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. 

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