Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bill Bryson's Big Bulgarian Boo-Boo

I just finished Bill Bryson’s book Neither Here Nor There, a delightful romp through Europe circa 1990. The guy is seriously funny (more so than in his later books) and I laughed out loud several times. I love his straightforward impatience with stupidity and plots of revenge, his lovable failed encounters with the opposite sex and his occasional astonishment at the little cultural turns and large breathtaking beauties of a place. At the end of some 15 countries, there was a bit too much beer-drinking, complaining about expensive hotels and overpriced menus, desperate searches for coffee and an overall constant state of mild starvation for my taste, but nevertheless, a fun read. But one thing I found hard to forgive—his time in Bulgaria where he never once hears (or mentions he hears) a note of their remarkable music.  Pissed me off almost as much as Julia Roberts traipsing through Bali in the movie “Eat, Pray and Love” with not a single note of gamelan heard in the foreground, background or distant hillside.

Bill should know better. You can’t travel with the same old eyes and ears and expect to begin to understand a place. You can’t apply the same criteria for every place you visit. Some places need you to open your ears, others, your eyes, still others, exercise your taste buds or walk the hills. Or to jump on Elizabeth Gilbert’s bandwagon, you go to some places to eat, others to pray, others to love. You have to meet each place on its own terms. To travel to Ghana looking for cathedrals and art museums, to Vienna to see people singing, dancing and drumming in the marketplace, is to miss the point of each.

And so Mr. Bryson goes to Bulgaria with his eyes wide open and his ears closed (except for visiting some club that played “awful Bulgarian-style rock and roll”) and hence, is heartily disappointed. And even if he had heard the real McCoy of Bulgarian folk music, I suspect he would have been under-whelmed, made some snide comments about squawking cats, bleating goats, missing beats and dancers hopping up and down like trying to shake out insects in their pants. The ear can only appreciate, the eye can only see, what the mind can understand and the heart can open to.

As for me, I first heard the “ Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares” (French title for “the mysterious Bulgarian voices, which of course sounds even more mysterious in French) back in the early 70’s at Antioch College in Southwestern Ohio. On Friday nights, my friends and I used to mock the folk dancers circling around the tree in the bricked Red Square (appropriately named, if you know Antioch). We would do fake folk dance steps behind the circle until they invited us in and we realized those steps where a little trickier than they appeared. And though this was the era of Jimi Hendrix, Grateful Dead, Beatles and beyond, the music had its appeal—powerful voices, fiddles, bagpipes and flutes came through those scratchy recordings and suddenly I knew I wasn’t in Kansas (or Ohio) anymore. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew there was something dynamic, powerful and extraordinarily beautiful in those left-of-center harmonies, quirky metrical rhythms and indeed, mysterious (to my virgin ears) voices.

Judging by the sales of the Bulgarian recordings and the concert-touring schedule of the choir, I’m not alone in that perception. And when I shared some Bulgarian songs and dances with the Special Course in Salzburg, I felt that same aliveness come into the room and fascination, at once exotic and familiar to people from all corners of the world. Some years back, I did finally make it to Bulgaria for a 50th birthday present to myself, got one-quarter inch better in my Bulgarian bagpipe study that I had begun in San Francisco and kind of made my way through various intricate dances, all of which I forgot. But also was astounded to hear the blending timbres of the classic folk band, the Celtic cousin to Irish music, but with a gadulka, tamboura, kaval, gaida and tappan instead of the fiddle, mandolin or guitar, flute or tinwhistle, Ullieann bagpipe and bodhran drum. The particular mix of these sounds seemed cooked up in some genius acoustic laboratory, the loud bagpipe almost quiet in the mix as the band threaded its way through intricate melodies with the classic odd meters—5/8, 7/8, 9/8, 11/8, 15/16 and more.

I wish I had traveled with Mr. Bryson and helped him learn to hear what I heard. And he, of course, would point out features I never would have noticed. That’s why God gave us multiple intelligences, to help each other see, hear, feel and taste things we’d miss otherwise. But if we are to travel and enter cultures with a zest to grow larger and learn something new, we should be prepared for what the culture itself values and has paid attention to. Bill Bryson, if you’re out there reading this (which is unlikely as the proverbial pig flying), let’s go on a trip together—say Bulgaria, Brazil, Burkina Faso and Bali, for starters. Remarkable musical cultures all. I’ll open your ears, you buy the beer.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Fondness and Fury

My feelings for Florida fluctuate between fondness and fury. (Say that five times fast!). The fury should be evident to anyone who knows my political leanings—Florida’s role in over-riding the fundamental one person-one vote tenet of Democracy back in 2000 and probably 2004 as well and the resulting havoc and chaos it unleashed. In fact, it was Volusia County where New Smyrna is located, where, according to Wikipedia, “… a Global Election Systems voting machine showed that 412 of the 585 registered voters had voted. The problem was that the machine also claimed those 412 voters had somehow given Bush 2,813 votes and in addition had given Gore a negative vote count of -16,022.” And if that isn’t worthy of fury and outrage, I don’t know what is. Even if it is eleven years later.

But riding my bike on the beach, with some of the finest-grain sand I’ve experienced that packs down while wet and makes for great biking, I thought about the fondness I’ve always felt being in Florida, the in-the-moment feeling of breathing the fragrant air and listening to the varied and ever-present birds and wading in the Atlantic waters. The kinds of things that help me forget, for just a moment, the tangles and horrors of politics. And so while pedaling along the water, I found myself wondering where that affection came from.

Well, really no need to ask, why not just trust my feelings and enjoy them? But it did make me remember that Florida was the first truly different place I traveled to back at the bare beginnings of my life. Five-years old to be exact, when my father, mother, sister and I bundled into our old green 1954 Plymouth back in Roselle, New Jersey and began a long drive down to Florida. Though it was April 1st, there was a light snow, which made it all the more appealing to head South. Five is an age just on the cusp of conscious memory and I have no memorable impressions of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia or the Carolinas. But Georgia I will always remember. It was here that I was in the back seat of the car one moment looking at a comic book and tumbling out on the highway the next, courtesy of a drunk truck driver who tried to pass, sprang open our door and drove off the edge of the road himself into a large ditch. Later, my parents told that they themselves came within inches of tumbling down another ditch, with my sister and I still out on the road somewhere.

Fortunately, traffic was sparse. I do remember the sound of the ambulance, a moment in the doctor’s office getting stitches in my chin and elbows, a strange stop at some family’s house with two doors to their bathroom and then me proudly walking around with my bandages eliciting sympathy from strangers.

We then made it down to Miami and here memory mixes with old slide shows and 8-millimeter films—there was the oldest house in St. Augustine, a slave market platform, a Sea World show with leaping dolphins, a calypso band at our Blue Mist Hotel in Miami Beach and the swimming pool where I ventured further and further out from the stairs, making my first tentative stabs at real swimming. It was all a very different world from suburban New Jersey and made its first indelible marks on me as a future traveler. Hence, fondness for Florida. With the sun peeking out after two days of overcast skies, I’ll leave the fury alone. Lie down on the beach, listen to the gentle lull of the waves, remember what it feels like to be five years old and in a magical new world.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Past, Present, Pop-Pop!!!

And so I arrived and met up with shuttle bus, back in the U.S. of A. Down the freeway we went, past the fluorescent giant boxes of commodities, the parking lot stadiums, the temples of grease (okay, I stole that from Bill Bryson) to a Howard Johnson’s lobby to meet my wife in her rented car. She was late, so I sat listening to the throbbing bass of the rock group next door playing for the biker convention and when no one was looking, turned the wheel of stale corn flakes for a snack and filled my bottle with old dispenser juice. Back to the land of Styrofoam breakfast, blaring TV’s in hotel lobbies and a culture where utility, noise, glitzy distraction and constant consumption trump beauty, quiet and time to savor, something Europe still does so much better than us. We’ve had a century of unsatisfied Americans going to Europe to “learn how to live,” from the Hemingway/ Gertrude Stein/ Henry Miller clan in Paris back in the 20’s and 30’s to Elizabeth Gilbert’s fleeing to Italy to Eat before she Prays in India and Loves in Bali. I think in many ways, Europe still has much to teach us Americans how to live better.

For one thing, there’s a commitment to history, a respect for preservation even as one moves forward. Of course, Europe’s past as stored in architecture, art work and city planning is from the start much older than America’s, with the exception of the various Native American ruins in the Southwest. But still the redevelopment craze of the 60’s unabashedly leveled much that was worthy of preservation—for example, in the Fillmore District of my own San Francisco. Then came the 90’s strip-mauling of the land, the shopping centers on the outskirts that has effectively left the small towns of America soul-less ghost towns with no center—the movie theaters closed, Mom and Pop cast out, the city squares deserted. To find a place that has survived the Walmart tsunami is rare—Frankfort, Michigan up north where we summer every year, Yellow Springs, Ohio where I went to school, Mill Valley, California, to name just a few.

And so it feels like a special treat to come meet my wife Karen, her brothers and mother on Magnolia St. in New Smyrna Beach and stay in a century-plus old house where her Mom and her sisters grew up. The house is a spacious, rambling, one-story affair with rooms that open onto each other so you can see from the front to the back. Ceiling fans, old beautifully-crafted furniture, family photos on the walls, the smell of Karen’s grandmother (who passed away some 15 years ago at 94 years old) still lingering and her old Oldsmobile still in the driveway (I first came here when my daughter Kerala was three and remember hiding an Easter egg in the gas tank door). Vacant lots on either side of the house and a carriage house in the back where the black nanny Emma Lou used to live, now converted to the art studio where her Aunt Norma worked when she moved in after the grandmother died. Since Norma’s passing, it’s open for local artists to use.  Family history on every inch of its surface, all the way back to a time when my mother-in-law Pam used to ride on the backs of turtles on the beach.

Both here and in our SF home, there is a photo of Karen’s great-great-grandmother, great-grandmother, grandmother and mother as a baby sitting in front of a lovely armoire. Then another photo posed exactly the same with Karen’s great-grandmother, grandmother, mother and Karen as a baby and finally, a third, with grandmother, mother, Karen and three-year old Kerala. Well, yesterday I called Kerala, now 30 years old, to say hello and it seemed the perfect place to get the news. If the doctor confirms the home test, we’ll be ready for the next picture soon: Karen’s mom, Karen, Kerala and new baby!! I’m going to be a grandfather!!! Pop-Pop Doug!

And so the carousel of time keeps spinning, the future reaches back to shake hands with the past. I only hope that this New Smyrna house will resist redevelopment so my grandchild can come wander its rooms and look for Easter eggs in the gas tank of the old Oldsmobile.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Keep Moving

It’s Spring Break! My working vacation is now officially “vacation.” I’m back at the airport paying attention to other important things that have nothing to do with music or education—like the fresh artichokes next to the panini sandwiches, the Nicole Kidman/ Julia Roberts/ Paul Newman Energy drinks, the jewelry store called Christ (?), the always-interesting parade of people and the lifelong preference the eye has for the young women walking by. The mind freed from planning classes, the body freed from teaching them, time to step down from the soapbox and just observe what is before me. I open a book and step into another’s world, Bill Bryson's “Neither Here Nor There” about—guess what? —travel in Europe! A delightful humorous read, making me feel a little ashamed of my ponderous diatribes. Enough of trying to save the world—let's just walk through it thoroughly enjoying its madness, eccentricities, frustrations and delights. I can do that! Well, for at least a day or so.

My San Francisco training in political correctness has me nervous making generalizations about whole groups of people (see Tears and Temperament) while Mr. Bryson sallies forth boldly without a hint of apology into all the stereotypes: “The Germans are flummoxed by humor, the Swiss have no concept of fun, the Spanish think there is nothing ridiculous about eating dinner at midnight and the Italians should never, ever have been let in on the invention of the motorcar.” You get the idea. Like the old joke about heaven and hell. The first is where the British are the policemen, the Germans the auto-mechanics, the French the cooks, the Italians the lovers. In hell, the British are the cooks, the Germans the lovers, the French the auto-mechanics and the Italians the policemen. Or something like that.

Writing this in Frankfort Airport after sleeping on their humanistic three-seats-in-a-row-without-metal arms (U.S. airports take note!). In Salzburg, wireless was free, here you have to pay. Can we just agree on this, please? I vote for free! With no Euros left in my wallet, I’m off to see if my Starbucks card works. I’ll report back later.


The answer was “no,” but already anticipating a frapuccino, I opted for credit card. Though the Starbucks card was a gift from a student and I feel a small twinge of hypocrisy giving business to yet another neo-colonial enterprise, I do have a fondness for frapuccinos in airports. And to my credit, I refused the suggestion one night in Salzburg that we all get ice cream at McDonald’s, even though it was the only choice open at the moment. I hope Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Che Guevara noticed my courage standing up for my moral values.

So I’m on my way to Orlando, Florida, to re-Americanize myself eating at McDonald’s in Disneyland. (Just kidding!)  I do land in Orlando and hope to make my way to New Smyrna beach to the old house on Magnolia Street where my wife’s mother was born and grew up. It’s a family re-union of sorts, almost cancelled from a turn-for-the-worse in the health of my father-in-law who is in an elder care center. Communication has been hard long-distance and I still don’t know for sure if everyone really made it to Florida or stayed in Michigan. Guess I’ll find out some 11 hours from now.

Meanwhile, my trusty travel agent has a possible alternative ticket to Detroit just in case. Friends, there are certain people in your life you want to have lined-up—a good dentist, tax accountant and travel agent, for starters. My travel agent was sent from heaven to help me negotiate these ridiculously complicated routes I must travel and she has never let me down. She works from Utah and I will probably never meet her, but in a phone conversation once, I found out she used to be a music teacher! Plane boarding now, window seat at the back of the bus, where sado-masochist plane designers insure that the person’s seat in front of me will touch my nose as she leans back. But at least I’ll have a view.

An acquaintance of mind who I’ve seen jogging around the neighborhood these past twenty years or so told me he was following his father’s advice—“Keep moving.” I suppose this travel is my own version, minus the sweat and pained facial expression.

And off I go. 

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Just Getting Warmed Up

My razor is dull, my shampoo almost gone and I have one clean shirt left—it’s time to go. But reluctantly. My future epitaph for my gravestone applies here—“I’m just getting warmed up.” As I’ve said so many times in these entries, it is a pleasure beyond words to have the opportunity to teach adults as I do, passing on what feels essential about music education, culture and our own limitless possibilities. To do a one-hour workshop is to quickly pull back a curtain so the people can peek into a splendid room and then, if they choose, find their way back to it with future workshops. A one-day workshop lets people stay a little longer, try out the furniture and enjoy the snacks. The five-day course is when things get more serious—and more fun. Time for understanding to settle, for technical practice to get some exercise, for the way the teacher thinks and develops things to become familiar and predictable in a satisfying way, for relationships to form and grow. The two-week Level training and my two weeks here allow for a full arch to be revealed—from step A to step Z, from the baby to the elder—and for the intimate culture of the group to grow and thrive. I can only be grateful for it all—and yet hungry for more. The first time I taught a Special Course in Salzburg in 2003 remains my world record—some 90 hours over six weeks. But still not enough.

We finished the last day playing some music from the Basque Country, Greece, Zimbabwe and American jazz, singing a couple of songs from Bulgaria and Sweden, sitting for a closing circle to find out what each person had to say. Keeping to the musical arch I try to apply to my classes—enticing beginning, connected middle, satisfying end— I hoped for the usual tear-filled ending as we sang the Swedish song with the punchline, “I can row without oars, I can sail without wind, but I cannot say goodbye to my friend without crying.” There was a lot working against the perfect ending—we were overtime, the lighting was wrong (noon with bright sun), the reflection brought up some of the frustrations people had with the sometimes frantic pace. But still, as I gave each person two Spanish kisses one-by-one around the circle while we sang, some cheeks were wet—including, of course, my own. As Owl says in Arnold Lobel’s delightful children’s story, “I take a sip of Tearwater Tea and find it a most refreshing drink.”

I finished the day taking care of the practical tasks before leaving—returning keys, collecting final papers, arranging tomorrow’s taxi, packing and such— and then met about half the folks once more for dinner at an Afro restaurant (fun to eat millet with vegetables), followed by the mandatory beer hall experience. Then I returned my rented electric bike and walked home once more along the river in the balmy Spring evening, moon rising over Untersberg Mountain, the night birds singing. How much gratitude is enough? To not only share work that touches every nerve in the human body and soul, but to do so with such lovely people in such a breathtaking city—well, really, how dare I ever complain about anything ever again?

And when it comes down to it, my biggest complaint is simply ignorance that such possibilities exist, my dismay at a culture’s refusal to see how rich life could be for us all if we only paid attention to the right things. At dinner, my American friend tells of how her sister is considering home-schooling her eight-year old because at four, he brought back dynamic artwork and the songs he learned in class, and now it’s only dull homework and no enthusiasm because the arts in LA schools have been cut yet again (go to “music2011” for a Youtube version of the story). Same-old same-old.

Meanwhile, a thousand thanks to Shirley Salmon and Andrea Ostertag for inviting me yet again and keeping the Special Course running, to Manuela Widmer, Barbara Haselbach, Monica Siegel and more for working so hard on the upcoming Symposium this summer (where I will come yet again with my two colleagues, Sofia Lopez-Ibor and James Harding and 17 kids from The San Francisco School to perform and partake), to each and every one of these beautiful sixteen people who turned their lives upside-down for one year to go deeper into this spiritual practice. “So long, farewell, auf weidersehn, goodbye…” to this magical Sound-of-Music city—and see you all again in July.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Acoustic Bicycles

I’ve been having minor electronic meltdowns, beginning with my trusty I-Pod (over five years old!) mysteriously erasing itself and continuing with my laptop or Flip or camera running out of batteries at crucial moments. Meanwhile, I’m trying to juggle long-distance business at home, getting notes to my students here at the Orff Institute, finding every wireless spot in Salzburg (making progress here!). Like so many of us these days, I’m increasingly dependent on these devices, enjoying them when they work and helpless and frustrated when they don’t. “I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face” is the song I'm listening to on I-Tunes while typing this rough-draft blog and I suppose it’s appropriate—“I’ve grown accustomed to machines, like breathing out and breathing in…”

Still, though, I was not pleased when I finally located a bike rental place and all they had was a new electronic model. “Just push this button, then that one, and if you want to do X, push Y and don’t forget to shut it off when you park.” “I just want to pedal and go as fast as my legs can turn!” I protested. “You’re going to love it!” he assured me and anyway, there was no other choice. So off I set and sure enough, this button didn’t seem to work no matter how hard I pushed it and then when something did work, I pedaled and felt an extra burst of energy. Then pedaled faster and it slowed down. Huh? Then I discovered if I pedaled lightly, it kept a constant speed of some 25 kilometers an hour. Kind of like a silent slow motor-scooter.

So after class today, I set off to visit some of my old haunts, zipping along the old bike paths with the sun setting over the mountains and a light breeze on my face. Well, who doesn’t get a little thrill from a zippy motorbike? And yet, no real exercise, no sense of earning the dinner awaiting me at the end— like all innovations, a trade-off. At the end of it all, I think I prefer the acoustic bicycle—unplugged.

Meanwhile, the days proceed apace with three or four hours daily with this marvelous international group finding out precisely what our hands, feet, bodies and voices can do on their own and with minor extensions, like striking drums with our fingers or pieces of wood laid across a box with mallets. In a short two weeks, we’ve revisited each grade of  school, reliving the musical education childhood most of us didn’t have. Yesteday, we finished 5th grade.

Today, we sang and played songs and pieces from Bulgaria, Iceland, Brazil, Spain and danced to Old Joe Clark from the U.S. of A. Each one invigorating, beautiful, dynamic in it’s own particular voice. Then we took a detour from elementary school to college, enrolled in a 90-minute History of Western Music from 1200 to 1600 in the way I wish it were taught. We sang Gregorian Chant, hymns of praise, enjoyed the serious and frivolous Feast of Fools and ended with a four-part Kyrie by Palestrina. The highlight was probably the six men on their knees singing a troubadour song to the ten women. Tomorrow we go to Harlem and spend some time with the Duke, the Count, Lady Day and other Royalty of the jazz world. Hard to imagine a better way to spend our days. Almost as good as listening to an I-Pod while riding an electric scooter. Ha ha!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Tears and Temperament

At my guesthouse, I go down to breakfast in a room with well-crafted wooden tables and chairs, linen tablecloths, flowers and a big table set with the daily offerings—fresh, warm just-baked-on-the-premises-hearty-wheat-bread in a basket, homemade yogurt and jam in white crockery, cheese set out on a board and a bowl of fresh fruit. Out the window is the Salzsach River that runs through town, the distant mountains topped with snow, the wooded hills. How often I travel in the States and the view out the window is the parking lot or abandoned downtown buildings or the strip mall, the breakfast is stale muffins served on plastic plates, bad coffee in Styrofoam cups and the TV blaring.

I imagine that place affects temperament, is part of what forms who we become. I certainly feel less than I would like to be when surrounded with ugliness and conversely, feel uplifted by beauty. By these standards, Salzburg is a breeding-ground for happiness. It is the perfect blend of the natural and the human, the woods, fallow fields, bike and walking paths, hills and mountains side-by-side with beautiful buildings and urban streets and alleys. It offers a wonderful balance between the old and the new, the historic churches and castles old houses living harmoniously next to some more modern architecture, the Mozart-Mozart-Mozart offset by pop and jazz, experimental dance and theater. The elders walk along the river holding hands, the youth sit on the bridge talking and drinking beer. Sometimes at night, I see beer bottles left on the bridge, but by the morning, they’re always gone. The city is immaculately clean and there seem to be two resident homeless people. The playgrounds are filled with kids and often adults are playing ping-pong on their two-hour lunch breaks. As close to ideal as I’ve seen anywhere.

And yet I can’t help but notice that people pass me without a greeting, without a smile. Perhaps they know I’m a foreigner and there’s some resentment about having to share their beautiful city with tourists. Perhaps some is simply a German-Austrian way of emotional expression, cards held tighter to the chest than those cultures who live further south. Perhaps it’s the moody weather and air fronts circulating from the mountains. But still I sometimes marvel at seeing dour faces set against this beauty. How can people not be euphorically happy walking amongst such marvels?

Need I ask? We carry our temperament with us wherever we go. Outer beauty is just one of the factors in the complex polyphony of human happiness and well-being. I hear stories about a general low level of warmth and affection with children in schools, note the lack of kissing hello that is everywhere in Latin countries, feel a certain formality in the air. It is no startling new insight that German culture is noted for a certain temperament of reserve. And I notice it in my workshops.

In a place like Spain or Brazil or Colombia, people come into the room talking and laughing, the room buzzing with energy and affection as they greet each other with kisses. When the workshop starts, they jump into activities with both feet and keep the energy bubbling as they go off to the break. Here (and in England, Denmark, Minnesota and other places), there is sometimes an eerie silence before I begin. People are people and once we start playing, I see the same smiles and hear the same squeals of delight. But the more reserved temperaments often begin from a cooler temperature, gradually warm up into some dynamic, flowing, social musical event and then quickly retreat back to that introspective quiet at the end. When I ask, “How was that?” expecting the California, “Great!!!”, there is that silence again and perhaps a little nod. Temperament.

Yesterday I did a workshop at the Carl Orff School in Traunwalchen, the very place where I stood on the stage in July of 2000 at the International Orff Symposium while Frau Orff pinned the Pro Merito Award medal on my jacket lapel. My workshop was titled “Orff for All Ages” and covered the spectrum of music’s place from womb to tomb. In a day filled with the usual fun and frivolity, there were two highlights: the moment they split into small groups and shared German songs, rhymes, knee-bouncing and tickle poems for babies. One man began singing a lullaby and the room blossomed into exquisite four-part harmony—beautiful! I noticed that about five people didn’t know the song and they were all younger folks. One mark of authentic culture is a random group of strangers united by the same repertoire of songs that carry the voices of grandparents into the room. Today’s Pop-fed youth are losing that connection. So I charged the group to leave the workshop and teach a younger person these songs that should never die out.

The second highlight was gathering around the piano at the end to sing a lullaby that I had brought. This was the “music for elders” conclusion to the day and I spoke about how strange and yet beautiful it is that we find ourselves feeding, dressing and singing songs to our aged parents as they had once done for us, a circle completed. We put our hands on each other’s back as we sang to feel the vibration of our neighbors voice, something I used to often do with my Dad in his last days and still do when I visit my Mom. And off we went with a sweet little lullaby called “Dreamland Town.” I believe I saw a few tears break through the reserved temperament.

As I write this, I hear an exquisite song from the radio, a child’s voice accompanied by piano moving through the harmonies that pluck the subtle strings of feeling. At the same time that I’m questioning the emotional temperament of the people I pass in Salzburg, I’m in the place that spawned Mozart and (down the road in Vienna), Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler and a list too long to write here of people who crafted a music that evokes the full rainbow spectrum of our emotional life. Isn’t that interesting.

After the workshop, I walk with my good friend and colleague, Rodrigo, through the fields, look out at the village with the church and the distant mountains, a scene as idyllic as any landscape painter ever imagined. We cross the bridge over the gurgling river, stop in the woods to pick baerlauch, the garlic-onion-like leaf that will be the pesto for dinner, enter the remarkable house he and his wife Tissy (both Orff Institut graduates) crafted with their own hands, with the help of family who live in the same cluster of houses. The grandfather, who lives downstairs, is with the two children, who spend their days playing in the woods, talking to the sheep, riding the tractor with their uncle, singing their way around the house, all the things that kids do when there’s no TV to distract them—and in this house, there isn’t. Tissy is a clown-doctor, going to hospitals to brighten people’s day. Rodrigo oversees young teachers and steers them towards imaginative lessons and a loving relationship with children. Lest my general comments about German-Austrian temperament be misconstrued, let me be clear at how much I admire my friends from the culture and the work they’re doing, how much I appreciate the beauty of their homes, towns and cities, how much I love the festivals that live on (Mai-baum, the raising of the tree to herald in the summer, one of my favorites).

And so I keep traveling around the world searching for the perfect balance of inner and outer beauty, introspective and exuberant temperament, good weather and bodies of water to swim in, knowing full well that such a paradise doesn’t exist. Each place, each culture, has its light and shadow side and it’s in the conversation between them things get interesting. Meanwhile, it’s a sunny new day in Salzburg and I’m determined to say hello with a smile to each person I pass.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Jumping Over Fire

I’m following Spring around the globe. First, the Setsubon Festival in Tokyo in February where I ate the 59 roasted soybeans. Then home in San Francisco early March, too late for plum blossoms and too early for cherries, but just right for the crab apple blossoms in the Arboretum. And now in Salzburg, where two uncharacteristically warm days appeared as a welcome surprise to everyone. I walked downtown yesterday to rent my bike and none of the usual rental places in the plazas were out. I asked a local ice cream vendor and she explained: “It’s March. We expected it to be snowing.”

So I’m settle back in Room 24 in the Uberfuhr Guesthouse, overlooking the Salzach river, the Schloss castle on the hill visible in the distance, the bridge where the youth sit and hang out close by. Of all the places I’ve traveled, Salzburg is one of the few I keep coming back to time and time again and as the home of the Orff Institute, this is no surprise. I’ve probably come here on the average of once a year for 21 years now, which makes it all the more shameful that my German vocabulary has stayed constant at about twenty words and five phrases. But to my credit, I rarely stay more than two weeks at a time and I’m always teaching in an English-speaking course and thus, constantly around people speaking—well, English. And like so many places in the world, shopkeeper English is high and thus German not a necessity out on the street. I still don’t like not speaking the language of a place, but time is short and real estate in the brain is limited and it is necessity that often drives the choices we make about what to study.

And so it is again that I am here with 16 marvelous people as a guest teacher in the one-year English-speaking Special Course at the Orff Institute. As usual, it’s a blend of folks from the distant corners of the world and that’s half the marvel of the experience. This particular course throws together people from Colombia, Spain, Italy, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, the U.S., Canada and Iran.

The last group is particularly intriguing, as there is a growing body of teachers from Iran intrigued by the Orff approach that are coming to Salzburg (and San Francisco) to study. I’ve always found them to be a warm, dynamic, sharp-witted and exceptionally intelligent group of people and was delighted to be invited to a celebration last night of one of the rituals of No Ruz, the Persian New Year. An ancient pre-Islamic ceremony to welcome the Spring, its rituals include a thorough house-cleaning (Spring cleaning) to sweep out the old and invite in the new, certain foods and ritual objects to invite in and pay homage to the ancestors and most intriguing—and fun—jumping over an open fire. Just before the jump, there is a spoken phrase about giving your “yellow” (representing sickness) to the fire in exchange for the fire’s red (robust health and dynamic energy). And so out on the deck we went, leaping back and forth over the open fire. Fun!

I’m trying to imagine the reaction from my school’s recently-formed Risk Committee to doing this ceremony at school. Ha ha! Well, in the good ole days, we did used to have a Winter Holiday sing with candles and it is true that one of the teacher’s hair did briefly catch fire. But as often happens, we were an intelligent group of adults who quickly figured out how to handle it and we all survived just fine. And it sure was beautiful singing those songs in candlelight. Now in schools in Australia, a teacher needs a “Ladder License” to be able to climb up to change a light bulb.

I’m all for reasonable precaution, but the Culture of Fear has us by the throat and every day its fingers are tightening. I just finished reading a much-needed and on-the-mark book titled “Life Without Lawyers” that gives the gory details of how we are crippled by our fear of litigation, how it skews our decision-making, tears the cultural fabric and harms children and adults alike. (I knew something was off when a few years back, I gave a time-out to an out-of-control three-year old and he threatened that his parents were going to sue me. I repeat—three-years old.) It is also suggests highly practical and ultimately do-able alternatives that make reasonable efforts to protect us from abuse of authority while shutting-down the mania to sue if we poke ourselves with a toothpick after eating at a restaurant. Highly recommended!! (The book, not the toothpick litigation.)

But at 5 am in the jet-lagged morning, the birds up and about their day with a song, the outlines of bare-branched trees and the distant snow-capped mountains taking shape in dawn’s slowly developing photograph, this is not the time for another Mr. Crankypants’ entry on the demise of culture. I’m grateful to be in a place where the young and old alike lie on the grass on the riverbank breathing in the Spring, where people ride on the elaborate system of bike-paths, many (gasp!) without helmets, and where visiting Iranians can jump over fires on their deck. Happy Spring!

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Sweet Bird of Youth

Eight productive days at home and now on the road again. Or more precisely, “in the air again” (old metaphors die hard) winging my way to Salzburg, tucked away near the back of the plane, where the leg room dwindles to nothing, surrounded by 30 buzzing teenagers off on a school exchange in Italy and seated close to the mandatory screaming baby from hell, who is reaching a range that calls dogs. What was that about the romance of travel?

But fun to feel the energy of young people on their first trip to Europe. Despite the homogenization of culture worldwide, Europe still holds plenty of character and enough difference from a small town in Oregon that these kids are going to notice it—and hopefully, cherish it and not spend their time in McDonald’s or Starbucks and watch Seinfeld re-runs on their hotel TV. My first trip was in the summer I turned 22, a two-month odyssey with 40 fellow hippies from Antioch College who, in an unlikely marriage, sang the exquisite sacred masses of Rennaissance composers Guillame Dufay and Johannes Ockeghem in the cathedral of Paris, Chartres, Venice, Florence, Rome and more. What a time that was! (Those curious can take a peek and a listen at If you look under “Bruce’s photos,” you’ll see the barefoot- bright-eyed- bearded- bushy-haired person I once was.)

To quote an old Chinese song; “The sweet bird of my youth has flown away, never to return.” Ain’t that the truth. But fun to feel the excitement from this group of kids on the plane. I had my turn, now it’s theirs. And would I really trade who I am now for insecurity and pimples? Would I want to freeze that unformed-self and be a perpetual adolescent Peter Pan? “You’re damn right I would!” some part of me shouts. “What are a few pimples compared to the current ravaging of the body?! And those adolescent insecurities keep popping up anyway. Meanwhile, there’s the romance, the excitement, the sense of the world before you and everything possible and immortality walking by your side.”

But truth be told, I’m glad I lived it once and except for occasional nostalgia for that younger body, I wouldn’t really choose to do it again anytime soon. I now have a few known truths under my belt (is that why it’s so hard to fasten these days?) and different kinds of pleasures. And though the sense of possibility of what I want to be when I grow up, what I hope to accomplish, dwindles with the sobering math calculations each passing year brings, that sense of excitement in what tomorrow might offer is still with me. I still practice as if I might someday be a jazz pianist, write as if I might be an author more than ten people actually read, imagine that someday I’m going to plant a garden and putter in the yard. I still see beautiful houses or visit intriguing places and wonder what it might be like to live there some day. Though the melody may seem distant, the sweet bird of youth is still singing, with an experience that gives body to the innocent song I used to sing. As William Blake suggest, we need songs of both innocence and experience and when we passed to the innocence given to us for free as children to an earned innocence married to experience, we have the best of both worlds. 

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Seventh Generation

It felt good to vent my outrage over the state of education in the last entry, but of course, I know it’s like throwing a pebble at a tank. Yesterday I read that Sec. of Education Arnie Duncan said the “82% of our schools are failing.” Hmm. That’s like giving a test to your students in class. If 82% of them fail, it means you did a pretty lousy job teaching them and have to recalibrate your goals and expectations. And once again we must ask, “What is the standard of success? How do you measure the culture of a school? The happiness of its students?” Well, Bhutan has some Gross National Product of Happiness and it’s actually quite easy to measure. Just walk into a school (or Bhutan), open your eyes and look at the kids. If they’re smiling, singing while they work, excited in their endeavors, enjoying each other’s company, that’s a good sign. Give them an A.

In my last entry, I suggested that a dynamic arts education is now far beyond the status of a luxury—it is a necessity for our future survival. If you ask me to elaborate, my first question is “How much time do you have?” I have a long list of stories, poems, philosophical treatises, scientific research and beyond. Not to mention an invitation to participate in my classes so you can know for yourself.

But I’m sure most people reading would dismiss the idea as the ravings of a lunatic. Because to understand what I mean takes a little bit of imagination and that is precisely what we are in such short supply of these days. I imagine that politicians looking at school budget numbers and deciding what to cut see it as a cut-and-dry matter of simple math. But when it comes to education, we need a larger vision and this kind of thinking doesn’t register on the radar. And it’s not entirely anybody’s fault. After all, we are products of an education that killed our curiosity, neglected our character, ignored our passion, set us against each other in a cutthroat competition for first place as we elbowed our way to the top or dropped out of the race altogether to just make-do.

Vision means that you look beyond the tip of your nose, see further than the immediate fight for survival, be it economic or physical, to the ideas and practices that will sustain us seven generations down the line. This idea of far-ranging decision-making, first articulated by the Iroquois in their governing principles and now reduced to the name of a cleaning product, is precisely what we need to consider when we’re thinking about schools, what to keep, what to change, what to get rid of.

That’s why poets and musicians and philosophers should all have a chair at the table of the school board, the Town Council or the Congress. Last night, I heard the San Francisco Jazz Collective perform their extraordinary music, creating new works from the genius works of the past (in this case, the music of Stevie Wonder), marrying the past, present and future with such intelligence, heart, soul and comradery. One of their members, the vibraphonist Stefon Harris, spoke so eloquently about their work and how fascinated he was by letting his son explore freely on drums without correcting him or over-guiding him and how extraordinary the results. I nominate Stefon for the new Secretary of Education! And I wouldn’t mind running myself.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Electronic Wailing Wall

A reporter goes to Israel to do a piece on the Wailing Wall. She notices that the same man comes three times a day every day to pray. Finally, she goes up to him and says, 
“Excuse me, I couldn’t help but notice your devotion in coming here so often to pray. How long have you been doing this?” 
“About 40 years,” the man replies. 
“40 years! That’s dedication, indeed! Tell me, what do you pray for?” 
“I pray that the Christians, Muslims and Jews will recognize that their God is one and the same, that all fighting and wars will stop, that we will treat our children with love and respect and they in turn will love and respect us, that kindness and compassion will win out over hatred and greed.” 
The reporter says, “That’s very commendable. 40 years of praying for these things! How does that feel?” “Like I’m talking to an f’in’ wall!!!!”

I love this joke. It expresses exactly how I feel after almost 40 years of speaking on behalf of music education. Today, a letter from an Orff colleague came my way with the same-old same-old news:

Just as it is in many states around the country, the state of New York is facing a critical financial situation that will impact the schools terribly. Last evening, I received a call from the teacher who took my place when I retired from public school education.  She informed me that, despite the wonderful work she has done to maintain the program I established, the principal is cutting ALL ART and ALL MUSIC in that school.  This type of situation is varied from school to school in this urban district.  Of course, I am livid beyond words. 

I sent her an excerpt from my recent talk in Hong Kong—“Why Music Matters.”

“Every time has its particular challenges and ours is the astronomical rate of change we are experiencing. When a tool (computer) three years old is considered archaic, when we are trying to train students for businesses that don’t exist yet (who would have predicted Google twenty years ago?), when yesterday’s solutions are woefully inadequate for tomorrow’s problems, we desperately need to re-think what is important for schools to teach. The only preparation for the future is training children to think, respond, imagine, work together in groups, problem- solve with flexible minds, cooperative spirit and soaring imaginations. They still need to learn their times-tables, practice scales and learn the history of civilizations, but always with an eye as to how to use that knowledge to meet the present and future.

When seen in this light, suddenly quality arts education takes on a whole new meaning. It becomes so much more than a frill that makes children feel warm and fuzzy inside. It becomes the most important subject in the curriculum, especially when taught in a way that emphasizes improvisation, composition and small group work. The only way to meet constant change and variation is to cultivate a flexible mind accustomed to improvising and responding with intelligence. That’s what great Orff programs do.

In the Variability Selection Theory proposed by Richard Potts, he states that humans have thrived because of our ability to change. He suggests that the cream of the crop of the gene pool were those who had the imagination, intelligence and flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances and that is why our ancestors “became increasingly allergic to inflexibility and stupidity.” 

And that well-describes all the politicians across the country who, when met with financial crisis, respond by taking money from schools and from arts program within schools. They could decrease the Pentagon budget, put ceilings on corporate CEO salaries, or look at a hundred other parts of the culture that do nothing to prepare us for our future. But to take the money from our children who ARE the future, from the schools that should be designed to cultivate their innovative skills, from the arts programs that are the highest level of integrated thought and improvisational disciplines, is the height of stupidity.

Let’s try something new and daring here. Let’s increase the money to schools and arts programs, increase opportunities for teachers to train themselves to nurture tomorrow’s innovators. Those already knowledgeable about how to do this—for example, Orff Schulwerk teachers with a half-century of tried-and-true practices and proven successes—are waiting patiently for the opportunity to help. Let’s do it!”

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I had the great pleasure of working with the 17 students at my school who are preparing a performance for the International Orff Symposium in Salzburg this summer. They had already been working with my brilliant colleagues, Sofia Lopez-Ibor and James Harding, and in a few short weeks, were ready with pieces from Vivaldi to Argentinia tangos and malambos to the Rice Krispies’ acapella theme and beyond. In two short hours, they quickly mastered complex body percussion patterns, two xylophone pieces from Ghana and the beginning of a Latin jazz piece. For every “ping” I gave them, they responded with an equally powerful and interesting “pong.” People kept poking their heads in the door to find out who was making this dynamic music. My new motto for music teachers: “Create the kinds of musicians you want to play with.” And it seems this is exactly what James, Sofia and I had done. These middle schoolers felt absolutely like our peers, not only in terms of musical skills, ideas, hearing, techniques, but also in terms of their sense of humor and enjoyment.

So Wailing Wall, indeed. The height of the joy of the above experiences makes the grief of its absence for kids around the country even deeper. But the difference with this electronic wailing wall is its potential transparency. Instead of my complaints rebounding off into stony, unresponsive silence, this has the capacity to reach further, especially if the readers see fit to pass it on. W.H. Auden famously said, “All I have is my voice to undo the folded lie” and in this case, the lie is that art is expendable, that financial troubles means punishing the children first, that we must passively accept inflexibility and stupidity (which is paramount to consent). So let’s join our voices together and see what might happen. 

Monday, March 7, 2011

Chocolate and Champagne

How many stories do we need to hear about art’s redemptive power before we as a culture sit up and take notice? How many times will we hear the statement, “They had to cut the arts program for next year” and casually accept it as if it were an act of God rather than an ignorant, short-sighted human decision that could be otherwise? When are we going to take the streets and scream, “Are you crazy?!! Taking arts away from our children?!! What are you thinking?!!!”

The other night, I went to a local high school to see an SF Alum student perform in an evening of Pacific Island music and dance. The theater was packed with kids screaming out the names of their friends on stage and adults running up during the dances and throwing dollar bills at the performers. My former student was in just about every one of some 15 pieces, beating his chest in the Maori piece, playing elaborate body percussion in the Samoan Sasa, playing drums in the Tonga piece and even twirling lit firesticks in a solo act. He had told me that if hadn’t joined the Polynesian Culture Club and been mentored by the teacher who headed this after-school activity, he most likely would have taken a wrong turn into shadowy teenage arenas. Speaking of that teacher, he summed it up succinctly: “He saved my life.” And given that for many teens, the need to belong will either be fulfilled by a music band or gang, he meant that literally.

Meanwhile, at the far side of life’s journey, I attended the Memorial Service for Deborah Friend, the woman at the Jewish Home for the Aged who used to come around the piano and request “Lullaby of Birdland.” Many people spoke with funny and poignant stories, most of which included eating chocolate and drinking champagne together and admiring her dedication to art. Her children told of her life journey from Israel to New York City to Carmel, California and finally having to accept a room in the Jewish Home when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. When she entered, she felt it was the first step into the end. Just before she died, she told her children, “These last nine years in this home were the best years of my life.” Why? Mostly because every day she painted in the art room. She developed a sophisticated abstract style, started going to galleries to try to get shown, made cards of her paintings to send to friends. And still got to eat chocolate and drink champagne.

After the service in the synagogue, we all went off to the atrium which she had filled with her paintings for—well, strawberries, chocolate and champagne. They wheeled in the piano and I played both a slow and lively “Lullaby of Birdland” while people ate and drank, admired the paintings, tapped their feet to the music and told each other more stories. "Live fully. Leave a record. ” some poet somewhere once said and Deborah had done both.

When I gave a sip of champagne to my Mom, her eyes twinkled with delight as she exclaimed, “Ooh! It warms me all over!” Art is the chocolate and champagne of life, bringing sparkle, bubbles, flavor, energy and buzz. For some of us, it is also the bread and butter—we simply can’t imagine a day without it. How is it that we can tolerate the absence of art in the lives of children? In the workplace? In the neighborhood gatherings?

I’ve just announced my Jazz Course Level II to the teachers from the past ten years that had taken Jazz I with me. Here is a sampling of their responses:

My intention is to come, but I’ll have to wait until some important info. regarding some serious cut backs will be revealed in the next couple of months. (Oregon)

I am in a similar place to C. (above) in terms of anticipated cuts to my program. (Ohio)

The funds are currently not available for me but I’m trying to come up with a creative solution to this problem. (Toronto)

I need to set aside my budding music- teaching career and secure full-time employment in my old field to support my two girls. (California)

I'm aching to go to Jazz II this summer, but the financial situation in my district is dire and music teachers are dropping like flies. The cuts are deep in these parts. (Oregon)

The word “cuts” is revealing— like that teenage malady of self-cutting to express some unresolved anxieties and depressions, we as a culture are slashing our own arms and the blood is flowing. Go to Music 2011 on Youtube and see a little clip pleading for support in L.A., where 160 music teachers for 500 schools may be cut back to 39.

Now here’s the truth. You don’t need no stinkin’ school music program to sit down and start slapping the djembe, strumming the guitar or tickling the ivories as you fancy. Art will out! It will arise from our deep need to leave a trace, to connect with our neighbor, to express things forbidden in polite society. Deborah discovered art quite late in life and you can too.

But since I’ve spent the last 36 years trying to fold art into the culture of the school in both a bread and butter and chocolate and champagne way, it sure doesn’t hurt if a culture says out loud, “We value this. We will give time and money to it. We care about children so much that we’ll do whatever it takes to give them a way to be wholly themselves.” With or without official approval, art will live on. But I always think it better if a culture, be it in a home, school or whole country, aligns itself with human needs and delights.

Don’t you?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Be a Tourist in Your Town

There is great pleasure in being home. There are all the CD’s I’ve so meticulously collected, the books, the refrigerator filled with food of my choice, the piano awaiting my fingers. But I also can feel the pull of those endless lists— “Fix me! Replace the cartridge! Get cat food! We’re out of cumin! Choose a different font!”—the paraphernalia of busyness that calls louder at home than on the road.

Travel reduces life to simpler terms. In my earlier travels, writing and mailing an aerogram might be the event of the day. Now with wireless in the hotel rooms, Skype and I-Tunes on the computer, some of home travels with me. But still alone at the end of the day in the hotel, there is more permission to write in my journal, read a book or enjoy the Solitaire tournament. On days off from teaching abroad, I’m more likely to wander aimlessly through a neighborhood than do errands.

So being home, I can feel those old familiar pulls, the feeling of “what do I need to get done?” trumping “where should I wander today?” Once you’re in that mode, there’s no end to the little errands and busy work. The trick is to trick yourself into being a tourist in your own town. And so today’s entry is a little poem on the subject.

A Tourist in Your Town

When things are low and getting stale
You’re feeling rather down.
Walk out the door, hoist up your sail,
Be a tourist in your town!

Break out those splashy shirts,
Throw the camera ‘round your neck.
Go rent a car from Hertz
A Jaguar? What the heck!

The place you pass most every day,
Now looks like someplace new.
The cup you drink at your café
Tastes better and more true.

The things you’ve seen so oft before
Come laden with surprise.
As if you’ve opened a new door,
You see with tourists’ eyes.

The camera’s eye now frames,
What was too close to see.
Those shuttered windowpanes,
On the shop that serves herb tea.

The skateboarders careening,
Down Lombard’s curvy street.
All takes on a new meaning
When you walk with tourist feet.

The sounds of children playing,
The thunderous ocean roar.
Why, you might consider staying,
Perhaps a few days more?

So when your spirit’s flagging,
No remedies can be found.
Take my advice, put on new eyes,
Be a tourist in your town. 

Friday, March 4, 2011

Welcome Home

Now I know how Phileas Fogg felt. Though I was aware we were crossing the International Dateline, somehow I thought the hours added up such that I left on Thursday afternoon and arrived on Friday morning. That’s what I told the folks back home. Imagine my surprise when the pilot announced “Welcome to San Francisco, where the local time is 8:00 am Thursday morning.” So I was granted the rare gift of an extra day.

It was a four-movie 11-hour flight and though I barely slept, I got on the BART train out of the airport, got out at Glen Park Station and walked the half-mile with my two-winged rolling suitcases to my Mom’s residence at the Jewish Home for the Aged. I expected a shriek of delight when she saw me, but instead got a quiet smile. At 89 years old with a slowly advancing dementia, time takes on a new meaning—who knows what the five weeks apart felt like to her? But once we went to the piano and I started playing, the same smile of contentment spread across her face.

The scene that unfolded was worthy of a tearjerker movie, kind of a musical Field of Dreams—“Play it and they will come.” As I began playing, people started emerging from the various corners of the Home, some because they recognized my touch and some simply attracted by the music. First was Fran, my partner-in-crime who feeds me the songs she remembers and loves to sing—probably some 300 at least. 95 year old Ben, Holocaust-survivor and resident pianist, had fallen and broken his leg, but wheeled out to greet me. Patsy with her remarkable memory for words showed up, as did Laya, the ex-English teacher who analyzes Cole Porter lyrics from a Shakespearean point of view. Ed was reading the newspaper, but paused to drum along on the table (his mother thwarted his ambitions to be a drummer, but I gave him permission!). Before I knew it, some thirty people were gathered around singing, mouthing words, listening, frolicking through the fields of our collective dreams sung in Ellington, Gershwin, Jerome Kern songs.

During a pause between songs, Fran caught me up on the news and told me of Deborah’s passing, a visual artist who always requested the hippest tunes—Lullaby of Birdland was her favorite—and once gave me a little lullaby she had written to play. This the great sorrow of making friends with octogenarians and beyond. There will be a service on Sunday and I hope to be able to play her lullaby as a “rest in peace” gesture.

Meanwhile, Jeannie showed up on her 101’st birthday and we sang to her, as we had to Natalie five weeks earlier when she celebrated her 103rd. And she was there as well with her infectious ear-to-ear smile as she swayed to the music. Two and a half hours later, jet lag overtook me and it was lunchtime anyway. I couldn’t think of a better way to return to my hometown.

Now I get to prepare my tax returns. Oh joy.

P.S. For those who are still wondering, Phileas Fogg is the character in Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days who makes a bet he can circumnavigate the globe. He returns to London 81 days later, despondent that he had lost until he buys a newspaper and realizes he gained a day by crossing the International Dateline. David Niven played him in the movie.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Black Swan of Hong Kong

My last night of my five-week travel and I boarded the ferry to Central Pier to meet a friend in “downtown Hong Kong.” Five minutes on the water, with my classes behind me and the beckoning city ahead, I already felt swept up in travel romance. The sea will do that, with its alluring invitation to adventure and possibility waiting on its distant horizon. And then there is the Hong Kong skyline, a city framed by high hills and water as are other cities of romance—Rio de Janeiro and San Francisco, for example. My childhood associations with Hong Kong, scene of exotic films and mysterious back alleys and bustling markets and Chinese boats in the harbor, added yet more color to my romantic notions.

And so I felt my heart lighten as we bounded over the waters (not that teaching these classes had made it feel heavy—but after all, work is work and travel is travel) and arrived at the pier. I followed the crowd looking for my friend, who had assured me she’d be easy to spot. And yet she wasn’t there. I walked down past some other piers and back again to mine and lingered, but no luck. So I crossed the bridge into the mall looking for a public phone and need I report that none were to be found?

With a lifetime habit of improvisation and responding to the moment, my first thought was to wander around the area and just enjoy the city. But as far as I could tell in this neighborhood, that meant going from one mall to the next. Not much romance in the same old stores selling things I couldn’t care less about, in ostentatious pristine high-rises, in the dressed-to-the-nines folks with clicking high heels beating out the tune of money, money, money. Well, it probably is consistent with the markets of old Hong Kong, but now instead of hanging ducks and chickens and mysterious herbs, it’s all high finance, clean and dry and polished.

I spotted a sign for a cinema and within the half-hour, Black Swan was on. So my last night I spent at the movies! Well, why not? Not the most fun film and I'm ready for a discussion group about what actually happened and what was imagined (any thoughts out there?). And I just can't keep pace with Hollywood's penchant for graphic violence. Did we really need to see that scene with Winona Ryder and the knife? (Especially since rumor has it that Winona Ryder went to The San Francisco School as a pre-schooler and there is a chance—still unsubstantiated—that I actually taught her for a year!). Well, as I say so often after movies that churn my stomach and leave me dispirited—"It was well-done."

So today it’s home to San Francisco. What a marvelous time it has been! Gratitude to all my course organizers, all the students, both young and old, to the pilots, bus drivers, tuk-tuk drivers, to subways, trains and boats, to my travel agent, to the books that kept me company (The Girl Who……Series, Cutting for Stone, Zeitoun, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Life Without Lawyers, A Mathematician’s Lament), to Bi Bim Bop, Okonomayaki, Dhosa, curries and of course, pizza, to the Setsubon, Pooram and Perehara Festivals, to Carl Orff, Gunild Keetman and my teacher, Avon Gillespie. Apologies for jet fuel and too many plastic water bottles, despite my best efforts to keep them to a minimum.

Will this blog continue? Yes it will, probably slowed down during my ten days in San Francisco, picking up a bit when I fly out again to Salzburg for two weeks of teaching. In her book Long Life, the poet Mary Oliver says, “That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. “Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?’”

Yes, indeed, I would. I must. Because it’s not music circling around in my head, not the latest arrangement of tones and rhythms. It’s words and ideas and observations and reflections. I have loved every moment of this travel, but have equally loved the opportunity to make a comment on it and know that there might be at least one reader out there who is happy (for the moment) that I made it. Hooray for the technology that made this possible and the opportunity to keep this public journal. And now, homeward bound.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

My Birthday Present

Another glorious day playing, singing and dancing with children. I know, it’s getting boring reading the same old thing, but it’s just the way it is. One 2nd grade class learned a folk dance, broke into groups and created a new version, shared their creation, discussed what they liked and what worked and what could be better (with eloquence and clarity), learned one of the groups’ version and suddenly, it was time to go. The next class began with the story of my breakfast and ended with 15 kids with drums and bells, 15 more on Orff instruments, performing a rollicking version of “Jelly on a Plate.” (These classes are large! Generally around 30.) In another, we sang non-stop, moving from feeding cows and chickens to the intriguing adventures of Johnny and ending with his aunt who came back from various countries bearing gifts. 

Then 4th grade came in to clap their way with a partner through chocolate and mochi before mounting four white horses for a rollicking finish to the “children’s games around the world” theme. A brief pause of lunch and back to “Mama lama kuma lama kumala bee-stay,” moving step-by-step to a thrilling jazz arrangement, half the kids playing, the other half singing and dancing with joy and abandon. For the final class of my five-weeks teaching abroad, I treated the kids and myself to “Stations,” a movement-drama game where kids in groups think up a series of words based on the letter at their station and create a moving mime picture using their bodies together (as in Tina Turner Teaching Tai Chi to Turtles). One group is the judges, circulating around and watching and then selecting their favorite at the end, at which time each group shares (verbally) their idea.  I select the music, from James Brown to Swan Lake, and half the fun is watching them respond to the music. The last selection was Tony Bennett singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” with the S group masterfully showing Sensuous Singers Skillfully Singing a Sad Song about San Francisco. A perfect ending! (For those interested, a more detailed description of Stations is in my book Intery Mintery: Nursery Rhymes for Body, Voice and Orff Ensemble).

My 60th birthday is approaching way too soon for my taste, but if anyone wants to give me the gift of a lifetime, it would be to have the chance to lead a workshop for members of Congress before they convene to vote, to play Stations at the United Nations, to teach the Swedish conflict-resolution dance (Oxdansen) at a Peace Treaty Talk. Or better yet, do this work at the onset of a conflict before it heads into violence. 

And why not? Goodness knows we’ve done everything else and the same-old same-old has been an ongoing disaster. I’m not naïve enough to expect that simply singing songs together, dancing with partners, creating a piece of music in a group, is enough by itself to solve very really territorial squabbles or the accumulated hatreds and distrusts of centuries of human folly. But it sure as hell is a good start to a different kind of conversation. It’s almost impossible not to see at least a glimmer of shared humanity in someone you’re working with to create something of beauty. At the very least, it makes it more difficult to objectify them as the other, the enemy, the infidel. And it is precisely that objectification that gives and has given permission for the atrocities we heap on each other. On one level, racism, sexism, religious persecution and all the rest of those sad stories are nothing but strategies for people who hurt people to sleep peacefully at night. As long as the victim is less than fully human, one can carry on without guilt.

I asked one of the second grade groups “Why do I like children so much?” Without missing a beat, the girl next to me replied, “Because we’re playful!” Thank you, my dear. But also because you’re closer to God’s creation and thus, innocent, flexible and open to figuring out how to be on this planet together with your neighbors. Maria Montessori famously said that adults are hopeless, already set and fixed in their ways and willing to go against their best interests in the name of God, country or badly-formed philosophies or life-habits. The only worthy reform is to start with the young.

And that’s why I’m a teacher.

P.S. But I still would like to do those workshops for the Congress or U.N. Any contacts?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

All of Me

Why do we work so hard at what we love, sacrifice what’s needed to follow our passion? One answer: to prepare ourselves for how we will be needed in this world. After a weekend workshop with both local teachers and ex-pats working at International Schools, I’m back with kids again and happy to be so. I’m working hard—four 90 minutes classes a day—and today in particular used just about everything I’ve worked so hard to try to master and understand. The day began with a radio interview, then folk dancing and folk songs with the younger ones, an elementary class that began with Guido di Arrezo and the origin of solfege and ended with kids playing Charlie Parker’s My Little Suede Shoes, songs, games and dances from Ghana, Zimbabwe and South Africa with middle school, the history of jazz lecture with live piano examples and select You-tube clips for high school and then an two-hour evening lecture for parents and teachers titled “Why Music Matters” that blended brain research, anthropology, videos of my SF School students playing music and talking about it, the current state of affairs in American education and key sociological trends and ended with a solo piano version of Embraceable You. To paraphrase the old jazz standard: “All of me, why not use all of me?” and these last two days did.

Meanwhile, all of this is on Discovery Bay on Lantau Island, a place that could be described as “Disneyland without the death penalty (see Singapore entry).” No cars on this part of the island, just buses that cost 50 cents, golf carts and bicycles. It is pristine clean, safe, kid-friendly, beaches looking out to the other Hong Kong islands (including a real Disneyland with nightly fireworks visible from here), hills behind the uniform high-rise apartments inviting walks on the ridges that I haven’t had time to take. Mostly an ex-pat community combined with some locals. A little like that movie Pleasantville. There are no hotels (yet) on this part of the island, so I’m staying in a room at the school itself. Tonight I’ll take the ferry into “downtown Hong Kong.”

Today is the last day of teaching on this marvelous five-week tour and some mixed feelings about returning to San Francisco with 40-degree temperatures, working on my taxes and facing the backlog of busy-work I’ve managed to avoid traveling. But of course, it will be a pleasure to re-connect with friends and family, eat some fresh vegetables, cook my own meals, get on my bike again (the difficulty of exercise a major drawback in this travel) and maybe even go to a movie. Eight days at home and then off I go again to Salzburg. Never a dull moment. Meanwhile, off to teach seven more classes with the kids.