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.