Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Beyond Tribe

I’ve spent so much of my life of investigating other cultures—their religion, their literature, their myths and folk tales, their music and dance and art and celebrations, their food and more. Much has been through books, films, recordings, much through first-hand travel to some 60 different countries, much through direct study of music and much through the friendships I’ve formed traveling the world giving Orff workshops. The walls of my home are filled with artwork collected from travels, the CD shelves overflowing with music from just about everywhere, the refrigerator and kitchen shelves rich with diverse foods that I’ve somewhat learned how to cook, the bookshelves brimming with poetry, fiction, travel books and more from here, there and everywhere. All of it has become an indelible part of my identity that I claim through my interest, efforts and experiences. 


In light of all that, I’ve been disturbed by the trends of well-meaning people to dismiss all such cultural investigation and celebrations under the label of “cultural appropriation.” The young people in particular who have drunk the Kool-Aid that my generation has offered them (before the full development of their frontal lobes and the rich experience that puts it into perspective) feel particularly vulnerable to the idea that if you’re not Indian, you shouldn’t teach (or even practice) yoga, if you’re not born in Bali, you shouldn’t play their gamelan, etc. Not that cultural appropriation isn’t a real thing that can be damaging— it certainly is. But that this surface definition sends everyone “back to tribe” and ignores the reality of “the collective unconscious” we all share. It discourages people from moving out of their self-proclaimed identity and affinity group to partake in the universal feast of diverse people brought together. 


In my long career as a music teacher, I’ve developed, created, arranged and composed a wide variety of music for kids that I consider worthy of their musical promise. Equally, I’ve developed a pedagogical approach based on Orff Schulwerk and stamped it with my own particular way of making music classes more musical. The ten books I’ve written all have been a look back at these ideas and material and gathering them into that most marvelous technology, a book with a spine. Some of my books have to do with my classic Orff arrangements of nursery rhymes and poetry, some with jazz, some with pedagogy, all attempts to capture a bit of a much larger repertoire developed over 45 years. The one missing element has been something that summarizes my World Music curriculum. It has been on the back burner for some ten to fifteen years. 


Truth be told, I felt disinclined to pursue it in the face of this new atmosphere where a white guy sharing pieces he collected all over the world, mostly from people he either formally studied with or was friends with, was going to be seen as another case of cultural appropriation. But by refusing to share what I’ve discovered, I’m giving that definition more power than I believe it deserves. 


So yesterday I dove back into the work I had already done on this project years back and decided to go forward with it and not from a defensive place. I still believe in its power to enlarge both our own soul and connect us to each other in ways we desperately need. Below is the beginning of a possible introduction. People don’t have to agree with it and I’m happy to discuss it with anyone. But I believe it’s worth considering. Wish me luck!


“Children who sing the songs of their far-away brothers and sisters are thinking and feeling and acting out the inner lives of supposedly ‘foreign’ ethnic groups. And when they find that their notes and patterns coincide, they automatically discover, unconsciously and perhaps the best way, that their spirits and mind-patterns do likewise. If that can happen to children, there is no reason why it cannot continue to happen, more and more meaningfully, as they move into adulthood. There is a promise here of ultimate planetary oneness, of a true universality, and of the peace for which we are all desperately searching.”        - Leonard Bernstein: Introduction  Sing, Children Sing: Songs, Dances and Singing Games of Many Lands and Peoples)


Written over 50 years ago in 1972, Bernstein’s hope for the promise of peace and true universality echoes down to us today. Though it may seem further away than ever in our times of deep division, it may also be closer than we think, as many have awoken to the both the need and the pleasure to reach across all geographical, cultural, ethnic and chosen identity divides.  Aided by the increased ease of travel, decades of recordings, Youtube and Zoom, the presence of diverse neighbors in previously homogenous populations and the courageous work of refusing ongoing prejudice and bias, we are beginning to know the grand pleasure of feeling all of humanity’s expressive promise beating in our own breasts. We are tasting the possibility of music as the messenger of hope, connection and mutual understanding.


Consider our modern musical landscape. Americans studying taiko drums while Japanese play bluegrass, playing in gamelans while Indonesians play in jazz bands, performing in bands that include djembes and digeridoos. Such crossing of music and dance boundaries is almost common practice. For anyone with a sincere interest in enlarging our definition of music, the world is at our fingertips. The possibility of becoming larger, both musically and humanistically, can be realized, is being realized, through the way that diverse timbres, patterns, styles, movements open up new parts of ourselves. 


One starting place for this journey in and through music and dance can be in school music programs. This book comes at the far end of some 50 years of experimentation as to how that might be done. What began as an airy vision now is rooted deeply in the ground of work done with kids from 3-years-old through 8th grade, a grand tree branching into some 60 countries with the fruit of hundreds of pieces, songs, dances, poems, games, activities hanging from its limbs. The book is the gathering of some of the harvest in hopes that others may find it both nutritious and delicious. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2024

See Something, Say Something

We are here to see and be seen. To be known and to know others. Whether we attend a concert our friends give or are guests at their dinner table or teach kids in a classroom, it is good etiquette to comment on it afterwards, with an intention towards praise and thanks for them sharing something of themselves. It’s good form to let them know we not only appreciate giving of themselves, but to zero in on some beauty in their character that we noticed and left us both grateful and inspired that we know them. To give some details of a particular moment in the concert or the taste of a particular dish or how they helped their neighbor in the class or played a great glockenspiel solo. The airlines are training us to protect ourselves by ratting out suspicious characters—“if you see something, say something” and that’s fine for what it is. But let’s take it further as a guiding motto for appreciating each other and encouraging each other to keep cultivating our goodness. 


That’s what I try to do as a teacher, as a friend, as a father and grandfather and occasionally, others do the same for me— like the most lovely letter my colleague James Harding wrote to me after participating in my Jazz Course in New Orleans. 

It means a lot and goes a long way. 


So imagine my astonishment when my daughter shared a letter my grandson Malik’s friend Rangan wrote to him. I haven’t met Rangan yet, but a 9-year-old kid of this caliber is certainly someone I want to meet! As my daughter commented below when she shared it with me via WhatsAp, the boy wrote it entirely from his own initiative. (Unfortunately, when copying the photo over, my daughter’s comments obscure the last sentence, which was: “You’re a very funny guy that is very strong and full of courage.”)


And so I share it below as a vote of hope for the human beings of the future.




Pops at the Piano

It was the last day of my Jazz Course and we were joyfully romping through a New Orleans-style piece when Louis Armstrong showed up and joined us. His trumpet soared over the melee and lifted us all a few miles higher into the air.


At the end, he did something surprising and sat down at the piano to play a lovely ballad. No one had ever before heard Pops play piano and I fumbled for my phone to capture the moment. He finished before I got it out and off we went to play a free-wheeling joyous version of Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey. Me back at the piano, Satchmo back on his trumpet trading 8’s with our inspired tenor sax player. I brought it all home singing the lyrics and the cadence was like the finale of the 4th of July fireworks, lighting up the sky like Buddha’s crown chakra at the moment of his enlightenment. 


Then I woke up. 

Sunday, July 14, 2024

Jazz It Up!

I know a lot about jazz, but I can’t believe I missed this tidbit my brother-in-law passed on about the origin of the word. It’s actually in a book I read a while back, On Highway 61: Music, Race and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom by Dennis McNally, so there’s no excuse. But check out this passage:


Among music’s little mysteries is the origin of the word “jazz.” My personal favorite comes from musician Garvin Bushell, who noted that the French had brought perfume making to New Orleans, and that ‘they used jasmine—oil of jasmine—in all different odors to pep it up. It gave more force to the scent. So they would say ‘let’s jass it up a bit,’ when something was a little dead. When you started improvising, they, they said, ‘jazz it up,’ meaning give your own concept of the melody…”. (p. 133)


I love it! I often talk about the alchemical golden transformation black musicians made of everything they touched musically. From the technique of the instrument to the style to the timbre to the rhythm to the connection to dance to the overall soul and spirit, all the things they had by necessity to deal with from the father’s European side were changed by the mother’s African sensibility and became part of this new language called jazz. It became the soundtrack of the 20th century, described by Darius Milhaud as “the thunderclap that cleared the art sky.” 


Not that the European classical tradition was dead, but it certainly lost much contact with even a sophisticated audience as rhythm, melody and harmony spiraled away from the earth into higher and higher more abstract compositions. As jazz evolved, it caught the attention of classical composers, helping bring them back down to earth a bit. Debussy and Stravinsky wrote pieces inspired by ragtime. Horowitz and Rachmaninoff used to go hear Art Tatum play piano on 52nd Street. Gershwin walked both sides of the tracks as he studied with Ravel and borrowed ideas from Duke Ellington. Charlie Parker openly admired Stravinsky and his favorite recording was with strings backing him. Leonard Bernstein also crossed the tracks in many ways, including summarizing music thus: “It’s all jazz.”


Never would I suggest that “swinging the classics” improves them—each genre has its own integrity and stylistic beauty. But the overall effect of jazz in America is well-described by its possible word origin— giving a perky sweet scent to the otherwise somewhat mundane and odorless. Be it music or life, let’s jazz it up!


The Snake in the Garden

My wife is about to go out of town, so the other day she called me into the garden to train me as to how to properly water the plants. I noticed an extension to the hose I hadn’t seen before and we had a brief conversation about it. 


Then today I noticed this on Facebook:

Am I being paranoid here or worse yet, hopelessly na├»ve that such a thing might happen? But it seems to me that with my phone in my pocket, Siri was eavesdropping and alerted the “always-looking-to-make-a-buck” capitalists that here was a potential customer. Is that indeed what happened? If so, that hose clearly represents the snake in the Garden of Eden that is banishing us from the possibility of Paradise.


And stranger yet, we just finished the series Monk last night and suddenly there’s a short clip of comedian Jim Gaffigan doing a bit about how “it’s strange when you finish an entire series. You don’t know what to do…”  Could it be they knew somehow?


These are strange times, my friend. This cartoon says it all:



Kissing the Joy


He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sunrise

-       William Blake


Let’s be honest. When the dust of the good fairy lands on our head and the world is sparkling brighter than usual, don’t we all wish we could put Tinkerbell in a cage and demand a repeat performance whenever we need it? Yet Grace almost always comes to us a surprise, an unexpected blessing, a call from the other world that is not on our Google calendar nor can it ever be. All we can do is the necessary work to invite her in, keep the house of our particular craft in good order, cleaning, dusting, repairing, setting the table and cooking the food with the tantalizing aromas that might do the trick. But no guarantee that any of it will work. 


For 67 years now I have been playing the piano and have no illusions about making a mark in that field. The competition is too fierce, my talent too small, the number of hours put in somewhat impressive but well below the numbers of someone like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane or Yuja Wang. But some days— like today— the fingers fly freely over the 88-key playground and seem to always land in the right place without effort. Those locked-on-the-page notes of Bach, Chopin, Debussy suddenly are released into the air, each one in its proper place. Likewise the invitations of tunes by Irving Berlin, Bill Evans, Rodgers and Hart and countless more are easily answered and the freedom to interpret, extend, dig out their essence finding its mark. 


What inspired all this? Partly just listening to select Chick Corea recordings—his duets with Hiromi, with Gary Burton, with Herbie Hancock. Somehow those notes in the air find their way to my fingers like Tinkerbell’s fairy dust. I happily accept it, but know that I can’t repeat it tomorrow or depend on it. But isn’t it extraordinary the way a good piece of music or poem or a painting can release the best of us? Instead of our trauma being triggered, our true nature and tremendous possibility flies out of its secret chamber where it hides. 


I actually have a few piano trio performances lined up in September, so this is good news. But again, nothing I can count on. It just helps to remember that it’s possible. For now, I’m content to kiss the joy as it flies.


Mwah, mwah. 


Saturday, July 13, 2024

The Mathematics of Mortality

Remember when birthdays were exciting? You advance one step closer to worlds previously closed— from learning to tie your own shoe to riding a bike to entering the exciting and confusing world of sexuality to getting your driver’s license to getting to vote to getting to drink in a bar to getting to rent a car. All these milestones of both human and contemporary life that further empower you and grant you more independence. 


Then comes the climb over the walls of each decade—turning 30, 40, 50— that take on a different feeling, especially as you look at where you are compared to where you think you ought to be, either by society’s or your own standards. Still single at 30? No kids at 40? Haven’t recorded a hit album or written a best-seller book or been promoted to CEO by 50? 


By 60, you begin to feel the brush of the lion’s paw of mortality, yet firmer at 70 and then at 80 or 90, you see the claws unsheathe. Suddenly birthdays aren’t quite as fun! They seem to come around more quickly then ever and each one a reminder of that which we would rather not be reminded of.


For me, the sensation of my approaching demise is as unpleasant as I imagine it is for most people, but the more immediate question on my mind is: “How much longer can I keep doing this work I love so much?” Most of my colleagues giving Orff  workshops retired from their schools younger than I did and there are very few my age continuing to give Orff workshops around the country and the world. Even if they’re healthy enough and still interested in it, the invitations perhaps are not coming like they used to. 


Soon to turn 73, I’m happy to report that my health, energy while teaching, enthusiasm for teaching is as strong as ever—indeed, I feel like I’m at the top of my game. And for now anyway, the invitations keep coming and I happily accept them all. But the thought of it all diminishing, as certainly it will, is not a happy one.


And then I saw this on Facebook. It gives me hope that maybe I’ll have 20 more years of it rather than 5 or so! We shall see. If not, see you at the Elder’s Cornhole Tournament.