Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hares and Rabbit

I frankly can’t remember who got me started on this, but at some moment in my young adulthood, someone told me about hares and rabbits. It is one of those charming ritual observances that marks time and assures good luck. In the midst of our rational, technological, scientific culture that seeks logical explanations for each of life’s mysteries, we still knock on wood, watch out for ladders and get nervous about black cats in our path. These are all reactive superstitions, but we also have our pro-active ones— crossing ourself at the foul shot line on the basketball court, wearing a special amulet or good luck charm, chanting the Buddhist Dharani to Remove Disaster before each plane flight (yes, seatmates, that’s what I’m doing when I appear to be mumbling to myself).

Hares and Rabbit is of the latter variety and if you’re worried this will add another burden to your busy schedule, stop reading now. But if you’re curious, it goes like this:

At the turn of the month, the last word you say out loud is “Hares.” When you wake up in the morning, the first word is “Rabbit.” That’s it. Then good luck for the entire month to come is yours. Well, there are variations that I briefly tried out— something about having to have gone to the bathroom and made your coffee taking no more than ten steps from the bedroom to the bathroom to the kitchen. I still have a hilarious image of my roommate Esta (may she rest in peace) taking giant steps down the hall in our flat on Castro Street. But I eventually let that part of the practice go.

Naturally, there were times I forgot, especially the morning “Rabbit,” so I took to putting a small Beatrix Potter book (Peter Rabbit) on the back of the toilet to remind me in the morning. Perhaps cheating, but hey, it helped.

Having done this for over 35 years, I should have kept careful records of each month’s good fortunes according to whether I fulfilled the ritual obligations or not. But the point isn’t to prove the truth of it. It’s simply a way to mark time, to note the end of one short cycle and the beginning of another and announce your intention to live well in the four weeks to come and invoke the aid of whatever angels are watching over.

And why hares and rabbits? In Europe and China, both have an association with the moon and of course, it is the moon’s cycle that marks (approximately) the month. (Month and moon must have an etymological connection.) Then, of course, the rabbit itself has general mythological overtones—the rabbit’s foot for good luck, the rabbit as model of fertility, the Easter bunny and the Alice’s White Rabbit.

A quick Wikipedia check reveals that this custom is more widespread than a mere whim from the person who passed it on to me. It seems to be British in origin, with all the variations you can imagine. One version suggests “Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit” first thing when you awake. Another has three rabbits at bedtime and three hares in the morning. Yet another suggests “White rabbit.” And so on.

Take your pick. Or not. Once you’re hooked, it’s a lifetime obligation.


Why I Love 8th Graders

Several weeks back, I gave a class where the 8th graders wrote spontaneous poems while listening to two piano pieces by Billy Strayhorn—Lotus Blossom and Valse. The poems got buried in my stack of papers and with two days of school left, I finally dug them out to re-read them. I find myself stunned by their depth of feeling, their synesthetic blend of the senses, their raw honesty and their tender hope. And astonished that all of them were first-draft spontaneous writing. These are 14-year old adolescents, hardly our image of the sensitive, feeling, introspective human being. How can this be?

Three possibilities:

1)    The carefully chosen music helped generate the mood and imagery and kudos to Billy Strayhorn for writing such evocative combinations of tones that fired the imagination and awakened the sleeping heart.

2)    Just as we are all born musicians, so are we all born poets. I suspect most everyone has some small collection of poems hidden away in the attic, prompted by young love or simply an awakening moment of life’s promise. Only a sliver of a slice of any population will keep the door open to their poetic promise and the rest just get on with the demands of the “real world.” But we’ve all tried our hand at it, yes? And poetry more than music, at least first-draft poetry, is possible because words pour from the pen without any of the technique, technical terms or practice that most people imagine music requires.

3)    Despite the media’s portrayal of young adolescents as posturing, pimply, pubescent punks, hulky and bulky, sensation-seeking, rough and tough teens , eye-rolling, adult-loathing, overgrown spoiled brats, this time of transition is precisely when poetry is most needed. Everything is magnified and amplified— the hopes, the fears, the quest for identity, the fading of innocence and harshness of experience, the need to announce oneself and make oneself known, to others and to oneself. Beneath all the exterior confusions and acting out (which, truth-be-told, are pretty low-key with our kids, as my Nicaragua blogs testify), lies a deep sensitivity simply awaiting the invitation to express itself. And this 30-minute poetry project was enough to do so.

Their poems touch on innocence, freedom, revelation, loss, exile, homecoming. In short, all the good stuff of poetry and life. Though they all deserve full readings, below is an assortment of excerpts from twelve young poets. Note the threads of similar themes running through them:

• They walk in the rain, Dance in the rain
Sing in the rain, Love in the rain
and forever they will be
Happy in the rain

• The sky casts a grey blanket over my head,
as crystal droplets dance down window panes.
I sit silently and watch life pass by, dying quietly in the rain.
Movements twirl in the wind, gathering the past,
Nothing is to last.

• As I swing
I hear the laughter, No troubled
thoughts are in sight. It’s as
if the world has no problems.

• I should leave.
No more talking. Just the sounds of silence around me.…

• Some folks never heard of me
I just want to be heard.
Know what it’s like to be me.
I’ll be you, let’s trade shoes.
Just to see what it would be like…

• The balloon drifts away,
A red streak in the vast blue sky.
The boy waves goodbye.
All things come. All things go.
But the sounds, the sights and the feeling will never disappear.

• He finally found what he is looking for,
A home.

• On this beautiful morning, I feel completely content.
Knowing that the time right now was very well spent.

But it quickly goes behind a large gray cloud
Which dampens the light, almost like a shroud.

But it burst through the barrier and goes on away
As if to tell me, “Come, live fully this day.”

• A man chases a bag
Through the raining streets
A bag with a letter
A letter of need
Soaked with importance and covered in rain
The bag floats away
Never to be seen again.

• An empty laundromat in the rain
An island of hope.
A bench
Sad music drifting from far away.

• A dancer floating in the clear night
People walking by in a snowy almost empty street
A man runs towards the dancer but he can’t get close, she floats away…

• Watch her as she dances,
A dance of sorrow, happiness and mystery
Watch as she gives herself to the sight of the others
Watch as she emerges from the shadows and lets herself be seen…

Thank you, 8th graders, for showing yourselves. You are beautiful. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Front Cuts

Last month, we had an all-staff meeting where a facilitator had us line up according to how many years we had been at school. It was pretty amazing to see 50 plus people snaking around the room and more than a little astounding to realize that my wife and I (in that order) were in the front of the line! Of course, it was no surprise, but to physically see it all in front of us (or rather, behind us) was a graphic physical rendition of a rather abstract fact. My wife later commented something to the effect of “Oh my God! We’re the grownups?!” Rather sobering to realize that there was no Mommy or Daddy above to take care of things.

And so it is when our parents depart and we’re suddenly in the front of the line. That scary moment when we realize that we are the new elders and there is no buffer between us and the place where the line disappears. I think of all the kids pushing to be the line leader, determined that there will never be the gravest of all injustices—front cuts—if they have anything to do with it. I feel like telling them, “Hey, what’s your hurry? It’s not bad to be in the middle or the back of the line.” Of course, they kind of know that when they chant “First is the worst, second is the best, third is the one with the hairy chest!”

There is some kind of major flaw in evolution that we are always looking ahead with anticipation or behind with wistful nostalgia, convinced that any age is better than the one we’re living now. The little ones are so proud that they’re getting older and the older ones are longing to be younger. Today I stood in the preschool yard for a few minutes and watched the kids zooming around on tricycles, digging holes in the sand, fingerpainting and just generally following wherever their fancy led them and thought, “They really have a great deal here!” I know the Middle School kids struggling with quadratic equations and keeping their binders organized sometimes think so, though they also think it’s pretty cool that they can ride the bus by themselves, shop for their own outfits and dye their hair. Meanwhile, I had a friend turn 50 recently and found myself sighing, “Ah, the 50’s. Those were great years.”

For the moment, my wife and I both have a Mom ahead and maybe the rhyme is right—second in line is pretty good. But the inevitable moment of being in the front is approaching, be it sooner or later. Anyone want to front cut?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Letter to Avon Gillespie

Avon Gillespie was my first, and most influential, Orff teacher. I first met him in 1972 at Antioch College in Ohio, took Orff training from him summers of 1983-85 in Santa Cruz, California, taught with him in an Orff Course in Denton, Texas summers of 1986-88. On May 29th, 1989, he died far too young at 51-years old. He was a dynamic living presence who transformed the lives of countless people, perhaps most of all, mine. And so this letter.

Dear Avon,

It is now 23 years to the day since you left us. (Do they still count years where you are?)
Every year on this day, I call or write to Judy, Mary and Rick to remember you. They say that we live on for as long as we are remembered and I have been faithful to you in that respect. Not that it takes any effort. All these years later, I still feel you by my side when I teach, see your look of displeasure when I fall short or your smile of pride when I get it right. I was your student and destined to carry on your work in my own voice. Still people who knew you tell me they feel a bit of you in my work.

So the news. I think you’d be happy to know—and I imagine you do know—that I’ve stayed true to our mutual path and brought our “missionary work” far and wide—40 countries to date, on every continent (except Antartica). I taught at the Orff Institut for the first time the year after you passed and have been back most every year since. Recently I brought 17 kids to perform at their 50th Anniversary Symposium and showed them your life-sized photo in the exhibit’s photo montage of the Institut’s glorious history. You are still fondly remembered by many there. To this day, Sonja Czuk (still there!) tells the story of you wheeling the piano out into the hall and leading a spontaneous Gospel session, the students five feet in the air from euphoria to sing this spirited music as only you could lead it.

I’m about to finish my 37th year at the school I landed in a few years after we first met. It’s still a fine place to be and the music program is stronger than ever. Sadly, you never met my two colleagues, James Harding and Sofía López-Ibor. How you would love their work!! James came the Fall after you died, Sofia in 1996 and the two of them launched an already-inspired Orff program into the stratosphere! I’m sure that if you still were with us I’d be suffering hearing your praise of their work and your diminished interest in mine! But hey, I do what I can.

You must be happy to know that your Santa Cruz course turned to Mills turned to The SF Orff Course is stronger than ever. For at least the last 10 years, the largest course in North America, the most international times 10, filled each year by February with long waiting lists and with an inspired staff that has stayed constant and loves working together. James, Sofia and myself, Rick still with us, his student Paul, Christa (a dance teacher you would love), Susan (who left recently, but his work you would also greatly admire), Martha and Annette teaching recorder. Avon, truth be told, the course is MUCH stronger than when I took it with you! Minus your soul-stirring tutti sessions, which I show sometime on the video that was made from highlights of that time in Santa Cruz. I also invoke your name at the beginning of each summer course and you’d be very happy to know that we still close with the song In Living Fully. Can you hear us when we sing it?

You’d also like to know that your brother Raymond came up to spend a day with us in the course a couple of years back and gave us his blessing, recognizing you in every corner of the work. Many years back, I also got in touch through e-mail with your daughter Robin. (Weird to think that we didn’t really have e-mail when you were still with us!) We once made a date to meet in the Dallas Airport, but my plane was delayed and it didn’t work out. Still hope to meet her sometime. She recently announced a graduation party at North Texas, so I hope you’re proud of her.

I had a dream the other night that you suggested I publish a book of your songs and I’d like to think about that, in collaboration with Raymond. Fact is, I often dream about you and often variations on this theme: you never died, but are kind of hiding out in Texas, sometimes deciding to come back into the Orff scene, sometimes not. The fact is that your death was somewhat abstract. Never was a funeral/memorial service (except two that I led in Santa Cruz and Atlanta, Georgia during the next AOSA Conference). I did come to see you two weeks before you passed and found you weak, thin and confused in the hospital, so I had a clear idea that you were leaving us and got some small sense of closure. But in these dreams, I’m always so surprised and so happy to discover that you’re still here. And then I awake, disappointed.

But hey, as this letter shows, you are still here. Of course, I wish I could see who you would have been at 74 years old, wish you were still around to talk with, to joke with, to gossip with. But instead, I’m your reporter down here on planet Earth.

And so a little bit more gossip. Had some wonderful contact with Mary, who donated an amazing grand piano to the school. She’s in Minnesota and doing work with a gamelan amongst other things, ever the delightful person she’s always been. Judith is back to her own piano work, does occasional Orff workshops, critiques my work and affirms my writing in her own inimitable style. Rick married Jacqui, the love of his life, at an Orff Conference! He’s still at the Key School and teaching theory and still one of the funniest people on the planet. And I’m a grandfather—imagine that! Each year, more of your generation passes over—Gin, Jacobeth, Lillian, Grace Nash, Brigitte, Isabel, Nancy, Norm, Ruth, Dr. Regner. Are you all forming an Orff Chapter on the other side?

I still go to the AOSA Conference every year, the usual blend of inspiration and sheer crap, am a little worried about who’s coming up the ranks. The new generation seems too similar—competent, but with no sense of personal voice, thorough, but without daring risk, clever, but without much soul. Truth be told, the most promising people I see live in Brazil or Finland or South Africa. But I’m ever hopeful and on the lookout. As you were for me.

That’s the news, such as it is.

Love and gratitude,


Sunday, May 27, 2012

Here's to Life

Just before I left for Nicaragua, I saw Ed, my 91-year old friend at the Jewish Home, being wheeled off to the hospital. He had been declining and just the day before, sat by the piano while I played with his head bowed. When I finished a song, he lifted his head up, looked me in the eye and said, “Beautiful.” That turned out to be my last moment with him and one I cherish. His sense of humor reminded me of my own father, he often drummed along while I played and I finally fulfilled my promise of bringing a snare drum with brushes one day for him to play. He also had danced the Lindy Hop back in the day and was so sweet giving pointers to the dancers from my jazz class a couple of years ago.

Mortality is lurking in the shadows these days. Besides Ed’s passing, two school staff members lost their mothers recently, my cat Chester is limping around on his last arthritic 18-year old legs, my 105-year old Zen teacher is recovering from an illness and most difficult of all, my mother-in-law Pam has made a conscious decision to check into Hospice and stop eating. This is new territory for me and I’m not doing well understanding it. She is uncomfortable with the various aches, pains and indignities an 87-year old can suffer, but there is no one obvious thing that is signaling the end.

Her talk about this idea coincided with the anniversary of her husband’s death and the idea of re-uniting with him on the other side has been mentioned. Meanwhile, we had all planned a big family reunion in early July and in my fantasies of the orchestrated end of life, that would be the perfect time to gather and say goodbye. But I’m not in her body and mind and she has other plans.

Behind the confusion and disappointment, the grief lies waiting and its gates opened unexpectedly and the tears fell as I listened to Shirley Horn sing a beautiful ballad called “Here’s to Life” (by Artie Butler and Phyllis Molinary). The lyrics without the music lose most of their power, but here they are. (Those curious can find the song on Shirley Horn's album of the same title.)

“No complaints and no regrets.
 I still believe in chasing dreams and placing bets.
But I have learned that all you give is all you get.
So give it all you’ve got.

I’ve had my share, I drank my fill.
But even though I’m satisfied, I’m hungry still.
To see what’s down another road and down the hill.
And do it all again.

So here’s to life, and every joy it brings.
So here’s to life, to dreamers and their dreams.

Funny how the time just flies,
A love can go from warm hellos to sad goodbyes
And leave you with the memories you’ve memorized.
To keep your winters warm.

For there’s no “yes” in yesterday,
And who knows what tomorrow brings or takes away.
As long as I’m still in the game, I want to play.
For laughs, for life, for love.

May all your storms be weathered.
And all that’s good get better.
Here’s to life, here’s to love, here’s to you.”

Still in the game myself, still hungry for more, still chasing dreams and giving it all I’ve got, it’s hard to imagine the moment when it feels finished, when the only dream is for the unknown on the other side of my last breath. There’s a dignity and honesty and a musicality to feeling when the cadence has arrived and when to release the pedal as the last piano notes echo. From the cold heights of philosophy, I admire Pam’s decision, but down here on the ground floor of this earth, there are her grieving children and grandchildren and a great-grandchild who may just miss meeting her and it’s just plain hard.

But I understand this is her time to decide, she has certainly fulfilled her duties as a mother and has other voices to answer to. So Pam, in hopes that your hope for a life beyond this one and a love that will re-unite be true, I offer the last lines of this most beautiful song (while still holding on to a sliver of hope that I'll see you in July):

May all your storms be weathered.
And all that’s good get better.
Here’s to life, here’s to love, here’s to you.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Inch by Inch, Row by Row

Today I played a music/movement game with the 8th graders that has been a favorite for just about my entire 37 years at school. Kids from five to fourteen equally enjoy it and it’s always there waiting for a rainy day or the moment when you’ve exhausted all your other class plans. The rules and procedures have stayed constant during almost four decades of play, but lo and behold! today, two variations arose today that improved the game significantly. As my Mom is fond of saying, “Imagine that!”

I have often been labeled as a curmudgeon resistant to change and though it is true that I sometimes am loyal to a product, person, way of doing things far beyond the expiration date, I like to think that there is a deeper purpose at work. Change is, as the cliché says, inevitable, but I find it useful to distinguish between the different levels of change and pay attention to the motivation, the rate, the reason. After all, I still follow a meditation practice over 2,000 years old, play a repertoire of piano music over three hundred years old, work with a pedagogy over fifty years old, all practices that have evolved and changed through time, but kept certain core disciplines unchanged. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is my guiding motto, but I stay alert and open to the next improvement.

The gift of longevity is the chance to carry a vision and guide it to further flowering by staying attentive to small and slow-paced changes that make sense for a particular time, a particular place and a particular group of people. The healthiest change is that which responds organically and intelligently to the needs of the moment, change arising from within from the people most directly affected.  Conversely, change imposed from without from people not on the scene, change that merely follows mindless trends or complies with bureaucractic codes or tries to keep up with the neighbors, is a blow to local culture.

From the beginning of my tenure at school, I was often at the center of shaping school ceremonies, rituals and traditions, both because it was my passion and interest and because music and dance are inevitably at the center of it all. There was often resistance from the kids and staff about these weird gestures (what one student called “candle-crap”) and some of it deserved because the ideas were raw, unformed and needed time to work themselves out. But we stuck with it and each year they improved as kids and teachers alike began to enjoy them, anticipate them and offer suggestions to do them better yet.

No matter what subject I look at, it almost always comes back to the conversation between repetition and variation. Whether it’s the timestables, Zen meditation, mastering Chopin, hosting the annual samba contest or teaching for decades, disciplined repetition is essential for learning to take root and for culture to evolve and grow. Equally essential is to keep the windows open in the house of committed practice and keep awake and searching for the next innovation that moves it all one step higher.

I never planned to stay in one school so long. I just kept signing up year after year and suddenly, the years had piled up to a decade or two or three. But what a pleasure to have hung in there for the long haul and see how a culture can grow, one small innovation at a time, according to the genuine needs of the moment. What’s that song? “Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow, all it takes is a rake and a hoe and a piece of fertile ground.” Same truth, be in gardening or a school.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Farewell to Nicaragua

“Check in with me at the end of the trip, but the beginning was sheer delight” I wrote a lifetime ago last week and I’m happy to report that minus five kids getting sick and vomiting in the last 24 hours, the delight was sustained through the last moment of tearfully sending the kids back off with their welcoming parents into the freezing San Francisco air. The day was mostly a bus ride, market shop in Masaya and long airport time for the cultural transition zone— air-conditioning, water fountains, toilet paper put in the toilet instead of the basket, French fries and the like. Short plane ride to El Salvador and then the long haul to San Francisco, kids so sweetly curled up asleep cuddled together. (In a sharing about favorite moments, one boy said out loud, “I liked how all the boys cuddled together in the room we shared” without a single snide comment. That quality of innocence and comfort with affection is a great victory for our school culture!) The kids all applauded when the plane landed at 1:00 in the morning, fell into the arms of their smiling parents and were gone within minutes after brief but heartfelt goodbyes to their fellow classmates, who they will share some nine more days of school life with before heading off into their separate futures.

My 38 years of journal writing (which I still keep up in the old-fashioned handwritten style) got me in the habit of bidding farewell to places I visit, offering thanks, appreciation and gratitude and this trip deserves the same. I left Nicaragua alternately horrified and inspired by its difficult war-torn history, moved by its natural beauty, appreciative of its simple close-to-the-earth lifestyle, its old ways of commerce in open air markets, street vendors singing their wares, small stores without chain names. I liked that horse-drawn carriages shared the road with buses with pictures of Jesus next to Donald Duck and sexy cartoons. It was refreshing to see people changing money in the street without ten reams of official forms, children carrying machetes (no Risk Committees here!), the directness of life uncomplicated by civilization’s convoluted bureaucracies. I loved learning about the festive traditions like La Gigantica and El Cabezon masked dancers, was thrilled by the marimba music, was intrigued to return and visit the quite different Caribbean culture on the East Coast.

I found the people warm, educated, knowledgable both about their own history and their own land and its creatures. I had one uncomfortable conversation about Obama endorsing gay marriage and felt the shackles of the conservative Catholic culture and also saw a few billboards about domestic violence. At the same time, I was impressed by La Madre Tierra Cultural Center’s concern with educating children about social justice, environmental stewardship and gender equity. I found what I have often found in “Third World” countries—an economic level that reads “poverty” by the World Bank’s standard, but mostly feels to me like a humanly-proportioned simple life, not the beaten-down grinding poverty of real hunger and disease, but the make-do-with-less and shift the energy from things to culture and relationships that I admire so much. And so nine bows, great thanks to the people and places we were privileged to visit and come to know. Que viva Nicaragua!

And then there’s the kids. It’s one thing to say “ I love the 8th graders” when you see them twice a week for 45 minutes of music-making and quite another to say the same after living the full spectrum of their character, their fears and phobias and foibles and talents and gifts and surprising qualities. To live in close quarters without respite for nine days running, to run the gamut from eyerolls to appreciative hugs, from tears to laughter, in sickness and in health. To be alternately their teacher, their guide, their parent du jour, their doctor and nurse, their counselor, their friend. To scold them, to encourage them, to publicly acknowledge their acts of courage and kindness, to shoot the breeze and elevate the conversation, to dig deeper into their talents and interests. To feel your own insecurities and loneliness and inclusions and exclusions by vicariously participating in their dramas. To sit together on long bus rides, dig holes and mix cement together, play card games and ball games and music games together, speak Spanish together, splash and cavort together in the pool or lake, eat meals together, sing together. At the end of all that, to say “I love the 8th graders,” not only to love them generally as a group, but specifically as 31 unique and promising individuals, all of that has a very different meaning coming from an intense and hard-earned process. 

So let me say it out loud. "I love the 8th graders. All of them."

But that said and done, I’m glad they’re in their homes tonight and I’m in mine. Goodnight, kids!!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Sharing Gene

I was 17-years old when I first read Walden. Up to that point, my experience with the natural world was mostly limited to wandering around the 200-acre park a block from my house. I never camped with my family, joined the Boy Scouts or went to summer camp. Yet still, helped along by Thoreau’s thoughts and experience, I felt like the closest thing to God I would know would not come from Bible study, hymns in church or stained-glass pieces hung indoors, but from the living, breathing world of plants and animals and bubbling brooks and stars at night.

And so at that world-opening age, I took a walk in the woods one day and experienced a taste of that moment when all the elements joined together to make a present moment filled to the brim with beauty and shimmering presence. As Thoreau suggested, it was a moment of grace that came from an intentional Solitude, undistracted by the chit and chat of the social nexus. But what struck me was that the moment that grace appeared, my first impulse was to share it with someone. That manifested in a mere smile to a passing hiker, but it was the gesture that completed it all. It was only half real until communicated in one form or another to a fellow human being.

I imagine that is what prompted Thoreau to write about his Solitude, to put himself in company with a community of people who he would never meet, but hovered over his shoulder. It’s the same impulse the musician aims for when all the solitary practice becomes public in performance, the same the artist feels when the painting is finally hung in the gallery, the same deep desire that animates this blog. We are here not only to experience our corner of the world’s marvels, but to show it and share it with others.

And so this morning, I ambled along the street to the local tienda on the last day of our Nicaragua adventure and stumbled on the frogs mentioned yesterday in a puddle of water singing the most remarkable electronic-sounding rhythms I have ever heard, like a video arcade gone wild. In these days of Youtube, itself a tribute to the power of our “sharing gene,” the remarkable has become almost commonplace—my bookmarks of “must see’s!” is stretching into three digits! But these frogs were close to the top of my list.

So while part of me stood dumbfounded by the privilege of witnessing this, that other part immediately thought, “Damn!! I don’t have my camera!!!” So I walked the extra hundred yards to the store where the kids were gathered, told them to follow me back and had the kids with cameras poised to go. All of this took three minutes. But when I returned, the frogs were silent. Still visible, but refusing to sing. Aaaargh!!! For want of my camera, the kingdom of shared astonishment was lost. I witnessed the moment, but missed the moment to document and show the world. And because of that, it felt less than a complete moment.

Friends, those frogs are out there and I will do all in my power to search out the documentation and share it with you. (Starting with finding out their name—our host didn’t have it on the tip of his tongue.) But we left an hour later, so it won’t find its way on my camera.

Meanwhile, this blog is incomplete until you share it with a friend. ; - )

The Good Life

You wake up to the cry of the golden-mantled howler monkeys amidst the roosters, trot up the road for a breakfast of gallo pinto (rice and beans), negotiate a taxi and take a Nicaraguan marimba lesson, learning two pieces that will become part of your ever-expanding repertoire. You return with some time before lunch to lie in a hammock and read a book. After lunch, you hike straight up a large hill with 10 kids to plant a tree and marvel at the view of the lake, which awaits your hands covered with dirt and body glistening with sweat. You arrive and jump in to the lake’s perfect temperature, lie on your back and marvel at your good fortune to be floating in refreshing waters surrounded by beauty at 3:30 in the afternoon instead of sitting in a staff meeting. Back to your room for a cleansing shower and dress up for the evening dinner. A simple meal just right for a well-earned hunger, followed by an evening walk to see bats captured for tracking. You are struck by the strangeness of 14-year old girls with glittery eye-liner so happy to be stroking and holding fruit bats. On the way back, you hear the electronic pings and pongs of video games, only to discover that a small frog is actually making that noise.

Now it’s time for the party and your memories of 8th grade dances kick in and you briefly wonder why you signed up for this trip. But the adults huddle over to the side and let the kids alone and it’s not too painful and even fun when they start to limbo under a broomstick. The party reaches its natural conclusion and the cooks bring out surprise ice cream for everyone. Then you sit in a circle on the porch with the 31 kids while one of your students who you have taught for eleven years plays a harp and sings so beautifully. You grab the ukelele and lead some songs, from Swing Low Sweet Chariot to Side by Side and Que Sera and the kids sing along—and in tune at that. A younger colleague sings a more contemporary repertoire and though you’ve wondered if you’re getting too old to mean something to these kids watching how they gravitate to his 26-year old energy, you don’t feel jealous and instead so happy that the spirit will continue on whether you’re there or not. Then off to the boys cabin and the third night of back-porch storytelling, this time the ambitious Parsival and the Holy Grail. Pindrop silence from these energetic adolescent boys backed by the crickets warming up. And then you sit down to write about the day while they sleep soundlessly nearby.

A day where the body hungered and was fed, got dirty and got cleansed, got exercise and got rest. A day where stories were read, sung, told and listened to. A day with music from the birds and frogs and the ukeleles, harps and marimbas and the voices of the next generation. A day of socializing and solitude, of involvement and reflection, of work and play, of study and leisure. Almost every minute of it outside under blue or clouded skies, in company with animals, plants and waters. The last of our eight-day adventure, everyone’s compass pointing to the true north of our familiar home and eager for the things we’ve missed, from the people to the place to the machines, but a moment’s reflection and you think, “Would that every day be as lovely as this.” May it be so!

Monday, May 21, 2012

All Lives, All Dances, All Is Loud

So begins a poem from a collection of chant, song, poetry of primary peoples, in this case the Pygmies from the Central African rain forest. I awoke at 5 a.m. to that phrase come alive in a Nicaraguan jungle. Not only the criss-cross of multi-pitched rooster calls, the polyphony of the trills, warbles, whistles and calls of the birds in cross-rhythms that would have astounded Stravinsky, but also a loud staccato cry that accelerates and climaxes in a low roar.  I suspect it is from the monkeys in the trees overhead.

Music is the way of the world. And so is dance. The motion of monkeys leaping and birds hopping and roosters pecking and worms slithering and bugs flying, we are all creatures that dance. And in the early hours of a jungle, it is loud indeed. Not as loud as the Pit card game we played last night nor the boys down the hall screaming about the next bug in their room or the shouts of adolescent children at play in the lake, but loud enough.

Academics have long-suspected that our first music was but imitation of the sounds of the natural world filtered through the unique way we structure and pattern things in our brain. In Bali, sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between the rhythms of the frogs from a jaw-harp ensemble and the energetic and exciting kecak rhythms, those explosive vocal rhythms pre-dating beat boxing by centuries, is modeled on monkies. Dance is our attempt to match the grace and beauty of our animal neighbors. Long after we stopped living in close contact with them, we were still dancing The Monkey and the Funky Chicken.

Music is on my mind, not only from the extraordinary early-morning bird and monkey calls that awakened me today (now replaced with pumped-up radio and the patter of commercials), but because last night a marimba maker and musician came with his sons to play for us. I had heard some of this music on recordings, but there is nothing like a live performance and my spirits ramped up to overdrive. Because of the world of Orff xylophones I fell into all these years back, the xylophone in its many incarnations would be the theme of my doctoral thesis in my next lifetime. I’ve studied a bit of gamelan and  Ghanaian xylophone, had single classes in Thai, Ugandan and Zimbabwe marimba and today will add Nicaragua to the list as I taxi to the musician’s house.

All lives, all dances, all is loud. Except for the moments when the body settles into the comforting arms of a nighttime story told to 15 boys on a back porch and their usual shouts and laughs and screams quiets down to a pin-drop silence. They soon will be back in their comfortable homes surrounded again by their machines, relaxed back into their familiar mother tongue, buckled in the back seat of their cars and all happily so. But I hope a part of them will remember and even occasionally long for the feeling of going to sleep with sweaty bodies sprawled out with their friends in the night air and awakening to the calls of the guardabarranco birds and the strange calls of monkeys. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Ode to Marlin Perkins

Anybody remember Marlin Perkins? He was the host of the TV show Wild Kingdom, a naturalist who went to the far corners of the world’s wild regions to study, observe and film the wildlife. The show was sponsored by an insurance company and so in the middle of his comments, he would segue into the commercial with some corny connecting piece like “Just as the mother cheetah protects her cubs, so will you want to protect your children with a good policy from Mutual of Omaha…”

I loved that show and once bet my sister $25 that I would grow up to work with animals. My mother took that seriously and somewhere around my junior year of high school, took me to a Biology Professor in a nearby college to find out what I needed to do to follow my dream. When “take lots of biology classes” was step number one in his answer, my dream died right there and then. I hate biology class! Was terrible at dissecting frogs and didn’t enjoy much of the rest of it. I was interested in learning and living with the animals in the wild and had no patience for plucking them out of their homes and putting them on the dissecting table so I could label their parts. I suspected that the real animal was not merely a sum of its parts, but was animated by some soul-force behind, over and underneath it all.

In many ways, that informed the way I think about teaching music. The music itself is so much more than an analysis of its scales and chords and formal structures, a living, breathing entity that unifies its separate parts into something much grander and larger. Later I realized that Marlin Perkins and Farley Mowat and in another realm, Jacques Costeau and their ilk indeed had done all that cold, analytic work to inform their experience and understanding, just as I needed to do the same in music. But there was a hierarchy to it all, the mind servant to the heart and soul of the matter.

Yesterday, I had the kind of biology class I love, walking in the woods with an experienced guide whose ears and eyes were tuned to pitches I couldn’t hear on my own. He pointed out a dazzling variety of beautiful birds, showed us the plants that would harm or heal us and told stories of how they all interacted—the wren who lived in the tree with the thorns that attracted ants, the birds (Tolito?) with the charming mating habit of two males on either side of the female singing, then switching places, singing again and eventually the female choosing one to fly away with. I told the boys, “See how important it is to learn how to sing and dance well?”

It was a day of such walks, Spanish classes, a swim in the refreshing waters of Lake Apoyo, skits in the early evening and a night-time walk searching for tarantulas. With one moment when we turned off our flashlights and were dazzled by a forest filled with fireflies, more than I had ever seen at one time. Extraordinary! While some of us were walking, others had what proved to be a dangerous hanging-out time and we returned to little clusters of girls reminding us that “Hey, we’re 8th graders” and some grand drama unfolding with the beginning practice steps of the tumultuous girl-boy relationships to come.

So I gathered the boys and went to our little retreat center in the woods, got them settled on the back porch, lit a candle and re-directed their attention to the world of “once upon a time, once before a time, once inside a time, once when time stood still, there lived a King, Queen and young Prince.” Not a sound for the next 30 minutes except for the thundering rain that had me nearly shouting the story of Iron John. Then my colleague Peter and I sang some songs with the ukelele as lullabies to these large-bodied children, what the kids back in the day of the Calaveras School Camping Trips used to call The Wandering Nostrils (the real word was Minstrels). Just as effective and just as needed for 14-year olds as for 8-year olds and such a pleasure to tap back into that feeling of storytelling around the campfire and tucking the kids in under the stars, serenaded by crickets and frogs. 

Now remember: “ Just as these children long for the comfort and security of being cared for, so will Mutual of Omaha serve all your insurance needs. Call your local office for your policy now!”

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Living with Bugs

I’m generally so proud of the kids we graduate from our school. About as compassionate and concerned and aware as 8th graders can be, generally accepting of difference, kind to each other and supportive (except when they’re not—they are 8th graders), often with a quality of innocence (not naiveté) intact, willing to be playful and mostly (they are 8th graders) unconcerned with striking a pose and looking cool. They’re still curious about the world, not cynical about school, ready to meet the world that awaits with impressive skills in a wide variety of media. And they’re mostly just fun to hang out with.

But this trip has taught me one thing. They have no idea as to how to co-exist with bugs! Of course, I’m no fan of the stinging, biting kind, those pesky mosquitoes, black flies, horseflies that don’t allow you a moment of peace and whine in your ear on top of it. I think the existence of the mosquito is proof that either God is not omnipotent and makes mistakes or else is simply cruel. But the other crawling, flying six and eight-legged creatures that we share the planet with is something I accept and can deal with.

But from the first day on, with five boys kept jumping up from lunch screaming from the bug flying around their head to last night in a rural dorm with more screams about the cicadas, cockroaches, spiders and the like, to their bodies coated in overdoses of lethal chemical bugspray, these kids just can’t get over the fact that bugs live on this planet! And during the work projects building fences in fields for gardens, each group did meet a tarantula, which yes, I confess, could indeed be cause for alarm. However, I did learn from our Western host here at Lake Apoyo that in his 20 plus years in Nicaragua, he’s never known of a case of a tarantula biting a person.

It also strikes me that our kids are unpracticed in the art of dealing with physical discomfort. From the moment we stepped out at the airport into the hot, humid air to the sensation of being sweaty and dirty to the mild heat rash and bugbites, the complaints came pouring out. “How dare the world interrupt my sense of constant comfort and well-being!” Well, I shouldn’t be surprised. First of all, they’re kids, secondly, they’re humans, thirdly, they live in virtually bug-free San Francisco, fourthly, they’re wealthy by the world’s standards, fifthly, they’re used to climate-controlled indoor environments with all settings set to “comfortable.” And so on.

But as I told them, apparently unconvincibly while they were in the midst of it and their group complaints were swelling to “Get us out of here!”, the stories that I hear kids tell when they reminisce are not, “I woke up, had an excellent meal, followed my perfectly arranged schedule, listened to all my favorite songs and saw all my favorite TV programs and everything worked like clockwork.” Instead, it’s about the skunk who entered their tent on the school camping trip, the pride they felt completing the 7-mile hike with their 40-pound backpack, the excitement they felt when they could communicate in Spanish to their host family in a foreign country. In short, their encounter with a world beyond their familiar routine, their conversation with the unexpected.

“Talent is forged in solitude, character in the world’s turmoil,” said Goethe and that rings true here. 35 people traveling for 10 days out of their comfort zone and finding out what they’re made of. And more to come. Having arrived at Lake Apoyo, lessons await in birds and fish and bugs and formal Spanish classes and politics (the hot issue here being the new colonialism of Americans buying up land to build their vacation homes, claiming private rights to beachfront that had always been public and generally treating local culture as an inconvenience or an exotic perk.) And then swimming in the lake!

After a torrential thunderstorm last night, a new day dawns and we set forth to see what awaits us, in company with the trees and birds and fish and of course, bugs.

Friday, May 18, 2012

An Afternoon to Cherish

The day began with a visit to a museum that was formerly a prison, the place where the Somozas had tortured and killed people. Now it was converted to a place to share some of the folklore and mythology of Nicaragua, but in one of the strangest justapositions I’ve seen. Alongside or behind or in front of the figures of mythology were the murals showing in graphic details the wonderful variety of tortures. Then the figures of mythology themselves leaned heavily to the witches who would stalk and torture cheating husbands or scare children or entice men to their demise with La Gran Teta, all the fears and scare tactics that lie in our psyches personified. But to be honest, 90 minutes of grotesque witches and haunted figures and real-human torture shared with 14-year-olds took its toll on me—and the kids too.

Not to mention the story of bringing the priests in so the prisoners could pray for help. I’m really trying to imagine how that worked. The torturers felt it their duty as good Catholics to offer solace to the people they were about to hang upside down, punch until they vomit blood, shock with electric wires, hold under water? Did the priest think he was just doing his job by praying with the prisoners before turning them back to the torturers? Would Jesus have felt proud of these acts done in His name? Just wondering. After the tour was mercifully over, all I wanted to do was sit in the field with Ferninand the Bull and smell the flowers.

But things picked up after lunch on our final trip out to the countryside. Two crews went off to work and my group went to the Cultural Center where the village kids come to do art, theater, a bit of dance and music to keep them away from drugs (Nicaragua is geographically in the center of the narco-traffic route from South to North America), actively deal with themes of the environment, gender roles, education and such and build character and community through small acts of collective creation.

The first two days, I did a few music games and songs and participated in the art projects, but today was the best. There was a demonstration of the two giant puppets we had seen in the museum, the giant colonial woman known as La Gigantica and the small big-headed (to represent intelligence) indigenous person called El Cabezon. The dancer gets inside and dances to different snare drum beats while a Coplera sings, speaks and sometimes improvises rhymed couplets that can move between general social commentary to specific things about people in the audience. The tradition is specific to this region of Leon and in November /December, they go around from house to house like Chirstmas carolers, much to the delight of the children.

We also got to see seven teenagers present their collective theater piece about the importance of education. Not exactly Emmy Award material, but fun and well-done. We all then gathered in the outdoor gazebo and I led a variety of songs (including the Banana Song which I learned really does come from Nicaragua, but from the East Coast where there is Black Carib population), a few clapping plays and a percussion piece with Snowball dancing where our kids coaxed the locals into dancing. Delightful!

From there, the mandatory soccer game on the small dirt field. Another group of our kids who had been working in the neighboring garden building a fence came over hot, dirty, sweaty and satisfied with useful work well-done and while the soccer game went on and the new-found friends where taking photos, there was a spontaneous reprise of the Cabezon/Gigantica dance and music.

Need I tell you I was in Heaven? These are precisely the moments I’ve searched out my whole life— in India, in Nepal, in Java and Bali, in Japan, in Austria, Spain, Brazil, Ghana and just about everywhere I go, these festivals blending music, dance, art, drama, ritual that somehow seemed so essential to human culture and that I tried in my own modest way to bring to our little school community in urban San Francisco. And it certainly is one of the things that sets our school apart—our welcoming Opening Ceremony, powerful Halloween ritual, moving Martin Luther King celebration, joyful Samba Contest (it’s today!) and multi-faceted Closing Ceremonies. Amidst the pushes and pulls of the “sit down, shut up and answer the questions” notions of schooling, we’ve maintained a four-decade commitment to such events and they only keep getting better over time.

While waiting for the bus, time stopped and everything just clicked. The kids were so happy. They had connected with the locals through the age-old practices of shared work, shared play and shared music and dance. They had spent an afternoon in the beautiful countryside, mangos falling on hot tin roofs, cows and horse ambling by, chiekens and roosters wandering around them, enjoyed the rhythms of drums and physical labors and kicking soccer balls. There we were, wholly in the moment, acclimated to the climate, the culture, each other. No teacher tricks to get the kids to listen, to cajole and scare them into good behavior, no distinction between adult and child, rural Nicaraguan and urban San Franciscan, teacher and student, just fellow humans sharing an afternoon together with laughter, awe and fellow-feeling. An afternoon to cherish and remember.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Don't Know Much About History

But the Nicaraguans do. As do the Cubans, the Chileans, the Vietnamese and in a different way, the English, French, Germans and just about every country— except the USA. Yesterday we began the day visiting the murals telling the story and ended with a talk with a gentle and knowledable man who without a trace of bitterness or rancor, filled in the details of the last 200 years of Nicaraguan history. The names were different—Sandino, Somozas, Fonseca—but the story was the same as everywhere. Those in power (Somozas) do everything to keep their privilege until it becomes intolerable for those at the short end of the stick. Then comes the idealist (Sandino) with a vision of liberty, equal rights, education, a pragmatic person (Fonseca) who knows how to organize and get things moving, a long struggle to overcome murder, mayhem, oppression and a final victory.

And then so predictably, so shamefully, so outrageously, a big power outside the country  who lends weapons, tactics, money, training and support— to the wrong side! And who was that? The good ole U.S.A. The dirty little secret that 99 out of 100 Americans knows nothing about. What we did in Nicaragua, in El Salvador, in Chile, in Guatemala, in Cuba. And that’s just the warm-up. I grew up fed the convenient lie that we are the gatekeepers of freedom worldwide and when we intervened, it was always for the cause of libery and justice. It was a lovely feeling to identify with that image and difficult to discover that it was a house built on sand. Not only is there no Santa Claus, but he’s selling weapons to the bad guys.

It’s not an easy thing to tell the truth to these idealistic 8th graders, a tricky balance between fostering cynicism and arming them with the recognition of history’s patterns so that they can rise up against the next wave. One essential strategy is to always look at motivation, which 75% of the time translates as “Follow the money.” Turns out that the first U.S. interest in Nicaragua coincided with the Gold Rush, Nicaragua being the first choice for building a canal to reach the gold faster. That interest continued into Teddy Roosevelt’s time and beyond the final choice of Panama. So that explains the first wave of U.S. Marines who showed up in the hills and inspired Sandino to resist them.

Then came Reagan in the ‘80’s, further chilling the Cold War and not happy that the Sandinistas leaned more to Cuba and Russia than American imperialism. So he came up with the bright idea of selling arms to Iran and funneling the money earned into supporting the Contras (the bad guys) in Nicaragua. (Remember that term “Iran-Contra?”) And so the second big motivation—choosing your teammates in the big struggle for World Domination.

Painful as it is, our school remains committed to telling the students what the government would rather they didn’t know. But such knowledge alone is not sufficient. To build a sustainable and equitable future, there must be an active, affirmative building process. And so in the morning and evenings, we hear the stories and in the afternoons, help build—literally with shovels and cement and dry wall— a community center and also make art and music in an already functioning community center.

Always amazing is the sense of forgiveness, the recognition that we are not our government and that the sins of the past cannot be laid at the feet of those in the present. Especially when they’re willing to hear and accept the story. At the end of last night’s talk, I said “ On behalf of my country, I am so sorry for what we did and so appreciative of your welcoming arms and forgiveness. May we walk forward together on the path of peace, harmony and social justice.” 

And that begins with little steps like this like American kids gathered in a living room in Nicaragua listening with rapt attention to how things went down, working and creating with the folks here and learning what it means to be a compassionate human being. Backed by knowledge and truth and aiming for love and beauty. As the old song says:

“Don’t know much about history, don’t know much about geometry…
  But I do know that if I love you and I know that if you love me too, 
  what a wonderful world this would be.”

Yes, indeed.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Facebook Debates: Part II

Remember the Facebook blog (see Yes. No. Maybe So.)? Since then, not only did the warm responses to the photo of me with my book and free endorsements continue at an alarming geometric pace, but I made a bet with some folks that the poets Gary Snyder and Mary Oliver were not on Facebook. If they were, then I’d join.

I lost.

And so I was just on the verge of capitulation when I went to Nicaragua. And there I sat for three hours on a bus with kids that were not allowed to bring their devices. And guess what they did? They talked to each other. They looked out the window and daydreamed. They played card games. They sang songs. They told jokes. In short, they behaved the way human beings have for millennium—or at least in my lifetime. And I knew that had they had their little electronic gizmos, their heads would be buried in them for most of the trip, at best, texting to each other “How’s it going down there at the back of the bus?” at worst, downloading porn or playing some killer assault game.

This led me to three irrefutable conclusions:
1.     These devices are pure evil and we’re kidding ourselves if we think we’re in control. They’re taking us over at all ages and in all places and we’re helpless before them. Don’t even try to argue with me here.

2.     Humans are more resilient than we think. A bus ride in Nicaragua was enough to cure the addiction. At least with the devices out of reach.

3.     The only reason that bus cure worked is because NOBODY had the devices. We were all in it together. If even one person had their laptop or cellphone out, the whole deal would have been off.

And that last gets to the root of the Facebook dilemma. What can I do in the face of Gary Snyder and Mary Oliver, those eloquent advocates for life in nature, on Facebook? The problem is this: I love to teach workshops, I love to write blogs and books and articles, I love to perform music, all of which needs an audience. I, and my fellow Pentatonics jazz band, played our hearts out for the 15 people who came to our concert on Saturday and I’m proud of that. But still the event deserved 150 at least and if the mode of advertising and affirmation has shifted from word of mouth/newspaper listing/ flyer on telephone pole/ snail-mailed flyer/ e-mail flyer/ Website announcement to Facebook, those of us who want to keep doing what we love for people who are actively seeking what we offer have to go to where they look. Someone said, “If I don’t see it on Facebook, it’s not happening” and I get it— it’s the modern mode for affirming what’s really going on.

But the price is high! Addiction, addiction and yet more addiction, more time on screens, wading through people’s trivial news, and so on and so on and so on. It’s only when the ENTIRE culture agrees to a preferred mode to affirm what’s hip, what’s happening, what’s current, what’s trendy, what’s needed, that it will work.

I’ve heard a thousand times before, “How did we exist before…?” Take your pick— computers, e-mail, cell phones, etc. Once a whole culture adopts a technology, it’s hard to remember what we used to do. But all it takes is a three-hour bus ride in Nicaragua to remember. Then sit down with our aerograms and write home.

I felt this so strongly during my three months in Kerala, India back in 1978. Three cars in the whole town, one phone at the post office, evening Kathakali performances announced word of mouth and it all worked fine because no one had these things. It equalized the playing field, brought the whole pace of life down to a genuine human proportion and reduced the stress level big-time. You might wait two hours for a bus, but there were few appointments that demanded a to-the-minute arrival because the whole culture moved at that pace. No one felt out-of-the-loop because we all were in the same loop.

But in a culture where your friend’s concert is sold-out and your neighbor’s book is selling like wildfire and your own is limping along because you made a stand against Facebook, you’re set-up to be left behind. Truth be told, my workshops still fill with paper mailings and now group e-mail mailings and my books sell reasonably well through catalogues, Websites, Conferences and word-of-mouth. But the times they are a-changing.

So maybe I will just hold my nose and jump in the dubious waters. But the punchline is this: Friends, we simply must remember that we did live before all of this and it worked just fine. And if the electricity starts going out, we may have to do it again. I would miss this blog, but maybe I’d tell more stories around the dinner table or campfire. And I highly recommend ritual and conscious occasions to unplug— especially for the children. Now go tweet this idea around so people can consider it.

Field Trip Deluxe

“Class I have a surprise for you today. We’re going on a field trip to Watchung Reservation and the Trailside Museum.” Score!! I was in 4th grade and beside myself with euphoria.—one day rescued from the humdrum education called school! Watchung Reservation was only about a half-hour drive from my school, but it was if the teacher had announced the adventure of a lifetime. We were going to be riding in a bus with our friends, out walking in the woods, looking at those cool floursecent rocks in the museum, Life was good!

And truth be told, between that trip somewhere around 1960 and an extraordinary summer in Europe singing with the Antioch Chorus in my last year of college, I can’t remember much else. Perhaps a walk to the local library. Maybe a high school music class trip to New York to see the opera Carmen. Ah, one backpacking trip to the Adirondacks my sophomore year in college with a select group from my “Man and Nature” class. But that was about it.

And here I am in Leon, Nicaragua with thirty-one eighth graders for ten days (some of whom had been with me for 10 days last summer in Salzburg). It’s their annual Spanish immersion trip, one that has been custom at school since the early ‘90’s, but usually in Mexico. Suddenly Mexico was too dangerous and they had to switch to a safe place—Nicaragua.

Huh? For anyone who remembers the Reagan years, “Nicaragua” and “school field trip” were two things that never went together. It is heartening how these once war-torn places— Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador and more—have become tourist destinations. As I imagine Baghdad might be ten years from now or Rwanda or Kabul. But discouraging how the ravaging goes on. Just as the grasses grow back and the healing begins in one place, the devestation and destruction goes on in another. Arrgh! Humans!

But I’ll save that for another blog. Meanwhile, do these kids have any idea of how damn lucky they are? Multiply Watchung Reservation times 5000 and you might get close to the magnitude of this extraordinary opportunity to practice their Spanish, see a bit of the world, expand their cultural outlook—and all of this side-by-side with the kids they’ve shared a life with, some for eleven years, at school! Get on a plane together! Eat meals outdoors with thunder and lightning illuminating the distant volcanos and lizards on the walls! Bargain at the market together! Get a tour of the Cathedral!! Okay, if you’re in 8th grade, I know that last one didn’t deserve exclamation points. But tomorrow’s swimming does!!!

And I’m lucky too. Not only because I’m excused from a routine at school that, truth be told, reached the end of its cycle last week and would mostly be wheel-spinning to the end of the calendar, not just because my way is paid and my salary left intact, not just that  I’m back in the hot, tropical weather I actually like but so rarely enjoy improving my own Spanish and learning something about this fascinating country and not only because it puts me within one country of my 60-country goal before I turn 61, but also because I get to see this whole experience through the eyes of these kids.

Now the flip side of this luck is that I’m on 24/7 for 10 days straight with 31 budding adolescents, spending just about every minute of my day in their company and responsible for their well-being and monitoring their group etiquette and comportment and reminding them to actually try to speak in Spanish and rejecting their request to buy cool slingshots at the marketplace. We met at the airport around 10:30 last night, flew out around 1:30 in the morning, switched planes in El Salvador at 5:30 am, got on another plane and arrived in Managuas, stepping out in the stifling heat with our San Francisco sweatshirts on. Then got on the bus for 3 hours, had a meal, met our families, got the downtown Cathedral tour, checked out the open air market, went to another restaurant where 5 big macho boys (ours) were screaming at the sight of a large flying beetle. Over 36 hours together with a total of 3 hours sleep and a reasonably sane person might ask, “Did you say you were lucky to do this?!”

Well, check in with me at the end of the time, but the beginning was a sheer delight and it indeed is fascinating to listen to the kids react to what they see and hear and smell and taste and think, get a reality check on the “romance of other cultures” our school often portrays and hear how kids actually perceive it. Too early for any conclusions and I suspect the sense of shared humanity we aim for will rise to the top, but it won’t just happen because we want it to. They are being pushed out of their comfort zone, wrestling with a second language, dealing with non-San Francisco heat and humidity, encountering real bugs and lizards and a few aggressive beggar children and the story will unfold differently with each of them at their own pace.

And so I turn to some much-needed sleep in my room with Little Mermaid stickers on the wall, a fan on my face and a big bug flying around the room. Dang! I should have bought that slingshot!!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Hitler's Birthday Song

I’m thinking of instituting a new version of the Darwin Awards, those unbelievably funny yet tragic stories proving that humans were a design flaw in Evolution and getting stupider every day. Like the man who tied helium balloons in his lawn chair, sat down and suddenly found himself up in the air with low-flying planes. Mine would have to do with parents who complain about things at school and administrators who listen to them.

There was the parent who complained that a student-initiated cross-dressing day (part of Spirit week, like “come-to-school-in-your-pajamas,” “crazy-hair day” etc.) would turn all the children into homosexuals. She insisted it be banned and the school replaced it with “come-to-school-in-camouflage-and-army-fatigues.” Following the reasoning that dressing a certain way for one day would determine your entire future, the school made it clear that growing up into a killer doing greedy people in power’s dirty work was far superior to choosing to love someone in a different way.

Then there was the parent who complained that singing a song about poppy flowers would turn her child into an opium or heroin addict and another who claimed that lining children up in boy and girl order would not only call unnecessary and damaging attention to gender difference, but was illegal and she would take action. All of this would make for levity in a dinner conversation if it weren’t for the fact that administrators actually listened to these people and often decided in their favor.

But yesterday’s story took the trend to a new level of unbelievable stupidity. A colleague of mine at a prestigious alternative private school told how her music department was preparing the children for a concert with a soul-stirring finale of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” A parent at a private party cornered the music teacher and said, “I heard that Hitler liked to hear that song on his birthday. People coming to the concert who remember the Holocaust will be offended.” The music teacher made the mistake of sharing that with the head of the school, who promptly decided to remove the song from the concert.

Well, let’s keep going here. I hear that Saddam Hussein liked tomatoes. Surely we need to ban them from the school cafeteria. Osama Bin Laden wore clothes. All the more reason for kids to come to school naked. Papa Doc Duvalier played drums. Out with the music program! (Oh wait, that already happened!) George Bush spoke English (well, kind of). No more English in schools! And so on.

Not the happiest of stories for Mother's Day. Moms of the world, use your power for things that matter. Shake the administrators by the shoulders and shout, "How dare you deprive my children of the tools of artistic expression?! I demand reinstating recess!! My child is not a cog in your testing machine— stop it now!! Why aren't you paying the music teachers double—do you realize how hard they work and how important that work is?!!" 

And administrators, listen to them. Unless they talk about banning cross-dressing day, songs about poppies, occasional gender line-ups and Beethoven's Ode to Joy. Then suggest to them that they take a trip with helium balloons tied to their lawn chair. 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Samba Revived!

How many moments do we get when our life is changed forever? How many times have we left the movie theater, walked out of the concert, turned the last page of a book and thought, “I’m not the same person I was before this happened?”

I can remember one such moment back in the old college days when I walked into the Little Art Theater in Yellow Springs, Ohio to see a film called Black Orpheus. From the seductive opening notes of the guitar to the surprise of the samba dancers bursting through the screen’s curtain, I was lifted into a new world.  And what a world it was! Vibrant with color and motion, with soul-stirring drums and bells and heart-strumming gentle bossa nova melodies. People dancing in the streets, on the deck of the ferry, walking down from the mountain on dirt paths. All sizes, shapes, colors, ages in unfettered celebration of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. And then the story as old as Greece, as alive as today, that potent myth of the one who makes the sun rise with his beautiful music and plucks his beloved from the gates of Death, only to lose her again, so ingenously woven into the particular time and place and culture of Rio in the 1960’s. Still one of my top five all-time films.

That moment opened the door to samba, a door I walked through around 1980 at Cazadero Music Camp playing in the bateria percussion ensemble taught by Jose Lorenzo and taking a dance class with Josephine Morada. And then bringing it all to The San Francisco School, where I instituted the annual ritual of the Samba Contest. After showing basic dance steps to the kids in the music class, we let them loose to form their own groups, create their own choreography and costumes. Older kids and parents played the music, a special group judged and off the kids went. So many memorable moments, from the sublime to the hilarious and yet another chance for kids who aren’t going to score the winning basket or place first in the Science Fair to shine.

But as our kids got busier and the number of our ritual ceremonies increased, the Samba Contest started to fall by the wayside. Back in 2006, some kids petitioned for its return and we happily obliged. And then it faded away again—mostly because it was always at the end of the year and we music teachers simply had to much to do, what with Spring Concert, producing the school CD, report cards, etc. But thanks to the initiative of my colleague James, we have brought it back and the kids had their first rehearsal yesterday, inspired by some clips we showed from Black Orpheus.

And then I remembered how this event covered just about everything I care about in education and life. An exciting buzz in the air, kids working things out without adult supervision, the intense focus of the band alert to all the calls and responses and able to play at any tempo. Kids playing for kids dancing without a single plug or wire in sight. The preschoolers peeking in at the windows and then spinning off to try the moves, the teachers jumping in to get down with the kids. O le le! O la la!

While the outside world keeps trying to box schools in and reduce the whole adventure to papers computers can correct, we’re holding on to that thread that runs as far back as ancient Greece, as far away as Brazil, as close as our innate urge to revel, celebrate, publicly proclaim our joy with our neighbors, connect with sound and color and motion and just generally have a damn good time! All within school hours. While other schools are racing to the top, we’re dancing down the mountain and ain’t it fine!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Open the Windows

“Inside these bars on the xylophone is a secret song. See if you can find it.” So began my class with the 5-year olds and off they went to the corners of the room for their sonic adventure. Leading with their hands, voice or mind, their urge to express something and the mind’s constant groping for coherent pattern, form and structure led them to find their “secret song.” Step two was to play it enough to remember it and then step three, bring their instrument to the circle and share it. “I like coffee, I like tea, I like Max to play with me” and off he goes. The other children listen intently and respond with a big smile and thumbs up. And off we go to the next—“I like coffee…”

I repeated the class with the 2nd grade, only this time in groups of three. In addition to finding their own song, they had both the stimulus and the limitation of having it fit with their partners. What fascinated me was that as soon as they got to their instruments, they started playing snippets of the pieces they just played in the Spring Concert. Or more interesting yet, parts of pieces that other classes had played that they had heard. So I had to remind them that the exercise was not to play what they already know, but what they don’t yet know. They had to resist the gravitational pull of going immediately to playing something familiar and search for the notes not yet played. With much coaxing, they managed to do it with pretty good results (though I did detect the bass line to “Smoke on the Water” in one of the group pieces!).

That tendency to go to the xylophone or piano or recorder and play everything we have learned is natural and necessary, the way the brain locks in the learning and paves the synapses. It gives us the comfort of the familiar and the pride of our practiced path. It is the floor and walls and ceiling and furniture of the houses we construct. If we choose something difficult that uses lots of us—say, a Beethoven sonata or Charlie Parker memorized solo or a Chinese gu-zheng composition, it has the possibility of refreshing us each time we play it. I mention the latter because I was struck with the way the five young gu-zheng (a Chinese zither) players I worked with in the World Music Festival, played a difficult piece with virtuosic techniques and great subtlety and nuance exactly the same way time and time again, like slipping into an expensive dress. That disciplined practice of precision with a beautiful piece of music is always admirable and mostly refreshing.

Why “mostly?” Because even the most inspired composed piece played by a skilled musician runs the danger of becoming rote, of shutting down any further thinking, listening or feeling. The house is decorated to perfection, every flower in its vase, piece of silverware in its place, painting hung straight on the wall, but without opening a window or door, the air can get stale and the bird song outside go unheard.

And so enter jazz and other musical styles that invite improvisation. They demand a rehearsed mastery of the tune, but also invite further exploration. The tune, worthy as it is, is not the end, but the starting point of the thinking brain’s, the listening ear’s, the open heart’s, continued investigation. Once the house is in order, you open the window and let in other ideas or converse with the other musicians gathered on the deck or smell the sweet jasmine bush in the yard. That’s the kind of musician we’re seeking to cultivate in this Orff practice, whether they be five years old, seven, or fifty-seven. And the kind of human being as well—perpetually listening, thinking, feeling, responding, searching for the next secret song.

(PS For those who live locally, see this process in action with my debut Pentatonics Family Jazz Concert at my school this Saturday. 300 Gaven St., 2 to 4. Not to be missed!)

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Part-time Human

A school parent recently shared her surprise that the teachers spoke so highly of her child, praising her for her happy demeanor, focused work and generous participation in all activities. “Sometimes I wonder who they’re talking about! When she comes home, she’s a complete wreck!” I replied, “Probably from all the pressure of having to be good for six hours straight!” Other parents seem surprised when we report their child’s outrageous behavior at school and tell us, “He’s a perfect angel at home!”

It occurrs to me that the job of being a 24/7 functioning, sociable and fulfilled human being is not for most of us. Maybe we should lower the bar and just work part-time at it, with a given time each day where we are given permission to be cranky, angry, inappropriate, miserable, selfish, indulgent and just plain bad. Ideally, in a padded room.

I see some of my three-year olds struggling with impulse control. With a combination of loving encouragement and strict consequences, they slowly realize that maybe they shouldn’t keep running around screaming while the others kids are frozen into shapes or aimlessly wander around the room banging on the drums while we’re in a circle singing a quiet song. They start to get the hang of the group sensibility and how to be a contributing member of our little community. But it often happens that they keep it together for twenty minutes of class and then fall apart in the last ten. The pressure is just too much.

Maybe a worthy goal is to keep shifting the ratio— from six-hour human, six-hour monster to 11-hour human, from 50% pretty good to 95%. Build into our day 10 minutes to walk away from it all and go scream, weep, curse and then return to civilization ready to re-engage in the monumental task of being a good citizen who plays well with others, shares our toys and leaves our desks nice and tidy.

So the next time someone questions why we’re falling short, simply remind them: “Hey, I’m a part-time human. Right now I’m off duty.”