Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Call to the Ancestors

“What is wrong in this world can only be wholly healed by those in the other world.
  What is wrong in the other world can only be wholly healed by those in this world.”
                                                            - Irish saying

I write this in the music room that has been my sacred temple for 38 marvelous years. So many miracles have happened in this place and yet again this morning, as 100 children charged the air with the powerful sounds, gestures and motions of our Intery Mintery Halloween ritual. By the end of this homespun ritual/ performance, the 3rd graders are locked in heart-stirring grooves on the xylophones, the 2nd graders are accenting downbeats with shaking bamboo rattles and resonant singing bells, the first graders are adding percussive effects, the 5th graders are playing the chant-like open-5th melodies on the whole family of recorders, the 4th graders, dressed in costume, are circling the space with explosive scary shapes and then moving in ancient grapevine steps while I play the Bulgarian bagpipe, unbelievably barely heard amidst the the 80-piece orchestra.

Music has long been a shamanic healing force, each instrument type and melodic mode and rhythmic groove bringing its specific form of healing, either energizing or calming or both, finding the calm at the eye of the storm or the dynamic dance at the center of silence. Here they join together, the struck skins and strings, the blown wind instruments, the rung and shaken and scraped percussion, the singing voice and dance for 15 minutes of “you just had to be there” soulful ceremony. Made all the more extraordinary by the fact that these are children from 6 to 11 years old and every single one included and contributing and participating just because their teachers believe in their deep-down musicality and the school still values it all.

Playing the bagpipe in the center, I didn’t want to stop. I wonder what might have happened if I followed my impulse and continued for another 10 or 15 minutes or 2 or 3 hours. Perhaps the parents would have to board a space shuttle to pick up their kids at carpool, as we were slowly lifted off this earth and landed, all 100 of us, in some other land or dimension. Maybe I’ll try it next year.

Meanwhile, it’s Halloween. The ancient Celtic festival of Samhain renewed and revived and kept going—except in those fearful places where it’s banned for its Satanic influence on our children. The origins speak of the belief that a veil separates this world, the land of the living, from the other world, the land of the dead. At Halloween, the veil grows thin, the curtains part and the dead return for one night to visit (or haunt) the living. As in every culture from time immemorial, we the living need to propitiate those spirits, both to let them know we remember them and to protect us from any lingering resentment on their part. The reasons for many of the current customs are mostly lost to us modern folks, but we enact them anyway and mostly have a great time doing it.

Last night, I went to see political comedian Will Durst, who was excellent as always. But he drew me into the spooky, horrific world far beyond any goblin or ghoul, the unbelievable and simply unacceptable possibility that the American people might be duped yet again and consider a candidate who will move us back toward the Dark Ages. I woke up in the grip of fear, disheartened that this contest is even a question and terrified that I would relive the constant sorrow of the Bush years.

And so I call to the ancestors at this time of communication between the worlds. We have the voices and bodies to speak and act for you and are honor-bound to heal the hurts that you suffered and move us toward love and compassion. You work in the realm of spirit and have the power to enter people’s hearts. In the political arena, things come and things go and we confused mortals keep shouting across imaginary lines and forget the spirit that unites us. But still, these decisions have real impacts and are not to be ignored or shrugged off just because they’re temporal and the spirit lives on.

Attention ye ancestors! Today we played beautiful music for you, we’re working here to give the children what they deserve and training them to think and critique and analyze as well as feel and celebrate and express themselves in beauty. We’re making phone calls to Ohio and encouraging people to get out and vote. From your side, we’re hoping you’ll gather the invisible forces to at least keep the door of possibility open to necessary change and intelligent discourse. We know that Obama carries both hope and disappointment, but the difference between the little he offers and the alternative is huge and worth of a petition to you all. It’s time for trick or treat— you know which one we prefer! Thanks for the help. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

One Down, One to Go

I shouted in exultation with the rest of my fellow San Franciscos when Romo threw that last called strike and the deed was done. World Series Champions! A mere two years ago, I joined the collective throng in my neighborhood who whooped and hollered for over an hour, hundreds of us filling Irving Street while cars drove by honking. This year I just opened the doors and experience it all vicariously from a distance. Not quite the same, but hey, I was jet-lagged and the game had been a long one.

It is one of our peculiarly human thrills to be carried on the wave of mass euphoria, one of the ways we momentarily lose our complex identity and just give it up to the sound and the motion. We become a mere cell in a jubilant body and experience a sense of belonging that wipes away all the things that keep us apart and lonely and isolated. I suppose it’s one of the reasons being a sports fan is so attractive.

But then there were all the sullen and gloomy and dispirited Detroit fans, heading home slump-shouldered in the rain and the cold. One would hope that one group’s happiness wouldn’t necessarily entail another’s sadness, but that’s the way of the world when it comes to sports competitions. I suppose that’s why I prefer another mode of belonging, choosing the inspired concert where the jazz fans in the club can leave refreshed and the opera crowd next door walk out into the same streets with a common feeling of renewal. One is not at the expense of the other.

So now what we San Franciscans all hoped for collectively has come to pass and for a brief few days, the city will be buzzing with excitement and pride. The players will bask in the glow of a long season of work well-done, an earned sense of satisfaction affirmed by and made visible to the world. And then life will resume its normal pace, all our feet back on the earth, coming down slowly through the levels of leaping, dancing, walking and let’s face it, eventually plodding.

Now comes the next moment of collective hopes with winners and losers. Exactly one week from today, some newscaster will give me the results that will either have me shouting for joy or screaming in terror. But this outcome is so much more profound than a few moments of yee-haw—the stakes are exponentially higher than which city feels happy for a few days. This will determine people’s jobs, people’s health, people’s education, people’s rights. It literally will decide who may live or who may die, both here and far away. It will define the nation’s level of intelligence, of compassion, of care for each other and care for the world.

People, if your mind can see beyond a one-issue soundbyte, if your heart is to open both to those you look like you and those who don’t, if your brain can distinguish between someone trying to preserve privilige for an elite-uncaring few and someone inching us further down the road of human rights and an inclusive democracy, please get yourself out to vote next Tuesday. And in the meantime, talk to all those distant cousins and next-door neighbors who still may be undecided.

But if you’re for the guy whose agenda for the country includes "find the bad guys and kill them,” please stay home and watch reruns of the Giants game seven instead.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

New Scotland

I was excited about coming to Nova Scotia. New territory and the promise of a colorful Autumn. All the advance reports I heard talked about the friendly people and the musical culture. I’m happy to report that I was not disappointed in either claim, though I need another trip to delve deeper into the latter.

I arrived in Halifax on Tuesday, got a quick tour of the waterfront and off to one of my host’s lovely house out in the country. The next day, eight classes at his school with local music teachers watching, kids from kindergarten to 6th grade. Big classes (around 25) and too-short periods (30 minutes), but each one such a pleasure. As always, instant connection to the kids, who were at once polite and bold, focused and spirited. Many gave me a spontaneous thank you on the way out and six came in later as part of the 3rd grade teacher’s training in appreciation, giving me a formal thanks that was also sincere.
(Hmm. Maybe we could train the kids at my school to follow this example?)

That night to nearby Truro at another teacher’s house. His wife was gone on a trip, but had left the most delicious squash soup, salad and homemade bread. Next day, seven more classes at his school with 15 more teachers watching. This combination of teacher’s observing me working with kids and then going to my workshop itself is stellar— thinking about how to organize all workshops like this. Again, kids had great fun, were appreciative and did well musically.

Direct from school to the hotel and here my first disappointment to discover that even in rural Nova Scotia, the parasite that eats away culture had arrived. I was dropped off at the Comfort Inn in the land of the Fast Food joints, back to my view of the parking lot and the Styrofoam cup breakfast. Aargh! But no time to whine, as I was soon picked up again by my two hosts and taken to a Thai restaurant for dinner. What a pleasure—and change of pace— to hang out with two male elementary school music teachers!

Then on we went to the site of the NSMEA Conference where I led an evening reading session. This is a strange concept for the Orff teacher. Usually such things are a way for choral or band teachers to quickly read through material to shop for the scores they’ll buy to use with their students. Since the kids playing Orff arrangements don’t read them, I had to present it a different way—ie, teach the material as I always do while also giving the teachers a taste of what I’ve collected in my books. If the purpose of these sessions is to sell the clinician’s material, I have to say it worked! My books were sold out quickly.

The next morning was my Keynote Address to the Conference. This was the second time I’ve had the honor of being the Keynote Speaker in a music ed conference (the other also in Canada, in Ontario— hey, U.S.A., pay attention to your native son!) and both times, it was the first time an Orff teacher was chosen in a conference mixing general music with band and choir. The feedback was positive and encouraged me to do more. From the podium to the workshop, two two-hour sessions to make the ideas come alive.

Then out that night to Roadhouse Willies Restaurant to hear a Cuban singer and band expertly perform jazz standards, bossa nova and Cuban boleros and mambos. Great music, great food (fish and chips!), great company. Life was good and Nova Scotia seemed a happy place.

The next morning, time before my flight to walk alongside the cornfields toward the Bay. I past a friendly man walking his dog who spoke to me in Scottish accent. Made sense—after all, Nova Scotia simply means “New Scotland.” A beautiful, balmy day and the last leaves blazing in the morning sun, the spent brown cornstalks starting to be plowed under. Hard to imagine in such weather that a hurricane was heading this way, due to arrive tomorrow or the next day. For the sake of my new found friends, I hope it fails to keep its appointment.

There seems to be energy for a return engagement and if it comes to pass, I hope to leave some time to explore nearby Cape Breton Island, home to a thriving Celtic music culture, Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province and perhaps Newfoundland and New Brunswick as well, all within shoutin’ distance.

So thanks to Nova Scotia (and Monteral and Quebec) for its steady commitment to the arts and to arts education, its friendly people and lovely land, for giving me three new experiences— my first Orff reading session,  a brief moment driving to the airport where I was on the 45th parallel, exactly halfway between the Equator and the North Pole (at Stewiache) and my first time in a time zone east of Eastern standard time.

Oh, and one more marker— the place where I watched the Giants on TV win game 2 of the World Series. Go Giants!!!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"Find the Bad Guys and Kill Them"

Did I hear that right? Did Mitt Romney really say that in the second debate? I caught some of the post-commentary of the last debate and this was from a “lowlight” clip. I’m glad the media had the sense to note that this was not the highest level of Christian thinking from someone asking to lead the country, but was equally surprised that the comments on his comments danced right around that phrase. I believe Jesus said:

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;”

Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and a few others could teach Mitt something about what that quote means and of course, I don’t expect a privileged Republican to rise to the standard of such exalted company. But to say on national TV “find the bad guys and kill them” without a trace of shame while proclaiming himself a moral Christian worthy of the Presidency was quite an amazing moment in the campaign. I would say Mitt is about the same level as a second grader asked how to deal with evil in the world. I love 2nd graders, but my job is to educate them to a higher level of compassion. And I certainly wouldn’t want one to run the country.

Not that I haven’t had the thought myself, starting as early as 2nd grade and continuing on up through the Bush years in fits and starts. I try to step away from it, knowing that evil is never vanquished by killing someone, peace never wholly achieved through war, hate never erased by hate. I’m not running for President, but still I make an effort. Shouldn’t Mitt do the same? Shouldn’t we think twice about giving him the power to achieve his goal?

And speaking of bad guys, if I was George Bush and Dick Cheney, I’d be nervous if Mitt got elected.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Frankly Speaking

Poet Gary Snyder was once asked if he was tired of always going against the grain. He just smiled and said, “I’m in line with the larger flow.” Tonight I taught Masters Degree candidates in Education at McGill University in Montreal and felt Alfred North Whitehead smiling behind me as we played “choco-choco-la-la” to illuminate Whitehead’s brilliant articulation of the rhythmic cycle of learning. And so as I keep knocking my head against the wall of educational policies and discussion that talk about everything but the children, I often comfort myself that Pestalozzi, Froebel, Montessori, Whitehead, Dewey and their modern descendants have my back.

But it is so tiresome. Today I walked the streets of Quebec, a beautiful historic and vibrant city. People were ice skating downtown in October, the parks were decked out for Halloween, a cruise ship ambled by the Chateau Frontenac. I wandered the streets with my host Francoise and began writing familiar French words down in my little notebook. And that’s when I decided to stop criticizing the educational establishment and join them by writing my own contributions to the SAT (Stupid Asinine Test). Below is my modest example of a vocabulary test question:

I entered the café  after shopping at the boutique for some lingerie for my wife. There was only one seat left on the upper terrace  and since the bistro across the street was closed, I quickly grabbed it. There was a coat draped across the back of the chair opposite and I was reading my book when suddenly, Voila! a beautiful petite femme fatale sort of woman sat down.

“Enchanted to meet you,” I said in the most debonair, suave manner I could muster. She ignored me and took out some cheap souvenir some clever entrepenuer had sold to her. She seemed fatigued, as if she had just danced in some Broadway revue or vaudeville show. The moustached waiter came to take my order and I got the soup du jour and some barbecued beef on a baguette with some biscuits on the side. She order a crepe. When the food arrived, she said “Bon apetit” and that was all the opening I needed.

“You seem like an artistic type,”I noted.

“Touché!” she retorted. “ I’m an artisan who works in a nearby atelier. I dabble in all sorts of art forms—collage, paper maché, plen air painting, decoupage, even crocheting.”

“Since you seem so sophisticated, I wonder if I could interest you in the premier of a film noir festival at the local cinema.”

She agreed. We had a lovely time and arranged an encore rendevous tomorrow.

There are 38 words/phrases commonly used in English in this story that come from French. Find them. After you’re done, treat yourself to a croissant. (If you score 90% or above, you can apply to McGill and attend my next guest class.)

P.S. Extra credit if you can explain the title of this blog.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

21st Century Teacher

“Are you a 21st Century Teacher?” Before I open the e-mail with the come-on subject, I know what it’s going to say. “Are you using the right cool tools to motivate today’s students? Are you on the techno bandwagon or still in the old-curmudgeon-dinosaur-world of yesteryear?” 21st century teaching is the new buzzword and everyone can’t run fast enough to make sure each student is armed with an i-Pad to keep up with today’s world and be prepared for the future.

Meanwhile, here I am in Montreal, having just spent three hours with a room of 60 teachers chanting, singing, slapping their bodies, clapping their hands, moving, dancing and charging the room with an energy powerful enough to light Las Vegas. And then another two hours drawing forth beautiful and evocative sounds from boxes with slabs of wood and metal on them. Followed by a reflection time examining the thinking behind each moment of the day, giving language to and thus, shedding new light on each bodily and heart-felt experience. Not a single machine was plugged into an outlet for the six hours of deep learning— and thus, the day was disqualified by the new 21st century standards.

Amongst my succinct proverb-like summaries of the pedagogical processes at work was this one: “Teach from the body to the body.” As it often is, the first hour of my workshop was taught in complete silence, always an engaging strategy to get people involved at a higher level of attention and interest. The language was gesture, facial cues, movement and body percussion activities, each of which invited a bodily response from the participants. Without words, all patterns needed to be decoded at the synaptic level by each participant, the only way that learning really takes place in the brain. And because the brain is housed in the body, teaching to the body necessarily means teaching to the brain. “21st century techniques” would often have us teach from the machine to the mind, bypassing the body altogether and thus, losing the opportunity to learn at the muscular level, at the synaptic-pattern-perceiving level, at the level of breath and bone and blood and bonding with our fellow learners.

Of course some learning can take place without doing the fox-trot or patting one’s knees rhythmically. These words on a screen can evoke ideas, images, a series of connected thoughts that have the possibility of shaping the way you think. The Youtube clips or menu of Powerpoints on the i-Pad can likewise seep into the synapses and yes, the manipulative powers of the Smart-Board might help create a more flowing, active, dynamic process in the playground of numbers and equations.

But let’s consider the possibility that our fascination with the glitz and gloss of the seductive machine is not a 21st century epiphany, but an outdated 1950’s notion— technological innovation will cure all human ills and deliver us to peace, prosperity and knowledge. And that we have unthinkingly inherited the peculiarly American custom of looking to material things for salvation, putting more faith and investing more money in a new computer than sending a teacher to an Orff workshop.

It’s difficult to write convincingly of this to people who have never seen this kind of body to body, heart to heart, mind to mind work in its full glory. It is a wonder to behold and if we ever found out what real learning and education is, we might fall on our knees like parched desert travelers arriving at the water-hole when encountering this way of teaching. Without you yourself having the experience of the communion of moving bodies, the aesthetic wonder of beautiful sounds made by your own hands in company with others, the extraordinary surprise of simple elements joined artfully together to make complex effects, you simply can’t know the whole of what learning is or might be.

What does the future really require from us? 21st century teachers who have committed themselves to re-learn what 20th century teachers forgot—that the body is an instrument of knowledge, that the heart rules the mind, closing or clogging or opening the neural pathways in direct proportion to the amount of fun and good fellow-feeling in the room, that the mind is not only a pattern–perceiver, but a pattern-maker, most gloriously in the form of art. 21st century children have the same bodies as their Neolithic ancestors, roughly the same brains and one can guess, the same hearts vulnerable to loss, isolation, disconnection as well as the thrill of belonging, genuine joy and deep happiness.

Until education wakes up to all of this at the core of the whole venture, ain’t no machine gonna improve schools one inch. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with some 21st century trees, a flowing river and birds singing in a crisp Fall morning in Montreal.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Still Incredible

It is a crisp Fall day in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Long-haired shirtless guys are playing frisbee on the lawn, women in long homespun dresses sit under the oak tree. I am 18 years old, just stepping through the door into an emerging adulthood. It’s a time to try out different identities and each one is accompanied by a soundtrack. And such a rich musical tapestry in that year 1969 to walk down the aisle with me— The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Crosby Stills and Nash, Simon and Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, James Brown, Smokey Robinson, Beach Boys, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane. Rolling Stones, not to mention Beethoven and Brubeck. Each a world unto themselves— some for joyful dancing, some for quiet romance, some for political inspiration, some for poetic flight. A remarkable time filled with change, hope, visions of a better world and a growing and glowing determination to turn the world upside down, give it a good shake and settle down to the peaceful co-existence we deserve.

Just as a smell transports me instantly to Grandma’s kitchen or the house at the seashore, so does the music of the time lift me out of my screen-glowing Walmarted Romney-infested world into that time of innocence and bright eyes and a world sung into being with poetry riding on song. All that music has that time-machine power to bring me back, but none so deeply and so meaningful as the music of The Incredible String Band. I listened to them this morning, remembering each note and word and the feeling in the air when I first heard them weaving an entire mythology that gave meaning and magic to my day.

Do they hold up? Well, musically speaking—and here with some 43 more years of musical experience, I can claim a sophisticated palette— they were…well, incredible. Sometimes the singing seems out of tune or the melodies too hippy-meandering, but in terms of instrumentation, form, structure, tempo, meters, rhythms, harmonies, subject matter, poetic imagery, they reveal a prodigious imagination. They used instruments like the sitar, the gimbri, the tinwhistle and assorted percussion from Morocco, India, Ireland and beyond long before any were popular, borrowed influences from folk music of the British Isles, rock, blues, spirituals, parlor music, the Near East and beyond. The pieces ranged from 16 seconds to 16 minutes, the forms consistently original and unpredictable, the lyrics profound, metaphorical and filled with inspired imagery. They wove an elaborate mythical universe, peopled with spiritual inspiration without religious dogma, a celebration of the natural world and forces, the power of fellow journeyers, a childlike playfulness and humor, and of course, love.

They recorded five extraordinary albums, each one a separate universe—The Incredible String Band, The 5,000 Spirits, Wee Tam, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, The Big Huge. Then came the prophetic Changing Horses, where (from my point of view) they lost the thread of inspiration and took off in another direction and never quite came back to the home territory they populated so beautifully. (Some attribute this to their encounter with Scientology.) So is the life of the artist, responding to particular times and places and social energies and spiritual energies and then the outside forces change or they change from the inside and the moment is gone. Happens all the time.

I wonder if I played them for you now whether you would be intrigued. Would they seem too weird, too hippy-dippy, too hard to place in any familiar musical style? Would the words seem poetic or just obscure and obtuse? Was this a “you just had to be there” musical taste belonging to a particular era? I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter. I was there and I am there again listening to them now and it was/is beautiful, remarkable, and yes, incredible. Thank you, Robin Williams and Mike Heron, Licorice and Rose for your company, then and now. You gave me a world and I cherish it.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Lucky by Design

Every visit with my Mom is a lesson of sorts. Yesterday was her eloquent lecture on the nature of desire. It went something like this:

“Hi, Mom.”

“Get me outa here.”

“Okay, it’s a beautiful day. Let’s go outside.”

So I wheeled her outside, with her pointing and commanding, “Go here. Now here.”

We went outside into the fresh air and settled down to breathe in a fogless San Francisco day of perfect temperature. We were there about a minute when she said:

“Now take me back.”

“Mom, we just got here. Don’t you want to sit in the sun and watch the birds in the fountain?”


No arguing with her when she’s in a mood like this. So back we went.

“In the elevator.” For years, she lived on the 2nd floor of a building, but moved down to the first floor last Fall. But following her lead, we went into the elevator, walked around the old floor a bit and…you guessed it, “Back to the elevator.”

We wheeled to the piano where I always play, I played one piece and she seemed almost settled. But when I began the second piece, out came a sharp “No! Let’s go!”

So it was back outside to another spot when my wife pulled up in the car and sat down to join us. “Hi, Florence!” An old social etiquette broke through her mood of constant dissatisfaction for a moment as my Mom smiled and greeted her. And then back to, “C’mon, let’s go.” I explained to my wife, “She seems to want something, but it’s not clear what. She just wants.”

Well, I guess we all have times like that, when we just want and we don’t know why and sometimes don’t know what, just anything but what’s happening in the moment. We are creatures of appetite, the body constantly striving for an elusive equilibrium, commanding and pointing, “I need food. I need exercise. I need rest. I need a hug. I need to go shopping.” We’re often coveting our neighbor’s goods or their life or their wife or husband, imagining that if we had that, we’d finally be content with this. Even when we’re in a good place, the flicker of desire has us wondering what might be better. The old haiku poet Basho put it eloquently:

Even in Kyoto
Hearing the cuckoo’s cry,
I long for Kyoto.

After coming back from two glorious weeks in China and Japan, I turned back to the airport and took off for Kansas City. Back on Sunday to a rehearsal for The World Music Festival, learning Tibetan music with fellow South Indian, Azerbaijani, Chinese and Spanish musicians and SF kids of all backgrounds. The next day met SK, a xylophone player who I took exactly three lessons with in Ghana in 1999 and hadn’t seen in 13 years. But we’ve kept a karmic connection and I’ve taught some of his music to the kids. Imagine my pleasure in bringing him to school and helping to organize a workshop for local teachers and musicians, a dream we’ve discussed for over a decade. Tomorrow, I go to Montreal and then to Halifax, Nova Scotia. I’m like my Mom yesterday, being pushed around from place.

But with one important difference. Living this crazy life, I should be exhausted. But I’m not. Jet lag aside, each place I find myself is a marvel. Instead of restless dissatisfaction spurring me on, I’m being led from one home to the next, edging closer to the particular reason (or reasons) I seem to have landed on this earth. When the work is aligned with what you love to do, what you need to do, what you have to contribute, it constantly refreshes. You do it wholeheartedly, digging to the center of why you’re here.

One can only be grateful for such luck, a luck both supported by seen and unseen helping hands and hewn from a life of constant sacrifice, the dues one pays to organize your life around your passion. Lucky by design, lucky by intent, lucky by hard choices and their consequences.

I’ll visit Mom again today and see if I can coax her with well-chosen notes on the piano back to a place she often goes to, of pure contentment, timeless bliss and the momentary end of longing. Wish me luck.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

God and Video Games

I was looking at the displays on the wall of the elementary school. It was the typical habitat for my Saturday Orff workshop, this one in Kansas City. The workshop is in the gym and ouside in the halls are the typical school postings about trying hard, leadership, community spirit and more. All the things that we imagine make good citizens.

But I couldn’t help but be struck by some odd pairings. Right next to the exhortation to Reduce, Recycle, Re-use, were displays of the the logos from McDonalds, KFC’s, Taco Bell, companies whose model the antithesis of ecological practice. Next to the words about being a good community member was the logo for Walmart,  a corporation that has colonized the U.S., treated local workers shabbily and whisked all the profits away from the local community after shutting down Mom and Pop and destroying the fabric of downtown. Then came the formula poems by the 3rd graders— “I am a child of………, A lover of…… Who feels…… Who needs……Who gives……Who fears……” and so on. (Apparently, almost all these children fear snakes.) My favorite, showing both the quirkiness of kids and the weird world we’re bequeathing them:

“I am a lover of God and video games.”

In the workshop itself, I felt the usual wonder of how supremely imaginative and intelligent human beings are if they’re just given the invitation to show it. I threw simple problems out to the group to solve and once they warmed up to it, their collective solutions were brilliant, beautiful, fun and funny. As I talked about how off-track most of the educational bureaucracies are, cynical about teacher’s and children’s innate curiosities and passion for mastery, making them jump through proscribed hoops that prove absolutely nothing and dispirit everyone involved, I felt the head-nodding of good-hearted people who chose teaching for the right reason.

As always, we moved far beyond simply whining and complaining to delving into some models for doing what schools should do— join folks together in a circle of caring, in the dance of co-creation, in the many ways to reveal the characters of each participant and let them show what makes them shine, what their love and passion is. I ended as I often do, inspired by these folks that gave up a Saturday to get better at what they do, were willing to take some risks and to support their fellow risk-takers, were willing to lay their head on the shoulder of the person next to them and feel the vibrations coming through the shoulder blades as we sang a lovely Estonian song, were open to lifting their heads and let a small tear roll down the cheek without embarrassment.

And yet the way I’m put together, I can’t help but notice the disparity between what happened in that gym and what was outside. The first was being brought some water in what I consider the most evil manifestation of contemporary culture—those tiny four–ounce plastic water bottles. Really, it hurts my heart so much to see them and I was struggling between being a gracious guest and saying out loud, “Please don’t ever buy these.” I’m ashamed to say I went with being polite and simply hid the water bottles and then filled up my own at the drinking fountain outside.When it came time for lunch, I was offered the choice between fast-food places and settled for the more benign Subway, only to discover that it was inside a Walmart. We chose to go to another sub place, but everywhere within 20 miles was like every place else, U.S.A.— mall, mall, mall and mall. How can we teach community, ecology, aesthetics in a world like this? And please, oh lovely Kansas City teachers, don’t take any of this personally. I’m not insulting your culture, but am reminding all of us how this world is anti-culture. It is what is thrust upon us when local government fails to resist economic colonialism and sells the soul of the town and local culture down the river.

On the bright side, I did notice a sign for the American Jazz Museum and rushed there after the workshop to stand at 18th and Vine where so much miraculous music was made by Jay McShann, Count Basie, Mary Lou Williams, a young Charlie Parker and more. Hooray! A Jazz and Blues festival called "Rhythm and Ribs" was in full swing here in this marvelous museum. What a pleasure to see lots of young and old black folks having a great time surrounded by displays of Satchmo, Duke, Ella, Count, Bird and other great American heros. The museum itself was put together nicely, with well-chosen recording examples and one particularly intriguing section where you could hear the variations a drummer might make, from the basic swing groove to fills to paraphrasing the melody to full-fledged drum solo. Then the same idea in melody as a saxophone plays the tune straight, with embellishments, with new improvised melodies and harmony as a pianist moves from basic chords to more exotic voicings and reharmonizations. Well-done! Right next door was the Baseball Museum commemorating the African-American contribution to that other great American pastime. You could feel the thrill of authentic culture and community, past and present, so markedly different from a trip to Walmart.

And so I am aiming for the day when a 3rd grader might write: “I am a lover of God and Art Tatum.” Who, according to Fats Waller, were one and the same.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Romance of Travel

It’s 2 am in the morning in the Marriot Lobby near the Kansas City Airport and I'm sitting here eating potato chips. There’s three TV’s. playing on the same wall. One is football, one a shopping channel and one The Bourne Identity. Wouldn’t mind watching the latter again, but no sound. Instead, there’s insipid light disco music. Why am I here? At 2 in the morning?

Well, I’m in the lobby instead of my room because the lobby offers free Internet, but 50 feet away in my room, I have to pay. And exactly why is this? And it’s 2 am because it’s daytime in Japan and part of my body is there. It doesn’t care that I have to get up in five hours and teach a whole day workshop. I left Japan at 4pm on Thursday, arrived in San Francisco 9:00 am on Thursday—always an astounding feeling that, crossing the dateline—slept for a few hours, then up until Thursday night and a miraculous sleep through the night. Score! I beat jet lag!!

But my euphoria was short-lived after flying to Kansas City today, turning in at 9:30 pm and waking up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 11:30. So three hours in the lobby catching up on e-mail and five to go before my wake-up call. Isn’t travel fun?!

While sitting here, a friend Skypes from Germany and keeps me company for a half-hour of chat. And reveals to me the secret formula I’ve been needing—Melatonin. Says it’s just the ticket and you can get it in pills at the local drug store. I’ll keep you posted. 

So a reminder to all the people who tell me I'm so lucky to get to teach and travel like this and how they wish they could do it. "Be careful what you wish for—it just may come true."

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Green Tea in a Bottle

Though it happened over thirty years ago, I remember it clear as yesterday. My wife and I were in Kyoto, at the end of our time and money after ten months of travel. We patched together a modest lunch and found a curb on a quiet street to sit and eat. Across the street, a woman was sweeping in front of her house and when she saw us, started motioning to us energetically. Was she telling us to get out? While we were puzzling over the gesture, she went into her house. Again, we could only wonder. Was she calling the police? Getting her sumo wrestler husband? She emerged again with something in her hands, crossed the street and set down two little milk bottles filled with green tea. She gestured for us to drink and then return the bottles when we were done and re-crossed the street to continue sweeping.

Before this memorable trip around the world, we would have been stunned. But by now, we had enough stories about such unexpected acts of kindness to simply shrug our shoulders and think, “Here we go again. A woman sees us eating lunch without something to drink and jumps to our rescue without a moment’s hesitation. And we will probably remember this simple act for the rest of our lives.”

And indeed, we did. I thought of it today eating another round of inari sushi, soba noodles and mochi on a bench in Ueno Park. I didn’t have anything to drink, so I looked around to see if this woman would appear. Ha ha! Of course, one can never plan for such acts or expect them or wish for them— they appear like a welcome breeze on a hot day, a spot of sun after much rain, a shooting star across the night sky.

“Random acts of kindness,” like “it takes a whole village to raise a child” and other such bumper sticker sayings, is a truth trampled to death in cliché. Our muscular, practical and organized American way would have us join the Random Acts Club, pay some dues, chat on the Website, buy the spin-off products and log our daily acts on the giant thermometer of our Million-Act goal. But even clichéd truths are still true.

So after thinking again of this woman, of her simple but profound act of pouring some tea in a milk bottle and setting it at our feet, I set off to a vending machine to get some green tea. Not quite the same, but it still was refreshing. 

Two Men on a Bench

Tucked away in the back of our hall closet, buried under the sleeping bags, lie five metal boxes. No hidden gold coins for when the banks crash next, but something more valuable— slides of trips taken long ago. (If you’re under 25, look up “photographic slides.”) Inside the box labeled “trip around the world” and in the cardboard column marked “Japan” is a slide of me on my 28th birthday. It is the last day of a life-changing ten-month trip around the world, just before taking the train to Narita Airport. I am sitting on a park bench in Tokyo holding up a cupcake with a single candle in it. My face is gaunt and my body a mere 140 lbs, courtesy of the hepatitis I had contracted six weeks earlier. But in the photo, my eyes are bright with my future’s promise and the excitement of returning to San Francisco after an adventure that I’ll never have again.

To make the occasion of yet more mythic proportions, 28 is an auspicious number, the fourth round of our every-seven-years cell regeneration and something to do astrologically with the Saturn cycle. Add to the mix that because I will cross the International Date Line, I will celebrate my birthday twice— once in Tokyo at the end of these travels and again in San Francisco at the beginning of my new life as husband and father—and the story gets even more exciting. Well, at least it did to me.

So now I sit on another park bench in Tokyo, by years, a somewhat oldish man, but inside not so different from that 28-year-old young man with his birthday cupcake. I sit next to him on the bench and strike up a conversation. 33 years separate us, but he and I still speak mostly the same language. We notice more or less the same things— the frivolity of people spending their day paddling around a lake on a pink-swanned boat, the little spark of energy when the young woman on the next bench smiles at us (hmm—at him or me?), the popularity of horizontal-striped shirts with Japanese women, the weirdness of carp breaking the surface to feed on the food the tourists throw. We admire the recycling bins, but are chagrinned by the relentless many layers of plastic packaging in the stores. We love walking by the temples, seeing the paper prayers, hearing the gongs rung for luck and smelling the incense. We both still love Akira Kurosawa’s early movies and miso soup and the inari sushi and mochi shop we accidentally discovered. But such small pleasures are hard to wholly savor because of the shock of yesterday’s Facebook news. And so I turn to my friend and say:

“Young man, your optimistic smile proved to be justified. You have lived a blessed life, perhaps even a charmed one. You’ve also known your fair share of betrayal, disappointment and grief (I wonder what is a fair share?) and managed to bear it all, get up again when you’ve been knocked to the ground. But there are some things which would throw you down so hard you simply couldn’t rise again. And were it not for those Angels of Mercy’s vigilance, it could have happened yesterday when your daughter Kerala, her husband Ronnie and granddaughter Zadie skidded across three lanes of traffic, smashed into a guard rail, totaled the car and walked away without a scratch.

I already know that most of my time any day of the week should be spent kissing the ground in gratitude, but there aren’t enough numbers to match the requisite bows for this miracle. But in my mind, I’m making them."

My friend and I get up, shake hands goodbye and I return to pack for the airport. On the way back, I stop at every temple to ring the gong and throw in coins, sending more prayers and gratitude to those watchful Angels, hopes that they will remain ever vigilant and awake. For us all. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Change at the Synaptic Level

And I sit across the table from three Japanese preschool teachers drinking green tea. In five minutes, I will be giving a music class to their 25 five-year olds. I’ve been asked to explain my what I’m going to do and the philosophy behind it. They’ve never heard of Orff-Schulwerk and only agreed to this out of curiosity (or politeness to the organizers).

I’m reasonably confident about my powers of articulation, especially when it comes to music education, but there’s a lot working against me here. For one thing, I prefer to talk after the class, when there’s a context for the ideas. For another, I have my gloves on, working through a translator. But always up for a challenge, I dive in and try to come up with some reasonable thoughts the teachers of five-year old might relate to. I check their faces for comprehension and here’s what I imagine they’re thinking: “What planet is this guy from?! I don’t get a single thing he is saying!!”

Luckily, the time runs out, the kids show up and off we go. One hour and fifteen minutes later, the kids reluctant to leave and showering me with warm goodbyes, the teachers and I return to the table and more green tea. I asked them what they observed and now it was a whole different story. Their faces were animated and their comments astute, talking about how long the kids paid attention, how some of the “troubled kids” did so well, how some kids had trouble understanding the activity, but eventually figured it out, how surprised they were how you could teach so much music and dance using paper plates, how happy everybody was. In short, they got it.

Why? Because they saw it in action, experienced it themselves as they joined the kids in the circle, felt the energy and excitement in the air. The talk before the class was like showing paintings of cakes—or worse yet, describing paintings of cakes with words. The class itself was the real meal and now they all were much more interested in the recipe.

I have had another book almost wholly written for over two years now, but am hung up by an unsatisfying title: Do It First! No matter what the subject, do something first, discuss it next and then do it again with some vocabulary and classified ideas. The practice comes first, the explanation next—and here best if the kids try to explain it guided by the teacher. Then marry the practice and theory and you have just joined the axon and dendrite until death do them part.

To put this all another way: the only real learning, the only real change or transformation, occurs at the synaptic level in the brain. The only way axons and dendrites connect across the synapses is through experience—and repeated experience at that. We simply can’t know what we haven’t experienced. If someone tries to describe it to us, we can try to compare it to something we do know and take a leaping guess, but we will inevitably fall short of any useful or authentic understanding.

Though I see more and more people sitting in chairs looking at Powerpoint Presentations at the national Orff Conferences, in general, Orff is far ahead of the field—and has been for over half-a-century— in understanding how vital direct experience is. Get up out of your chair, close your i-Pad, come join the dancing circle and fling youself body and soul into the activity. Then sit down, jot down a few notes and reflect on the what, how and why of what you’ve just done.

After the kids’ class, I went on to the next workshop with 20 Japanese preschool teachers. Usually Orff workshops attract a mixture of folks— some who have been coming to workshops for decades and some who are coming for the first time, with everyone else in-between. But here was a case of twenty absolute beginners who knew absolutely nothing about what to expect. With a translator.

So off we went! Three hours later, they left all aglow and buzzing. The organizers read some of the comments on the evaluation forms and they were moving: people talking about how alive they felt, how their brains were working hard, but everything was fun, how they got exercise, soulful connection and food for thought all at once and on and on. They had begun the journey of change at the synaptic level.

This transformative work is a long, slow process, changing the world one synapse at a time. No short cuts, no way to communicate wholly through books, online programs or Youtube. Just workshop after workshop of 10 to 50 people. With some 7 billion people on the planet, I guess I have to work a little harder. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Ten Trains to Tranquility

It seemed like a simple plan. I had a day free and discovered that the famous Buddha statue in Kamakura was a hop, skip and jump from Yokohama where I was staying. I remember photos of this giant Buddha from the World Atlas of my childhood—time to get out of the workshop mode and put on the tourist hat.

So I got the step-by-step directions— hop on this train, then skip to that train, then jump on this train and there you are. Down in the hotel lobby, I met an American teacher from Maui/Massachusetts who had come to the workshop in Japan with her Sri Lankan husband who she met in Dubai and they now worked together at a school in Hanoi, Vietnam. (Are you following this? The modern couple of today’s world!) Nervous about negotiating the directions alone, I enticed them to join me and off we went, confident in our ability to decipher the greater Tokyo area subway system. Need I report that we were wrong?

But thanks to this incredible culture of politeness and sincere interest in helping I’m finding in Japan, we survived the wrong-stop exit (at Kita-Kamakura, delicious words to say fast) and other minor confusions to finally arrive, quite a bit later than the promised “oh, it’s just twenty minutes away…” We paid the admission fee, entered through the gate and stepped around the corner and there he was, the same Buddha statue as the one that keeps me company in my San Francisco morning zazen. Only a few hundred times larger.

Truth be told, not quite as large as I imagined. But still impressive. And, by the way, upon closer inspection, sporting a mustache. (Really? I’m going to look more closely at my SF Buddha when I get home.) We walked around to view him from all angles and also went inside of him. (Some future poem “In the Body of the Buddha” is begging to be written here.) While my friends checked out the store, I sat off to the side in the garden savoring a cool green tea ice cream and feeling the tranquility of a summer’s day amplified by Buddha’s blessing. Life was sweet.

But Buddha forbid that I have the time to savor it! I had arranged to meet my Tokyo host at 3:00 pm at the Shibuya Station in Tokyo— without (gasp!) a cell phone!!! Which meant aiming for the 2:15 train near my hotel back in Yokohama. So at 12:30, I bid goodbye to my friends and my ten minutes of tranquility to begin the return trip, once again falsely confident that it would be easy to retrace my steps.

I don’t know where I went wrong. Well, yes, I got off one stop too early one time and lost ten minutes waiting for the next train to get back on again, but still something weird happened down the line and I ended up in a new neighborhood of Yokohama. At 2:20. Stressing with each ticking minute and coming up with Plans B, C, D, ending with emigrating to Japan. A tourist office directed me to a bus and I finally got to my hotel to pick up my bags. Rushed to the train, miraculously found the right one and got off at the right stop only fifteen minutes late and miraculously again, amidst the thousands of streaming travelers, found her waiting at the end of the platform.

So my free day in Japan found me a troubled tense tourist buying ten train tickets to take a trip to ten minutes of tranquility before traveling to Tokyo. (Say that five times fast). On that last train ride, I couldn’t help but wish that Buddha was sitting next to me. I just wanted to see how he would have handled it. It’s all well and good to recommend non-attachment and sink into the blissful oneness of the cosmos when you’re living in the forest in ancient India, but not so easy when you’re late for appointments in a confusing, fast-paced modern world. Would Buddha have been stressed? How would he do in rush hour on the freeway on his way to sign a deal publishing his memoirs?

And then that got me thinking how I’d like to hang out with Jesus on Wall Street to see how he would deal with that. I’d like to be a fly on the wall when Moses is arguing with the fire marshall about fining him for not being up to code in the burning bush incident. I wonder if Krishna in today’s modern world would still be dancing around with the milkmaids playing his flute or working in some cramped IT office in Bangalore. Let’s face it—the modern world is not set up for tranquil meditation, ecstatic revelation or carefree dancing with milkmaids.

And yet, that’s exactly my main job. Only I have to take all these trains to get there. Tomorrow, in fact. 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

What to Expect from Music

It has been said often and more eloquently than I can manage: “Music washes away the dust of this world.” It brings us to a place where every tone gifts us with meaning and brings the chaos of the world into order. When well-rendered, music stops the clock and puts us into soul-time, where life and death are points on the same line that rise and fall and move inexorably to an at once regretful and welcomed cadence. For as long as the music is playing, we are lifted out of our small selves and brought into the grand circle of Creation. We each may have our private corner of the imagination where the rhythms and tones lead us to steal a secret kiss, but we also are connected to our neighbors in ways closed to us stuck in freeway traffic. All the tired words of love, peace, harmony shine brightly again as fresh as when they were first conceived on our tongues. The burdens we wearily shoulder each day are set down and for as long as the horn is blowing, the violin bowing and the music is flowing, we are free.

And then the music ends and the lights come up. We head toward the aisles in the afterglow of it all, the sounds echoing in our ears as we merge into the contented hum of the crowd, different people than when we walked in. Refreshed. Transformed. Ready to renew our vows to be better people, to be kinder to each other, to spend more time with beauty. But the maddening fact is that those echoes fade, the transformation doesn’t stick and by the time we’re in the parking garage, we’re already cursing at the guy who cut in front of us. Like other inspired moments when the borders of skin and self dissolve—a deep Zen meditation, good lovemaking, a sunset over the lake—we can only take a short dip in the pond of immortality. As much as we’d love to linger in the soothing waters, the world is set up to push us out onto land, out of the bliss of the womb into the messy, bloody world. Time and time again, expelled from the Garden and tasting anew the knowledge of good and evil, self and other, joy and grief, belonging and exile.

I just finished, for the second time, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, an extraordinary tale of music’s power to transform in the most trying of times. The entire book is the shifting conversation between beauty and terror and for most of the story, music and the love it awakens keeps gaining ground. As a music teacher, I of course love this and constantly speak my hope that music has the capacity to overcome our ignorance, violence and greed. But in the battle between our gods and our devils, the latter have the machinery and the guns. Ms. Patchett's story and the daily news suggest that I’ve been a trifle naïve, time and again overestimating music’s power. 

Or to re-phrase it. Why put all of the world’s woes on music’s shoulders, however large they may appear to be? Why expect it to reach into every corner of human possibility and weirdness and solve everything? Isn’t it enough that it speaks our joy when we’re happy and consoles us in our grief? Maybe I need to lower the bar a bit, be grateful for what we know music can do instead of be disappointed that it can’t do yet more. Years back, in the middle of a six-month grieving process for my dying father, I wrote a poem about this very theme. And so to end, I include it here.


Driving home from the Marin hospital.

Another day of coaxing my father back to life after heart surgery,

worrying about my too-young friend edging closer to her death.

My back in pain and a three-week sickness that won’t let go.

My mind is fixed on the great matters of birth and death when the city

comes into view, shining in full resplendence in the light of dusk.

On the car speakers, two repeated notes tentatively announce the beginning

of something worth attending to,

answered by the strings, who charge that little bird song with confidence.

Flutes and oboes and more strings join the chorus, swelling

and then settling for just a breath,

when the first voice enters,

rising over it all with the majesty of a lone eagle over a twilight sea.

my spine begins to tingle.

When the second voice joins,

I am lifted out of my mortal body, released from all the persistent pain, the gravity of

grief and the soul’s sorrow.

I am soaring over the Golden Gate Bridge,



The music  lasts for four minutes and one second.

And I think:

This is all the immortality we will ever get.

And all we will ever need.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

44 More Years

I sat zazen in Japan this morning. For you handful of non-Buddhist out there, zazen is the Japanese word for Zen meditation, a practice that began in India a couple of millennia ago, traveled to China and came to Japan to develop into the form of Buddhism I’ve been practicing in one form or another for almost 40 years. So there was a satisfying kind of looped circle to be sitting half-lotus following my breath here in Yokohama and doing what I can to manifest my teacher’s question: “How can I disappear in love?”

My teacher is Joshu Sasaki Roshi, who left his monastery near Kyoto when he was my age—61— to travel to a new country whose language he didn’t speak (and still doesn’t) to help water the seed of Buddhism in Los Angeles, California. His first Zen meditation hall was in someone’s garage with a handful of students and five or so years later, they bought an old Boy Scout Camp atop Mt. Baldy overlooking Claremont, the place I went when I did my first Zen retreat in 1973. It’s still going on, with satellite centers in L.A., New Mexico, Sonoma County and other places. Up until recently when he was taken ill, the Roshi was still teaching—at 105 years old!

“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?” There’s another kind of Zen question and mirrors aside, I feel healthier, more fit and more accomplished than I ever have before, truly at the top of my game when it comes to Orff workshops (and also jazz piano). But more times than is healthy for me, I find myself counting the years left of doing this work and don’t like the math. I don’t know any Orff teachers in their 80’s still teaching workshops and summer courses, only a handful in their 70’s, perhaps ten to twenty in their 60’s. If I think I just have ten or fifteen years left to live this kind of life, it feels too short. When I accept work for 2014, I start calculating my age. Aargh!

But if I think of my Roshi, I feel a lot better. Following his model, I have 44 more years of chanting “Criss cross applesauce” with grown adults, bringing the room alive with motion with some hot Steppin’ body percussion patterns or bringing it to a hush with “Rain Rain Go Away” sung and played on Orff instruments. That feels better.

And so after a hearty zazen, I pack up my recorder and set off for the first day of the rest of my life giving Orff workshops, taking the next step in my own strange path to disappearing in love.

Back in the Armchair

If I were reading my own travel blog, I might be a little miffed. The title has lured me to settle in the easy chair and vicariously see a bit of the world without the hassle of delayed planes and missing hotel reservations and slow elevators and failed Internet connections and instead I’m reading about yet another music class of joyous interplay that surely will bring World Peace where all else has failed. Who cares? I want to hear about whether the Great Wall is really so great (it is) and is it really true that a small plate of cold buckwheat noodles and a few shrimp tempura in Japan can cost $25? (It can, but great news in Japan—no tip!!!).

I want a photo of a thousand bicycles on the Beijing Streets (sorry! 10 year too late—the government pushed for cars and cars it is). Did you really have noodles and vegetables for breakfast each morning at the hotel? (I did). Did you learn any Chinese? (I worked on a short poem and watched my brain do an intensive internal Google search for any sound that was close to the one I just heard and come up empty—and that’s why everyone laughed at what came out of my mouth.). Do you really believe your theory that laughing hysterically with friends at people you know in common who aren’t in the room helps alleviate jet lag? (Still testing this one, but it seemed to.)

What’s the most interesting part of the Temple of Heaven? (Got there close to closing, but was able to test out the Echo Wall, a kind of St. Paul’s Cathedral circular outdoor wall where you can say something on end of the circle and your friend can hear your voice emerge from the wall on the other side. Actually, with everyone shouting, it was hard to hear, but it worked better when we played recorders.) Did you go to the Forbidden City? (Wasn’t allowed. Ha ha! No, I went six years ago and the scale and grandeur of it all was quite remarkable.)

I heard a rumor about Japanese toilets with knobs on the side for spray and bidet. (Yep. Got one in my hotel, but damn if I’m going to test it out.) Why was the background music Mozart piano in a traditional sushi restaurant? (See my Julia Roberts blog). Is it true that some idiot in the newspaper the flight attendant handed you thinks Romney won the debate? (Sigh.) Is it true that if you keep writing to make me happier in my armchair that you’ll run out of time to prepare tomorrow’s class?



Friday, October 5, 2012

Julia Roberts and Chinese Opera

I’m walking through the fancy Olympic-built Beijing airport and Julia Roberts is smiling at me, enticing me to buy some fancy French perfume. Heading to the gate, Tchaikovsky is serenading me with The Nutcracker Suite. I can’t help but wonder why I don’t hear Chinese Opera playing in Chicago airport as I pass photos of Diana Xu, the current Ms. Universe contestant from China, selling me ginseng.

Of course, I don’t really wonder. I know enough of the ways of the world to know how those with the big shoulders of power and money take up more than their share of room. And interestingly enough, so much of it comes down to alphabetic literacy.

A decade or so ago, I had a private festival of reading about the advent of literacy in general and the Western phonetic alphabet in particular. Preface to Plato, Orality and Literacy, The Singer of Tales, A Is for Ox, The Spell of the Sensuous, The Gutenberg Galaxy are just some of the books I can recall without looking them up. The latter, written by Marshall McCluhan a half-century or so ago, touches directly on this matter:

•"The phonetic alphabet diminishes the role of the other senses of sound and touch and taste… it creates  a sudden breach between the auditory and visual experience of man. Only the phonetic alphabet makes such a sharp division in experience, giving to its user an eye for an ear, and freeing him from the tribal trance of resonating word and magic and the web of kinship."

"...from the invention of the alphabet there has been a continuous drive in the Western world toward the separation of the senses, of functions, of operations, of states emotional and political, as well as of tasks..."

• "Only alphabetic cultures have ever mastered connected lineal sequences as pervasive forms of psychic and social organization. The breaking up of every kind of experience into uniform units in order to produce faster action and change of form (applied knowledge) has been the secret of Western power over man and nature alike."

"The alphabet is an aggressive and militant absorber and transformer of cultures...any society possesing the alphabet can translate any adjacent culture into its alphabetic mode. But this is a one-way process. No non-alphabetic culture can take over an alphabetic one; because the alphabet cannot be assimilated; it can only liquidate or reduce.”

Because my daily bread is buttered with “resonate words and tones and magic and forming a web of kinship,” these insights are of great interest to me. I work with—and take delight in— oral learners called preschoolers, get newspaper-reading screen-addicted adults to slap their bodies, vocalize grunts and make eye contact with their neighbors while dancing in body-beating bliss. I see how my music teacher tribe members are fighting, and often losing, a battle with the t-crossers and i-dotters who insist that we deal only in the coin of uniform units producing predictable results that can be measured by machines. The lineal sequences of efficient factories still dominate school cultures, the breaking up of every kind of experience into the fiction of school subjects run by clocks and timetables transforms the freedoms and freewheeling imaginations of childhood to the humdrum world of class schedules. I know—and have to accept as a trade-off for hotel reservations, running water and terrorism protection—that a man in a uniform in Passport Control has the power to make my life miserable if a single paper is missing, but I have no power or invitation to make his life joyful by teaching him some music.

Not that I entirely object to linear organization. (This particular blog entry certainly could use some.)
I think I’m finally over my naivete about local tribal culture steeped in oral tradition as the model par excellence for human culture. I still find much to recommend it, but when conservative traditions from clitorectomies to widow-burning continue unopposed because no one has encountered the kind of alternative viewpoints that reading can provide, it reveals that not only is the return to tribal culture impossible once Starbucks has moved in, but not wholly desirable. What is desirable, and what I aim for in my teaching and educational vision, is the personal and collective re-balancing of the senses, the kind of thing I touched on in a long-ago blog titled “Dance, Sing and Read.”

So I hoped this has helped the patient reader understand why they’re unlikely to encounter Chinese opera over the loudspeakers in Chicago Airport and why Julia Roberts is following me everywhere. 

Beyond Chop Suey

I came to Beijing once before in February of 2006. As expected, the Great Wall and Imperial Palace and other big tourist draws were indeed impressive, but the highlight was the food. It simply was extraordinary. Of course, living in San Francisco, I had moved far beyond the chop suey and chow mein of my 1950’s family dinners out at The Golden Lantern Restaurant in Elizabeth, New Jersey. But I never encountered food like this before and frankly, haven’t found it since. Until last night.

San Francisco venture capitalists, take note! If someone could open a restaurant serving anything close to what seems to be standard fare here, you could make your fortune. The first surprise is that vegetables or meat heaped on top of rice or noodles is rare. Instead, there are about 10 to 20 small plates of twenty different kinds of mushrooms each prepared differently, vegetables, tofu, tofu made to look like shrimp or chicken, actually shrimp, chicken, pork, etc. No rice, no noodles, just a Lazy Susan filled with these goodies and germaphobes, don’t be squeamish that your fellow diners reach for their little portions with the same chopsticks they eat with. Each dish distinct and each flavorful beyond a foodie’s wildest dreams.

I remember writing back in ’06 that I missed certain complexities in my amateur hearing of Chinese music, neither the thrilling polyrhythms of Africa nor the intricate polyphony of Bach. I concluded that each culture chooses where to place its genius and that having eaten in Ghana and visited my share of German restaurants, with all due respect, their cuisines are low on the side of complexity, nuance and variety. But these meals in Beijing—oh, my!

My suggestion? Go to a West African dance class, then on to rehearsal with the Bach choir and top it off with dinner at an authentic Chinese restauarant. That would be your entry into The Temple of Heaven. But until some SF entrepeneur figures it out, you’ll have to go to Beijing to do it. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Be Your Longing

(Note to reader: I wrote this on October 1st and then four subsequent blogs, but due to internet blockage in China, they lay dormant on my computer. Now newly arrived in Tokyo, I send the first out into the world, to be followed soon by others. Did you miss me?)

Where do I belong? Perhaps everyone finds this question rising to the top of their daily doubts, but then again, perhaps not. Those born into a particular culture and ethnic identity and place where they will live their whole life, those who are assigned a particular niche in their society that they accept without question, those who inherit a craft or profession that has awaited them since childhood, may find this question puzzling. But for this world-traveling New Jerseyian transplanted to California, this Russian Jew by blood, Unitarian by upbringing, Buddhist by choice, this fickle fellow leaping back and forth between musician, writer, teacher, this musician drifting from Baroque organ to classical piano to jazz piano to Bulgarian bagpipe to Appalachian fake-banjo to xylophone traditions of the world and beyond, well, thatís a very real question. I once went to a day workshop with poet David Whyte about the theme of belonging and asked where such a person as myself might belong. "Perhaps at the crossroads of all those identities and disciplines," he answered, affirming exactly what I suspected.

So as I returned from a satisfying Calgary workshop last night and then went back to the airport the next morning for the 12-hour flight to China, I once again found myself a bit puzzled that I could feel at home in such strange circumstances, that getting back into the airplane seat felt like returning to my monkís cell to continue my devotions. Or at least bring me to the workshop site where the real prayers are sung. And grabbing a book to keep me company, I reached for John O'Donohu's Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom and found yet another affirmation. He writes:

"People frequently need to belong to an external system because they are afraid to belong to their own lives. If you soul is awakened, then you realize that this is the house of your real belonging. If you hyphenate 'belonging', it yields a lovely axiom for spiritual growth: Be-Your-Longing."

Dang! Wish I had turned that etymological trick first! Just up my alley. But profound truth, at least for me. Belonging indeed means being your longing, finding the place where your soul can stretch its legs. And thatís exactly what itís doing, here in my Economy Plus seat that affords it ample room. When it comes to being true to my diverse longings, I have flown the requisite miles and earned the Gold Premium Card. And itís great! I get to check in faster, go through the quick security line and even hang out in the lounge with free snacks! Not to mention store up some points for a few free trips.

So here I am again, winging to China and Japan a year and a half after I flew to Korea and Japan and began this Confessions of a Traveling Music Teacher blog. With no effort on my part, Iíve managed to stay true to the teaching, the traveling, the longingóand the blog itself. And what awaits me at the airport? Not the old exotic excitement of being thrown into an entirely different world, stepping out into the air to the buzz of taxis and rickshaws and hustlers surrounding me, driving past folks out on the street cooking around open fires or playing street music or leading their camels or elephants or what-have-you through a bustling marketplace. I know what Iím in for and itís a waste of energy to even complain. The familiar faces of some friends, everyone checking their cell-phones, the drive on the freeway past huge billboards of Julia Roberts selling perfume, into town with the big buildings and requisite McDonalds, KFCís, Starbucks, signs in both Chinese and English. Familiar all, with a slight twist and that certainly makes things easier for me on some levels.

The age of the foreign exotic is passing, homogenized by media and technology and maybe thatís not all bad. Now the excitement is joining hands in the workshop circle and find out what old things will be preserved, what new things will be created from the genuine needs of each place and time. Find out what happens when each of us reaches beyond our inherited ethnic identity to become our longing. For the people who come to the Orff workshop have been tapped by a particular desire and when we gather together, that individual journey of each soul joins into a collective force, not only to further our private journey, but to publicly pass it on to the children and help them start growing their dreams. Thatís about as close to the real purpose of this traveling music teacher as this blog has touched. May it continue!