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.

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