Friday, August 31, 2012

School Days

“School days, school days. dear old Golden Rule days.
  Readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘ritmetic, taught to the tune of a hickory stick.”

That was the old song, when schools followed the Machievellian principle of the threatening stick as the prime tool for motivation. The new version might be “the carrot stick,” the philosophy of “if you do this unpleasant thing, you’ll get that cool thing.” Of course, not too many kids think the carrot stick is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but the carrot and stick image came from getting your donkey to do what you wanted. Either beat it with a stick from behind or dangle a carrot in front.

Both theories assume a few questionable things:

1.     People should be treated like donkeys.
2.     Work is so unpleasant as to need a threat or reward.
3.     Donkeys growing up in the carrot and stick society will be worthy of leading us into the future.

A lot of research in Motivation Theory, from Abraham Maslow years back to Daniel Pink today, focuses on corporate workplaces and with Google leading the way, there is a clear shift in the wind. Treat people like people and give them the respect to make intelligent autonomous decisions, give them worthy work with a clear purpose and community effort, count on their intrinsic desire to do things well and you’ll have happier workers who do better work and contribute to a successful corporation (see “Nordstroms Rocks!” Blog).

But ironically, as corporations are moving toward this model, schools seem to be moving away from it. Here we are at the end of the summer and the parents are thrilled to pack their kids off to school and the kids are buying their school supplies and what can be and should be a glorious reunion in the hallowed halls of learning will be another 9-month jail sentence. I’m still reeling from my friend who teaches 2nd grade and has to give the kids a test the moment they walk in the door on material they’ve never studied. Welcome back, kids!

And so for the 38th year straight, I offer my little workshop series (see my Website for details) with a new version of the old song:

"Readin’ and ‘riting’ and ‘ritmetic, taught to the tune of a jazz drumstick.”

Integrated Arts is this year’s theme— a bit redundant, since all arts are integrated. But because we've forgotten that, this series shows how to use music and movement as doorways into math, language, history, science, visual arts, drama and more— and picking up a few necessary music and movement skills along the way. In an ideal teacher training course, we all would learn how to teach art through history, teach history through music, teach music through poetry, teach poetry through math, teach math through dance, teach dance through science and so on. It can be done and it should be done and both teachers and students would be enormously refreshed.

No need to throw out the tried-and-true, but hey! open up the windows and remind yourself that every subject is a humanly constructed artifice that appears separate, but in fact, is integral to every other subject. We are so lost in the maze of our specialties that we’ve forgotten that each subject is also called a field and fields connect to forests and other fields and invite us all to lay out the blanket and picnic and look down at the ants and up at the stars.

And that’s what I hope the kids did over the summer—ran barefoot through fields and looked for shooting stars and noticed the bugs at their feet. I hope they sang songs around campfires, lost themselves in fantastic books, improved their juggling. A school’s measure of success is to minimize the transition when they walk through the doors again, learn a bit more about the dung beetle, Cassiopeia, wild grasses, to sing new songs, dive deeper into the richness of story, juggle to a jazz beat. I hope that kids are ready to trade the dizzying freedom of summer for the structured freedoms of school, exchange the glories of getting bored and catching the scent of something new for a teacher leading them down a path to a place they might not discover on their own, move from the outdoor heat (except in San Francisco!) to the indoor coziness. I hope that children feel the same excitement entering the school building in September as they felt exiting it in June.

May it be so!


It’s been quite a day. Woke up and felt good in each part of the ole bod (‘cept one) and bussed to the doc, who knocked me out, cut me in the groin and put in some mesh to  keep some parts in line that had spilled out. Six hours there in my cute gown and hat and striped socks, pushed from room to room, and then home to lie down with ice and pain pills. If all goes well, a few days like this and then a few weeks less than the whole me and then I can hike and lift like I used to.

Lots to say ‘bout the day and the nice folks who helped me and the folks in the same boat rolled up and down the halls, but the doc says not to lift words with more than one…hmm, can’t say it, weighs too much. You know the word. First part rhymes with “pill” and there’s two more parts and last part sounds like a cow with horns. Got it? Read this all once more and you will see that I kept it down to just one ___ words and trust me, it’s hard.

To sum up: Ouch! And thanks to the doc and staff. See you in a few weeks on the trail—and then will write a long blog with big words.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Same and Different

I’m always fascinated how one thing leads to another, you start off here and unexpectedly end up there and it turns out to be exactly where you needed to go. In this case, it began with a simple need— free up memory on the computer to download new photos. So off to the old photos and videos to look for unnecessary duplicates and such and in order to decide what to keep, I started opening videos I hadn’t looked at for a long time, if ever. And they were mostly of students in my Orff courses around the world performing a little project I would give them near the end of the course.

Now, dear reader, pay attention, because this stuff is the heartbeat of the blog’s original theme—the tales of a traveling music teacher. Seeing these videos one after another was striking. Not only the pleasure of remembering some of these lovely people, but seeing clip after clip of folks doing similar kinds of things—playing Orff instruments, clapping games, body percussion, choreographing a simple dance or putting together a little drama— with so much joy and gusto and humor and at times, profundity. At first glance, they’re all exactly alike. At second, not entirely.

Because the second thing that struck me that I’ve tried to articulate time and time again, but showed so much more forcefully in these video clips, is the differences. Because they were doing similar things, the subtle differences felt yet more apparent. How to say this?

What I see looking at these groups is the presence of their Ancestors. As much as my invent-yourself-anew-American-self would like to ignore it, we are shaped by the culture that birthed us. Our blood Ancestors give us our faces, our bodies, our mother tongue, our voices and more, all of which play out in these little small group creations.

Watching the groups one after another from places as diverse as Poland, Portugal, Japan, Brazil, South Africa, Thailand and beyond, you could feel those Ancestors in the room. See them in the body shapes and the way people move and the parts of the body they move and the parts they don’t. Of course, you can feel how the way their tongue wraps around the sounds of the language creates a certain kind of person and the way their voice sings those black dotted notes on the page. (Today, at a meeting for the World Music Festival, we were looking at a notated Tibetan song and then a Tibetan woman sang it. The notes on the page were just that—notes on a page. The real song was in the whole style and delivery, which needless to say, was extraordinarily beautiful and real and authentic because the whole of Tibetan culture was coming through her voice.)

Then, of course, the musical styles themselves that invariably arise in the small group creations, with their signature rhythms and scales and timbres and structures and instrumental accompaniments. When teaching in other cultures, I always search for some universal and diverse base of processes and material, but insist that participants translate everything to their own native culture, in their own style, in their own language. For example, I might teach a stone-passing game from Ghana, Mexico or Brazil, but then encourage them to share their own. And most importantly, think about how to teach and why to teach it and where to take it from there.

So I hope someday I can combine these little clips into a sequence making a plea for diversity within universality and universality within diversity. Because as delicious as the differences are, the common ground is also impressive. Not only the fact that people in such different places are gathering together for the same purpose of improving their teaching and playing the same type of Orff instruments and dancing similar dances and such, but also the universal impulses they all share for the need to play, sing and dance together. And these days, they’re all online and have cell phones (except me!) and are connected by a common thread of technology that their Ancestors rarely shared.

Yet again, I find this work so refreshing and authentic because it covers the full spectrum of time. Part of everyone is in the past, inevitably showing the full force of the cultural expressions that led to them. Part is in the future, where we need to figure out how to imagine together, think together, problem solve together, have fun together, now not just for mere pleasure, but for the urgency of our planetary predicament. We need the full force of our diverse experiences and points of view to converge into a multi-dimensional and 360-degree imaginative new solutions to old and new problems. Finally, we are here now and might as well make the best of it! Most adults, like most kids, don’t care about an inspired Orff class because they are honoring their ancestors or preparing to become 21st century citizens. They want to have a good time here and now, awakening, strengthening, cultivating every fiber of their being. Good Orff workshops provide all three. And I hope good teaching in any field, good business, good government, will learn to do so as well.

PS Any filmmakers out there want to string together the Same and Different documentary? I’m talking Oscar material here!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

I Got Rhythm

With one foot in the past closing out summer work and the other in the future preparing a Fall season of workshops, performances and projects, there have been few blogworthy thoughts or events. I could talk about the new garage door opener, the trip to the post office, the way Firefox invited me to upgrade and then said, “Ha ha! Won’t work with your operating system and since we just trashed the old one, no Internet for you!” and other such mundane details of the daily round, but why bother?

But I did receive a transcription of an interview a student in Finland did with me and was surprised to discover I liked it. My marker for my own writing is that if someone else had written those words, I would enjoy reading them. And this interview passed the test. Since the whole thing is12 pages long, I’ll just include the first part for now—that is, if I can find a way to get on the Internet to post!

T: Well, Doug, let’s start with this. What is rhythm?

D: Carl Orff said: “It is difficult to teach rhythm. One can only release it. Rhythm is no abstract concept, it is life itself.” Meaning that we already are rhythmic beings. It is the rhythms in our body that literally keep us alive—the rhythmic pumping of the heart, the rhythmic rising and falling of the breath, the rhythm of our brain waves. If any of those rhythms stop, we’re dead.

As Orff so eloquently said, rhythm is life itself, not only in our bodies, but in the rhythm of the day and night with the sun, the month with the moon, the year with the earth’s orbit, all the rhythms that mark time. And then there’s the rhythms inside all of matter, which both ancient wisdom and modern physics tells us is vibration. All things are vibrating in their own rhythm. You know how sometimes when you hit an instrument in one part of the room, it makes another instrument (like a snare drum) vibrate somewhere else? That’s a deep statement about the polyrhythmic world we inhabit, where one rhythmic vibration can awaken or affect another rhythmic vibration. It doesn’t only happen with snare drums, but between people. Perhaps the physics of falling in love is when simply seeing another person strums a string in your heart and you pick that particular rhythm out from all the others around you. Or rather, it picks you.

Do you see how deep and far-reaching rhythm is? And we go to music classes and come out thinking rhythm is counting 1-2-3-4! Orff was so brilliant to insist that rhythmic training means releasing that which we already are. Seen in that broad light, counting beats has very little to do with it.

T: So you don’t think that there are any situations where there is not rhythm? That rhythm is in everything that we do?

D: I can’t think of one. You know I really can’t. All day long we have these micro and macro rhythms. How we brush our teeth or brush our hair, chop the fruit, the long tradition of physical work rhythms— milking cows, sowing seeds, hammering nails, sawing wood, pounding grain, most of which has been reduced to button pushing, at great cost to our body’s sense of rhythm. Then there’s the cycles of the body—hungry, then full, sleepy, then awake and so on.

Each bodily system with its own rhythmic cycle. And the structures of our daily life, our 9 to 5 cycle, our five day work week and weekends, our working year and summer vacation and so on. Whether in the human world we build or the natural world we inhabit, everything proceeds in cycles and patterns—it’s all rhythm.

There is a lovely poem by Gary Snyder that says:

 “As the crickets soft autumn hum
  is to us
 so are we to the trees
 as are they
 to the rocks and the hills.”

So the cricket has a very fast vibration and takes a very short time and ours is slower, right? But the relationship between the cricket and us is like between us and the tree. You know, compared to the tree, ours is very fast and the tree is very slow, but compared to the mountain and the rocks and the hills, the tree is very fast and they are very slow.

T: Or like earth and the universe.

D: Exactly. So they’re all different rhythms, all different expressions of the life force, each with its own rhythm. Some are fast and some are slow, but they all share this same kind of quality. It’s a great image of a universe filled with augmented and diminished rhythms and a very poetic way to think about it.

In short, to paraphrase George and Ira Gershwin:

“I got rhythm, you got rhythm, we all got rhythm.
Who could ask for anything more?”

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Lie, Cheat and Steal

I was the proverbial bad boy in school and that mischievous fellow has never quite gone away. As a teacher, I’m responsible for cultivating solid, upright citizens who vote, pay their taxes and are kind to their neighbor. Yet I get such pleasure from telling my students that to be successful in my class, they have to learn to lie, cheat and steal.

I start by asking them what lie I constantly say to them. The astute kids know: “When we’re practicing, you keep saying ‘One more time!’” Then I teach them the Old Doc Jones game. Tell a story that’s on the edge of believability and then sing,

Old Doc Jones was a fine old man, fine old man, fine old man.
Old Doc Jones was a fine old man, He told ten thousand lies.”

The kids put thumbs up if they think every part of the story was true. If even one part was a lie, it’s thumbs down. The storyteller then must fess up— true or false. The success of the storyteller has something to do with how well they can lie.

This is old hat for storytellers, whether they be telling a tale at the dinner table or writing a novel. Pick an interesting story and elaborate, exaggerate, stretch the truth as needed for dramatic effect. Artists are always more interested in the emotional truth of a work than a literal one. As Picasso put it, “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”

Yet another lie I tell my children is the rules for composition. “This note is more important than that note, these two rhythms always go together, this chord leads to that chord, etc.” All of which are true—until they aren’t. The rules have an internal logic, are useful and helpful and sometimes appear as irrefutable truths. But the imagination refuses to be boxed and in the hands of a master composer like Debussy or Thelonious Monk, they are consciously and delightfully broken time and time again. Indeed, one of the most difficult tasks of the emerging artist in any field is knowing when to break the rules and why.

As for cheating, I take such delight in telling the kids that if they’re not looking over at their neighbor while learning a piece on the xylophone, they’re in big trouble. In math class, peeking at your neighbor’s paper when taking the test is bad. In music class, not peeking at your neighbor’s xylophone or recorder fingering is bad.

Then there’s our illustrious “xylophone fakers club.” Kids who really didn’t get their part, but the teacher hasn’t noticed yet and they’re too shy to admit it, so they sneakily move their mallets around “as if.” Of course, I want them to really learn it, but also tell them faking it well is a great skill. Other forms of cheating I encourage:

     • Just play the skeleton of the melody when the elaborations are too technically demanding.
     • Improvise the forgotten line in the school play.
     • Play the wrong version of the body percussion part as if you were improvising a new one and
       make it look you meant to do that.

 And finally stealing. Duke Ellington once quipped that he’s taller on one side than the other from leaning over listening to piano players and stealing their ideas. Some say that Louis Armstrong used to put a handkerchief over his fingers while playing trumpet so that fellow musicians wouldn’t steal his fingerings. With all the improvisation we do in the Orff class, kids are constantly watching each other and stealing each other’s ideas—and I encourage them!

As a responsible teacher, I do encourage my students to Eat, Pray and Love, but as a responsible artist, I also make sure they Lie, Cheat and Steal. I’m thinking about elaborating on this to write my own New York Times bestseller, but by the time I get around to it, one of you readers has probably already stolen the idea, lied about it being your own and cheated me out of my 15 minutes of fame and fortune. And since you might be one of my former students, I only have myself to blame.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Three Languages

As grandfather of a 9-month old and son of a 91-year old, it is more clear than ever that we are well served by speaking several languages. I’m not talking about English, Spanish and Mandarin, as exciting as useful as such language proficiency is. I mean the languages before the mother tongue kicks in and after it has exhausted its usefulness. I’m speaking about the language of touch and movement and the language of tones and rhythms. And Orff Schulwerk, that dynamic pedagogy of music and movement and the place where I have so happily and fortunately made my home, has proven to be the training ground for the tri-lingual proficiency that has been both useful and spiritually uplifting.

A friend recently was complaining that there was nothing to talk about when he visited his aging Dad. His father was far beyond caring about or even understanding the gossip of who’s who and what’s what, the latest catastrophe in the newspaper or news about the grandchildren. Without the usual banter of small talk, what was there to do? And here’s where proficiency in the language of touch and the ability to play music or sing songs would have served my friend—and his Dad—well. Do we think enough about this when making decisions about school music programs or keeping dance outside the school gates?

Mostly school cares about the middle part of life, after the toddler has learned to walk and talk and before the elder begins the transition to the other world. How to succeed in business and get ahead and manage a bank account and negogiate a mortgage and occasionally, how to stay cultured through season tickets to the opera and meetings with the book club. This makes sense. Up to a point. Up to the point when you need to converse with a 9-month old or a 90-year old.

And so I’m suggesting the tri-lingual school of language, music, dance. Embedded in all is enough math and art and history and social studies for any school board’s taste, especially for teachers who understand who to reveal it. (Local teachers, come to my five-workshop series on the Integrated Curriculum this year to get the details of how— info on my Website If we have enough money in the budget or the teachers make enough in bake sales, we might include science and computer studies and such, but first and foremost, students must learn to speak these other languages when mere words and numbers fail to say what needs to be said. And when we must talk, for goodness sake, let your speech sing out, punctuated with gesture and an animated face and an expressive voice. As I say to my students in all my courses, let out that three-year old who doesn’t yet know that people can talk without moving their hands with faces of bland newscasters.

Then next time you see the grandkid or grandfather, won’t you have a grand old time!

Monday, August 20, 2012

New Rondo a la Doug

I’m back on Bloor St. again in Toronto. I have a special affection for this city for three somewhat personal reasons.


1)    It was the first “foreign” city I ever visited on a family trip when I was 11 years old. I had my virgin taste of “puppy love” with a girl named Lizzie, memorized the license plate of our host’s car who we followed to the Casa Loma (and still remember it—B23882), went to a cool fort and some impressive botanical gardens and generally felt like I wasn’t in Kansas (well, really New Jersey) anymore.

2)    After San Francisco, Salzburg and Madrid, I’ve taught more summer courses here than any other city. Jazz, world music, poetry and music, each one a pleasure with lovely and memorable people.

3)    As a result of these courses and workshops, I know lots of folks here and enjoy getting together with barbecues in back yards, nights out at a jazz club. going out for meals (Toronto is apparently the most international city in the world—surprising, but seems to be true—with lots of great restaurant choices).

The streets are not quite as bustling as Madrid, the city not quite as scenic and charming as Salzburg, the culture not quite as vibrant as San Francisco (sorry! my biased opinion!), but it is rare these days to arrive in a place where my host tells me “The economy is going strong, all my music teacher friends have good jobs, the Royal Conservatory is happily hosting Orff programs in the summer and year round.”

This morning I kicked off yet another Jazz/Orff Course with 100 people, 60 or so only able to come for the opening morning of activities. Off we went into the multi-faceted Lemonade Crunchy Ice piece and I noticed that after playing one part of the game, I would stop and talk about some overarching principle that lay behind the activity, complete with stories from a life of teaching, and then Boom! back to the game for the next development section. More stories/talk, then the game and on we went like this. It was a lecture format unlike any I’ve witnessed— short five-minute talk, play the game, another talk, play again with variation, another talk and so on.

Don’t know what that experience felt like for the students (I’ll check in with them tomorrow). Maybe too weird, at one moment in the whole-body, whole-hearted fun of playing around, the overly-analytic brain shut down in favor of the bodily, social, and imaginative pleasure and the next, keeping still while listening critically to information, points of view, stories—and then suddenly, back to the game. Perhaps too schizy, not able to wholly relax in one world or the other.

On the other hand, the game opened up the mind and heart for maximum absorption and the points made directly related to the experience everyone just had might hit deeper and with more meaning. Who knows? Again, I’ll ask the folks and report back.

But the bottom line is the power of the Rondo form, that hero sandwich (bread-cheese-bread-tomato-bread-lettuce-bread-turkey-bread) of structures that offers the perfect balance between repetition (bread) and variation (cheese, tomato, lettuce, turkey). It offers the familiarity and comfort of the known balanced by the surprise and novelty of the not-yet-known. It is a winning combination in Orff classes and found throughout music—Mozart’s Rondo a la Turk and Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo a la Turk just two of thousands of examples.

And so I’m thinking about taking credit for a new lecture format, New Rondo a la Doug, balancing metacognition, neuroscience, pedagogy, didactics, anthropology, psychology, mythology, ecology, spirituality, health and well-being with playing children’s games or dancing or singing songs, each in five-minute doses. One is the reflective side of human understanding, the other the active experience of understanding, each feeding into and off of each other. Ted Talks, take note.

Meanwhile, grateful for the various Rondo forms of my life. School — travel — school —different travel —school—stay home and write—school. And within those cycles, other rondo forms— like the returns to Toronto. Always a pleasure!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Music for All Ages

Cleaning out my desk, I came across the program notes from our May Spring Concert. Besides the importance for the children to share their work and bring inspired process into inspired performance, I see the concert as an opportunity to educate parents. Before the curtain rises, it feels important to separate out the event from the roaring river of non-stop entertainment and help the audience see with different eyes and hear with different ears.

Reading over these notes this morning, the thought struck: “This is blogworthy!” Though it feels like old news, the ideas are timeless. For your music teachers out there, consider something similar for your concerts so the parents can look beyond “cute” and try to place music in a slot more elevated than frill and begin to understand the depth of an imaginative music program. Or you’re welcome to copy over these notes—with appropriate credit, of course.

Picasso once said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” He admired the rich imagination of children unfettered by adherence to specific techniques. Children surprise—and often amaze us—with their paintings, with their poetry, with their spontaneous observations and provocative questions. Recent studies show that five-year olds can think of 100 things to do with a paper-clip, whereas high school students, who have had the wings of imagination clipped by too much dull schooling, might only think of five. Classified knowledge, virtuosic techniques, routine and habit and disciplined mastery all have their place in every field of study, but too much too soon unbalanced by “what else can we do with this?” is a blow to our rich childlike imagination.

In the field of music, young children in our culture are not seen as musical until they begin formally studying an instrument. Even then, there is a long unmusical waiting period before they finally start making decent music after years of practice. We endure their squeaky violins and clarinets in hopes that someday Bach and Be-bop will emerge in all their glory. But what if there was a parallel track to this kind of music study that found ways to make exciting and beautiful music at each step of a child’s development without hours of solitary practice? What if there was a way to create a musical culture that soaked children in the soothing and cleansing waters of music and dance without it having to feel like a special study? What if there was a way to grow children’s understanding and technique alongside inviting their imaginations to be set sonically and kinesthetically free? And the good news? There is! The Orff approach to music education in the hands of teachers who live it, breath it, embody it and devote themselves to its demanding practice.

And so what we hope you see here tonight is the dignity and delight of the children’s musical expression at each stage of their journey to adulthood. Fifth grade is more sophisticated and consciously knowledgeable about musical principles than first grade, but it doesn’t make them better, just different. As we grow and develop, our artistic impulses may mature and reach new depth, but ultimately the young seedling and mature plant share the same nature. Again, Picasso: “I don’t develop. I am."

Enjoy the show. The children certainly will. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

World's Shortest

After the intense two weeks at the Orff course of life lived full throttle, it has been days of boring catch-up work. Six hours answering e-mails, closing out course business, arranging Fall flights, paying bills, beginning the Sisyphusian task of sorting through piles of papers and folders. The piano sits behind me always ready to charge me up when needed and Chick Corea’s Further Explorations CD helps keep the electrical current running. “Whatever it takes” is my professional motto and though the work itself is always imaginative, thrilling, intimate, challenging, affirming, all that good stuff that good work should be, the organization necessary to arrange it and keep it going is the same as any other field of work. We all need help slogging through it all and besides music, I found the perfect thing to put a little fun into the mix—The Mammoth Book of Jokes.

Memorizing poems, fairy tales, songs and such became a necessary part of my vision of an integrated education and an indispensable part of the way I teach children in school and adults at workshops. But after the workshop, around the dinner table with my hosts, it also became a great pleasure—and indeed, necessity when the conversation flags— to saddle up the old warhorses of the jokes I’ve memorized:

“So a priest and a nun get caught in a snowstorm…” 

"A guy is on a dessert island when Michelle Pfeiffer washes ashore…” 

“An old man just married goes to the rabbi…” 

And so on. (If you want to hear the rest, invite me out for dinner!)

Besides, these longer jokes, I’ve often felt a need for some short zingers, little time-fillers for when I’m up on stage at the Spring Concert waiting for the kids to find their mallet. Things like:

“Did you know 5 out of every 4 people has trouble with fractions?”

“There are three kinds of people in this world. Those who can count and those who can’t.”

“Zebra: Let’s switch roles.
Lion: OK. I’m game.”

“A man walks into a bar. Ouch!”

It’s handy to have little jokes like loose change in your pocket— you never know when you need them. And the last one— a mere seven words—felt like the shortest joke I knew. But looking through the Mammoth joke book, I found a shorter one—four words!

“Florida: God’s Waiting room.”

By now, there was no way I was going to finish entering the new addresses on my mailing list. Off to Google to look for the World’s Shortest Joke and I found one attributed to John Cleese at a record two words:

“Pretentious? Moi?”

If anyone knows a one-word joke, let me know. Meanwhile, I thought about novels, poems, songs, etc. The novel is a famous six-word story by Hemingway:

“For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”

The shortest poem I remember is from Gary Snyder.

“Pissing watching a waterfall.”

The shortest song in my record collection is from the Incredible String Band. It’s titled The Son of Noah’s Brother, the melody repeats each note four times, descending from D to E in a minor scale, the text is “many were the lifetimes of the son of Noah’s brother, see his coat, the ragged riches of the soul.” And it lasts for 14 seconds.

Shortest text for a song’s chorus goes to Wilson Picket’s Land of a Thousand Dances: “Nah,   nah, nah, nah, nah,    nah, nah, nah, nah…” etc.

Shortest text for an entire song goes to Tommy James and the Shondells: “My baby does the Hanky Panky.”

Shortest text for an Orff lesson I’ve developed that ends in a remarkably complex mutli-faceted piece of music: “Johnny Whoops!” Close behind “Criss-cross applesauce.”

Shortest professional motto: “Whatever it takes.”

Prize for the longest time spent procrastinating by thinking about pointless world records goes to:


Back to the mailing list.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Letter to My Father

“Dear Dad,

It is five years to the day since you left us. August 15, 2007. I was teaching in Toronto when I got the call in the early morning. I managed to teach throughout the day, but near the end, was singing this heart-wrenching Swedish song about how it’s impossible to say goodbye to a loved one without crying. We practiced it once and I opened a book to read a poem and a photo of you and me fell to the floor. I, of course, broke down and confessed to the group what had happened and we all fell on each other’s shoulders in heaving sobs and ridiculously, tried to sing the song. As I think I wrote recently, you just can’t cry and sing at the same time. It was both moving and intensely comic. Had an educational supervisor walked in, I’m sure my teaching would have been marked down for letting emotion interfere with the lesson’s main concept of minor scale going to major. But of course the true lesson was that a son must grieve for a father and why not surrounded by compassionate people who have known or will know that same kind of sorrow?

Anyway, I decided to shut the world out today so you and I could have some time. Well, kind of. I did spend six hours catching up on business and e-mails, but I also talked to you in-between, listened to Beethoven’s 3rd, wore your purple shirt, snacked on almonds and raisins, tried to recite your favorite poem (a little rusty), won two games of Solitaire and brought out the Crostic book (though haven’t gotten to that yet). In short, do some of the things you loved to do on your behalf.

And then I went to visit your darling wife, who was still in bed at 4:00 pm. She seems to be going through a rough patch, low energy, looking a little grim and not communicating much. But what can you expect for 91 years old? While they got her out of bed, I played Tenderly on the piano, the song that you used to play on the Baldwin organ while I was upstairs going to sleep. That and Cocktails for Two are the two songs I associate with you, though in your later life, you didn’t seem to hold any special affection for them. No matter. Their notes carry to me the image of you at the organ in our cozy New Jersey home, a moment that seems at once just yesterday and several lifetimes ago.

But I know that what you would want most is for me to play your own compositions and so I did when Mom came out, starting with Forma. I hoped to share a tender moment with her, but she was in her mime class mode, pointing to whatever she wanted at the end of each measure and glaring at me like I better attend to her— water, food, get her to the bathroom, etc. I finally gave up and just took her to dinner and then went back and played a bit more. I showed the music to my friend Fran walking to dinner and she was not only impressed that you composed, but she loved seeing your calligraphy. It was good to hear those old familiar notes again and see your old familiar signature. I had a moment imagining you at the piano composing and re-working and writing it down, taking time from business as usual to feed some creative impulse. I suppose my love affair with the creative process came partly from your example. Thank you.

That’s the news, such as it is. I hope you’d be pleased to know that I’m about as happy as I’ve ever been, with so much that I love to do and the welcome opportunities to do them  and more and more, with other people that inspire and move me. Of course, I miss you terribly and still often have the urge to call you before and after a trip to check in, to hear your voice say the word “son” and sign-off with your corny “shake it easy!”

Five years. Time marches on and in some cosmologies, marching me forward to the day when perhaps we may meet again. Who knows? Meanwhile, I’m just trying to do my part down here to keep your memory alive. Thanks for listening.

Your still loving son,


PS Your purple shirt looks great with the sweater Talia just got me!”

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Real World

Three days after the Orff course ended, the love fest continues. Various students stayed longer and kept hanging out sharing body percussion patterns, songs and the pleasure of their mutual company walking the streets of San Francisco, sitting in parks or gathered around tables in restaurants. They’re letting themselves down slowly into that mysterious place called “the real world.”

I imagine we’ve all had the experience of sheltering ourselves from the pulling and hauling of daily life, whether it be a vacation at a beach resort, a Zen meditation retreat or a backpacking trip. The re-entry is always a tricky moment. And especially in these Orff courses where the intensity is magnified by the constant lift of the spirit through song, dance, percussion in deep communion with colleagues. Colleagues who spend a year in isolation in their school community, day after day thrown alone into the waters of excited and needy children with no one to talk to in the staff room about their triumphs or tribulations. And suddenly, “here they are together with Sofia” (sorry—an in-joke referencing a first day game of meeting each other). The relief of being with people who speak their language is just one of the many treasures of the Orff retreat.

Years back, on the last day of the course, I gave a short talk about the real world. It went something like this:

“I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how hard it will be to get back to the ‘real world.’ I know what they mean by that term, but I think they have it wrong. What can be more real than using all of you— your elegant body, your feeling heart, your imaginative and analytic mind, your deep soul and ascendant spirit—instead of the narrow slice that the so-called “real world” cares about? What can be more real than relating to your neighbor with clapping plays, hands held in folk dances, bodies creating collective shapes, voices blending, conversations in sound and gesture, quiet hugs after a particular moment of beauty, casual conversations at the lunch table and belly laughs to the late-night gathering? Compare that to the tiny world of words only that the real world accepts and it makes you wonder which is more true.  What can be more real than feeling both challenged and affirmed, pushed to be better and accepted as you are, blending into the group so you disappear in the unity of it all and standing out so you express what only you and no one else can? The so-called real world mostly wants you to sit down, shut-up, obey and follow and don’t make waves, tick the box of the right answer instead of daring to ask the next needed question that has no easy answer.

Remember the Velveteen Rabbit? He was struggling with the question of what is real and the Skin Horse said it well. "It only happens when a child loves you, REALLY loves you."

I think you are here in this training so you can learn to love your children better and give them the joy and pleasure they deserve. When you do that well, they will love you, not only for who you are, but for what you give them. And you both will become more real.

But as you are discovering, this is not an easy path. The Skin Horse says it plain. "It hurts." Here in this Orff course, there is nowhere to hide behind your skill and accomplishment. We are asking the impossible— that you express yourself in sounds on 25 different instruments, sing well, dance well, speak poetically and so much more. And the best dancer is not the one with the technique, but the one willing to risk vulnerability and exposure and that can hurt. But “when you are real, you don’t mind being hurt.” And you are supported by fellow teachers who encourage you to be real to yourself and to the group. This is a slow, patient process. Again, the Skin Horse:

‘It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real, you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.' 

You see, that’s what happened to my hair. (Laughter) I see you all shining and even more beautiful than when you started two weeks ago. But I think the hardest thing about re-entering that unreal world out there is meeting the people who don’t understand. How could they if all they know is the narrow slice of the workaday world or the even narrower view of reality that the media serves up daily?

People, don’t let them fool you. This is the real world.”

That's the talk I gave. And then I went home to pay my bills. 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Tear Water Tea

Do you know that marvelous children’s story by Arnold Lobel? Owl thinks of things to make him sad and fills a kettle up with his tears. Things like “chairs that have been forgetten, songs left unsung because the words have been forgotten, mornings no one saw because everybody was sleeping.” He then boils the water, serves it up in a cup and remarks, “It tastes a little salty. But tear water tea is always very good.”

The 100 plus teachers in our Orff training drank copious amounts in our closing ceremonies, but none of the salty water came from sadness alone. It was an exotic special blend of great joy, gratitude, love, new friendships formed, old ones deepened, seeds planted, flowers bloomed and the bittersweet moment of departure, of goodbyes, of—well, sadness that it had to end and life on the other side of miracles and music awaited with its cold, clothed and practical heart. After closing circles within each level, with their heartful confessions of old wounds beginning to heal, trepidation about the difficult task that lies ahead of sustaining transformation, story after story of the sense of finally arriving home, we moved into our graduation ceremony. I love the word saudade, that brilliant Brazilian term for bitter and sweet inextricably linked. Certainly, the Level III graduates felt the pride of accomplishment and the feeling of being at the doorstep of a profound understanding. But also the honest sense of the Orff Certificate as emblem of a true commencement, the sense of being ready to commence, to begin the real work. And the deep hole that awaits when next summer rolls around and Orff Camp is not on the calendar.

It was a particular moving graduation ceremony for me, for as I talked about each graduate, I was stunned to realize that I had a story with 18 of the 20 people before they even began Level I. Mostly people who had attended a workshop that myself or Sofia or both of us gave and had attracted our attention with that “where can I get more of this?” hunger in their eye. All we had to do was wave a beckoning finger toward San Francisco and lo and behold, they appeared. And so the deep satisfaction as my beckoning finger now invited them to step up and receive their diploma.

And then the closing song with three circles pressed closely together rising on the notes of Beethoven and the words of my mentor Avon Gillespie, “In living fully, one finds peace.” Truth be told, it is very hard to sing and sob uncontrollably at the same time. But we struggled through it and then stayed through lunch and instrument packing and lingered yet longer giving hug after hug, reluctant to re-enter the place where people start to tear up about something and say, “I’m sorry." As if an opened heart is something to apologize for.

Today I had dinner with two of the wonderful Brazilian women who came to the course and they talked about the sad school situation in Rio, money funneled away from educating children and into the pockets of corporations and the rich. And a different kind of tear-water tea came with that meal. Like Owl, it reminded me of many of the unbearable truths of this cruel world. Like all the teachers who dedicated themselves to their own betterment instead of sunning on a Hawaiin beach and don’t even know if they have a job awaiting them at the other end. Like all the people who never get to have two weeks with their bodies, minds and hearts fully engaged and working, who never get to sing, play and dance with others for more than 10 days in a row, who never fling themselves into a new life side-by-side with others willing to risk. Like all the children who will never get a teacher to lead them into song or turn attention to their imagination, all the kids with so much to say and no coherent way to say it without training in poetry, music, dance, all the children longing to feel connected who are confined to the prison of their desk and urged to beat out their classmates in the race to the top of nowhere.

That kind of tear water tea is far from refreshing. Pour in all the sugar of spin you want and it still won’t take away that bitter taste. So how’s this for a goal? “The mission of the school is to serve tear water tea for children and teachers alike, made from crying for the right reason.” If you need a soundtrack, come to our course and you’ll learn how to make that brew yet sweeter and more healing with songs that will melt your heart. 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Untalent Show

Another time for a public confession. I hereby apologize to both of my daughters, who have told me repeatedly that I suck at free-style rap, despite my fantasies of Dougie Fresh (see some blogs from last summer). Last night we had our traditional untalent show—“un” meaning uninhibited, unforeseen, unexpected, unconventional talent emerging unlike any other. One student, Adam Schraft, asked for four ideas from the audience and got “cheese, bunnies, Orff and betrayal” and on the spot in front of 100 astounded open-mouthed teachers, my own the widest of all, wove a seamless free-style rap that was simply extraordinary. No iambic pentamenter hoping for a cheap rhyme at the end ( a la “My name is Dougie Fresh and I’m here to say, I want to welcome you to sing and dance and play”), but the real deal, with irregular phrases over the band’s funky groove, internal rhymes, connecting “cheese” and “betrayal”, complete with the body gestures that come with the art form and not a hint of “I’m thinking here.”

As usual, the whole night was extraordinary, the opportunity for these students in this training to strut their stuff. As a training, the wide talent of the students is corralled into a specific channel where certain understandings and ways of being are valued over others. There is a bar and it’s set high, placed by teachers who have put in the time and training to jump over it. But within that, we’re always looking for people finding their own style of leaping. Remember that high jump style called the Fosbury Flop? He (Dick Fosbury) found his own unorthodox way to leap 7 feet high and won a gold medal in the 1968 Olympics. In our Orff course, every lesson has its share of right and wrong answers, but we’re always looking for a way of teaching that reveals the character of the student.

But the Untalent Show is when all bars are removed and all stops are let out. Every year seems more exceptional than the last. Besides the above-mentioned free-style rap, there was a Funky Bach-Gounod piece that worked, a solo singer who held us spellbound by his subtle use of dynamics singing a song about acceptance and love, a reprise of last year’s mathematical tour de force song about the 18-wheel Big Rig that included (amongst other things) counting at lightning speed, forward and backwards, in Roman numerals. And then the virtusosic duet between the best maracas and spoons players on the planet that simply has to be seen and heard to be believed. Michael Phelps’ 22 Olympic medlas are impressive, but in my book, nothing compared to this.

And there you have it. One person spends countless hours investigating the imaginative and technical possibilities of two small gourds filled with seeds, another what two spoons back-to-back can do and everyone who witnessed their efforts left the theater with renewed hope for our frail and often disappointing species. They, and everyone who performed (and everyone who didn’t) planted the flag of their talent and interest in their tiny corner of creation and tended the garden of their promise to grow food unlike any other. And the world is refreshed. It’s a simple—and as difficult— as that.

I don’t know what I did to merit being in the company of these geniuses and I’m reasonably sure I didn’t deserve it. Or maybe I did, simply from keeping faith with my own bizarre collection of flags that I’ve tended and defended without a pause for just about each day of my life. All I can say is I’m grateful beyond measure. And inspired to work on my free-style rap while playing spoons.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Beginning, Middle, End

An enticing beginning. A connected middle. A satisfying end. This is perhaps the simplest definition of good music that I know. And it works pretty well for novels, films, a life well-lived— and a class well-taught. And that is precisely what I had the good fortune to witness as my 20 Level III students taught their 15-minute practicum in San Francisco International Orff Course.

They each had their own way to draw us into the circle— a boisterous song, a silent motion, an intriguing sculpture of instruments, a whispered sound effect. Each one invited us into a world distinctly different than “Sit down, get out your pencil/laptop and open to page 24.” There was intrigue, magic, mystery, the promise of surprise and the excitement of immediate involvement. Our bodies were awake with movement and sound, our attention razor-sharp needing to observe the next step, our sense of belonging nurtured through the simple formation of the circle. An enticing beginning is as necessary to a class as it is to the opening lines of a novel or the first notes of a symphony.

But having promised something interesting, the next step is to develop the opening idea and lead us to someplace we have never traveled before. And so the song leads to a dance or sounds on the body prepare the sounds on the instruments or the text points us to a dramatic interpretation. Like the old ways of photos developing in darkrooms, a picture starts to emerge and come into focus and before we know how it happened, we find ourselves in the midst of some thrilling piece of music or dance where all the parts that led us there were connected and everything made perfect sense. Especially in our fragmented lives of random bits of information, a connected middle brings meaning and purpose and the brief sense that all is not chaos, but a beautifully designed form and structure. These lessons all moved forward at their own paces and in their own ways, but always seamlessly without a single extra word spoken.

And like the story, film, music, dance performance, all art forms bound by time, we are taken out of clock time and into that other world, but eventually must return to paying bills and changing the oil in the car. And so there is a forward momentum that builds in intensity and reaches some sort of climax before gently—or dramatically—reaching the final notes or words that set us back down into the everyday world. A satisfying end. Though my student’s lessons were timed by Radio Shack’s timer, most got to hit those last notes before or soon after the obnoxious beeps and you could feel the appreciation of the 19 other students for the gift of inspired teaching.

How I wish all teachers and administrators could have witnessed these lessons! There is always the next “latest and greatest 15-minutes-of-fame educational technique,” but it is a crying shame that nobody ever looks to the well-trained Orff music teacher for guidance and inspiration. Everything a child needs and loves was in these lessons. Not only the musical flow of the teaching, but the constant activity, the involvement of all the senses, the social connections and the constant invitation for the imagination to participate and contribute. And not incidentally, the universality of this approach is impressive. These teachers come from Argentina, Brazil, China, Columbia, Ireland, Spain, Turkey, U.S.A., Venezuala, but language and culture is not an issue when you teach from the body and sound and gesture and tap on our common need to move, sing, play, feel.

Class after class well-taught gives the model for a life well-lived. We would hope that each child born is wanted and loved and dreamed about before emerging into a world filled with love, caring and enticing delights. Right now my granddaughter is enjoying the exhiliration of free movement as she crawls around her house and is equally enjoying the different tastes and textures of avocado, quinoa, black beans, ribs and electrical cords. Her world is a panopoly of sensual delights, made even more exciting with each encounter with dogs, cats, birds, summer lakes, sandy beaches, books read out loud, music played and danced, art viewed and made, hugs and kisses. She's off to a great start and of course, I wish for it to continue like this. A happy childhood is a gift beyond measure.

And then we set off into the development section of our life’s music as we follow the initial ideas of what attracts us. Life may throw obstacle after obstacle in our path, load us down with grief or bolster us up with surprising opportunity, but if we stay true to our theme, we begin to see and feel how all the chapters in our drama are connected and moving toward some kind of stirring climax. Indeed, observing these teachers I’ve helped train is certainly a high note in my own constantly emerging music.

And then comes the satisfying end. Or not. I love the image of the elder surrounded by loved ones in his or her home passing to the other side carried by song and holding the hands of the surrounding family. Occasionally it happens like that and that’s a beautiful gift. But we don’t get to write those last notes and more often than I would wish, the instrument goes out of tune before the final phrase and the concert venue shifts to the bright lights of a hospital room.

Indeed, both the beginning and the end are out of our hands and we’re at the mercy of karma, good fortune or the luck of the draw. But the middle is the part we have the best chance of affecting and that’s why these teachers have given up the chance for two weeks on the Hawaii beach to feed their own promise, re-tune their instrument and learn how to create and pass on beautiful music to the children they serve. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Simple Notes Deeply Felt

I’ve been training teachers for almost as long as I’ve been teaching kids. It’s an ideal combination. Dreaming the classes and working it out with the kids’ active bodies and prodigious imaginations and then carrying some of the successes into the adult workshops. Then new ideas arise with the adults that filter back to the kids. A flow is set in motion between the two worlds that keeps both honest and real and keeps the waters clean and bubbly.

Both worlds have their joys and challenges. The kids are ever-surprising and infectious with their energy. It is a perpetual delight to watch their faces light up with excitement, their eyes twinkle with the recognition of beauty. But it can be exhausting to constantly reel in their increasingly short attention span and get Bobby to get up off of Billy as they wrestle around on the floor. Usually, adults tend to be more polite about things like that and since they mostly come to workshops voluntarily, they often listen attentively and rarely run around the room during the directions. Though I often find their “ahas!” and “Eurekas!” exhilarating and love to watch them remember their childlike playful selves, they tend to be a bit more serious than the kids.

But one of the great perks about teaching teachers is that you are forced to reflect deeply on the principles behind your teaching and communicate them clearly. And so I have a lifelong habit of trying to articulate what is essential about this work. And because there are a thousand ways to say the same thing, I’m always searching for the next combination of words that give wings to the idea and gets the listener flying into understanding.

And so in my 6th day of teaching piece after piece that the students can learn in 10 or 15 minutes and then play or sing or dance at almost a concert-worthy level, I keep reminding them to search for material that is simple, clear, easy to learn and easy to play, but whose total effect is both complex and heart-stirring. We humans are enamored with complexity and virtuosity, both of which have their place. But not in the classroom of young kids getting started who walk through the music room door because they have to. They don’t want to start working on something that will take 10 years of constant diligence, long hours of practice and complicated understandings before they arrive at something satisfying. They want something they can do right now, something that fits their small hands and fantasy-filled minds and at the same time, sound and feel good. Those interested have their whole lifetime to walk down the long and twisting path of virtusoic musical mastery, the rest of us just want to play, sing and dance and feel good and look good and sound good.

Enter the genius of the Orff approach, with its child-sized xylophone orchestra, recorders and percussion, with its elemental style of composition with simple patterns and repetitive melodies and blending-scales, with its inspired process of teaching in a way that includes the fertile imagination of the child and integrates the body, mind and heart.

When you find a piece of music that fits that criteria, that’s gold. Like the Estonian song we sang and danced to the other night. Standing in the dinner line, a teacher told me he transcribed it and was stunned to see how simple the melody was in the light of his sublime experience singing and dancing it. My spontaneous reply was, “Ah, that’s the whole secret of this training. Finding material with simple notes deeply felt.” As soon as those words passed my lips, I knew I had my next blog title and theme.

Simple notes deeply felt. That’s what it’s all about.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Nordstroms Rocks!

Yesterday I gave a talk on motivation, loosely based on Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. If you are a teacher, motivation is a subject worth considering. The number one concern of every teacher is class control, without which not one inch of the territory schools traverse can be crossed. But already that word “control” calls up visions of security guards and cattle prods. I prefer to talk about class culture, creating an atmosphere of trust, safety and excitement. And motivation is a big part of that. Motivated students are excited students eager for the next class and ready to explore and risk when the culture is supportive and encouraging.

The teachers who are able to create that culture tend to be people with a common mindset about human beings. In short, that though we are flawed and complex creatures, we are all essentially good at heart, happy to help each other and thrilled to discover what we can do and how we can be in our short time on the planet. We don’t need to be beaten with sticks or enticed with candy to do what is good and decent and pleasing to both ourselves and others. If we create a culture built around our natural tendencies to want to do things well, to follow our own curiosities and fascinations at our own pace, to take pleasure in working and playing side-by-side with our fellow humans, that culture helps fulfill its own prophecy. People retain their inquisitive nature and sense of wonder and learn to “play well with others.” But if we are inside those social structures that consciously seek to keep us down and manipulate us to other’s selfish ends, few of us are strong enough to resist and the grand possibility of human potential is narrowed down to an unappetizing slice of who we might be.

Damn Machievelli for starting the systematic manipulation of people to serve some greedy person’s lust for power! From the military to the government, from the corporation to the classroom, there are thousands of effective methods to keep people afraid, obedient, mindless and often heartless to their fellow creatures when the social structure punishes them for being decent. And the history of the world that interests me is the slow inching forward toward social structures that liberate and celebrate the human spirit. It’s a long, snail-paced progression and it keeps slipping backward before the next wave of energy to keep it moving, but it’s a glorious struggle worth making.

I began the lecture with a structure designed to affirm people’s natural inclination to help. 10 instruments are in a circle with 10 people at each one and 10 more in-between each one. While 10 are playing, 10 are observing the next player. At the signal to switch, the observer becomes the player, the player the observer of the next instrumental part. On they go around the circle and not incendentally, playing some kick-ass jazz while they’re at it. While the 20 people were playing, the rest of my audience was observing and I asked them to particularly notice what happens when someone is struggling with a part. Invariably, in every corner of the world where I do this simple activity, the people around them lean over and offer help. When I ask the people afterwards why they helped, the answers are always the same:

1)    I didn’t think about it. It just felt like the right thing to do.
2)    I knew I’d appreciate help when I needed it.
3)    I wanted the music to sound better.

Then I ask people to imagine what would happen if I was grading everyone and that every one could not get an A. Immediately the atmosphere changes. What happens?

1)    People are nervous about getting it right—and thus more likely to make mistakes.
2)    People are conflicted about helping, knowing that someone else’s failure is to their benefit.
3)    People get more concerned about how they’re doing on each instrument rather than listening to the music and enjoying the sound of the group’s collective effort.

Well, welcome to school. Those kind of interruptions of the natural process of community building and individual success and pleasure happen every day, unquestioned, in schools around the world.

From this beginning, I went on to talk about Daniel Pink’s research and how the best motivation is neither the stick nor the carrot, but the thoughtful application of our innate need for some degree of autonomy in taking control of our lives and following our own way of doing things at our own pace, our innate desire to master the things we care about it and our deep-seated longing to find purpose in our lives. Autonomy. Mastery. Purpose. Build your communities and practices around that and you have happy people living lives dancing towards fulfillment.

That’s what we’re doing in our Orff training here. People have constant opportunities to autonomously create. Everyone is motivated by their own desire to inch toward mastery, be it in recorder, dance, xylophone technique or pedagogical understanding. And our collective purpose to serve the 10,000 plus children we teach and cast our vote for a worthy future is present throughout each day.

But side by side come all the stories of even enlightened schools shifting to outdated corporate practices, with thoughtless and harmful top-down decision-making that rob teachers of autonomy in our classroom (or their very job!), subvert their pleasure in mastering the art of teaching and shift the purpose of school from nurturing children to running an illusory smooth and efficient business.

The great irony is that even as the new breed of administrators look to corporations for guidance, the corporations are slowly shifting to the model of enlightened schools. That is the great power of Pink’s book, focusing less on creating fulfilled human beings able to spout poetry, sing in four parts and play rollicking West African music and more about creating contented workers who will help corporations make lots of money.

One example not in his book that I find extraordinary is the Nordstroms Staff Handbook. Nordstroms is one of those big department stores along the line of Macy’s and such and though someone says it has changed now, at least for a while, a new employee was given a large file card that said the following:

Welcome to Nordstroms. We’re glad to have you with our company. Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Set both your personal and professional goals high. We have great confidence in your ability to achieve them.

1.     Use your best judgment in all situations.
2.     There are no additional rules.

Within a couple of years after this new policy was instituted, Nordstroms outperformed their competitors by a two to one ratio. In short, when making money was the goal, a corporation didn’t earn as much. When creating a welcoming, inviting workplace whose purpose was to offer service was the goal, they incidentally made more money.

America, pay attention here. School administrators, get on the welcoming community bandwagon or you will be left in the dust. And incidentally, the children will be happier. 

PS. Hey, Nordstroms! Want to open a school? 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Pig Heaven

Pig Heaven doesn’t show up on the Google maps, but I think I found it. It’s not muddy or smelly and I don’t think actual pigs would enjoy it that much. But all of us who are here are just so deliriously happy, in the precise place where we all feel we belong, rolling around on our backs with such joyful contentment. And me most of all.

I had high expectations of my particular group of 20 students at the Orff Summer Course and three days in, they have already been exceeded. I also thought I might enjoy the feeling of “Orff Camp,” all of us together 24/7 in the beautiful Carmel Valley, but “enjoy” is far too weak a word. To stroll through the gardens by the barn under the live oak trees with the hills in the distance and hear music from every direction, see the group out on the open wooden deck clapping through a choreography, others playing recorder under the cypress trees (all that’s missing is the white diaphanous gowns), still others huddled around xylophones in the grass, is to get a glimpse of a heaven far superior to harp players amongst fluffy white clouds.

I know that heaven is wherever the heart, mind and body are aligned, not only in deep conversation with each other, but in company with others having the same conversations. But it sure helps to be in a beautiful place with good weather. When the inner need and the outer community meet with a summer day outside on the grass under the trees, there is an extra dimension to it all that is worthy of our deepest gratitude. To fulfill the whole promise, we would also be working the garden and cooking the food together, but still, this comes as close to how I think people were meant to live on this earth, in loving communion and the spirit fed daily.

After a full day of exciting, inspiring, challenging, connecting classes led by our brilliant teachers, every one who has led the whole life of teaching children and releasing their imagination, there was a spontaneous circle begun by the Brazilians of drumming, singing and dancing, joined by Columbians and then more led by folks from Nigeria, Puerto Rico and Venezuala. Two hours later, it reached its natural conclusion and that’s when I went to the barn with a small group to play some jazz on the most beautiful Steinway piano. An hour later, stirred yet further by the group playing, we looked at each other and exclaimed, “And this is only the first day!”

Yesterday was another remarkable series of classes, followed by an evening folk dance with live music—us—that ended with me leading an Estonian lullaby I recently learned. 100 people singing and swaying and breathing as one giant centipede, ending the song in a large spiral with our heads on each other backs, After the official ending, some 40 of us hung back and an accordion/flute song soon segued into a seamless blues that lasted some 70 minutes, with solos by everyone from the triangle player to the sax player to the woman with finger cymbals morphing into a slow motion dance. My friend and I looked at each other again in disbelief: “And this is only the second day!”

Pig heaven. It’s a wonderful place to be. No need to wait until you expire or repent your sins or agree to give up your own way of thinking and believe what the throngs want you to believe. You just show up, jump in the middle of the dancing ring and roll around to your heart’s content, with the drums booming, bells ringing and voices singing in exultation.