Monday, February 20, 2012

What's Worthy of Attention

It was an ambitious field trip by any standards. I took fifteen 8th greaders to the Eddie Marshall Tribute at Yoshi’s, never dreaming that there would be four different groups playing for three and a half hours without a break. The caliber of musicianship was extremely high, from the 19-year old kids from the Brubeck school to the veteran musicians—John Handy, Albert Tootie Heath—in their 70’s and some of the music was difficult and abstract. So it shouldn’t have surprised me that the kids clustered around the small tables were initially more excited about a night (well, afternoon) on the town with sushi, milkshakes and a chance to socialize. In fact, like the old jazz clubs, where a steady stream of small talk was part of the musical texture. But the new aesthetic, for which every musician is thankful, is a more concentrated listening and I confess I was edging toward annoyed when I had to keep re-directing the attention of the girls sitting next to me.

But I have to say that all in all, the kids did a great job of listening and I’ll find out next week from their reflections what they really thought of it. There was one moment, however, that came dangerously close to making me break my “no whining” February blog vow and the fact that I’m writing this at 3 a.m. shows that this caused a minor earthquake in my psyche.

As someone practiced in stirring up a lot of musical and otherwise spirit in a roomful people with what Orff called elemental music, I am a champion for simplicity. I base my life on music’s power to awaken us from our slumber and connect us deeper than mere social grace using tools as simple as a finger counting game for babies. As an adult musician, it sometimes has been hard for me to accept that virtuosity is the gatekeeper of my craft and to earn your place on stage, you must pay your dues and do your work at the altar of Hanon scales, Jamey Aebersold jazz licks and hours of technical practice when you’d rather be out playing baseball. My workshop work has proved that you can evoke some strong and beautiful music without that work in a community participatory sense and that has its place in the ecosystem of Spirit. But only up to a point. The next level up, the stage-worthy level, requires the aforementioned dedication and discipline.

The maddening thing about music is that though some measure of virtuosity is required, it alone is impotent to complete the venture. For that you must re-connect with that intuitive, spontaneous, 3-year old musical spirit to be truly fertile. How often have I been bored by mere virtuosity and even disdainful of it as a shield for that raw spirit. (Though I recognize that some of it is sour grapes than I don’t have the talent to stick with that work myself!) All this is prelude to the thing that I look for in a concert—the marriage of the childlike spontaneity with the adult-crafted discipline to truly usher in the magic.

And so after three excellent groups, enter Bobby McFerrin. Mr. McFerrin is my name-dropping calling card, as I taught two of his children at my school for many years and even performed with him (and Eddie Marshall on drums and Bill Douglass on bass) at a school auction, immortalized on some old cassette tape buried in some drawer somewhere. More importantly, he is the living embodiment of everything I hold dear about making music. One of my books on the subject is titled Play, Sing and Dance and add Act, Tell jokes, Preach a slightly tongue-in-cheek but actually powerful sermon in the middle of a song and that’s precisely what Bobby did yesterday to charge the air with a magic far beyond mere notes well-played.

And here comes the near-whine. Amidst the fun and frivolity, he brought the house to that pin-drop silence I hope for in a concert, that moment when time stops and everyone is listening as if their lives depended on it. The piece was a Horace Silver tune called “Peace” and the words matched the moment. And it was at this heart-wrenching moment that I looked over at some of my kids and saw them huddled around someone’s i-Phone. Annoyance, anger and deep sadness popped me out of my seat with my finger wagging and then back down again to enter the depth of the song.

Damn those machines! They are robbing us and the children of our most precious gift— the ability to know what is worthy of attention. Instead of keeping alert to grace and wonder, we are addicted to the constant trivialities of our self-enclosed human soundbytes, not only missing the call of the lark rising in the air or the pink of the plum blossom against the green of the cypress, but moments like this on a stage when a song gathers everything that’s important in this life into 32 bars of pure transcendance.

I’m not blaming the kids. They are kids, after all, 13 years old, still trying to figure out what is worthy. But instead of leading them to these sacred places, we give them machines and model ourselves the constant distraction they offer. Bobby sang a to-me-unknown verse about hoping for a peaceful world for the children, singing of the age-old dreams every generation of adults has ever had, wishing and hoping and working for a world for our children just slightly better than the one we have known. Or at least bequeathing to them the glories we knew in our mostly machineless childhoods, those long days at the beach or walks in the woods or hanging out on the front stoop or jumping in piles of autumn leaves or building snow forts or family board games or lively dinner conversations uninterrupted by checking our text messages. And instead of attending to this ancient hope of peace captured in tones, rhythms and text,  some of the kids are looking at—what? News of Whitney Houston’s funeral? The photo they took five seconds ago? The text message from their friend snowboarding?

Rachel Carson, the radical scientist who tried to protect us from DDT, spoke years ago of what gift she would like to bequeath all children— a sense of wonder. Beautiful. That’s my hope as well. That children—and adults—can distinguish between the passing show and the eternal truths, the sensation and the profound, the shoddy and the immaculately crafted, the distraction that hides our radiance and the revelation that uncovers it. I want these kids to know, deep in their bones, what’s worthy of attention, when to shut the phone off and be wholly present, or better yet, when to leave it at home to invite Presence. The song says:

There's a place that I know, where the sycamores grow
And daffodils have their fun
Where the cares of the day seem to slowly fade away
And the glow of the evening sun,
Peace, when the day is done.

If I go there real late; let my mind meditate
On everything to be done
If I search deep inside; let my conscience be my guide
Then the answers are sure to come
Don't have to worry none.

When you find peace of mind, leave your worries behind
Don't say that it can't be done
With a new point of view, life's true meaning comes to you
And the freedom you seek is won
Peace is for everyone.

That’s the place we need to go with our children. And please, friends, let us leave our phones behind.

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