Sunday, January 5, 2020

Life at the Crossroads

Since 1976, I’ve had the good fortune to give three Saturday workshops a year for local music teachers. More astounding, people have come and continue to come. Some old-timers for three decades, but also—and necessarily— new folks on their way up in this marvelous profession. 26 of them came yesterday and dare I say that it felt like one of the best workshops I can remember? Or at least the most varied, fun and musically satisfying. 

I once attended a retreat held by a poet about homecoming and after describing my eclectic background—Jewish by blood, Unitarian by upbringing, Zen Buddhist by practice, dabbler in jazz piano, Bulgarian bagpipe, West African xylophone, Indonesian gamelan, Irish tinwhistle, grew up on the East Coast, grew up again on the West Coast, traveled to some 60 countries and so on, where exactly is my home? He wisely ventured an answer—at the crossroads of multiple disciplines/ places/ worldviews. That feels about right. At home everywhere and equally, a little out of place everywhere. 

And may I say that it has proven a most satisfying place to be. Like the workshop yesterday. It included dynamic body percussion, evocative Gregorian Chant singing, powerful Bulgarian singing, a mesmerizing New Year’s ritual (that I had created), a poem by Tennyson, my comments on topics ranging from effective pedagogy, the Medieval Feast of Fools, the role of tricksters in mythology and ribald humor in ritual, the evil machinations of Roy Cohn and his influence on American politics, the legacy of the Minstrel tradition, the limits of political correctness, music from Iran, Finnish Saami, Czech Moravia, Turkey, Azerbhaijan, the modal improvisations of Keith Jarrett, the relationship between the overtone series and the evolution of human consciousness, the move from horizontal modal polyphony to vertical harmonic structures, the genius of the 3-year old, all with activities that released the group’s considerable musicality, comradery, spirit of fun and adventure, sense of connection and determination to move the future forward. It met my criteria for assessing one’s work. When writing, I want it to be something I would like to read. When playing piano, I want to sound like the kind of concert I would like to attend. And when doing work like this, I want it to be the kind of workshop I would like to go to. And it was.

The multiplicity of threads in the above is hardly standard fare for an Orff workshop, but the beauty is that Orff’s vision can hold it all, has prepared a nest in which such eggs can hatch. My point in sharing the above is not (I hope) some fishing for praise, but my astonishment that not only have I been driven to investigate, cultivate, nourish and attempt to master such disparate disciplines, but that a place exists that allows an audience for them all, gives me a platform to see if any of them are interesting, useful, helpful to others. I know in an Orff workshop people mostly come for good material to add to their repertoire and a couple of ideas as to how to present it. I hope they walk away with those things in hand but also a host of provoking, affirming and challenging ideas and experiences that they didn’t know they signed up for, but are finding at least intriguing and possibly life-changing. 

And beyond being astounded that I have a venue that allows all these things to have a voice and that enough people show up to make it possible and that on top of that, I get paid some useful money to do this work— well, the moral of the story is simply gratitude, gratitude and yet more gratitude. Life at the crossroads has often been a difficult, confusing, challenging place to be, but having set up my tent there for so long, it has indeed proven to be home and the place I feel most myself. Teaching these workshops is like rocking by the fire with my pipes and slippers or sitting on the front porch looking up at the stars. It's home. Thanks to all who have joined me!

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