Sunday, September 24, 2023

The Healing Power of Music

Or not. On Friday, I went to the Jewish Home as usual and nobody was there waiting for me. There was some misunderstanding as to the time, so while the nurses went off to bring people there, I decided to warm up with some Bach Partitas. By the time I was on the second, some eight people had gathered and suddenly, in the midst of the Prelude, I heard a ear-piercing, blood-curdling scream from one of the residents. Naturally, I stopped played and asked, “Are you all right?” and she replied, “I DON’T WANT TO BE HERE!!!! NO MORE PIANO!!!!” So much for the soothing comfort of music. 


A nurse came and wheeled her away and I thought, “Let’s try a little Mozart. A slow movement.” Perhaps the Bach was just too busy and dense for her and she felt overwhelmed by the barrage of rapid notes. Or she simply was in pain or having a bad day. But it was a good reminder that music isn’t always what’s needed in the moment. Though it’s pretty darn close.


From Mozart I moved on to jazz standards and there was a woman close by mouthing all the words to each and every one, with a look of such sublime happiness. After I played, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” she said, “That was my husband’s favorite song.” Luckily for me, most of the 80 and 90 year-old folks here really know these songs from the 30’s/40’s/50’s and some old enough to associate them with their younger self romances or marriage or night out dancing or washing dishes listening to Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday or Frank Sinatra singing them on the radio. So besides the aesthetic pleasure of songs artfully crafted, there is an extra dimension of being recalled to other times in their lives, some cellular memory of bodies more vigorous and pain-free, of hearts held in the throes of young love or a slowly maturing deeper love. A familiar soundtrack to happier times.


My job is to play a wide variety of music and styles to be able to tap into a large range of human feeling that different rhythms, tempos, keys, scales, themes and lyrics can evoke. I’m always aware of when we need some contrast, moving from a ragtime piece to a waltz to an opera aria to a march to a jazz ballad. It’s also fun to choose songs based on what’s happening in the world. As Friday was the first day of autumn, I played Autumn Leaves and Autumn in New York. Also September Rain and September Song. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes was a nod to a few smoky days in San Francisco from the Oregon wildfires. When Tony Bennet died last month, I of course played I Left My Heart in San Francisco.Music as commentary on or affirmation of what’s going on outside.


As I get to know the people, I also remember their favorite songs or pieces. So on Friday, I watched Rose spring to life and sing along to her favorite, Moon River, Steve perk up when I played Alfie, Lori start to tear up (while smiling) when I began to play la Paloma.Though I haven’t played to a full house in Carnegie Hall, I can’t imagine a performing venue more satisfying than to try to play the particular songs that have particular meanings for the people listening. 


And back to my screaming audience member (which, incidentally, triggered yesterday’s blog that included “The Primal Scream” and deserves another entry as to how babies and elders are connected), I remember a woman named Betty some years back who also spoke up loudly while I was playing, “Someone get me out of here!” I talked to her and found out she was from Georgia and started to play Georgia on My Mind and after that, I was her favorite. And always told the group, “This one is for Betty” when I played it in future gatherings.


Because of the time misunderstanding, I ended up playing longer than usual, over an hour and a half of constant music without pause. When I finally stopped and walked out, I noticed my primal screamer was sitting in the back, having come back to listen. Perhaps music really does have a healing power. 

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Close at Hand

It’s well known that the time of my coming to age in the late 60’s/ early 70’s, was a time of great political unrest. For those convinced that “revolution is the only solution,” there were many paths available— the Black Panthers, the Black Muslims, SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), the Weathermen, the Yippies (not Yuppies), the Young Socialists and yet more. All determined to overturn racism, sexism, warmongering, capitalism in the name of expanded political freedom and justice.


At the same time, there was a sense of inner revolution in the air, a refusal of the deadened mindsets and dull consciousness of established religions, narrow psychologies and restrictive social norms. What was the point of gaining political freedom if we remained entrapped in the prisons of our own closed hearts, depressed spirits, rational thinking minds and lost souls? So kickstarted by mind-expanding drugs— LSD, mescaline, mushrooms, etc.— there was a parallel hunger to expand our consciousness. 


In swooped the Indian gurus. Take your pick! Sit at the feet of the boy wonder Guru Maharaji or practice Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Don some orange robes and follow Swami Muktananda, do some physical yoga with BKS Iyengar or try some Kundalini Yoga. Hang out with Bubba Free John or Baba Ram Das or grab your finger cymbals and join the Hare Krishnas at the airport. If India didn’t grab you, you could go the Zen route with various teachers coming over from Japan or get into Sufi dancing or heck, why not just be born again as a Jesus freak? It was quite a spiritual carnival and I watched with some trepidation as various friends and acquaintances danced off down the street with their newly chosen tribe, often to the detriment of their future mental health.


Then there were all the new psychologies. Go to a Walden II commune with BF Skinner, a Gestalt therapy workshop with Fritz Perls, a Primal Scream retreat with Arthur Janov or an EST Seminar with Werner Erhard. Or join the Church of Scientology with L. Ron Hubbard. So many choices! 


In the midst of it all, some of us just opted to follow our passion for a craft— be it music teaching, woodworking, immigrant law, pediatrics— and concentrate on doing good work. We blindly entered the severe training ground of sustaining a relationship and raising a family and amidst all the wrong turns and slips near the cliff’s edge and tumbles into the poison oak patch, managed to find some satisfaction in all the small acts of house-holding, from homecooked meals, cleaning up the kitchen together, gathering around the piano to sing or around the TV for a favorite family show or movie. We felt how exercise kept us alert and alive and sometimes combined the solace of hiking in the park or the woods or bike riding on back roads with the mandatory calorie burning. We found sublime beauty in simple things— a sunset, a swim in the lake, a lunch at a favorite cafĂ© with friends. Without having to blindly follow a charismatic leader who would eventually betray us or disappoint, without letting out a primal scream or chanting mantras for hours or sitting full lotus with pained legs or blindly accepting some group dogma as if it were the pillar needed to hold up our life, we discovered that it's possible to lead a useful, fulfilled and spiritual life simply by choosing to live well. 


Not to wholly discount any of the above. I’ve paid my dues with pained legs and Buddhist chanting and the guidance of a Zen Master I could have given over my life of free choice to but didn’t. But when I think of all the time and energy people have spent thinking “THIS IS IT!!!” and their subsequent disillusion that it wasn’t, it’s worth remembering that what we deeply need is always close at hand. Our own breath. Trusting our intuition about what we actually know we need and being courageous enough to follow it. Breaking bread with neighbors, talking with friends and family. And always, time with trees and plants and rivers and always, some music and song and dance. It’s all right here, right now, available to all and waiting for us.


Friday, September 22, 2023

It's Enough

I just heard a story about a Zen teacher stopping a student passing in the hall and saying, “You know, just to be alive is enough.”


It is a Buddhist tenet that achieving a human incarnation is already a victory of sorts. Which makes it all the more distressing when people squander it. According to the idea of reincarnation, we should be glad we’re not a mosquito about to be swatted or a rat digging through garbage. We have the possibility of an elegant body, a feeling heart, a thinking mind. And yet we lie on the couch drinking bad beer playing mindless video games. 


For “just being alive to be enough,” we have to have some measure of gratitude for the opportunity of a human birth, some measure of determination to accept its gifts gracefully and consciously, some sense of awareness of how precious it is indeed just to breath in and breathe out and be granted the chance to fully savor each moment of our mortal life. 


And so, the senses. The taste of a fresh early-girl tomato, a cool breeze on your skin on a hot day, the smell of early morning coffee or fresh-baked bread, a touch from a loved one or a hug from a child, the sight of aspen leaves dancing in the wind, the song of the red-wing blackbird. Enough.


The body. The thrill of running across a field like a child, the grace of a three-point basketball shot, the sweet exhaustion of a 20 mile bike ride, the joyful release of dancing to Uptown Funk, the harmonious gathering of concentrated energy sitting in the full-lotus meditation posture. Enough. 


Not to mention sex. 


Then the landscape of the heart. Its cozy warm places watching an old favorite movie on the couch eating popcorn, its lifting up with the ascending phrases in Bach’s Mass in B Minor, its burrowing into the depth of John Coltrane’s saxophone. Its tenderness rocking the sleeping infant in your arms, its burst of excitement when meeting the love of your life, 


The mind’s pleasures as well. Solving the puzzle, connecting the dots of historical narrative, the thrill of writing coherent sentences, the power of understanding how things work. The “a-ha!” when a felt intuition finds the right language to become consciously known fact.


Yes, the sense can be assaulted and overloaded, the body prone to pain and gravity’s tugs, the heart broken over and over again, the mind confused and anxious and puzzled. It’s all part of the package when you’ve signed up for the human comedy and tragedy. But throughout it all, inside of it all, transcending it all, is the human spirit that has lived well enough that it can finally proclaim in all sincerity:


“Just to be alive is enough.”


Take those six words with you as you step out into the world today. 



Thursday, September 21, 2023

Kiss the Clock

A small confession. I’m a creature of whimsical little superstitions. Like saying “hares” as my last word on the last day of each month and “rabbit” as my first word the next morning. Holding my breath through tunnels. Knocking on wood. And so on.


One of them that my children taught me is “kiss the clock.” When all the digits are the same—like 1:11 or 4:44— you kiss the clock (in a car, kiss your hand and touch the clock)— and make a wish. (This works much better with digital timepieces!). I’m surprised how often it happens that I happen to glance at the clock and it’s ready to be kissed.


What do I wish for? These days, just one thing only. Health. I feel confident I can take care of the things I can control— perseverance, aiming for eloquence, working toward musical coherence, creating instant communities when teaching. But for me, so much of the above depends upon a body functioning in robust health. 


I often read about notable creators who suffered from poor health their whole life. The composer Chopin, the poet Rilke, the philosopher Nietzche, for starters. I don’t know how they did what they did while battling illness and pain. I don’t think I could. 


And then I looked up celebrities battling health issues today—chronic pain, diabetes, lupus, Lyme’s disease, Parkinson’s, depression and more— and was surprised by some of the people on the list—George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez, Venus Williams, Michael J. Fox, Michael Phelps and more. My hat’s off to them all.


Meanwhile, I’ll keep kissing the clock as I can— but writing this at 8:15 in the morning, I’ll have to wait until 10:10. 


Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Skating Up the Chakras

“Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion. The world becomes much easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil. The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard. It makes demands. Hate is simple.” —Frederik Backman: Beartown(Ch. 35)


I never imagined I would enjoy a book about hockey, a sport that leaves me (pun intended) cold. But Frederik Backman, author most known for A Man Called Ove, managed to hold my attention in his book Beartown.A teen hockey club in a small town is the setting for the story and the book fulfills my requirements of interesting characters and page-turning plot. But I particularly enjoyed his one-paragraph little philosophic inquiries that often open each chapter. Like the one above. 


I’ve often thought of Don Juan’s (remember him from the Carlos Castaneda books?) quote that “it takes the same amount of energy to make yourself miserable as to make yourself happy.” It’s a good reminder as to where and how to direct our finite supply of energy and attention. But now I wonder if it’s true. Because, as Backman suggests, it seems a helluva lot easier to hate than to love. 


From the Hindu perspective, our animal drives live near the base of the spine in the first three chakras— food, sex, power. These are granted for free to us all and is the reason why the media constantly seduces us with sexy, violent images and ads for fattening salty, crispy and sugary foods. 


But the fourth chakra of the heart is where the raw sexual instinct transforms to love. The fifth in the throat is where the might of the pen overrides the muscle of the sword and the sixth in the middle of the forehead is where food for the body becomes food for the Soul and Spirit. To arrive at these three upper chakras, we must make a conscious effort, climb vertically against gravity. That’s why so many of us choose to stuff ourselves with fast food, become obese in body fat and starving in spirit. Why we immerse ourselves in the constant violence of the super-hero/ horror/ thriller Hollywood fare and quickly scroll through the PBS adaptation of David Copperfield. That’s why we surf the porn sites instead of have  courageous conversation with a loved one. That’s why love is hard and hate is simple. 


“So many of us” is really all of us, at different phases in our life and for different amounts of time. What is inspiring is those who resist the easy way and make an effort to be better. To understand things more clearly, to feel things more deeply, to work harder to improve ourselves and help heal the world. What is deeply disturbing is those who keep feeding their laziness and are encouraged to do so by those who profit from it, be it through money or power. Those who get duped into thinking that their ignorance is as good as anyone’s understanding, their refusal to face themselves and do the work to improve is as good another’s determination to do better, their hate is as good as anyone’s love— and it’s their right to choose it. Backman’s second paragraph.


"So the first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that’s easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe—comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is the we dehumanize our enemy, take their names away from them."


Once you find yourselves in the crossfire of some internet name-calling, that’s your cue to jump ship. You cannot converse with someone imprisoned in the first three chakras. Better to spend that energy rising higher into your own upper three. And don’t forget the seventh at the crown of the head, when you realize your unity with all consciousness and you connect with the divine nature we all equally share, but don’t equally realize. 


Just to be clear, Backman doesn’t suggest that hockey, one of the more violent and male-aggressive-testosterone sports on the block, is the path to your divine nature. But even in the midst of whacking a little puck around, body-blocking your opponents, hitting them on the head with a stick if they piss you off, some luminous moments can arise. With current day politics resembling a hockey rink more than a polite debating society, we might keep this in mind. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

A Child Is Born

Amazing! It happened! After a long, sometimes painful pregnancy, my book Jazz, Joy & Justice is finally published! After two years of patient perseverance. I’m walking around singing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus and his For Unto Us A Child Is Born! As I was walking the grounds of Monticello on September 15th,  I got a call from something called TV Spotlight asking for a 10-minute Zoom interview to promote it (now scheduled for October 24th). That’s how I found it that it actually came out on the promised date. Hallelujah!


And when I returned home to San Francisco, there was a box with my 20 free copies, posters, flyers and bookmarks. The first time I got to hold this baby in my arms. Sweet.


Now comes the next part. A child is born— and now I have to raise it! Meaning advertise, promote, make available, sell it, hopefully give readings at schools and bookstores. So let me encourage you, my dear readers, to order a copy and pass the word on! You can go to


(If you do and want some background music, don’t play Handel’s tune, but go with Thad Jones’ jazz song A Child Is Born.)

Monday, September 18, 2023

Scrolling Through Love

I made it to Washington DC and now two hours to “be here now” before the return flight to San Francisco. Naturally, a quick peek at Facebook and then decided to scroll through the names of the people who liked the photo of my daughter and I all dressed up for the recent wedding. As I sometimes do. 


And it always warms my heart. Each name I read calls up a person I’ve shared a little piece (or in some cases, a lot of pieces) of life with. I see their face in my mind, remember a bit of when our paths crossed and call up the memories embedded in my cells. In this case, I knew just about every one of the 382 people who pressed “like,” mostly folks I’ve known in the world of Orff workshops, many from The San Francisco School, a few from college and even high school or neighbors or family friends. It’s like sending Christmas cards and pausing as you address each envelope. Each person one facet of a glittering jewel, each with their own quirks and gifts and ways that they are refreshing the world with their presence. And ways in which my little world has been enlivened by the privilege of knowing them. It’s like scrolling through the many faces of love.


This is time in the airport well-spent. Thanks to you all and see some of you again on my next Facebook post!