Saturday, September 18, 2021

Measuring the Immeasurable

Yesterday I received this e-mail: 


As a professional growth goal this year, I am endeavoring to help my students regain SEL (Social Emotional Learning) skills, feel safe and become independent, empowered musicians in my classroom - of course the Schulwerk is the perfect vehicle to achieve these goals. 


While I feel confident as an experienced Orff educator, I am grappling with what it looks like to QUANTIFY the pursuit/achievement of community required by Administration (percentages, data, etc.). Have you published articles/books or materials that outline what this could look like for those of us who must show this for our evaluations? Help!

And I wrote back: 



Thanks for writing and honored that you asked for my help. However, you might not like my answer!


Einstein famously said, "Not everything that counts can be counted. Not everything that can be counted counts."


And I agree! There are many things—usually the best things— in this life that defy measurement. And when we try to measure the immeasurable, we miss the boat to genuine experience, to deep feeling, to beauty. How do you measure beauty? How do you quantify anger or love? Yes, we can put prices on paintings and maybe computer hook ups can give some number for the level of hormones released and yes, we can say, "On a scale of 1-10, how angry are you? How much do you love me?" But the real truth of social emotional experience is that it is a constantly moving target. You never arrive at mastery of emotion, you never get the relationship perfect so that you can stop talking about it. More than ever, we need to be real with each other and we especially need to be real with kids and who are we kidding by pretending that we can quantify something more about quality than numbers? And for what purpose? 


I know the school numbers-crunchers, bean-counters, corporation types that treat school like a business, want to get all their data neatly lined up and stacked to show on the Powerpoint at the Board Meeting, but any real teacher knows thats nonsense. 


But that doesn't mean there's no accountability or way to notice progress. The real teacher, the authentic teacher, the honest teacher, the reflective teacher, the artistic teacher, knows within two minutes of walking into a classroom what the mood is like, can instantly read whether the children are happily engaged, eager to share their ideas and feelings, trusting the teacher and each other, able to work both independently and cooperatively. If an administrator can't see that, then it's not the teacher's job to supply false data to make him/her feel comfortable, it is the administrator's job to learn from the teacher how to intuitively assess that. And of course, to ask the children. 

"Tell me about what you're doing. Are you enjoying it? Do you feel safe to speak out if something bothers you?" Then the necessary conversations begin to adjust the atmosphere, with the administrator, teacher and the students each alone and togetherconsidering how. 


SEL cannot just become another cliche buzzword that teachers tick off to show they're doing the "right thing," it's just a term of convenience to describe what every good teacher should, can and has done when teaching well. It's not something that someone walking into my class needs to make me prove that I'm fulfilling some quota or prescribed mandate— it's something that someone walking into my class should simply notice, appreciate and enjoy. See the way the kids help each other learn instrumental parts without me asking them to, how they work in small groups to create things of beauty— musical compositions, dances, dramatic skits. To feel how they ask questions without fear, ask me to explain or do something different if they don't get it the way I taught it, share their enthusiasm and their ideas, leave class saying "Aw, do I have to go to recess?!" or "Can we do it again?" or "Thank you, Doug!" (all things kids from 3 years old to 8th grade have said to me.)


In short, by leveling down to the "prove it with quantifiable data/ numbers/ percentages" way of thinking, we lose it. Instead of furthering community, we dumb it down and insult it, making it into a thing to measure, an inert noun rather than a flowing joyous verb. We kill the teacher's passion and enthusiasm by wasting their time filling in charts and forms and surveys instead of trusting their artistry. We reduce education to a corporate business with a bottom-line of provable profit (be it in money or units of SEL) and get sidetracked from the possibility of a school community as a joyous gathering of human intellect, feeling, achievement sparked by curiosity, fed by wonder, Instead of trying to measure the immeasurable, why not shift the energy to more deeply experiencing the mystery, the magic, marvelous world we have the privilege to investigate, learn about and participate in. 


So to answer your question, I don't have anything written about this. But I think I just wrote it. Feel free to share it with your boss!


Good luck!


Thursday, September 16, 2021

Art and Politics, Politics and Art


I mentioned the word “political” the other day to a very wise woman and she grimaced. I understand the sentiment, as we have long associated politics and religion as the two taboo subjects at the family reunion, the ones that can divide us like a lightning bolt just when the occasion calls for calm weather and Spring flowers. And never has politics been so divisive as it is now. And equally, never has it been so important to pay attention to it. 


“Polis” in ancient Greek refers to the city, the community, the collective citizens. “Politikos” means “of the citizen, pertaining to public life.” Since all of us are living a public life, we indeed need to pay attention to the necessary negotiations that allow us to live together , to function together with some semblance of order, efficiency and hopefully, justice. From the water that comes from the tap to the food on the grocery store shelves to the roads we drive on, we are utterly dependent on each other. Each of us is necessary to the smooth functioning of collective living. As such, politics is a required subject, not an elective, in the school of life. 


But it’s not the whole deal. We also have our individual destinies to work out , which often are independent of and even in opposition to public life. They often require solitude off to the side of pulling and hauling of the group, be it the writer at the desk, the monk on the meditation cushion, the musician alone with the instrument. But even those solitudes are in service of the community, as each of these disciplines remains incomplete until the book gets published, the insights are shared, the music is performed. Yet what gets published and who gets to perform and where are political questions.


We would hope that true art bypasses the squabbles of opposition and heads straight for our shared humanity. It brings comfort, inspiration, beauty, energy, meaning, into our lives and yes, who wants to muddy those clear flowing waters with political debate? And what’s the good of an efficient, fair, helpful social structure if there’s no beauty at the end of the day? As such, art is also a required subject in the school of life. 


In short: No art without politics. No politics without art.


I’m about to launch my course Jazz and Social Justice as a place where these two required subjects meet and converse. I will share stories about jazz musicians who lived in the deep center of their art, but were also deeply affected by the politics of their day and called upon to respond. Sometimes they responded with actions, sometimes with music, sometimes with words and sometimes with words and music, protest songs that got both points across. By hearing their stories and listening to their music and clearly seeing the thread of systemic racism that ran through all their lives, we might edge one inch closer to the work that lies head, the reparations, the reconciliations, the healing we all yearn for. 


Besides hearing these necessary and mostly unknown stories, we’ll also listen to the music. I can think of no more pleasurable way to do our duty at citizens in the Polis. 


PS If you want to join, come aboard! Here’s the link:




Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Same Old Same Old

Re-reading old journals, many people are struck how they keep writing about the same things and nothing seems to change. For better or worse. That truth resonated with me as I read something I wrote at 27 years old on a plane from Egypt to India. This would mean more to the people who know me, but except for some inevitable life changes (like eventually buying a car, a house, a stereo), almost everything else is still true. Yet another affirmation that all we dream of, we hope for, we desire, is that which we essentially are and always have been. 


As I begin to step out of this 4-year journal, I wonder what has changed? What has stayed the same? Well, my hair is short now and thinner on top, I’ve stopped wearing suspenders and overalls and torn dungaree jackets, my dress is a bit more respectable and my nails kept trim. I still don’t eat meat, prefer brown rice and vegetables and tamari. A bit looser about spending money for movies and records and even dinners out. Still making friends with women easier than men. A bit more self-confident having begun the journey from my potential as a teacher to successfully actualizing it and establishing myself in that field. A bit frustrated in achieving satisfying musical expression, but much further along. More solid in my zazen practice, more tolerant and open to my parent’s generation and less enchanted by the irresponsible hippy life. Still open to taking risks and new travels (this trip!) but finding more and more pleasure in the world of hard work and creative day-to-day routine. Less yearning for the life of eternal wandering or cabin in the woods seclusion. Strong feelings about beginning a family. Still the sense that I can accomplish what I set out to do, with a  clearer picture of my responsibility in this life. Sometimes longing for more close friends, still keeping one eye out for the ideal school-spiritual-artistic-community-in-the-country. Haven’t yet bought a car or a house or a stereo. Completely uninterested in taking any drugs, a socially acceptable tolerance of alcohol, though still trouble finishing a beer myself. Still feeling in touch with the dreams of my childhood that my teachers and parents predicted would get swallowed up in the reality of the adult life. (They haven’t). A continued deep affection for children and animals, a growing appreciation of plants. Still have never planted a garden and often at a loss in the world of things and machines (though my wife’s aspirin-cap stories to the contrary, have gotten better at trying to fix things  and am not as intimidated as before). Still enjoy hitchhiking and sleeping out. Have kept my love of basketball and dancing, especially to James Brown. Still available for any foolery that comes up—pajama parties, games of sardines etc. My feet keep heading for parks and a day’s exploring of nowhere in particular satisfies as much as anything I know. Still love reading books, movies have become a steady diet. Still get uneasy sometimes in the presence of people I respect who I want to like me. Still love to be alone and invisible, still love to be the center of attention. I still make the same mistakes over and over again, am still graced with the same remembrances of the absolute beauty of this life. At once, not a single regret for a single moment of these past 27 years and the knowledge that I’ve achieved nothing worth mentioning and must persevere in the face of how much is left to do. 


 That about sums it up. Am still a half-a-beer guy, love to play games with the grandkids, have more women friends than men, read books and watch movies and occasionally, am still graced with remembrance of beauty. On to more of the same. 

Monday, September 13, 2021

Opening the Door

For the first time in over 20 months, I was finally going to get to play some music with my jazz band. I arrived  a bit late at the drummer Micah’s  house and heard the band playing (outside) The Saints Go Marchin’ In. So in I marched and started making up a new verse about me reuniting with the band as I headed to the piano. Suddenly, I notice some 20 other people in the back yard! I was too engrossed in the musical moment to pay it much mind, but as I started playing and looked out at them, I noticed that these were many of the folks who had signed up to come to my summer 70thbirthday and dropped out at the last moment because of that little pandemic scare. And so it dawned on me: “This is a surprise party!”


How sweet was that! We finished the tune and people went over to the food and people couldn’t tell if I was genuinely surprised and I assured them that I was, but it would have been yet clearer if they actually shouted out “Surprise!!!” Someone forgot to give them the manual. Ha ha! Nevertheless, it meant the world to me that these folks had felt bad that they didn’t end up joining me back in July and wanted to let me know they cared enough about it that they came up with this Plan B. 


So here was my 4thcelebration—my actual birthday with a dinner out, the bigger party, another party with the family in Michigan and now this. Three more to go to fulfill some “one celebration per decade” idea someone gave me. (The next will be a concert in October with the band). After some milling about, I did sit down with the band and we played about five pieces, such pleasure to hear the horns and have the bass and drums with the piano and to my ears, everyone sounding great. And at one point, the sax player Joshi proposed a toast and gave a short emotional talk about how meeting me had opened so many doors for him, into rooms that he loved being in with people he loved being with. Never at a loss for words, I spoke briefly about the fact that if indeed, I had the good fortune to open doors for everyone gathered there (I had), it was merely repaying the debt to people who opened doors for me, the reason why I never stopped thanking Avon and he in turned owed his life to people like Carl Orff who owed his life to thousands of unnamed ancestors who helped him grow his vision. How one of the greatest pleasures of being a teacher was not only to open doors, but to notice who’s ready and ripe to walk through them and in some ways, it’s almost selfish: “You look like an interesting person and I want to be in the room with you! Come on in!” And ended with acknowledging both the kids each of them are opening doors for and the future teachers who they will invite in to the party. 


The next day, I was on a Zoom call with some people who I had sung with in a college choir in an unforgettable European tour in 1973. One of us had passed away and this Zoom memorial was a reason to check in with people I literally had not seen in in 48 years! After speaking some about the recently departed man, we began talking about John Ronsheim, the teacher who took us on that trip and who had passed away in 1997. It was extraordinary how each person’s life had been directly impacted by his example, either going into music or becoming a winemaker (he was a passionate gourmet) or simply remembering his ever-curious ever-youthful childlike nature. Another door opener into yet more marvelous rooms.


Who has opened doors for you? Who have you opened doors for? Take a moment to think about it on your way to work today. And where possible, don’t forget to thank them.



Saturday, September 11, 2021

Thrice Created

All things are created thrice. 


1) First in the imagination, in the planning and dreaming.


2) Second in the living, the doing.


3) Third in the remembrance and recollection, the documentation and the sharing. 


I first spoke of this to teachers as a guide to lesson planning. Live the lesson plan in your imagination (or in the early days, actually teach to an imaginary class), then teach the lesson, then reflect on the lesson with the purpose of considering what to adjust. And by all means, write down afterwards what you did for documentation purposes. ( I have 45 books in my closet outlining every class I ever taught at my school). 


But this also applies to taking a trip. First comes the planning and dreaming. Not just the itinerary and hotel reservations and train tickets and such, but also imagining ahead of time the fun and excitement that awaits you. Then the trip itself, made larger by the anticipation even as it deviates slightly or dramatically from what you expected. Then leave some time at the end, not only to organize the photos and bore your friends with them, but recall those moments of leisure when you’re too busy, that sense of newness when things feel old, that pleasure of being open to the next surprise when life becomes too predictable. 

And so I’m beginning a new and different writing project from my usual music activities or educational philosophy books, this more of a personal memoir/ travel stories/ culture celebration based on a year-long trip my soon-to-be wife and I took around the world in 1978-79. It began in England, Germany, Italy, Greece and continued to India, Nepal, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia (Java and Bali) and ended in Japan.  It was a time when every place did not have Starbucks or even McDonald’s, when most people you met did not speak English, when thin-blue-paper aerograms picked up at American Express offices was the link to back home in a world that couldn’t even imagine e-mail/ cell phones/ texting and wi-fi even in remote villages. It made everything more complicated and challenging and difficult and unpredictable and that’s precisely what made it so glorious. It was an extraordinary time and proved to feed every aspect of my life to come— musically, philosophically, culturally and personally. 


This is the project the orishas blessed (see last post) and after my first day of writing, there was a rare brief thunderstorm in San Francisco. Since Shango was the one who encouraged me and he is associated with thunder and lightning, should I take that as a sign? In a mere two days, I’ve written 22 pages and hit upon the formula of alternating between quoting passages from my extensive journals from that trip, written by a 27-year-old who had taught for 3 years at The SF School and just begun investigating various world musics, and looking at it from the perspective of the 70-year-old who taught for 45 years, studied Balinese gamelan/ Philippine kulintang/ Bulgarian bagpipe/ Ghanaian xylophone and drums/ Brazilian samba and more in the intervening years and traveled to some 50 other countries teaching music teachers. It makes for a stimulating conversation!


And how wonderful to relive it all, both through my journals and memory. In the closet is the extensive slide show we made when we returned and the 15 cassette tapes I recorded.  Shall I dig them out? 


Meanwhile, page 23 awaits me and off I go back to Italy!

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Throwing the Shells

Well, that was different. With the Fall open before me and a host of worthy projects competing for my attention, I felt I needed some guidance. I had some notions about which to pursue, but I wanted a second opinion. So naturally, it was time to consult a Priestess of the Orishas. 


For some time now, I’ve been intrigued by the notion of the Ancestors, the departed who live in the Other World, whatever that may be. I’ve collected things like the Irish saying, “What is wrong in this world can only be healed by those in the Other World, what’s wrong in the Other World can only be healed by those in this world.” And so the cultures that pay attention to this idea, be it Ancestor Veneration in China, trance dance in Ghana or the Mexican Day of the Dead, believe that the departed continue to live amongst us and are available through both collective ritual and personal remembrance to help us here on this material plane. And likewise, by paying them proper respect and continuing the work they couldn’t finish, we can help them in their new form of existence. It’s not a Hollywood ghost story, but a living conversation that brings a fuller dimension to life. And death.


So when I heard about a 91-year old woman who did readings in-between her work helping battered women and running a judo studio for young girls, I thought: “Just my cup of tea!” Especially because of my involvement with Ghana and the African diaspora and my second-hand knowledge of these Orishas, spirits who acted as intermediaries between the human and the divine. I knew the names of five or six, but apparently there are as many as 401, each with his or her own specialty. Like the Greek gods or the Catholic saints (who they hid behind when people were kidnapped and brought to Brazil and Cuba by the Portuguese and Spanish Catholic). If I was going to get some guidance, I wanted to hear their opinion more than those of Facebook friends.


And so I met with this elder, white, Jewish, ordained priestess.  How I wanted to whip out my i-Phone and photograph her basement filled with statues, dolls, stones, drums, a buffalo head mounted on the wall and a few hundred other items related to the task at hand. But feeling that some things are not for show or casual sharing (I’m ambivalent about saying this much about it), I put the phone down and sat down to throw the cowrie shells that she could read but I couldn’t. At the first reading, she looked down and exclaimed, “Hm. You’re complicated” and I knew I was in the right place. 


Again, without revealing too much, there were messages from various orishas, Shango the one that kept appearing the most. He is associated with thunder, lightning, fire, passion, justice, dance and music and that was fine with me. I asked many specific questions, particularly about writing projects and believe I got some excellent advice. Two hours later, I had to decide whether to go beyond work into the personal, inquire about relationships with my wife, colleagues, men’s group and beyond, but decided to save that for another time. Apparently, these sessions work best in three-month blocks and since the Fall was precisely the time I was asking about, that suited me fine. 


In retrospect, I should have asked about continuing this 11-year blog, but truth be told, advice one gets, whether it be from a friend or orisha, is often a speaking out loud of an intuition not yet fully formed that gives a kind of permission to go ahead with what you probably would have done anyway. It’s not a mandate or a stern warning or an unconditional blessing, it’s a conversation that you’ve already been having with yourself and now feels a bit clearer having shared it. And yes, I believe I'll keep writing this blog even as I set to work on a new book.


To get there and back, I walked 7 miles and made a point of passing by the three other houses I had previously lived in in San Francisco and somehow that added a bit to the ritual. I came home exercised, energized, intrigued and ready to get to work. Here I go! With Shango by my side.


Tuesday, September 7, 2021

The Real Deal

Sometimes you hear veteran jazz musicians listen to a younger up and coming one and exclaim, “Yep! He/ she’s the real deal.” It means they hear something authentic, something with integrity, something with character. The musician has something to say and they’re saying it. And what they say is what they feel and what they feel is what they live. They’re taking it all as seriously as a life and death matter, even (and hopefully!) with humor and play thrown into the mix. I remember being at a Joshua Redman concert and was mesmerized watching him come out onto the stage playing his saxophone like a hunter stalking his prey. A hunter whose family hadn’t eaten in weeks in a land where prey was scarce. And he caught it!


When it comes to teaching kids, it’s the same. For me, the real deal is you are not playing around. I mean, you are playing around, but as if your life depended on it. You can be goofy and funny and occasionally even corny, but mostly you are feeding the little ones who are starved for something worthy of them, hungry for beauty, thirsting for something that feels real and meaningful and authentic. Dished up with meticulous care, unswerving affection, unrelenting determination. You are the teacher whose motto “Whatever it takes” means you’re never clocking your hours or billing your time. Your steadfast refusal to be cute or contrived, to talk down to kids, to exploit their vulnerability to the insulting dumbed-down aesthetic, is part of what makes you real. And like the Velveteen Rabbit, you have been hugged and loved and dragged over the floor by kid after kid, stuffed away or thrown into the corner or even into the trash by adults who don’t get who you are,. Your clothes are ragged, your ear is torn, your buttons are missing, your face is dirty, but as the story says, it’s all part of what makes you real.


This is on my mind because my real-as-they-get colleague passed on to me a Youtube video from one of the teachers we trained who should have known better, but lowered the bar to the merely clever and even that, not so much. And then once that rabbit hole opened up, I took a peek at all the other side videos for what passes for music education these days and it gets so much worse. I mean, so much worse.


And somehow, all of this connects to every crisis we’re facing in culture and climate. When we can’t be real to the most important people on the planet— the children—what hope is there for them? Or us? 


I’ve spent my life convincing people that music is a delightful game we play in which everyone wins. And it is. But the teaching of music ain’t no game. If you get my meaning.