Sunday, October 30, 2011

Apologies to Keith Jarrett

The last time I saw Keith Jarrett perform was one of the most bizarre concerts I ever witnessed. He played exquisite solo piano, but got more and more agitated by people coughing in the audience, to the point where he stopped playing and scolded them. And then people started shouting back at him. “Maybe they have a cold!” “Hey, we paid our money!” This was at Davies Symphony Hall!! “Just play!!” shouted another and he retorted, “What do you want me to play?” “Summertime.” And he sat down and knocked out a fabulous groovin’ version. By the end, both he and the audience calmed down and in fact, he took seven encores. But still it was pretty strange.

I had met Keith Jarrett backstage once and watching him talk to folks close up, got an image of him as a social misfit who spent his childhood practicing piano and missed a few basic skills. And then came the many stories that circle around the backstages of the jazz world, none of which were flattering to his personality.

But fresh from attending his concert with the trio tonight at Zellerbach, he seemed positively cheery! And even bantered with the audience about his cranky reputation and how at 66, he was going to start smiling and cracking jokes. And the music was divine. He remains one of my favorite musicians because of the depth of his connection with each note he plays—whether a virtuosic run or a single note, it rings out with such clarity of tone and depth of feeling that you have to forgive any personality defects. Indeed, we run into this often, geniuses who are hell to live with and no fun at a party either, pitched at a level of artistic intensity so high that it makes it hard for them to walk amongst us mere mortals. But one note on the piano and all the devils in Mr. Jarrett become angels.

As I was sitting there enjoying my new view of his cheery self, I remembered reading the liner notes to his most recent solo album, London-Paris. He makes a public confession about his wife leaving him and how devastated he was by it. And I think this must have been happening right around that solo concert I went to.

So I was wondering whether he had met someone new and sure enough, he comes up to the mike on the last encore and says, “I’d like to dedicate this last piece to someone I’ve recently fallen in love with.” And off he goes to play yet another heart-stirring rendition of “When I Fall in Love,” bringing a pin-drop hush (without a single cough) to the 3,000 people in the audience.

And so, Mr. Jarrett, I publicly apologize for criticizing your personality. In turns out that you, like my daughter Talia’s 1st grade student Cata (see Shoo Fly entry), simply need to be loved. And I am happy to hear that you have found love in your life. You’ve always made love audible in every concert you’ve given and we listeners are so grateful. But while you made love publicly to the piano and embraced us with your music, you, like little Cata, needed affection. Needed to be loved. By a human being.

As do we all. As do we all. 

Saturday, October 29, 2011

World Piece

Is music a universal language? A question quickly answered by all the Western piano students who have studied Balinese gamelan or West African drumming or Chinese opera. Not even close! And yet.

Music is most certainly a universal impulse, a universal need, a universal gift to human beings that not a single culture in the history of humanity lacks. This is beyond debate. It’s also true that every form of music shares common elements of beat, rhythm, melody, phrasing, texture form. Likewise, most every culture has some form of drums, strings, horns, percussion instruments and every culture some form of dance, some repertoire of songs, some use of music in sacred ritual or secular theater and storytelling. We may or may not like, we may or may not understand (often, the same thing) music from another culture, but we have no trouble recognizing that it is music, something apart from ordinary conversation, something that enters our body, touches our heart and stimulates our brain differently than talk, pictures, numbers. Something universal to people of all times and places.

The wall between the universal and the particular begins when we realize that the specific types of rhythms, melodic scales and shapes, way of phrasing, formal structures, are as varied and distinct as human language itself. We recognize that someone speaking Farsi or Thai or Swahili is communicating through nouns, verbs, adjectives the same kind of information that we are—“What’s for breakfast?” “Hey, gorgeous, what are you doing after work?” “Honey, the roof is leaking.” —but with an accent, vocabulary and syntax that we would need to study to understand.

Same in music. We need to learn how to produce the tones that are considered beautiful, understand the principles of tension and release, come to know how the music is felt in the body and where the music is felt in the body. And beyond the mere production of sound, we also come to realize that how a music is learned, what it means to the performer, what it means to the listener, what it means to the community, is part of the grand and difficult adventure of entering another people’s music.

So throw together a bunch of musicians from distinct geographies, biomes, climates, historical, cultural and religious backgrounds, put ‘em up on a stage together and invite them to play and you have some pretty interesting—and challenging—musical conversations. Welcome to the World Music Festival!!

For those of you in shoutin’ distance, treat yourself to this crazy confluence of cultures seeking some common vocabularies. (Sunday night, 7 pm at Jewish Community Center, San Francisco—tickets at Each group will play some pieces from their own culture and here before your very ears, you will marvel at the stunning diversity of expression as the soul of an entire people sings through the individual performers. Many of the pieces come from a repertoire of epic stories, the living history books of oral cultures. You won’t know the stories or understand the words, but you will feel down to the bottom of your feet the power and beauty captured in tones both familiar and foreign. That experience alone is worth the price of the ticket.

But equally intriguing is to witness the stretch we all have made to take the threads of our individual culturally-specific pasts and start to weave some tapestry of our collective future. It has been so fun to meet folks from Kyrgystan, Azerbaijan, Tibet, India, China, Burkina Faso and beyond and figure out what we can do together. Of course, the percussionists and string players instantly recognize each other. Though the drums and fiddles and their respective sounds and techniques are distinct, the connection folks feel because their brains and bodies have been through similar motions is instant. And our general experiences in rhythm and melody allow us to jam in a variety of styles. In one piece, we all are playing a Bulgarian song that I am sure has never been played by this particular confluence of instruments—the above-mentioned drums and fiddles, jaw harps, Bulgarian bagpipe, voice and Orff instruments. Musically, we don’t know if it really works (you audience members let us know), but if nothing else, it’s a great model of beginning the long-overdue conversations as to how to create a world piece that leads us toward world peace. And it is fitting that this festival has children of all ages sharing the stage with adults. After all, they’re the ones that need to continue the conversation.

See you Sunday!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Shoo Fly

“In a well-wrought song, wrote philosopher Susanne Langer, “the text is swallowed hide and hair.”

How many times have you sung “Shoo fly, don’t bother me” and stopped to think about the words? Probably never. And that’s true of many of the songs we sing. The notes hit the heart and grab the bulk of our attention before climbing up to the head—if indeed, they ever reach it at all. When words are memorable and the meaning matches the music, we have a happy marriage indeed.

Sometimes we like the meaning and the music is not particularly inspired— “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.” “Say it loud! I’m black and I’m proud!” Sometimes we love the music, but the words are pedestrian—Rodgers and Hart’s lovely ballad “It Never Entered My Mind” has some awful lines about “ordering orange juice for one,” “I have to scratch my back myself” “say the maiden’s prayer again”. Sometimes both the words and the music are dubious—My baby does the Hanky Panky”— and sometimes they join exquisitely—Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind,” James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You.” Etc.

But back to Shoo Fly. After singing to the fly three times to leave you alone, the punch line is “For I belong to somebody.” What’s that supposed to mean? The fly’s supposed to nod it’s head and say, “Oh, excuse me. Had I know you weren’t single, I wouldn’t have buzzed around your head?” Of course, “I belong to somebody” is open to interpretation, from marriage to friendship to a child-parent relationship to slavery. But the next verse indicates that there’s some love involved, for in spite of this annoying fly, the singer proudly announces, “I feel, I feel, I feel like a morning star.”

I’ve been doing a dance to this song the past couple of weeks with the kids at school and adults in workshops. To prove that we don’t often pay as much attention to text as we might, I asked them, “What is a morning star?” “Venus!” is the first answer and then it goes from there to a “sad star” (mourning), a kind of hippie tea, a morning TV news anchor. Then I have to quote the end of Walden—“Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” So a person who feels like they belong can shine like the sun and bring light to the dark night of the earth.

The theme of belonging is ripe in poetry, old and new. From Mary Oliver, we have the wild geese who are “over and over announcing your place in the family of things.” David Whyte tells us, “It doesn’t interest me if there is one god or many. I want to know if you belong or feel abandoned.” When Wordsworth felt connected to the natural world, he went “dancing with the daffodils,” while Yeats, having finally found "the glimmering girl with apple blossoms in her hair" went hand-in-hand with her picking “the silver apples of the moon and the golden apples of the sun.” James Brown was more direct: “Yeeow!!! I feel good! I got you!!”

Belonging is good. Feeling loved and cared for is good. Feeling part of something larger than yourself is good. And feeling unloved, abandoned, ignored, neglected—well, it’s devastating. Especially if you are six years old.

My daughter Talia called last night in tears and told me about her first grade student in Argentina who had a meltdown and started lamenting, “Nadie me da cariño. Nadie me quiere. Necesito cariño.” (Nobody is affectionate with me. Nobody loves me. I need affection.) Her parents are divorced, have restraining orders out against each other, the Mom re-married quickly, had another baby and moved to Chile and now this girl is showing her sadness by kicking all the other kids in her class. When Talia started talking to her, the anger changed to confession, “I need to be loved!!” Pretty sophisticated for a six-year old. And heart-wrenchingly sad.

I’m aware that this posting has as many sub-plots as a Seinfeld episode and I’m looking to tie them together. So while you’re paying more attention to the words of songs, brushing up on Thoreau, researching the theme of belonging in poetry, don’t forget to love somebody and tell them so and show them so with real affection. We are all worthy of love. Especially the children. Brush the flies away and make them feel like a morning star.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Autumn Leaves

Back at the end of the summer in Vancouver, I started a Blog entry titled…well, “the end of summer.” It began like this:

“I couldn’t tell you how I knew, but I knew. Summer ended and Fall came. There was a smell in the air and a few turning leaves, but it was more than that. Some mysterious shift inside, some turning that said ‘Not lake swims and night ice creams, but kids buying school supplies and the unshadowed brightness of Life softened with a a few sprinkles of Leaf-falling Death.’ And how I love it! It truly is the new year for me, a time to aim the renewals of Summer toward the work of Fall.”

That’s as far as I got before returning to San Francisco, where the usual seasonal order, like so much in this fair city, is different from most places. For starters, September and October are traditionally our “summer,” the time we creep out from the blanket of July and August fog and occasionally have bona-fide heat waves that has native San Franciscans thinking, “Oh yeah! We have beaches here!”

We’ve had our share of those days, including just last weekend. But Fall in San Francisco is also the last few months of the dry season, when we can plan outdoor weddings and school Walkathon fund-raising events without worrying about rain. Except this year someone forgot to send that memo to the weather gods and we’ve had some 8 to 10 days of rain. Of course, the moment the weather gets weird, everyone predictably comments, “Global Warming.”

But meanwhile, the days are clearly shorter and the pumpkins are appearing on doorsteps. Yesterday, I walked through the park and crunched a few leaves from our rare deciduous trees amidst the eucalyptus, Montery pine and cypresses and I could taste a bit of Fall again as I remembered it. There was much I loved about my four-season childhood in New Jersey and much I miss. Those magical first Winter snows, sledding in the park, seeing your breath, warming up with hot cider. Then the first promise of Spring, the forsythia bushes and the first robin, the glory of the long hot Summer days with no school and lightning bugs at night and the bells of the Good Humor truck promising ice cream. But I think most of all I loved the brilliant colors in the Fall, jumping into the raked pile of leaves, the smell in the air and darkening days.

This carried into my college years in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where the Fall was even more spectacular and the crisp air and harvest moon were accompanied by the Incredible String Band singing “October Song,” a beautiful song that holds up to this day, with lyrics like “The falling leaves, they jewel the ground, they know the art of dying. And leave with joy, their glad gold hearts, in the scarlet shadows lying.”

On Sunday, I gave my Jazz and Poetry performance at the Community Music Center and one of the poems I read was from several years back when I caught a falling leaf while walking through Golden Gate Park. In the concert, I experimented with pairing poems I’ve written with jazz standards and somehow missed the idea of playing “Autumn Leaves.” Oh well, next time. Meanwhile, here’s the poem. Hail, Autumn!!

Today I caught a falling leaf
and crossed a bridge to my childhood,
where my friends and I spent hours
spinning joyfully in open fields
chasing the spiraling Autumn leaves,
until dizzy with whirling,
we collapsed on the damp, musty earth,
 lay silently in leaf-caught bliss
gazing into October sky.

Now my days are so calculated,
punched onto computer clocks.
Time spent lining up and knocking down e-mails
like obedient toy soldiers.
No sudden gusts of wind to send me diving,
No curve or crunch or carefree collapse.

Today I caught a falling leaf. 

Sunday, October 23, 2011


“What are you doing?”
“Looking for my keys.”
“When did you last have them?”
“I think I dropped them back over there.”
“Then why are you looking here?”
“The light’s better!”

This morning I couldn’t find my little Memo book. Long before Blackberries and I-Phones, these $.89 spiral notebooks that fit in my front pocket have been the center of organizing my life. Friends' phone numbers on the inside cover, business on the other, my lists of things to do going left to right, inspired ideas going right to left. And in the face of electronic alternatives, it still is the way I keep track of such things.

So I was bit put out when I couldn’t find it this morning and started just looking randomly around the house. Then I checked all the possible pockets. No luck. Then a voice rose up: “Think! When do you last remember having it?” Aha! I needed to call someone and his number was in the book. I talked to him by my desk. But still, nothing on top, behind or under the desk. Aha! His number wasn’t in the new Memo book, but an older one I kept in the desk drawer. Open the drawer and there were both books! Success!

And so actually thinking, remembering, following the train of thought and actions, proved more successful than random searching. Like the Sufi story above, I wasted time looking in the wrong place for the wrong reason.

And the way my mind works, it all became more than another sad story of failing memory with a happy ending. I thought about the public policy in education these past ten years, all this time and energy and ideas masquerading as thought spent looking too long in the wrong places for the wrong reasons. The wrong places are the marks on papers instead of children’s faces and the buzz and excitement in a classroom. The wrong reasons are money and the illusion of measuring progress instead of meeting children where they live and leading them forward to their promise. Losing a Memo book because I forgot to think is low stakes compared to losing a child’s present happiness and future intelligence because we forgot to think.

The train of thought to follow regarding a child’s education is so simple. Watch them! When they are excited, motivated, involved, still burning with their natural curiosity and urge for mastery (see Intery Mintery example last entry), we’re on to something. When they are habitually shut-down, lackluster, just going through the motions, frustrated, restless, doing what we tell them for fear of shame or hope of praise, then we’re doing something wrong, looking for the keys to their possibility in the wrong place because the light of money or some weird notion of success is distracting us.

So off I go to another rehearsal with the kids for the World Music Festival. The standard of achievement is extraordinarily high, yet all accomplished with love, laughter and lightness amidst the serious practice and discipline.

Now where did I put my keys?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Intery Mintery

“You’ve done one good thing in your life.” You can imagine how I leant forward to hear the next sentence from my colleague Sofia. And she gave the punch line in two words. “Intery Mintery.”

This is an obscure Mother Goose rhyme that I turned into a full-blown Halloween ritual event sometime in the 1980’s. With the rhyme at the center, 100 kids each year create a ritual performance involving spooky sounds effects, Indonesian angklung, black lights, all sizes of recorders, dancers laying head to the center where a glowing pumpkin sits, Bulgarian bagpipe and Orff instruments playing a driving arrangement of the rhyme that is chanted, sung and danced to. When I wrote a book subtitled “Nursery Rhymes for Body, Voice and Orff Instruments,” I knew that the title must be INTERY MINTERY, the epic creation that summarized just about everything I care about in teaching music to kids.

Sofia and James (who have added their own personal touches to it over the years) are in the midst of preparing Intery Mintery and they went on to describe for me how kids cannot take their hands off the recorders trying to master the tune, how they run to the instruments every chance they get to practice, how they discuss amongst themselves the power of the D and A drone to create the proper Halloween effect (I’m talking about second graders here). What is it about this piece and this event that so thoroughly captures the kids’ imagination and motivates them to the point of obsession?

Well, Halloween, for one. Picture a kid growing up, doing his or her best to be a functioning human being in the family or school and failing miserably—spilling milk, yelling too loud, running too fast, playing airplane with the spoon, drawing on the walls, crying for dessert before spinach, And then this holiday comes up and the kid can’t believe it. “You mean I get to dress up? For a whole day? I get to stick knives in big vegetables and make scary faces? You’re going to take me through this spooky haunted house? I get to scream? I get to shout ‘trick or treat!!!’ to the neighbors and then they give me candy? You’ve got to be kidding!!!!”’ 

So make up a simple scale-wise melody in D minor and connect it to Halloween and you’ve got some pretty motivated kids! I came in yesterday to sing with 175 of them at my school, one of the first pres-school/elementary singing times we’ve had and a happier group of kids you’ve rarely seen as we took them through our considerable repertoire. For 45 minutes! Then after it was over, kids all over the yard were practicing their recorders trying to master the melody.

Friends, it doesn’t get any better than this. Intery Mintery, people!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Things I Learned Today

• Pasillo peppers are slightly larger and wider than poblanos, but noticeably more “picante.”

• The Myth of Sisyphus predated e-mail by a few thousand years—and yet perfectly describes it!

• Walking in my neighborhood, I’m delighted to see restaurants that have leased street parking spaces to make sidewalk cafés.

• Looking for parking, I’m less than thrilled.

• Fog is romantic from a distance, but merely cold, wet and annoying when you’re in it.

• Live life first. Organize it later.

Things I want to find out.

• Are those restaurants paying 25 cents every seven minutes per parking space like we are?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Naked in Mud

In preparing to say goodbye to my colleague of 36 years at the school, Lynne Woodford, I came across a photo from the 70’s of a camping trip we took with the kids. Lynne and her husband, me and my wife and several other teachers were standing ankle-deep in a pond naked covered with mud. Nearby were several kids nonchalantly going about their business, as if being next to their mud-streaked naked teachers was the most natural thing in the world. And why not?

On Friday, we had such a joyful singing time with the kids. Our spirited Spanish department was up front with the music department playing congas, guiros, cowbells while we sang a Colombian song about a dancing skeleton. Each verse, the skeleton moves another part of the body—la cabeza, la espalda, la cintura, las rodillas, etc. Any stern-faced assessor would have to admit that curricular goals were being met, as 100 kids from 1st through 5th grade were learning and reinforcing their Spanish vocabulary. But whereas most school learning is simply content to know the name of the body part, our view of education says “So what? That’s just step one. The question is what can that body part do? And more importantly, what are you going to do with that body part?” And so we invited the kids grade by grade to stand up and strut their stuff with a chosen body part.

“How is the new chief?” asked a visitor to a West African village. “I don’t know,” replied the citizen. “I haven’t seen him dance yet.” I love this story, because dance is one of many ways to get to know the character of a person and one more profound than knowing their favorite pizza topping. Watching these kids dance, I learned a lot! Of course, then the teachers had to dance too and I was so proud that a first-grader smiled at me and gave me a thumbs-up after my little foot-dance. At the end, we all stood up and danced together and then teachers chose a particularly expressive dancer from each grade to lead the group out to recess.

After the kids left, the teachers spontaneously gathered, with smiles wrapped twice around our faces from the sheer joy of those twenty minutes and our delight in naming some of the kids we noticed. Now it was one of those rare San Francisco heat-wave days and I suddenly realized that all the administrators on campus were away on some board retreat. With an impish grin, I said, "Hey, you guys! All the grown-ups are gone! Let's all run around in our underwear through the sprinklers!" (Note how I’ve moved with the times—from naked in mud to the more modest underwear caper.) We laughed heartily and though we didn’t do it, it was delicious to just imagine it.

And again, why not? What’s the big deal? Picture how the atmosphere would change after administrators, teachers and kids ran around the yard in their underwater squirting each other with water on a hot sunny day. I imagine next time we sat around a table meeting about difficult issues, there would be a lighter, more together, more happy tone.

Mud-bath, anyone?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Mary Oliver Fan Club

I went to hear Mary Oliver read her poetry last night. I’m happy to report that she seems as delightful as a person as she is accomplished as a poet. This isn’t always the case. People who can melt your heart practicing their art form sometimes are people you’d walk far away from a party— Keith Jarrett, for example. But Ms. Oliver was so fun— warm, witty, making us at ease as she fumbled through her notes and publicly confessed her lifelong losing battle with organization, rounding out her prolific love notes to the universe with her righteous indignation with American politics and the horrors of what we’re doing to the natural world, our children and each other. In short, a fully human human being stuck in the muck with the rest of us while keeping her gaze constant on the stars—and the bugs and the birds and the trees and especially, her beloved dogs named Percy.

When it came time for questions, at least three people announced themselves as being “huge fans,” one even letting the packed theater know that some lines of Ms. Oliver’s poetry were tattooed on her body. Naturally, we all wanted to know which lines and more importantly, where on her body? Ms. Oliver’s response? “What color?”

But it got me thinking of this notion of being a “fan.” How long has the notion of fan clubs been around? Google wasn’t a lot of help, but it seemed clear that it began with the movie industry and modern communication. The purpose is for adoring worshippers of celebrities to keep updated on their star’s life, share with fellow fans and occasionally make some kind of contact with the star him or herself. The first fan club I knew was the Mickey Mouse Fan Club—must have been tricky to communicate with Mickey.

The key words here are “adore” and “worship.” The star is in some exalted stratosphere unreachable by us air-breathing mammals and we will build our identity partly from who we choose to adore. Mostly we focus on actors and musicians, but the roots of the mentality go back much further. As one Internet entry put it, on some level, the entire Christian religion can be thought of as a 2,000 year old fan club. And when we remember the Beatles churches and teenage girl altars and John Lennon's quip that they were more popular than Jesus, you can see the connection.

I’m uncomfortable with the notion of adoring. Appreciating, yes, admiring, yes, inspired by, yes, but worshipping and adoring creates a hierarchy that has never felt healthy to me. I’m sure I was attracted to Buddhism by the saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Meaning don’t get trapped or sidetracked by adoring Buddha and instead, focus on your own Buddha-nature. That’s what Buddha himself advises. Of course, we do bow to Buddha and pay our respects, but more as fellow-seekers than as members of the Buddha fan club.

I am perpetually grateful when an artist has taken the trouble to express what I feel, but can’t say as eloquently due to lack of time, talent or inclination. But coming home from a good concert, poetry reading, Orff workshop, what have you, I’m mostly inspired to work harder to say what I can in whatever medium I can more eloquently and in only the way that I can say it. I’ve loved reciting Mary Oliver’s poems and playing snippets of great jazz artist’s solos, but always as a springboard to form more clearly my own way of experiencing and expressing the world. Too much admiration of those who have gone down the road before us becomes a distraction.

But we Americans love our celebrities. We love to get the vicarious thrill of worshipping the sports figures, the movie stars, the rock musicians and neglect our own potential, equating success with media attention and setting the bar so high that we don’t even make the effort to get off the ground—just buy the ticket and join the club. It was disconcerting to feel that mentality leak into the world of readers of poetry—witness the Mary Oliver “Fan Club.”

Ms. Oliver herself is very clear that the creative mind is constantly bubbling and only waiting for us to make a date with it and keep it. If we do, she reports, it will always show up. And that's exactly what she's done. Every day, she wakes early and walks in the woods with a little notebook and a pencil, noticing the world and trying to catch some of the mystery in the net of language. Then she goes home and works for two or three hours on refining it, scraping away the excess. She once wrote: “It takes about 70 hours to drag a poem into the light.” 

In short, she is not a celebrity, simply someone dedicated to her work, willing to do it and willing to share it and that indeed deserves admiration, but not adoration. Putting her on the pedestal excuses us from doing our own work. In a poem titled “Instructions for Living a Life,” Ms. Oliver counsels us so succinctly as to how to do that work:

          “Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

That’s what she has done for some 50 years and we are all the richer for it. 

Now I wonder where I can tattoo that? 

Monday, October 10, 2011

More Testing, Please

I know I’ve complained about the state of our schools this past decade, the utter insanity and cruelty of reducing children’s startling curiosity and unbounded intelligence to the right answers on tests. I still don’t think it’s a good idea. But if that’s the trend, why not take it further?

Think about it. The only test I’ve taken since I formally left school is the driver’s test. The culture says that if you’re going to be out there on the road with the lethal weapon known as a car, you not only have to prove you can drive it, but also know the laws of driving. That’s not a bad idea. Maybe before you’re allowed to buy alcohol you should also first pass a test showing clear knowledge of its effects. Could be a good idea before purchasing a gun as well, demonstrating clear knowledge of the murder statistics in which guns are easily obtained with those in countries where they’re not.

But the most important test of all should be taken before you are allowed to vote. When you’re a citizen of the most powerful country in the world, a vote can be even more of a lethal weapon than a car or a gun. Vote for the wrong person for the wrong reason and little children far away who deserve to live and love as much as your child might be endangered. Come to think of it, your child might also be endangered, especially if they had the misfortune to be poor and living in New Orleans during a natural disaster called Katrina. I’m not talking of the hurricane’s devastation, but the government’s response here. And then there’s the Katrina-like battering your child may have to cope with in school.

I want to publicly announce my bid to make that test. Before you were allowed to vote, you would have to show clear knowledge of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. You would also have to demonstrate familiarity with those illustrious folks in our history who worked to hold those documents to their promise by insisting that they apply equally to every person who has graced these shores. To be eligible to vote, you would have to know the cases of Dred Scott, Plessy vs. Ferguson, Brown vs. Board of Education, the stories of Harriet Tubman, John Brown, W.E. DuBois, Emmett Till, James Meredith. Also Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Mother Jones, Gloria Steinem, Helen Caldicott. You would have to be able to sing the songs Tom Joad, The 1912 Massacre and all the verses to This Land Is Your Land, Strange Fruit, What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue, Masters of War. In tune. (If you can’t sing in tune, better start lobbying the Education Czars to re-instate the music programs they took out for the testing.) You’d have to read the works of Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Mary Oliver, listen to the music of Billy Strayhorn, Cole Porter, Fred Hersch, see the movies of James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson and consider that they were gay.

I just returned from one of the most joyful, loving and beautiful weddings I’ve ever attended, celebrating my good friend James and his partner Dan. Rarely have I seen such love between two people and such further love surrounding them from the 270 people who attended. Their friends are old and young, gay and straight, black and white, American and foreign born and the mutual joy generated at that wedding was ample testimony to how ultimately meaningless all these categories are. On the positive side, they help us position ourselves in an identity, on the negative side, they can keep us apart, but finally, when all is said and done, all that matters is how kind and loving you are. Who you love, how you love, is your private affair, but if you choose to make it public, all that matters is the depth and quality of love.

Perhaps this should be the number one question on my Voter’s Test. The fact that one-issue voters allowed four more years of lies, greed, violence and general havoc by the Bush regime because some shameless preachers twisted Jesus’ message of love and convinced them that gay marriage was an abomination was a moment of great shame for our country and culture and there is so much more work to do. So in addition to the paper test, all voters should be required to attend a gay marriage. If they can’t make it, I’ll send them the video.

PS A hearty public congratulations to James and Dan!!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Good Vibrations

I was talking to a music colleague today who just started a new job with 8th graders. The previous teacher had them doing the software program called Garage Band, a way to sample sounds, mix them together and compose on the computer. Listening to their compositions, she was not impressed. “It’s like when you first try fingerpainting, you get excited about using ALL the colors and then everything just turns out brown.” Another colleague chimed in, “And the only way to know what each color does and feels like is to first feel all the instrumental vibrations in your bones.”

Two profound and related thoughts. Before music (or any art form) becomes ideas, theoretical structures, techniques, it is first and foremost that physical vibration in the body. We feel it in our bones first, it courses through our blood, excites our nerve endings, it is visceral long before it is abstract. We know music in the gut even before the heart and certainly before the head.

These are not metaphors. Since sound is vibration and our bodies are vibrating entities, sound works directly from vibration to vibration. There are sounds that are tuned to our particular bodies like the sympathetic vibrations of the snare drum when another drum is played across the room. There are particular combinations of sounds that strum the sympathetic strings of your heart (for me the bIII diminished chord), there are particular instruments that make your blood sing—the cello or oboe or large frame drum—and others that make your nerves scream—like my three favorite—banjo, bagpipe and accordion!. And (as witnessed by the existence of banjo and bagpipe aficionados) what moves or repels us is unique to our bodily physics and chemistry, independent of, but later formed by, cultural taste and emotional associations. Indeed, as musicians and music teachers can testify, we all have an instrument awaiting us that matches our particular way of hearing the world and feeling its vibrations and it gets very specific. A student at my school started alto sax last year and did okay, but just switched to tenor and felt like he had come home. We also have a particular musical style awaiting us, but that’s a matter for another posting—for now, let’s stick with pure vibration.

Maria Montessori was absolutely convinced that every child has an interior guide that knows exactly what the body and heart and intellect and spirit need at each given moment of its development. So she set out to create an environment of intelligent choice and allowed each child to go to the shelves and pick one of the materials. Why not do this with music? Leave children alone in a room of diverse instruments and see what they gravitate to. My colleagues and I have noted a certain personality type that always chooses the ratchet—the edgy, troublemakers who we will eventually appreciate and love, but will drive us crazy for a while. We like to know from the beginning who they are and the ratchet test never fails!

Shamans in some cultures take the patient aside and play certain instruments and rhythms and observe the reaction. Through their training, they can spot the particular song or expression the patient needs to heal, for what is sickness but faulty vibrations out of tune or out of rhythm? The doctor can spot the irregular EKG lines on the screen, but doesn’t know what song the patient needs. In short, beyond the math score nonsense, the social benefits, the discipline and even the beauty, music is perhaps the most powerful of all human expressions because it enters the body directly and through its power of vibration, can change our breathing, our heart rate, our brain waves, all of which profoundly affect our moods, feelings and spiritual connection.

So back to Garage Band. The real garage band with the guitars pumped up had plenty of vibrations, but this virtual model for kids who have never know the primary vibrations is the wrong tool at the wrong time. Without the profound feeling of each instrument in their bones and sense of how they pair together, all the colors will keep blending into a mushy brown. (Thanks to Nzingah Smith for this image.) Want to engage teenagers? Start them in their body with body percussion, movement, gesture and voice, with drums and shakers and the pitched percussion of Orff instruments, throw them into the vibrational soundpool and let them swim.

Vibrations in the bones. I like that. (Thanks, Martha Crowell). At the Orff Miniconference opening I led last April, we ending singing a song with our ears pressed to the back of the next person in the circle. If you found the right place on their shoulderblade, their bone amplified their singing. Profound. And in my last months with my Dad, I always put my hand on his back when he talked to feel the vibration of his voice. Highly recommended.

Yet one more plea to beware, to be aware, of raising our children in a virtual world more than a visceral world. The computer will be a welcome tool when all the proper vibrations are stored in the bones and remembered in the heart and understood in the head. But first things first. And last (see Dad above). 

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Button Up Your Overcoat

“Brush your teeth.” These were the last words a friend’s dying mother spoke to him. He was a young man of 20 and often speaks of it as a disappointing ending to a difficult relationship. However, having just come from the dentist, it didn’t seem like bad parting words. (Not that I don’t brush my teeth. I do twice a day and dental floss too and have for 40 years, but it still doesn’t stop my mouth from being a field day for the forces of decay.) It was a mother’s way of saying “take care of yourself,” an oblique expression of love. For what better way to show someone you care then remind them to take care of this precious body on loan.

One of the fun songs I sing with kids and seniors alike is the old jazz tune “Button Up Your Overcoat.” In light of the dentist visit and the bathroom scales screaming at me, “Eat less. Exercise more,” it’s a good song to consider. Let’s take it line by line.

Button up your overcoat, when the wind is free

Sound advice. Especially for San Francisco, when the wind is often way too free for anyone’s taste.

Take good care of yourself, you belong to me.

Well, perhaps a little too Western-consumer-based-ownership-oriented for my taste, but another way to say “I care.”

Eat an apple every day

Fruit is always good and apples help clean the teeth (is this where I went wrong?).

Get to bed by three

In the morning? Afternoon? Either way, throws a wrench into the otherwise solid suggestions, all for the sake of a rhyme.

Take good care of yourself, you belong to me.

Got it. On to the bridge! * (Which is what my dentist is recommending.)

Be careful crossing streets.

A serious reminder to people checking their text messages while crossing streets.

Don’t eat meats.

A vegetarian for some 15 years and a chickentarian for the rest, I’ve mostly followed this. And after hearing a radio interview about the film Forks Over Knives, it helped confirm my choice. Of course, Frances Moore Lappe said it all in the 70’s with Diet for a Small Planet, but the above film is sending out a convincing message, much of it a plea to avoid cardio-vascular disease.

Cut out sweets.

On my recent reform list and my dentist (and belly) will be happy about that. But starting with “reduce.”

You’ll get a pain and ruin your tum-tum.

I can vouch for the latter, size-wise.

Keep away from bootleg hootch, when you’re on a spree

Not sure whether they’re advocating less or no alcohol or just staying on the right side of the law. In the first instance, I’m still a half-a-beer-a-day-and-cork-the-bottle-for-tomorrow guy. In the second, my philosophy is situational.

Take good care of yourself, you belong to me.

One could also read the “me” as a spiritual presence beyond the ego. The old idea that the body is a temple dedicated to the cultivation of the spirit. All the exercise and diet and skin care not for vanity or sexy poses on magazines or to living up to some media-manipulated idea of the ideal body, but in service of offering your service to the world.

So take good care of yourself and enjoy singing the song. (After all, music is another doorway to health and balance.)

 And of course, don’t forget to brush your teeth.

* PS The bridge is the B section in a song, with a change of text, melody and harmony. 

Monday, October 3, 2011

Thumper's Advice

I think it was in the movie Bambi (which is probably my earliest—and most terrifying—movie-going experience), where the bunny rabbits came to see the new born “Prince of the Forest.” Little Thumper said something honest like, “His legs are all wobbly” and his mother admonished him, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Why am I telling this little story? Just to paraphrase Thumper— “If you don’t have anything to say, don’t say anything at all.” Or as another proverb says it, “Don’t speak unless you can improve on the silence.” For probably the first time in the 9 months since starting this Blog, I don’t have anything that feels interesting to report.

Of course, I could come up with something here or simply tell about my rare jazz trio performance at a private party on Friday night, the all-day Orff workshop followed by a great restaurant and the Esperanza Spalding concert on Saturday, the World Music rehearsal at the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music (please add to my list of The University of Intimate Spaces) on Sunday or the decision to open up Pandora’s boxes in my front room and go through a giant purging, one sheet of paper at a time, on Monday. But none of it feels like a worthy improvement on silence.

And so, my world-record shortest posting.