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?

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