Monday, January 31, 2011

Pictures of the Floating World

Occasionally I wish I had higher tech skills. This blog could use some photos to save a few thousand words. Either that or some good Ukiyo-e (literally, “pictures from the floating world”), those Japanese woodcuts showing scenes of landscapes, stories, street scenes, depicting the evanescent, fleeting, impermanence characteristic of Buddhist thought. My pictures would not be quite so evocative, but the photos from my day strolling in Ueno Park would give a taste of modern Tokyo life—the archetypal men huddled over a board game, lovers strolling hand-in-hand around the lake, older couples viewing the peony garden, homeless people on park benches. Tourists and locals alike ascend the stairs to the shrines, throw in a coin, say a prayer, ring the bell and bow. You can write your prayer on a paper or on a small board to hang and send your good wishes to someone. Whether lighting a votive candle in a Catholic Church, turning a Tibetan prayer wheel or ringing a gong and bowing, all cultures seem to recognize that we need some help from the other world. What is less clear is that the other world needs us too, not just to go through the motions of propitiation, remembrance or worship, but to finish their unfinished business of living harmoniously together on the earth. And if you just watched the people in the park today and didn't turn on the TV news, you might think we're doing a good job at that.

What else did I see and hear? The mandatory Peruvian band with panpipes, charango and bombo drum, with rhythmic punctuation by cawing crows. A young woman playing marimba on the path to a crowd of admirers—mostly light Japanese pop with chord changes. There was a poster in the Buddhist temple store (and here a photo would be great! Help!)—“Celebrating 35 years of Hello Kitty!” What??!! And a public bathroom with this sign:

“Toilet paper is not set up. Please understand it beforehand.”

Good advice.

I also passed The Museum of Western Art, a hot dog stand and young people in uniforms practicing baseball. Japan had a two hundred year period where it consciously excluded the West (from around mid-1600’s to mid-1800’s) but now people wear suits and ties, play European classical music and baseball. And why not?  In San Francisco, we have an Asian Art Museum, innumerable sushi restaurants and a Zen center. The criss-cross of cultural influences is inevitable. I turned the corner toward the Bolivian band and it turned out to be a Japanese man strumming the charango, playing the drum with a foot pedal and the panpipes a la Bob Dylan harmonica. Where did he learn this music from the Andes? Why did he learn it? Well, why not? In Peru, I’m sure someone is strumming a koto somewhere.

After the park, I confidently rode the subway to meet my next host for dinner. The subways are clean, crowded (but no pushers like I remember from the late 70’s packing the people in) and efficient. I’ve never had to wait more than 3 minutes. (Pay attention, N-Judah San Francisco!!) Tokyo is so enormous you can ride for an hour and a half for about $3. Had a lovely dinner of Soba tempura, back home to figure out the washing machine (turned out to be simple) and soak in a Japanese bath. A perfect end to a day of rest—and tomorrow back to work at Nishimachi International School. 

Sunday, January 30, 2011


We are hardwired for comfort. Isn’t that what we’re always dreaming of, working so hard to achieve? A cozy house with central heating, a dependable job, all the latest electronic gizmos to keep us entertained and everything insured? But we seem to have an equal need for risk to keep us on our toes, help us feel more wholly alive. Risk runs the gamut from skateboarding down San Francisco hills at rush hour to trying out a new dish at your favorite restaurant—some of it is foolish, some of it is tame, some if it is asking for unnecessary trouble and some of it is asking for the right kind of trouble, the kind that calls forth the full range of our attention, intelligence and character.

I’ve often thought that the only way to advance in your chosen craft is to put yourself in a constant state of risk. Teaching children is already like that—you never know what they’re going to come up with!  So when I was asked a few months back to teach a group of Japanese deaf children, a situation I never encountered before, I accepted without hesitation. And then as the time drew near, I thought, “What have I got myself into?”

To begin with, working with children you don’t know in front of strangers is already the first big step out on the tightrope. Working with children whose language you don’t speak ups the ante—though perhaps a moot point with deaf children. Doing music with deaf children—something I’ve never done nor witnessed—was cause for some worry. And then holding their attention for two hours upped that sense of anxiety. My safety net was all the years of practice making music with strangers immediately through the body with no intermediate speech or explanation, a large repertoire of games and rhythms and experience watching all types and ages of children and reacting to their needs and impulses.

Instead of me working with a group of deaf children with adults watching, it turned out that only three children could attend and that the adults would participate. And so it was just like any other workshop, with kids thrown into the mix and some attention on my part to give even larger visual cues than I usually do. Needless to say, it was marvelous! The kids’ sense of rhythm was strong and they fully participated with great enthusiasm and excitement—especially when they got to do things like conduct the ensemble of percussion instruments or teach their own rhythm ideas to the adults and shape a performance. This they did at the end, complete with formal conductor bows to the audience—which included their smiling families.

At the end, the adults gathered and after reviewing what we did and how we did it and why I chose those activities and ways of presenting them, they told me that it was a custom at the end of a workshop for each participant to tell the teacher what touched them. There’s a risk! This practice assumes both honesty and the assumption that someone was touched! But the people were eloquent and perceptive, impressed by the children’s joyful participation, the flow of the class, the clarity of thought behind it all and the affirmation yet again that music is equally important for everyone, regardless of through which door you enter.

After seven straight days of teaching, it is my day to be a tourist. The sunshine beckons and armed with a neighborhood map, off I go to do what I love best—wander aimlessly through back alleys, sit in a park, look into a temple or museum and see what the day brings. 

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Lost in Translation—The Goat of Death

Today was met by my host at the Ryokan to guide me through the labyrinth of Tokyo transportation to arrive at the workshop an hour away—walk to the subway station, change to the rail station, take a taxi. My traveling blood started tingling just out in the teeming streets. Startled by so many people wearing white masks—I had seen this in China and Taiwan, but surprised by how ubiquitous it is here. I noticed that we stood on the left side of escalators while the walkers passed right and remembered that Japan drives on the left side. Except, apparently, in the city of Osaka. How do car manufacturers deal with that? Got on the line from Nezu to Shinochanomizu and sat across from eight young women all reading their cell phones. People who know me can guess my next sentence—so why bother to even comment? Out to the JR Line and from there in a taxi. I remembered from my 2006 trip the taxi back doors that open and close by themselves. How do they do that? It’s so cool!

Arrived in time at the workshop site and boom!, off we go again—laughter, bright eyes, moving bodies, exciting rhythms, only this time, the people are Japanese instead of Korean. And three men amongst the 25! Two hours that flew by—as it often does—short break and another two hours with some special guests. I’ll save that story for tomorrow.

Post-workshop, out in search of a famed sushi restaurant. But my host was dismayed that I only ate kappa maki or inari sushi or (do they have this here?),  California roll. So we started looking at other restaurant possibilities. I’m not exaggerating when I report that we walked the back streets of Nezu district for 45 minutes trying some 12 different restaurants that were either full or didn’t have a single semi-vegetarian option. Finally found a Japanese pub and had some fried chicken, tofu vegetable soup and something new for me—gingko nuts. Kind of like smaller and softer chestnuts—delicious!

From there, got back to my Ryokan just in time for a free performance of Rakugo—Japanese Sit-Down Comedy. The performer sits on a cushion, knees tucked under, with just two props—a hand towel and a fan. The fan can be a pen, a letter, a sword, chopsticks, or these days, a cell phone and assists in the storytelling. This show was all in English and the first story was from Grimm’s fairy tales. It was a charming story about a man who meets a spirit from the other world and strikes a deal. The man can pretend to be a doctor simply by visiting patients and seeing if the spirit is standing at the head of the bed or the foot. If the latter, the patient will live, if the former, he or she will die, All the man need do is make his diagnosis accordingly. To my ear, the creature was called The Goat of Death. So throughout the story, I pictured some goat hovering around the bed, not an image easily imagined. When the story was over, I looked at the little program and saw the real title—the God of Death. Oops!

Tomorrow I’m going to try to negotiate the subways myself. It’s nice to be driven around, but good also to exercise the traveling muscles and nothing like learning a subway system to keep you alert. It will be my 7th straight day of teaching and then a Monday off. I love this work, but even the best work needs some rest and relaxation. Anybody out there still reading this?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Not in Kansas Anymore

I have a feeling I’m not in Kansas anymore. My home for the next ten days is a traditional Japanese–style Ryokan. Each night, I’ll come back to a 10 by 10 tatami-matted room with the futon on the floor taking up most of the space. There are no chairs, no TV, a sink in a tiny adjoining space and a low table with a cup, teapot and container of green tea. Open the sliding Japanese screens and you can look out at the small street below. The bathroom with a heated toilet seat is in the hall and the traditional Japanese bath (looking forward to that!) downstairs. The room comes with a robe and slippers and a modem on the floor that will allow me to keep sending these electronic postcards home. Instead of the Bible in the dresser drawer, there’s The Teaching of Buddha book on a low counter. Definitely not Kansas anymore.

And yet a homecoming of sorts for me. I first knew Japan as two paintings of geishas that hung in my grandparent’s house on Long Island, perhaps brought back by my Uncle George after the war. Then the World War II movies of my childhood. I don’t believe there were any Japanese children in my New Jersey hometown nor can I remember eating at a Japanese restaurant. But things kicked in big time in college—from the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa to reading and writing haiku (thank you, R.H. Blyth) to the haunting shakuhachi music of my Nonesuch Explorer Series records to my first encounter with Zen Buddhism via Alan Watts, D.T. Suzuki, Phillip Kapleau and a Japanese Zen master named Nippo who taught for one semester. My interest in Japan had kicked in big-time.

My brother-in-law Jim picked up that Kapleau book once and became so intrigued that he jumped at the chance to go to a Zen meditation retreat in Princeton, New Jersey back in 1971. In 1973, my sister, Jim and I newly moved to San Francisco, we all went to a 7-day retreat (called sesshin) with the same Zen master at an old boy scout camp up on Mt. Baldy near L.A.—and never looked back. We went regularly for the next 10 years or so, me much less when child-raising began, though I maintained a daily zazen meditation practice that still begins my day.

The last time I saw that teacher—Joshu Sasaki Roshi—was at a 3-day treat in 2007, soon after my Dad died. He was still teaching at 100 years old. And still today, on the way to 104. Sometimes I wonder how long I can continue this marvelous life of teaching children and adults. Usually I imagine ten years and that feels a bit sad. Now if I think about 45 more, it’s more encouraging. Though I might have trouble moving those bass xylophones!

In Korea, I stayed and taught at Catholic University. Though occupied by the Japanese for the first half of the 20th century and invaded by China many times, Korea somehow managed to escape the reach of European colonialism. Which had me wondering how Christians make up more than 1/3 of the population and are growing steadily. It turns out that a diplomat who encountered Christianity in China brought back some books that provoked interest. Without the usual Western imposition and missionaries, Christianity seemed to grow on its own from within. And that certainly has impacted the changing Korean culture.

Off to teach—no break for this traveler—so for now, "Kamsamhamnida!" to Korea and "Konichiwa" to Japan!

Where Is My Music?

Call me romantic (I’ve been called worse), but I have never met a folk music (or dance) I haven’t liked. For the closing, the students shared some of their music. Naturally, it needed to include the song Ahrirang, which is to Korea as Sakura is to Japan, La Cucuracha to Mexico and Frere Jacques to France, the tune most music teachers are likely to include in their “around the world” concert . They danced to a recorded pop version of it, complete with electric guitars, trap set and chord changes.

And why not? Korea has both feet planted in the 21st century and as in so many places these days, pop music is the soundtrack for the daily round. But when a lovely woman who joined the course yesterday danced a traditional fan dance to drums, cymbals and voice, I was mesmerized. What was the difference between this older folk form and the modernized dance and music?

Let’s just say that when this woman danced, she was not alone. You could feel the presence of the ancestors in her every gesture, the long centuries of that unique experience called Korean culture singing through each wave of the fan, the land itself somehow present in the women’s body. Pop has its place in the ecology of human culture, but its name betrays it— a short burst of energy, an evanescent bubble that quickly disappears, a present tense that is present only. Whereas the folk forms are the through-line that thickens the present moment by including the past and future. And brings the very landscape into the conversation. The music—and art—preserved in traditional cultures is born from the long conversation between the elements of weather, mountains, watersheds and fields (and all the winged and four-legged creatures that inhabit them) and the human beings living according to their graces and mercies.

Call me a hypocrite (I’ve been called worse) talking of the power of the land in the music, me whose most ambitious working of the earth has been growing cilantro in the planter box on my deck in San Francisco. But though it probably helps, one doesn’t have to farm the land to feel its presence in the arts of the people. Indeed, that’s one of the pleasures of art, allowing you to feel the power of presence without getting your hands too dirty or your feet too wet. Art as armchair travel.

The dance called up a small sadness that often visits me when I see such things—a sense of loss that I can’t find that ethnic identity that is wholly mine. As a Russian Jew by blood, Unitarian Christian by upbringing, Zen Buddhist by chosen practice, as a dabbler in West African drumming, Indonesian gamelan, Bulgarian bagpipe and jazz piano, as a lover of Whitman, Rumi, Basho, Rilke, as an enthusiastic eater of all cuisines, as an urban habitant who loves to backpack, to which and whom do I belong? Where is the song and dance that is wholly mine? I asked this question once to the poet David Whyte and he replied, “Your home is at the crossroads between them all.” Fair enough. But still I envied the dancer. And was grateful to witness something so essentially Korean.

More to say later about my short time in Korea, but now I’m off to Japan, winging from the world’s second largest city to the first by some ten million people—Tokyo. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Spare the Rod

Except for one brief trip downtown and five minutes in a tourist shop buying red ginseng and wooden spoons, my time here has been teaching, teaching and more teaching. But always interesting tidbits at mealtimes from my host and translator about Korean culture. She tells me about “helicopter moms” hovering over their kids and running every detail of their lives so that grown judges will call their mother to ask advice about how long a sentence they should give. I hear about “seagull dads,” who stay at home to work so their children can be educated in America or abroad at International Schools. I find out that Korea is the number one coffee importer and also has the highest divorce rate in the world.

Today’s tidbit: In former times in Korea, corporal punishment in school was commonplace. Students would be publicly humiliated and caned for anything from rudeness to lying to low test scores. Girls would go down on all four’s while male teachers caned them on their buttocks. Finally, the school system saw the light and decided to ban this barbaric and antiquated practice. The date of the ban?

November 1, 2010.

Need I say I was shocked? I went to Google to look into it further and was treated to various videos of caning in action (some apparently taken by students with cell phones). Wikipedia has an entry on the subject, but equally shocking is the map of the United States showing the states where school corporal punishment is illegal and where it is legal. Draw a line about halfway through the country from North Carolina to Colorado and look south for all the states that still endorse it. Ironically, mostly the areas called the Bible belt. (Do they think that that’s what Jesus meant when he said “turn the other cheek?”) Hmm.

Today’s news tells me that Obama included thoughts about education in his State of the Union address and expressed admiration, as he has done before, for the Korean system. I wonder if he has seen these videos or spoken to the kids pressured to work until 2 in the morning. Of course, I don’t know enough to judge the whole picture of Korean education and I am certainly impressed with the quality of the people in my course. But there simply is no justification for bodily harming children who fail to comply with or fall short of often-unreasonable adult demands. The one that I’ve heard—“how can we control them otherwise?” is so cynical and short-sighted that I wouldn’t know where to begin to answer this

Meanwhile, I’ve had four glorious days filled with beauty, laughter, powerful music and expressive dance. People have worked hard without fear of punishment and needed no rewards beyond the pleasure of the activities. They’ve helped each other out, given support when needed, expressed admiration when earned. They start the day eager to participate and leave with a song in their heart.

The more I see how right education can be, the more I lament how wrong so much of it is. 

Monday, January 24, 2011

Feed Your Faith

Every veteran teacher knows this simple truth: there are only about ten children in the world, recycled and reshuffled in various combinations, nuances and inflections. Wherever I teach a new group of kids, I can see in five minutes, “Oh, it’s you, is it? Thanks for letting me know."

The same is true for adults. I began my workshops yesterday with 36 Korean women (another interesting Wikipedia fact: “Korea is ethnically one of the most homogeneous societies in the world with more than 99 per cent of inhabitants having Korean ethnicity.”) and before we broke for snack, it felt like a class reunion of old friends. No matter the language, cultural background, physical racial make-up, I could recognize them all as easily as if they were my neighbor next door. Which, of course, they are.

All of this from a simple exercise where each in turn has to create a musical phrase from the first sound of their name and finish the phrase with their name, which the group then echoes back. Here is the first hint of character, revealing the boisterous, the funny, the shy, the quietly dignified, the energetic wild ones. I like them all, but have a soft spot in my heart for the latter, those eccentric personalities that are dampened down in most school settings, but are ecstatic to be given permission to show themselves as they are.

None of this would have come forth had I merely been giving a lecture to the crowd of students taking notes. Herein lies the deep joy of this work. Every moment of the day is designed to pluck the strings of the imagination, make it safe and inviting for all to kick off their shoes and kick up their heels, make it fun to play music without any of that baggage of lonely hours in practice rooms—and all within full view and admiration of the community.

And such music! A stranger walking in the room would guess we had been practicing for weeks listening to the complexity of interlocking rhythms and that we had known each other for months feeling the spirit and comradery in the room. And yet it all comes from simple, elemental and powerful ideas that reap complex, subtle and soul-stirring results. Always trying to distill this work down to its essentials, I’ve come up with my mission statement—to stimulate the mind, engage the body, open the heart,  awaken the spirit and touch the soul.

And so my belief in education and culture as the powerful forces that can open and invite the best we all carry inside or shut it down. All you need to feed your cynicism about human nature is to read the daily news. All you need to feed your faith is to participate in classes like these. It’s as simple as that.

And for the record, I was deeply impressed not only by the humor, inventive ideas and social graces of these 36 women (men! you’re missing out on a lot here—and so are the children without your presence. Join the party!), but by their musicality. I always begin by noting the rhythmic qualities of a culture, the sense of being in-the-body and on the earth and my first impression is that Korean culture has it big-time.

Writing this in the wee hour of a jet-lagged morning, I can’t wait to go to work today!

PS The heat problem was quickly fixed.

It's a Big World After All

From Wikipedia: “South Korea is noted for its population density, which at 487 per square kilometer is more than 10 times the global average. According to 2005 census, Seoul had a population of 9.8 million inhabitants. The Seoul National Capital Area has 24.5 million inhabitants making it the world's second largest metropolitan area (after Tokyo) and easily the most densely populated city in the world.”

Having gone out in the car again today with my host, I believe it—every single one of the 24.5 million inhabitants must have been on the highway. On top of that, it was snowing and when we finally escaped from the maddening crawl of highway traffic to some back roads, we had to negotiate some hills and were slip-sliding on the snowy streets.

But we managed to make it to the restaurant alive and it was worth every little scream and yelp. The multi-course lunch of traditional dishes was among the most artfully presented and delicious meals I can remember in a long time (the last such meal was in Beijing). Among the dishes were bi-bim bop and jap chae, whose musical names I plan to incorporate in my teaching tomorrow. Seems like every language without fail has alliterative words and phrases that tickle the ear. Yet another point for the universality of the human experience. 

Back to the population question. At the same time that it is so densely populated, South Korea’s  birthrate is the world's lowest.—around 9 births per 1000 people. If this continues, its population is expected to decrease by 13 percent to 42.3 million in 2050.

World, take note., The planet could do with a few million—or billion— less people. (My browser page informs me that the Apple Store has just reached 10 billion downloads.) Of course, I need children for my profession, but I’m willing to concede that the low birthrate population-reduction strategy is much-preferred to mass genocide or disease.

It is when I travel that I often am in awe of how many people are on this planet. In my cozy home town of San Francisco, with its relatively stable population of 750,000, spending the bulk of my time with the 500 or so kids, teachers and parents at my school, shopping at my neighborhood stores, I feel a human-sized proportion that almost has me believing we can change the world one-mind/heart/soul at a time. But once you’re out in the world amongst the teeming throngs, your confidence that you are affecting the world shrinks considerably. Perhaps best to let go of the “saving the world” fantasy and simply live as fully as you can. And right now, I need to save myself, since the heat has mysteriously gone off in my room. Off to negotiate with the fellow downstairs with the universal gesture of shivering. Wish me luck!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Welcome to Seoul!


My first real travel outside of the United States was a trip through Mexico to Guatemala in 1975. Greeting indigenous people dressed in huipils walking the shores of Lake Atitlan, going to the market in Solala, sleeping in a hammock near the ancient pyramids in Tikal, brought me to a world radically different from my Leave It to Beaver childhood in suburban New Jersey—and delightfully so!

A year-long trip around the world in 1978-79—including five months in India— showed me even more graphically how differently people organized their lives and cultures and how rich it felt to step briefly into other shoes (and sarongs). Back then, travel was mostly buses and trains and an occasional flight, arriving and searching out a place to stay with no advance reservations, and a great deal of gesturing without English as a widely spoken language.

Now I step off the plane in Seoul, Korea, and see all the familiar icons of an increasingly homogenous world culture. A big billboard with a picture of Pierce Brosnan welcomes me to the local casino. When I step out the gates and my host is nowhere in sight, I get on wireless e-mail to find out where she is. Soldiers with machine guns patrol the concourse and people walk by cradling their Starbucks coffee. 
My ride arrives and we drive for two and a half-hours on traffic-jammed freeways to get to a mall to stock me up on Kellogs cereal, Santa Cruz organic juice and Dannon Yogurts. On the way to Catholic University where I’ll be staying, we pass the Baskin Robbins, 7-11’s, KFC’s, Burger Kings and the whole arsenal of imported Western stuff that has become so commonplace that it barely deserves commentary. Having watched this spread in the past 20 years of travel, I’ve moved from outrage to despair to reluctant acceptance—it simply is the truth of today’s world and no comments from me are going to stop it. And I remember thinking, as I stood in a square in Gdansk last Spring reading about Hitler’s invasion of Poland, that compared with soldiers and tanks coming through your streets, a bad hamburger is not going to cause that much harm.

Still, though. While I enjoy the ease and comfort of getting picked up in a car at the airport and taken to my room with the usual conveniences and Wireless internet, I do miss the sense that I’ve arrived somewhere else. That feeling of learning a new etiquette, hearing new sounds, smelling new smells, walking the streets with eyes open wide and all systems alert to the next moment of magic or challenge. Now I eat dinner with my English-speaking host and compare notes about the state of teaching in Korea, talk about salaries, the economy, technologies and the chit-chat of the Orff music world. I latch on to tiny tidbits of difference, now measure in inches instead of miles—husbands and wives not legally allowed to work in the same place, daughters now preferred over sons, rivalry with the Japanese and the sense that Korea is catching up in the arena of sports, cars, business, the arts.

When talking about education, my host said that high school kids might go to school from 7:30 to 5:00, then go on to after-school programs and continue working and studying until 2:00 am!! While that will look good on math scores and we will admire the knowledge and discipline of the now archetypal Asian student, it feels like if American kids are in a Race to Nowhere, their Asian counterparts (and Asian-Americans) are in a constant marathon! I can’t help but feel this will take its toll. Where is the time for the kids to climb a tree, skip stones, look up at the clouds and dream? Where is the time for the teenagers to sit around strumming guitars and whispering their dreams to each other? Where is the balance between admirable discipline and creative leisure?

Tomorrow I begin teaching my five-day workshop and hope to give some clues.

Martin Luther King Day

Two days after that film (see below) we hold our annual Martin Luther King Day celebration. Some 190 kids from the elementary and middle school and their teachers learn the great protest songs of the 50’s and 60’s (and curious how we haven’t had memorable new ones in the last 40 years)—If I Had a Hammer, We Shall Not Be Moved, Down by the Riverside, One Little Step for Freedom, Keep Your Eyes on the Prize—and of course, We Shall Overcome. Essentially, the ceremony is a number of events linking the songs—this year with a Powerpoint photo collage and clips from Youtube of Martin Luther King speaking.

This year we highlighted one of the kids’ favorite songs—I Wish I Knew How It Feels to Be Free. Written by jazz pianist and educator, Dr. Billy Taylor in 1954, it was recorded by Nina Simone in 1967 and got a larger airplay. though still not as much as it deserves.

This year was especially poignant, because Billy Taylor had just passed away at 88 years old some two weeks earlier. So we showed the kids a clip (thanks again, Youtube) of him playing it and a wonderful short interview with Nina Simone when she’s asked what it means to be free. She gropes for words and finally comes up with this, “No fear.” Radical stuff. What would governments do if citizens refused the daily fear fare the media serves up? As post- 9/11 taught us, people who are afraid will give up their voice and let others take charge and the results are not pretty.

Freedom is no fear. Thanks, Nina. I like that.

PS The following week, I asked a high school student what he did at his school for Martin Luther King day. He looked surprised. “Nothing.”

Race to Nowhere


A week before I board the plane to Korea, I go to a showing of an important film about schools—Race to Nowhere. The message is familiar. In the workshops I give around the country, I’ve talked to the teachers who have lost their passion (or their jobs) because they’re players in someone else’s plan—bureaucrats far away from the students they teach, indeed, people who will never meet these students or see first-hand what damage they’re causing by substituting superficial performance for deep inquiry. But in this film, I hear from the students themselves. It’s worse than I thought.

The film is not in mainstream theaters and on purpose. The filmmakers wanted it to be shown in community settings so there could be follow-up discussion. It seems like a good idea. In the theaters, it would just be another drop in the roaring river of entertainment, leaving the viewers dispirited and hopeless, When shown in community centers—
schools, churches, synagogues, temples, neighborhoods and the like— there’s the possibility of actually talking about it. And then—radical thought in our increasingly passive notions of democracy—actually begin to act on these issues.

I came away from the film with a seed of hope. It’s been clear for awhile that meaningful change will not come from the halls of power. Indeed, next to the ongoing wars abroad, my biggest disappointment in the Obama administration is substituting No Child left Behind for Race to the Top. And as one student in the film eloquently remarks, it’s essentially a race to Nowhere.

If the politicians are hopeless and the teachers powerless and the students too busy keeping up with homework to do anything else, where will change come from? And here I felt a glimmer of hope—the parents. The parents, in league with the teachers and their own children, can be an enormous and powerful voice in demanding change to protect their own children. But as one high school senior remarked so eloquently, “We can’t step off the treadmill individually without feeling punished. We have to step off together.”

Indeed, even before this film, there have been inspiring stories of communities banding together and doing just that. It’s really not that complicated. But though agreeing on a no homework policy is a good first step, we need more. In today’s world, time freed up from homework might simply mean more TV, chat rooms, Internet surfing, the whole arsenal of electronic addiction. It’s not enough to stop excessive testing and homework. Parents, teachers and children need to actively engage in healthy alternatives. For schools, follow the best practices of great schools based on hands-on learning, inquiry, arts, meaningful discussion and community celebration. For parents, restore the family dinner with talk, kids helping with chores, walks in the park and hikes in the woods. For kids, shut off the screens and go out and play.

First step? Get a group together and watch the film.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

“Funga Alafia, Ashay ashay…”

I’m at it again. Standing in a circle with forty or fifty strangers singing a song I’ve sung countless times. At first, there’s the usual tension whenever a group of people gather to begin a venture. Once the first note is sung, things start to feel instantly different.  Without a word spoken, we move through a series of steps until the air is charged with the intricate rhythms of drums, bells and shakers. Before we know how it happened, we’re singing and dancing in a circle. We crescendo to a soul-stirring conclusion, complete with drum rolls and shoulder massages, until the final chord leaps into an electric moment of silence, followed by a jubilant exhale. The workshop has begun.

Welcome to my life. I am a traveling music teacher, specifically a teacher of a rather esoteric approach to music, education and life known as Orff Schulwerk. I’ve begun teacher-training workshops with this song in Brazil, South Africa, Australia, China, Iceland, Oklahoma and some 30 other countries throughout the world. Same song, different people, different places. And yet the effect is always the same. A group of strangers quickly feel intimately connected, drawn into an instant community by the simple acts of holding hands, dancing, singing and playing music. The deep reasons why all people need music—to awaken the body, open the heart, stimulate the brain and extend the hand of friendship and welcome, are fulfilled in a mere 20 minute activity.

I have other opening shticks that accomplish the same, but this is one of the most powerful. Not only because the song is so eminently singable with little effort and charges the body through the long-cultivated genius of African rhythms, but because it’s a song that says what it means and means what it says on every level. Found in various West African countries (and many Orff workshops!), it seems to have come from the Hausa people in Nigeria. “Alafia” is a casual greeting of welcome, “Ashay” a deeper one, akin to the Indian “Namaste”—“the divine spirit in me greets the divine spirit in you.”
But not only does the text support the sense of welcome that the music makes physical, but there are the gestures as well. Touching your head, and extending the arms outward, touching the lips and extending the arms, touching the heart and extending the arms, and rubbing each hand in turn on the opposite forearm. And the gestures have a meaning:

“With my thoughts I greet you.
  With my words I greet you.
  With my heart I greet you.
  There’s nothing up my sleeve.”

So now we’re hit the feeling of welcome at all levels—music, words, gestures. And yet it goes yet one step further in the dance. Once the drums are playing, I lead the motions of the dance, but soon gesture to my neighbor to have a turn. So now the sense of welcome is amplified yet again as people show their own ways of moving and see themselves reflected as the large group copies them.

And so this is how I travel to other places these days. Not as a mere tourist taking in the sights or an amateur anthropologist charmed by quaint customs or a missionary selling a point of view or a product, but as one person in a circle of diverse people interested in finding out what we’re going to bring to the joint venture of dreaming the next stage of human culture. And since I mostly work with teachers, this is indeed our business. Not education as business as usual, passing on the tried and true and tired, initiating kids into the same-old-used-to-be, but exploring how we can draw from the confluence of our unique viewpoints to create a world of welcome. And so I come with “nothing up my sleeve.” No hidden weapon or agenda, just thoughts, words and heart aligned to simply say: “Here we are, all together in this room. What kind of world shall we make here?”

Of course, I’m not na├»ve enough to assume that a moment of communion in a song or five days in a workshop will burn off the dross of centuries of ethnic rivalry, national allegiances, religious stubbornness and just plain ornery human nature. But I take Gandhi’s suggestion to heart: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I may feel utterly helpless and thoroughly defeated trying to sway the political situation in the United States or even the politics of my own tiny school, but there’s a least one place where I can let the dreams run loose and have some measure of control over the feeling tone in a room—and that is in the classroom with my children and in the workshop with teachers. Part of this blog is about the discoveries we make there, from the moments of epiphany and jubilation to the sometimes sobering realities of combustible chemistries thrown together

Meanwhile, as a lifetime traveler who has wandered the world, I am perpetually fascinated by the variations of the same theme that cultures worldwide have composed. Human bodies everywhere begin the same, synapses in brains leap across the same channels, the need to work together, play together, worship together is the same wherever you look. But how those bodies begin to move, the specific routes in the brain that get lit up, the particular forms those universal needs take, is the living stuff of human diversity. One of the sadder stories of the human experiment is the way in which those differences divide us and set us snarling at each other across some field of “right ways and wrong ways.”  And one of the most exciting stories I know is the way those differences can enlarge the conversation of human promise and make our life richer, more nuanced, more compassionate and more intelligent.

It’s the conversation between what seems exotic, strange and home that keeps travel—both kinds—so constantly stimulating and interesting. I can write about going to the jazz club in Bangkok on the ultra-modern Sky Train roaring past the old street markets and passing the man on the street walking his elephant and feel that this is somehow interesting. But why? It’s just business as usual to the folks there. But of course, we travel with the baggage of our point of view and always interpret the world from our own perspective. The point of view can be baggage in the negative psychological sense—or simply the items we bring from home to dress ourselves each day. Of course, I come to each trip with my own suitcases.

Truth be told, there is an anthropologist in my suitcase, eager to both observe and learn new customs, songs, dances, foods. There is a tourist wanting to see what is considered tourist-worthy, the monuments from the ancient glories (or atrocities) of the past. There is a missionary wanting to offer the Gospel of Orff education—and hopefully, sell a few of my products (my books!). (Note: wanting to “offer,” not forcibly convert!). There is even occasionally the traveler who just wants a nice beach to lie down on and retreat to my own private world of books or pursue my summertime fantasies of leisure. And finally, there is the author who spends hours pursuing the random thoughts constantly stampeding through his head and trying to corral them into some orderly and sensible interpretation of the world. Many times in these pages, a place or an experience will send me tripping down the Rolodex of my pet obsessions, particularly things like technology and human culture.(I’ll try to keep those dogs on a leash and where I fail, you can just stop reading!)

How many times have we thought, “Wait ‘till the folks back home see this!” Like all good travelers, I want to return to my friends and family and show them the slides of my trip. I hope there will be tantalizing food for thought in these pages to come, but my greatest hope is that the armchair traveler feel some of the pleasure that these travels are bringing to me. With apologies for the fossil fuel I’ve consumed and gratitude to my school and family for permission to go away (or was that
encouragement?), let’s set off. Ashay!