Sunday, July 31, 2011

Geezer Rap

The birthday revelry continued, finally culminating in the party at St. Aidan’s Church.
According to my count, there were exactly 60 people at my 60th, some poetic agreement from the universe. At once a pleasure to gather people from different corners of my life under one roof and a frustration to not get to visit with them all. But they seemed to enjoy each other and that was gratifying to see. 

It was a glorious way to begin the 60’s. While my initial vision for the party was to revisit the past via slide show, photos, stories, it turned out to be more of a proclamation of the future—or at least, my hopes for the future. The highlight was coming out of the closet and announcing myself as a poet and then testing the grounds by reading some 20 poems I’d written about aging, mortality and turning 60. Except for the exuberant applause for my light-hearted Geezer Rap, the end of most poems were met with a thoughtful silence, which feels precisely the appropriate response. But silence is harder to read than applause. A few affirming comments afterwards about specific poems encouraged me to keep sharing them, though I have no idea what that means. Can’t quite imagine working my way into the community of working poets and that’s a lot about what it takes. First announcing yourself to the world and then finding like-minded folks and the venues for sharing.

An equal highlight was announcing myself yet again as an aspiring jazz pianist. It was so much fun to play with a bunch of younger guys I’ve met through the Orff world. They seemed sincere in affirming my playing and encouraging me to continue and here again, that would mean starting to move in circles outside the Orff teacher network. The good news is that I have no illusions about fame and fortune in this exalted realm. The bar is high, I am old and time is short. But no matter—the point is simply to keep playing at every opportunity, learn what you can and enjoy every note.

It feels simply wonderful to consider this shift and a worthy goal for the next ten years. Of course, plenty more to do as a teacher and an Orff practitioner, more books to write in that world, more workshops to teach, more kids to help me figure out how to give them what they need. But having kept jazz and poetry simmering on the back burner all these years, the party was my hand on the pan, ready to move them closer to the front. Anyone out there need a poet or piano player for your next event?

Meanwhile, I include Geezer Rap (already a bit outdated) below:

Young people look at us and say, "Yo, Dude, your race is run."
But we talk back and say, "Hey, Mack, we've only just begun!"
We listen to you rappers talking in some foreign tongue,
And think, "Hey, we can do that! Our rhymin' days ain't done."

We are the Gangsta Geezers, you young 'uns can't ignore us.
We're still hip, don't give us lip, don't join in on the chorus.
Just clear the pike, we've got the mike, (Can you do something for us?
Go over to the bookshelf and bring us the Thesaurus?)

You kids are good, but in our 'hood, we think that we are better.
We play it straight and never use those words that have four letters.
We wish we had a dollar, we wish we had a buck,
For every time we hear you all young rappers say  (beep!)
When we get really angry, when we get really mad.
We say "Balderdash," "Bosh," and sometimes "Egad!"

We are the Gangsta Geezers, you young 'uns can't ignore us.
We're still hip, don't give us lip, don't join in on the chorus.
You think that we are washed up, you think that we are pests.
So why don't you just check us out, give us the hipness test.

SNOOP DOG, He's from Peanuts. MADONNA, She's a virgin.
EMINEM, That's a candy. DOCTOR DRE, why, he's a surgeon.
HBO, a medical plan. TECHNO. That's a watch.
SCRATCH is what we do when we are itchin' in our crotch.


We are the Gangsta Geezers, you young 'uns can't ignore us.
We're still hip, don't give us lip, don't join in on the chorus.
We don't grab our crotch and we don't shake our booty,
‘Cause we grew up with Captain Kangaroo and Howdy Doody.
We don't pierce our private parts, wear thongs up our asses,
(Hold on, this darn print's way too small, I've got to get my glasses.)
We don't jump in the mosh pit, we can do the fox trot.
We can do the cha-cha too. Can you? We think not!

We are the Gangsta Geezers, you young 'uns can't ignore us.
We're still hip, don't give us lip, don't join in on the chorus.

We don't get high on Ecstasy and we don't smoke that crack.
We just take some Percodan when we throw out our back.
And when we're feeling low, why, Prozac's just the stuff,
And we can use Viagra when we can't get high enough.
We're still in the running, yes, we've been on T.V.
Want to see the out-takes from our colonoscopy?
Our brain, it may be slowin' down, our habits may be set.
But we can still…Wait! What was that? (shrug) We forget!

Yeah, we're the Gangsta Geezers. We don't take no crap.
So clear the way, we've come to say, "It's time for Geezer Rap!"
We tell it like it was, yes, we're the Geezer Rappers
We write our poems while sitting for an hour on the crapper.

Yes, we are the geezers, we pick our nose with tweezers.
We're movin' kind of carefully so we don't get a seizure.
So come on, all you people, give it up for Geezer Rap.
In fact, you all can take the mike, we gotta take our nap.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

When Miracles Are the Norm

Perhaps a faithful reader is weary of the next epiphany. What happens when miracles become the norm?But so it has been this week. My birthday present was the 3rd annual visit of the jazz class to the Jewish Home for the Aged and this one rose to the high bar the others had set. Some 40 seniors and 20 jazz class members raising the roof in song and dance.

And I mean, everyone danced! The prize went to 104-year old Doris in her wheelchair, with a smile that wrapped twice around her face and an infectious joy that could bring statues to life. Then there was Frank in his hippie phase, bandana around his head and two fake earrings and a mirror in his hand, belting out “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in his usual slightly-off key voice loud enough to be mistaken for the mating call of elephants. When he wasn’t singing, he was drumming the mirror handle on his wheelchair and we had a nice exchange trading 8’s at one point.

Patsy was there as usual with her whispery smoker’s voice, mouthing the words to every one of the 25 plus songs we sang. Ed, the old Lindy Hop dancer, was in heaven watching our folks do some Lindy and Shim-Sham and took such delight in talking to them afterwards and telling them, “You did a great job, but you got it all wrong!” All the residents were tickled when my class played “One Potato, Two Potato, Three Potato, Four” with them in jazz style, stacking fists the way some may have done as kids.

Last year, Ben, the resident piano player and Holocaust survivor, had turned 95 when I turned 59 and after announcing our palindromic relationship, he played a piece. This year he wasn’t up for it, but enjoyed hearing us play some of his songs. Edie from Boston showed up faithfully and sat alongside Fran, jumping in on every tune she knew.

And then Fran, the star of the show. She sang better than she ever had, reaching moments of true artistry that brought the house to a hush in tunes like “Embraceable You.” She announced my birthday to the group and told her favorite story about me having to stop playing one time because another piano player had arrived and me protesting, “But I’m just getting warmed up!” A good general description of how it feels to turn 60. And announcing I’m 60 in an old age home is like proclaiming my youth! It’s all relative.

By my side the whole time was my beloved mother, alternating between conducting with her hands, closing her eyes in bliss and throwing kisses to the crowd. Another satisfying numerical relationship between us— 90 and 60. But much more satisfying is the way music has become our language of connection in these last three years, something that had not been so the previous 57. Yet another Exhibit for the Defense in the tiresome court battle about why music is important.

And frankly, I’m sick to death of the arguments. For those making decisions to surgically remove music education from children’s lives, the equivalent of severing a limb or having it atrophy by forbidding its use, I should just say, “Come to the music room at The San Francisco School, where miracles are the norm.” Though the Jewish Home experience was moving and memorable enough to bask in its afterglow for a year to come, there was no reason to rest content. Indeed, I saw one of the parent chaperones from the Salzburg trip pass by in the school hall and had a weird thought that I was betraying the kids' miraculous experience by moving right on to the next one. But so it was. The jazz class learned two new Sonny Rollin’s tunes that must have had Orff and Keetman arise from whatever heavenly bliss they’re in to peek down and say, “Wow! Never thought I’d hear sounds like that on these instruments. Wunderbar!!” We then worked on a skit to a version of “Tea for Two” caught in the loop of an endlessly repeating cycle, reviewed the Shim Sham dance and performed for the other two classes on campus. Need I say the audience was thrilled?

As were we watching their sharings. The Orff class did a joyful game, an evocative introduction with violin, recorder and cello and then a spirited version of Hava Nagilah, with audience participation. The World Music class led us outside to bask in the sounds of our homemade gamelan led by James, then back in for Bulgarian songs and dances led by Sofia, and finally, reached down to the bottom of our souls with a stunning and powerful Ghanaian song, dance and drumming piece they had learned from the third teacher in the course, Kofi Gblonyo. An embarrassment of riches. 75 people from all corners of the world affirming and adding to the school’s unspoken mission statement:
“This is the place where miracles happens. Daily.”

Last night, a short exhale of happiness. Today, inhaling again to prepare for my birthday party tonight, where I hope poetry reading and music will attract the ancestors yet again. Tomorrow, the briefest of exhales before another 100 students show up at school on Monday for our 28th year of the Orff Certification Course. And the beat goes on. I, for one, am happy and grateful to keep playing it. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Farewell to the 50's

Today was my last day as a 59-year old and I couldn’t have imagined a better way to spend it. Most of it was in the music room, where 36 years of laughter, tears and miracles are stored in the walls and alive in the air. And more memories added—like watching my friend from Iran dance the Shim Sham so joyfully and later play a beautiful gem of a glockenspiel solo in our song Moonglow. Such a pleasure to spend the day making beautiful music with beautiful people, to have the campus alive with vibrant, buzzing adults from all corners of the globe alongside the children in summer school. A fabulous ending to a fabulous decade.

And tomorrow on my birthday, I’ll be back for more, as well as taking my class to play for and sing with my Mom and friends at the Jewish Home for the Aged. This will be the third year and I suspect it will be as extraordinary as the last two were.

This Saturday will be my party, mostly a poetry reading of my own and other’s poems about aging, elderhood and mortality, followed by a concert where I get to play jazz piano in a trio. Oh, joy of joys! So I’ll close this entry with one of the poems I hope to read that I wrote this summer. I suspect 60 will be the beginning of a scaling down in size, a companion piece to Wendell Berry’s poem about growing tall amongst the trees in his youth and growing small amongst the grasses in his elder years. Perhaps later I’ll include some of the lighter verse, including my infamous “Geezer Rap.” But first, this:


20 years old. Confident, cocky, sure that that boulder
I will heave into the mainstream
will make a big splash in the world.

Each decade, the stone
and the river
         got smaller.

At 60, that once-big splash a mere pebble
in a small pond.

But still it makes ripples, tiny rings
that circle outwards
and sometimes reach the shore
of someone’s life about to be changed.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

All Your Answers Will Be Questioned

I’m on to my next course and how I love it! I like teaching anywhere, anytime, but between getting to teach in my own music room at the school, in my native language without a translator and with my favorite subject—the marriage of Jazz and Orff—I am simply in heaven. And this being Jazz II, I can jump right in at a high level, assume certain prior knowledge and get down to work with well-trained teachers and great musicians. What a pleasure!

In a go-around, someone said they just came from an Orff training in which the instructors said, “All your questions will be answered.” And I thought, “Hmm. That’s the opposite of this course. Here all your answers will be questioned. And mine, too.”

In a June graduation speech I heard, the speaker told of the three questions he had posted in his office:

1.     What? 
2.     So What?
3.     Now What?

Brilliant! "What" means first doing something with the students and then having them recall what exactly they have done. This is an important step in digestion, converting the foodstuff of experience to the conscious assimilation that will make the learning part of our bones and blood. Many times I have providing thrilling experiences for my students, but without that moment of reflection, neither they nor I are clear enough about how this is contributing to their growth and development. Learning may—and often should— begin in the hand and the heart, but it needs the cool reflection of the head to complete the loop. Ending a class with the question “What have we done?” and passing through it again in our spoken memory is an excellent strategy for strengthening those connections being made in the brain. And not just in the classroom. So many of my private journal entries are simply an account of what happened during the day before making any comments on it.

But let’s not stop there. “So what?” asks the students to reflect on the possible meaning of the experience. It can be the teacher’s intended meaning—“By studying Manifest Destiny, we have a lens through which to view colonial expansion that makes is more understandable.By learning the 12-bar blues pattern on the xylophones, we can now understand the music differently when we listen and also play a variety of blues.” Or it can be a personal meaning. “After reading this book, I understood my father so much better.” “The lyrics in this blues really spoke to me. I could relate to the situation.”

It’s a bold question to ask and one schools rarely do, being more concerned with simply parroting back the right answer without stopping to ask why it’s worthy to learn. A teacher asking “So what? What did the thing we just learned mean to you?” is vulnerable to the honest answer, “Nothin’.” So the habitual asking of “so what” puts pressure on the teacher to always teach within the framework of meaning and context, sometimes surprising the students themselves by asking them to discover a meaning in the material not immediately obvious to them.

But again, why stop there? “Now what?” is the crowning question. “Now that you know about the kind of thinking summarized in Manifest Destiny that caused so much cruelty, suffering and injustice, what are you going to do with that information? How can you apply it to the stories in today’s newspaper? How can you educate others to drop their harmful thinking that God is only on their side and widen their listening to and acceptance of other ways?" "Now that you know how to play the 12-bar blues, can you improvise and compose your own in your particular style?"  "Now that you’ve heard some great blues lyrics, can you tell your own story through this form?” Any time you ask the students to apply knowledge in a novel situation, to create a project, to express their own understanding through poetry, art, dance, drama, music, you help them realize that anything they learn or accomplish in class is not the end, but the beginning. “Now what?” puts the responsibility back on them to do something novel, useful and meaningful with what they learn.

So beware of narrow educational practices and policies that go no further than the “whats,” that promise that “all your questions will be answered.” (Or more accurately and worse yet, "all our questions—ie, the testmakers—will be answered.") Train students to ask teachers “So what?” and train teachers to ask students “Now what?” When students enter a class and the teacher says, “All your answers will be questioned,” they know they are in an authentic educational venture. 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Viva Madrid!

The reader may have noted that the continuing confessions of a traveling music teacher have been leaning heavily to the side of “music teacher” and been light on the “traveling.” The armchair traveler cozying in for a flight to another land without the airport lines or mosquitos may have been disappointed to encounter yet another lecture on an esoteric teaching approach. But thought I’ve been in Spain a week, I haven’t wholly been here. Madrid has been out the window on the daily commute on Carretera A-6, but there’s neither been the real nor psychological time to do little more than look at it from a moving car.

But the night of flamenco helped me touch base with this city, which like Salzburg, has been a home of sorts, a touchstone during the last 21 years. It was actually in Salzburg that I first met so many of these Madrileño vibrant music teachers—Sofía, Luz, Fernando, Polo, Mariana, Leo. But it has been Madrid where the bulk of these friendships have been formed and re-formed. It has been fascinating and inspiring to see the various forks in the road we all have taken in the two decades we’ve known each other and a great pleasure to gather yet again around the table at El Meson and keep the stories and laughter flowing.

And so Madrid. A poster in the Plaza Mayor says something to the effect of, “Madrid has no beaches, no river, no astounding architecture, no world-famous historical monuments—why do tourists come here?” And concludes that it is the people, the vibrant energy in the street and the animated chatter of the folks dining for three hours at the open-air cafes and indoor tapas bars. I’m pleased to report that the Spanish tradition of sitting for hours just talking with folks at the table lives on, though I can’t help but note that even the face-to-face social genius of the Spanish is starting to wilt and suffer a bit from the rampant mobile phones. Now a conversation can be—and is—interrupted by a phone call and a lull in the conversation finds people with heads-down checking their text messages.

Madrid is an enormous city and after all these years, I recognize each of its neighborhoods, but couldn’t easily guide you from one to another. It recently constructed four skyscrapers that earn their name, standing out so arrogantly on the flat plain scraping the sky, the cousin of the Rincon Tower in San Francisco that still make me mad every time I see it. I have little routines in Madrid— a stroll in Plaza Mayor, usually stopping in the store where I replenish the Spanish berets (gorras) I keep losing, a trip to the CD store Finac, occasionally a re-visit to the Prado Museum or walk in Parque Retiro. And most important of all, eating some pimientos de padrón.

This dish from Galicia is both a culinary delight and a game of Russian Roulette. These tiny peppers, cooked in oil and salted just right, are mostly mild. But in every batch, there hides one or two (or occasionally more) truly hot “picante” peppers, one of which once sent me away from the table and walking around for 20 minutes trying to outrun the pain on my tongue. In my last dinner in Madrid on this trip, I finally found a restaurant that served them. They were delicious. And every one of them mild, making me feel both relieved and cheated.

It was also amazing to be in this tapas bar without a single person smoking and no cigarette butts below the bar. This is simply a miracle. That one can go into a Madrid tapas bar or flamenco club or jazz club (or equally, go into a pub in Ireland, Scotland or England) with no smoke is something no one could have imagined a mere ten years ago. This is living proof of Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point theory. That an idea could gather so much momentum and power that it completely turned around a smoking habit so ingrained in these cultures is simply extraordinary. If it could happen with smoking, why not with racism, corporate greed, harmful educational policies? Why did the smoking thing so completely convince whole cultures to change their ways? What was the secret of that success? This could be worthy of a study on the off chance that we can apply its secrets to things that cause even more harm than cigarettes.

Speaking of which, we had to take a different route to the airport because there was a demonstration in Madrid that closed some streets. Sofia began explaining the phenomena of “Los Indignados,” people inspired by a little book written by a German author to express their indignation at business-as-usual politics, corruption, greed and more. Though I have to both read the book and follow the movement to say something intelligent about it, the general idea appealed to me greatly. Haven’t I been outraged by certain actions in my little community and spoken out against them? Yes, I have.

I was in Spain at the outbreak of the Iraq War many years back and joined in a demonstration in the streets with people of all ages and classes. I was electrified and inspired by the energy in the air. While so many in the U.S. had shamelessly agreed to “go get ‘em,” fed by the government lies and neither the gumption nor the habit to question, here people were indeed expressing an appropriate indignation. So it didn’t surprise me to hear that Los Indignados had been camping in the Puerta del Sol for months on end to make their voices heard. My kind of people.

As W.H. Auden said, “All I have is my voice to undo the folded lie” and if we don’t use that voice, the lies proceed unchecked. The health of a culture can be measured by the habit of questioning, the courage to speak out and the sense to join voices together. The problem with politics is that while it is vital to speak out against harmful practices, a life spent in reaction to bad things is not yet complete. As well as speaking out against, we must also speak for something, to show and to live the good things. At the same time we undo the folded lie, we also stand for the spoken and felt truth. But good things and truth can be damped down or shut away if citizens are not vigilant and fierce enough to protect them. We need to be savvy in both politics and culture.

So hooray to Madrid for continuing to produce an outspoken citizenry and protect its vibrant culture, to all of Spain for its rich festival life, local character, passionate music, gazpacho, potatas bravas and pimientos de padrón. From the arid plains and hot sun, I’m heading back to the wet fog, rolling San Francisco hills and the waters of the Pacific.

It was some six weeks ago that I began the drive across the wide open spaces of the West, hiked the wooded paths of the Grand Tetons and stopped at Mt. Rushmore and the Corn Palace, arrived at sunsets over Lake Michigan and daily swims in the back lake, roamed through the streets of Verona enjoying sidewalk cafes and open-air opera, walked through the cobbled streets of Salzburg with SF School students and biked through the lush, green fields, bought the piano music of Federico Mompou in a Madrid music store, heard flamenco and ate pimientos de padrón. All the while sharing with some 800 teachers from around the world the little piece of good things that I have found in this endlessly delightful approach to teaching music, bringing people together and celebrating life that the Orff Schulwerk can be 

It has been a glorious, intense and gratifying time. Here in the Newark Airport, some 15 minutes from the New Jersey home of my childhood, I await the next plane to take me back to my beloved San Francisco, my home of homes.

And of course, the next Orff Course begins on Monday. Olé!

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Thrill of Mastery

Last night I went to a flamenco club. It is gospel truth that it takes time to understand the language of an art form, get familiar with its patterns of stopping and starting and developing ideas, understand its aesthetic, tune in to its particular way of communicating between artists. Yet still art can by-pass familiarity and go straight to the gut or the heart or the feet. There was no way anyone in that audience, from naive tourist to lifelong aficionado, could not feel the spectacular virtuosity on display on that stage. And it didn’t hurt that it was a small club.  I was in the second row, literally sprayed by the dancer’s sweat as he pirouetted at the end of a demanding improvisation.

From the two guitarists to the three male singers and rhythmic clappers and the male and female dancer, magic was abundant. The staccato rhythms of the feet were matched by the interlocking of clapped hands and strummed guitars, with a communication between all that was visible, palpable and far beyond what any of us ever achieve with mere words. I sat next to two flamenco dancers who clapped along and nodded in appreciation of the nuances I’m sure I missed, and with my friend Sofia on the other side who was enjoying the verbal improvisations and poetic images of the singers, much of which I also missed. But no matter. As I said, it was clear to all that there was something present far beyond the norm of even this passionate art form, that everything fell into place and the heart was wide open. Though it got a small laugh, it was perfectly natural that one of the singers spontaneously kissed his fellow musician on stage in appreciation of what had just happened.

Flamenco leans heavily to the element of fire, beginning at a heat many art forms just barely suggest at a moment of climax. But like any art, it needs to be forged in the flame of discipline, its wild excess tempered and contained by the forge of form and structure. We all have the possibility of feeling passion unbound by our usual protective coolness, but it is the hard work of these dancers, singers and musicians that allows us to feel and remember.

Mastery in any field is thrilling to behold. We need to witness it to keep reminding us what heights this human body, mind and heart is capable of. We already know what degraded depths it can achieve, reminded far too often in every newspaper story. So to be in the presence of a masterful performer or worker in any field, be it a skateboarder, contortionist or basketball player, is to renew our amazement at what the body is capable of. And when the body connects with the heart, as in flamenco, that astonishment grows in geometric proportions.

In 1993, I met with a group of fellow Orff teachers in the Zephyr Café in San Francisco and we decided to meet once a week to explore the kinds of things we did with our kids in the classroom for ourselves. Out of those weekly improvisations, some pieces emerged built from our collective imagination and before we knew it, we began to share them and perform. We called ourselves Xephyr (X for the xylophone) and besides performing at several prestigious Orff events, including the Salzburg Symposiums of 1995, 2000 and 2006, we gave concerts in San Francisco. Part of each concert turned into a workshop involving the audience, who then performed themselves. We discovered that our elemental approach made the audience feel comfortable enough that they could imagine “ I can almost do that” and they felt encouraged to try.

This was a different animal altogether from the Flamenco show. I imagine no one in that audience was thinking, “I’d like to go on stage and dance with these folks.” I remember going to a concert with one of the Xephyr members to a group doing similar integrated performance at a very high level and he turned to me and said, “”Oh, yeah—that’s what we forgot. Virtuosity!” and we both laughed. In its exquisite genius of evoking good solid music and dance from simple elements, the Orff approach helps awaken the feeling that everyone is part musician and dancer and truth be told, I loved the concerts we gave and the unique way it involved the audience. The problem with mastery is that it dazzles and astounds and can make people feel smaller. But mostly, I think it does elevate us through our vicarious participation in the flash and the dazzle and remind us to work harder in our chosen field. In fact, the Xephyr members were virtuosos, not of specific music or dance, but in our craft of teaching. Time is too short to master more than one corner of creation—we indeed must pick and choose.

And about to board a plane to San Francisco and begin my fifth course in a row on Monday, I suppose teaching is my equivalent of passionate foot-stamping, clapping and singing, my flamenco burst of passion forged in some 30,000 classes with children and workshops in my spare time. Olé!!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Pity Party

I imagine that many of us have said, “After this, I promise I will never complain again.”
That’s how I felt after reading Dave Egger’s What Is the What or visiting a friend with cancer or simply reading about the latest disaster in the newspaper. Really, how small our complaints feel in the face of the steady surge of tragedy and suffering that rolls through so many people’s lives. And yet, our memories are short. A mere tickle in the throat and we are feeling so sorry for ourselves.

So I got sick. I have a cold. The shift from lush Salzburg to arid Madrid and some ill-timed air-conditioning, combined with what should understandably be sheer exhaustion from teaching so much without a break and dealing with so many organizational details in the midst of travel, hit me and sent me into self-pity mode.

I hate getting sick! I hate feeling less than my whole self, unable to meet the world head on because everything is turning inwards to fight off the bad germs. It’s bad when I have free time because I can’t fully enjoy it and it’s bad when I’m working because I have to keep going. I’ve had some of both these few days in Madrid and while the teaching remains pleasurable, I feel terrible that I’m such lousy company in the dinner gatherings afterwards. Coupled with lunching in a noisy cafeteria with folks talking to me in Spanish, a language I’m almost fluent in, but still requires effort. My old ears simply are unable to filter out the clang of silverware and squeals of kids in the other room.

And speaking of getting old, which I will frequently as I hit my last week of 59, I did a game today where people had to walk counting to the beat and stop when they reached their age. Who was the last to stop? You guessed it. Out of 60 people.

Truth be told, it is a bit sobering, but mostly it feels fine. A physically graphic picture of how I’ve walked farther down the path than they have and have gotten to see some wonderful sights. 
I hope they’ll see it someday as well, but for them, it’s just a guess at this point. I’ve been there. How’s that for trying to put a positive spin on mortality?

So wash your screen after reading this, just in case germs travels with electrons, and remind yourself that we have no right to complain whatsoever. Though, of course, we will still do it. 
As for me, it’s time for a nap.

Monday, July 18, 2011

"Beware All Ye Who Enter Here"

I arrived in Madrid from Salzburg and the next morning, off and running in the next Orff Course. I was surprised to discover that one of the groups I worked with this morning were all beginners—this was their first Orff workshop. That was a moment of Shakespearean drama, worthy of blaring trumpets and drum rolls. I knew that for some this would be a life-changing moment, an opening of the door into a room they had dreamed about, but never entered in the flesh. For some, the Sound of Music soundtrack will go off in their head and they will “climb every mountain” to enjoy the refreshing rivers, meadows of peace and contentment and stunning views. For some, the heavens will part and they will step boldly and confidently into a glorious future of blissful classes with their children.

Well, not quite. As some people have complained to me, “I liked my life just fine and then this had to happen!” If we wholly accept the invitation, that mountain of work ahead that the Mother Abbess is exhorting us to climb can be a veritable Everest, complete with high winds, cold snow, landslides. Not to mention unpredictable children who aren’t immediately impressed with our transformation. And though we arrived at the Orff workshop because something felt too narrow, too dull, too uninspired or unsatisfying in our teaching, we may find ourselves doubting everything about how we have taught and enter a zone between dull, but okay and exciting, but not yet second nature. Should I warn my group in Madrid? “Beware all ye who enter here!”

Of course not. They’ll find out soon enough. If any of us knew ahead of time what awaited us when we embarked on a worthy endeavor—a marriage, child-raising, a career—I’m sure we would have turned and run the other way. We are guided into our choices by the carrot of pleasure and this is Nature’s great strategy (note the act that spawns conception and leads to changing diapers and wiping runny noses).

It seems clear that people are attracted by the freedom of the Orff approach and only later realize what a great responsibility is to decide what we will teach, when we will teach it, how we will teach it, how we will develop it with the children and so on and so on. Being handed a textbook and told to teach as it dictates leaves no room for our own passion or imagination or particular combination of interests and skills, but it occasionally must seem appealing when we’re wrestling with creating and re-creating our own curriculum.

There’s a gem of a book for Orff teachers just released with a long title (Texts on Theory and Practice of Orff Schulwerk). Orff’s brilliant colleague, Gunild Keetman, had just graduated from the school where Orff taught and she says: “Orff was looking for a colleague who could try out his ideas in practice and asked me if I would not like to stay on and help him. I agreed joyfully, not foreseeing that out of this a lifelong co-operation would ensue, not foreseeing the outcome and the way these experiments, begun in our restricted circle, would later spread, luckily also not foreseeing what a tough assignment it would be nor how much courage and overcoming of obstacles would be involved.”

And there you have it. Though we read our horoscope or go to fortune tellers, it really is best not to know, but proceed step by step in faith, guided by the pure pleasure of our work. In the case of Orff and Keetman, those little experiments begun in the 1920’s did indeed bear a remarkable and far-reaching fruit. But even if it hadn’t, I imagine they would have enjoyed it all the same.

After all these years of teaching, I sometimes wonder whether any of it meant anything to anyone. Of course, it’s nice to think that you may have made an impact on the world, ranging from making someone’s day a little more pleasant to transforming a life to reviving music education on a local, national or international scale. But ultimately, it’s the wrong question. More to the point—“Did I have a good time doing it?”—and to that I give a resounding “YES!” And I still am—and so off to plan tomorrow’s classes.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Return of Dougie Fresh

My first affirmation as a free-style rapper came from a colleague my age (see Dougie Fresh II in May's postings), but now that I have the support of a few 14-year olds from my kid’s group, I’m paying attention. It was my free-style rap walking with them in downtown Salzburg that earned me my “Dougie Fresh” nickname from a few kids who seemed genuinely impressed. Of course, I know a lot is missing. I don’t really have the rhythm right and my accent is all wrong. But I am tuned into rhyming and there’s no lack of subject matter. Here’s an example I wrote for the kids on the Salzburg trip after they left (Jufa is the name of the Youth Hostel):

I’m sittin’ in the Jufa, gonna make a big confession.
My homeys all are gone and I got a bad depression
Missing all our music with its natural expression
Gotta to pay for a shrink in a therapy session.
Sayin’, “Why’d they have to go? They know I’d miss them so.
Can’t play any good music with no rosin on my bow.”
While I feel the pain, outside it starts to rain.
The memories of our time here are etched into my brain.
We got a good groove on, but now it’s time to move on.
And each and every one of us is now a lifetime Jufan.
The thunderclouds have gathered, folks are getting’ out their mops
I gotta ride my bike back in-between the raindrops.
But before I go, I gotta get this off my chest.
“I love you guys! all 17, you truly are the best!!!”

I really am motivated to start to listen to some rap and of course, this is the missing piece. The Input-Output ratio is crucial in any art form and without hearing the rhythms, inflections, accents, styles of genuine rap, I’m stuck in my older poetic forms upbringing. So I have no illusions that I’m going to go viral on Youtube, but it is fun to walk down the street and comment on the world with a backbeat.

Meanwhile, I went back again to the Jufa Youth Hostel last night to return my bicycle. I expected to see the kids walking through the lobby and I suspect that anytime I go there, I’ll have the same sensation. Certain places are forever etched in our memories, connected with the people we shared that particular time and place with. This morning, I stood in the hall of the Frohnburg where I was staying and remembered the party from the 1990 Summer Course, where I led a little contra-dance and the Finnish folks sang and strummed guitars. A couple of days ago, I biked with my old friend Rick to my farmhouse in Anif where I lived when I taught in 2003, 2005, 2007. Yesterday, I finished my last class in Room 27, the same room where a candle-lit surprise farewell party was once given to me and where I also gave a piano concert. Every time I pass the zip-line in the playground I think of my daughter Kerala at 9 years old. When I put my bike in the Frohnburg bike rack, I remember daughter Talia learning to ride a bike at 5 years old. Twenty-one years of one to six week visits has made the Orff Institut one of my precious homes on this planet and all of Salzburg is alive with each of those times, all of the people I shared them with and memories of the different selves I have been (I was 39 when I first arrived!)

And the remarkable thing is that we all keep crossing paths. In these last two weeks, I met with over a hundred people from those former times and here we were again, creating our temporary communities where miracles, fun and laughter abound and where future memories are being made. Five of the ten teachers teaching at this summer course also taught at that first one I did in 1990! We are growing old together and it’s always interesting to see how we change and how we stay the same. And mostly, it is just plain amazing that we’re all still carrying on. Good material for another rap!

Instead of playing music on the street at Fisherman’s Wharf
We all still carry on the Schulwerk of Mr. Carl Orff
Instead of going out at night to dance salsa or disco
We’re out there teaching workshops in the Drid, the Burg and Frisco.
We clap our hands in Italy, we play a game in Spain,
We ride our bikes in Salzburg in the sunshine and the rain.
We don’t go swimmin’ at the beach or go and ride a horse.
We finish teaching, then get ready for the next Orff course.
We see each other here and there, then later there and here.
We hang around at restaurants sipping wine or drinking beer.
We hope that we can carry on as we get old and gray.
And meanwhile, we’re grateful for each and every day.
That we can teach the Taiwanese, the Thai, Korean, French.
That we can lunch with Persian folks while chatting on the bench.
That we can learn a song from an Aussie or a  Dane
I got plenty more to say, but I gotta catch my plane!

Well, like I said, Dougie Fresh needs some help. But it’s fun to try.

On to the next course in Madrid!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Art, Religion and New Life

Pop-pop Doug arrived one step closer yesterday. Thanks to modern technology, my daughter Kerala now knows that there is a girl inside her and she’s starting to kick. Just imagining both sends a thrill up my spine—new life is in the making. Creation is always a miracle to behold and sends us back to the profound mystery of it all. We wake up each morning taking for granted that the sun has risen, the earth has spun and the birds are singing in yet another day and sometimes we need a big drama like this to remind us just how extraordinary it all is.

Certainly one of the most stunning moments of my life was helping bring Kerala into this world almost 31 years ago. She was born at home in the midst of a San Francisco heat wave over a slow two-day labor with midwives, my sister and a fellow teacher at school attending. When she finally emerged, I cut the cord and took her in my trembling hands, so astonished that this lump in the belly was now a living, breathing being. While the midwives attended to my wife, I took her in the other room and whispered an old Buddhist saying in her ear: “In this body, there is birth and death and liberation from birth and death. Be a light unto yourself.” And sure enough, she has been.

The second birth with daughter Talia was no less remarkable, even though four years later already a bit familiar. I imagine that had I had 12 children, I might have been a bit jaded by the 12th. And this is the deal with the way we’re constructed. As things become familiar, they lose a bit of their magic and glow and we’re vulnerable to them crusting over to mere habit. It is why adults are so much less interesting than children, those little folks for whom everything is still fresh and new, who walk through the world with their sense of wonder intact.

Why do we need a God or gods to justify that the world exists and that creation is at the heart of every day? Wouldn’t it be better to become gods ourselves by co-participating in the act of creation? Besides saving us from the rampage of hatred, small-mindedness, fanatacism, fundamentalism that so many religions have spawned, we would have no place to hide, no figure to do be enlightened for us or die for our sins. We would have to step up and claim our own capacity to create and thus, truly be one of God’s children.

And so enter art. We are most ourselves, most engaged, most happy, when we are creating something. Whether it be improvising jazz, working on a watercolor, writing a poem or shaping a dance routine, creation is what we were made for. And of course that includes cooking a good meal, making a home, inventing a gadget, imagining a new idea.

I suppose art is my religion because it has all the benefits of praise, prayer, worship and the sense of belonging without any of the dogma. It is why the time with those 17 children here in Salzburg was so unforgettable. We probably would have had fun just walking the streets in any case, but to have birthed and brought up the music that we created and shared it with the world brought the whole enterprise to another level.

Last night, Sofia and I led 150 people from 32 countries through children’s games from around the world re-imagined through our way of presenting them and extending them, further creating something from children’s creations. Once again, the laughter, connection and musical power in that room could have solved the energy crisis for at least a week. A parent thanking me for the recent trip asked, “How do you have so much energy?” and all I can think to answer is that devoting myself to the perpetual act of creation is the source that feeds me like an underground spring.

Zen Buddhism takes this a step further and though there is a history of Zen monks doing brush painting or writing haiku, art is sometimes viewed as a cheap imitation or distraction. The most profound act of creation is to sit in zazen meditation and die to your small self, to arise from the cushion and feel the whole world re-born in each breath. Indeed, in the seven-day meditation retreats I used to do, I often felt that sense of wonder restored and my awe for the simplest things—a light breeze passing through the trees, the shimmer of the gravel path, the chipmunk leaping on the rocks—bring the world wholly alive.

So no matter how big or small your personal act of creation is, claim it! Meanwhile, somewhere far away, my little granddaughter is growing and I can only gasp in astonishment that this can be. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Laugh, Learn and Love

The poet Gary Snyder once wrote something to the effect of “99% of philosophy is people trying to justify the cage they’re trapped in.” To re-phrase that more positively, it seems that we often build our philosophies around our character and particularly way of seeing the world. I often say that the Orff approach to education is less a scientifically proven pedagogy than a style of teaching that fits the way some people naturally think and experience music, children or education.

I said a tearful goodbye to the kids last night after yet another fun-filled dinner and walk through the Salzburg streets and now can devote more attention to my classes here in the summer course. I’ve now taught four of the five groups and each class is filled with the usual laughter, fun and seriously satisfying music-making. Tonight I went to an evening lecture by the wonderful Orff teacher Christine Schonherr on “Orff for Advanced Ages.” We had parallel stories inasmuch as her mother entered an Old Age Home and while visiting her, she found herself attracted to making music and dancing with the folks there. While I mostly play piano and only once brought some Orff Instruments (see my Posting “My Mother Invents Orff Schulwerk”), she was bringing scarves, balloons, homemade kazoos, coconut shells and other fanciful tools from the Orff treasure chest. With photos and video, we watched the faces of the elderly radiate such joy and laughter, such playfulness and comradery, made all the more poignant by their usual sense of being abandoned, cut off from the young, unable to contribute their skills or share their wisdom. Beautiful work indeed and much needed. At the end, Christine said “Laughter and learning are good companions.” Amen to that.

Earlier, she had told me how much she had loved the SF School kid’s performance, particularly their natural enthusiam. She told me that she had recently seen the Vienna Boys Choir and though the sounds were well-executed and well-organized, there was no sense of joy. Not a bad complement to be told that your Middle School students rehearsing once a week for a few months put on a more captivating and engaging and joyful show than the Vienna Boys Choir!!

More and more, this is my complaint about so much music education and music performance. It’s so damn serious! And this has a lot to do with the abstractions of specialist culture, treating everything as something apart to be practiced with drudgery and dull discipline in isolated cubicles. Meanwhile, the Wagogo people of Tanzania are singing and playing complex music with such happiness and flawless execution, learning how to make music by making music every day of their lives. Indeed, one of the many gifts of the African diaspora is the whole-body and whole-hearted enjoyment of music-making. (Eddie Izzard has a hilarious Youtube clip showing the contrast between English churchgoers singing hymns and African-Americans singing Gospel. The folks who have been enslaved, beaten, murdered sing so joyfully and the folks who have all the power and money drone so drearily through their hymns. See: )

So yet another round of gratitude that I found a practice and philosophy that suits my character so well, that invites me to laugh each day with my students of any age and enjoy every minute of the music we make because joy is at the center. By learning through laughter, by laughing and learning, we arrive also at love. Laugh, Learn and Love. I’ve been searching for a title for my book on education I hope to complete this Fall—maybe that’s it!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Triumph!!

For anyone wondering when our kids were finally going to perform after all this build-up, it was today. In the Salzburg Mozarteum, Theater Solitar. On July 10. Appropriately enough, Carl Orff’s birthday. Standing room only in the theater—at 9 am in the morning. Our reputation preceded us and people came with high expectations. And may I say they were exceeded?

From the first slap on the body to the last note on the xylophones, the energy in that room was so charged we could have generated our own electricity. And we did. In fact, I was already so moved by the third piece that when I went to play the triangle for our Brazilian piece, my hand shook so much from the emotions coursing through my body that I couldn’t play my part. It just shook uncontrollably. One of the kids later said I was playing some interesting 32nd notes, while another was looking at me like “Hello, Doug?! What is going on here?” I did recover, but there were several moments when I was on the side watching the kids with my chest heaving in sobs and sighs. How can I talk about it? You just had to be there.

When the last note died out, the audience leaped to their feet in one motion and 17 kids and four teachers held hands on the stage with thunderous applause vibrating through our bodies. What began as a thought last Summer, a working dream last Fall, a project that began rehearsals in Winter and a coherent concert that took shape slowly over the Spring had now reached its culminating moment and it was every bit as glorious as we all had imagined. More importantly, every moment of the preparation over all those long months was as fun and satisfying as the final realization. As I said to the audience after the concert: 
“My philosophy of music education is to create the kind of musicians you would like to play with as they mature. And the kind of human beings you’d like to hang out with. These kids, many of whom I have known since they were three years old, have been both. It could not have been more of a privilege and pleasure.”

Several comments from the folks in the audience:

The first few pieces were stunning and then each piece after that, just as good. There was never a moment when the energy sagged or my attention wandered.

• I have never witnessed a concert with children as extraordinary as this—or any concert, for that matter!

• (Sincere look in the eyes and one minute later:) Wow! (and a pause) Wow.

During _________, I was weeping. (Many different moments for different people)

• The joy! The communication! The natural quality! The dance! The music!!

• And from Frau Liselotte Orff, Carl Orff’s widow (now 80 years old):
“Carl would have loved this.”

There are things in this life that you just have to be there to understand, things that cannot be captured by words, or sound recordings or video. The vibrations in the air are real and palpable and have to be felt viscerally, smelled and tasted. And yet, I try to give a sense of it with words, a parent took a video and it was professionally videotaped, so perhaps those interested can get a taste. But better to invite us to perform for your venue. We’re available for bookings and I say that with my tongue only partly in my cheek.

Fact is, I’ll miss walking with 17 kids through downtown Salzburg playing The Cookie Jar, singing The Rice Krispies song or free-style rapping. Really. And I’ll certainly miss playing music with them. It just could not have been a better eight days—or eight months. And not quite over yet. Tomorrow, we go by train to Traunstein to visit The Carl Orff School and perform part of our program for the kids there. And have them play for us. Then, weather permitting, a swim in the Chiemsee lake and back for our final dinner.

For those curious about the program, I include it below. Meanwhile, with one hand saying goodbye to the kids, the other starts tomorrow morning with a six-day summer course at The Orff Institut, with 120 new teachers from Korea, Japan, Thailand, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus—in fact, 31 countries represented in all. I better plan tomorrow’s class!



Musical Directors: Sofía López-Ibor, James Harding, Doug Goodkin



  1. Body Percussion/Freedom—This composition by Doug combines the work of Keith Terry, African-American Steppin’ and South African Gumboot Dancing (the latter choreographed by Jack Lestrada as taught by Janice Evans). Freedom is a South African song.

  1. The Butterfly (Ireland)—This 9/8 slip-jig featuring harp and violin.

  1. Sto Mi E Milo/ Bucemis (Bulgaria)—A song in 7/8 followed by a dance piece in 15/16, featuring the gaida, a Bulgarian bagpipe. 

4.   Areia/ Sindo Lele (Brazil) A Coco dance-rhythm song about the sea-sand, then a
            cocoa-harvesting song in the Lydian mode. 

       5.  Quitiplas/ Yaayaakole (Venezuela/ Ghana)— Bamboo tube drumming and singing
       followed by a Dagara xylophone (gyil) piece. 

6.  Movement Studies—These movement studies created by the students are
    accompanied by an arrangement of "eel bones," the traditional opening patterns of
    Balinese shadow puppet theater. 

       7.  Vivaldi- A percussion arrangement of the first movement of Vivaldi's Concerto in
    C Major for Mandolin accompanies an original film featuring animated and
    shadow images by the performers. 

  1. Kuus Kuus  —This haunting lullaby was composed by the Estonian composer Arvo Part.
  1. Sticks/ Jo-Jo—An original stick piece by Sofia followed by a Miles Davis tune, featuring hip-hop dancing and trumpet.
  1. Dough-Re-Mi—An obscure Lionel Hampton tune.
  1. Soul Sauce—A Dizzy Gillespie Latin-jazz composition made famous by Cal Tjader. 
  1. Malambo (Argentina)—We close with this spirited zapateado rhythm from La Pampa in Argentina.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Step Up, Step Down

Shall I make yet another public confession? I’m very aware of my need to articulate things in language, both writing and speaking. When it works well, people often say the same thing: “You have said what I feel, but didn’t have the words for.” When it doesn’t work well, people say (or think), “When the hell are you going to shut-up?!” And sometimes both types of responses are in the same talk. That means if I listen wholly to the latter, I may miss the opportunity to touch someone in the former way. And if I listen wholly to the former, I may indeed take up too much air space.

So today, when James, Sofia and I had 90 minutes to present a portrait of the music program at The San Francisco School and the role of Orff Schulwerk in the community culture, I had 30 minutes to say my piece. I began with a 10-minute introduction to the history of the school, turned it over to James to elaborate on the Middle School Curriculum, complete with musical examples. I had 20 minutes more allotted to finish my thoughts, but our kids had come in and so Sofia suggested that she go next, since her approach was to interview the kids. Her first question was: “Can you imagine the school without the music program?” The kids’ response stunned me. Things like:

• “Without music, it would be a less welcoming place.”

• “The first thing I noticed when I came here at 5 years old was how happy everyone was. And the music was a big part of what made them happy. Or at least allowed them to express it.”

• “We wouldn’t be the same community, because music is the glue that holds us together.”

• “In music class, we have to work with lots of different people and make something up together and that really opens my eyes to kids who I normally wouldn’t hang out with.”

• “None of our celebrations would be the same without music.”

• “Our school is so different from other schools because of the way we learn and use music.”

• “Without the music program, I wouldn’t be sitting here in Salzburg!”

I was furiously scribbling and missed a lot of other gems coming from these 11-14 year old kids, but gems they were. They get it. They don’t just receive what we try to give to them, they understand its value and can articulate it. When Sofia asked them to describe the differences between their three music teachers, I grew visibly nervous. Quite a risk to take in front of 40 or 50 International teachers who already know us through direct workshops or reputation! But the kids described us to a tee—our strengths, our styles, our quirks, our foibles and they did so with great affection.

Of course, this is probably universally true. Kids are generally much more perceptive, aware and articulate than we give them credit for. Ask them someday how teachers dress or have them imitate our gestures and expressions and you’ll see what I mean. But of course, we don’t often ask them, not only because we’re afraid to see ourselves in their mirror, but also because we think we’re so dang smart and that the bulk of important information flows only from adult to child.

The punch line of this entry, my public confession, is simply this: I will always want to speak in my own style and from the confluence of the way I bring different worlds of thought together. This will probably just get worse as I age. But I do need to remember to invite others to speak the things I want said and this can be as simple as framing the right question. I never did get my promised 20 more minutes in our three-way split, but I didn’t need them because the kids had spoken most of what I would have said— and it was much more powerful and meaningful coming from them. After all, what’s the use of me claiming that music is important in the school if the students themselves don’t agree?!

My promise to myself in any situation is to wait a bit to see if anyone else might speak what needs to be said. If so, I’ll happily lower my hand. If not, I’ll happily say it. But the most important thing is that the things that need to be said at the moment are said. It doesn’t particularly matter who says them.

I did take the last five minutes to put things my own way and starting choking up as I described the profound healing impact of music, telling the story of how we sang ourselves partly through the trauma of 9/11 and equally through the joy of other notable events (the Giant’s World Series win!). After the workshop was over, one of the 14-year old boys came up to me, looked me in the eye and said, “You made me start to cry.”

People, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Dance, Sing and Read

I noticed that yesterday was my 100th posting. There are 26 followers and the Stats part indicates that the site has had 4,809 visits since its inception in January. I know that compared to Justin Beiber’s billions of hits that’s pretty small potatoes and there’s probably some irony that I would complain that music and dance trump the slow world of print and ideas by an astounding ratio. But still I’m inspired by the act of trying to corral impressions and transform them to expressions via the written word, grateful that there are people still willing to go through the work of converting mere arrangements of letters to the fireworks of imagination. 

Some years back, I wrote a manifesto for my ideal culture titled Dance, Sing and Read. I had been reading a number of books on the history, psychology, anthropology of literate culture and was forming a sense of how every technological shift (and a book certainly qualifies as a technology) brings both gifts and losses. The printed word became a new way to store information across time—we can read the thoughts of Plato and Shakespeare—and across space—the poetry of Basho or Rumi. It extended human memory far beyond the bodies and minds of the elders in the village and expanded human thought and discourse past the edges of a particular tribal lore and custom. The educated literate person can handle multiple perspectives, grow larger and find affirmation from people far away in time and place, understand abstract ideas and build book by book whole philosophies and systems of thought. The rise of mass literacy— really, a recent phenomena of about 100 years amidst hundreds of thousands of years of the human experiment—has contributed enormously to our collective thought and knowledge.

But not without a price. The oral culture’s method of storing, disseminating and passing on knowledge relies on artistic media—poetry, song, dance, storytelling, icon and image, ritual and theater. Each member of a community is valued because they can contribute to the collective knowledge and the elders are particularly honored as the storehouse of local knowledge wedded with wisdom. Whereas the scope of the knowledge is more limited, it is also more connected to the local land and weather and culture and breeds a sense of belonging and meaning. Oral peoples are more likely to be connected to their own bodies and voices, their neighbors, their local landscape and biology, their sense of belonging and cultural identity.

All of this turns out to be directly relevant to the teacher because we all begin life as oral learners. All preschool children are exquisite dancers, expressive storytellers, intuitive singers and chanters. When we initiate them into print, we need them to shut down their bodies so the energy can concentrate in the left hemisphere of the brain to decode those abstract symbols. We hear their voice grow flat and dull as they piece the words together and later, if we put on a play with a script, we shout them to “add expression!” But the preschool child is expression, needs no exhortation to add dynamics or punctuate with the hands or body. It is literacy that, left unchecked, can shut down the body and even the heart, asking for cold calculation and objective handling of ideas free from pesky emotion.

And so, dance, sing and read. In another words, keep the natural propensity the young ones have for dancing and singing growing and developing. And Orff Schulwerk is a fabulous way to do just that.
At the same time that they develop scientific thinking, critical analysis and the capacity to open the heart in a different way through printed poetry, stories, novels, they also need to keep exercising the ancient ways of remembering, storing and transmitting information through the body and voice. If they give their power over to a book or computer, they can’t stay awake driving from Verona singing 100 rounds and reciting poetry.

The other day, our SF Orff Ensemble broke spontaneously into three-part Bulgarian harmony in downtown Salzburg and gave the passing tourists a few moments of pleasure. We put on a lunchtime body percussion show on top of the fortress. Yesterday, they entered the Orff Institute for the first time (a historic moment!) and accidentally met the man who composed one of the songs they sing. We sang for him in the entryway and then he led us down singing through the halls and into the meeting room where the delegates from the 47 International Orff Associations where meeting. After the thunderous applause and clear delight of the music teacher audience subsided, the kids went off on a bike ride, smiling from ear to ear to feel their power to sing and play in a variety of styles at a moment’s notice, the way it connects them together, the way it connects them to an audience. We improvised a piece with our differently pitched bike bells while we rode and later that night, while James, Sofia and I had to be elsewhere, they went to dinner with our parent chaperones and entertained the waiters with another song and Table Rhythms.

Earlier, I was talking with one of the 7th graders about the film Midnight in Paris and she told me that after the movie, she went to the library and checked out some of F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s books. These kids have been habitually trained to access their imagination through reading, to develop their thought and follow their curiosity about how the world works and this indeed makes them educated and interesting young people. But at the same time, they also have trained their bodies to be expressive, trained their voices to help unlock their hearts, turned their understanding of Vivaldi’s sequences or West African polyrhythms or the 12-bar blues to express another faculty of their soul. They are the leaders in an “oraliterate” culture that combines the gifts of both oral and literate culture.

Back to my 100th Blog, my little piece of literary heaven. Thank you, dear readers, for lifting this out of the private journal mode and giving me the sensation that these little entries might at the least be mildly entertaining and at the most, contribute to a small community of thought and public discourse. The capacity to comment and make it more dialogue than monologue has yet to be fully exploited (I think my daughter Talia has made the most comments!), but I have a feeling I’m competing with Facebook here, a technology much more friendly to the quick reaction. Nevertheless, I still would welcome any ideas or parallel experiences you might have that were kick-started by these ideas and stories.

Meanwhile, on to today’s rehearsal and the next 100 postings. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Salzburg Connection

Iceland, Sweden, Finland, Estonia.
Spain, Italy, Turkey, Greece.
Germany, Austria, Poland, Czech Republic.
Russia, China, England, France.
Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong.
Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand.
Colombia, Brazil, Canada, U.S.

Sounds like one of the rhythmic chants so common in Orff teaching—and it could be. But it is also the names of many of the countries represented here in the meeting of the Orff Forum in Salzburg. These are many—but not all— of the places where the wildflower seed of this inspired pedagogy has been planted and taken root. Some of the leading people in each country are here to share their successes, their challenges, their questions, their solutions.

But for me, the meeting has another dimension. I walked into the room and saw so many old (20 years since I met them) and new friends and acquaintances, many of whom hosted me so graciously when I gave a workshop or course in their country. So instead of abstract countries, I saw:

Nanna, Malo, Soili, Tuuli
Gabriel, Andrea, Fatosh, Katerina
Werner, Uli, Malina, Jarka
Slava, Cao Li, Margaret, Erich,
Sataporn, Hao Su, Paul, May-Tan
Young jeon kim, Ukiko, Biddy, René
Astrid, Mayumi, Cathy, Karen

Colleagues James, Sofia and I left Verona on Sunday night in our tiny rented Fiat car. Somewhere around 1 in the morning, James (the official driver) was getting sleepy. Solution to stay awake? Think of and sing 100 rounds. We did it and then took turns reciting memorized poetry, both of which re-charged us enough to pull safely into Salzburg at 2:30 in the morning. Next morning, up bright and early to begin the first round of meetings, meet the 17 kids from our school at the airport, have an outdoor dinner in the Sternbrau and watch them deal with some 25 hours of plane travel without sleep—ie, continue to hang out and run around. We all forgot about July 4th and Louis Armstrong’s birthday (mythologically speaking, July 4th, 1900) and I had no way to wish Chester happy 17th birthday. Which didn’t matter to him, since he’s my cat.

Next morning, a rehearsal in the Youth Hostel where we’re staying. One month without meeting and they remembered every nuance of our opening body percussion piece. Then off to the Schloss Fortress on top of the hill in downtown Salzburg. We performed spontaneously there for people eating lunch and people seemed mildly interested, but no coins came showering our way. I needed to bike to the next round of Forum meetings while the kids went swimming, both in intermittent downpours. Welcome to Salzburg!

In our fantasy, our students would be fascinated by the details of the Schloss architecture and history and indeed, they were mildly interested in both. But of course, the highlight was the Funicular ride up and down and the promise of the swimming pool. As I said in some recent blogs, kids have their priorities straight.

After dinner, we went to the Marionette Show, which most commonly shows The Magic Flute. But tonight was The Sound of Music and the production was entertaining, intriguing, funny and at times, mesmerizing—“How did they do that?” Marionettes have the advantage of kicking up their heels during a number and continuing to hover and fly through the air, a skill the puppeteers took advantage of many times. We got a quick backstage tour and demonstration after the show and it indeed was impressive to watch the effect of a simple (yet, oh so complex— a three-year training) manipulation of strings. Inside the Orff Institute at our Forum meetings, we’re discussing how creativity and imagination are bread and water to the human spirit, while outside the room, people are devoting huge portions of their time to pulling strings to give 90 minutes of exercise to our pleasure and fancy. In the various meetings. there is always a sigh of discouragement about how little understanding and support the official world of Universities and media and politicians give to our endeavors to release and train the imaginations of children. And yet, we continue to do our work any which way we can and children all around the world are refreshed.

Like our 17 kids. Not only do they get the pleasure of learning, creating, playing and performing some great music and dance, but they get to go to Salzburg to do it!