Thursday, December 3, 2020

Flowers for Princess Di

Princess Diana died on August 31, 1997 and Mother Teresa on Sept. 5, 1997. Guess which one got the most media coverage?

 

And so I never followed the Diana story, not interested in playing into the rich and privileged star celebrity culture. But having just watched Season 4 of The Crown and Diana: In Her Own Words, I’m fascinated by her story. It really was a fairy tale life, not in the superficial sense the media means it, but in a deeper mythological vein. 

 

Consider: She was the youngest daughter in the Spencer family. In the fairy tales, it is the youngest one who is set apart, who accomplishes the needed tasks the older ones often fail to carry out. She recounts that she always felt herself apart, with some intuitive sense of a great destiny awaiting her. 

 

Meeting Prince Charles was a bit like Cinderella at the ball. Of course, the Spencers were royalty and she was not shoveling ashes, but she was living with roommates and working in various low-paying jobs (like teaching!). 

 

After the marriage, the place where most fairy tales end, is the moment where hers begins. She is like Rapunzel locked in the tower of Buckingham Palace, the Queen and the Royal Family not intentionally mean to her, but unpracticed in offering welcome, love and support. Including her emotionally-arrested privileged husband Charles, more interested in polo than exploring a deeper humanity. She is like the neglected step-daughter, thrust by circumstance into a new life that becomes unbearable. In the midst of riches and fame and fortune, she feels yet more isolated, more lonely. Like Cinderella weeping at the hearth, she sits at the toilet vomiting, her unhappiness manifesting as and driven home deeper by bulemia.  

 

Each day she is attacked, not by monsters shooting arrows, but paparazzi shooting photos. Each and every flash of a camera bulb sends a wound to a soul that only craves a human-size privacy. Alone and unloved inside the palace, assaulted by cameras and cheers outside the palace, there is nowhere for her to be, to fully breathe her authentic self. 


She soon discovers that breaking through the wall of adoration, connecting in short bursts of person-to-person humanity with the screaming, adoring throngs brings some comfort. Simple acts like taking someone’s camera and taking a picture of them or hugging a boy sick with Aids moves her out of the Ice Queen role the public expected and allows her to feel a bit more of who she is and could be.

 

But then the backlash. Now she is even more excessively adored and the cameras and crowds multiply. And inside the palace, her husband is jealous that she gets more attention and turns his own to his long-standing mistress. Having two children has its healing moments—she genuinely loves and adores them and hugs them and tells them so. But now post-partum depression is added to the bulemia, isolation and media assault. Kids, be careful what you wish for—being a princess is no fun!

 

Back a few posts ago, I wrote: All wisdom traditions agree that the light shines through the cracks in our armor, that our wounds are the entry points to our larger selves. Betrayals in the human world are often necessary to the soul’s awakening. 

 

And so it was with Diana. Prince Charles seemed stuck in his small world (though to be fair, would be interesting to hear his side of the story), but in the midst of this relentless and deep suffering, the woundings from being unloved by the immediate family and overloved by the media-soaked crowds let some light into her soul’s calling. She throws herself into working with those wounded literally by land mines and Aids viruses, especially the children, and uses her fame and privilege on behalf of them. She becomes a sexier, more glamorous, but possible equally important and effective Mother Theresa, not in spite of her fairy tale life, but because of it. 

 

Then from the fairy tale to the Greek/ Shakespeare tragedy. She became affectionately known as Princess Di and add an e to that and you can see that it was not going to end well. That the very thing that haunted and stalked her her whole life long was following her through that tunnel with cameras poised to shoot and that the driver’s careless mistake trying to flee them became the tragic flaw that led to her death. (Interesting enough, she was buried with a rosary in her hand that Mother Theresa had gifted her. Yet more proof that this was a story that had to be.)

 

The thousands of flowers placed in front of Buckingham Palace by her mourners at her funeral were testimony to an impact that began from superficial star worship and moved in the course of her life to soulful human appreciation. 

 

This little piece is my own offering, a small bouquet of flowers to a fellow human being who suffered greatly and worked with her wounds to bring some light and healing to the world. 


R.I.P. Princess Di.



Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Divine Rights

The jazz pianist Art Tatum. The British royalty Prince Charles and Princess Diana. The German philosopher/poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Today’s assignment—make a connection between them. 

 

• Art Tatum was a virtuosic jazz pianist who astounded everyone—including other virtuoso pianists like Vladimir Horowitz— with his impeccable technique, clear tone and dazzling imagination as he improvised instant re-compositions of jazz popular songs. Thanks to Norman Granz, he was sufficiently recorded to leave behind an aural legacy of his genius. Yet he never performed in Carnegie Hall, there is barely any film footage of him and he spent most of his professional life performing in nightclubs with audience members talking while he played. When he died in 1956, his savings amounted to $6000. Every jazz musician knows his work, but it is unlikely that more than 2% of the American population knows who he was. 

 

• Prince Charles is the eldest son of Queen Elizabeth who married (and later divorced) Diana Spencer, known later to the world as Princess Di. When they married, tens of thousands of people lined the streets cheering in festive revelry as if the Golden State Warriors had won another NBA Championship or Joe Biden had won the election. When they traveled to Australia, the streets were again lined with thousands and thousands of adoring British subjects. While watching those scenes recently in The Crown and later Princess Diana: In Her Own Words, I couldn’t help but think: “All that attention—for what? What had they done other than be born into a royal family and played polo or put on a nice hat? Without having had to accomplish a single noteworthy thing (as Art Tatum did), they simply rode on “The Divine Rights of Kings” that convinced whole populations that what the royal couple ate for breakfast was worthy of front page stories.” (This was well before Diana actually had done some good works and revealed a humanity that touched people). 

 

• And Goethe? When I turned my calendar page to December, this was the quote:

 

“So divinely is the world organized that everyone of us, in our place and time, is in balance with everything else.”   

 

So Art Tatum is graced with a divine spark of genius that he meets head-on and cultivates through hours and hours of disciplined practice and then generously shares with the world. Prince Charles inherits a human-fabricated mythology of the divinity of royalty and does little to meet it beyond showing up for the newspaper photo. 100 people in a club pay scattered attention to Art Tatum, 10,000 people in the street cheer for Prince Charles just because. What’s wrong with this picture?

 

But Goethe suggests we all have the possibility of participating in the divinity of the world, that it is not enough to ride on the coattails of the stars and celebrities, but watch for our own place and time and understand that each person’s divine spark is in balance with all others. 

 

Stay tuned for more on Princess Di. 

Monday, November 30, 2020

The Three Levels

Do you know people who have gone through this life unscarred by disappointment, by unfairness, never having felt unseen or unheard or unknown? If so, I’d like to meet them!

 

A simple survey of any random ten strangers on the street in any neighborhood worldwide would be testimony to this simple truth—no one gets through this life or year or heck, sometimes even a day!—without feeling wounded in some way. Life’s arrows, be they intentionally aimed or randomly fired, eventually hit us all. 

 

If we accept this truth—and really, what other choice do we have?— the first question becomes how we read what happens, what stories we tell that help make sense of it all. I’ve found it helpful to look at this from three distinct perspectives, three layers of storytelling. 

 

The first is political. Analyzing what happens sometimes reveals socio-political forces that drive things to happen in predictable ways based on the logic of previous assumptions. Rather than read an incident as a personal attack, it becomes understood through the lens of these assumptions, the long line of isms that passed on beliefs and ideologies that harmed and hurt. Take your pick. In this case, we become victims of forces beyond our control, hurt simply because “that’s the way it is” regardless of how we act or treat others. In short, the people causing harm are upheld by institutions that give them permission. 

 

In child’s terms, this translates as “That’s not fair!!” In the adult world, it’s called injustice.

 

The second is psychological. Here we analyze what our part in the drama is, what we did to attract hurt or invite it. Did our resistance to our father’s authority spill over to our boss? Did our protection of our mother cause our later relationship to go awry?

 

In this paradigm, “analysis” means analyzing the emotional patterns that move things in certain directions. By becoming aware of the patterns, we can both understand and possibly avoid the behaviors that cause hurt and harm.

 

The third layer, the one often least considered and the hardest nut to crack, is mythological. All wisdom traditions agree that the light shines through the cracks in our armor, that our wounds are the entry points to our larger selves. Betrayals in the human world are often necessary to the soul’s awakening. 

 

So now comes the second essential question—which story are we in? Jacob Blake, shot seven times and paralyzed by police officers protected by our history of white supremacy, does not need to talk about his mother and father issues. Identifying the political forces behind the atrocity is necessary to stopping the violence.

 

The next time your boss puts you down, some astute psychological reflection may help you understand how you play into the dynamic. Is it his issue or mine or both and if so, how?

 

As you add up the litany of wrongs from childhood to yesterday, mythological thinking may help reveal a pattern that closed door after door so that the right one could finally open. At the human level, your “it’s not fair!” self might still whine a bit, but your deep self, your Soul is celebrating—“Okay, now we can get to work.”

 

And finally, the third question. Having considered these three stories, named the one most relevant to the situation, how do we respond? We might re-commit to our work in social justice while fine tuning our emotional intelligence and at the same time, start to consider the bigger picture. Our wounds are not just our wounds, they’re everyone’s. Yes, the particular nature of our particular wounds are important, but ultimately it’s the universal fact of woundedness that we come to grips with and the hard, hard truth that none of it is fixable. But it all can move toward healing when we accept it as our soul’s work. We learn to sing with it, dance with it, play with it, sit with it, walk side-by-side with it. If we’re lucky, we come to ultimately forgive and even thank the people who wounded us.  

 

As you can see, I’m still working this out. Hope something is of interest to someone somewhere. 

Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Good Ole Bad Boys

Youtube is a marvel. Each week preparing for my Jazz History Class, I discover another treasure. The most recent was a celebration of Duke Ellington’s 70thbirthday at the White House. The year was 1969, Richard Nixon was President and this was one of the first times that notable jazz musicians performed here. From the Whorehouse to the White House was the path of racial progress precisely in Duke Ellington’s lifetime. 

 

Joining Duke were other luminaries like trumpeters Clark Terry and Dizzy Gillespie, pianists like Billy Taylor, Earl Hines and Dave Brubeck, Milt Hinton on bass, Louis Bellson on drums, Joe Williams singing and yet more. None of the black musicians had to come in through the back door, in fact where announced like royalty as they stepped from their cars. In various combinations of musicians, they played many of Duke’s signature tunes, took a break and had a snack—all together, blacks and whites eating food in the same room. When they came back, the floor had been cleared for dancing and the played some more, and some, like Duke, also danced. 

 

Finally the moment came to award Edward Kennedy Ellington with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of all he did to bring happiness to people in the United States and the world at large. Nixon himself presented the award, with some elevated speech about the importance of what the award represents, Duke met the occasion with his own eloquent statement about the four freedoms—and then kissed Richard Nixon on the cheek. Four times! Nixon then went to the piano and played Happy Birthday while all sang along. 

 

Now let me be clear. I have no love—and never had any love—for Richard Nixon. When he finally left the White House in disgrace, I was in a bar in San Francisco cheering. He was the President I protested against in my first anti-war demonstration in 1969. His involvement in Watergate felt like an outrage. He initiated the War on Drugs legislation that helped create the school to prison pipeline for young black men. His association with the McCarthy anti-Communist hearings back in the early 50’s did little to earn my respect. 

 

But here he was honoring and kissing Duke Ellington! And talking about freedom and overcoming prejudice and honoring this American art form called jazz by bringing it into the White House and giving Duke the award. This was a different sort of human being altogether from the present incarnation of the Republican Party. 

 

And then going to my trusty source (ie. Wikipedia) to re-gather some information, I found some other surprising sentences. (If this were a term paper or a public speech, yes, I would research more. But meanwhile it’s just interesting to read the following):

 

• In early 1957, Nixon undertook another major foreign trip, this time to Africa. On his return, he helped shepherd the Civil Rights Act of 1957 through Congress.

 

• In 1960, Nixon narrowly lost the election; Kennedy won the popular vote by only 112,827 votes (0.2 percent). There were charges of voter fraud in Texas and Illinois, both states won by Kennedy. Nixon refused to consider contesting the election, feeling a lengthy controversy would diminish the United States in the eyes of the world and the uncertainty would hurt U.S. interests. (Is our current Toddler-in-Chief reading this?)

 

• In his victory speech in 1968, Nixon pledged that his administration would try to bring the divided nation together. Nixon said: "I have received a very gracious message from the Vice President, congratulating me for winning the election. I congratulated him for his gallant and courageous fight against great odds. I also told him that I know exactly how he felt. I know how it feels to lose a close one."

 

• In his inaugural address, which received almost uniformly positive reviews, Nixon remarked that "the greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker"— a phrase that would later be placed on his gravestone.  He spoke about turning partisan politics into a new age of unity:

“In these difficult years, America has suffered from a fever of words; from inflated rhetoric that promises more than it can deliver; from angry rhetoric that fans discontents into hatreds; from bombastic rhetoric that postures instead of persuading. We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another, until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices.”

 

None of this casually excuses the bad decisions Nixon made, but it does paint a portrait of a more complex human being than Mr. T, gives a picture of a flawed man who did some honorable things, admitted mistakes (see the David Frost interview) and genuinely cared for his country beyond his own personal power. On his worst day, he was light years ahead of the narcissistic psychopath so many chose to define and represent our country on his best day. (And was there a best day?)

 

But despite Trump's predictable inability to concede, to congratulate the winner, to encourage unity, to consider how his actions diminish our national character, he’s heading out and there’s hope we can return to the worst amongst us at least having some of the qualities of the man who kissed Duke Ellington in the White House.

 

Now go watch for yourself and enjoy!https://youtu.be/jW9PdAY8_D0

  

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Another One Bites the Dust

Back in the 70’s and 80’s, each December I would go to Mt. Baldy Zen Center near L.A. and spend seven days in an old Boy Scout cabin sitting still with pained legs trying to breathe my way back to some Original Buddha Nature. It was a marathon-style challenge, but you emerged from the silence (no talking for a week!), the physical pain, the mental self-doubt, feeling more vibrant and alert and alive then you ever normally do. 

 

And it was in this state of mind that I would return to San Francisco and often go to Cost Plus to shop for Christmas gifts. From the austerity of rocks and pines and silence to the cornucopia of things to buy, the bustling store, the bright lights, was quite a transition, but weirdly kind of fun. Cost Plus is where my wife and I bought our first Christmas ornaments (probably around 75 cents each and we still use them!). It was here that we could find things imported from the countries we had recently visited around the world— Indian bedspreads, Turkish throw rugs, Indonesian angklung, alongside food and spices. (My last visit to Cost Plus was back in January when I bought some Vegemite!).

 

And so the other day, we chose the Fisherman’s Wharf area for our new tradition of exploring (or re-visiting) another neighborhood in San Francisco. We decided include a stop at Cost Plus in search of papadums and a little nostalgia invoking that holiday shopping we used to do all those years back. As we turned the corner to face the store, we were surprised to discover that it was gone! Empty. No sign saying “thanks for all the years” or “we’ve moved.” Nothing.

 

And so invoking Queen’s song (my shameless attempt to attract more readers), there’s another icon of our San Francisco life gone. Joining the Clay Theater, Art’s CafĂ©, Louis’ restaurant near the Cliff House and other long-standing SF memorable places. If those years at Mt. Baldy taught me anything, it was learning to accept impermanence, the inevitable rise and fall of people and places and even whole cultures. But one should never do it casually. If you have loved something long, it is worthy of notice and some measure of grief and loss. And so this farewell to Cost Plus (yes, I’ve heard there are others in the Bay Area, but it’s not the same) and thanks for all the years.

 

Now, moving on…anyone know where I can buy some papadums?

Friday, November 27, 2020

Cranberry Sauce

I love cranberry sauce. But I never eat it more than once a year and you guessed it, at Thanksgiving. In our family tradition, I’m the guy who makes the cranberry sauce and how I look forward to those little bursts of the red berries as they boil and putting it out on the deck to cool and checking in to see how it congeals. 

 

So when my daughter hosted this year and said she would make it, I was a little put out. Of course, it’s the simplest recipe in the world, there was no fear that she would ruin it and it felt like some inevitable passing of the baton to the next generation, so why not? But when we arrived at her house (outdoors, of course) and the dishes started coming out, cranberry sauce was not amongst them. Apparently, she had changed her mind, put it on my list of what to bring in a somewhat long e-mail and never alerted me otherwise. I hadn’t read the whole e-mail and so the unthinkable had happened— a Thanksgiving meal without cranberry sauce!

 

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is precisely what any teaching worth its salt teaches— be open to outcome, but not attached to outcome. By all means, make plans but be prepared to change them. Decide what is essential and ready to let go the rest. 

 

And so I ate my first Thanksgiving meal without my beloved cranberry sauce.

 

And it was delicious.

 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Call and Response

“… the world, moist and beautiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That's the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. ‘Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?’” —Mary Oliver

And as this blog testifies, my daily answer is “Yes, I would.” But unlike Ms. Oliver, who started each day walking in the woods and marveling at the miracles of frogs, bugs, flowers and trees, my calls tend to be from e-mails, news items, books I'm reading, occasionally the night’s dreams. And then my responses (thank you, Blogspot!) have a place to land rather than circulating aimlessly in my mind. The last Post was prompted by a Facebook message from an old student, this one from another Facebook message from a teacher who took my Jazz Course in New Orleans last summer. She wrote: 

 

 “Presently, I am attending a professional development session on Racism. I am so grateful for our honest conversations, experiences and shared time where we explored this issue in a safe environment. Just wanted to take the time to say thank you to Doug for the opportunity to learn together and for all of you for sharing your time and experiences.”

 

And I wrote back:

 

“Thanks for your note! Talking about racism and social justice in the context of Jazz is a double-win— learning the necessary and important stories for us to understand our own history deeper alongside the beauty and triumph of this great music! Grieving for the world that has been and exulting in the new world we’re building, one based on the practices of a good jazz band—deep listening, responding , finding the next needed notes with a flexible mind well-practiced in improvisation, balancing our unique expressive self in our solos while celebrating our collective connected self in the ensemble passages— and all of it swingin’!”

 

 Ain’t that the truth. I keep coming back to Wynton Marsalis’s profound observations:

 

“Jazz is what American could become if it ever became itself.”

 

Without playing a single note on a single instrument—though a good idea to consider!— we all of us would benefit from living the jazz life. Not the late night drinks and smoking kind, but cultivating the ability to both call and respond. To the different qualities within ourselves, to the people around us, to whatever the world throws at us each morning. To constantly create— and re-create— a new version of our self that brings more intelligence, more beauty, more happiness to each and every moment. 

 

PS Pasting Ms. Oliver’s quote from a Website, I noticed that the font was one I had never used—Georgia. In honor of the political moment we’re in, I’m publishing this post in this font, responding to the call in this quirky way. Go Georgia!

 

 

Letter to My Colleagues

I had a lovely lunch outside with my two Orff music teacher partners-in-crime the past 30 years or so and came home to a message from a former student mentioning all three of us (note the proper us of the word AMAZING!). And so this Thanksgiving note to them both.

 

Dear James and Sofia,


So nice to sit together again yesterday. I came home to this note that I wanted to share with you. 

 

“It’s been such a long time but I hope that you and your loved ones are doing well in these crazy times. I woke up this morning and was reminded of my time at The San Francisco School and of course one of my greatest memories from my childhood and time there was the music program with you, James and Sofia! It’s crazy to sit here and reminisce because when you’re a kid, you’re having so much fun and taking all of this music and experiences in, but it’s not until you’re older that you really appreciate it all and you realize how AMAZING it was that you three were able to have a whole ensemble of children execute so many different types of pieces of music, all of the performances… everything! I just wanted to reach out and say thank you! For some of the best memories of my life. I’m sure many feel the same. Take care!”

 

The sheer number of kids who could write this same letter, the large number of those who have written similar ones, is AMAZING!  Ha ha! Actually, it kind of is. I think many people in their chosen profession have never gotten or will ever get a letter like this, never mine a few hundred to them. Of course, I hope they do and it's not a number's competition, but amidst the stories of packing up instruments in the rain at midnight after the Spring Concert, writing the play scripts on the plane home from the Conferences, fighting, fighting, fighting to be true to ourselves even with our own people and Orff organizations,, there is the simple fact that we have been blessed to do work that brings joy and happiness to children that follows them long into their adult lives (my 60 year old students I touched base with the other day!).

 

So no better time than Thanksgiving to be thankful for the work that chose us, the school that in spite of all, sustained us and left us alone to work our magic and mostly supported us to do it yet better and further and wider, the kids that came so eagerly to our classes and (mostly) left happier than when they walked in and then the cherry on top— the rare, rare gift of doing it all together, not only at school, but in Carmel Valley, Salzburg, Thailand, Ghana, AOSA Conferences and beyond and doing it for so long and doing it with so much fun together and love and admiration for each other's work— well, that is indeed something to be thankful for, tomorrow and each and every day. We stay loyal to that which keeps the needed conversations growing ever-larger and that's a good description of our intertwined lives. May it continue!

 

Love from your grateful colleague,

 

Doug 

Monday, November 23, 2020

The Mathematics of Astonishment

This is the month of miracles. Each day, I get another lesson in the mathematics of astonishment. The cornucopia of almost a half-century of harvest is overflowing with fruits and flowers and each one delicious. No peasant finding a god’s face clearly marked in a tree trunk could be more overwhelmed by it all than I am. 

 

And so yesterday’s lesson: what is the sum of 8 miracles x 1? Get out your pencil.

 

1) A lifetime ago, I arrived at a Quaker Boarding School in the North Carolina mountains and before I was gifted with a named path called Orff, already had the sense that making music with these middle school kids was important for them and me alike. 

 

2) And so I started a jug band based on nothing but listening to a Jim Kweskin record and some blues and ragtime piano chops in their infant stages. 17 of the 30 kids in the school and three other teachers joined up and figured out how to organize some semblance of coherent sound on spoons, washboards, kazoos and even a trumpet mouthpiece. 

 

3) Near the end of my 6 months there, I single-handedly organized a two-week tour of the South with nothing at my disposal but some addresses and a few phone numbers. No e-mail, no text, no cell phone. Using just dial phones and stamped letters, I contacted some 15 different places—alternative schools, community centers, a radio station, churches and more— to house us and host our performances in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee. I was 21 years old. 

 

4) I also rented an old school bus, was allowed to share the driving with one of the other teachers (none of us older than 24), loaded up those seventeen 12-14 year old kids, helped organize the food and set off. For two weeks. With no cell phones. No thick notebooks of signed legal documents. Just trust in our abilities to pull it off, the guidance of fate and the kindness of strangers. 

 

5) I reunited with many of these students some eight years at the school’s 50thAnniversary and some semblance of that Jug Band performed again (minus the other three teachers). Almost everyone remembered all of the tunes and at least some of the words. In some attic somewhere, we found an old group journal we kept and laughed about sentences like this: “Doug picked up six hitchhikers yesterday.”

 

6) There has been a core of about six of the students who mostly have kept in touch with each other throughout the years and a few that I’ve maintained some kind of contact with. But no one had been in touch with one of the teachers these last 48 years and only a few with the other one. The third teacher had married one of the students!

 

7) A few nights ago, I had a dream about two of the students and got in touch with one feeling the dream was trying to tell me something. In the course of writing to her, I got the idea of a Zoom reunion. She got out her e-mail list and last night, we had a two-hour reunion which could have gone on four more. It was the first time that all four teachers and these six students who represented some core spirit of the school had been in one place together since almost a half-century ago! Each one told some of their life story, I screen-shared some of the old photos from that time, and then we sang some of the songs—mics off, of course. One of the teachers said that this was the happiest moment of the entire past year for her and another eloquently spoke about how singing two notes of these songs was like smelling your favorite cookies in Grandma’s kitchen, instantly transporting him back to that more innocent and most joyful time.

 

8) After that delightful reunion, I turned to my nightly reading (A Gentleman in Moscow) and within twenty seconds, came upon this paragraph:

 

When you reach our age, it all goes by so quickly. Whole seasons seem to pass without leaving the slightest mark on our memory…But even as the weeks go racing by in a blur for us, they are making the greatest of impressions upon our children. When one turns seventeen and begins to experience that first period of real independence, one’s senses are so alert, one’s sentiments so finely attuned that every conversation, every look, every laugh is writ indelibly upon one’s memory. And the friends that one happens to make in those impressionable years? One will meet them forever after with a welling of affection.

 

This is the time in a live class when after telling this story, we would sing “Old Doc Jones” and find out who believed it. “Thumbs up” means that every single detail has to be true. 

What do you think?

 

You’ve noticed my recent posts about the inflated use of the word “Amazing!” and now prepare yourself because the real truth, the no-kidding-every-word-truth is…

 

Thumbs up.

 

And that, my friends, is amazing.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

How Else Can We Do This?

(An article I wrote for the local Orff Chapter. Don't think many of those folks follow the Blog, so I'm also posting it here.)

 

Whether I’m planning an Orff class for kids, an Orff workshop with adults, playing a familiar jazz tune or imagining a social policy, this is the motto that guides me. It has kept my work fresh and new for over 45 years, kept my music constantly interesting (to me, at least!) and given a certain freshness and vitality to all aspects of my life. 

 

In the face of crisis—and that’s clearly where we all are now—it also has proven to be a handy companion and a useful discipline. It’s a question that helps keep things moving, keep things bearable, that opens the door to a new perspective and sheds light on the possible renewal just around the corner from the collapse.

 

Like all of us, I have always planned ahead “as if” what I plan can actually happen— and it almost always does. Until now. Everything changed on March 16thwhen school announced we would be closing for a few weeks. A few weeks? Little did we know. The pandemic clearly had other plans. 

 

And so as each plan became a provisional possibility that never happened, I turned to my companion question: “How else can we do this?” Now it was not just a luxury that made music classes more intriguing, more interesting, more satisfying—it was the necessary question that determined if and how I could continue with the things that had sustained me throughout my many long years of teaching. 

 

“How else can we do this?” I suspect you know the first answer— ZOOM!! Whoever could have imagined I would turn to a technological solution as the savior? But so it was. Zoom allowed me to finish the last three months of my 45 years teaching children at The San Francisco School. Not the way I would have wished, of course, but still a chance to keep the connections built in the Fall and Winter continuing through the Spring. And what of my annual Summer teacher-trainings? Zoom allowed a version of Orff-Afrique, my Jazz Course and many courses from the SF Orff faculty to sustain us through the summer. Zoom allowed me to “go to” St. Louis, Little Rock, Canada, New Zealand, Russia, Armenia, Ukraine and beyond to keep some connection minus the hand-held circles, singing in canon, dinners out and immersion in different cultures. 

 

“How else can we do this?” Back in April, I started an Alumni Zoom singing, gathering the “kids” now 30, 40 and even 50 years old together to sing the old songs, many with their own children on their laps. We did this once a week for some three months and it was also here that I put together a slide show and got to give a sort of farewell speech to the people, kids and former teachers, who had lived that life together at the SF School. The Alumni Sing continues, now once a month and my alum “grandkids” are learning a lot of the repertoire their parents did.

 

“How else can we do this?” Since my wife worked (for 42 years) as the art teacher at The San Francisco School, my daughters Kerala and Talia attended school for 11 years each and Talia now teaches at school in her 10thyear, I had always hoped my grandchildren could go there and I could be their music teacher. But San Francisco is an expensive place for an alum from our school to live, especially since we told them to follow their bliss and not care about money! So with my grandchildren Zadie and Malik in Portland, Oregon, the best I could do was to an occasional guest class at their wonderful local public school whenever I visited.

 

Until now. With Zoom, I’ve started a weekly singing time with Zadie’s 3rdgrade class which looks like it will continue throughout the year. Isn’t that a pleasure? We’ve sung getting-to-know-you songs, Halloween songs and recently, songs about food to lead us to Thanksgiving. I get to teach my granddaughter after all!

 

“How else can we do this?” Zoom was not the only answer. Knowing that it was safer to be outside six feet or more apart, I began a neighborhood singing time on the street and sidewalk. In the Spring, we gathered twice a week for about 45 minutes, took a break in the summer and resumed in the Fall, now once every two weeks. It is mostly the neighbors with kids ranging from 2 to 10 years old, neighbors who didn’t know each other before this, but have certainly come to enjoy each other now. One definition of community is a group of people who know the same songs and that is exactly what we’ve become. Drawing from my repertoire of over 200 songs that I’ve done in our daily Singing Times at the SF School, I’ve shared some of the greatest hits that are just right for the different ages of kids. Songs with motions, songs with a lot of repetition or choruses to join in on (no printed words needed), songs for different occasions (lots of protest songs, recently Halloween songs), clapping games (to be played just with the family members) and even dances adapted for the situation. Turns out the kids—and adults—are pretty good singers so at least a few times a month I can actually hear songs sung in canon or in parts! (None of which works on Zoom!) 

 

 “How else can we do this?” With legal pressures being as they are, my casual neighborhood solution of singing outside properly distanced probably can’t happen at school. And isn’t that a shame. But while we wait for the vaccine and proper leadership to control the pandemic, why not get together your own neighborhood sing? And wouldn’t it be wonderful if such things could become a new cultural norm of the future, not depend upon pandemics to organize? We are made to gather, to sing our pleasures and sorrows side-by-side or square-by-square together. Be in on Zoom with folks far-away or out on the street with your neighbors, the songs goes on. 

Friday, November 20, 2020

It's Over Now

Imagine if every day at school or work, some bully sitting next to you keeps poking you over and over again. One day he’s absent and you realize what a relief it is not to be constantly poked and prodded. Not only a relief from the pain and annoyance of these violations of your body, but a relief from the anticipation of when the next one will come, from having to recover from the bruises where the last one was. And if the bully is finally expelled or moves away, you realize that you can relax your clenched body and get on with your life. 

 

That’s what it feels like to me knowing that four-years of constant jabbing and pinching and punching is finished. It’s over now. But not quite. So I offer what will hopefully be my last re-active song parody inspired by Carmen Macrae’s version of Thelonious Monk’s composition Well You Needn’t. Listen to her version first and then substitute my words: https://youtu.be/qYADfnI-iSs

 

You say you weren’t beat, well, you needn’t.

You’re tryin’ to cheat, well, you needn’t.

Can’t admit your defeat, well, you needn’t.

It’s over now, it’s over now.

 

You’re re-countin’ the votes, well, you needn’t.

You’re pullin’ our coats, well, you needn’t.

You’re singin’ wrong notes, well, you needn’t.

It’s over now, it’s over now.

 

It’s over now, it’s over now,

You had your fun, so take a bow.

You lost the lead, Dems did the deed, time to concede, get outta town.

Take the blow, it's time to go, let's close the show down.

 

You’re cryin’ “fake news!”, well, you needn’t.

Not tyin’ your shoes, well, you needn’t.

Lyin’ “Didn’t lose!”, well, you needn’t.

It’s over now, it’s over now. 

 


Thursday, November 19, 2020

Miracles

 

Moses parting the Red Sea. Jesus turning water into wine. Buddha standing up and taking seven steps immediately after his birth. These minor miracles don’t interest me at all.

 

But the one I experienced today confirmed, as many similar miracles have before, that this world is mysterious, unfathomable and there are unseen hands and unheard voices guiding us in their own inexplicable way. Not with bells and whistles and visions of the Virgin Mary and oil lasting beyond its normal shelf length. Smaller, more intimate, less world-shattering and more, “Well, isn’t that interesting?”

 

Like this morning. For decades, I have woken in the morning and gone straight to the meditation pillow to ease myself into the day with good posture and attentive breath and the sense of awakening with the dawn. Lately, I’ve noticed that those slyly evil voices of the electronic Sirens trying to lure me to my doom have been succeeding a bit, as I sometimes check my phone texts or e-mail or Facebook before sitting my morning zazen. But today, I passed them all by and while sitting on the cushion, tried to recall a haiku that expressed the proper order of things in a life well-lived. And thought that perhaps later I would search for it.

 

Meanwhile, it would have been my Dad’s 102ndbirthday today and to honor the occasion, I was curious if I wrote anything about his last birthday on earth back in 2006. So after zazen, I found that year’s journal and lo and behold… (Hollywood-miracle-approaching-movie-music here)… it opens with that very haiku!!!!! 

 

These are the kinds of miracles that interest me. Two seemingly random thoughts met and appeared together in the full depth of some mysterious connection. A world that appears to be random and chaotic and utterly incomprehensible reveals these hidden links that thread together. 

 

And the haiku? 

The messenger

Offers the branch of plum blossoms

And then the letter. 

-      Kikaku

 

Nature first. Take in the color, the fragrance, the beauty and then—and only then— turn to the world of human affairs. Smell the flowers, then read the letter, respond to the letter. And then get out of the house and observe yet more miracles— the leaves following their appointed schedule of turning colors, the rain returning to relieve the thirsty grass, the simple fact of being alive to witness and partake of it all. The miracles that count. 


And now, to my mail.

Reversing the Ratio

“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.”                           – Michelangelo

 

Having just come from my 38th  Orff Conference (and the first Virtual one), I couldn’t help but notice in the chat comments all the affirmations—"Wonderful!  Amazing! Love you!” There is this effusive, overflowing, gushing sense of affirmation in the Orff Community, people who feel they’ve found the El Dorado of adult professions constantly reminding each other of how wonderful we are, how wonderful the Orff approach is, how wonderful it is that we get to get up and move like chickens or make bird sounds on recorders or play xylophone improvisations with no wrong notes. 

 

And it is. All of that is great, as far as it goes.

 

But I couldn’t help but feel a little discomfort that we were in a constantly self-affirming cultish kind of loop and that our rush to affirm and celebrate each other and our work has perhaps tipped too far. Yes, I prefer it to mean-spirited criticism, cutthroat competition and people stepping over each other to climb up some ladder of success, But might swimming in the sound-bytes of superlatives with multiple exclamation points  weaken our sense of muscular criteria for what is truly worthy of admiration and appreciation? Might we be rushing too quickly to praise and sidestepping constructive critique? Might we be diminishing the meaning of applause if we give a standing ovation to the orchestra simply for picking up their instruments and playing the first five notes without a mistake?

 

In my book Teach Like Its Music, I have a chapter about the importance of Repetition, Repetition, Repetition, Variation. There is no exact formula, but one commonly found in music is the 3 to 1 ratio:

 

Skip, skip, skip to my Lou.

Skip, skip, skip to my Lou.

Skip, skip, skip to my Lou.

Skip to my Lou, my darling.

 

On the other side of “Fantastic!” is “Nicely done, but have you considered this?” “Okay, but that section needs some re-thinking or further practice.” “Hmm. How can we do this better?” The thoughtful inhale is as important as the exuberant exhale and indeed, perhaps more so. Our 3 to 1 ratio seems to be “Amazing! Amazing! Amazing! Is it possible to consider how can we do this just a little bit better?” What if we reversed it? 

 

“How can we do this better?

How can we do this better yet?

How can we do this even better?

Nice job.” 

 

Perhaps an occasional “Amazing!” for the fourth line, but I suspect that if we’ve paid close attention to the details and worked hard to craft our lesson, we wouldn’t feel it as “AMAZING!” but simply as the natural result of work well done. The “awesome/ amazing/ incredible” exhalations are confessions of sorts that we are overcome with your genius as a teacher because we have no idea how you did it. And that means we can avoid considering the steps and simply admire your innate talent or charisma, worship and adore you in the celebrity sense and excuse ourselves from finding our own genius. Of course, coming from a culture that daily gives over our innate power and beauty to “the stars,” be they entertainers, athletes or politicians, it’s no surprise that this leaks into every corner of our collective life. And so it takes an extra bit of awareness to avoid that trap. 

 

So the next time you say “Wonderful!” after a workshop, remember Michelangelo’s quote:

 

“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.”

 

and reverse the 3 to 1 ratio.

 

Work

Work.

Work.

Praise.

 

PS: I worked really hard on these thoughts. Aren’t they wonderful?!!!!!