Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Good Ol' Days Part II

I spoke too soon. Just after affirming here and now as “as good as it gets,” I noticed that Cover to Cover Bookstore on 24th and Castro in San Francisco was going out of business. Mark, the owner, was out on the sidewalk and the store was empty, with the last five shelves of books outside and selling for a $1 per book. This bookstore had been a staple of the neighborhood for a couple of decades and no one was happy it was leaving. What particularly struck me while I was browsing the bargains was the number of people chatting with Mark, thanking him for what he had given and concerned about what he was going to do now. He seemed to know just about every one who passed by and they all stopped to chat, offering both condolences and appreciation.

I got back on my bike, headed up 24th St. and passed the Mystery Bookstore with its sign, “Oldest Mystery Bookstore in the U.S.A.” That lifted my heart until I noticed another sign: “50% off. Closing Sale.” Aargh! What’s going on here?

Well, simply what has been going on for a while. Our obsession with ease and efficiency and preference for big corporate over Mom and Pop continues to take its toll. Consumerism without relationship. Workers who get a paycheck, but don’t know anything about their trade beyond what shows up on the computer screen. Browsing in cyberspace, but without the pleasure of thumbing through the pages of a book, feeling its heft and weight and smell. Hunting through shelves until something pops out and suddenly you know that’s the book you’re meant to read now. Conversing with the cashier who comments on your choice and perhaps recommends other possibilities— well, tells you, “if you liked this, then consider that,” but who exactly is talking? We’ll never know. And if our favorite Website closes, there’ll be no one out on the street to talk to about it and shake their hand to thank them.

As a kid, my mother took me shopping to Sam and Andy’s vegetable store. We got what we needed for the week’s dinners, but we also got to catch up with Sam (never did meet Andy and have often wonder "What happened to him?"), find out what’s fresh, what’s seasonable, hear the news of his family, tell the news of ours. I usually got a free peach or pear—and this went on for 20 years. Last time I was in New Jersey, the store was still there, with Sam’s son having taken it over. These days, that is a minor miracle.

What I’m starting to miss is the small chit-chat, the time spent in silent company with other browsers, the sense of a place with character and personality —Green Apple bookstore felt distinct from Cover to Cover, the Clay Theater different from the Castro, the Owl and Monkey Café not at all like the Zephyr café. Every Borders is mostly just another Borders, every Multiplex Cinema just like every other, every Starbucks just like the one across the street. And then when we take the next shopping trip into Cyberspace, we are exactly nowhere at all. Makes me long for “the good ol’ days!” (Though the irony of that longing while writing this Blog online is not lost on me.)

Though there’s every reason to be cynical about our determination to exile Sam and Andy, to be discouraged by the immense economic success of Walmart and Costco and subsequent cultural decline that comes with it, to be depressed by the epidemic closing of the independent bookstores, the one-screen movie theaters, the one-of-a-kind roadside cafes, still I am an optimist at heart. We flawed humans continue to make poor choices, suckered in by the advertising folks and hungry for a bargain at the click of a button, but somewhere in our emotional wiring lies an intuitive sense that something is missing, that we’ve sold a part of our precious social real estate.

Again, we might compensate in yet weirder ways—meeting folks in cyber-chat rooms or hibernating in our electronic fantasy worlds—but mostly, something rises up to compensate—like Farmer’s Markets, for example. We’ve shown that we’re perfectly willing to pay three times as much money for an organic locally-grown tomato, not only for its juicy authentic tomato-ness far superior to its anemic supermarket cousin, but for the conviviality of the buzz of human beings exchanging goods in the open air, with music playing and vendors urging you to taste their co-creation like proud parents.

Now, there is a veritable explosion of books written about such choices, some of them best-sellers like Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. But it still is sad that you won’t be able to buy them at Cover to Cover Bookstore. 

Saturday, May 28, 2011

These Are the Good Ol' Days

At a recent staff meeting devoted to the topic of “maintaining school culture amidst changing times,” I surprised myself by standing up and saying, “I’m not nostalgic for the program we used to have. I think in many ways the school is better than ever—these are the good ol’ days!”

And in some ways, that’s true. Though I listen to old cassette tapes and the pieces I did with the kids back then mostly hold up, I think the music program at The SF School is better than ever (due in large part to the incredible work of colleagues Sofia and James). And I believe that’s also true of many programs and aspects of the school. When people stick around for a while, they do often build from a base of “good” to a next step of “better.” And when new teachers come in, they build from that inherited base that saves them from having to reinvent many wheels and allows them to concentrate on their driving.

And yet, all creative work—and good education is creative work—is subject to the rise and fall of inspiration and particular constellations of culture. What certain units of school study now gain in clarity and focus, they might lose in freshness and discovery. So the equation is never simple and requires constant attention to the delicate balance between the experimental and the tried-and-true.

The surprise of my statement came from my frequent complaints that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, with signed legal requirements before entering the basket and a GPS-encoded destination complete with pre-programmed itinerary—guaranteed to bring no surprise or mystery. At the same time that I think the programs at my school are mostly improving, there is a great deal of loss as well—mostly, increased pressure from the outside to dot every i and cross every t in the standard and uniform manner of every other school and the yet more worrisome sense that the new generation of administrators don’t see the danger of looking to “best practices of corporations” as the guiding light of decision-making. What makes a dynamic living culture is vision, risk, trust in our capacities to mess around and try things out, guided by that flimsiest and yet, sturdiest of our capacities, the ability to dream. To hold true to an image of how it’s s’posed to be and do whatever it takes to fulfill that promise. And when I think about the Golden Ages of human culture, it always has something to do with that fresh energy of dipping into the bottomless well of the imagination not knowing what the final form will take, but trusting in the process of arriving.

This theme of “the Golden Age—then or now?” was a major thread in Woody Allen’s fabulous new movie, Midnight in Paris. Driving home, my wife asked me if there was a time when I would have preferred to live, a question so provocative that it was fifteen minutes of talking before I was ready to turn around and ask, “And you?” (Making her sorry she asked. And even sorrier that I hadn’t asked back earlier! Oops!) But though I also have been fascinated by Paris in the 20’s, by Harlem in the 40’s, by San Francisco in the 60’s (just missed it), it wasn’t so much about returning nostalgically to an earlier time, but more about the excitement of living in the midst of a living, vital culture out on the edge of mainstream.

I remember the period, say between 1964 and 1972, when we eagerly awaited the new album not from one artist, but dozens—Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Beach Boys, James Brown, Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin. The Supremes, The Temptations, Crosby-Stills-Nash-Young, Simon and Garfunkel, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Cream, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Doors, Credence Clearwater Revival, The  Youngbloods, The Byrds,  Santana, Incredible String Band, Donovan, Cat Stevens, Carole King, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins. As the Weavers said, ”Wasn’t that a time!” Compare that to the rock groups of the Reagan Years (1980-88) and the contrast is stunning.

That was a period I actually lived through. But if I could be a fly on the wall in a different era, as Woody Allen’s character was, I wouldn’t mind hanging out on New York’s 52nd St. in the late 40’s, where jazz clubs featured Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, as well as some of the young jazz cats who worked their ideas out at further uptown at Minton’s in Harlem—Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Milt Jackson, Charles Mingus.

And I agree with Woody’s character that the 20’s were a time of great cultural explosion, not only in Paris, but elsewhere in Europe and the U.S. as well. Indeed, in my book “The ABC’s of Education,” I include a list of notable artistic accomplishments between 1921 and 1925 that includes major publications by W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Rainer Marie Rilke, Gertrude Stein, e.e.cummings, Robert Frost, Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis. In the art world, Picasso, Braque, Salvador Dali, Georgia O-Keefe, Stuart Davis were busy at work, in the music world, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Webern composed major works, Louis Armstrong was in Chicago and then New York, George Gershwin premiered Rhapsody in Blue. Josephine Baker was dancing in Paris, Isadora Duncan in Greece and Russia, Martha Graham formed her own company. And in 1924, a young Carl Orff collaborated with dancer/artist Dorothee Gunther to begin the experiments that led to my job and life’s path (thank you, Carl). Exciting times all.

What they all have in common is that sensation of being on the edge, at the end of one world dying and another just being born. The 20’s and 40’s cultural explosions came in the aftermath of two world wars, the 60’s in the midst of trying to prevent a third one. And note who’s leading the cultural shifts (or at least serving as antennae to speak what’s in the air) —the artists. Not the insurance adjusters, lawyers, media moguls, the marketing folks, the corporate executives. Artists. And in cultures where the pace of change has been slower and no counter-culture is necessary because the whole culture is alive and vibrant—I’m thinking of Bali, for example—it is the daily renewal of art in all its faces that is keeping it all going. Not art as a specialized subject, but at the center of life well-lived, where “art” is simply doing things well with care, attention, color and life.

One of the big points of the film is that when you’re in the midst of it all, it’s sometimes hard to feel that “these are the good ol’ days.” Key characters in the film keep looking back to when it was even better—at least in their imagination. Every generation feels the pinch of their times, the things that restrict, narrow, diminish us. Here are a few sentences I might have written yesterday: The arts have failed; fewer people are interested in them every generation. The mere business of living, of making money, of amusing oneself, occupies people more and more, and makes them less and less capable of the difficult art of appreciation.” Who actually said that? W.B. Yeats. In 1901.

I do feel that in my own small world, I have tasted the excitement of making it up as we went along as we did at The San Francisco School for several decades. We made mistakes that I would never care to repeat, but they were always our mistakes and thus, authentic and leading us to a new, improved version. Now we’re in danger of inheriting someone else’s mistakes as we lose trust in our own judgment and intelligence and try to square off all our rough edges by following advice from loan companies and Independent School Associations.

Same in the Orff world. The course I direct is the grandchild of the course I took with Avon Gillespie and it is a better course in dozens of tangible ways. But even here, we have to be vigilant about losing the experimental atmosphere that made Avon’s work so exciting and memorable. We need to constantly renew ourselves at the altar of possibility and watch out for being too complacent—“this is how we do it, this is how it works.” And we certainly would be wise to fiercely resist adapting our radical approach to fit into the narrow hallways of National Standards and Smart-Board technologies.

Go see the film and talk with your friends; “What time would you have liked to live in? Why?” (By the way, my wife’s answer when I finally shut up was to hang out with the Bay Area Figurative painters in the 1950’s). The point of looking back to the past is to renew the qualities gone underground in the present to bring them forth in new forms for the future. And you may quote me.

These indeed are “the good ol’ days” if we pay attention in the right ways.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

One-sided Lover's Quarrel

Don’t get too excited here—no gossip or relationship revelations are forthcoming. The lover’s quarrel refers to the Robert Frost statement “I’ve had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” I’ve always related to that phrase, but had to amend it for my six-word autobiography: “Called world to quarrel—no answer.”

I seem to be feeling that more and more, hungry to engage on a bigger stage of discourse than the 30-person Orff workshop or 10-person school staff meeting. Around a year ago, I found out that anybody could be nominated for a Ted Talk, those 20-minute videos circulating on cyberspace that feature known and lesser-known folks speaking from their little corner of expertise. So I invited my friends to nominate me, hoping to give a talk like one I’ve actually given at a few international schools, Powerpoint and all:  “Why Music Matters.” Many in fact did write in to nominate me, but Ted didn’t answer.

A few years back, I went to hear Terry Gross speak and found out that her husband wrote a book on the Blues (which I had read), that she loved teachers and that an alum parent from my school had some contact with her. So I dropped his name, sent her my jazz book combining teaching, blues and jazz and…no answer.

Today, I got an e-mail that seemed to be inviting me to be a featured speaker at an International Schools Conference in Portugal. I’ve presented music workshops at the last three such conferences and often felt as I listened to the Keynote Speaker that I would like to do that some day and have something at least as interesting to contribute as the next breakthrough in technology and how it will change schools. I wrote back to ask for clarification, but alas, instead of the talk to 2,000 teachers, it was simply confirming my music workshops with the 15 teachers I’ve come to know.

Now don’t get me wrong. Gary Snyder’s Zen teacher once said: “In Zen, there are only two things. You sit and sweep the garden. It doesn't matter how big the garden is" and in my day-to-day teaching, that is the true north of my compass. Whether teaching eight second-graders, seven preschool teachers from the Urban Sprouts Day School, singing with Fran, Edie, Laya and my Mom at the senior home or doing an Orff workshop for 750 teachers in Texas (the first three I did this week, the last some years ago at a TMEA Conference), it’s all the same.

But if you think you have something worthy to offer, who wouldn’t be thrilled with a wider audience? 
I haven’t heard of an author complaining about being on the best-seller list or a jazz musician refuse to play a concert hall and choose a smoky dive instead (or these days, non-smoking dive). But the key word here is “worthy.” Maybe the world is right not to care whether Joey or Samantha had a fun music class or got to dance the polka today. Maybe I don’t have anything very important to say after all and I’m not articulate enough to be worthy of presenting it. It’s possible.

But still I hope. So when I got a call from Who’s Who the other day interviewing me for acceptance, the timing seemed right. I was vulnerable from all the recent events that made me feel exiled and was ripe for recognition. To my credit, I did hesitate as I gave my Visa Card numbers for the hefty price of inclusion, but not long enough. I should have been wary of the modifier “Biltmore’s” Who’s Who and remember quickly looking online while giving my numbers. The Website was attractive, though of course, the whole thing deserved more scrutiny. Yet my hunger for affirmation overshadowed my caution and it wasn’t until the next day that I wondered whether I had taken our new school motto “Assume Good Intentions” a little too literally. So with a bad case of buyer’s remorse, I looked more thoroughly online and saw many warnings of “Scam! Scam! Scam!” I then called Visa to find out my options, called and wrote Biltmore’s to ask for immediate withdrawal from their exalted club—and of course, no answer from the latter yet. Or probably ever. Oh well.

Meanwhile, in every book, article or blog I write, every class I teach, every song I play for my Mom and with the kids, I’m calling up the world like a secret lover, to praise, quarrel or simply converse— and mostly leaving messages on an answering machine that no one ever checks. Perhaps someday they’ll answer, perhaps they never will, perhaps they already are and I’m not noticing. In any case, it’s none of my business—my job is just to keep doing what I do, saying what I say and be grateful for the opportunity.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

And now, a word from our sponsor…

For those who know me, it’s no secret that I’m slow to respond to new technologies. I still don’t have a cell phone and continue to resist Facebook. That said and done, I was using a fax/modem back in 1991 with my Mac SE 100, got one of those hooded blue iMac computers in 1999 so I could join e-mail and I believe that I was the first amongst all my friend to get an iPod, simply because it was so much easier to take on international Orff workshop travel than those books of CD’s.

“The right tool for the right job at the right time” is mostly my techno motto and though I wrote my first book by hand (never published) in Indonesian notebooks while lying in bed in Java with hepatitis in 1979 and the first draft of my jazz book on a typewriter, I’m quite happy with the writing and re-writing capabilities of computers these past twenty years. And thrilled with the technology of this Blog, allowing me to empty my head every couple of days with the fringe benefit that perhaps someone might read it. Really, it’s my long-time fantasy of having a newspaper column without having to go to journalism school.

But when I looked on a friend’s Facebook page, I could feel the palpable energy of the community of “friends” who share the same plot of cyber ground and respond instantly to various messages and announcements. I’ve looked at it before and was turned off by detailed accounts of the fine filet of salmon someone just enjoyed or how little Bobby ate all his oatmeal, but there are certainly things I’d love to publicly announce and get the sensation that someone’s reading and responding. The Blog is a more sedate room in the Cyber mansion, as I think it should be—hopefully, entries with a bit more to chew on than the quick energy hit of the next awesome, cool or super moment in the day.

And yet, there are a couple of things I’d love to share, even if only twenty people read them. Most are time-sensitive and thus, probably more Facebook-friendly than Blog-worthy (what a weird new language we’ve created!), but I include them below nonetheless.

In short:

• Check out daughter Kerala’s performance of one of her stories of near-death in Bolivia.

• Check out daughter Talia’s blog about the trials and triumphs of teaching English to 1st graders at a 
bi-lingual school in Buenos Aires.

• Mark June 2nd on your calendar and come to Middle School Salzburg Group performance, the preview of the show these 17 wonderful kids will do at the Orff Symposium in Salzburg, Austria. Tickets at the door for $20 (helping to fund the trip), 7:30 start time at Lick-Wilmerding Theater, 755 Ocean Ave., SF. (For those in Europe this summer, come to that show on Sunday, July 10th!)

• Mark your calendar for July 30th,  to come to my 60th birthday concert at St. Aidan’s Church in SF.

• Check my Website ( for information about my colleague Sofía López-Ibor’s extraordinary book Blue Is the Sea: Music, Dance and Visual Arts that  I’ve just published under my Pentatonic Press Co. One recent reader (who is in the book business) said, “My two initial reactions are that no one has ever published a book like this, and that is it so beautiful it makes me want to weep.”

And now, back to our regularly scheduled program.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

I Love Kelly Park!

No, Kelly Park is not the name of a new addition to the San Francisco Doug-tour, some hidden green treasure nestled in the hills above North Beach. It’s the name of the pianist in the Terence Brewer Band I saw recently in Yoshi’s Oakland. As I sat listening to him play, I thought “I can do that,” a rare reaction when listening to jazz pianists. Which meant that theoretically, I could be “Yoshi’s-worthy.” (Though I must admit that he played the hell out of “Caravan” and left me gasping in the dust he kicked up.) I think this is one of the ways we figure out which beckoning path is true— see someone in the public eye who has earned the right to be in the public eye and imagine yourself doing the same.

That’s what happened to me when after a mere few years of teaching, I watched a nationally famous Orff teacher give a workshop and not only felt that I could have given the workshop, but could have done it better. No arrogance here, just a trusting of the forces that are working through us to be heard and seen. Conversely, I went one night years back to see my piano teacher Art Lande at the Great American Music Hall and remember standing outside looking at his name on the marquee and trying to imagine my own up there some day. No matter how hard I squinted, I simply couldn’t see it. And so I took a left turn off of the highway of Jazz Performer and stayed on the Yellow Brick Road to the magical land of Orff Schulwerk teacher. A good choice, and in fact, the only choice and at the end of the day, one must wonder whether one chooses or is chosen.

Freed from the pressure of making it in the jazz world, I continued to play for my own pleasure and throughout the years, give an occasional house concert or rent the Community Music Center and lean heavily on my friends to fill a few seats. And occasionally, especially when I didn’t try to sound like my favorite jazz pianists and just play what I could hear and feel with my own two ears and hands, the music would connect with the audience and we were lifted out of clock time into the place where music makes its true home. Not a place of adoration of how fast someone’s fingers can move, but a place to remember what we seem to always forget—that in that moment when time stops and we are gathered into a place of deep belonging, all sins are forgiven, all folly is made right, all our childhood dreams come true. For as long as the notes ring out, we are home.

The maddening thing is that you can’t play music and bring people to that place from good intentions and sensitive feelings only. You do have to move your fingers fast and sacrifice a lot of sunny days chained to your instrument. So lest I get too confident watching Kelly Park (a fine pianist, don’t get me wrong), I also went to hear the Bill Charlap Trio in Yoshi’s San Francisco and then Elaine Elias at Yerba Buena Center ( a rare week of three jazz concerts!) and they both kicked my butt back to the Stone Age. 10,000 more hours minimum to just peek in the door of their mastery and control at a time in life when I don’t have a lot of 10,000 hours to spare.

We need those reminders too. I always tell my students that the mark of a good workshop is that it affirmed you and kicked your butt at the same time. Just affirmation doesn’t get you up early and out on the trail, just butt-kicking is just plain discouraging.

So thanks Bill, Elaine and Kelly. I have more to say here, but I’m going to practice the piano.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Tough Vulnerability, Gentle Ferocity

What is it like to have your best friends be between 80 and 95? Inspiring, to say the least. And what I love most of all is the gradual erosion of all those walls of niceness and careful choosing of words and getting straight to the heart of it. “You’re out of your mind!” “Hey, you, get over here and pay attention to me!” “I’ve had enough of that!” Similar to the honesty of three-year olds, but more tough and grizzled and cooked through with a lifetime of sparring with the world. Not trying to impress or get ahead or worry about offending someone. When you enter elderhood, you receive your license to “tell it straight” and damn anyone who demands sugar-coating.

I, for one, find it refreshing. And don’t get me wrong. Most of the conversation in-between the songs is appreciative and loving and fun, but when time is short and mortality is looking over your shoulder, no one has patience for playing games and amen to that!

I grew up in New Jersey and was well-versed with the New York taxi-cab driver style of conversation, but truth be told, found it a bit too harsh and grating. So I came to mellow California and lived on the edge of the New Age, where soft and gentle was the guiding aesthetic and everyone spoke with good intentions at a decibel level just below my current hearing. In-between the two was the great passion of my Spanish friends, the cutting “dozens” of my African-American friends, the loud chatter of my Jewish relatives.

But I have to say that the California-culture equation of a raised voice as a plea for anger-management classes, of conflict as an alarm to shut down fast or at least press Snooze, of disagreement as distasteful, is starting to wear on me. I love the story of the Italian teacher trying to oversee the transplanting of the Reggio-Emilio education approach to the United States. When asked about the difference between American and Italian culture, she replied: “Here you see disagreement as the end of the conversation. In Italy, it’s the beginning.”

Circumstances have thrown me in the boxing ring and every day lately, I need to dance around with my fists raised, throw and block punches just to survive. And truth be told, there is something exhilarating in it. I’m alive. I’m alert. I’m using every muscle in the body and every synapse in the brain. And though I sometimes get knocked silly and my mouth is bleeding and the blows keep catching me by surprise, I’m still standing and in the ring. That counts for something and feels more real than living a dull safe life where I’ve managed never to offend anyone.

But even as I grow stronger in my determination to stand up for a lifetime of cultivated values, I’m also finding the soft and gentle side that comes through when I play jazz ballads on the piano more tender than ever before. Not a posed, wimpy mellowness that comes from skirting around or damping down conflict, but a muscular gentleness, a passionate tenderness when I step from the boxing ring to the piano. Rumi has a poem about it:

“Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
You would be paralyzed…”

So during the day, the fist is clenched: “Power to the people! Umoja! El Pueblo, Unido, Jamás Será Vencido!” and at night, it spreads open on the piano keyboard and sings out the heartbreaking beauty of “That Old Black Magic” or “Haunted Heart” or “Embraceable You” and everything that was closed in defense during the day opens like a flower in the morning sun.

And so it is with my elder friends. The look on my mother’s face when I play these ballads for her is pure openness and reception, the innocence of a baby re-forged from the wrinkles of experience. And when she’s had enough, she has no qualms about telling me—“Douglas! No more playing! Let’s get ice cream!” 

Ah, elderhood. I can’t wait to be even more feisty and outraged and impatient with ignorance and stupidity—and more tender and caring at the same time.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Dougie Fresh II

One of the highlights of the Orff Miniconference retreat a couple of weeks back was a Saturday night jam session. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a group spontaneously perform the motions and text to  “Lemonade Crunchy Ice” or “One Potato Two Potato” over a kickin’ live James Brown tune! At one point, I grabbed a mike and started freestyle rapping rhymed couplets about the people dancing. After it was over, someone told me that I could have a new career ahead of me—enter Dougie Fresh II!

Well, I can hear my daughters laughing all the way from Argentina and Washington DC and they’re right. I haven’t paid my dues at the altar of hip-hop and though I’m a decent rhymer, my style and accent and body language is just all wrong for the style. Plus, it’s one thing to rap two lines at a time, but my mind is just too old and worn out for a continuous freestyle rap flow.

But I don’t let that stop me. Still trying to process the deep hurt hinted at in these Blogs through the transformative power of art, I wrote the following. Note that the first line comes from some old rap song whose title I don’t know (read it in a book somewhere) and the “Be who you are, say what you feel, those who mind don't matter, those who matter don't mind” quote is from Dr. Seuss, brought to my attention by colleague James who did it (in non-rap style) with the 2nd graders.

If any of you young rappers out there make a hit out of it, be sure to cut me in on some royalties. Now crank up the beat-box and here we go!: (Don’t read it—say it out loud!)

I said it, I meant it, I'm here to represent it!
You can spin it, you can bend it, you can
Say that you resent it.
I present it, and defend it,
Though later might amend it.
Don't fend it off, don't vend it,
Don't shut it down or end it.
Befriend it or spend it
On Facebook you can send it.
Because I said it, I meant it,
I'm here to represent it.

You got to say what you mean, you got to mean what you say,
You got to stand by tomorrow, what you say today.
You got to mean what you say, you got to say what you mean.
You got to get dirty before you get clean.

You got to be who you are, you got to say what you feel
‘Cause truth is more important than your next Happy Meal
You got to say what you feel, you got to be who you are
Don't settle for the middle, you got to raise up your own bar.

‘Cause those who mind don't matter, those who matter don't mind,
If you sell out to the devil, it's your soul you got to find.
Those who matter don't mind, those who mind don't matter
So step up to the plate and be your number one batter.

So dance it in your body and speak it with your words
Feel it in your heart and sing it with the birds.
Stand by your actions and live your whole life
Aim it all toward harmony, but don't back down from strife.

When your earthly days are over, it's time to call it quits,
Say, "I said it! I meant it! I was here to represent it!"

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Music Is the Sex of Community

Now that I’ve quadrupled my readership by that cleverly chosen title, I’m obliged to explain what I mean (even though I’ll lose all those new readers). This line of inquiry has to do with thinking more precisely about what our music program gives to the greater community of the school, exploring where it is at the center of community bonding and equally noting where it cannot reach. Music is often lauded as the highest peak of community-building, requiring a cooperation, listening, responding and working together that few other human endeavors achieve. Only in music can two or more voices talk at the same time and create confluence instead of conflict, bring their opposing notes into a counterpoint of accord that creates something larger than both of them. Only in music can 3 and 2 exist in the same space without litigation about who is correct and create a delicious multi-modal polyrhythmic dynamic. Only in music can tension be welcomed as it navigates towards resolution, not dismissed as undesirable stress. (Well, probably other art forms as well, but let’s stick with music for now.)

My vision, coupled now with decades of experience to back it up, is simple: playing, singing, dancing, acting, making art, writing poetry, etc. are necessary to a healthy, authentic community. Not a radical new thought and one well understood by every traditional culture since humans appeared on this planet. My hope and work is to help restore that simple practice in schools of all sizes and shapes and where that work has succeeded, the results are impressive: schools that have a song for every occasion, where kids see teachers dance and sing and dance with them, where parent choirs join the kids, where ceremonies have music, song and dance at the center, experience a type of community markedly different from those that neglect the arts. Simply put, one definition of community is a group of people who know the same songs, stories and dances.

But singing Kumbaya with arms wrapped around each other, as lovely as that may be, is not enough. It can’t reach into the other real issues of community, those nitty-gritty details of power and representation and voice and shared space and schedules.

So I’ve been looking for the analogy that neither promises too much from music nor fails to recognize its importance. And hence the title: music is the sex of community. That is to say, music’s role in community is analogous to good sex in relationship. When done well (both the music and the sex), it is the physical and concrete manifestation of intimacy. It requires vulnerability, works from a series of tensions and releases, asks for calls and responses, depends on a quality of rhythm that moves towards climax (same terms in both fields), changes the heartbeat and breathing, connects the strings in each other’s hearts, and leaves you a different person at the end than you were at the beginning.
A community without music is like a marriage without sex—possible, but black and white and grey instead of vibrantly colorful, dull and pedestrian instead of dynamic and alive, distant and removed more than intimate and connected.

At the same time, no matter how good the sexual relationship with the partner, the percentage of time spent making love compared to cooking, cleaning, driving, shopping, working, talking, is a pretty darn small part of the whole relationship. We may feel united as one for a brief ecstatic moment of union, but after that, it’s the thousands of hours of sharing the work, taking care of the home, continuing the necessary conversations, figuring out who cooks, who cleans, who washes, who dries— in short, the whole 99-plus yards of both the gritty and pleasurable details of living together with another. 

Just as sex alone is not enough to sustain relationship, so is music alone insufficient to hold community together. Simply resolving chords or dancing together is not enough to solve issues of representation, voice and shared power. We have to roll up our sleeves and sort through the tedious “he said, she said” drama, dig down to some basic procedures for decision-making, enlarge the conversations, welcome dissent, say what we mean and mean what we say, stand firm and trust our intuition to be wholly ourselves in a world that wants us to be like everyone else.

And then we’ll be ready for some great make-up sex…er, I mean, music. 

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Ephemeral Wildflowers

Another great name for a rock band! Though more of a folk-rock group than heavy metal or grunge—not likely to see Ephemeral Wildflowers sharing the bill with Death-Grip Bagpipe. But, of course, the term refers to something else, an actual phenomena in that window of time in certain climates when Winter has not wholly released its grip and Spring has yet to make a firm commitment. My mother-in-law in Ann Arbor, Michigan told me about them just before going out on a walk to greet them.

In short, there is a class of wildflowers—Bloodroot, Trout Lily, Trilliums and more—that have a short-lived, ephemeral blooming period from April to May. They live under deciduous trees and depend on the sunlight that passes through the bare branches before the trees are fully leafed. They are first to dine on the abundant nutrients from the previous year’s autumn leaves and drink up the moisture in the soil before the trees start filling their glasses. They also contain an oil in their seeds attractive to ants, who carry them off and store them underground, where they often sprout before the ants set the table. And so the seeds are dispersed and nature’s number one agenda of survival is fulfilled, while also ensuring some color and beauty in a time of impatient transition.

Some 38 years in San Francisco, I’m far away from my New Jersey memory of March and early April—but not so far that I can’t remember the profound difference between the first magical snowfall of December and the agony of yet another snow in March soon turned to grey slush. I remember my impatience with those bare-branched trees—“Come on, leaves! Hurry up!”—and how the yellow forsythia gave me hope that Spring, and then Summer, would finally arrive. I didn’t know about ephemeral wildflowers, but if I lived in Ann Arbor, I would certainly join my mother-in-law to seek them out. And the way my mind works, not just for the pleasure of seeing and touching and smelling the flowers, but for the metaphor that reminds me to align myself with nature’s wisdom.

For my branches are bare and the wind blows cold and my faith in Spring is low at the moment. I need to remember to look down and see how beauty is present not only in spite of Winter’s unleafed canopy, but actually because of it—that’s how the light gets through. When the leaves come, these ephemeral wildflowers will die and others more lasting appear in other places and that’s a profound lesson, too—beauty and bareness are everywhere at all times, but each in their own place, their own season, their own character. If we can move alongside the natural world, from one particular joy to another, from one specific sorrow to the next, we can learn to wholly accept the seasonality of our lives and remember where to look. Excluded from one place, we remember where we feel welcomed. Lamenting that a door has closed, we turn around and see where it has opened. Shivering exposed and naked in the chilled wind, we look down and marvel at the ephemeral wildflowers that have sprouted at our feet. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Back to Bach

The good thing about having your foot in two worlds is it expands your options. When one world disappoints, hurts or betrays you, you can slip through the door to the other to find some solace and comfort. And so I find myself again in exile from one world and turn to Bach to swing wide the gates and enter his universe of spiritual clarity, where every note is connected to every other, everything makes sense, and everything is beautiful. And there are other gates to that world worthy of a place on the key-ring. For me, Zen meditation on my koan “How do I disappear in love?”, the jazz tune Haunted Heart, a healthy walk in the woods amongst trees that demand nothing of me, but freely accept my hug, a visit to my mother, who every day goes further into the land of dream, stepping out of this world of woe to the land where there’s “no toil, trouble or danger.” But unlike the promise of those old spirituals, the address is not 101 Future-Heaven Way, but always amongst us, here and now. The more we step into it each day, the more prepared we’ll be to change our lease when the landlord comes knocking.

So in the thick of a conflict so profound that I feel my heart physically ache, I have to thank those people who hurt me so deeply for reminding me to visit the place where I ultimately belong. There may come a time when the contents of that dirty laundry will be publicly displayed on the cyber clothesline, but who wants to really hear the next chapter of “he said, she said?” Suffice it to say that it has to do with being exiled from my own school community by some (while heartily and constantly welcomed by others— especially the 75 preschool children when I come to sing each week!).

The depth of the hurt is directly proportionate to the height of the caring—another math lesson we should teach at school. And one solution is to care less, to protect, lock away, crust over the open heart ‘cause it’s gonna hurt, baby. We all do it to lesser and greater degrees and up to a point, it’s a good idea. But the greater glory is to figure out how to care and keep the heart wide open without bleeding too much. When we close down, the world narrows and both the pain and the joy are left on the doorstep.

I know I can’t stay floating forever in the world of vibrating strings that sing me home, will have to step out back into the muck and the mire and figure out how to make it through the day with both my integrity and my health intact. Wish me luck with that.

Meanwhile, back to Bach.

Death-Grip Bagpipe

As great as that would be, Death-Grip Bagpipe is not the name of the latest rock band. It refers to my bagpipe teacher’s comment on how I was holding the chanter. Why so tense?
Perhaps you know the joke:

“Why do bagpipe players walk while they play?”
“To get away from the noise.”

Lessons already carry a built-in tension, the student worried about pleasing the teacher and determined to get it right. That tension leaps from the brain to the fingers in any case, but is magnified exponentially when the sound coming back is piercing every nerve, your left arm is squeezing for all it’s worth to get the air out of the bag while you’re blowing with all your might to get the air back into the bag and your teacher is shouting “Relax your fingers!” And all of this playing songs in 15/16 meter. Any wonder that I was using the death-grip, holding on for my very life?

But here I was again, biking on BART to my Bulgarian bagpipe lesson in Berkeley. It had been some six years since my last lesson on the gaida, a Bulgarian bagpipe (yes, Virginia, there are bagpipes beyond Scotland—at least some 30 different types mostly found throughout Europe).  Since one of the pieces we will play in our July Salzburg Orff Symposium concert is a Bulgarian dance tune, I thought I better brush up my chops. “Bulgarian bagpipe?” you say. “Whatever possessed you to try to learn that?”

It all began in the early ‘90’s when I was dancing with the kids at school to a bagpipe recording that always felt too short. That’s when I first had the idea that I should get a bagpipe to play a longer version live. For two years, the joke in my family was “What do you want for your birthday/Father’s Day/ Christmas?” And always the same predictable response. “ A Bulgarian bagpipe.” At one point, my wife actually contacted Lark in the Morning and the search took on a more serious quality. Something fell through there, but a friend of mine met a teacher at a folk dance who had one for sale. Off I went to conclude the deal in his kitchen and as I was about to depart, turned to him and said, “Wait a second. How do you play it?”

So began my lessons, first with Gyorgui Doytchev and then with Hector Bezanis. The monthly meetings in Hector’s kitchen with his cat rubbing at my feet was just the kind of learning environment I love, similar to studying drums under trees in Ghana or xylophone on verandahs in Bali. After several years off and on, I learned some 15 to 20 tunes in all sorts of scales and meters and played almost bearable versions—especially if you were standing across the street, or as some preferred, in another town. But there was always the moment when Hector would play the tune at the end of the lesson for me to record and the distance between his playing and mine reached Grand Canyon proportions.

And mostly it had to do with the ornamentation. It became clear that the melody was just the skeleton and the ornamentation the muscles and breath that brought the song fully to life. The problem was that the ornaments were not random hippy-improvised flurries, but a systematic approach that required great finger dexterity and hours of practice. And here I felt my Achilles heel ache again.

When I was studying piano as a child, I would listen to Horowitz play the 3rd movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and then just rip into it myself, trying to imitate his dazzling technique. I was a kid, so my impatience was somewhat excusable. But during a piano recital in which I hoped to surprise my piano teacher by playing it twice as fast as I ever did practicing with her, I took off like a skittery racehorse with her at my side muttering emphatically “Slow down! Slow down!” Needless to say, I was thrown off that horse, embarrassing us both and making me reconsider how musical accomplishment really works.

I’m not proud to say that this habit of just wanting to feel it and damn the hours and hours of practice persisted somewhat, always with predictable consequences. So all these years later, I finally decided I would play this Bulgarian song slowly again and again until it became embedded muscle memory and bring it up to speed only as my muscles were ready for. 10,000 hours of practice is the going rate for mastery and when you’re trying to be a jack-of-all-musical trades like me, there ain’t enough 10,000 hours to go around. That’s why world-class musicians, athletes, writers, etc. tend to pick one instrument, one sport, one literary genre, etc. and get down to work. But still, attention to detail in any venture is always a good idea. Sure, it's important to feel the spirit, but those wings need some firm ground beneath them to help with lift-off. 

World, pay attention. This is one of the irrefutable truths that lie shining in the mess of my failures. You can’t skip steps and get into the house. Go slowly and patiently and persistently. In any endeavor.

Then you can finally relax your death-grip on the bagpipe.

PS It has become a tradition in my family and close friends that I call them up on their birthday and perform a Bulgarian bagpipe rendition of “Happy Birthday.” I can perform the same service for any readers interested—you either pay me to play or equally pay me not to play!

Monday, May 9, 2011

My Mother Invents Orff Schulwerk

I’ve been playing piano at the Jewish Home for my mother for two and half years now. Mostly, it’s the great American songbook, those glorious songs by Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Kern, Arlen and scores of other prolific tunesmiths. My mother mostly listens while residents Fran, Edie, Laya, Patsy and others sing along, always astounding me by their feats of lyric recall. One session generally lasts around an hour, ending with my continually re-worked and improvised “Leaving My Mama Blues.”

But during all this time, I keep thinking that I should bring some of the Orff xylophones over for folks to play. And so, after the concert madness, a Friday morning unloading instruments and performing yet again with the kids on Grandparent’s Day, colleagues James, Sofia and myself decided to all visit my mother together. Sofia grabbed a xylophone on her way out and so began my first venture into Orff Schulwerk for 90-year olds.

Amidst the many dynamic ideas and practices that the Orff approach embodies, one of the most stunning is the use of xylophones with removable bars to create the pentatonic scale (most familiar to the layperson as the “black keys on the piano”). With some basic knowledge of how to accompany the scale, anyone can sound instantly musical because “all wrong notes” have been removed. Which gets me wondering: Is there a parallel way to move through life? Might I make my millions marketing my Pentatonic Guide to Human Happiness—all wrong habits and ideas removed for you so whatever you do is right? Alas, in real life I’m afraid we have to discover and negotiate all the tensions and dissonances of the full chromatic scale and learn how to bring them all into some coherent harmony—no pentatonic shortcuts!

But at least in the field of music, the instant musicality of the pentatonic scale allows everyone, no matter the age, background or previous musical experience, to sound reasonably good if they can plunk a mallet down on a xylophone bar—and thus, give them the pleasure of instant music-making without all those tedious hours of practice and furrowed brows in the music theory class. And so James and Sofia put the xylophone on my Mom’s wheel-chaired lap, gave her a mallet and took turns having little musical conversation with her while I played the jazz tunes that fit so well with this scale—My Blue Heaven, Ja Da, Mares Eat Oats, Louise and others. May I proudly report how good my Mom sounded? Really, some impressive phrasing, melodic shapes, varied rhythms. (I want to return and record her for our next school CD). At one point, she looked up at the sky through the skylight and exclaimed, “The angels are listening to me!” And I think she was right.

Further down the line of these remarkable musical trios, she paused, turned to me with an astonished look and said, “This would be great to do with kids!”

And that’s how my mother invented Orff Schulwerk.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Doug Tour

Safely out of tomato-throwing range, let me confess—I have worked four days a week my whole working life. At school, that is. I’m often teaching weekend workshops, planning classes or writing or practicing piano 24/7— so keep the tomatoes on the window-sill and stay with me here. For some 36 years, Monday has been my personal Sabbath and in my early days, I mostly spent it doing nothing. That is, wandering around San Francisco from neighborhood to neighborhood, park to park, bus to bus, no schedule, no agenda. Just opening myself to wonder as I wander and see what serendipity might bring my way. Sometimes I’d stick a book of poetry in my pocket, tuck a piece of paper in to write a letter to a friend (remember those? paper letters?) while leaning against a tree. Sometimes I’d bring a rubber ball to bounce against stoops or sides of buildings or on sidewalks, risking a missed bounce that might take a wrong turn down the hill and careen all the way from the top of Fillmore to the Bay. (If it ever caused an accident, I never knew—and so a generic apology to all!) Often I would bring my journal to help me pay attention to all the things that escape my notice when I’m busy trying to accomplish something. The dog chasing squirrels up the tree, the toddler picking dandelions, the crash of waves mingled with distant foghorns and barking seals.

In this way, I came to know something of the distinct characters of each neighborhood and would sometimes stumble into a particularly delightful spot that was worth a return trip. I started making mental note of these little treasures and when friends came from out of town, took great pleasure in giving them “the Doug Tour.” Some of my early “discoveries” were Seward slide (now commonplace, but then a novelty), Fleischacker Pool—yes, it was long empty and closed as a working pool, but just to stand there and imagine what it must have been like to swim in a pool so enormous was worth the trip. Plus, a short jump over a chain-link fence got you into the Zoo for free. The Mechanical Museum at Cliff House offered riches of old-time childhood delights for a quarter a pop— player pianos, circuses made from toothpicks come alive, games of mini-baseball/basketball/ dog racing, and of course, the bizarre and frightening Laughing Sal salvaged from Playland at the Beach. (One of my great regrets is that I arrived in San Francisco exactly one year after Playland was demolished. How I would have loved that!)

Today my nephew from Wisconsin came to visit and after a week of work that demanded the kind of focus that kills wonder and serendipity, I was thrilled to have an excuse to leave yet more e-mails unanswered, meet him at the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market (a new addition to the tour!) and walk up the Filbert Steps to Coit Tower. I know what you’re thinking—that’s really not so special, Doug. Though you’d be surprised how many tourists don’t know about the pleasure of walking up wooden steps to an ever-expanding view, poking down the alley where Buddha sits tranquilly in a garden and you can peek at the Bay Bridge through house and fantasize about living there, wondering how you would ever get the piano into the house. They might not know about the Art Deco house and the poster of Humphrey Bogart in the window nor ever counted the 289 steps (I think—today I forgot to count and in spite of my Toronto license plate feat, this number sits unreliably in my brain). Arriving at Coit Tower, the typical tourist might not know that you can jump into the bushes lining the edge with a canopy so thick you just lie on top instead of falling through. These are the little perks of the Doug Tour.

But we’re just warming up. In the old days, we went straight from Coit Tower (after the story of Lillian Coit and her r-rated infatuation with firemen and their hoses) down to Grant Street to the Postcard Store. An entire store with nothing but postcards from all times and places, mostly from 25 to 50 cents. There was a favorite of someone named Larry playing the organ which I used to buy and hide on scavenger huts, but also all sorts of cutesy, kitschy, images. My kind of place. But alas! it is but a distant memory, along with other icons of the Doug Tour, shamelessly redeveloped or closed to make way for the Dot-com boom (and then crash) or just dead from old age. More on this in a bit.

Then down Grant St. with a stop at the Café Trieste, a peek into Biordi’s on Colombus, a wistful look at the Hungry I which once housed Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby and (earlier) the Kingston Trio and now simply joined the post-Carol Doda strip joints, over to City Lights bookstore and down Kerouac Alley into the heart of Chinatown. As culture became more and more screen dominated and Mom and Pop were squeezed out by gentrification and everything began to look and feel more and more like everywhere and everything else. Chinatown was always a breath of fresh air—ducks hanging in windows, birds in cages (food, not decoration), stores filled with unrecognizable herbs and roots, a hustle and bustle punctuated by street Er-hu players and occasionally, the booming drums and clanging cymbals signaling a Lion Dance nearby. I would take my tour into Clarion Music Center to try out a didgeridoo or host of other “exotic” instruments, pause to look at the tea leaves drying on the chain link fence outside the Dim Sum restaurant, stop in for a red-bean cake somewhere.

And then up the hill to one of my favorite stops on the tour—the Fairmount Hotel. Through the sumptuous lobby, down the hall past the old photos of the ’06 earthquake, the Golden Gate Bridge being built and then up the outdoor elevator, where the northeast corner of the city spread out before you one floor at a time and you could peek in people’s windows on the way up and imagine their lives. Out into the big buffet served daily and walk around the 360O view. Occasionally, we’d actually sit a table and treat the kids in the group to a Shirley Temple drink.

From the Fairmount to Grace Cathedral, the secular stained glass, the commemoration of the United Nations, the Keith Haring piece and AIDS quilt in the interdenominational chapel and most delightful in the more recent years, both the indoor and the outdoor labyrinth which the tour guests are required to do going in, but can cheat going out. Before the cable car so shamelessly became pure tourist trap instead of real life transportation, we would end with a ride back down to Market St.

So that was one tour. Then there was the Golden Gate Park one with the uphill stream that empties into Portals of the Past lake, the weirdness of bison, the short-lived, but powerfully fascinating Shiva lingam stone near Stowe Lake (shamefully removed because of religious association while the Mt. Davidson cross was exempt), the primeval pond across the street from the tennis court and on and on. It’s a small city with a big character and I’m just getting warmed up here. Polly Ann’s ice cream, the plum trees on Edgewood, the golden fire hydrant, dim sum on Geary, the community garden near Fort Mason, the pet cemetery in the Presidio, the Jefferson Airplane house and Laura Ingalls Wilder house and Robert Louis Stevenson house and Mrs. Doubtfire house, the stairway walks, the Christmas house on 21st St.— no end to the strange, useless, whimsical, out-of-the-way, surprising twists and turns of the character and characters in this marvelous city.

And always a work in progress. I dearly miss Fleischacker Pool, paved over for a sewage project and stare wistfully at the Fairmount, whose outdoor elevator has long been shut and the top floor reserved now only for private parties. Sometimes I still take my visitors up there pretending I want to rent it for an event, just so they can see the one-of-a-king view that still tops the Mark Hopkins and Bank of America. But just when one thing shuts down, something else turns up. Like the park on Cayuga Street with it’s remarkable wood carvings lining the paths, the Frisbee golf course tucked away behind Marx Meadow in Golden Gate Park, the hidden Jack Early Park at the end of Grant St. with its great view and diminutive square footage. 

My Mondays off lately have been filled with too much catching up on busy work, the enormous amount of energy it takes just to keep the life I’ve built rolling along. But occasionally I’ll grab my rubber ball, stick a book in my pocket and head out into the streets hoping to add yet one more stop on the Doug Tour. Anyone care to join me?

PS Suggestions for your favorite hidden treasures are welcomed!

Friday, May 6, 2011

An Inch of Progress

San Francisco blessed us with two of its rare warm days, not a hint of fog on the horizon or wind whipping down the streets. But instead of running to the beach, I spent the time indoors in a dark theater trying to organize five or six classes and 100 children per day, keeping track of 150 instruments, trying to remember where each F# glockenspiel bar and triangle beater are for when we need them, knowing who plays what and when and how they come on stage and where they go off and how many times they play the A section before moving to the B and where the cable goes in the amp and jiggling the loose connection because the electronic piano keeps cutting out in the middle of the piece and when the lights should dim just so and just where is that tambourine anyway? Oh, and beginning the whole thing with the geometric puzzle of loading the U-haul truck and unloading at the theater and looking for parking and frantically typing the program in-between rehearsal numbers and rushing to Haight-Ashbury Music Center for new mallets an hour before the concert that night. Then finally, two nights of heart-warming, soul-stirring, hushed, throbbing, angelic and swinging music with the whole spectrum from 1st through 8th grade, from Mother Goose to Mozart to Mingus and beyond. And when the final applause dies down and flowers have been given to myself and my two colleagues James and Sofia— why, it’s time to load the van! When I apologized to someone for a delay in responding to our business negotiation because of Spring Concert Madness and shared a bit of the above, he replied: “You are a saint. A hard-working saint.”

I’ll defer on the saint part, but the hard work is accurate! And yet as I sat and watched the children, moved by their enthusiasm and sincerity, inspired by their hard work, warmed by their indelible characters, uplifted by the music, it was clear once again that it is worthy work that not only gave two evenings of pleasure to the kids and parents, but reached into the corners of the spirit and set things in motion unseen by us in the moment, things that may echo through a lifetime of memory. 

I was especially moved watching the kids I didn’t teach this year. My colleagues and I alternate years, so I see the 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 8th graders and they teach the rest. Knowing precisely what each child accomplished in their year with me, it was all the more remarkable to watch how they had improved and grown in the following year, sometimes tickling me with their inch of progress and sometimes astounding me with their 100-yard leap. It is satisfaction beyond measure to know that we have stumbled on the real deal here, something that reaps tangible growth not only in understanding, technique, musical awareness and listening, but in those areas unmeasurable by numbers or achievement, hinted at by the looks on the children’s faces while singing, the energy and grace in their bodies while dancing, the connection with their peers while making music together. These are things that keep feeding my faith in human potential, the newsworthy events that no local newspaper has ever come to report. Not once in 36 years. 

After the van was loaded, my colleagues and a few more went to celebrate with food and drink. Out came the stories of the kids who were bossing others around, who knocked over drums backstage, who spaced out their part, who didn’t notice the Bb was on the xylophone instead of the B, who were dissolving in tears from their classmate’s insult or pinching their neighbors butt while singing a sweet song in chorus. So lest I wax too rhapsodic about the little angels, they’re 100% kids after all. All works in progress, as are we all. All we can hope for is that little inch forward.

More to say about this, but now it’s the next morning and I gotta unload the van.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Mathematics of Hope

“I know the world’s being shaven by a drunken barber—I don’t have to read about it.”

This quote from the Frank Capra movie “Meet John Doe” defines my relationship to newspapers and TV news. I’m neither ashamed nor proud of it. I just know myself well enough to realize that a constant barrage of what passes for news shuts down my sense of hope and faith, sparks my outrage in unhealthy and unproductive ways and weakens my immune system. Of course, I recognize that as a concerned citizen, the kind I think we all should be, it is my responsibility to be informed. But mostly, the important news comes through in some form or another and instead of reading newspapers, shaking my head at the next heart-numbing story of human ignorance and depravity, I turn my energy to cultivating the promise of young children.

So in light of the above, I was hesitant to turn on the TV to see the jubilant crowds celebrating the murder of Osama Bin Laden. I well understand the sense of relief and satisfaction that comes when the bad guy gets his just desserts— I cheer in the movies along with the rest of the crowd. But is it really wise to show these images easily viewed by Al Qaeda supporters looking for yet another reason to plot revenge? Is it morally consistent to applaud the death of one tyrant while passing over the various American presidents and government officials who officially sanctioned and supported death squads in Chile, Nicaragua, Guatemala and beyond? Is there any cause for celebration knowing that just as one dictator is brought down, the next one is being groomed to take his place? And finally, is exultation over anyone’s death the morally-appropriate response?

Martin Luther King (along with Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi and some other high-profile figures) didn’t think so and it feels like his words have a relavance worth pondering amidst the media circus (thanks to my daughter Talia for passing it on):

“I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

This is the math we should teach the children. Hate + hate= Hate2
                                                                           Hate + love= Hope
                                                                           Love + love= Love2

When the newspapers print this headline— “I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy”—then perhaps I’ll renew my subscription.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Love Letter to the Orffans

The poet Gary Snyder was once asked how it felt to be constantly swimming against the stream. With a twinkle in his eyes, he answered: “I’m in line with the larger flow.” In times when I feel I don’t belong, that has given me some consolation. My community of friends includes an Afghan refugee living in Turkey, a homeless man wandering across Japan, a recluse who hardly left her room, a sociologist’s nightmare growing up in a neighborhood called “The Battlefield” whose career began in jail for young boys, another whose parents were imprisoned while he worked in a toxic factory and so on. (Rumi, Basho, Emily Dickinson, Louis Armstrong, Charles Dickens, for those who are curious.) The folks I feel I belong with are people I’ve never met, but know intimately, people who don’t know me (or do they?), people who I can’t call up to go to the movies.

That’s well and good as far as it goes, but let’s be honest, it’s not far enough. We need a living breathing community to sustain us, to inspire us, to keep us moving, to keep us connected, to keep us honest. “To find where we belong and to whom” I wrote in the last entry and that seems to be my central issue. As a Jew brought up Christian, a Buddhist who meditates alone instead of at the Zen Center, a jazz pianist who doesn’t play in clubs, a writer who doesn’t lunch with other writers at the café, I’ve chosen a weird path of voluntary exile, with a foot in many doors, but still wondering which one to walk through and call home.

So it was good timing to pack up the car on Friday after an intense week of Spring concert preparation and have three hours in the car with my friend and colleague James Harding driving down to the weekend Orff Miniconference in the Carmel Valley. Lately, the colleague part of the relationship has far overshadowed the friend, every spare minute spent with an agenda of things to handle—"photographer for concert? have you seen the missing E bar on the glockenspiel? when can we go over the registrations from the summer course? how many CD’s do we have to sell for the Salzburg performance?"—a breathless river of things to take care of. So it was a great pleasure to have time to unwind and let conversation flow and settle into a calmer and deeper vein.

And so we arrived at the Hidden Valley Music Seminars, a retreat center used mostly for opera companies, but also the site of our Mini-conference that has rotated every two years since 1987. 
90 people not only playing, singing and dancing together in the formal workshops and but eating and drinking and sleeping together (well, not in the Biblical sense— but maybe some?), with jam sessions around the piano in the barn going into the wee hours of the morning, walks around the beautiful grounds, massages in the sun on the green lawn. With the perfect weather, it was two and a half days of earthly paradise. And after my Heaven and Hell moments mentioned in my last entry, it was just what the doctor ordered. In the midst of one of the workshops, I paused for a moment and thought: 
“These are my people. This is where I belong.”

Many of the folks I’ve known for over thirty years, doing this outlaw work side-by-side and coming together at National Conferences, re-connecting in each of the three workshops the Orff Chapter sponsors, showing up at each other's Winter Holiday Programs or Spring Concerts. There is also a constant flow of fresh vibrant young folks to welcome into the clan, some of whom will take the torch and carry it forward for the next generation. Like any group of people on the planet, we have our squabbles, arguments, jealousies, betrayals—no exemption from the human drama here—but when you’re in for the long haul, you find your way through them. Especially when you have to dance together in the workshop or sing side-by-side in a moving South African song that reminds us—“you are in me and I am in you.” So if any of you Orff colleagues— old or new, young or old, man or woman, timid or bold—are out there reading this, this is my love letter to you and thanks for including me in this vibrant, necessary and inspiring community. I admire your talent, value your dedication, appreciate your work and count you as friends in the old pre-Facebook definition of the word. As I shouted out many years back to my Xephyr performer colleagues while crossing a street in Salzburg, overcome with the sheer wonder of us having the chance to share our work and play with the international Orff Community: “I love you guys!!”

P.S. Some may justifiably remove my from their friend list after having stooped to the low-class pun of “Orffans.” But with our founders Orff and Keetman some 30 and 20 years gone, it’s a good reminder that we’re in charge now, no parents to tell us what to do And yet their words and music keep ringing in our ears and stand shadow-like behind us. If they had witnessed what happened this weekend (and I sincerely believe they did), I am convinced they would be pleased beyond measure.