Friday, September 30, 2011

Confessions of the "Confessions Blogger"

I wonder if any readers have felt misled by the title of this Blog—“confessions of…” Perhaps they were expecting some juicy gossip, some tale of climbing to the top and then came the drugs and then the rehab and then the comeback, along with the heart-wrenching shame and guilt and stories about the mother that never loved him and the father who didn’t understand him. You know, the stuff that gets you famous at the supermarket counter. And instead, all they get is this guy blabbering on about the next epiphany of deep connection at the workshop and the hopes for the future of humanity and art’s healing ways. Where’s the dirt?

Well, I suppose it’s time to come clean and publicly confess my sins. Not only is it timely for Yom Kippur, but as the saying goes, “The more sins you confess, the more books you will sell.” If it takes a little bit of public shame to see this Blog go viral, I’m game.

Of course, the life of a teacher is low on the public interest totem pole. “I misspelled the principal’s daughter’s name on the report card and never found work as a teacher again!” And even lower is the Orff teacher. “I taught my arrangement with parallel rhythms and was blacklisted from the workshop circuit forever!” You see what I mean. Who cares?

But as I mentioned, the Day of Atonement is coming soon, so I might as well practice. So for the first time, I hereby publicly reveal the sordid details behind the dazzling success! Here goes:

• Sometimes before getting to work on my new book, I play four Solitaire games instead of the three I’ve allotted.

• Sometimes I cheat on the Crostics puzzle and look up an answer in the back.

• I often ride a bicycle in Salzburg without (gasp!)—a helmet!

• I think I’ve sometimes put refuse in the wrong bin. Compost? Recycle? Landfill? Who can keep track?

• I’ve seen some Seinfeld re-runs so often that I know the dialogue.

• I dragged Robyn Fladen-Kamm backwards over his chair and threw him on a couch in the corner of the 5th grade classroom because he was wiggling his glass on purpose while someone was pouring milk and laughing gleefully as it spilled on his desk.

(Hmm. Maybe I better stop here before the lawyers log on.  What is the statute of limitations anyway? More than 32 years? And by the way, he wasn’t hurt, but properly shocked. He never did that milk trick again.)

Pretty strong stuff, eh? But it gets worse. I’ve broken every one of the Ten Commandments. I’ve bowed to Buddha, cursed in traffic, taught workshops on Sunday, yelled at my parents, killed mosquitoes, shoplifted comic books, coveted my neighbor (though never his donkey or male servant), spread some dirt about him and have been known to act like an adult (is that what that one means?).

Now I just have to sit and wait for the thousands of reader responses. While I’m waiting, time for one more— sometimes I’ve forgotten someone’s birthday.

But not today! Happy birthday to my daughter Kerala as she turns 31!!!!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Leavin' My Mama Blues

If we were thinking straight. every San Francisco place of business (except the ice cream stores) should hang out a sign saying: “No work. Run to the beach!!” It’s hot! And these days are so rare. And here I am, self-employed for four months and kicking myself for being such a tough boss. I’ve spent the morning writing tedious musical examples for the book on teaching blues to kids that I’m writing. Instead, I should have gone directly to Baker Beach. And on the way back, stopped in at a temple to pay a nod to Rosh Hashana.

Not that I’ve ever celebrated it. My history with my Jewish blood, hidden from me in suburban New Jersey the first 12 years of my life, is worthy of a Blog entry, if not a short novel. But now it’s one o’clock, no fog in sight and every muscle in my body is screaming, “Get out of the house!!” And though my daughters would commend me for the shortest of my 100 plus Blogs, I want to make this worth someone’s while.

So I’ve decided to share my signature song that I play and sing every time I visit my Mom. When the clock strikes five, I play those opening blues chords that announce that it's time to take her up to dinner and I'm going to squeeze in one last song to say goodbye for the day. I keep trying to come up with new verses each time, so these are just some of the “greatest hits.” (My friends Fran and Edie invariably exclaim, "That was the best yet!" A lot of pressure for the next one, but so far, each next one continues to be the "best.") 

Why am I including here? It doesn’t have much to do with hot weather or the Jewish New Year, except if you hang in until the end, there is one relevant clever (if I do say so myself) rhyme. Of course, it’s much better sung and played than simply read, so as your phantom music teacher, I advise you to make up a melody and sing it yourself. But note the copyright—if you put yourself on Youtube and it goes viral, I want royalties.

Shana Tova and see you at the beach!!

Leavin’ My Mama Blues

© 2010 Doug Goodkin
Gather ‘round everybody, I got to tell you some news (2x)
It’s time for me to sing the “Leavin’ my Mama Blues”

I’ve been playin’ this piano, but now I can’t play it no mo’ (2x)
I’m just getting’ warmed up, but now it’s time to go.

I’ve got the "Leavin’ My Mama Blues" (2x)
From the tip of my head to the bottom of my shoes.

I’ve been to London, I’ve been to Spain,
To Germany, Iceland and back again.
I’ve been to Greece, I’ve been to France,
But nothin’s so fun as seein’ my Mama dance.


When I’m with my Mama, she makes me feel like a winner (2x)
But now it’s time to take her up to dinner.

My Mama loves me, she calls me her darling man (2x)
She likes it when I’m singin’ with Patsy, Edie and Fran

Sometimes I gotta to travel, it’s what I gotta do,
To London, Paris or Timbucktoo,
To Barcelona, Madrid and Rome
But I love it best at the Jewish home


Wish I could take Mama on a luxury cruise (2x)
Then I wouldn’t need to sing the “Leavin’ My Mama Blues”

Life is full of pain and sorrow and we all got to pay our dues (2x)
But nothin’ hurts so much as the "Leaving Your Mama Blues."

I asked the Dali Lama and President Obama
Why is it so sad when I got to leave my Mama?
They said to me, “Well, son. When the day is done.
Leaving your Mama just ain’t no fun.
So visit her a lot and twice on Rosh Hashana"


Sunday, September 25, 2011

All This and Margaritas Too

For the second Friday in a row, it was BART to the airport, a delayed flight and luggage you bring to the plane, put on a little green tag and leave it on a cart in the runway. A short flight—two hours to San Antonio—wait in the hallway and pick up your green-tag bag. So direct and efficient. Why can’t we do this with all flights?

Off into the San Antonio airport past lots of military in their camouflage uniforms. Do they think we can’t see them? Weren’t those things made for the jungle? Off to the hotel and up bright and early next morning for a full-day workshop on American music. Big topic for a mere six hours, but we managed to dance a playparty, play some classic children’s games, sing folk songs from Appalachia, Minnesota, the Georgia Sea Islands and of course, the Tex-Mex classic, De Colores, play some jazz blues, see some of the classic Youtube clips from the old movies that have become my passion to get to the children and finish with an Emily Dickinson poem I set to music—“If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain. If I can ease one life the aching, or cool one pain, or help one fainting robin, unto his nest again, I shall not live in vain.” A good reminder for the importance of our daily work as teachers and timely for Texas, which like everywhere, is suffering from cutbacks in schools. To their credit, music teachers haven’t be fired yet, just given more kids per class.

For any faithful reader, I can’t bear to put you through my oohs and aahs about how great it is to just play with a roomful of strangers, but this perhaps had a special resonance because there were some 120 people there, lots of men, great spirited responses to the material, wonderful humor (when I talked about how music was included in Plato’s Akademia, the very source of the word “academic,” a woman some ten years my senior quipped, “That’s true! I taught there!”) and pin-drop silence in the serious parts. And in the land of Rick Perry, may I report that the crowd was more diverse than any San Francisco Orff workshop. People of all colors, ages, class, sexual persuasion, religion, including one person who said her Buddhist spiritual teacher is a drag queen.

Post-workshop to River Walk, which I’m sure is partly responsible for San Antonio being the most touristed city in Texas. I suppose one could just call it all a tourist trap, but the fact is it’s simply beautiful. Lovely architecture, fountains, waterfalls, lush trees, the murmur of the flowing river and the buzz of people out walking, mariachi bands warming up to serenade the diners. Temperature down to 94, but okay in the shade, sit outside at the Iron Cactus restaurant sipping margaritas and awaiting yet more Tex-Mex cuisine. Convivial conversation, great food and the margaritas weren’t bad either.

Back to the hotel and a night-time swim in the hotel pool, soak in the hot tub, wake up call for 5:15 am and back to San Francisco. Make an appearance at the school Walkathon in Golden Gate Park and then on to the school for a rehearsal of the World Music Festival. Last week we played a Bulgarian dance tune with my bagpipe, Chinese guzheng, South Indian mrindagam, North Indian tabla and Orff instruments. As I said to the group, I’m sure that in the history of the world that this particular combination of instruments has never played this piece before. Today, we’ll work on some music from Kyrgyzstan, Burkina Faso and medieval Spain.

I never want to stop doing this work. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Music Alone Is Not Enough

Wednesday night I had the good fortune to hear the Branford Marsalis Quartet at Yoshi’s.
These days, the big names often play in symphonic venues and that's fine as far as it goes. But the intimate jazz club was and is just the right setting for this music. The power of it all was increased by the intimacy. And powerful it was. The level of communication and connection between the musicians was almost otherwordly, speaking the language of the gods in a complex rhythmic syntax and melodic eloquence the left us mere mortals in awe. The group did four tunes, two originals and two re-worked Monk tunes and then dipped back a century for the encore with The St. Louis Blues, home base for the average American listener, dipping deep into the gutbucket and soaring high.

I came home and looked again at a Youtube clip someone showed me recently with Branford talking about what he has learned from his students. Since this is a family Blog, I can’t repeat his sentiments here (got you curious?). But then on the side was an intriguing title about Marsalis on black culture’s attitude to women. He was on some interview show and he makes a point I’ve never heard articulated quite that way.

In short, he notes how after Columbine, all the kids who lived through that horrific trauma were given therapy to try to re-adjust both socially and emotionally. And yet slaves who endured some 400 years of ongoing horrific trauma were set “free” without any guidance or therapeutic assistance. (To put it mildly. For, of course, the trauma continued into lynching and Jim Crow and unemployment and ghetto housing and all the other consequences of racism.) His point was that families torn apart from slavery, enslaved black men having to witness slave-owners paying conjugal visits to their wives, was bound to produce some strange twists and turns in black culture without any help as to how to heal such wounds.

Never thought about it in quite that way. Currently writing a book about blues in the classroom, I keep coming back to the blues as the healing tonic for a people brutalized by racism and I still think that’s true—up to a point. That is, the blues became a survival mechanism and the higher it ascended into the jazz lexicon, the more it became a spiritual triumph as well, demanding the highest capacities of intellect, discipline, imaginative expression and group communion. But alone, simply singing or playing the blues is not powerful enough to turn around all the mistakes of our forefathers and move us all toward a life-affirming inclusive culture for all. 

And I thought once again after seeing the movie The Help that there is another group of people who needed healing from centuries of racism. The white folks. As the perpetrators of hatred and violence, 
I know it’s not a popular sentiment to see them as victims inheriting a twisted view of human relations. And of course, struggling to hold onto their privilege and power and continue to affirm their distorted sense of superiority, they themselves did not—and many still do not—ever dream of seeing it that way. But every so often it strikes me how sad it is to grow up with such a straight-jacketed narrow look, to miss the possibility of getting to know people of the caliber of Abilene and Minnie (see the movie or read the book), to be such a pitiful excuse for a human being blinded by prejudice passed down and unquestioned.

So yes, 150 years later, we are still far from recovering from the aftermath of this social institution that was born from greed, upheld and justified by preachers, politicians and scientists and ended with a law that was necessary, but alone impotent to give folks on both sides of the color line the kind of healing they needed. Law is necessary to control the damage and protect basic rights. Music is necessary to soothe and uplift the spirit, bring people together in a common cause. But neither alone is enough. We need to work on the constricted mind and the closed heart, start talking to each other and keep talking to each other. I read yesterday that “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was finally overturned in the military and that is to be commended. But how long will it take before people stop dismissing others because of sexual preference? The real revolution is not a switch of leaders and laws, but a change in consciousness and culture.

And for me, it all comes back to one word—education. The tragedy of the last ten years is not just the suffering of innocent children reduced to fodder for the testing machines, but the loss of opportunity to teach them what really matters, to create communities where each feels valued and respected regardless of class, color, religion, gender, sexual preference, a community willing to look at and talk about the hard stuff they’ve inherited and commit to turning around the things that keep us apart and feeding the things that bring us together. Of course, music, art, drama, poetry, dance will be essential ingredients, the place where all the “isms” and inherited identities take a back seat to who we are in the moment and what new beauties we can create together.

But it will take more. A thorough knowledge of how these bad things went down in history to avoid repeating them, courageous conversations and time set aside to do it all. And it will require high skills in reading and writing and math, not to satisfy some distant test-makers, but to have the skills and knowledge and abilities to have a coherent conversation.  In fact, it is worth knowing that the literate tradition began as a way to keep track of slaves and count money. The new reason for reading and math is to blow open the possibilities of the human spirit and count the resources to be equitably divided for a just and sustainable future.

I guess that jazz concert at Yoshi’s turned out to be even more interesting than I thought! 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Pay Attention to Them and Leave Them Alone

It was a rare hot day in San Francisco and I happily rode my bike to Julius Kahn playground in the Presidio, where a bench with a stunning view of the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge awaited me. Writing alone in my home, it felt refreshing to once more hear the sound of children’s voices as they climbed the bars and swung on swings. But off to the side, the coach was yelling at the kids in soccer practice, so I peeked over to investigate. And there I saw a team in official garb with a few dozen parents on the sidelines watching the game. A pleasant enough scene except for one thing.

The kids were four years old.

I had just talked in my recent workshop about the loss of free play in childhood today and its consequences and here it was before me. Not that it was terrible—the parents weren’t screaming at the kids with veins popping, the coach wasn’t shouting too loud and the kids seemed happy enough to be kicking a ball around the grass on a beautiful sunny day. But still. In my own childhood a mere—hmm, I guess it’s not a “mere” half-a century ago!—well, a mere little while ago, the neighborhood kids and  I ran around free and footloose in the 200 acre park one block from my house. All our games—from tag to hide-and-seek to baseball and football, were kid-organized and kid-run. No parents EVER came to watch them.

And on those hot summer nights when everyone was on their front porches or back yards, the kids did kid things and the adults did adult things. And occasionally, at a company picnic or some such event, the two worlds might join—kids against grown-ups in softball or mixed teams. That was always great fun.

But mostly the two worlds were only loosely intersecting circles. This was clearly understood by everyone. No kid wanted to hang out and play games with adults and be their best friend. Grown-ups were weird! They just talked and talked, drank horrible tasting drinks, smoked those nasty cigarettes, paid bills and did other boring stuff. We wanted them to feed us and drive us places and do our laundry and things like that, but having them come watch us play and be our best friend was the farthest thing from our minds. And theirs!

Well, as we know, despite the glory and glamour of kids playing freely, don’t count me as a member of the 50’s Nostalgia Team. Parenting was different, for sure, and there were some good things about it. But there were some really terrible ones as well. Modern parenting has its own problems, but there is also much to commend. As always, I’m looking for some middle path that takes into account a sense of proportion.

What struck me at the 4-year old soccer game was that kids needed to run around and kick balls, but at that age, they don’t need a coach or a cheering section. They just need open space that’s reasonably safe and something to kick or throw or draw hopscotch lines with, hands and voices to play clapping games, feet to run and hide. Not a lot to ask.

In the worst of modern-day parenting, it feels like we leave kids alone when we should be engaged with them and pay too much attention to them when we should leave them alone. We let them eat meals alone or in front of TV, put screens in their bedrooms and let them disappear into their glow, pick them up at school and let them plug their ears with I-Pods while we talk on our cell phone. And then when we pay attention to them, we hover over them in the “helicopter Mom” syndrome, the “be-your-best-friend Dad” syndrome, organizing all their time, checking to see if they’ve ticked off our list, cheering for them at the 4-year old soccer game.

There are plenty of wonderful ways for adults to pay attention to kids and they’re worth repeating here. Eat dinners together and converse. Cook dinners together and clean up together. Garden. Walk in the woods. Identify plants. Walk in the city neighborhoods. Play music and sing songs. Dance. Talk in the car or while walking or biking home after school.  Play cards and board games. Throw a ball in the back yard (or soccer in the hall of the house with an old cloth ball—one of my favorites with my two kids, though my wife was always less than pleased!). Take time out to watch them when they have something to show you—the tower of blocks they built, the drawing they did, the play they made up with their friends. Read to them every night. Have them read to you. Tell stories. You know the list.

And then leave them alone. When they’re bored, tell them “Good! Now something interesting will happen. Just wait and you’ll find it. But don’t you dare put in that video!” Make sure they have some art material, a couple of Orff xylophones and drums, a cardboard box and a few good books and let them go at it. Something interesting will definitely happen.

In one of many excellent books on the subject, The Power of Play, David Elkind tells a story of a teacher talking to the kids about imaginative play and feeling their puzzled looks. “You know, “ she said, “like when I was little, I used to put on a cape and run around pretending I was Wonder Woman. ” One of the first-graders said, “But we don’t know how to do that!”

That little story struck terror in my soul. Could that be true? Could kids who are constantly entertained by appliances and corralled into organized sports and lessons be losing the capacity to entertain themselves, to sit and dream, to let their imagination roam free? Think about it. 

PS After posting this, my daughter (Kerala Taylor her married name) alerted me to a Blog she had just written on play. Well worth a read! Go to:

Sunday, September 18, 2011

National Arts in Education Week

The second annual National Arts in Education week just ended, with not even a ripple in the rushing river of mainstream culture. It was the brainchild of Californian Congresswoman Jackie Speier and approved last year by the U.S. House of Representatives. Hooray! A resolution passed! Now things will get moving! Now the thirty-plus years of damage wrought by Proposition 13 in California will be healed and the school hallways will once again buzz with the laughter and excitement of children given what they need.

I’m sure you can detect my bitter sarcasm bleeding through each word above. But I suppose we have to start somewhere and indeed, the week turned out to be meaningful for me. It began on Wednesday with a panel discussion on “The Collective Impact of the Arts” with six articulate, passionate and compassionate people—Chip O’Neal, Louise Music, Sarah Crowell, Richard Carranza, Donn Harris, Andi Wong— who have managed to swim upstream and make a difference in the lives of young people by creating opportunities for arts education. Story after story emerged about their struggles, their successes, their sadnesses that more is not available to more children, their determination to join forces to further this life-changing work. Individual action and initiative by dynamic committed leaders is how small things happen with big effects on people’s lives, one heart, mind and body at a time. Collective action is how bigger change gets set in motion and the panel was united in its determination to get together and launch their boats into the mainstream together.

On Thursday, an old college friend was in town for a parallel conference on Arts Education. She has worked as an artist-in-schools (drama) in Maine these past 30 years and now is doing arts administration work. Over dinner, she told me about a reunion with the folks who studied mime and drama in a barn in rural Maine. People who hadn’t seen each other in 20 or 30 years gathered again to share their stories of how that work had so deeply impacted their lives. Not that they went on to become professional actors (though some had), but that the work and spirit of that undertaking informed whatever they ended up doing. My friend talked about that place as one of various “epicenters of meaning” in her life and indeed, that’s what intensive arts studies and collaborations can be for people.

We need to weave arts into the fabric of daily life, but we also need these retreat settings or tours where a special magic is woven that holds throughout the years that follow. I think of the European tour I took with the Antioch Chorus, the summers at Cazadero Music Camp, the jug band field trip I organized and led with middle school students at The Arthur Morgan School in rural North Carolina, the Salzburg group from this last summer. Epicenters of lifelong meaning. (Credit Gretchen Berg if you steal that phrase!)

On Friday, I dropped in with the gang at the Old Folks Home to gather around the piano yet again and sing the songs that stitch together memory, pleasure, beauty and create the connections in our little community. And then off on the plane to Orange County to teach an all-day Saturday Orff workshop and enjoy the usual delight of watching folks from 20 to 70 play like they’re between 2 and 7 years old.

I mean, picture it. Try to imagine what it’s like for a professional development day to be spent dancing and singing Shoo Fly Don’t Bother Me, playing the One Potato Two Potato clapping game, chanting Criss Cross Applesauce and rhythmically slapping bodies! Can you feel the energy in the room, the laughter, the pleasure of constant partner-switching, the bodies awake with exercise and elegance, the minds awake trying to understand what’s going on (no rules explained beforehand—just play and figure out how the game works), the imagination soaring (what else can we do here?), the hearts open and receptive with the sheer fun of it all?

The fun is the beginning and the end of the undertaking, but in-between, we also sat down and read over the 12 Brain Rules and reflected on how science supports art 100%. We learned the language to describe how what we do and the way we do it is aligned with the way our brains are designed to learn. We discussed how to plan classes so that they wrap themselves around the way children actually learn instead of trying to stuff their round personalities in the square holes of assembly line education.

At the end of the day, the folks got everything that people go to the gym, the bar, the movies, the lecture hall, to get—exercise, socialization, fun, stimulating ideas. On top of it all, these games and activities will find their way into the 60 teachers’ classrooms and touch the lives of a few thousand children. A perfect way to end National Arts in Education Week.

Well, what’s the point of describing all this? Painted cakes don’t satisfy hunger and we are all, young and old, alike, hungry for the feast of dynamic Arts Education. If you’re in striking distance, come to my workshop on the topic on Oct. 15 in Sacramento. Or next weekend in San Antonio. Or come see our SF kids at the World Music Festival on October 30th, Body Music Festival on November 6th, my jazz trio concert on Oct. 23rd. Arts in Education is a yearlong holiday for me.

Whoever you are, whatever you do, wherever you go, I hope that you have had at least one artistic experience that was your “epicenter of meaning” and that you will do your part to make sure our children get the same. It’s the least you can do for National Arts in Education Week. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Consider My Cat Chester

Almost all the poets I love have one thing in common—they all admire animals. There’s Walt Whitman, who confesses,

“I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained…They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins…not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things…” 

Then there’s Mary Oliver, whose poems abound with praise for water snakes, goldfinches, alligators, hummingbirds, moths, wild geese and all her dogs named Percy. There’s the haiku poet Issa who befriends fleas and flies, Rilke who admires the panther, Gary Snyder who praises the bear. And there’s the 18th century poet Christopher Smart, who writes a long ode that begins:

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry,
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him…

and goes on for three pages praising his cat’s cleanliness, dexterity, elegance, variety of movements and more.

I get it. We humans are a dubious species—think Idi Amin, Joseph Stalin, Dick Cheney and my 3rd grade teacher. The animals know precisely who they are and are always wholly themselves. The snake is snaking around and never even thinks about smiling for the camera, the kingfisher fishes without worrying about getting wet, the lion roars without apology for raising his voice and the vultures eat road kill without washing their hands. We have a lot to learn from the serenity of the llama, the grace of the giraffe, the playfulness of the otter, the cleanliness of the raccoon, the majesty of the elephant, the affection and loyalty of our dog. In some cultures, animals are considered spirit guides and rule the mythology more than the flawed Olympian gods.

Now that I’m home writing five or six hours a day, I’m spending a lot of time with my cat Chester. I have the leisure to consider him, an opportunity to study at the feet of the four-limbed Zen master. But the more I hang I out with him, the more I can’t help but feel a startling truth—it’s boring as hell to be a cat! I mean, the guy sits here, lies down there, meows at me for nothing. His food bowl is full, water dish also full, his cat door is open. That’s really the extent of his meow vocabulary. And yet he woke me up this morning like Lassie announcing danger, would not rest content until I followed him down the hall to his food and water dish. Both, of course, were full. What the hell does he want? Don’t tell me affection, because if I lift him to my lap to stroke him, he sits there for five seconds and then escapes like a cat out of hell. (Or was that a bat?)

Do you know why I think he’s meowing? I think he’s saying, “I’m bored! It’s a drag being a cat! You get to play piano and type on that machine and play cards and go out and ride your bike while I just roam around from room to room and I don’t even know why I’m going there. There’s nothing for me to do! Especially since you sliced away any chance of a sex life and I’m too old to chase mice.”

I suppose it’s more interesting in the wild—things to hunt, things that are hunting you. I wonder if Chester is thinking: “This constant food in the food bowl is cushy, but frankly, it kind of takes away a lot of my motivation.” He does have free reign of the back yard, there are birds, moles and sometimes mice to attract his attention, he can choose to be in or out, and yet still he meows as if pleading, “Entertain me! Have they come up with cat video games yet?”

Don’t get me wrong. I love Chester in my own way—after all, we have spent 17 years together as roommates. I know I’ll miss him when he’s gone. But having admired his sphinx-like inscrutability, his perfect Zen meditation, his flexible Pilates cleaning routine, his occasional purrs of deep contentment, lately he just seems plain annoying and bored. Despite my constant disappointment in human beings who waste their incarnation on the top rung of evolution listening to Brittney Spears and reading investment portfolios, Chester makes me glad I’m a person. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to put more food in his full bowl to get him to leave me alone (it works!). 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The University of Intimate Spaces

“I went to a college where I got credit for hitchhiking in California and wine-tasting in France, “ I used to boast in the ‘70’s. Then I began to feel mild apology and made fun of it in the conservative ‘80’s—until I went to a college reunion and felt such pride in my fellow Antioch alums who were making a splash in the world on their own terms, with humor, character and an eye for social justice. And so I once again fully embraced the notion that learning is by no means confined to the courses in the syllabus carried on in brightly-lit official classrooms (now equipped with smart-boards).

Indeed, a look back at my post-graduate work in the University of Real Life reveals a very different pattern. I studied South Indian drumming in my teacher’s modest home in Nelluvai, Kerala, took Philippine kulintang classes in a church basement in San Francisco, played for two years in the community gamelan Sekar Jaya in someone’s home in Oakland. Jazz piano was in Art Lande’s living room, Bulgarian bagpipe in Hector’s kitchen, Middle Eastern drumming in Mary Ellen’s dining room. Tingklik bamboo xylophone study happened on a front porch in Peliatan, Bali, Ghana xylophone under a tree in Legon, more Bulgarian bagpipe lessons in a hotel room in the Rhodope mountains of Bulgaria. 
I sat on one of the twin beds, my teacher on the other.  

This past week, I took a short lesson in xylophone music from Burkina Faso in someone’s home in Saratoga and then observed a Chinese Guzheng (a 21-string zither harp) lesson in a modest home in the Richmond District (of San Francisco). And this is what got me thinking about this. The six girls playing Guzheng astounded me with their precision and virtuosity and walking by this house in the Richmond on the way to Walgreens, who would have guessed what extraordinary things were going on there? I imagined all the other homes where groups gather to pursue their art, not only in music lessons, but groups of artists gathering in someone’s backyard studio or writers meeting at a café. No signs posted outside, no official credits given, no computerized registration process—just folks who want to know and folks who want to share what they know coming off the street into someone’s house and enjoying tea and cookies at the break. Intimate, warm spaces and the joy of honing a craft together.

These are my people. This is my way. I have had a modest success in my particular field of music education, all with a dubious (to some) college degree, no teacher certification, no Masters, no doctorate, a few books with established publishers and the rest self-published. I tried my best to fit in with several Universities and teach within the System— The San Francisco Conservatory, San Francisco State, Mills College—but they all eventually closed their doors to me without an inch of remorse. I know good colleges and Universities with good teachers exist and that good learning can take place there, but it hasn’t worked out for me.

And so, like Frank Sinatra, I keep on keepin’ on “My Way.” Not only in kitchens and living rooms and under trees, but also in elementary school gymnasiums and cafeterias and joy of all joys, my own music room at the San Francisco School, my little church that indeed used to be the chapel of the Baptist Church the school bought in 1968. What miracles have happened there no human tongue can tell.

For me, the health of a school is measured both by the happiness of its students and a sense of intimacy in its physical space. The kitchen remains one of the centers of my school’s life, the place where staff gather for hearty talk and good gossip drawn by the good smells of freshly cooked food. The music room is another center, the living room where the stories are told and the songs are sung. The classrooms are decorated like a collective kid’s bedroom and the outdoors have the wide-open spaces and secret nooks and crannies that we kids growing up in the vacant-lot ‘50’s used to know. When my step-grandson visited the school this summer, he just took in the physical spaces and wisely commented, “This is a place where a kid can really learn.” And he’s right.

Monday, September 12, 2011

One Choice at a Time

Like the Kennedy Assassination, everyone who lived through it remembers where they were on September 11th. I drove innocently to school as usual and came in to all the teachers huddled in the head of school’s office. Seeing my puzzled look, they told me “We’ve been attacked.” After a moment of recovering from the shock, they explained “We’re trying to figure out how to handle this with the kids” and I replied, “Well, I don’t think we’re going to get together and sing songs.” And they answered, “That’s exactly what we need to do.”

Of course, they were right and of course, I knew that. Music’s power is to create order out of chaos, to create community where there is isolation, to garner power when we feel powerless, to unite where we feel divided, to help heal where we feel broken. We did indeed sing songs that day 10 years ago and now, music was again a way to remember as the annual free Opera in the Park combined with various speakers to acknowledge, remember and commemorate the 10th year since this horrific event.

After a few speakers, the orchestra played Mozart’s “March of the Priests” from the Magic Flute and members of an Inter-Faith Council—Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Christians, Muslim, Bahai, Ohlone Indians and more—processed toward the stage to join police, fire-fighters and an ROTC Color Guard. Everyone spoke from their point of view—the police about the 50 million dollar grant to improve emergency communication, the religious leaders about finding refuge and comfort in God, the firefighters about the bravery of the first responders, with particular attention to Rick Rescorla, the security guard who helped evacuate some 2,000 people from the towers and who is the subject of SF Opera’s premier “Heart of a Soldier.”

But the best speaker by far was a Muslim woman who talked about this all in the broader context of a human problem, of what happens when ideology is coupled with greed, hatred and violence. The attack on the twin towers was just one in a long line of humanity’s legacy of sanctioned cruelty, some of which she named—the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, Native American genocide, the slave trade, the Holocaust. She might have (but she didn’t) mentioned another September 11th event in Chile in 1973 when the democratically elected President Salvador Allende was overthrown in a coup d’etat by the Chilean military, aided by the CIA and endorsed by the U.S. government. The dictator Pinochet took over and established a military dictatorship for the next 17 years, leaving behind a bloody trail of violence, murder and severe human rights violations.

All of the above were officially condoned by the religious leaders of the time and accepted or carried forth by the political leaders. Bin Laden was just one in a long line and rather that treat this as an isolated incident, the speaker called for people of all faiths and patriotic alliances to root out this abuse of religious and democratic ideals, this justification of death and destruction in the name of God and/or Freedom, to restore the worthy ideals of each religion and democratic government toward inclusion, harmony and peace. Good honest words worthy of the event.

And then came the music. Mozart’s Requiem. What an extraordinary work of art. I sat straight-backed and cross-legged on my zafu Zen pillow in the warm sun, the trees behind the stage, the thousand-plus people in rapt silence and from the first note, my eyes were wet and my nerves were tingling. That man can write! The evocative opening notes outlining the subtle harmonic progression and the tender long tones of the woodwinds, the crescendo and tympani announcing the choir and in they come and my body shakes with the power of the sound and the depth of the feeling. And off they go, winding through the maze of Mozart’s genius. The solo soprano brings us to heaven for a moment, the men re-enter to bring us back to the vale of suffering and sorrow on this earth. The counterpoint begins, the lines weaving and crossing and as each line ascends, my spine straightens, feeling that Kundalini energy rising, brought to life by music’s vibrations.

And so it continues for the first two movements, tears streaming down my cheeks, the music playing in every sinew and nerve ending and bone in my body and the full catastrophe and heroism and “never again” determination of all the September 11ths we flawed humans have created finding the only voice that makes sense—music exquisitely crafted and expertly performed, in company with birds and trees and listening ears.

But not all ears are listening quite so intently. Some folks are sleeping, some snacking, some chatting with their neighbor. Mozart means so much to me not only because I chose to listen 100%, but because I was prepared to understand how he works those tensions and releases in a language that takes exposure, effort and education to wholly understand. I wasn’t thinking of this while I was listening, but I think of it now.

It’s all well and good to talk about peace and sing songs of peace, but peace is not a picnic on a sunny day with expensive wine and hand-made baskets imported from Bali. Peace is a fierce determination to make choices that lead us toward compassion, inclusion and not only the courage to rush into a burning building, but the courage to speak out against ignorance, lies and greed. No one mentioned how Bush used the fear generated by September 11th to continue his Daddy’s agenda of getting oil from Iraq. Everyone knew that Bin Laden wasn’t in Iraq, but with the public afraid and the courage to question damped down, we acquiesced to his long-planned war and thousands more innocent people were murdered. But because they were women and children in Iraq, they didn’t get airplay on our TV news and we don’t include them in our mourning. But we should, yes?

So amidst the many reasons to remember September 11th, I hope we can use it as inspiration to build a future of peace, one choice at a time. A lot of little choices well-made add up to a big effect. Like keeping music programs in school so children can eventually understand Mozart’s Requiem and Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Persian santoor music. Like making education more of a priority than military spending. Like putting our most enlightened hearts and minds working to create a real education that gives all children what they so desperately need so they needn’t mindlessly join a street gang, Al Qaeda or the Tea Party.

If you missed Opera in the Park in San Francisco, I recommend shutting the door, dimming the lights, lying down on the floor and listening to the Requiem. Then get up refreshed and determined to build a future of peace, one choice at a time.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Confessions of a Techno-Skeptic

I think it was Winston Churchill who said something to the effect of “I’ve had to eat many of my own words and I found them a tasty treat.” As anyone who knows me can testify, I’ve stood atop many a soap-box ranting about the collapse of human culture due to excessive television, videos, computers—and this was in the late 1980’s! My status as Luddite was confirmed long ago and only been modified slightly as the years went on. Though the first on my block to get an I-Pod for my travels, I’m often the last with everything else and mostly happily so. But now I have to publicly say:


Why this burst of enthusiasm? Somebody e-mailed me a collection of photos of buses around the world that had been painted. If you Google BUS ART, I think you can find it. (This would be a perfect moment to show one of them on this Blog, but still in the dark as to uploading photos here—sorry!). 
But do take a look. Eyebrows painted over the bus wheels to make them look like eyes, a double-bus with accordion-like folds that become the actual folds of an accordion, a smoker painted over the exhaust pipe to look like he’s smoking. This just astounds me, the depth of the human imagination. On one hand, it’s just a little bit of fluff to help you smile through the day, but on the other, the things that I find or that people send to me often feed my faith in the unlimited potential of human imagination, whimsy and intelligence. There’s a lot of amazing things going on out there and now we have the capacity to find out about more of them than ever before.

I’ve already waxed rhapsodic about Youtube, that not only allows me to see Pygmy water-music in a river and all those old jazz clips that you know from your recent homework, but now has things that can add to public discourse, like some classroom-type history lessons about the Plessy-Ferguson and the Dred Scot case. There’s no denying the excitement of an expanded public knowledge, easily accessible at minimal cost and often with one thing leading to another (like the related videos off to the side on Youtube). It all serves a similar function to libraries, but with a wider data base, a more efficient search engine and the possibility of adding images and sound to the world of print. So hooray for it all!

And yet. The things I’ve worried about for over 20 years—screen-time replacing actual world-time, addiction to machines and hyper-speed, the soul’s aversion to bright lights and everything perfectly ordered—are as real as ever. Take speed. When I wrote the Winston Churchill quote from memory, I decided to cross-check on Google. 10 seconds later, I saw the real quote (In the course of my life, I have often had to eat my words, and I must confess that I’ve always found it a wholesome diet.”)
But I could have gotten up, walked over to the bookshelves and found it in Bartlett’s Dictionary of Quotations, where I first saw it to begin with. And gotten a bit of exercise in the process.

The fantasy about increased speed is that it will give us more leisure, but let’s face it—after Googling all the quick answers and Face-booking last night’s dinner and answering the 30 e-mails (contrast to the one handwritten letter you used to get) and Blogging your thoughts about technology, nobody is lying on a beach in Hawaii. Or if they are, they’re Twittering photos of the big waves. All increased speed really gives us is a life of increased speed, which tends to make us busier than ever.

And I am indeed worried about the soul’s need for a certain slowness, a certain quality of boredom, a certain sensibility to look beyond the human world of hyper and shallow-communication and walk the streets with the head up, observing, taking in, smiling at passer-bys, noticing flowers and trees and birds and cloud patterns. I went to a soul-stirring movie last night—The Help—and the moment the theater lights went up, everyone in the theater was heads-down checking their messages. I mean while the credits were still rolling. No time to let the feelings settle, no look at their neighbor to begin a conversation, just BAM!”I wonder what I missed in my two-hours incommunicado with my world and who texted me?!!!” That can’t be good.

So all these hurrahs! and watch outs! for the Digital Age always boil down to the same challenge—the need to use our machines consciously so that we are not used by them. The right tool at the right time in the right place at the right cost in the right amount for the right reason. In-between “the salvation of mankind!” and “the end of human culture” lies the conversations we need to be having—real time and digitally—about the impact of these changes. Especially with the children we are raising, who, if we are not careful, may never know any life but one dominated by machines. The Jewish Community Center in SF will be sponsoring a panel discussion titled “Digital Overload” that will address these very questions. Dec. 6th. I’ll be there. Maybe it will be Podcast or streamed live! Without it even feeling ironic.

Meanwhile, check out that Bus Art. And then go out, hug a tree and talk to somebody.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Little Things

It must have been a day like today that made James Brown jump out and shout, “I feel good!!” What a day it has been! Labor Day, to be exact, a good time to tackle the 12 Labors of Hercules—and so I did. If ever angels were at my side, it was each and every minute of today, guiding me through the treacherous waters of finding the things that drive us mad when we can’t find them. Intrigued? 
Well, not to boast and possibly inspire more hate mail, but here were my accomplishments:

1.     I bought a rubber ring to put on my front door key so I could easily identify it.
2.     I bought a new deck of playing cards that actually shuffle without sticking.
3.     I bought a package of little matchboxes to light my incense with each morning.
4.     I bought two D guitar strings in anticipation of when they will break.
5.     I bought a neck strap for my sunglasses so I can stop losing them.
6.     I bought a new Memo book to stick in my front pocket and keep both my to-do lists and occasional inspired ideas.

Most of the above I found Irving Variety store, one of the last remaining 5 and 10 stores in San 
Francisco—or possibly the world. It’s a great mystery how they can still be holding on after all 
these years, but I’m sure I helped them enormously with my lavish shopping spree that totaled all 
of about $6. With tax.

Definitely on a roll, I came home to tackle the other half-dozen labors. And with remarkable success! Consider:

7.     I cleaned out my closet and found five extra hangers.
8.     I gathered my quarters and put them in the car for parking meters.
9.     I cleaned out my desk drawer and found loose paper clips and out them in a tin.
10.  I sorted through the rubber bands and threw away the bad ones.
11.  I tested my pens and recycled those too faint to write.
12.  I gathered my pencils and sharpened them.

What a day! Armed with rubber bands, paper clips, hangers, sharpened pencils, a key I can find by touch, a strap that will keep my sunglasses from straying, I am ready to face the world. “Bring it on!” 
I shout with confidence!

Now you may doubt my tone here, but I’m actually pretty serious that in this day and age of big fancy purchases, I often find these little things bring me the most pleasure and utility. How many times I’ve been on a plane ready to do my ritual Acrostic puzzle and can’t find a pencil, or get ready to write in my journal and my pen is out of ink. Often I need a paper clip to hold my papers together and suddenly, there are none in a five-mile radius. Or I’m on my front step trying four different keys that look alike, at a parking meter with no change in my pocket (or in the car) or in my closet desperate for a hanger for a shirt—well, you get the idea.

Some clichés are true. It’s the little things that count.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

I Love Hate Mail

I’ve been getting some hate mail lately and I love it. It’s not the kind written by ignorant fools with mean hearts and way too much time on their hands— I’m not public enough to attract their attention and that’s well and good. This hate mail comes from people I know— teachers I’ve taught, colleagues, even friends. People, for example, who came to one of my summer courses relatively content with their teaching and afterwards wrote things like: “ I was too comfortable in where I was and I am VERY HAPPY that this class shook me up…YES!  Time to Work, work, work!”

This student didn’t add the “I hate you!” clause, but those who have make me feel happy that I’ve worked long and hard enough that I’m presenting difficult and challenging ideas. It means I’ve hated lots of people—my first Orff mentor, my first jazz teacher, my colleagues Sofia and James, almost every jazz piano player I hear—and that has helped inspire me to “work, work, work” until I got some people hating me.

And by the way, I sometimes also hate my students. Like the 8th grader two years ago who played amazing dumbek and cajon. One day I walked into the school band practice and he was playing some swinging saxophone with great tone and good solo ideas. Another day I caught him messing around in the music room on the piano, hammering out Stevie Wonder’s Superstition with a killer groove and good technique and my hatred grew in leaps and bounds. And yet another day, I ran into him playing guitar with some friends during recess. If I caught him playing Bulgarian bagpipe, I would have had to hurt him very badly.

Of course, new-age Californians want only love to abound, but this kind of hate is so important. First off, noticing who you hate is a big clue as to what you love and what you desire to master. I’ve never hated a financial officer because that’s not a world I care about. Secondly, any Zen master can say to you “You are perfect as you are” but they should add, as Suzuki-Roshi did, “but we can all stand a little improvement.” Zen is a good example of people getting up way too early in the morning and sitting with pained legs occasionally beaten with a stick to realize that they are perfect and that there’s nothing they need do—except practice long hours for decades to finally get that. The right kind of hate can be like that—a stick to wake you up when you're dozing off and just enough pain to keep you paying attention.

When I go to a workshop or a concert or a poetry reading, I hope for two things:
      1) Work that affirms my sense of worthiness and helps me feel I’m on the right track.
      2) Work that kicks my butt and reminds me to get back to work.
I’m not talking of personal relationship here, where the teacher actively affirms or criticizes. Often, it’s simply someone playing their music or reading their poems or teaching their class at a high level that both inspires and depressed. Both reactions can be useful in the right dose and balance. When it’s too much affirmation, we get complacent. When it’s too much butt-kicking, we get discouraged and frustrated and angry.

So embrace the hate as a message to keep working, but don’t forget the love. When we see someone doing something we wish we could do, it can push us back or pull us forward, depending on our mood. We’re never going to do it like they do and part of the deal is 100% acceptance of how we do it and feel it and understand it in a way that no one else does. I suspect that we never feel wholly comfortable with our own genius, some part is always comparing and contrasting and wanting to be a bit like someone else. But in my experience, that desire starts to fade as we start to come into our own. All of that hero worship and admiration and imitation and "hatred"is pointing the way to the things we love in common with our hero. Its purpose is to encourage us to discover how to love it in our own particular way. And then things get really interesting.

So keep the hate mail coming and eventually, you’ll be getting some of your own. Maybe from me!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Spontaneity and Craft

“Diversify your investments” say the stockbrokers. If one fails, the others may hold steady.
“Diversify your plants” says the rainforest. If you only plant elms and Dutch elm disease comes, you’re in trouble.
“Diversify” your interests, says I. If one isn’t happening for you, another might.

And so it is with me at the moment. Music down, poetry up. I’ve started to re-memorize some key poems and suddenly, the antennae are out and the words are pouring in. Yesterday morning, I sat in the sun for a moment with my cat Chester and out came this little poem:

“Chester the Pester lies in the light
After rousing me from my sleep last night.
To be woken like this is far from fun,
Does he care? No, he just sits stretched out in the sun.
He meows again with his plaintive cry,
Chester the Pester, oh why oh why?”

Not destined for immortality, but cute enough, especially since it took all of two minutes to write. And then today, watching a woodpecker in the park, out came this:

“I hear the sharp rhythm as I sit in the park,
The red-headed woodpecker attacking the bark.
Not for the beat of the music does he
Rat a tat tat up and down the tall tree.
It’s food that he seeks, it’s food that he needs.
The ants and the beetles upon which he feeds.
For him, a necessity, for me, it’s mere fun.
Here pleasure and need are now woven as one.”

Not too bad. And again, about a five-minute exercise.

A century ago, the poet Yeats and others became fascinated by “automatic writing,” a process by which it appeared that a person was merely taking dictation from a spirit without or a deep subconscious layer within. A half a century ago, Jack Kerouac championed a style of spontaneous writing and claimed to have written “On the Road” in three weeks. Both interesting testaments to quieting the editing mind and letting the words flow. But keep in mind that it was Yeat’s wife, Georgie Hyde-Leeds, who was one of the proponents of automatic writing. No one knows of her work, but Yeats’ meticulously-crafted poetry did indeed endure. And though Kerouac achieved more lasting fame, it appears that there was more revision done on “On the Road” than he let on and critical acclaim for the work was, and remains, controversial. (When Truman Capote was asked about Kerouac’s writing, he replied, “That’s not writing—that’s typing.”)

The poet Mary Oliver, whose poems carry the natural quality of conversational speech,  once said, “It takes about 70 hours to drag a poem into the light.” This kind of attention to detail, the craft of the art, is really what the whole deal is about. I mentioned this a few postings ago with the Nicholas Brothers and mention it again having recently recited Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poem “God’s Grandeur.” I’ve long know that his poetry is dense, each word chosen with the care of someone shopping for a new car, but this time, the genius of his ear for language took my breath away. For example, speak the line, 
“Oh, morning at the brown-brink eastward, springs” and note the r’s, some with a consonant following— “morning, eastward”—some following a consonant—“brown, brink, springs.” And then the last line: “World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” Same pattern—“world, warm/ broods, breast, bright.” 

Such attention to the music of language, knowing full well that most will hit the reader/listener below the conscious belt and that most will not choose to take the time to analyze how he did it and marvel at the commitment to getting it right and his genius. But today I saw it as well as heard it and it inspires me to not rest content with spontaneous utterance, but craft, shape, edit. Except for this Blog, which is almost always first-draft!

PS If I give you poetry homework so soon after the jazz history homework, you will leave this site never to return. So it’s entirely optional. But God’s Grandeur's theme is similar to Keats’ “A Thing of Beauty,” concluding that “nature is never spent, there lies the dearest freshness deep down things.” Having spent a day with my cat, woodpeckers, trees and sunlight, I agree.