Saturday, June 30, 2012

Fireworks in the Brain

The 4th of July came early this year. First, there was a week of granddaughter Zadie out in the world lighting up everyone she passed like a Roman candle. The sparklers of her smile effortlessly lit up the mirror neurons in anyone who had the good sense to look at her and pay attention. No fireworks in the sky, but inside the observers, brain cells were celebrating the Declaration of Interdependence, everyone connected and lit up by Zadie’s smile and laugh.

I think I’ve mentioned mirror neurons before, those messengers of empathy and compassion that populate the frontal lobes and other neighborhoods in the brain and make us smile when the baby does—and vice-versa—and make us tear-up when a speaker’s voice cracks. The discovery came when scientists observed the same reaction in the brain of monkeys watching someone pick up a piece of food and actually picking up a piece of food themselves. Though scientists are bickering about enough experimentation to justify the science of it all, we don’t need science to tell us how infectious tears and laughter are.

As you might expect, a wedding is an occasion when mirror neurons go on alert and work overtime. And so it was at the ceremony of my nephew Ian and his bride Madeleine, starting with her choking up while reciting vows. A flash of white handkerchiefs could be seen in the congregation faster than you could say “mirror neuron.” And again at the reception when Madeleine’s Dad told a beautiful story about all the good years he had had with his daughter, most especially reading her stories at night. From Mother Goose rhymes to The Three Billy Goats Gruff to Little House on the Prairie to Dicken’s Great Expectations, they moved through the years deeply ensconced in the land of imagination together. You could feel him reliving those magic moments in front of us all and when his voice started to crack, the handkerchiefs flashed again, men and women, young and old, bride’s side and groom’s side, alike. It was like the finale of the 4th of July.

He saved the day, as people often do, with just the right moment for humor, telling how after Dicken’s, he crossed some line to a long story of soldiers in the American Revolution slogging through the backwaters of Maine for chapter after endless chapter. He knew he has lost her after that, but by then, it was time for her to venture out and begin the journey to replace father with husband. Meanwhile, the laughter leavened the tears and now it was time to cut the cake and dance. We did and a fine time was had by all. 

P.S. My daughter Talia caught the bouquet! Eligible bachelors, give her a call.

The Circle Game

“Birth, copulation and death.
Birth, copulation and death.
That’s all the facts, when it comes to brass tacks.
Birth, copulation and death.”

Today my nephew gets married. The families are gathered, the toasts have begun, the processional walks down the aisle rehearsed and all are a’twitter awaiting the moment when a kiss seals the deal. Last night at the rehearsal dinner was a slide show, a quick review of the bride and groom’s 28 years, from the baby photo to the happy couple’s recent camping trip. I had participated in so much of my nephew Ian’s photo collage, meeting him at one-day old, setting him loose in my yard as a preschooler with the basket for the Easter egg hunt, cheering him at the school walkathon (I taught him until 4th grade when he moved from San Francisco to Sebastopol), traveling with him to Ireland as a teenager, meeting him in Japan as a college student, eating with him around the Thanksgiving table and singing with him at the annual Christmas caroling as a young adult and just generally seeing him through all his various haircuts and life stages. He was my first nephew, used to call me “Unk Dunk” and now I’m about to play the piano as he walks down the aisle into his married life.

And so these moments like stones in the stream, places of rest when the constant motion stops to mark a moment, reflect, gather the community and surround the folks passing through their rite of passage with love, remembrance and good wishes. T.S. Eliot said it all succinctly in his limerick-like way—birth, marriage (sanctified copulation), death. With little Zadie with us, my nephew’s impending marriage, my mother-in-law’s impending exit, all three very much present with me now. If we live well, every moment is sacred and cause for celebration, but some are threshold points that turn a life this way and not that and deserve ritual attention and group hugs.

In the slide show, there were photos of my sister’s wedding and now she and her husband will stand where my mother and father once stood. I played the organ for that wedding and will play piano for this one. Last week, I saw Zadie nursing on the couch where her Mom used be nursed, took her to the caroussel in children’s playground in the park where I used to ride the painted ponies with her Mom. Couldn’t help but sing Joni Mitchell’s Circle Game:

And the seasons they go ‘round and ‘round
And the painted ponies go up and down.
We’re captive on the carousel of time.
We can’t return, we can only look behind
From where we came.
And go round and round and round
In the circle game.

It’s a dizzying, colorful, whirling ride, up and down, round and round, with the brass band playing and the drums beating and the triangles ringing. Amidst the serious and solemnity of the occasion, a good time to remember “Wheeeee!!!!” And don’t forget to grab the brass ring!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Portland Town

“Where will I live?” For much of our human history, this question doesn’t exist. We are born into a place much as we’re born into a family, culture and religion— it’s all decided for you. But as a 20th century American with choices, the decision where to settle gets put out on the table as we dream our future. Often it’s work that decides or following a sweetheart, but sometimes it’s that feeling of encountering a place and knowing somewhere deep in your bones, “This is the place I have dreamed of.”

Most people I know have developed this habit of keeping the antennae up as they travel. They visit friends and in the midst of conversations, some secret part of their brain is thinking, “Wow! Nice affordable house, great neighbors, quaint shopping district down the block. But don’t know if I could handle the weather. And the traffic on the bridge is brutal!” And so on. I listened to my 31-year old daughter on the phone with her husband describing Portland as she searches for her next home and felt myself comparing and contrasting along with her even as I feel wholly settled in San Francisco.

Fact is, Portland is an impressive town. (Oregon, not Maine, though the latter is impressive too!) Especially in these past three days of summer without a drop of rain. Like Budapest, Istanbul, Salzburg, it is bi-sected by a river that neatly divides the city into quadrants. Three of the friends we are visiting live in the Northeast section, which is pure suburbia with rolling lawns, impressively tall trees, large houses with twice the square footage and half the price of the unreal estate of San Francisco. But it is an urban suburbia without the sterility of pre-fab houses and an Updikean flat energy. It has character, each house its own architectural wonde, and an urban energy that buzzes even as it offers a tranquil evening chatting with neighbors on the front porch.

We drove to another neighborhood in the Southeast to a little spot named Share-It Square, where neighbors had made a conscious effort to craft a sharing community even as each had the independence of their own home and private property. There is a tea station on one corner, children’s toys open to anyone to play with, a poetry corner, large wooden tablets to post different announcements on and so on. Across the river, we ascended to a place called Council Crest and looked out over the city with Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens in the distance. Acres of pristine park with hiking trails and a gondola tram. I have long thought that the health of any city is directly related to its parks and Portland is impressive in that regard, from the sprawling Arboretum with its remarkable Japanese gardens down to the world’s smallest park, allegedly built for leprauchans! Well, that’s what the guidebook said and it went well with the bumper sticker, “Keep Portland Weird.”

Then there’s the inevitable downtown, both the old and the new, with the usual office buildings and chain stores with one lustrous jewel—Powell’s Bookstore. This has long been the Granddaddy of independent bookstores, as larger or larger than Borders ever was, but with the small cozy bookstore feel. I found the book I had searched in vain for in San Francisco and then made an astounding discovery— my own book The ABC’s of Education on the bookshelf!!! Though I have written eight books, they mostly circulate through Orff dealers or come out of my suitcase at workshops. Now I feel like a real author!! (And for any readers of this blog who are curious, this is the book I feel most proud of and that I think is of the most interest to the non-music teacher reader. Order from Powell’s!)

There are other treasures in this marvelous town. Like the Kennedy School, an old elementary school converted to a place to stay, eat and go to the movies. The rooms to stay are the old classrooms, complete with blackboard and cloak closet, the old cafeteria is the new, hip restaurant and the auditorium the movie theater. The halls feel like school halls from the ‘50’s with class photos on the walls. And speaking of schools, there’s an old “hippy” school called Catlin Gabel where I’ve given many a workshop in the barn, several universities, including the eccentric Reed College that counts among its alum Gary Snyder, one of my favorite poets and thinkers. Go west and you’re at the coast, east and you’re hiking Mt. Hood. Bike lanes in town are numerous, people are friendly and though ethnic diversity is low compared to San Francisco, it has a broad-minded feel and interest in the world far beyond its borders.

In short, a nice place to visit and a nice place to live. Well, at least when it’s not raining for nine months straight. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Old Friends

From three weeks of work and travel into the social whirlwind. Started with a “Welcome to San Francisco!” party for granddaughter Zadie, old friends from the school, neighborhood and beyond paying their tribute to the little darling and catching up on our own news as well. Then piled into the car for the two-day drive to Portland, Oregon and the family reunion at my nephew’s wedding. Zadie was a heroic traveler, strapped in her car seat for some six hours straight until we tumbled out in Ashland, Oregon and spent the night with an old school colleague and Kerala’s 2nd grade teacher. Another five hours the next day, stopping at the gas station where an attendant took care of us—no self-service in the entire state of Oregon!—driving through the “Grass Seed Capital of the World,” seeing Mt. Hood in the distance as we approached Portland and got snarled in Istanbul-style traffic.

Dropped Kerala (and Zadie) at her college friend’s house and went on to my own college friends, where we passed a lovely few hours sitting out on the front and back porches on a summer night, under the enormous trees ubiquitous in the Portland neighborhoods, telling our new and remembering our old stories. Called one of our gang in New York and went through the list “What do you know about so and so?” Today we’ll visit another person who lived in the small village in Kerala, India with us some 32 years back and we’ll show all the photos from our trip back there last year.

The stories that come pouring out in these catch-up visits are enough to fill any novelist’s
idea bank. Big deals and losses like car accidents, cancer, divorce, troubled kids, losing parents and then the little things like the addition to the house or tree that fell down, the whole catastrophe told over wine or tea around the kitchen table or sitting on the front porch. Decades of histories between us, friends who used to sit around and spin out future dreams now grey-haired with faces marked by grief and disappointment, gratitude and joy, survivors all and none of us done yet, more dreams to reach for, from the upcoming Hawaii trip to hopes for grandchildren. I was reminded of that line from Gary Snyder’s poem, The Night Herons:

“…the joy of all the beings is in being older and tougher and eaten up. In the tubes and lanes of things, in the glorious cleansing treatment plants."

New friends are refreshing and a delight, but there is nothing like old friends who knew us back when and are still interested in knowing us now. In the words of poet W.H. Auden, may we “stagger forth rejoicing!”

Monday, June 25, 2012

Soul Sisters

7-month old Zadie meets 91-year old great-grandma Flo. What's 90 years between soul sisters?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

History of a House in Sound

I suspected the house would feel different with Chester the cat gone and indeed it does. Besides the omnipresent food dish and water dish and such gone, the impulse to call “Cheeessstter!” when entering the house, the absence of his moving shape going from room to room, it’s also the sounds I miss. The house is strangely quiet without his meows or even the sound of his dragging back legs on the wood floor. The empty nest is emptier and part of it is a diminished soundscape.

But this morning there was an old familiar sound that warmed my heart— the cry of a baby in the middle of the night. It was granddaughter Zadie’s first night in our San Francisco house and it was music to my ears. Now it’s morning and the house is filled with coos and gurgles and raspberries and exuberant shouts and I wouldn’t trade it for any symphonic work yet composed. And it made me think of compiling in my head an aural photo album of my 30 years in this house.

My older daughter Kerala was already two when we moved here and Talia came along two years later, so the sound of middle of the night crying was part of the early soundscape. A baby, then another, from the neighbors upstairs quickly followed, so we had quadraphonic stereo sound. Then a different crying as the girls tortured each other, occasional peals of little girl laughter together, the upstairs kids' footsteps running down their hall, the shouts of all four plus neighboring kids in the yard, the splash of the bath at night. Stories coming from those old plastic record players (I know, dating myself here), the kids muttering to themselves doing homework and studying for tests. Later, the theme songs from their piano lessons, all the way up to Theme from Forrest Gump and Schumann’s Arabesque and cassette tapes of New Kids on the Block and Spice Girls. Teenager phone conversations, the giggles of gaggles of teenage girls come to visit or spend the night. And so on.

When the chicks leave the nest, they not only depart with their wing-fluttering bodies, but with their chirpy voices as well. Not only is the house emptied of their physical presence and all the paraphernalia—jackets on the coatrack, full closets, stuff spread out—but also their sonic presence. A strange quiet rings out, yes, at times peaceful, but also bereft of the animation and chatter that brings life to a place. So now here it is again, with little Zadie proclaiming her presence with all the powers of her voice— and in the not too distant future, the sound of her running feet, the pleasure of her conversation and the music of her singing while she works and plays her way through the day. Silence is golden, but song is also and it’s a pleasure to hear it again. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Sumer Is Icumen In

Woke up early on a jet-lagged San Francisco 5 am morning with the world’s oldest canon (England, c. 1200) singing in my head—“Sumer is icumen in, loudly sing cuckoo. Groweth seed and bloweth mead and sing the woods anew. Sing cuckoo…” No cuckoos singing outside nor mead blowing around in the summer fog, but it is officially the first day of summer and that’s always a call for celebration. Ever since I was six years old and the world became divided between nine months of mandatory school and three months of delicious summer freedom, I habitually longed for this day. Over a half-century of jumping for joy when the last school bell rang and shouting “Yippee! Summer!”

Working on my ritual Crostic puzzle on my flight back from Europe, this quote (from Adair Lara’s When the Sun Stood Still) slowly revealed itself:

“…That’s why we still need long school vacations. To anchor kids to the earth, keep them from rocketing too fast out of childhood. If they have enough time on their hands, they might be among the lucky ones who carry their summertime with them into adulthood.”

Growing up in 1950’s New Jersey a half-block from away from 200-acre Warinanco Park, I indeed was one of the lucky ones. Long, endless days with nothing but time on my hands. Time to meander to the lake and skip stones, to climb trees, to play hide and seek or baseball with the neighborhood kids. Amble up to the school playground, that place of too many hours seated at desks turned into—well, a playground! Tetherball, nok-hockey, ping-pong, pie-eating contests (Mr. Salcito still owes me my prize), arts and crafts. Sit on my front steps at night with my cat Zorro purring on my lap, greeting the neighbors passing by and watching the fireflies. Enough boredom to keep my imagination alive and alert, enough activity to mark the day— piano practice, small chores and the reliable bells of the Good Humor man bringing ice cream to our sweaty summer-hot selves.

My own children were lucky too, though their summers were less associated with the fog-burdened days of San Francisco and more with exotic travel—Bali, Salzburg, Mexico, Costa Rica, Australia, Fiji, Ghana and more—anchored by the true-summer weeks in the cottage up on Lake Michigan. Clocks thrown away and the days marked by the front lake, the back lake, the beach, the dunes, the canoes, the hikes to the outlet, ice cream in town and the annual pilgrimage to the Cherry Bowl Drive-in Movie. We will all re-unite up there in just two weeks and begin to initiate little Zadie into the delights. For her, every day is summer vacation! But minus the search for Petoskey stones and the sunsets over the water and the thrilling thunderstorms and the family gathered on the deck chairs just drinking in the delicious night air over fresh corn and tomatoes.

And so the longest day of the year has arrived and the door is wide open to the infinite delights of this most marvelous season. Hard to feel the bridge from my hot summer childhoods since it’s shrouded in cold San Francisco fog, but the sun will shine again, if not here, soon in Michigan. Hooray for summer!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

I Love Ann Patchett

I’m about to board the long flight from Amsterdam to San Francisco and I’m nervous. I’m not worried about my safety or concerned that I’ll get another three-hour crying baby next to me or anxious that I’ll be in the sumo wrestler’s row. I’m simply afraid that there are not enough pages left in Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty to see me through to the end of the flight. She is the kind of writer that makes me sad when the book ends, knowing that my day won’t quite be the same without her sentences feeding some necessary part of my brain’s synapses and my heart’s secret corridors.

The first book I read of hers a few years back was the popular Bel Canto. I liked it fine and found the plot intriguing, but don’t remember feeling any special affinity with her writing style. It was just a few months ago that a friend recommended her new book State of Wonder, but because it wasn’t out in paperback yet, I found myself thumbing through Run in the bookstore. It captured my attention and though I was a tad disappointed in an ending that didn’t connect every dangling thread in my favorite Dickensian style, I was happy to realize that there were more of her books out there. So on I went to The Magician’s Assistant, then got out State of Wonder from the library and continued on with The Patron Saint of Liars (perhaps my favorite). Now I was down to just two left and since Taft wasn’t available at the bookstore I ran to just before my trip, only one other remained. I was reluctant to read a hard (and true) story about a friend with cancer, but I walked out with Truth and Beauty in my hand, a title that was prophetic. Indeed, many hard-earned truths beautifully expressed.

The themes, characters, settings of all the above books are wide and varied— no predicting what the next one will be. Though the endings continued to trail off a bit for my taste, the stories are all compelling and the characters memorable. But what really hits me is the music of the language, not excessively floral or intellectually gymnastic, but just plain melodies expertly played and sincerely felt. There’s just something about her rhythm and cadences that strums some strings I like to hear, so that the mere act of reading is consistently a pleasure. Plus the deft handling of a simple idea expressed so that unlikely images pair up and get you thinking, slapping your knee with a sense of “Yes! That’s so true!” A few examples:

“Lucy and B__ broke apart and came back so many times they were like a plate that had been dropped on the floor repeatedly: more glue than china.”

“If I imagine the artists in Paris, I do not see them dusting.”

“We were a pairing out of an Aesop’s fable, the grasshopper and the ant, the tortoise and the hare. And sure, maybe the ant was warmer in the winter and the tortoise won the race, but everyone knows that the grasshopper and the hare were infinitely more appealing animals in all their leggy beauty, their music and interesting side trips.”

Do you see what I mean? Little nuggets of wisdom polished by carefully wrought language and turned to gold. And there are many more too numerous to quote in a short blog.

Usually my blogs praising someone like this would be titled “I Hate Ann Patchett!” Why the candid confession of love? The condition for hate is some kind of loving competition, the sense that I’m in the same field and would like to have accomplished what this other person has— in my case, people like Keith Jarrett, David Whyte, James Hillman, Sofía López-Ibor. Perhaps because I suspect I’ll never write a novel, I don’t feel that kind of competition (although Truth and Beauty is a non-fiction memoir and something I wouldn’t mind considering). Perhaps I’m just so grateful for her company that I’ll forego the jealousy. Who knows?

Meanwhile, I’m happy that Taft awaits me and Ms. Patchett, I hope that as I type, you also are writing your next book. I await it eagerly.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Underwater Checkers

I began the last day of this most invigorating few weeks of travel at a Seaplane Hangar Maritime Museum. Not your usual tourist attraction, but interesting to see the Estonian Ice Yachts, board a submarine (not in the water) and watch kids play a giant big-screen video game shooting down planes with large electronic anti-aircraft artillery guns. From the museum, on to a restaurant at the top of a TV Tower with a stunning view and yet again incredible food. (I took photos to eventually put on the blog.)

The floor below the restaurant had an exhibit honoring Estonian achievements and I have to say I was impressed. I had no idea that Skype was invented by an Estonian and felt like I should meet him and thank him for making the 16 months without seeing 3-dimensional Talia more bearable through the constant (and miraculously affordable) Skype version. And actually could have met him because the inventor’s daughter goes to the music school of my host! Remember, this is a small country. Kind of like Iceland, where my friends would say things like, “I saw the president yesterday in the produce section of the supermarket.” Then I learned about an astronomer who discovered the structure of the universe. Hmm. That’s all? And I was going to mention the composer Arvo Part in my last homage to Estonia, whose lovely music I first encountered in the 80’s and has continued to make his mark.

But my favorite was the Estonian entry in the Guiness Book of World Records—the most number of people playing checkers underwater—in skin-diving outfits. My camera ran out of batteries just at the moment I was going to photograph the screen image, so you’ll just have to imagine it. Who thinks of this stuff?

There was a beautiful botanical garden close to the TV tower, but no more time. “Always leave something for another visit” is one possible travel philosophy and since my hosts in Finland and Estonia both expressed a wish for a return engagement next June, I hope that indeed I can see them then. Plus go biking on some of the “rails to trails” paths, long inviting miles of flatness, through forests and along the sea.

After lunch, I boarded the plane for the 20-minute hop to Helsinki (and weirdly, no Estonian passport control and thus, no stamp marking my visit), exited out the same gate where I met Soili 18 days before, a different person now then I was then. I had incredible luck checking my bag the night before my early-morning departure, shuttled to an airport hotel, walked around the neighborhood a bit and ate at the hotel restaurant.

With all due respect, a word of advice to Finland: Keep the good education and dark bread, but for God’s sake, lose the iceberg lettuce!!! I ordered a Mediterranean salad which had good goat cheese, but was mostly iceberg lettuce with one tired leaf of arugula. In general, every salad I had in Finland was iceberg lettuce, a food that should be declared extinct in 2012. In fact, I propose that Finland get in the Guiness book of World Records by tossing a million heads of iceberg lettuce into the Arctic Sea. But be careful not to disturb the Estonian underwater checker players.

The Singing Revolution

And so Estonia. A remarkable small country of just over one million people, only 800,000 (about the population of San Francisco) of whom are native speakers of the Estonian language. A beautiful language, related to Finnish, but apparently with only three words in common. In my brief fascinating lunchtime conversation, I was told of a contest in which several countries submitted a short phrase to be considered as the most melodic musical language and Estonian placed second behind Italy. The sentence (minus the marks over the letters) was “Soida tasa ule silla”—ask your local Estonian to say it out loud—which means “riding silently over the bridge.” (I’d love to know what the Italian and other entries were. Especially the American. “Yo, dude, awesome!”?)

At lunch, I also sat with the first Estonian I met back in a 1998 workshop in England, who shared a tongue-twister about a white ghost—“Kummíkus, kummítus, kummítas, kummutis.” It was a surprise to meet her so many years later and I told her I had often thought about that phrase. It inspired me to begin a collection of international tongue-twisters, a project I’m always starting, but never following through on. I keep missing the step of actually learning to say them and use them in my music class! They’re scattered throughout my little Memo notebooks I carry and someday I hope to bring them out from the closet. It’s a fun way to get right to the music of a language and skip the grammar and meaning.

My short lunchtime conversation was filled with other gems. My translator was telling me about the choir competitions and festivals that took place all over Estonia that have the energy of World Cup soccer games. As she put it so eloquently, “We are too small to be famous for wars, bombs or sports, so we choose to be famous for culture.” You can imagine my reply. “Would that countries of all sizes make that choice!”

In my only other visit to Estonia back in 2001, I happened to arrive on one of their Independence Days, August 20th. Estonia first gained independence from neighboring big guy Russia in 1918 on February 24th (another independence day) and had a fertile period of a mere 20 years to reclaim their national identity before Russia came in yet again, the two evil bullies Hitler and Stalin playing dice with the fate of whole countries. By the end of 1945, Estonia was once again swallowed up by Russia until their second independence in 1991. So 11 years back, I arrived on the 10th Anniversary of their freedom and witnessed some fifteen choirs in the Town Square singing their hard-earned patriotism with pride and exquisite beauty.

Indeed, Estonia Independence has been named “The Singing Revolution,” also the title of a movie about it that I keep trying to see. In 1989, a chain of two million people spreading down to neighboring Latvia and Lithuania was formed of people singing their hopes for freedom. When the Russian tanks departed without a shot being fired in 1991, Estonia achieved mythological fame as the place that used the power of song to harness their spirit and send the big bully away. South Africa shares a similar mythology of the power of song (see the movie Amandla) at a similar period of time (1994). And so the tradition of choral singing, unusual because not connected directly to the church, but begun in the establishment of singing festivals back in 1869, lives on. The Song Festival continues, attracting over 100,000 people of all ages, one of the largest in the world.

As you can imagine, it was a great pleasure to lead a workshop with some 55 music teachers and feel their effortlessly expressive voices in each activity. Culture and freedom to play seems to be the norm in schools and so the ideas I shared were readily familiar to the teachers. My own complaint, which I shared with the group: “Where are all the men?” Not a single one in the workshop, similar to the Finnish course (one man out of seventy participants). Of course, typical that men don’t tend to work with the young kids, but not necessarily true everywhere. Our last year’s Level II in our San Francisco Course had 18 women and 17 men. Astounding!

Tallin is a lovely small city, with its charming Old Town and bustling new sections. Most impressive are the restaurants. Every meal I’ve had is like San Francisco’s most hip and artistic noveau cuisine, everything served on fancy white plates and bowls in irregular shapes with those little touches of sprigs and sauces and dots of this or that and everything delicious! At 1/3 of the SF price! I had a dessert yesterday with something called Sea Buckthorn that was like a green loofah! One unusual twist I’ve never seen before. The people in outdoor seating are often wrapped in blankets provided by the restaurant. And here close to the first day of summer, there is a San Francisco chill in the air that makes that necessary. In fact, I should recommend it to the SF Chamber of Commerce. We are always trying to create the illusion of the European café and sit outdoors while freezing in the fog. Blankets would help!

The tourist shops are filled with beautiful woodwork—spoons, bowls and such—hand-bound books, tin and silver cast utensils, wool and linen cloths, dolls, hand-knit socks (I got a pair for Zadie!), pottery, the assortment of hand-work skillfully and aesthetically done. Apparently, the shops are filled to the brim when the cruise ships unload and the tourists swarm the square.

And so my little peek into Estonia. Today my last full day of this marvelous few weeks of travel and teaching. No more courses, a morning of sight-seeing before returning to Helsinki and setting off way too early in the morning tomorrow for my trip back home.
Hooray for good food, good people and the power of song!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Letter to My Father

Dear Dad,

Sorry I missed writing to you on Father’s Day. You certainly crossed my mind, but between an all-day workshop in Istanbul, dinner with my hosts and packing, it just didn’t work out. And you, with your usual dismissal of such contrived holidays as “sentimental nonsense” perhaps had no expectations anyway. And I just have to wonder if there is any sense of cyclical time where you are, any days distinct from any other. This August it will have been five years since you left us and who knows how and if you receive any of my letters and thoughts. But still it feels good to write them.

Anyway, all is good here. Sometimes I have to pinch myself that I not only found work that feeds and sustains me, but that I also have the supreme good fortune of continuing to receive invitations to do it. The mixture of travel and teaching is sublime, filling my need to keep investigating the myriad ways we humans put together a culture while bringing something with me (hopefully) more valuable than just my tourist dollar. These days there is also the chance to keep visiting colleagues become friends. The solitude of airplanes and hotel rooms have become steady companions as well as my lifelong pleasure in walking anonymously through the streets taking in the fresh new sights and sounds. You seemed to prefer the familiar comforts of home and routine and more and more so as you aged, but I love the rondo form lifestyle. The San Francisco School and my San Francisco home and life there is a beautiful and necessary A section with all the comfort of repetition, but this travel is the variation, the B, C, D sections that gets new synapses firing in the mind and gives new meaning to the old ones. A B A C A D A E and so on— the rondo form suits me well.

And speaking of home, big things happening there. As you may know, Chester left us (look for him up there) and mother-in-law Pam is trying to leave us and settled into hospice, though the latest news is that the doctors agree that her body is not ready yet for her mind’s program of no more eating and perhaps she’ll be with us longer than she planned. Mom is still with us and that is a blessing beyond words. Perhaps you’re impatiently waiting for her, but please keep her here as long as she’s happy. I simply don’t know what my life would be like without the two or three times a week visit to her playing piano and receiving her constant love. I know 91 years old is already living on gifted time, but hey, I wouldn’t mind if she hit 100. See what you can do.

Other news. The elementary school that has housed 43 years of funny, poignant and miraculous stories  met the wrecking ball yesterday. Meanwhile, the house next door to us on 2nd Avenue is almost done with its reconstruction. We so wish we could have bought it for our kids, but SF housing continues to be out of reach for the average human being’s salary. Certainly our teacher’s one. So happy we bought in 1982! And so destruction and creation, the pendulum swing of the universe at play.

And speaking of kids (and grandkids), Kerala and Ronnie come with Zadie’s first visit to San Francisco in a mere five days and won’t that be wonderful! We’ll take her to see Mom and have a party to introduce her to our friends. Then drive up all together to Portland, where your grandson Ian is getting married. You’d be proud of him—and he’s still driving your car! Talia will join us there and after seeing her on Skype only (oh, yes, have you been keeping up? A new visual phone technology) for almost a year and a half, I’ll finally get the 3-dimensional version. For the whole month of July before she returns to Argentina. And speaking of Talia, read her own Father’s Day tribute to soon getting to see her “five-senses Dad” on Made me teary.

That’s the news more or less, brought to you by your son in Estonia. Just want to check in and let you know you are still constantly present in my life, from my urge to call you just before leaving on a trip to doing Crostics puzzles on the plane to eating pistachio nuts in Turkey on your behalf. Your fathering, for which I’ve always been grateful (even when you were impatient with me building that brick patio in our New Jersey backyard), continues to sustain me in mysterious ways. I’m sure I’ll invoke you in a upcoming wedding toast and will write again on August 15th to mark the day you passed over. Just wanted to let you know yet again that I’ve never stopped loving you and I never will.



Monday, June 18, 2012

Dancing Lessons from God

If anyone is reading about these travels with a touch of envy, they will now be so happy that they’re in their comfortable armchair and not in Seat 21 C. I won the lottery on the Istanbul-Helsinki flight, in the aisle seat next to a couple and their charming 10-month old baby. Charming for the first five minutes of the three-hour flight, that is. After that, the screaming commenced, following quickly by the kicking and back-arching and all of it continuing non-stop—and I mean non-stop literally here— for the entire duration of the flight. Count them. That’s 175 minutes and the only break was when the father (who held the charming tot most of the time in the middle seat right next to me, probably so the little guy would have a better shot at knocking my book out of my hand with one of his seemingly random, but perhaps purposeful well-placed kicks) got up and walked him up and down the aisle to share the music with the other passengers. The other break was when I left my seat and hid out in the bathroom for ten minutes to ease my aching ears. When I got out, the people in line were wondering whether to offer me a laxative or nod in understanding. There, isn’t that armchair feeling even more comfortable now?

In the micro-seconds between the high-pitched screams, I was trying to stay alert to interesting things. Like the fact that all the silverware on Turkish Airlines is real and not plastic. The pleasant surprise of cherry juice as one of the choices on the beverage cart. The green pepper under my omelette that had me considering a blog titled “Apologies to the Green Pepper,” complete with full confession that these past years, I’ve completely overlooked it in favor of its red cousin. Next time I grill vegetables, I want to welcome it back into the family. But not easy to develop such intricate thoughts with the banshee from hell next to you. Now I love little kids and try to be an understanding compassionate human being, but believe me, I wished I had brought with me that best-selling new children’s book, “Shut the F**k Up!!” and read it out loud. (I wonder if they’ve made a Turkish translation yet?)

Five minutes before the flight landed, the little guy finally gave up and sat there peacefully sucking a pacifier as if nothing at all at happened. Which made me wonder: “When does remorse kick in?” Someone just meeting him now would exclaim, “Oh, isn’t he darling?” with no idea of the pain and suffering he inflicted on my eardrums. And he wouldn’t fess up or apologize. Well, of course I forgive him and understand that he was the innocent carrier of his body’s anguish or the channel for someone out there having fun with us mortals. Wasn’t it Kurt Vonnegut who said, “Travel plans are dancing lessons from God”? And this guy was the soundtrack of a very bad dance class.

I departed the plane into the welcome silence of Helsinki Airport, but now with the tension of making a tight connection. One thing I’ve learned in this life is to speak up and I was fortunate enough to ask the right questions to the right people to get me to the right place at the right time and lo and behold, I made the plane! And it seemed like there was enough time for my luggage to switch from Turkish Airlines to Finn Air, as I arranged with some helpful folks back in Istanbul.

But, surprise, surprise!, this was not to be. I got to Estonia, but my bags didn’t and also didn’t show up on the Baggage Reclaim guy’s screen. Isn’t your armchair feeling yet more comfortable? And why did I get such a clumsy dancing partner today?! Like any traveler, I’ve had my share of lost bags stories (including one that scored me a wedding jacket from Iberia Airlines), but the one that came to mind was 11 years ago—in Estonia. The bags didn’t arrive for three days, by which time brushing my teeth with my fingers and wearing the same unmentionables was really wearing thin. With only a one-day workshop tomorrow and a few important items in my bag, this doesn’t look good.

What to say but “Oh well.” All minor tremors on the disaster Richter scale. Or back to Vonnegut’s image: The music may be pounding disco with a screech-track, my partner stepping on my feet and kicking me in the shins and me with no toothbrush worried about bad breath during the slow dance, but it’s all in a day’s travel. 

Turkish Delights

Two entries ago, I sat on a rooftop garden looking out into the bright promise of a day in Istanbul and felt wholly at home. And after partaking of yogurt, apricots, hazelnuts and other Turkish delights, met my lovely host Ezo and boarded the boat on the Bosporus. Boats, blue sea and a day without work—the perfect combination to further feed my already ebullient mood. From the boat to the Grand Bazaar and the buzz of the marketplace, the lure of goods ranging from carpets to pottery to jewelry and of course, food. Small mountains of colorful spices beautifully arranged, bins of nuts and dried fruits and combinations pressed together (one called Turkish Delight—and it was). Some vendors singing their wares, some beckoning you with English (quite funny as they talked to my Turkish host in English as if she was a tourist too), some just sitting like still points in the sea of motion. I made a half-hearted attempt to shop for granddaughter Zadie, but the little belly-dance outfits just seemed a bit weird.

On we went to the Hag Sophia and Blue Mosque, those ancient monuments to humanity’s longing for a purpose greater than the daily round. I had been here seven years earlier, the only other time I was in Istanbul for more Orff teaching and because I opted for shorts in this hot (but not overwhelmingly so) weather, I couldn’t enter the mosque. But no matter, I said to my friend as we sat on a bench outside. The real religion is right here with the birds and the trees and indeed that seemed true.

On we went to meet another friend for coffee and I told my host Ezo the story of how in my last visit to Turkey, a small group showed me a body percussion piece they had worked out. They had been introduced to Keith Terry’s body music ideas by me in Salzburg the year before and it inspired them to create their own. Impressed by their work, I suggested that we should see if the Orff Institut would be interested in hosting body percussion groups made up of Orff teachers in the upcoming 2006 Symposium. I knew of one in Finland (started by my friend Elina who I had just visited), there was my own dormant group Xephyr in San Francisco and another group, Ocho por Uno, in Spain. While we talked in the café all those years back, I ended by suggesting that Keith Terry himself come and work with all the different groups. From Istanbul, I went directly back to Salzburg, pitched it to the Symposium organizers and lo and behold, it all came to pass. In my mind, that was one of the first “International Body Music Festivals,” but Keith organized his own (inspired by this experience?) the next year in San Francisco— and invited the Turkish group. Since then, they’ve been fast friends and this year’s Festival will be in—Istanbul!

We met our friend Timuchin in a lovely outdoor café and he spontaneously began to retell the exact same story, remembering with gratitude and affection that moment when my simple suggestion ended up having such profound consequences for his life. One of those little ripples in the pond of our daily actions that reached his shore and it was not only gratifying that I was innocently able to set good things in motion, but that he took the time to express his appreciation. Part of me is still reeling from the profound disrespect I’ve felt in moments like my suspension from school last year, the strange notion that we can ignore or even disdain the gifts others have bequeathed to us. Such moments as these simple tokens of appreciation help heal. And then we move on.

And move on we did, past the Turkish baths with the sign advertising “One of the 1000 sites you must visit before you die.” It was vaguely tempting, but I felt I had pampered my body enough in the Finnish sauna and besides, my woman host would not have been able to join me. We continued on to a darabukka (goblet drum, also called dumbek) rehearsal in a basement and expecting to see a kind of hippy drum circle, I was astounded at the complexity of the rhythms played expertly by fifteen musicians. Many of them had a “real” day job, like the woman who was a banker, but just decided to keep music in their lives and not just mindless banging. Each piece developed in symphonic complexity and the precision of their drumming was extraordinary, led by their teacher Ahmad Misrit.

From there, we went to a birthday party for Ezo’s friend held at a restaurant with live music and spontaneous dancing. And I mean Turkish traditional folk and classical music (though there was a break with some recording in Turkish disco style). I got to taste the traditional raki, a liquor very similar to the Greek ouzo, ate yet another spectacular meal and just sat in the midst of the noise and motion in some self-contained bubble of euphoria, so happy to be in this place with these people. And I did get up a dance a simple, energetic folk dance and that was great fun. And so ended my first day in Istanbul, a day that fulfilled its promise and then some.

Next day was a workshop for second-language teachers (mostly English) at an international-type private school. I expected teachers working with the little kids, but the first group included Middle School teachers and to my surprise, the afternoon group was all high school teachers. Thinking on my feet (my favorite thinking posture), I put together a class with the W.B. Yeats poem “Song of Wandering Aengus” at the center and we had a marvelous time. From there to a shopping mall (aargh! Burger King deluxe!) and an exhibit honoring Ezo’s father, Kemal Sunal, one of Turkey’s most prominent comic actors. He passed away 13 years ago, but was being remembered for Father’s Day. I saw some funny clips of his movies and was curious about more. From the mall to a boat ride on a small yacht owned by the exhibit sponsor—wonderful! Restaurant on a beautiful tree-lined street (there are many in Istanbul) with yet another friend and the delights just kept mounting.

Next day (the electronic disaster one) yet more teaching with musicians and the relief of just enjoying making music without having to reflect on the pedagogy. And now in the airport enroute to Estonia. What a life this is.

So thank you to Ezo and Istanbul, a vibrant cosmopolitan city spanning two continents (always took me aback crossing the bridge and seeing the “Welcome to Asia” sign). There seems to have been a discouraging turn to the right in contemporary Turkish politics, same old story of the Openers (all the people I’ve met) and the Limiters (all those fearful, narrow, heart-closed politicians or religious fanatics in power) and it’s always a sad one. But no time for that now. The security gate awaits.

PS Remember the three-hour drive in the traffic jam on Thursday night? On Monday morning at 5:30 am, it took 25 minutes!!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

And now a word from our sponsor…

I last left my readers on the edge of a tantalizing summer day in Istanbul and last night, was all set to fill in the details with my “Turkish Delights” entry. But the wireless in my hotel would have none of it. What’s that William Carlos Williams poem? “So much depends upon a red wheel barrow, glazed with rain water, besides the white chickens.”

Williams, was speaking of course metaphorically, but my modern day version is all too-painfully real. “So much depends on a little green Skype blob next to the four-line black fan on my white computer with a blue screen.” And that green blob and black fan just kep disappearing over and over again last night at their whim, along with the blue line that would get stuck as it started its journey from left to right. I fought it, cursing and screaming for some thirty minutes, with increasing despair as my usual Restart strategies failed and finally gave up.

Next morning, dressed for battle again, tried my room, the rooftop and the lobby, only to be thrown to the ground. But now I was getting desparate to hear an answer from my host in Estonia, my next stop. So ten minutes before teaching my one-day course, I went to Internet Explorer in someone’s office, signed on to AOL and was on my way to satisfaction when AOL informed me my password was wrong. WHAT?!! Over and over and over again. So I clicked “Forgot your password?” and something came up that said the equivalent of “Sorry. We can’t help you.” And that’s how I began teaching today.

Luckily, hours of slapping my body and holding hands and dancing and beating xylophone bars with mallets washed it all away, but I knew it awaited me again at the end. Back to the office—same old “you’re out of luck, bud.” To my host’s house on her laptop. The equivalent of “Don’t you get it? It ain’t happenin’!” Last chance—my computer back at the hotel.

Can you feel my anxiety and frustration mounting? Do you care? Actually, I hope not—this is perhaps the most boring travel story ever written! But since writing is catharsis, I need to do it. Anyway, I’m pretty resourceful and usually can imagine Plans B, C, D, E and so on to the middle of the alphabet, but I just had to admit that I was running out of options and simply didn’t know what to do. Besides the necessary Estonia information, all the other worry synapses in the brain were lighting up—identity theft? Two days of lost e-mails? All of my e-mails gone? My blog readers turning away from me in disappointment? My secret love affair with Hanna Montana brought to light? (Hey, I’m trying to keep your interest here.)

So it was with fear and trembling that I entered my room. I ritually washed my hands, played a game of Soiltaire to see which way the luck flag was flying (I won—good sign), laid my hands on the computer and chanted the Dharania to Remove Disaster. I think I can safely say Buddha didn’t have this situation in mind when he inspired this chant, but as you perhaps have guess—it workd! All four black lines on the fan and the welcome sight of the green Skype blog!! Never has that stupid AOL voice sounds so musical to my ears—Welcome! You’ve got mail!” And not only did I make the Estonia connection, but one daughter had written a sweet Father’s Day note and the other called on Skype as I finished reading the first one’s e-mail. Life was good again.

So though I’ll probably finish writing about Turkey in Estonia and it will already feel like yesterday’s news, just wanted to get this off my chest. There. And now (well, soon), back to our regularly scheduled program.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Stop and Go

It was a grueling start to my Turkey adventure. The plane flight from Helsinki to Istanbul took three hours, the freeway drive from the airport to the hotel, the same. Between 11 pm and 2am, traffic was at a crawl and nobody knew why. Having come from a large country with a mere 5 million people, spreading forests and lakes in every direction, this came as a bit of a shock. After two peaceful days in the countryside, an afternoon in Helsinki was a welcome hit of urban life, the extra buzz and energy when people gather in the marketplace. So I was ready for the city life of Istanbul. But this freeway madness took it too far. Henry Ford, what did you unleash here?!!

I crawled into bed at 3 am, woke up at the tail end of breakfast being served, ascended the two flights to the roof garden and the scene took my breath away. There was the fresh Mediterranean air coming in on a warm light breeze, the boats out on the clear blue water, the minarets of the mosque piercing the sky, the sound of horns from the traffic below, the call to prayer from the muzzein, the breakfast of fresh yogurt, dates, apricots, hazelnuts, feta cheese, red peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes, cherry juice. My heart stopped and my spirit soared and perhaps just a little higher having battled the stop and go traffic (well, more like stop and stop and stop and go and stop).

My definition of vacation is when a place lifts you wholly out of your self, no familiar creature of set habits left, just a loose sense of a self holding together breath, bones and muscles and soaring out into the wonder and excitement of the world. The kind of feeling I often had as a child before my identity wholly formed and began to crust over into a hard noun instead of a flowing verb.

I love this place and this feeling, the Mediterranean invitation to float out on the water into the next adventure, the energy in the streets, the perfect temperature (in the shade of this garden) where there is no border between skin and air. The world is born anew and for at least one brief moment, with seagulls circling the distant boats, the people sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes chatting around their breakfast tables, the red-roofed buildings to my left, the treed boulevards to my right, the open air and awning of a rooftop garden like so many I have known in Cuba, Greece, Italy and beyond, this old traveler is suddenly six or sixteen or twenty-six years old, the world more an invitation than a routine, more a dream than a resume, a moment when the lane on the clogged freeway opens and the car zooms forward, released from the stop and all systems go, alive with the thrill of motion, unimpeded, soaring, free. The world invites me into the day and I accept wholeheartedly.

The Finnish Finish

I ended my time in Finland with an afternoon in Helsinki with my good friends Soili and Terhi. I can never get enough of the company of these two marvelous women. Conversation is always set high on the dial, with profound deep reflections not only about our mutual Orff paths, but about life and culture in general, punctuated with humor and song. Just one of a hundred examples: Soili told me that in Senegal, drummakers making a drum with two heads will use the skins of animal enemies (say a lion and an antelope) so that the relationship of predator/prey will change to two voices combining to make a single rhythmic song. Such a beautiful metaphor. And that in another place (India?), the cremated ashes of a loved one are mixed with the clay to make a clay drum, giving them a voice to keep singing in this world. See what I mean? Such a refreshing change from the conversations I hear far too often around American lunchtables: “Whoah! Cool! Is that an i-Phone IV? What aps do you have?”

As mentioned before, Finland has some impressive models that we in the U.S. would do well to pay attention to, giving priorities to the important things in life—like education, health care, preserving the environment and so on. Like so many places in the world (Nicaragua where I recently visited or Argentina where my daughter lives), they have had a woman president while we in the U.S. are still thinking about this possibility as if it was the most radical idea imaginable. I found the people in general highly educated, fluent in at least three languages—Finnish, Swedish and English (the latter spoken consistently at a higher level than our former President), an interesting combination of reserved and wild (jumping naked into cold lakes must feed the latter a bit) and very interested in the world beyond their borders while also grounded in their own rich culture.

They were also very appreciative of what I had to offer. Four different people interviewed me for either a magazine or their doctoral thesis, an experience extremely rare in my U.S. experience. It was a pleasure beyond words to be able to share so much of my work in a mere six days. I taught Levels I, II and III in the Orff course, gave a 90 minute lecture about brain-based learning, taught children in a demonstration class, performed jazz piano, played my Bulgarian bagpipe, shared music from Mother Goose to jazz to South Africa and beyond, taught a Jazz Course and even got to tell some of my favorite jokes that everyone else I know has heard far too often! When evaluating what to do, what work to take, what project to undertake, I often ask myself “How much of me does this use?” and the more it does, the happier I am. My time in Finland was simply wonderful in that respect.

At the same time that I appreciated the differences and some of the admirable ways the country has resisted some dubious current trends, I don’t want to be too naïve or romantic. Talking to Soili and Terhi and others, they’re facing some of the same challenges we are. Teenage boys are addicted to computer games in almost epidemic proportion, depression, alcoholism, suicide, already a danger in the long winter months, is on the rise when machines trump human relations. Kids don’t know their own folk music heritage nor are they uniformly versed in classical music, seduced into the glammar and glitz of the Pop world. As Terhi so eloquently put in, teachers in general are not as “widely civilized” as they used to be. And there’s always the clear and present danger that politicians will lean towards the mindless models of the U.S. and up the testing in schools, take out the music, make decisions based on money instead of culture.

In short, Finland is like any other culture or country, struggling with the eternal conflict between healthy and harmful, helpful and greedy, intelligent and ignorant. In my view, they are well over the 50% mark in the good things of life, but one can never relax (except in the sauna). Always a work in progress. Thank you to Finland and my new and old Finnish friends for a marvelous ten days. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Nostril Project

My friend and I boated across the lake to meet her neighbors, a couple in their 60’s. “Nice to meet you,” they said warmly, shaking hands. “Come on, the sauna’s ready.” And suddently, there we all were, people who had just met each other two minutes ago, sitting naked and sweating in close quarters. Somehow it all seemed perfectly natural. Extraordinary how ordinary nakedness quickly becomes when you have a whole culture behind you saying, “Hey, This is what we do. No big deal.” And so it wasn’t. We jumped naked into the cold lake, back to the sauna, back to the lake, a three-bath event, sat a bit outside in towels swatting mosquitoes, got dressed and had a light dinner inside with convivial conversation, no mosquitoes and not the slightest hint that we had been sitting around undressed just a few minutes earlier. The Finnish way, I guess.

Now I’m at the airport about to board Turkish Airlines for Istanbul. Several women have their head covered in scarves and are wearing long-sleeves blouses and long dresses. I can’t help but wonder if they were invited to any Finnish saunas and what that would have been like. But between naked in two minutes and a lifetime in public covered from head-to-toe in some cultures, one thinks about how completely arbirtrary and random human culture is. If enough people decide to agree that certain parts of the body are too shameful or private or sexy to be shown in public, it quickly becomes the truth.

So watching people boarding the plane, I played a little game with myself, imagining our nostrils as indecent parts of the human anatomy. Within minutes, suddenly everybody’s nostrils seemed a bit weird and grotesque (which if your really study them, they kind of are!). I imagined that if I could talk a handful of other folks into snickering and pointing and making fun of people’s nostrils, that suddenly the stock in Nostril Coverings would skyrocket.

So I’m considering both a sociological study and a get-rich-quick scheme—The Nostril Project. Spread the word that nostrils are unfit to be seen publicly while simultaneously manufacturing all different styles of nostril covers, from basic to chic, in gradated skin tones. Get a little Youtube clip of hot models showing the choices to go viral and within a month, two important things will have been accomplished. 1) I will both have proved that human beings are completely out of their minds. 2) I will made enough money to retire.

Of course, once all nostrils are decently covered, there still will be one place where you can reveal your naked nostrils without shame. You guessed it—the Finnish sauna.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Gods in the Trees

The next morning after the Bobby McFerrin concert, I sit on the deck of yet another Finnish friend’s summer house overlooking the lake. (Seems like everyone I meet here has a summer house on the lake!). The sun is shining and the birds are singing and while I’m appreciating it in my usual general sense, my friend Elina is pointing out the specific calls and naming the bird singers. I’ve made my attempts at knowing and recognizing the local plants, trees and birds at different times in my life—after all, it’s only polite to at least know your neighbor’s name—but with mixed success and perseverance. So I am impressed with Elina’s knowledge and even more charmed with her stories about her different feathered friends.

One that struck me was how when the nightingale returns from India and starts his melodious song, the other birds seem to get quiet. Kind of like Fats Waller with Art Tatum or people around Bobby McFerrin. As if the song is so exquisite, the other birds not only pause to admire it, but perhaps think, “Why bother to sing? My song is so uninspired next to this!”

But as Thoreau once commented, “The woods would be silent indeed if no birds sang except those that sang best.” And as pretty as the nightingale’s song is, it would indeed be boring if it was the only voice. Every song contributes to the choir of the forest and is somehow necessary. God may be in the house, but many gods need to be in the trees.

I’ve always been attracted to religions who recognize that divine forces are plural—from the Hindu pantheon to the Greek gods to the African Orishas to the Catholic saints to the Tibetan Buddhist deities. Reducing the grand polyphony of the gods (or intelligences or crops or plant/animal species) to a single God is to narrow the range. Diversity is as vital to the world of Spirit as it is to the rainforest and human culture.

Monotheism took a great hold on Western civilization, but at a great price, spilling over into One Way thinking in politics, religion, farming, sociology, business, education. This either/or mentality has wreaked havoc as each “My way or the highway” group pits itself against the other—Christians/Muslims, Communists/Capitalists, Republicans/ Democrats and on and on. The both/and divergent thinking the future demands begins with recognizing the plural nature of a healthy ecosystem, culture or spiritual thought, the idea that each point of view in healthy conversation with the other has something vital to contribute.

Elina says that after a day of listening in awe to the nightingale, the other birds start singing again, accept their song for what it is—no possibility of changing it, after all—and the forest is alive with its multiple voices again. At last night’s concert, Bobby could have strutted like a peacock and invited the audience to admire his prowess, but instead he became what Joseph Campbell called “transparent to transcendance,” using his gifts to invite others to sing (and dance) and bring the whole forest alive with polyphonic song.

“Use what talents you have” said Thoreau, and again, what choice do we have? The whole point of listening to inspired musicians, reading poets, going to scientific lectures, listening to a Zen master’s talk, is not to become a “fan” and just admire them, but to be inspired by their dedication and then get back to our own work with renewed determination. And that work for me is help each student I teach, of any age, find their voice—in any of the plural intelligences— and feel confident that it is necessary and welcome. Whether they be nightingales or crows, a forest filled with just one voice is a poor world indeed. Let us all sing!

God Is in the House

There is a legendary jazz story that Fats Waller was playing in a club and noticed that Art Tatum walked in. He stopped playing, turned to the audience and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I play piano, but tonight, God is in the house.” Tatum’s technique was so remarkable, his command of the keyboard so all-encompassing, his prodigious musical ideas flowing at such torrential rates, that after hearing him, many aspiring pianists simply shrugged their shoulders, exclaimed “Why bother?” and called it quits.

Well, after going to a solo Bobby McFerrin concert in Helsinki last night, I could have said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I try to embody the ideal of playing, singing and dancing, model flexible thinking and improvisational response, balance a soulful seriousness with spontaneous humor, make complex music from simple close-at-hand materials and invite all students to explore their own musicality, but tonight, God was in the house and I mean the omnipotent all-powerful and awe-inspiring kind (minus the harsh judgement and plus the crazy Zen humor).

The man is simply extraordinary. He has it all. The discipline, the spontaneity, the range of musical style, the control, the release to where the music wants to go, the ability to respond instantly to the demands and suggestions of the moment. He improvised over his own bass lines, with a dancer, with other solo singers, over patterns given to the audience, over patterns he created given to a volunteer choir assemble on stage. He sang Bach’s Prelude No. 1 and counted on the Finn’s musical literacy to know the Gounod melody over the top and they did, turning the beautiful new concert hall of Sibelius Academy, with its state-of-the-art acoustics, into a cathedral. He sang a spiritual-like Psalm from the Bible that turned it into a different kind of church, astounded people with his car sound effects during the Beatles Drive My Car, astonished me yet further with his arpeggios following the complex chord changes of the jazz standards Smile and Somewhere Over the Rainbow while singing the melody on the top in the spaces. And he responded with humor to the interruption of Chick Corea’s Spain by not one, but two cell phones, stopping, smiling, imitating the phones and resuming. When he realized he had continued in a different key (influenced by the phones), he worked that sentence into the improvisation. Keith Jarrett would have thrown his water pitcher at the audience, but it was impressive the way Mr. McFerrin commanded the same seriousness about the music he was making, but was able to respond with humor.

One man, a bottle of water, a stool and a microphone showing for almost two hours what the human voice and imagination is capable of, with the spirit of three-year old and the accomplishment of a dedicated genius who devoted six years of practicing two or three hours a day before he attempted his first solo concert back in 1983. I often cite Bobby as the model of the Romance, Precision, Synthesis cycle that characterizes all learning and human growth. We must always begin any enterprise with a playful spirit freely exploring, like the baby who babbles before arriving at coherent speech. After sufficient play and exploration, we are hungry and ready for the precision of work, the long discipline of technique, grammar, syntax and classified knowledge. While too much of the world stops there, the final step is to synthesize the techniques and systematic knowledge with the playful spirit exploring freely within its structures. That’s Bobby McFerrin.

I was able to meet Bobby backstage with my Finnish friends because I had the good fortune to know him in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s as a school parent, teaching two of his kids for six years. He was surprised to see me in Finland and even though I had just seen him backstage a few months ago with my 8th graders in San Francisco, was warm and generous with his post-concert time. It was yet further revealing to discuss some details of the concert and my friends were impressed by what a humble and accessible warm-hearted man this man is, defying all stereotypes of the socially misfit artist lifted above human convention by the force of his genius.

Thank you, Bobby McFerrin, for showing us yet again what a human being is capable of and giving us yet another soul-stirring evening. Last night, God indeed was in the house.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Stop, Look and Listen

After six straight days of teaching, I’m enjoying a Sabbath by a lake in Finland. I’m at the house of my friend Soili Perkio, the Godmother of Orff in Finland and beloved teacher around the world. Soili is one of the few Orff teachers I know who has traveled as much, if not more, as I have and who should most definitely been writing her own “Confessions of a Traveling Music Teacher” blog. Based on the stories she’s told me in the past couple of days, it would be much more interesting than my own! Really remarkable tales of her travels, studies and teaching in Russia, Estonia, South Africa, Ghana, Iran, Cuba and beyond, adventures more interesting and more real than Indiana Jones. Soili radiates warmth, joy and wisdom, a seasoned innocence that attracts goodness and invites these story-telling quality experiences. Every day in the cafeteria during our recent summer course, her laughter pealed above the drone of the crowd like a healing tonic note. I don’t know any adult who smiles and laughs as much as she does.

Soili is also a collector of instruments and here at her house by the lake, she has a beautiful studio filled with her remarkable collection. Every kind of drum and xylophone imaginable, gongs and cymbals, stringed instruments, flutes of all sorts, a piece of pottery from Salzburg she uses as a clay drum, metal tubes from a house excavation that she has hung as large chimes. I came to this house in the winter several years ago and led a workshop in that studio with lit candles and instruments improvising together that had perhaps never met before on this planet. It was a memorable and magical evening.

And now a welcome rest from work, a chance to converse with Soili about our mutual Orff passion and compare travel notes, to enjoy a hearty breakfast of berries and yogurt and dark Finnish bread with cheese and cucumbers, drink juice made from a flower and raspberry tea and enjoy other natural delights. And also to just sit bathed in a silence punctuated by small Finnish songbirds who fly to Africa and back and are welcomed back with folk songs, listen to the hush of the breeze in the pines, observe the dance of the delicate flowers stirred by the light wind and inhale their delicious fragrance. The sun dips in and out, one moment announcing summer, the other holding on to a chilled-air spring. Little insects crawl over my bare legs and tickle, but don’t bite. There is no distant drone of traffic or planes overhead— just the symphony of bugs, birds and breezes. “Stop. Look. Listen.” That’s what my 6th grade teacher told us when she rang the bell and her advice holds up.

No matter how much I love my work and love the way it seems to use all of me, there is a still a part it doesn’t touch and a part that needs attention. That anonymous fellow with no name who simply walks on this earth or floats in the lake or looks up at the stars, quiets his mind, shuts down his voice and just listens and feels the awe of participating in the grandeur and wonder of the natural world. And so I close this intrusive computer screen, lie down in the grass, let my mind float with the clouds and dream the next chapter of this remarkable adventure. 

Almost Famous

There’s a powerful song I often open or close Orff courses with, a solo call that begins, “Way down yonder in the brickyard,” with the group response, “Remember me.” How will we be remembered? We never get to choose and often as I hear people speak of a departed loved one, it’s all the little details that they noticed—the time a friend brought tea and cookies when sick or Grandma organized an art project one summer visit or Grandpa hired us as sous chefs when making his famous soup.

But then there’s the people in the news and history books, those famous folks who contribute something that moves a field of study a bit further. In a lifetime of work, each often has a concrete and memorable contribution— Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Newton’s gravity, Beethoven’s 5th, Edison’s lightbulb. Babe Ruth’s home runs, Humphrey Bogart’s Casablanca, Steven Job’s computer legacy and so on and so on. In my lifetime of work in my field, what will I be remembered for? Well, after teaching Boom Chick-a-Boom to the 40 participants in my Finnish Jazz Course, I’m convinced it deserves a place next to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity as a world-shaking achievement.

Boom Chick-a-Boom is one of my integrated lessons that combines a welcome portal for all to play jazz with a clever way to deal with 10 instruments and 20 people, a built-in structure that inspires people to help each other, a chance for people to hear/play music from all different angles, a rockin’ soul-sustaining groove and at least five other things that are good for the human body, heart and mind. Why can’t this get at least the same kind of recognition as Michael Jackson’s Beat It?

And while we’re at, let’s add a few more to my notable achievements. Things like Whoops Johnny!, Criss-cross-Applesauce, Step Back Baby, Funga Alafia,  Intery Mintery, Sally Go ‘Round the Sun, Modes in Rows, Rain Rain Go Away. We might include the more recent One Potato, Lemonade Crunchy Ice, Humpty Dump and such. Really, there are too many to fit on one gravestone. Doesn’t that count for something?

If the world had its head on straight, these startling achievements would have me wearing sunglasses in public and dodging papperrazi. Each one is a mini-masterpiece lesson that begins with an enticing mystery, develops with each part intimately connected to the next and arrives at a startling conclusion that leaves participants breathless with beauty, stunned by the aesthetic result and lifted up by their own joyful participation. Not bragging here, simply reporting what I see time and time again in my adult workshops and often in my children’s classes as well.

Sometimes I feel mildly bitter that my particular combination of talents simply has no way to be recognized by the world at large. I’m happily famous enough in my small circles so that I can do the work I’m doing with people eager to receive it and for that I am eternally grateful. But where are the Oscars, Nobels or Pulitzers for the best lesson plan? Where is the newspaper coverage or viral Youtube video or honorary doctorate or keys to the city honoring the intricate variations of Whoops Johnny, the roof-raising spirit of Funga Alafia, the mysteries revealed in Rain Rain Go Away, the communion with the other world in Intery Mintery, the cosmic reach of Sally go Round the Sun ? No one has yet asked me to be a Commencement Speaker based on my Boom Chick a Boom fame.

If only they had seen today’s class, perhaps they would.

Or not. 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Finnish Way

One of my secret missions in coming to Finland was to find out if the education is really as great as its reputation. My daughter Kerala keeps threatening to move to Finland so our little Zadie can get an attentive, loving and high-quality schooling without the cost of a second mortgage. So when I mentioned to several teachers here that Finland had become the model of inspired education, I noticed a slight raising of the eyebrow and pursing of the lips that said, “Really?”

Now some of this is related to the humility of the Finnish. I’ve told my students here that my goal is to upgrade their adjectives. After making incredible music, I ask them, “How was that?!” and get a mild “Okay.” I told them I don’t want them to zoom all the way up to the American “Awesome!” just for picking up the mallets correctly, but they could give themselves a little bit more credit when well-earned. There was a moment in today’s class where I got a “Great!” and felt that I had left my mark. It was great.

But back to Finnish schools. Compared to the circus of U.S. educational policy, things seem pretty healthy here. For starters, all public schools (which are mostly the only kind here) seem to have at least an hour of music per week. And in the old days, a prospective candidate had to pass a singing test to be accepted as a teacher! Not so now, but there still is an understanding that music and art are essential to creating a cultured future citizen. And judging from the quality of musicianship, imagination and good social feeling I’ve found in the 70 course participants, the bar is set high.

Some of the publicity about Finland’s successes comes from a book entitled: Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? According to the author, Pasi Sahlberg, quite a lot. To give just a taste, I quote from a chart comparing The Global Reform Movement (of which the U.S. seems to be the blind leader leading other blind leaders) and The Finnish Way:

Global Reform: Setting clear, high, and centrally prescribed performance expectations for all schools, teachers and students to improve the quality and equity of outcomes.

The Finnish Way: Setting a clear but flexible national framework for school-based curriculum planning. Encouraging local and individual solutions to national goals.

Global Reform: Basic knowledge and skills in reading, writing, math and science as prime targets of educational reform, including increased time for each.

The Finnish Way: Giving equal value to all aspects of the growth of an individual’s personality, moral character, creativity, knowledge and skills.

Global Reform: Outcomes of teaching are predictable, prescribed in a uniform way, and measured by standardized and externally administrated tests.

The Finnish Way: School-based and teacher-owned curricula facilitate finding novel approaches to and encourage risk-taking in teaching and learning.

Global Reform: Educational change brought to school from corporate world models and operational logic.

The Finnish Way: Main sources of school improvement are proven good educational practices from the past.

Global Reform: Success on test scores linked to teacher salary and school funds. Struggling schools and individuals are punished.

The Finnish Way: Building a culture of responsibility and trust that values teacher professionalism in judging what is best for students. Offering resources and support for schools and individuals at risk.

Need I comment further? Of course, talk with teachers here and they can name a hundred things that could be better about schools and are rightfully nervous that lawmakers may join the GERM Club (Global Educational Reform Movement). But though there’s always work to be done, it certainly feels like we should finish our short-sighted ways and join the Finnish Way. At the very least, it would save my little Zadie from having to learn to speak Finnish. (A beautiful language, but she’ll be busy enough trying to keep her math scores up so her American school can stay open.)

P.S. Another great plus about Finland.While American teachers might gather in a brightly lit teacher’s room with bad coffee to discuss the testing schedule, I joined the course teachers for a sauna in the forest, plunged in the cold lake at an 11pm sunset and sat by candlelight enjoying a lovely snack of yogurt and fresh berries and other delights while they sang stories from the Finnish epic Kalevala.

P.S.S. I further learned that many government political meetings have been held in saunas. Love it! Gives a different tone to the usual game of power and hierarchy when everyone’s sitting around naked and sweating. Go Finland!!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Cat Heaven

The poet Gary Snyder often tells of the moment when he turned away from Christianity and began a search that led him to Buddhism. He was a seven-year old boy and his dog had just died. He asked the minister if the dog would go to heaven and the minister told him no, only people in heaven. He decided then and there that such a heaven wasn’t a place he cared to go to and began scouting out a more inclusive religion. Perhaps he felt some irony when he engaged in koan study in a Rinzai Zen temple in Japan and was given the famous koan, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” “No!” What?!! Well, that’s a matter for another discussion.

I bring this up because in a simple dorm room in Finland, looking out at 10:00 pm light, I received my wife’s e-mail with the heading “Chester.” Even before opening it, I knew what had happened. I’ve mentioned my cat Chester often in these blogs and talked some of his18-year old frailty. And so it happened. My wife came home from dealing with her own mother’s preparation for the end of life and found Chester curled up under a chair. She brought him out to the sunlight, where he tried to stand and then simply fell down and died. She felt that he had waited for her to come home and I believe she was right. She was Chester’s favorite hands-down and no apologies made on his side.

In some parts of the world, giving a eulogy for a cat would make me a candidate for the insane asylum—or at least some hut on the edge of the forest. But when you’ve lived with an animal day in and day out for 18 years, greeting him in the morning and again coming home from work, feeding him, grooming him, tricking him into getting into the cat carrier to go to the vet, listening to his middle of the night meows, dealing with his litter box (gratefully, that only the last year), praising him for his mice-catching, yelling at him for bringing the wounded songbird into the house, comforting him when the raccoon comes through his cat door, worrying about him as his back legs failed him—well, you grow kind of attached. Fact is, Chester lived in the house as long as my kids! And unlike them, was always there 24/7. Never a single day when he was gone from the house. No question he was part of the family and though I cursed his recent presents near the litter box, was always disappointed in his ADD affection for me—five seconds on my lap was average— and wondered what it would be like when we didn’t have to always find a catsitter when we went away, there’s no question about it—I’m gonna miss the guy.

We got Chester back in 1994 after our two starter pet hamsters, Sampson and Snowball passed away. Our kids felt deprived at school circle time when all their friends talked about their pets and we also had been having a mouse problem. After emptying some 18 Have-a-Heart mousetraps (bringing the live trapped mouse a block away to the park, spinning him around to disorient him and setting him loose), we  decided that a live-in mouser could solve the rodent infestation and kid pet problem in one fell swoop. And it did.

I remember clearly going to a basement in someone’s house in the Sunset and picking out Chester from the litter of kittens. He came home nameless and when my friend Debby from Vancouver visited, she suggested the name and we liked it. Early in his life, my daughter Kerala found him severely injured in the back yard one day. I was giving a workshop in Alaska and my wife called to tell me that we had to decide whether to operate to save his life. The cost was about the amount of money I was earning at the workshop and we (she) decided an unequivocal yes. The operation was successful and thus opened one of the more colorful family stories we have— my supremely practical, down-to-earth wife calling a Cat Psychic to find out what happened. And paying the fees. The psychic was so good she could talk to Chester on the telephone and told us that a bad man with boots had kicked him. We never found that man, but I believe it did cause a psychological trauma for our cat of tender age. However, we passed on the Cat Therapist and let him work it out himself.

Chester, how you spent your remaining eight lives I never knew—and refused to keep up the relationship with the Cat Psychic to try to find out. But last night, your allowance was spent and I will come home to a Chester-less house. I don’t care what the Christians, Buddhists or pagans say, I hope there is a cat heaven filled with a family that loved you as we did, with bright sunny spots to warm you, mice galore, a yard to roam around in and someone as caring as Karen for you to lie on top of nose-to-nose and breathe your contented purrs.

I’ll miss you, big guy. Thanks for all the years and may you rest in peace.