Thursday, September 12, 2019

8:42 Thursday Evening

It was a long day at school. Full day of classes and then an afterschool 90 minute first rehearsal with the 38 Middle School kids preparing for the Orff Conference Concert in November. The office told us we missed the deadline to order dinner with the rest of the staff, so had to drive off to a taqueria and get back by 7:20 for the Back to School Night with parents. We did and I finished my last presentation around 8:35. I was anxious to get home and thought, “Hey, it’s Thursday night. Shouldn’t be any traffic on the freeway.”

When there’s not—and when exactly is that again?— I can be home in 12 minutes. So I got on with high hopes that were immediately shattered by the long line of red brake lights ahead of me. Once you’re committed, nowhere to get off and take short-cuts that makes sense, so I sailed a long at a speedy 11 miles per hour for several miles before it finally opened up. 

So San Francisco, here’s my question. At 8:42 on a Thursday night, where the hell is everyone going?!!! I mean, really?!! Too late for post-work rush hour, no ball game or big concert downtown that I knew of, no one goes to the movies anymore and no one’s going out of town on a Thursday night. So again, who are you people and where are you going? Did you all do Back to School Nights?

Well, I’m home. Note to self: No more city freeway if you have a choice.

The Most Beautiful Music

I’ve heard a lot of beautiful music these past few days. Ahmad Jamal’s concert at SF Jazz, Opera in the Park, some new CD’s I just bought (yes, I still buy CD’s—thank you, Amoeba Records!) But none more beautiful than what I heard this last Tuesday:

15 minutes of me demonstrating to the 8thgraders the new information they needed to move further down the path of understanding and playing blues— and not a single whispered side-conversation or sound from nervous hands or comment on whatever I just said. Just 15 beautiful minutes of rapt silent attention listening as if their lives depended on it. 

As a teacher at a school where children often think what they have to say is much more interesting and important than that which the teacher has spent a lifetime preparing, where the filter between thought and mouth is virtually non-existent and anything you say is occasion for blurting out some random spontaneous association (“Cat Anderson played trumpet?  have a cat!!!!”), where kids born with channel-changing remotes in their hand have trouble focusing on anything for more than 4 seconds, this was indeed a miracle. So often I feel I’m swimming upstream against the current of distraction and I know it wears me down and can be exhausting. What if every class could be like those 15 minutes? Was this a plot to get me to stay another 45 years at school? Or at least 10?

No need to question. Just enjoy it while it lasted. 

And I did. And I told the kids. Who went on to play some fabulous music. 

Monday, September 9, 2019

More (Then) Than You Can Imagine

I have been working off and on for a full year trying to gather my thoughts for my ninth book, TEACH LIKE IT’S MUSIC: An Artful Approach to Education. I spent Saturday entering the changes from my thorough and meticulous copy-editor and then went through it all again this morning. Three times. And STILL found little mistakes!!! Some missing end-quotes, a few misspelled words, using the wrong word (“then” instead of “than”), finding inconsistencies (book titles italicized some places, underlined others). It simply is extraordinary how much the human eye and mind can miss and just when you think you’ve finally got it, well, there’s another one. Writing a book is hard!!

But though I care greatly for accuracy, grammar, spelling, punctuation and such, at some point, one just has to say, “I did what I could. And at the end of the day, its it’s the thought that counts.”

Of course, it doesn’t help that English is the most maddingly confusing language on the planet—it’s/ its, there/their/they’re, where/wear, etc. etc. and yet, again etc. I’d say about 50% of my good friends speak English as a second language and my admiration for them has increased a thousand-fold.  

At any rate, the punch line is that I was so happy today to send this off to my layout person!!! Still the cover art and design to do, but am hoping that the presses will start rolling soon and I will soon hold this baby I’ve carried for at least six years, when I first began writing down some of the ideas. These fly-by-night blog posts are fun to write, but there is a deep satisfaction from the kind of attention I gave each chapter, paragraph, sentence, word in this ambitious project. Hopefully in six weeks or so, I’ll show you pictures of the baby.

Until then, I have classes to prepare. 

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Useful Advice from Today's Opera in the Park

“Don’t accept gambling advice from the ghost of someone you killed.”

Keep it in mind. You never know when it might come in handy.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Reverse Lion Dance

We all seem to agree that rituals and ceremonies are both needed and welcomed at life’s big moments— births, graduations, weddings, funerals and more. And in some cultures, they extend that idea to the opening of a new business. Like China, for example. At the grand opening of a store or business office or school, the lion dancers are invited to mark the occasion and bring good luck and fortune. There were lion dancers at the re-opening of the De Young Museum in San Francisco and we hired some to open our National Orff Conference that we hosted in San José back in 2007.

But what happens when a store or business or movie theater or school closes? Is there a comparable ritual marking of that moment? For all the people who were regular customers, for the neighborhood, for the store owners, isn’t this a death of sorts that is worthy of some public ceremonial farewell? I say yes and yet, I can’t think of any such thing anywhere that I know of. If people pass away without a funeral or memorial service, if there is no proper moment of mourning, it is said that their spirit wanders like a ghost, not of this world but not able to fully transition to the next world. Might the loss of places and businesses echo this sense of non-closure? Could there be some kind of reverse Lion-Dance to thank them and wish them well as they move on, a time for people to gather and share stories of their first date in that movie theater, the fun family dinners in that restaurant, the hours of pleasure spent browsing that bookstore?

Change is the way of the natural and human world and it is inevitable that the things we once enjoyed and even loved have a certain longevity and then close. But wouldn’t it feel good to do more than exclaim, “Well, that’s a bummer!” have a way to process the feelings of loss? Again, I say, “Yes.”

This on my mind because I rode my bike on Haight-Street and saw the big EVERYTHING MUST GO!! CLOSING SALE!!! sign on the Haight-Ashbury Music Center. My reaction was immediate: 


I’ve been a loyal customer since it opened in the mid-70’s, back when it was called Chickens That Sing Music. They’ve supplied my school’s music program with all sorts of instruments, repaired our drums, sold our special vibraphone mallets and with a remarkably consistent group of workers who I came to recognize. Especially the owner, Massoud. I didn’t have time at the moment to pop into the store and get the story, but found a newspaper article in which Massoud said he works every day except for three and hasn’t had a paycheck in five years. He explained:

"The demographic of San Francisco has changed a lot. A lot of our customers have moved out because the tech people have moved in and they can't afford it here anymore. Tech people don't seem to support local businesses — they like buying everything online."

Well, here’s the second post in a row noting that this truth is really starting to hit home. It pisses me off and at the same time, here I am writing a blog post made possible by the tech industry. We support it in a thousand ways and then it bites us back. Aargh!!

I propose a gathering of musicians outside (or inside) the store on closing day to sing it off properly to the next world. Have some time for testimonies, bring some rubber chickens to sing music (or a real one to sacrifice?) and hey, why not Lion Dancers going backwards out of the store? 

Meanwhile, Haight-Ashbury Music Center now joins the ranks of my dearly missed San Francisco places— the Surf Theater, Uncle Gaylord’s ice cream, Fleishacker pool, Aquarius Records, Stoyanoff’s Greek restaurant, Narai’s Thai restaurant (and recently Tep Nam), Heidi’s Bakery, Le Video and so much more. Thank you for your service and know you are missed! 

Thursday, September 5, 2019


I almost bought a house yesterday. That was different! A darling cottage across the street behind the buildings was up for sale and my daughter needs a house where extravagant rent money doesn’t keep pouring out.  So why not buy one for her?

So I dove into the strange world of real estate head first and frantically signing things against the high noon deadline, made a bid. I know the owner. He’s a neighbor who has come to our house for Christmas caroling and went on a bike trip with my wife and friends in Germany. He made it clear at the outset that he wasn’t going to sell the house cheap to friends, so I not only went through all the formal steps, but put in a bid $140,000 above the asking price. And wrote him letter telling him how much my daughter loved it and how wonderful it would be for all of us to have her back in the neighborhood across the street and how fabulous it would be to support a dedicated teacher doing beautiful work with children and make it possible for her to live in the city of her birth. I suggested that if the bids were close together, wouldn’t he please take this into account and added a photo of our family in front of the school.

At 6:00 pm last night, after frantically signing paper after paper, I asked my real estate broker if signing all this last minute things meant we were still in the running. Her reply? “Yes you are!” That exclamation point got me excited thinking that maybe this would actually happen! 

And then 30 minutes later I got the call. Someone came in with an astronomical bid and my neighbor accepted it. Beat out by mere money. The dot-com takeover of my beloved city suddenly became real. And it’s folks like my neighbor that let it happen. Fact is he has three other condos in front of the cottage for sale, so there really is no reason whatsoever to take a reasonable way over asking price bid from a neighbor with a good relationship over an anonymous buyer who has more money. And yet he did. 

Well, I guess money talks louder than decent neighborly relations and I don’t like hearing what it’s saying. But hey, my daughter and I are rich in the way things count—with relationships, with worthy work, with attention to beauty. As Bob Marley says, “Man, some people are so poor all they have is money!”

Still it would have been nice to cultivate those rich relationships with a wonderful meal in that cozy cottage.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019


One of the many pleasures of hosting the four Interns studying our Orff program at school is getting their fresh perspectives on both the school and the city. And American culture. Our Intern from China asked me yesterday, “What is Labor Day?” and usually quick to answer any question, I had to pause. “Hmm. Well, I think it must be to honor the working people of the country, but truth be told, there are no rituals, ceremonies, parades or such that I know of that help us all be more aware that we should constantly thank the steelworkers, farmers, truck drivers, factory workers and such that make it possible for us to drive a car to the grocery store and cook with pots and pans. And I know May 1st is International Worker’s Day, so I’m not sure why we have two such holidays (though only Labor Day is a national holiday with the day off). Mostly Labor Day means it’s the end of summer and school is beginning. Well, it used to be until schools started earlier and earlier in August—including my own. It theoretically could also be thanking our mothers who endured a painful labor to give birth to us, but that’s reserved for Mother’s Day.”

In short, I was faking it and later, had to go to the old reliable Wikipedia to get the real story. It made me wonder how many holidays we celebrate with little or no idea what it’s about. Wouldn’t it be good to review the real story of Columbus? (And then wonder, “Why are we celebrating this brutal, brutal man and his legacy of white supremacy?") How many know the origins of Halloween? Again, shall we reflect on the real deal with Thanksgiving and learn Squanto’s actual story? How many kids these days really know what Christmas purports to celebrate beyond the pagan act of decorating trees and kissing under mistletoe and a jolly fat man buying us Nintento XII? And what’s the Easter bunny have to do with Pontius Pilate? 4thof July? Shall we re-read the Constitution and the Bill of Rights? And so on. 

The Labor Day story is actually quite revealing— a drama about greedy industrialists exploiting men, women and children and the patriotic folks who resisted. It’s a story worthy telling and why not introduce children—and adults—to Mother Jones, Eugene Debs and more? 

And so, instead of me re-retelling the story here, your homework is just a Google click away. Be prepared for the moment when someone asks you—“What is Labor Day, anyway?” 

And there will be a test.  

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Opening the Windows

It’s September and in San Francisco, that means summer. I’m writing this dressed in shorts and the sun is shining. After a Sunday bike ride and Farmer’s Market,  I entered my house and noticed it felt a bit stuffy, stale air with nowhere to go but hang heavy in each room. So I decided to do something I almost never do—open every window in the house and let the breezes blow! I can feel them as I write and house seems happy, breathing again. 

Isn’t that a good idea? With minds and hearts as well as houses. We spend so much time cramped in our own familiar rooms without even noticing the fusty and musty air of our thoughts and feelings. Why not open the window? Let a fresh breeze blow, hear the bird in the tree outside, maybe even stand there and greet a passing neighbor? There’s nothing wrong with our house that we’ve so carefully furnished and decorated, but no matter how lovely, we could all use some refreshment. The open window is a good metaphor for more inspired music-making, feeling the given notes as the brick and mortar and then daring to improvise a bit beyond the given, open the window to new ways to phrase or express the familiar, new ways to re-compose the rhythms and melodies handed down. That’s the secret of the perpetually renewed artist, keeping the shades up, at least some windows open and being attentive to what blows in on the breeze.

At the other end, we often have this mania for constant change these days. Gandhi famously said, “I keep the doors open to the winds of all cultures, but I refuse to be blown off my feet by any of them.” So many schools have opened the windows just a bit too high or at the wrong time and the winds of the educational-fad-du-jour blow all the worthy papers off our desk helter-skelter. Like everything, there is an art to window-opening. When to do it, how many to open, how often and for goodness sakes, not during hurricane season or in the midst of blizzards! 

Today is just right for my house and the air is delicious. Happy September!