hurt. That’s just how things are in this life. No escaping that. 

How we react to those hurts and wounds is the key, the way to make Heaven from Hell. How we apologize, to ourselves and others, how we forgive, ourselves and others, is what can turn sorrow to joy. We can begin to heal those wounds every time we choose kindness over cruelty, knowledge over ignorance, caring over indifference, courageous conversation over malicious gossip. If we are to choose—and there’s always a choice—let’s go with our better selves. 

Here’s the truth. Everyone in this room is a beautiful, luminous being capable of loving and worthy of being loved. Everyone has the possibility to do great things, be they small or big. Everyone deserves a loving welcome and a sense of belonging. Everyone matters. Each of us have come to this earth as a question— how can we use our gifts to heal and help and give something the world needs?  Each of us is necessary. Let’s not forget that. 

Kids, you are so lucky to be surrounded by teachers who love you more than you can imagine. They love you before they even meet you and then they love you for real when they get to know you and find out what specifically there is to love. Please show them. Your teachers work so hard to bring out your genius, who stay up at night worrying about you and thinking how to make you happy by giving you the things you need. Not the things you think you want —like Gameboy or candy— but the things you deeply need. 

Kids, don’t waste a minute of your time here. You need to work hard to discover your genius. Pay attention. Listen to these teachers who work so hard for you. Step up to the challenge of each class and don’t make us teachers have to sing and dance to get your attention. Be respectful, to yourself, the teachers and your classmates and above all, be kind. It costs so little and the reward is so great. 

I confess that I was not a good student. I didn’t like school and it didn’t like me. Then I chose to be a teacher dedicated to making school more fun, more celebratory, more soulful. I wanted to help make a school like the one I wished I had gone to. And this is that place. As they say, it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.

So here on the first day of this new year, let’s resolve to build a mountain that we can look back on when we gather again in June and feel proud about what we did. Here’s the double truth: “Only one person can do it and that person is YOU!” and it’s most fun if we do it together, “Side by side.” Here’s the mountain you build by yourself (do motions to “mountain, mountain, build a mountain”)and here’s how you do it together (as above with partner).Let’s sing this song like we mean it and build a year that is worthy of the word Heaven. Off we go!! (Sing song: “Gonna Build Me a Mountain.”) 

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

First Day of School

So as I’m about to start my first day of my last year at SF School, I thought it would be interesting to try to remember my first day at SF School when I first started teaching there. So I took out the old journal from that time, excited to re-read my thoughts. There were many entries from my 1975 summer travels to Guatemala, Belize, New Jersey and Ohio. On Aug. 24th, I flew back to San Francisco and wrote the following: 

“So this summer of constant traveling ends with the journey that is no journey. Having explored worlds within and without, renewed friendships and re-visited old homes, it is time to begin my new life in San Francisco. A new chance to create a life that feeds my spirit and serves others, ready to daily renew contact with the Source, expand in all directions musically, learn how to be with kids again, penetrate through relationship to the place that unites us, take responsibility for my human life. These are the tasks at hand. Infinitely refreshed by my travels, my heart is filled with gladness as the City appears over the wingtip. Thanks to all people and places, my this world which is one realize and manifest it’s inherent unity. “San Francisco, here I come. Right back where I started from.”

A bit flowery, but not too bad for a 24-year old kid. That list pretty much defined what I ended up doing. Now I was excited to read all about my first day of school. The next entry was:

8/25—A morning sitting (meditation) that left me radiant, meetings all day at school, eyes focused downward and all vibrating, receiving and outpouring energy. “Energy is eternal delight.” Good to be back at a school, felt fairly comfortable, thought overwhelmed by the task at hand, which includes moving to our new apartment. More later on people, places and platypuses. Karen and friend carousing in bed. I wish she’d cut off her bangs.”

Well, that doesn’t reveal much beyond “fairly comfortable” being at the school. I was ready to read on about the first actual day of teaching kids and hear all about my first impressions, my struggles, my successes and so on. I turned the page and there was:


WHAT?!!! Not a single entry for almost seven months!!!! And then my above entry was all about a trip to the desert. And so it went for the next two years. Some entries about summer travels and not a word about the first three years of my life at school. So my hopes to re-visit my first impressions of teaching at school were dashed. I remember a few things from those years and have some photos, but I definitely don’t remember anything about my first day of school. For any of those years! I know we didn’t have anything approaching the elaborate Opening Ceremony we now have, but I really wonder what we did? Just had the kids go straight to class? Aaargh! I’m angry with my former self.

Oh well. Footprints in the sand, washed away by the tides of time. I’m sure I’ll write something tomorrow about the opening day, as I probably have these last eight years of posting blogs and perhaps did in my later journals. In fact, I should check those out. I’ll get back to you. 

Or not.

A Light Step

My first day back at school meetings did not begin auspiciously. I arrive late for the first meeting, a presentation about anti-harassment. This is important to help people be safe and turn-around the too-casual tolerance of bullying, sexual abuse, micro-aggressive talk and such. But once things get in the hands of the law or a systematically correct way to be with your colleagues, the humor is the first to go and everyone’s walking on eggshells nervous they might offend someone. Luckily, while everyone was nodding their heads during the talk about not hugging without permission and such, afterwards there was the kind of humor that can come when people know each other well and can relax, with the caveat that if someone doesn’t feel comfortable with a comment or a hug on any particular day, they’re free to express it and we all need to listen and take it seriously.

I then got into a little tussle with my two “Dream-team” colleagues. Yes, that happens. But we said what we felt, it hung in the air for ten minutes and then cleared away like a good rainstorm that washes the air clean. We went on to meet about the hundreds of details in our intricately connected lives, from school to courses beyond to performances to publishing and made some progress whittling that long list down. I got to meet some new teachers, re-connected with the old, had a hard conversation with a parent upset about some things her child experienced in the school (not in my class, so easy to listen). So though it was far from a conflict-free day, I found myself walking with a light step and an irrepressible happiness down in my bones. 

I know I’ll soon have to stop blabbing about this being my last year and simply enjoy each day as if it was my first, but it both affirmed that indeed this place is still the right place for me to be and made my doubt whether I should leave! But knowing I can come back to sub or visit or partake in various ceremonies, I believe I’ll stick with my decision. I suspect much awaits me on the other side of that closed (not locked!) door and I’m eager to see what it is and enjoy it thoroughly. 

Small Town City

Waiting for the 44 bus to take me home after my flight from Chicago, two different cars with school alumni stopped and shouted their hellos to me. Yesterday, an alum was at the counter ready to sell me shoes in my neighborhood store. Another woman on the street corner soliciting funds for Responsible Hip-Hop looked in amazement when I asked if she knew a former student of mine who is a hip-hop artist. “This is his organization! He’s my main man!!” 

When you’ve taught for as long as I have, your former students are everywhere. I love running into them! Though sometimes I’ve been nervous that one might be a nurse at my next colonoscopy exam. Luckily, not yet. 

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Things to Do with the Grandchildren

Read Pippi Longstockings and Curious George. Play go-fish and supervise Solitaire. Swim in the lake. Go up the big “Sugarbowl” sand dune. Run down it. Teach chopsticks on the piano. Go to the Drive-In movie to see the Lion King. Play miniature golf before the movie while swatting mosquitoes. Play catch and paddleball down at the beach. Canoe and tip over. Rough-house. Chase them when they steal my glasses case from my front pocket. Videotape spontaneous songs. Teach songs. Hike in the woods and avoid poison ivy. Tell four fairy tales while hiking. Jump off of sand dunes. Run from the waves. Dig a hole in the sand. Teach body percussion. Walk to the Frankfort lighthouse. Bake cookies. Watch them draw. Cuddle. Watch “The Red Balloon” video. Play beanbag toss at a restaurant and challenge a couple. Play piano at the open mic there (me) while the kids danced. Play Concentration 64 in the 6 hour car ride to Chicago. Also Cookie Jar and Old Doc Jones. Listen to my “Boomchicka Boom CD.” Answer “when are we going to get there?” questions 55 times. Stop for ice cream. Eat at Appleby’s (way up) and Chilis (way down). Swim in the hotel pool. Sit in the hot tub. Talk to Aunt Talia on Facetime. Hug goodbye at 4 in the morning. Feel happy for the time we’ve had together. Feel sad that I won’t see them for another six weeks. 

If summer has to end, well, this has been the perfect way. 

Friday, August 16, 2019

School Dreams

Just about every year for the last 44, I’ve ended summer at a family cottage on Lake Michigan. That’s when the school dreams—or nightmares—begin to kick in. And so as I prepare my 45th—and last—year at The San Francisco School, the pattern holds. 

It began with realizing I had a 5thgrade class about to enter and had no idea what I was going to do. While I was frantically looking at my last year’s planning book, the class had entered and seated themselves in the room’s hallway in complete silence. I passed out cups for them to balance on their head and explained that if they talked or the cup dropped, they were out. Naturally, they started talking and the kids weren’t following the rules. So I made a new one that those out would be the judges to see who else was talking. While I was playing piano, one (who I will be teaching this year!) was shouting and trying to steal things from a refrigerator and I restrained her and she started punching me and I threatened to call her parents. Meanwhile, my colleague James had entered and let me know that he  was supposed to be teaching 5thgrade and he had his class all planned. I asked if I could finish it and on it went. 

Then the dream switched to packing up to leave a hotel. I was naked in the bathroom brushing my teeth when the maid came to clean the room and she just stood there waiting for me. I suggested she start by making the bed, got dressed and packed up. My wife and daughter and I rolled the suitcases outside and I was sitting with them on a busy street corner while they went to do something. An old friend passed by and I went to talk to him and when I turned around, all the suitcases were gone. Not a happy night of dreaming!

Meanwhile, the daydreams of the opening day of school have begun as I get ready to shoulder the heavy wheel of the school year to get it rolling. Only this year, everything will feel different knowing it’s my last. I can imagine each milestone—“My last Opening Ceremony! Last Halloween! Last Holiday Plays! Last St. George and the Dragon!" And so on.

Well, as they say, one day at a time. And this day, my last full day at the lake with my wife, daughter and two delightful grandchildren, is awaiting me.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Cellular Memory

On the last day of my Level III Orff training, we sing four songs that demonstrate moving from minor to major or major to minor. The songs—from the Ukraine, Bulgaria, Estonia and Finland/ Sweden—are hauntingly beautiful and by the end, not a single person cares that I artfully slipped them into the melodic/harmonic sequence so that they affirmed key theoretical concepts. As it should be. Revealing the details of theory in a neat sequence that moves from one known to the next unknown is part of artful teaching. But at the end of the day, it’s the particular strings in the heart that the tones pluck that make all the difference in the world—or not. 

Vem Kan Segla, the song from a Finnish island where the inhabitants speak Swedish, is about how maddeningly difficult it is to say goodbye to friends without crying. The exquisite arrangement by Daniel Hellden tugs at those major/ minor strings so that the notes themselves evoke longing. But when the group, now in their last day of six intense weeks together spread out over three summers, reads the translation, well, then the waterworks start. And now we need another song that tells how maddeningly difficult it is to sing a song while weeping. Try it. Doesn’t sound good.

So this led me to telling them the story of how I was in Canada teaching a course when I got the news—on this day 12 years ago—that my Dad had passed away after six months of trying to come back to life from open-heart surgery at 89 years old. I had said my goodbyes over and over during those six months, but still, when the final news hits, it hurts. I taught my Toronto class without sharing the news until the end of the day. And then we tried to sing Vem Kam Seglato collectively bid farewell to my Dad. Never did that song sound so bad! The notes were simply drowned out by sobbing.

Of course, as I told my Level III that story, the sobs came back again, embedded in the cellular memory of that moment now so long ago. That’s the indelible truth of neuroscience which we don’t always wholly understand. Deep emotion, be it ecstatic joy, deep sorrow or horrendous trauma, buries itself in our neurons and sleeps there—well, forever. To be awakened by various “triggers” and boom! there we are again, right back in that moment. 

And so I call this story up yet again in honor of my dear father. The timetable of loss keeps moving forward and it seems amazing that it is twelve years since I kissed his check or felt the vibration of his voice with my hand on his back or shared the news of the day. But cellular memory defies the ticking clock of time and I can still feel my father in all his various incarnations, by my side. Here’s to you, Dad!

The Joys of Betrayal

My birthday gift from daughter Talia was a book titled: “The Coddling of the American Mind.” It is excellent. The two authors hit every nail straight on the head as they examine disturbing new trends in American culture, most made with good intentions but with disastrous results. (Indeed, the subtitle is: “How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.”) From the way hand sanitizers subvert building a strong and healthy immune system to university policy’s designed to protect students from controversial ideas, this is a thorough examination of what is not working, why it happened and how we might turn it around. 

Amidst dozens of important insights, this paragraph struck me:

There are two very different ways to damage children’s development. One is to neglect and underprotect them, exposing them to severe and chronic adversity. The other is to overmoniter and overprotect them, denying them the thousands of small challenges, risks and adversities that they need to face on their own in order to become strong and resilient adults. 

Amen to both. In the first instance, we mindlessly allow them full freedom with screens that are addicting them earlier and earlier and robbing them of needed physical and social play. We allow the NRA to continue their strong-armed lobbying to put assault weapons in the hands of youth who enter schools. We allow advertisers full freedom to get into the heads of vulnerable young children to addict them to harmful products like fast food. Underprotection is rampant.

Our solution? Overprotect them, keep them away from “dangerous” playgrounds, replace free play with adult-organized play complete with sponsor’s T-shirts, schedules and screaming parents on the sidelines, ban peanuts from schools and so on. 

In their chapter “The Decline of Play,” the authors affirm that our genes give us a first draft of a blueprint for survival and then turn over the work to experience, the things we need in any particular environment to both survive and thrive. As noted:

“…the brain expects the child to engage in thousands of hours of play—including thousands of falls, scrapes, conflicts, insults, alliances, betrayals, status competitions, and acts of exclusion—in order to develop. Children who are deprived of play are less likely to develop into physically and socially competent teens and adults.”

I’m amongst the guilty in telling kids climbing trees “Be careful!”, monitoring their conflicts, wondering how my school and I have failed when kids exclude each other or are mean to their classmates. And though there are times when adult help and intervention is needed, I’m beginning to see how it weakens kids’ abilities to handle their own conflicts, grow some resilience, strengthen their social immune systems. In my new book, I have a section BE SAFE/ TAKE RISKS. I do want my class to be a bully-free and emotionally safe space and at the same time, give kids lots of opportunities to take risks, experience power dynamics when making things up in small groups, face the challenge of difficult music kicking their butt alongside the realization, “I can do it!” It’s an ongoing conversation.

Meanwhile, I looked at the list and thought about my own life of “falls, scrapes, conflicts, insults, alliances, betrayals…” Some as recently as last week. It’s good to remember that this is what we signed up for in this human incarnation and the challenge is not to avoid them, but learn how to negotiate them and grow stronger through them. Though I would never choose that any of the above to happen, I indeed must thank all my enemies because every time they slammed the door in my face, another door opened. If any wisdom is coming with age, it’s learning not to react with such astonishment and outrage (though often justified), but feel confident that I’ll get through it and it will lead me to someplace equally interesting. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Parachute Wisdom and Driverless Cars

Two tidbits that arose during our final discussions at the Orff training:

1)    A mind is like a parachute—it only functions when it’s open.

             And note what happens when it doesn’t open—you fall to your death. The countryside is          littered with the bodies of those who refuse to open their mind beyond FOX News    

2)   Teachers who admire you and praise you and sternly remind you to get to work are showing you precisely how they love you. They are the only teachers worth spending time with. Love is the driver of the car of education and without it, we’re stalled. And don’t tell me the driverless car run by computers is a viable substitute. It’s not.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Beyond Teaching

Teaching Orff courses as I do is like a storm on the ocean. The waves are breaking and churning up the sand below. These intense two weeks ended as they should, with thunderous, crashing final chords followed by tender moments of silence interrupted by the sniffles of 100 people weeping. Believe me, people in these courses get exactly what they need in terms of great material to bring to their students, inspired ideas as to how to develop it and new music and movement skills and understanding that improve their own artistic expression. 

But that’s just a start. They also forge lifelong-friendships and connections with those they’ve played, sung and danced with far beyond the norm. The vertical transmission from teacher to student is powerful and meaningful, but the horizontal connections between students is equally a part of the experience. Sometimes I feel, as in New Orleans, that I was the host of an ongoing party interrupted by classes! Though the classes themselves were part of the party and the after-hours party part of the classes. 

Then there’s the deep healing that is real and palpable. People discovering they are more musical than their mean childhood music teacher told them, people feeling that that hole of non-belonging in their soul was finally filled and that the frozen parts of themselves were flowing again, lubricated by day after day of tears. Really, we could charge more money for the combination of therapy and spiritual retreat, but that would cheapen it. This way, everyone gets more than they thought they signed up for and that’s a pleasure.

“Beyond teaching” means that all of this is part and parcel of the kind of education our
kids deserve beyond the skills and facts. But it also means that though that churning ocean dug up lots of ideas and thoughts that deserve to be set down here, I am finally on a serious vacation, combining real beach time with grandkid bonding. I’m coaching Zadie through her Solitaire game, Malik is building with legos and they’re both wearing the shirts I bought them in New Orleans (see photo). Training them to make the right kind of trouble in this world, side by side. 

A summer’s day awaits us, the beckoning lake, the walk up the dune, possible Drive-in Movie tonight. Time for me to take a real break from teaching (6 days) before school starts up again. Let the teaching insights lie unspoken—goodness knows between these blogposts, articles, books and lectures, I’ve said more than enough! The world will go on just fine without it. Off to the lake!

Thursday, August 8, 2019

The Pros and Cons of Weeping

“Live close to tears” said Albert Camus and I agree with this thought. But I might add, “Not too close.” There are always tears in these Orff courses and I shed my fair share of them. But this year, there have been more (from me) than usual and at a higher level of intensity. 

On the pro side, tears are like a good rain that wash away the dust, replenish the rivers, water the plants and clear the air. We suffer when things are blocked and tears help unlock our stored grief and get it flowing again. Tears are signs that we’re living honestly, wholly accepting the price of a human incarnation. We will suffer and we will exult and tears are good companions for both. 

On the con side, it’s hard to sing songs when we’re weeping. It’s hard to teach when you can’t squeak a sentence out. And because of mirror neurons, the teacher’s tears will unleash the students’ and the class plans are washed away in collective salty water. But hey, there are more important things in this life than fulfilling one’s class plans. And the ultimate class plan is to remind students that we’re all in the mess together and also all in the joy together, so let it flow!

One more day to go in this most intense of Orff Courses and am thinking I should rent a kayak for the flood of tears that certainly will come. We’ll’ see how it goes. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

The Defiant Ones

There’s a powerful scene in the movie The Defiant Ones with Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis. They are a black man and a white man who escape from a chain gang chained together and when the one complains about racism, the other answers with “That’s just the way things are. Nothing you can do about it.” And the movie goes on to show him he’s wrong. You always have a choice and each choice that refuses to accept and allow ignorance and hatred to continue brings us one step closer to diminishing its power.

It may seem an odd way to introduce the next sentence, but tonight were the teaching lessons of the 29 students in my Level III class. As has happened repeatedly the past 8 to 10 years, the quality of the lessons touched me to the core—fun, imaginative, musical, energetic, flowing, touching on just about every faculty a good teacher wants to awaken in his or her students. 

Some people think that training like this is not relevant to American music teachers who are required to simply count the beans the school board spills out on the floor, that they need detailed recipes that fulfill pre-ordained standards. But we do not teach to the person we already are. We teach to the person we long to become. We teach to the person we didn’t yet know we are (but always suspected it) and bring our slumbering soul awake and out of hiding. We don’t teach to continue the way things are, but to radically transform them to what they could be. 

And in my considerable experience, when we give out the invitation to our students to dare beyond the norm, when we defy the expectation that the status quo is good enough, when we create the necessary safety that helps people risk, why, the people respond to it. I know all 29 of my students did tonight. And the result was glorious.

On this shrinking planet, we’re all chained together. Let us escape from the prisons we’ve created and be the Defiant Ones.

Advice from Thumper's Mother

I believe Bqmbi was the first movie I ever saw and I do remember being terrified by the forest fire and sad about Bambi’s mother. I also remember a cute little scene in which Thumper the rabbit said something about baby Bambi struggling to walk being clumsy and his mother admonishing him:

“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

With a slight shift, that could be a rule for these Blogposts:

“If you don’t have anything interesting to say, don’t say anything at all.”

A rule I’ve just broken. 

Sunday, August 4, 2019

The Hall of Shame

I’m thoroughly enjoying a stimulating book called “The Coddling of the American Mind.” It’s calling us to task for our obsession with “Safetyism,” our good intention to protect children from harm backfiring because we are compromising their resilience and weakening their immune system by over-protecting them. Take away all peanuts from a school if one child has an allergy and a few years later, there is a rise in peanut allergies. Put hand sanitizer every ten feet and we get sick more often. Shield children from the realities of life’s hard truths— sickness, old age, death as if they were royal Buddhas (see Buddha’s story)— and they have no strength to face life’s sorrows. A good-hearted person might see a butterfly struggling to leave the cocoon and assist it, but in so doing takes away precisely what the butterfly needs to survive. Kids who eat dirt, get scraped knees, weep mightily when their pet dies are doing precisely what they need to to build strong bodies, immune systems and emotional health. 

But here’s the rub. While we’ve weirdly agreed that one kid falling from a rope swing over the lake means taking down the swing so no children will ever enjoy it, we seem just fine continuing to manufacture and casually sell deadly assault weapons while cutting medical coverage to get help with mental health issues and cutting school programs that might help kids feel valuable and that they belong—like Orff music programs, for example. The things that seriously protect children from assaults that they will never recover from— death by random terrorism—are the things we’re not willing to insist on. And yes, peanut allergies are a real danger to those who have them and we should know what dishes contain them if they ask and train those folks to take care of themselves. But assault weapons are proving to be a real danger to all of us who dare decide to go to a Festival, a movie, a church, a synagogue or a shopping mall. Might we pay just a little bit more attention to this?

There have been three mass shootings in the last 8 days in America. One in Gilroy close to where I’m teaching at the moment, one in Texas close to where another teacher lives and one in Dayton close to the college I attended. It doesn’t really matter whether I have a personal connection with these places, because all shootings are the responsibility of all American citizens to grieve and take action ten thousand times beyond those hypocritical “thoughts and prayers.” Three incidents in 8 days. And the NRA goes merrily on its way and the politicians keep moving gun control that has proven to make a huge difference in actual civilized countries to the back of the line and people get their panties all twisted up about a peanut found in school while blithely excusing the next assault weapon terrorist attack. 

We are all now card-carrying members of the Hall of Shame. Relax about peanuts and get to work on guns. All of us. 

Saturday, August 3, 2019

The Doug Tour Lives On!

I love leading music classes, group singing and lectures, but I also love touring visitors around my (still) fair city. Today was especially sweet because my visitors were Fernando and Menchu, two friends from Spain who have been promising to visit—for the last 28 years! And here they were on a day that bounced back and forth between close fog, distant fog and sun and things could not have gone better. Well, except for the fog never lifting from the Golden Gate Bridge so they still haven’t seen it!

We began with a unique Hash Brown sandwich breakfast, a specialty of the Korean cooks at the unique Art’s Café in my neighborhood. Went up the tower of the De Young Museum, sang overtones and performed body percussion in the acoustically live Skyspace in the Museum Garden, dropped in at Amoeba Records to get the DVD of Vertigo that we’ll show at our course tomorrow night. Walked down Haight and then Cole Street marveling at the Victorian architecture, took the N-Judah to the Ferry Building, walked around the Farmer’s Market there and had some ice coffees looking out at the Bay Bridge. 

Walked past the Exploratorium after visiting their shop, dropped into Levi-Strauss Building to learn a bit about the history of blue jeans, ascended the 389 steps to Coit Tower and took in the murals there. On to the best-kept-secret of Jack Early Park, to the house on Lombard Street where Jimmy Stewart took Kim Novak after she jumped into the water, now partially ruined by sour owners blocking the façade with a wall. Walked by a wedding at the North Beach Church where Marilyn Monroe and Joe Dimaggio didn’t actually get married, but pretended they did (look up the story), had lunch at Mario’s Cigar Box Café and coffee at Café Trieste. A quick peek into City Lights bookstore and ready for the next chapter of the tour.

Which brought us to Chinatown, peeking into stores with herbs and food products we had never seen and almost having some puer tea at one (will save it for another time). Then to Washington Square Park, where a woman sang some Chinese songs accompanied by six musicians on Chinese instruments following a numbered notation. Then back up to Grant Street where there was a Lion Dance in front of the Wok Shop. All the drummers and cymbal players were young woman and some of the dancers as well. Yeah!! That was refreshing. Up the hill to the Fairmont Hotel, a look at the apartment building in Vertigo and then up 23 floors to the Crown Room, a room theoretically closed to the public, but the elevator took us there and we had the place to ourselves to look out at the stunning views. A quick peek into the Tonga Room, the bar with its Polynesian décor, pool of water and boat where the musicians play. On to Grace Cathedral, enjoying the sacred indoor space and then walking the labyrinth where so many visitors have walked with me. 

9 hours out in the city, probably some 10 miles of walking, good food and great company. Fernando and Menchu are two of the most cultured and educated people I know and their knowledge mixed with their curiosity brought new dimensions to everything we saw and experienced. Can we Americans finally agree to educate ourselves beyond the bare minimum of pop culture, sports figures, cool aps and movie stars? What a difference that would make. In everything. Politics, aesthetics, level of public discourse, quality of life. 

Tonight we’re off to sing Sea Chanties. Tomorrow, Dim Sum, more Vertigo sights and back down to Carmel Valley. I have loved teaching these 29 Level III students and believe I have given them the usual 150% of myself. But truth be told, this was just the kind of break I needed after almost 30 days of teaching in four courses. Time outdoors, desperately needed exercise, two friends instead of 100 people in close quarters and re-connecting with the city I still love. Just what the doctor ordered!

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

William Carlos Williams Updated

Wi-fi is pretty spotty in the hotel where I’m staying and more times than I’m happy about, that blue line won’t move and I can’t get online. And so I bring poet William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) into the modern world:

So much depends


a thin blue line

moving to the right

of a white bar.  


A student in the course I’m teaching told me an extraordinary story. In his home country of Chile, there was a survey with the following question:

“You are offered a higher salary in your job. You can choose between $5000 more which all of your colleagues will also receive or a $1000 more which only you receive.”

The vast majority chose the latter. 

This pervasive need to be better than your neighbor, to be ranked higher whether you deserved or not, was the cornerstone of slavery and a larger part of Trump being elected. Poor white people who had more in common with the oppressed blacks were purposefully duped by those in power into thinking that they were on the team of the oppressors, given a token amount of privilege to feed an identity based on a illusory superiority. It worked brilliantly and still does. But at such a cost.  The recent terrorist who shot two innocent children whose parents brought them to have some fun at the Gilroy Garlic Festival was reading the white supremacist literature and buying the assault rifle the NRA provided in the name of freedom. 

An overlooked book titled “Somebodies and Nobodies” added rankism to the list of damaging isms and one that cuts through them all. Of course, there will always be hierarchies and when they come from earned accomplishment— the master musician or the wise elder—they are necessary and life-giving. But the idea that one’s identity is based on feeling one inch taller than your neighbor is death-dealing, both literally (the Garlic Festival) and spiritually. “I am the chosen one and all the ‘others’ are doomed for hell” is good for exactly no one. 

Meanwhile, in some village in West Africa, it was said that some Westerner organized a contest amongst the children and told them whoever ran to the tree the fastest would get a prize. The children joined hands and ran together to arrive at the same time. Without being overly romantic and ignoring the rankism that certainly exists there, I do believe that there is a spirit of community togetherness that we would learn from. The crazy Gods of Western civilization threw down Coke bottles into every town and hamlet and people are still fighting to claim it as theirs and theirs alone. 

Let’s train the children to take the $1000. Or better yet, consider if they deserved it all. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Verdi Nightmare

At 7:45pm, I was frantically getting ready to go to a Verdi Opera in San Francisco where I was the featured piano accompanist. The problem was: 

• The Opera started at 8:00 and I wasn’t dressed yet or hadn’t eaten dinner.

• I had never played for an Opera in  my life.

• I didn’t know this Opera and had never heard or seen the music. 

• I was concerned that I might be sight-reading a musical interlude as a featured soloist.

• I was worried I’d be accompanying an Opera star trying to follow her fermatas—again, with music I didn’t know in the slightest. 

• I forgot my suit and was frantically looking through my closet for something presentable to wear.

• A bus passed by outside and publicly announced the opera with a  loudspeaker that blasted “featuring Doug Goodkin on piano.” 

• It was now two minutes to 8 and I  had yet to leave. 

And then…

I woke up. 

Monday, July 29, 2019

Deepening Roots, Spreading Branches

Ending the World Music Course on Saturday and beginning the next course on Sunday was hardly conducive to reflection about another year around the sun. But the short story is this: 

Growing older with intention, awareness, still-intact curiosity helps send the roots of this old tree yet deeper into the ground. The darkness and grief there turn out to be life-giving and appear as necessary companions in life’s journey. The tree is anchored yet more solidly and the underground springs soak up through the roots to the branches. And the branches themselves keep reaching for the light and spreading out further. I couldn’t help but notice and feel blessed by the Facebook birthday greetings coming from around the U.S. and Canada, from Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, Iceland, Finland, Spain, Germany, Turkey, Russia, India, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and beyond, all (well, many) of the wonderful folks I’ve had the pleasure to meet and work with in my world travels spreading the good news about Orff Schulwerk. And then the in-person birthday songs from the 100 international teachers gathered here in Hidden Valley for the annual Orff Certification course. 

Everyone knows about the trials and tribulations of aging, the failing, sagging body, the diminishing of powers and such, but health permitting, the joys and pleasures are many and they’re real. Not to be lightly traded for the young, sexy body, which isn’t an option anyway. So hooray for 68 years old and no better birthday wish than to keep sinking the roots yet deeper and keep reaching toward the light. 

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Chocolate, Socks and Books

Had an early family birthday celebration with my wife, daughter, sister and husband, nephew and fiancé and a few friends. At my age, don’t really expect gifts any more, but I got some. And they were perfect!

Two dark chocolate bars. Always welcome.

Socks. Long in need to these!

Books. Still a staple in my diet, though getting close to the end of bookshelf space. Read and recycle is the key. 

A great early start to my 68thyear!

The Virtues of Fidelity

Many persons have the wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose. – Helen Keller

I am living testimony to the virtue of staying the course for the long haul. Especially if it’s a worthy one that requires constant renewal, effort, intelligence, imagination, dedication, sacrifice and the constant blessing of the energy that cycles back. 

I also can testify that the idea of unseen helping hands and mysterious forces at work is real. Like the other night when a friend I’ve known for 44 years appeared with a gift— some 5 handwritten letters my wife and I had written him 40 years ago on our trip around the world. He had saved them, was now cleaning house and chose this particular moment to return them. 

Needless to say, I was stunned. Because the first one I read was one I had had written near the end of that trip living in Surakarta, Java. It was all about the merits of immersing myself in new culture and what it meant to be as an emerging teacher. To quote: 

I can’t imagine a year better suited than this one for our development as teachers. Since school represents to me the propagation of a ‘new’ culture, this year of observing and experiencing so many different cultures has allowed a clarity and understanding of culture in general, our own in particular and alternative education’s role in shaping and transforming the presently emerging culture. 

 Since I was in the midst of teaching a course on World Music and began by suggesting that we all benefit, teachers and students alike, when we immerse ourselves in diverse cultural experiences, the timing was uncanny. The next day, I read the above to the class, showing them that at a young 28 years old, I was already convinced that this was important and beginning my journey into making the “other” my own. 

But I was yet more stunned to read the next section, especially in light of the fact that three weeks from now, I will beginning my last of 45 years at the school. 

The other day we went to use the swimming pool at a fancy hotel in town. We had it all to ourselves and as we floated around in the pool surrounded by lush tropical plants, the day, like most of them, our own to do as we will, we reflected on being back in the city, getting up early, running out of the house, driving thru morning traffic, spending the day with over 100 high-energy children with barely a moment to go to the toilet, running errands or going to after school meetings, squeezing in interests like piano practice, weaving or taking classes in the evenings etc. etc. It all sounded pretty crazy to us in that moment of poolside luxury. 

But we were smiling inside because we knew that that craziness is our life and that we love it. That school is our swimming pool, the kids, parents and teachers beautiful tropical plants that give out the oxygen we need to breathe. 

 Isn’t that remarkable? 40 years later, that oxygen still sustaining my life. My fidelity to a worthy purpose has indeed brought—and continues to bring—true happiness. 

Friday, July 26, 2019

Missing Limbs

“What skill don’t you have that you wish you did?”

This was the topic for our Men’s Group discussion and I was stunned by the answers. Each of the nine men, who have been meeting together for 29 years, surprised me by their answers—almost all had to do with music. They told stories of failed ventures with piano or guitar and mean or unhelpful music teachers and at the end of the day, being left with the feeling that they couldn’t express themselves musically and they regretted it. Some part of them longed to be able to participate in this human faculty that was been so neglected or wrongly transmitted in our culture. Like they were missing a limb. 

Naturally, my response was: “I’m going to give you an Orff class!” In all these years of meeting, I did something like that once with Boomwhackers and had I known their secret hungers, would have done many more. But it’s never too late to have a happy childhood, so I’m looking forward to the future music class. Ironically, most of them had children I taught for 11 years who left school with a musical foundation far beyond their parents. And I’ve taught a few of their grandchildren. But now it’s time to help heal their music wounds and give them an opportunity to join the music club. (After all these years, I wonder: "Why didn't they ask me sooner?")

Even my answer was mostly music-related. Three things I wish I could do better:
1.    Partner dancing—swing, salsa, ballroom dancing etc.
2.    Snare drum technique
3.    Accents.

Of course, I’m utterly incompetent fixing a car or doing the plumbing in my house, but I don’t care. Happy to pay someone else. Meanwhile, people pay me for getting their musical engine running and all pipes connected. But I’ll give this Men’s Group class for free.

Capstones and Stepping Stones

When I’m teaching, occasionally sentences escape that feel perfectly formed and important. I had the good sense to write this one down.

Every new piece of knowledge is a capstone to all previous knowledge and a stepping stone to the next. 

Not earth-shaking, but a good reminder that when we teach with a purpose and a trajectory and through-line, we introduce key skills and concepts that gather everything we learned into a clear and coherent summary. A capstone is literally a stone placed on top of a wall to complete it., a final decorative touch that completes a building or monument. Hence, many universities offer things called Capstone Projects as a terminating thesis that integrates and summarizes all previous knowledge. 

But that stone then becomes a stepping stone to bridge the known and the unknown, the firm ground from which we learn the next necessary piece of knowledge. In the course I’m teaching now, I’ve introduced a powerful concept called the trichord, three notes in a row like do-re-mi or re-mi-fa etc. I chose melodies in the diatonic modes that are based on sequences of trichords to demonstrate how they work. The trichord then becomes a guide in improvisation. As we learn piece after piece, the trichord becomes more and more familiar and we grow comfortable with its expressive power, learn to recognize, begin to use it effortlessly in our improvisations and compositions.

But then the next step is to put it into a new context and show how it works in the harmonic context of I, V, and IV chords. Now it has a different function and our learning is enlarged by taking something familiar and applying it to something new. This is how we grow. 

Seems obvious, but often teaching can feel like a shopping trip to the mall, picking up this item and that item to put into our grocery cart, but without any connecting thread or direction. Or if we’re a music teacher, we’re given a mere one class a week where we can’t get any momentum going and it becomes a kind of entertainment of glorified babysitting. (Indeed, in New South Wales, Australia, music teachers have been called RFF’s—Relief from Face-to-Face for classroom teachers. Aargh!!!!). 

I talk a lot about our daily Singing Time with all 100 of our elementary students and note that learning some 150 songs makes it possible for the next song to be learned more quickly and expressively. The kids develop a storehouse of melodies from which the brain can draw when it encounters the next song, noticing what is familiar and what is novel. If there is no storehouse, then everything is new information. If the storehouse is filled with the same 10 songs, the possibilities of recognizing patterns is diminished. And so with every new song learned, our previous experience of how melodies worked is affirmed and becomes a stepping stone to the next new melody. Capstones and stepping stones. That’s how we learn. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Two Limes and a Lemon

Today the pleasure of singing songs, playing games and playing powerful music from Zimbabwe, Netherlands, Ghana, Uganda, Philippines and Japan, with my colleagues in the other rooms visiting Venezuela and Indonesia. Radical healing work that invites the participants to consider whole new ways of organizing sound, bringing new rhythms and melodies into their bodies and breaking the illusion of “the other,” exposing the lie of “us and them” and bringing it all together into “we.”

Then home to make a watermelon salad with some gazpacho, corn and chicken sausage. The salad has cucumber, mint, feta cheese, a touch of arugula and of course, watermelon, but when it came time to consider the dressing, my wife reminded me: limes. Which we didn’t have. So I walked the block and a half to my corner store and lo and behold! There they were. For $1.50, I walked away with two limes and a lemon, a pleasant short conversation with the Ethiopian storekeeper and the sense of gratitude that this sweet little corner store has weathered the onslaught of the large corporate markets and has faithfully served us since we moved here some 37 years ago. The walk instead of the drive, the exchange with someone who recognizes me, the sense of supporting small business— one of those little things that adds up to a quality of life far beyond the Costco run to the mall in a car. I like it and am grateful.

Perhaps I should have learned an Ethiopian song for tomorrow’s class?