Monday, April 15, 2024

Transparent to Transcendence

It was Joseph Campbell who used that title phrase to describe the phenomena of adoration. People with an extra dose of dynamic energy, a talent beyond the norm, a lust for fame that is linked with one’s destiny, will testify that they live for that moment on the stage with the audience roaring to its feet. They’ve won the Oscar or the election or the championship game and now they have a enormous price to pay. They need to wear sunglasses in public, lose the possibility of having a real and casual conversation with someone they meet on the airplane and are now burdened with the onslaught of adoration. 


And look what happens to so many actors, musicians and other famous public figures. That weight is too much for any one’s shoulders to carry and down they go into depression, drug abuse, alcoholism and even suicide. Without looking up a single person on Google, I imagine we can all make the list of such people we know of. 


Joseph Campbell hit the issue clear on the head. If the “fans” mistake their enthusiasm as something to be aimed at the person themselves, the living, breathing fellow human being who basically shares the same bones and muscles and hopes and sorrows and insecurities and confidences as we do, that’s where the problem starts. Then we buy the magazines at the check-out stand, secretly happy or despairing of the gossip and the downfall.


But what we really are loving is what’s behind that person, the actual music or film artistry or breathtaking athletic prowess that comes through that person. Yes, they’ve done the work to become the vehicle of exquisite expression in all its many forms, so “deserve” some of the appreciation. But they themselves need to understand it’s not “them” but the work they are serving, be in the long legacy of jazz or basketball or Buddhism. They need to become transparent to the transcendence they are representing, to refuse praise of the ego and let it wash past to the larger Self. 


So with that as introduction, I can happily report that last month when I arrived at a school where I had helped out the music teacher for two years, but hadn’t been back this year, a group of boys at the door greeted me with shouts of “Doug!” and one prostrated himself on the floor and kowtowed to me.


Here at Havergal College for Girls, in my last of three weeks, the kids are constantly greeting me in the hall and they’re starting to ask when I’m coming back. Today I taught a 4th grade class that was so much fun for them that at the end, one of them kowtowed to thank me. Later in the cafeteria, 10 of them rushed over and got down on the floor, much to the witnessing teacher’s slight dismay and then amusement. I really should have taken a photo. 


Of course, I made light of it as I should, because I know exactly what they’re bowing down to. The thing itself of making such joyful music and dance, their sense of empowerment that they could learn so much so quickly, so confidently, so joyfully, with so much group spirit. My lifetime of training in my craft was the vehicle that allowed it to happen and I happily accept appreciation. But I’m not interested in adoration and if it does come, only from children, who quickly will let me know when suddenly they’re not so happy with me!


Transparent to transcendence— it’s a fine feeling.  

The Eagle and the Mole

“He clasps the crag with crooked hands;

Close to the sun in lonely lands,

Ringed with the azure world, he stands…”


So goes the first stanza of Tennyson’s wonderfully alliterative poem, The Eagle. One can feel the bird’s grasping claws in the sounds of that first sentence, feel his solitary majesty in the “lonely lands” of the second, feel him surveying the blue world around him, standing erect, tall, and proud in the third. 


Recent neurological research suggests that when we look outward to a far horizon, our brain chemistry changes. The grandeur of the eagle in us is activated and fills us with a sense of nobility and expanse of spirit. That’s why we crave views and vista points, are willing to trudge up mountains for that moment when the world lies spread out before us. 


What has happened to us, we who now spend our days like moles, with our head down and snouts buried in our tiny phones? If we’re lucky, we might find one fat, juicy worm amidst the creepy crawling creatures of our muddled mediated existences. We become smaller and smaller, rooting around in the dark while the blue sky shines it invitation unheeded above us. 


Amidst all the other arguments for regulating our use of our own technological creations, consider the Eagle and the Mole. Who do you want to be today? 

The Gift of Music

(My second pass at an Op Ed piece)

What can music  offer children that no other subject can in quite the same way? What is its place in schools? How does it both support and complement other school subjects? These were the question that lay behind each class I taught when I began teaching kids from 3-years old to 8th grade some 50 years ago. They still help shape each class I continue to teach. 


Every school subject offers something necessary to a child’s development. Reading and writing at its height offers the full range of stories and fables and poetry that help shape, reflect and express the human condition. Math feeds the pattern-making perceptions of the brain that allow us to both balance our checkbooks and feed our analytic intellect. Science helps to explain our physical universe and create the technologies that make our lives more comfortable than the kings of old. History helps us to understand that where we come from has everything to do with where we are and where we might go. Foreign language study gives us literally a second language with which to both express ourselves and connect with people from other parts of the world. Physical education helps us build strong, eloquent and expressive bodies and sports offers both discipline and teamwork. Art makes our lives vibrant with vivid colors and beautiful shapes and allows us to express the invisible worlds of the imagination. Schools mostly have recognized the above and built their curriculums accordingly. 


But what can music do?


All of the above and yet more. 


Music, well-considered and well-taught, supports each and every one of the above, both visibly and invisibly giving practice and insight into each from another point of view while adding color and depth. What is song but sung poetry? What is a symphony or a jazz solo but a compelling story with an enticing beginning, connected and unfolding middle and satisfying end, all told in another language? Since every single aspect of music is described mathematically— from 4/4 time, 440 tuning, the V7b5chord, the octave interval and yet more— music is math come alive in sound. Music won’t build us a computer, but many of the people that did were musicians and the science of acoustics is essential to instrument building. We are not likely to remember the dates on those old history tests, but we will remember the stories told in songs like The Erie Canal, Sweet Betsy From Pike, Follow the Drinking Gourd and hundreds more. If you want to learn a foreign language, better to begin with the rhymes and songs then the Berlitz book teaching you how to ask for a new transmission. When music classes include dance (as they should), the body is well-exercised and the coordination the act of music-making requires, both fine and large motor, rivals any athletic endeavor. The discipline and teamwork music requires exactly parallels what sports requires, with the added perk that there is no losing team after the concert. The colorful designs and shapes of visual arts are given new voices in compositions and choreographies, with an equal celebration of the imagination. Not only does music support and enlarge every other subject, but it is the only subject that contains all the others. 


But music doesn’t exist merely to “make us smarter” in math and language and kinesthetic intelligences (though there is ample evidence it helps). It deserves to be considered for its own gifts, for what it offers that nothing else does in quite the same way. Consider:


• The Architecture of Healing Vibration: If, as Goethe said, “Architecture is frozen music,” then music is architecture unthawed and flowing. Instead of brick and mortar, its building blocks are pulsating sounds, vibrations that work directly on our heart rate, breath rhythm, brain waves and nervous systems. It gathers them all into an organized coherence that brings healing and harmony. Whereas many subjects are about something, music is the thing itself. 


• Connection and belonging. When we join through the harmonious vibrations of shared melody and rhythm, move together in measured steps, blend opposing beats and notes together so a third, yet more beautiful sound emerges, we become people actively fulfilling the promise of belonging, of connecting in precisely the ways we all deserve. 


• Being seen, known and valued. When a music program goes far beyond duplicating notes and invites us to improvise and compose, we are seen, valued and known yet deeper. We begin to understand that we have something to contribute, both for our own pleasure and our obligation to the band, the audience, the music itself. 


• Comfort and beauty. Once a week for the last 15 years, I go to the Jewish Home for the Aged and play piano, from Bach to Bacharach, Beethoven to Irving Berlin, Joplin to Jobim. I see the residents lifted out of their aching aged bodies into a world where time stops as they sing along to the old songs or let the beautiful melodies and harmonies wash over them. No one is asking to do math problems or discuss history or conjugate verbs. It is music that gives them what they need.


What does music offer? When I began teaching with this question by my side, I had an intuition that its gifts were many. 50 years further down the line, there is no need to guess. I have the testimony of countless alums in their 50’s still savoring the feelings evoked when they sang each day with me in the school, the memories of the children’s constant delight in the act of making music and dancing, the echoes of tough 8th graders looking me in the eye and saying “Thank you” at the end of class, the sad faces of the young ones when class ends and they cry “Do we have to stop?!,” the passion of a 4-year old belting out “Free at last,”  the power of the whole school singing “We Shall Overcome” with joined hands and tear-streaked faces, the beatific look on the 93-year-olds’ face as we sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” 


In the light of all of the above, might we re-consider music’s place in the school curriculum? Might we re-commit to giving children—and people of all ages— what they so desperately need and richly deserve? I would hope so. 


Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Power of Music

(Asked by my film’s publicist to write an Op Ed for possible publication in a major newspaper, I dug up an earlier piece I remember liking. He suggested (politely) that it wouldn’t work so well for the op ed format. So I wrote another one today. Here’s the one I won’t use.)


In his victory speech back in December of 2022, Raphael Warnock gave a compelling summary of what constitutes good leadership. 


• You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people.


• You can’t love the people if you don’t know the people.


• You can’t know the people unless you walk amongst them. 


Powerful words carrying needed truths. With a few adjustments, the above speaks to good teaching as well:  


• You can’t teach the children if you don’t love the children.


• You can’t love the children if you don’t know the children.


• You can’t know the children unless you walk— and play and sing and dance— amongst them. And make art and play games and share stories together and work side-by-side with them. 


Speaking from 50 years of teaching music and dance to children of all ages, I can testify that all of the above is possible through the artful teaching of music. No other subject connects us more quickly and profoundly. When we join through the harmonious vibrations of shared melody and rhythm, move together in measured steps, blend opposing beats and notes together so a third, yet more beautiful sound emerges, we become people actively fulfilling the promise of belonging, of connecting in precisely the ways we all deserve. When invited to improvise and compose, we are seen, valued and known yet deeper. Who wouldn’t want that for their children? For themselves?


And yet. Music programs in schools continue to come and go according to the whims of budget, as if this was all an unnecessary frill entirely disposable. Let us consider what we’re giving up when we too casually make those decisions, what we are gaining when we have the good sense to both make children happy qnd re-ignite our vow as teachers. Music can breathe life into Senator Warnock’s words in multiple ways:


• Making music together is building relationship. Teacher to student, student to student, student to the material, student’s small self to student’s larger self. And yet more! Student to the musicians of the past whose shoulders they stand on and equally to the students of the future as they add their own voices to panoply of creation. 


• Making music together is walking—and dancing!— among the people. “How do you like the new chief?” someone in a Ghanaian village was asked. “I don’t know— I haven’t seen him dance yet.” was the wise reply. 


• Making music together is getting to know the people you're playing with, not by finding out their favorite pizza, but by feeling the pressure and warmth of their hand while dancing in a circle, the resonance of their voice as they sing, the delight when they play music in the groove, the excitement as they venture into the unknown waters of an improvised solo. 


The teacher is the leader serving the deep needs (not the superficial wants) of the students with the knowledge of what's needed to master the music and dance. Not to simply prepare for a show, but to refresh the spirit, open the heart, challenge the mind, awaken the body of each and every student. To bring them into worlds previously unknown, but forever comforting and energizing.  The teacher teaches from the core of inner authority while still humbly considering what new insights and perspectives the children offer. 


The students also have a vital role to play. They are the actively engaged citizens doing the work to merit the promise of given freedoms. Their job is be serious and have fun, to work hard and play joyfully, to respect the teacher while intelligently questioning the teacher when needed. While growing their own sense of inner authority and confidence, they recognize that the life experience of the teacher is of great value and humbly, but not naively, begin from trust in the teacher’s guidance. 


These are the qualities that make good teachers and good students. As Horace Mann once famously said, “What do you need for great education? A good teacher on one end of a log and a good student on the other." 


Love is the log. 

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Whitewashed Tombs

I’m at my weekend guest retreat here in Toronto visiting my friends and decided to bring some raw brown rice to contribute to a meal. They ended up having other plans, so I asked if I could have the rice back and remembered that old, offensive term “Indian giver.” One who gives a gift and then takes it back. 


Given the history of white people’s relationship with Native Americans, first stealing their land, then giving them a patch of unwanted land, then later taking that back, one just has to wonder at the audacity of coming up with that term. Just another chapter in the Book of Hypocrisy that seems to be the playbook of so much of our history. And daily news.  


The word hypocrisy comes from the ancient Greek word for actor, someone playing a part, and came to mean pretending to virtue or goodness, “the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one's own behavior does not not conform.” Like all the "pro-lifers" desperately clinging to a thin rope of moral outrage knowing that the abyss of their pitiful pretense is waiting to swallow them. As this cartoon so clearly exposes:

These self-proclaimed Christians would do well to see what their Lord Jesus had to say on the matter:


"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean.”     Matthew 23: King James Bible


Substitute “preachers of the abortion laws” above and there you have it. Oh ye self-righteous whitewashed tombs, repent! 

Friday, April 12, 2024

As We Have Done Before

My daughter sent this photo of my granddaughter Zadie “smoking the competition” in a recent relay race. This 12-year -old who I love beyond all reason uplifting my heart with this image of her charging into her future with such energy, such confidence, such speed and determination. The same day, I saw a Facebook memory of someone offering condolences for the passing of my mother. It was almost a week ago, on April 6th, 10 years ago, that I became an orphan. 10 years ago! 


All of this happened while on a break teaching in Toronto and here in my little temporary office, I found myself in tears. The kind that hold all emotions— the sorrow, the grief, the pride, the humility, the sweet and the bitter, all together at once. Off I went to teach my next class of 5-year-olds, but now a larger person with my Mom and granddaughter by my side as I went “Marching ‘Round the Circle, as we have done before.” And as I do now and as I will do yet again. The past and present and future all together in the dancing ring. 


Because that’s the truth. 10 years have gone by like a lightning flash in the sky, but here I am again, feeling that moment of my Mom’s passing. Zadie was 2 then and here she is, on the cusp of the teen years roaring through to young adulthood and running with the baton in her hand. A baton that my Mom handed to her, mythologically-speaking. Life indeed moves in circles at the same time that it marches forward and flashes backward and all of our many incarnations are present all at once. 


It feels like a Biblical passage to consider that thou shalt do as thou hath done before and now doth do and shalt forever do. And that’s the Gospel truth. 


Choose Wisely

 This from a friend's post on Facebook. I have nothing more to add.