Thursday, July 9, 2020

In the Torrent and Out the Door

Just spent another four days partly on the screen, this time a gathering of Orff teachers from around the world, many of whom I had taught or taught with. Still amazes me how much those small faces in the squares can warm a heart.
But part of this gathering is about a divisive Hatfield/ McCoy type feud and yet another reminder that if the best people I know in the world can’t get along, who can?!!! But that’s simply the human comedy and tragedy. But a group of opposable-thumbed bi-ped large-brained creatures together for a while and the very infinite combinations of neural connections and heart-feelings are bound to bump into each other and cause some bruising. To say the least. 
And so I’m reminded of Goethe, who said that talent is formed in solitude, character in the world’s torrent. What we say and how we say it and who we say it to reveals our character and as we’re buffeted about, we hopefully learn how to navigate the storm with greater and great integrity, honesty and compassion. Or not.
But I can’t think too much more about this because after staying within the confines of the 49 square miles of San Francisco for four months straight, I’m gettin’ out of Dodge!! So weird that me with my Million-mile flight club (I know, nothing to brag about in terms of consuming the earth’s resources) hasn’t packed a suitcase in a full third of a year! But takes only two minutes to get back into that frame of mind and remember what I consider essential to bring—and if I was wise, reduce it by a third! (I’m not wise.)
Took one more bike ride around the old city and sat to finish my handwritten journal, somewhere around my 24thsince I began in 1973. The last ten or so have been almost exactly in two-year cycles, always beginning wondering how I’ll end and who will still be by my side and what I will have done. And then ending by answering that question. 
Now back to packing and up and out early and may the travel gods be with us, the masks sturdy and used in the states we pass through, the weather beneficent and the grandchildren well-behaved. More to come.

Why We Come to Orff Workshops

It really is noteworthy that the people in my profession give up so many Saturdays and weeks in summer to come to Orff workshops and courses. Why would they do that? What are they looking for? What do they hope to come away with?
As an invocation before a recent online workshop, I made a list. Partly to clarify what I thought those things were and partly to see if they could actually still be accomplished in an online format. (Good news—they can! Some certainly in a diluted form and some maybe even more so, for example, as we spend more time than usual with music theory and/or pedagogical reflection.) Orff teachers, see if this resonates. Those in other fields attending conferences, see if they hold up in your experience. And interesting that almost all of them also resonate with why I might go to a jazz concert, what I might expect and why I might be satisfied or disappointed. Here’s the list: 
1)   Material: The Orff teacher is a lifelong collector of repertoire and workshops are the place to shop. When participants leave with material they can’t wait to try out on Monday—games, songs dances and more— they feel that their time was well spent.

2)   Process: Orff Schulwerk offers more than just the material—it shows models of both the many different ways one can teach it in an engaging, surprising and effective way and the many ways one can extend it and have the students create something new—improvise new melodies, compose new accompaniments, choreograph a dance, the whole limitless possibilities of “What can we do next?”

3)   Understanding: Music holds a vast storehouse of specific knowledge—techniques, theory, stylistic considerations, histories. If a workshop offers new insight as to how music works, it enlarges our understanding of what’s important to know and teach.

4)   Affirmation: “Yes! I do that!  I had doubts as to whether I was on the right track and here is this famous teacher doing the same thing!” We hope that the workshop participant comes away with :some sense of encouragement that their intuitive way of working is actually grounded in deep pedagogical principles and is within their reach. 

5)   Challenge: “Hmm. I never thought about that.” Or “A-ha! That’s the detail I was missing!” If a workshop is only affirmation and no challenge, one gets complacent. If only challenge and no affirmation, one gets discouraged. Some balance, some sense of “I can do that!” mixed with “Back to the drawing board—I better get to work!” makes the whole effort to attend a workshop worthy of one’s time. 

6)   Inspiration: The beckoning finger of someone further ahead on the path is often the impetus we need to keep walking. The details that they reveal that we might miss walking on our own, the secret beauties they show us, the testimonies and living examples of how this path has sustained them, blow new breath into us (the etymology of in-spire) and help us feel more alive and determined to keep moving forward.

7)   Connection: One of the central delights of Orff workshops, conferences, courses, is simply to be in company with people who share similar experiences, passions and ways of being in the world. And sharing ideas and material and understandings as well. The act of singing, dancing and/or playing music together with fellow human beings is one of the simplest and most powerful means of connection, that deep longing that we all equally share to feel that we belong, that we are needed, valued, welcomed members of a community. And yet music teaching in schools can be a lonely profession as we walk into the staff room with no other music teachers to share our day’s stories with. Simply to connect with each other in the workshop is often enough reason to attend and then richer still as fellow teachers share their successes and challenges. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Do Your Job

In my progressive school, we once had a workshop about understanding young adolescents. The presenter was assuring us that it’s normal and healthy for 12 and 13 year- olds to test us, to roll their eyes, to question us, to make foolish choices. And that’s true. But one very wise teacher said, “Yes, but what’s our job? We need to make clear boundaries, clear consequences, and clear statements about what’s acceptable behavior and what’s unacceptable.” 
And she was 100% right. That’s the push and pull of the dance and the young people are counting on us to carry our weight in the matter. But confused modern day parents often think that our efforts to understand these kids means we excuse them from it all. And so it continues.
It’s actually a school alum parent who wrote the book “Strangers in Their Own Land” as she sought to understand, as a radical Berkeley sociologist, why working class people in Louisiana would vote against their own self-interest. A commendable task and I admired her for the couple of years she took to live amongst them and talk to them and listen to their stories in order to understand them better. All well and good. 
But at the end of the day, these were people who refused to listen to the stories of black folks. Who resented being called out on their explicit and implicit racism inherited by generations of non-questioning acceptance of the honor and gentility of the Southern way of life. Who appeared to love their land, but let the corporations come in and destroy it. To tell you the truth, it really pissed me off, all this effort to “understand” people who as human beings, deserved understanding, but did not deserved to be excused from perpetuating so much that was destroying land, people and culture. Understanding their perspective may be a useful first step, but it’s the next step that’s important—educating them, inspiring them to educate themselves, not to prefer this candidate over another, but to really feel down to their bones the Golden Rule. Not to give them a pass on being a decent citizen just because they were friendly to a white liberal and nice to their dog. Because as the book White Fragility so clearly demonstrates, being a nice person who ignores systematic racism means that on some level, you're attending the picnic at the lynching party. 
So just like the parent/ adolescent dynamic, we need to ask, “What’s our job?”  and not apologize for being P.C. or arrogant. Some thoughts:
• It’s the job of adolescents to test us. It’s our job to set and enforce the boundaries.
• It’s our job to make purposeful and mindless hatred illegal, uncool and unacceptable.
• It’s our job to make ignorance shameful and not celebrate it.
• It’s our job to teach people to look behind the curtain and see the scared little men pulling the ropes of words like “Freedom! The American way! Honor!” to create illusory special effects. 
• It’s our job to include all voices and it’s the people speaking's job to have done the work to back up their point of view. 
• It’s our job not to normalize over 10,000 documented lies told by the leader of the land and to hold accountable the fellow politicians who support it, disguise, excuse or ignore them. 
• It’s our job to put on a f’’ing mask and stay 6-feet-the-hell-away and to make clear that this is not a personal choice.
And so on. Let's do our job.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Carl Orff Meets Little Sally Walker

“Search for that which joins us, understand that which separates us.”  —Carl Orff
Yesterday was my 2727 blog post (cool number!). Not all of it is about my life in Orff Schulwerk, but a good deal of it is, either directly or indirectly. Add to that another 100 or so published articles and contributions to 12 books and 9 books of my own and I think it’s safe to say, “I have a lot to say about the subject!”
Carl Orff, by contrast, wrote one book about his ideas, made scattered comments to accompany the five books of composed music for children and gave several speeches. Most of his book was about the story of how things came to be, so I think it’s safe to say that his direct words about the approach probably would fill no more than 10 pages. 
And yet. Each phrase, each sentence, each idea is so articulate and opens up to the 2727 plus expansion I’ve given it. I am always stunning by how succinctly he captures life-changing ideas in a few well-chosen words. 
And because there are so few of them, I’ve mostly memorized, or at least, recognized the key famous phrases. So imagine my surprise when I logged on to the first online International Orff Forum Meeting (usually held in Salzburg) and saw a quote I had never heard. It was like a Mozart devotee discovering an unpublished score or someone digging up an extraordinary Coltrane recording that had lay hidden in someone’s basement.
And with those words above, Carl did it again! Perfectly described my recent Jazz Course, in which we spent time looking at the examples of systematic racism purposefully perpetrated by those who stood (and still stand) to benefit and developing some understanding of how these evil, evil people have succeeded in separating us and continue to do so with 4thof July speeches at Mt. Rushmore and the daily spin on Fox Fake News. And at the same time, to feel uplifted by the music that grew like a lotus from that swamp and did—and does—the work of re-joining what never should have been torn asunder. 
I had already been thinking about this theme. Music teachers who sing saccharine songs about world peace and plea, “Can’t we all just get along? Kumbayah, my Lord, Kumbaya…” are na├»ve at best and help keep it all going by refusing to look at the dynamics of how all the “isms” work. Conversely, those who work tirelessly to reveal everything that’s broken (don’t get me wrong—worthy work!) often leave us feeling blamed, shamed, despairing and there’s no redemption to lift us up, join us together and inspire us to both move forward toward justice and savor the gift of each precious moment of life. 
And so we need both. Each jazz course usually includes singing and dancing this song:
Little Sally Walker, sittin’ in a saucer, cryin’ and a’weepin’ over all she has done. 
Rise Sally Rise, wipe those cryin’ eyes. Turn to the East, Sally. Turn to the West, Sally, 
Turn to the very one that you love the best.
You can’t rise up until you’ve gone down into grief. But don’t stay down there. Rise up. And then point to someone you love (ie, whoever you point to as you circle with your eyes closed) and invite them to join. 
And so Carl Orff found the words that have informed my teaching, my life, my vision of what’s needed. Worth saying again and in whatever walk of life you travel, think about how you can use this to give a worthy shape and meaning to your work. 
“Search for that which joins us, understand that which separates us.” 

Sunday, July 5, 2020

A Different Kind of "Enough"

Having been without so many things for so long, it’s a perfect time to say “Enough.”

Enough of too many cars driving to do too much work that brings too little pleasure and healing and help and beauty to the world for too many long hours. 

Enough of shoot-‘em up Hollywood Blockbusters teaching young boys to find power in guns and walled-off feeling, young girls to claim their identity through alluring sexy bodies. 

Enough of politicians doing whatever it takes to beat the other team without thought for the common good. 

Enough of citizens excusing them.

Enough of the big spectacles.

Enough of hours and hours and yet more hours tied to a screen. 

Enough of white folks thinking it’s just fine to not think about or talk about or educate oneself about race. 

Enough of plastic water bottles. 

Enough of crummy little plastic toys that no kid needs. 

Enough of you-know-who. Really enough. 

What’s on your list?

What Every American Needs to Know: Part II

A Cultural Literacy That Counts
It’s time for the new list of things that “every American needs to know.” The Jazz program I teach at my school and the Jazz Course for teachers that I’ve taught for over 30 years is based on two premises:

• Jazz is accessible for everyone to play if you understand how to present it. (These ideas summarized in my book Now’s the Time: Teaching Jazz to All Ages.)

• The history of jazz is a revealing look at the best and worst of our American history. By understanding what is broken by any standards of human decency by learning the stories within, around and behind the music, we can finally move towards a more just, inclusive and beautiful culture. 

I begin the jazz history by starting at the middle, not with jazz but with the upsurge of Rhythm ‘n’ Blues in the 1950’s and 60’s style that grew from early blues and jazz and went on to spawn 90% of the music kids (and adults) listen to today. From Buddy Holly to the Chuck Berry to the Beach Boys to the Beatles to James Brown to Bob Dylan, from the Comets to the Coasters to the Cream, from Elvis to Mick to Jimi, the 12-bar blues was a driving force in the soundtrack of those explosive years. How could Hirsch have overlooked this? How could no one notice that he did?

In the wake of George Floyd, perhaps we’re finally ready to look at those forces of purposeful ignorance at work, in the news, in the schools, in the culture at large. Black Lives Matter, the growing movement that has so many folks from all walks of life today out on the streets,  is about stopping the violence to black bodies that has been going on for centuries in this country. Violence that occurred habitually without accountability, with government approval and sanctioned by the silence of otherwise good-hearted white folks. What happened recently to George Floyd, Ahmaud Arberry, Breonna Taylor and others were not isolated incidents, but a logical continuation of the heartless murders by American officials that have been happening for a long time. It’s a systematic issue, not a personality issue, and it’s the system that we finally seem ready to look at and change. And that necessitates understanding not only the extremes of white supremacy, but the subtleties of white privilege, the things that inform E.D. Hirsch’s work. 

Black lives matter in another way—without the contributions of black folks, who would we be as a nation? The economic power we take pride in was built from a few centuries of free labor and still continues to go on in the new Jim Crow, as unjustly or overly-harshly imprisoned black folks are working for pennies in the prison system to make the next Victoria’s Secret undergarments. The moral power of America? I believe we would hold up Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King over Andrew Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest, George Wallace or Donald Trump. Sports? Are American sports imaginable without black athletes? From Jesse Owens to Jackie Robinson to Wilma Rudolph to …well, how much time do you have? Imagine the Golden State Warriors championship games without Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, imagine basketball without Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James and…again, how much time do you have? The white folks were trying so hard to hold on to tennis and golf and boom! here comes Arthur Ashe and Tiger Woods. Well, at least the whites have the art world to themselves and—oops! the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, Thornton Dial, Jean Michel Basquiat, earlier Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence. And on it goes with literature, theater, film, dance, dance and again, dance, science, politics (best President ever! Barack Obama!!!) and on and on and on. 

But when it comes to music—well, you better have a lot of time on your hands. Sit down and without looking up a single thing or talking to Siri, make a list of music you have listened to that is so much a part of your personal autobiography, your cultural identity, your memory bank, your capacity to feel joy and sorrow and love, that came from African-American musicians. In my lifetime of popular music, imagine if the radio stations had never played a single note of music by Fats Domino, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, the Coasters, Sam Cooke, Chubby Checker, Bo Diddley, Ray Charles, James Brown, Smokey Robinson, the Four Tops, the Temptations, the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Richie Havens, Taj Mahal, Sly and the Family Stone, the Isley Brothers, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Dionne Warwick, Tina Turner, Nina Simone, Earth-Wind-and Fire, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Beyonce—and on it goes into the world of Rap and Hip-hop. Not to mention Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Lightning Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Mississippi John Hurt, B.B. King, Big Mama Thornton, Etta James and dozens more blues artists.

The jazz list (for me) is yet longer and it’s simply unimaginable that America could have existed without Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Chick Webb, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Lionel Hampton, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Jo Jones, Teddy Wilson, Mary Lou Williams, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Hazel Scott, Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Clifford Brown, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Carmen Macrae,—still awake? And I’m only to the 1960’s.

Now if, for whatever reason, you think you’d be fine had all those mentioned had never played their music because you prefer white bands, of course, not a single one would have existed. Not Elvis, not the Beach Boys, not the 4 Seasons. Not the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or the Dave Clark Five. Not Led Zeppelin, Iron Butterfly or the Cream. Without the blues, there would have been neither  Rhythm nor the Blues in R &B. 

Essentially, the entire lexicon of American popular music simply wouldn’t have existed. Country music would have been quite different without the drum set and the influence of black music. Bluegrass would have been without a banjo, an African-American invented instrument. And jazz? No Benny Goodman, no Judy Garland, no Frank Sinatra, no Bing Crosby, no Dave Brubeck, no Bill Evans and so on and so on. You never would have heard of Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly and what would American movies have been without tap dancing, without the soundtrack of black-created music wedded with Jewish songwriters? And there’s more. Spirituals. Gospel. Clapping games. Unimaginable!

So the next time you find yourself dancing with abandon to —well, take your pick—or smiling with joy at the happiness of a jazz band swingin’ like there’s no tomorrow or digging down deep into your soul singing in a Gospel church, take a moment to think about who to thank and how you’re going to thank them. And may I recommend starting with hearing their story? Taking the time to know their story? The triumph and the brutalities. And then pass it on. To your neighbors, to the kids, to the people at your workplace. Next time the conversation in the teacher’s room lowers itself down to people taking about the latest aps on their phone or showing Instagram photos of their meal last night, jump up on the table and say, “Hey! Has anyone ever seen the Nicholas Brothers in Stormy Weather? Heard Big Mama Thornton sing Hound Dog? Check this out!” And then tell them to pass it on.  Most importantly, teach it to the children. 

On behalf of all the white folks I know (including myself) who have failed to properly acknowledge and thank these extraordinary people who suffered to bring us such joy, such inspiration, such revelation at what human beings can accomplish with a pair of tap shoes, two drumsticks, ten fingers, a basketball, an articulate tongue and piercing intellect and moral courage beyond our imagined capacity, I say “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” And again, thank you.

And Mr. Hirsch, I understand you are 92 years old now, but it’s not too late for you to take my jazz course. 

Saturday, July 4, 2020

What Every American Needs to Know: Part I

In 1988, a white Southern male university professor named E.D. Hirsch published a book titled: Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. His premise was that today’s students lacked the background information that is essential for coherent public discourse. That holding a common body of knowledge allows us to communicate essential ideas to each other. That such knowledge is essential to fulfill one’s responsibility as a functioning citizen in a democracy. He writes:

“Having the right to vote is meaningless if a citizen is disenfranchised by illiteracy or semiliteracy, Such Americans are condemned not only to poverty, but also to the powerlessness of incomprehension. Knowing that they do not understand the issues, and feeling prey to manipulative oversimplifications, they do not trust the system of which they are supposed to be the masters.…the civic importance of cultural literacy lies in the fact that true enfranchisement depends upon knowledge, knowledge upon literacy and literacy upon cultural literacy.”

Having recently seen college students at a university in Texas interviewed as to who won the Civil War and most unable to answer (though 100% clear about who Brad Pitt’s second wife was), having heard folks at a rally wave their fists in support of Space Force but unable to utter a single coherent sentence about what it was, having heard our President talk about Frederick Douglass as if he were still alive and claiming that the Continental Army took over the airports during The Revolutionary War… well, here were Hirsch’s worst fears on steroids. An ignorant populace led by an ignorant President without a trace of shame—indeed pride in—their ignorance. 

When I first read Hirsch's  book, I was already concerned about such spreading ignorance, the decline in reading, the rise of mindless of television and television itself headed towards cable TV’s 500 choices where no one can assume a large common audience (as happened when there were just three channels.) So it was at least interesting to consider that as a culture, we should discuss what felt essential to our American identity. 

But as I read on, the disappointment set in. From a music teacher’s point of view, there was so much left out. According to E.D. Hirsch, every American should know:

-   Donald Duck but not Duke Ellington
-   St. Nicholas but not the Nicholas Brothers
-   Andrew Jackson & Stonewall Jackson but not Michael Jackson
-   Jefferson Davis but not Miles Davis
-   The John Birch Society but not John Coltrane
-    Charles I but not Ray Charles
-    Billy the Kid but not Billie Holiday
-    John D. Rockefeller but not Rock ‘n’ Roll
-    Blue-chip stock but not THE BLUES!!!!!!

Meanwhile, there were 22 European Classical music composers listed and it was essential that every American child should know about opera and string quartets, should be able to identify an aria, a fugue, a sonata, a symphony. But the 12-bar blues, that powerful and influential musical form born and bred in the United States of America? Optional. Didn’t make the list. 

So when I teach the 12-bar blues to my 8th graders (something I feel is essential), I use this book as an example of an enormous deficit in our culture by asking these questions:

1) If you agree with the premise (as I did), who gets to decide what the 5,000 important things are? Wouldn’t it at least require a committee that included Native Americans, African-Americans. Asian-Americans, Latinx folks, women, poor people, rich people, middle class people, straight people, gay people, disabled people, artists, working class people, scientists, athletes, etc. etc?

2) Why did a straight white male feel that he had the authority to decide?

3) Why did the book become a National Bestseller?

4) And then on a deeper educational level, what changes by memorizing a list of 5,000 things that could help you win Jeopardy? What is the deeper story connecting them, the narrative that makes sense of them, the moral arc that leans them towards a renewed commitment to the justice promised by a democracy?

It would be easy to call E.D. Hirsch a fool, an arrogant elitist or a racist for leaving out the above black American heroes and musical styles as he did, but in fact he described himself as a “liberal, almost a socialist” and Wikipedia states that “over the years, he has expressed deep sympathy for underprivileged minority youths and has stated that he specifically designed a curriculum to ‘place all children on common ground, sharing a common body of knowledge. That's one way to secure civil rights.’ “

Why would he deprive these “underprivileged minority youths” of both the pleasure and necessity of knowing Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday? Why would he assume that other Americans can understand our country without knowing the stories of these two (and so many more) geniuses? Why would he think it more important that every American kid grows up knowing about the fugue, but not the 12-bar blues?

What first appears as cognitive dissonance— a liberal who means well omitting these keys to our culture—is absolutely consistent with our practiced ignorance and white privilege. He begins by assuming that his white male University privilege is sufficient to the task of deciding what is essential in American culture. He blindly trudges on without feeling the need to consult folks different from him as to what he might be leaving out. His editors at Random House don’t see the problem and nor do two hundred readers who sent in 3,000 additional suggestions for the second edition, 343 of which were added (but still not the blues). Then the book receives the cultural stamp of approval by becoming a national bestseller and spawning seven other best-selling spin-offs. (What Every Kindergartener Should Know up through 6th grade.) At every step along the way, you can see that poisonous underground stream of white privilege at work. Because it’s more invisible, it is more deadly than the roaring waves of White Supremacy, but both are driven by the same history.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020


                                                “Enough is a feast.”– Buddhist proverb

That’s the quote I read as I turned the page to my July calendar. It’s a good reminder.

Contrast that to billionaire John D. Rockefeller’s reply to a question about how much more money he thought he needed, about how much he thought was enough.

“Just a little bit more.”

And while I could rant on about our culture of unchecked greed and our Wall Street deep sickness of always wanting more, don’t we all have a little bit of Rockefeller inside of us?
Our marriage is fine, but still we find our eye roving. Our job is satisfying, but if only we had a slightly better schedule and hey, we wouldn’t mind a raise. We get enough people to mostly fill the concert hall, but why didn’t we fill all those seats? Never quite wholly satisfied, always wondering why our neighbor’s grass is a little bit greener.

Well, that’s certainly human nature and the fact is, to keep the show moving forward, we need to be fueled by desire, we steer the curvy roads of our life’s path by our drive to improve, we might enjoy a moment’s peace at the rest stop, but our relentless slight dissatisfaction with here is what gets us traveling to there. The irony is that once we arrive there, we start feeling restless again and without a well-practiced habit of savoring here, we’re off on the road again looking for the next stop to paradise.

In my own life, I am right in the middle of “enough is a feast” and “just a little bit more.” I have just enough fame and fortune to keep doing what I love to do—teach kids, teach adults, share music with folks, share ideas and experiences with folks (this blog/ my books), travel, eat well, live in a modest house is a lovely neighborhood, enjoy my kids and grandkids and on and on. But I’ll confess to that greedy part of myself that wonders why Terry Gross and Oprah don’t invite me for an interview, why my books don’t sell as well as John Grisham’s or even Daniel Pink’s, why my Boom Chick a Boom CD has not won a Grammy for kid’s music, why I’m don’t have an honorary doctorate and nobody invites me to give commencement addresses and so on. I love everything I’m doing, but can’t I get just a little bit more attention? A part of me keeps waiting for my ship to come in, but the fact is that it came to port a long time ago and delivered everything I need for my little paradise on earth where indeed, “enough is a feast.” 

This my confession as the month has turned and grateful that I could write it and you could read it and so happy to post this and then get on Zoom with my 45 students in the Jazz Course, followed by a leftover gazpacho lunch in the back yard on a sunny San Francisco day. Enough is indeed a feast—my mantra for July.

And yours?

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

A Taste of Walden

At the beginning of sheltering, there was a hilarious short video clip in which someone was explaining to a man: “You will be sheltering in place at home for a while and there’s two choices. Plan A is to be with your wife and family and Plan B…” The man quickly interrupts: “Plan B. Definitely. I’ll take Plan B.”

So here we are finishing the fourth calendar month of sheltering and I’ve been in Plan A, first with my wife, daughter and grandchildren for two weeks and then three months straight with my wife. We have been married 41 years now and one of the secrets of our longevity is a healthy dose of time apart. Throughout most of the four decades working together at school, I had Mondays off and she had Fridays off, giving us both a day alone in the house. Starting in the 90’s, I had anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks of summer courses. In the last 20 years, I’ve had anywhere from 6 weeks to 3 months off during the year and some of that was traveling and teaching—by myself. And then she started taking art classes in France, Maine or Morocco. 

So we’ve always had a healthy dose of time apart. Until now. My daughter invited me over for a Father’s Day dinner last week and my wife commented that it was the first time she ate alone since sheltering began. And now she’s backpacking with that daughter and I have the house to myself for three days. Amazing!!

Before my time in my personal Walden was on planes and in hotel rooms and it is rare that it is in my own house. But in either case, it’s time I need. To be the only mood in the house, to settle into one’s own rhythm with no interruption, to play piano without someone closing the door or having to negotiate where my online class is going to be. To choose the lighting, to decide the dinner and wash the dishes at my own time. No matter how lovely your relationship, this is just healthy. From both ends. 

And so here I am in my second day and night. Today was the second day of my online Jazz Course, so different from New Orleans last year, but still vibrant and fun. The lunch in the garden, the bike ride through the park, the gazpacho and salad dinner and some glorious time with Bach, Chopin and a few jazz standards. And then the silence and stillness in the house is yet another glorious musical harmony, a little piece of Solitude that Thoreau would have appreciated. 

And now July. July and August used to be the two months of deep summer uninterrupted by school, but in the past decade or two, the first day of school has crept further and further back into August. This year staff has to be back on August 12th!! Blasphemy!

But not me! Retirement for me is clearly a shift in work rather than the cessation of work, but the choice to make my summer exactly as long as I want and need it already feels like the first delicious taste of freedom. The freedom to be not be at the mercy of other’s decisions is one I already am savoring.

Of course, one is never wholly free. Our fake leader’s refusal to lead in times of crisis puts us all in danger from his refusal to be decisive about what’s so clearly needed and the incapacity of so many of our citizens to understand that “my freedom to extend my arm goes as far as your face” is the only kind of freedom we should be attending to. 

But for the moment, I am master of my domain and I refuse to let any more of these thoughts and complaints into my house for the moment. It’s a time to look back at June and marvel at what feels like a lifetime of events. The month began with my hour-long farewell slide-show/ songs/ stories to school, the closing ceremonies, graduation speeches, farewell to staff, my last report card, a last online alum sing and neighborhood sing. All of that already feels like a lifetime ago! Then three online workshops with Russia, two with Iran, one (just finished) about my latest book, one (in process) about my two jazz books. Not to mention the horrific and hopeful events around the country with more police brutality and more folks out on the streets for the right reason. Hard to remember the July’s of yesteryear with long days with the ice cream truck passing by, lemonades on the lakeside deck, afternoon swims and naps on the beach. Will the intensity ease up? We shall see.

But whether or no, my hopes that this new level of reflection and inward turning will continue, that we all will seek in our own way our taste of Walden to remember what’s important in this life, to observe, to partake, to savor, to be still, to breathe the fresh morning air and take time to watch the sun set, whether alone or in company with our loved ones. Grandson Malik’s 5thbirthday to kick it off, my 69thbirthday to close it out, we shall see what awaits. 

Monday, June 29, 2020

Invocation Before the Jazz Course

PAST: We are here by the grace of those who came before. In any form of significant community gathering, we not only thank them for the efforts they made to bring us here, but we bring them into the gathering as both participants and witnesses. We invite them to partake. As they have no bodies, we dance on their behalf. As they have no voices, we sing (and speak) on their behalf. We feel their presence in the present. As Bessie Jones tells it in her book For the Ancestors: 

       “When I’m singing something that my old fore-parents knew, if their spirits came around 
        me, I believe they’d be rejoicing. They would say, ‘That’s the song that we used to sing.’ 
      What we have to understand is that they’re here all the time. Not yesterday or tomorrow,     
       but all the time. And as long as they’re around me, I believe they’d be happy.”

Here is one of many ancestors whose presence I feel daily in my teaching, Mr. Avon Gillespie.


PRESENT: (Kofi Gbolonyo and family sing the welcome song Miawoezon).The present is the effort the people in the here and now are making to carry on the best the ancestors offered, to reach for the places they couldn’t reach and to clean up any mess they left behind. When the garbage is on your front stoop, you don’t ignore it thinking, “Well, I didn’t put it there!” You take care of it.
That’s what we’re here to do through the commitment implied by your presence here. We dedicate our time and energy and effort to putting the mess we inherited in the compost bin and growing some new hearty and healthy plants from the new soil. Specifically, we are here to consider how to bring jazz into our students’ lives in a way that’s understandable, engaging and doable,  to uplift them through great music and to begin to tell the neglected stories they need to know.
Here is one of many inspiring colleagues joining us in this moment, a man who I have learned so much from, whose wisdom, musicality and love come not only from his shining self, but is born from a culture of great beauty who has so much to teach us materially rich overprivileged American but spiritually poor underprivileged Americans. May I present Dr. Kofi Gbolonyo.


FUTURE:  To complete any gathering, we turn toward the future and begin to take the next needed step down the beckoning path. And so we invite the children into the gathering, feel their presence physically or imaginatively and dedicate our efforts to give them what they so deeply need and richly deserved. We give them the tools to be more kind, more caring, more intelligent, the things they need to become more fulfilled human beings and responsible functioning citizens of the future. We send them off as messengers to a future we won’t see, equipped with the kind of flexible mind and artistic soul that will help them improvise through the changes.

And so here are two of the thousands of children I’ve taught who inspire me to keep going and dig deeper and reach higher—my grandchildren Zadie and Malik—wearing the sacred crowns of flowers with smiling faces filled with hope and promise. 

Here we join as one body our honored Ancestors, spirited colleagues and hopeful descendants, bring the past, present and future together into the dancing ring. Ashay!

PS This past month, I've had an issue bringing photo images into the blog. This is so much less powerful without those photos! I'll try to contact Blogspot, but if anyone knows how to fix this, please post a comment!

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Double Pandemic

Here we are in the midst of two pandemics. COVID 19 has been causing havoc in the U.S. for over 4 months and COVID 1619 has been causing unbearable pain and suffering for over 400 years. One can be partially healed by wearing masks, the other by unmasking the purposeful lies and hidden truths. One asks people to stay apart, the other asks people to come together. One affects everyone regardless of class, religion, race, ethnicity, etc. and the other one does as well. (Though both are more dangerous for people of color.) One waits for a vaccine to inoculate against the spreading of life-killing germs, the other waits for an education, awareness and awakening to inoculate against the spreading of soul-killing hate. One requires intelligence and care to act responsibility, the other does as well. One might be curtailed within a year, the other would need either miraculous transformation of hardened hearts (not likely) or a vast commitment of every cultural resource—news media, schools, churches, neighborhood associations, film industries, Twitter, Facebook, sports industries, etc. —to educate the young to know the real deal, to care, to act. Also not likely, but who can tell me really, why not? 

While scientists work on the vaccine for one, let’s all get busy with the second. Okay?

Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Radical Foundations of Orff Schulwerk

Reflective thinking has been my lifelong companion and when it comes to any success as a music teacher of young children and a trainer of other music teachers, it has served me well. Deep into the online learning world— some six courses this past month alone for teachers in Canada, Russia, Hong Kong, Iran and two more for anyone within a reasonable time zone, the thinking side of what we do, how we do it and why we do it works well in the online format. Singing in canon, folk dancing, playing instrumental parts together is of course, ridiculous online, but good hearty talk about what sets Orff apart from business as usual and how one must be alert and vigilant when the old assumptions creep into your classroom—well, this is time well spent. So here’s my little intro. to the topic.

What is music? How does one learn it? How does one teach it?

Orff Schulwerk is nearing its 100thyear as a radical approach to music education. At the beginning of an Orff workshop, it’s worthwhile asking the above questions. By considering what music education had become when Orff set out with his revolutionary experiments, and what it mostly still is in traditional Western music teaching, we might better understand the far-reaching implications of this pedagogical approach. It is extremely difficult to teach as one has not been taught. Without careful attention, those assumptions we’ve inherited from our culture will keep re-appearing. By naming them, we have a chance of noticing how they affect our teaching.

See if the following describes how your culture views music, the way one learns music, the way youlearned music and the assumptions you grew up with.

• Music is a special talent that some people have and some people don’t.

• You begin studying music by choosing an instrument you want to learn.

• You learn that instrument mostly by taking a private lesson with a teacher or going to a special music class.

• You learn musical pieces composed by other people.

• You learn the pieces by reading music notation printed on pages. 

• You practice daily by yourself anywhere from 30 minutes to many hours in order to master the pieces.

• The piece is finished when you can play it without a mistake. 

• Your teacher will be the most interested in the students who are the most “talented” and work the hardest to practice.

• Your teacher may be strict, insult you and shame you to motivate you to practice more.

• If you work hard enough and get good enough, you will perform in high-pressure recitals and concerts where an audience pays money to hear you and sits quietly while you play.

Since we go to concerts and buy CD’s and some of us enjoy playing Bach, Chopin and others, something about this system works. But not enough. 

Enter Orff Schulwerk. The Orff idea of music and music education is diametrically opposed to almost all of the above. Consider:

• Music is not a special talent, but a human faculty all possess. It is an intelligence, a language, a means of speaking before words coming and speaking beyond where they can go. 

• All levels of musical expression are welcomed. Though talent, aptitude and practice are appreciated, a student playing an inspired improvised melody on the glockenspiel deserves the same attention as the virtuoso mastering Rachmaninoff. 

• Music is learned through direct experiences in the body and through the ear. Sound comes before symbol, speaking music comes before reading and writing it.

• Music is learned in group, community experiences, not in isolated practice rooms. Playing together in the group is the main form of practicing.

• A piece is never “finished,” but is always the beginning of the next possibility— improvisation, re-composition, dance choreography, integrated arts, etc. 

• Making mistakes is essential and improvising into new territory is more important than playing perfectly notes someone else has given you.

• Love and humor set the tone of the class. The teacher can, and should, have strict standards and expectations, but creates a playful atmosphere to achieve them. No place for fear in the music class—or any class.

• Performance is part of the learning, but it is more a sharing to refresh the community than a test to pass.

• Music is not confined to any single instrument and is best learned through a wide variety of media— hence, Play, Sing & Dance.

Each set of values has their gifts and shortcomings and in the real world, both can co-exist together. But there is no question that the Orff approach is not only more inclusive, more welcoming, more fun, more motivating, more following the natural ways children learn, more community-minded, it also can help produce better musicians who can understand more fully what they’re playing, hear it more clearly, feel it more deeply and express it with more nuance. Naturally, those who choose music as a profession will often need some of the disciplines of the first—some long hours of solitary practice, reading skills, mastering note-perfect challenging compositions, but an Orff foundation will help them in their pursuits. 

It is worth noting that It is challenging for those brought up in the first set of values to try to teach the second set. By naming these principles above, we can be more aware of those times when we just teach as we’ve been taught. When your class does not go well, the students seem bored or frustrated, consult the list above and change your teaching.
Both you and your students will be happy you did.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Cleaning the Fish

 A couple of days of silence here, not because I don’t have anything to say, but because I have too much to say. And in the midst of deep online teaching—Saturday, Russia, about my book Play, Sing and Dance,  Saturday and Monday  night, Iran, with body percussion theme, Monday through Friday mornings, my book Teach Like it’s Music and was supposed to do a 4-evening Jazz course for Hong Kong and thank the stars, enrollment was low and I was thrilled to postpone it to a later time.

But in this past week, also saw the film Thirteen,Michelle Obama’s Becoming, the old film Black Like Me from the 60’s, an hour and a half  Youtube video on white fragility, followed by buying the book of the same name, had a meeting with my men’s group around the theme of reparations. This subject of how racism literally endangers or ends the physical lives of black folks and eats away at their sense of self and likewise diminishes the lives of all the whites purposefully perpetrating the system for their own economic gain and sense of self-esteem, and most damaging of all because so invisible, the whites whose culturally supported ignorance keeps the whole horror going, this has been with me my whole life, but still I have so much to learn and so much more I can and should do to contribute to the healing. 

And so I have been fishing in these dark waters and pulled up some new creatures I haven’t seen yet and now it’s time to clean the fish to prepare for the meal. Which means mulling things over, adding the new information to the old and thinking yet larger and acting yet wider. And then eating it all to wholly own that this whole history is part of my flesh, blood and bones, parts of all of ours. (On one hand, this is not my preferred metaphor, as I’ve hated fish my whole life—but maybe it’s a good one, as it’s a meal that is not tasty and is hard to swallow and probably the fish is poisoned with mercury).

So that’s my “don’t have anything to say yet” attempt to say some of what I want to say better. I know none of you are on the edge of your seat waiting for the next post, but while you’re waiting, consider seeing the above films or Youtube or reading the White Fragilitybook. Keep these needed, difficu.t, courageous and way overdue conversations going within yourself and with those around you.

See you at the fish fry.