Friday, November 30, 2012

Outrageous Ambition

I’ve never hunted in my life. Never stalked or shot an animal. But I am a hunter of words, of inspired phrases that capture the essence of what I need at any given moment. My weapon of choice is a Niji pen, my sack to carry home my prey a piece of paper, any size. I stalk through the world in a forest of words waiting for the ones I’m hungry for to appear. When I bring them down, I take them home, skin them, dress them and cook them to bring to the table of an article or blog and the feast begins.

And so yesterday I attended a Forum on Music Education sponsored by Cal Arts at Zellerbach. The impetus was the presence of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra and the remarkable work of José Antonio Abreu, the man in Venezuala who began teaching music to 11 kids in a garage and 37 years later, has touched some 400,000 children, most of who were “youth at risk.” Now known as El Sistema and spreading rapidly worldwide, his work has been applauded from all corners of education, art and social work. More on this in the next few postings.

Regretfully, I missed Abreu’s appearance at the Forum the day before, but during the combination of presentations and break-out discussions yesterday, my Niji was scribbling away furiously, as if I had surprised a herd of edible animals at the waterhole. In describing some nine qualities that characterized El Sistema and that could be translated into other ways of working and thinking, one little phrase caught my ear:

Outrageous Ambition.

Abreu’s outrageous ambition was to create social change through music, a sweeping vision that he has largely realized. Though of course, progress in one outrageous ambition simply means opening the door to the next. You never wholly arrive and that’s what keeps it outrageous. If you dream small enough to accomplish every corner of your hopes, then you have sold yourself short. I think of Rilke’s lines:

When we win, it’s with small things and the winning itself makes us small.”

Or Blake:

“I pity the man whose passions are so small that he can control them.”

I began my teaching life with a similar outrageous ambition— music teaching to transform culture, schools, children’s lives and teacher’s lives. Where Abreu traveled a mile, I nudged forward an inch, but no matter— it’s all the same game. I loved hearing these two words together to affirm my own hopes and dreams. Both words are ambivalent and that makes them yet more enticing.

“Outrageous” as defined by Merriam-Webster online can mean:

1)    Exceeding the limits of what is usual
2)    Not conventional or matter-of-fact: fantastic

That well describes my involvement withThe San Francisco School and Orff Schulwerk, both growing in the turbulent ‘60’s out of discontent with “business-as-usual,” both requiring thought and dreaming beyond the conventional or casual matter-of-fact, both aiming for fantastic, as in, “How was the concert?” “Fantastic!”

But “outrageous” is a two-edged sword, its alternate definitions as follows:

1)    having no regard for morality, going beyond all standards of what is right.
2)    Violent or unrestrained in temperament or behavior

Like the outrage I feel when people blindly block my outrageous ambitions with small-minded, self-protecting, agenda-pushing, top-down decisions. But that’s not the side of the word that Abreu had in mind— or me either.

Then “ambition.” In Latin, the ambit was the border or circumference of the known. Thus, ambition is to walk the full measure of the circumference and even peer over the wall. It carries its shadow side— an ambitious person hungry for power doesn’t often earn our admiration. But when we speak of an ambitious project, we admire its high goals and the courage of its visionaries to take risks. Ambition is equally the fuel for both selfish greed and power and selfless service to social justice. Donald Trump and Martin Luther King both carried a hefty measure of ambition, but for markedly different ends.

Outrageous ambition has the power to open doors few people even notice, never mind consider opening. And what has driven me mad in the current climate of litigation is the way administrators immediately chain an outrageous ambition to an insurance broker or lawyer, shooting it down before it has even flapped its wings, tethering it to a short leash that kills its spirit. Let it fly!! Don’t limit it with your own fears, your “that will never work” cynicism, the “yes, but…” arguments. It will soon find out its own limits.

In fact, story after story yesterday of remarkable achievements all affirmed that the larger the dream, the deeper the commitment of the dreamer. After the initial rush of the vision came the details of the funding, all of which could have brought it crashing down. But with patience, perseverance and an unswerving faith in the rightness of the dream, remarkable things finally happened.

So my friends, dream and re-dream you own outrageous ambitions and don’t apologize.
Dream big, start small and keep your eye on the prize.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Doug's Survival Manual

Talent is forged in solitude, character in the tumult of the world. —Goethe

Time for a confession. I love the courtroom drama. I love the war with words. I love lining up arguments like a regiment of soldiers. Just after the moment of feeling betrayed, wronged, astonished, outraged, some part of me is shouting “Yippee! Let’s get to work! Here’s your chance to re-define what you stand for, re-articulate your values, test out how much you care about them and see how much heat you can stand in the kitchen of conflict.”

I was born into adulthood in the tumult of the late ‘60’s, but it was a birth midwifed in a room with soft lighting and caring people. I expected the world to be ultimately a loving and good-hearted place and approached people and situations as if. And minus a couple of dicey hitchhiking stories, the world mostly bore out my expectations as time after time I experienced the kindness of strangers and the goodness of friends. Then I set to work in my little corner of Utopia at the San Francisco School, with a side-community of huggy Orff folks. Of course, Greek tragedy and Shakespearean drama was always lurking below the surface, but mostly it was a delightful romp in La-la Land.

But somewhere around six or seven years ago, Tumult found my hiding place and came at me with a vengeance. It creeped under the gates of my school, slipped in the door of the national Orff meetings, met me around the corner of all the institutions I encountered in furthering my work. And this Mr. Naïve was constantly taken by surprise time and again. Each new outrage knocked me to the ground and sat heavy on my shoulders.

And yet I always managed to get up. And now I’m more prepared. Not that it all hurts any less, but I’m just a trifle less shocked. I’m back in the tumult now (with a lot of company) with my national Orff organization and I’m trying to weather this storm so I don’t get too battered. So I made myself a little primer to remind me how to get through it all. As follows:

• Speak out—then duck.

• It’s not what’s right, but who has might. But speak the truth anyway.

• Betrayal is as everyday as bread. And no-carb diets don’t work.

• Expect less of the world, but keep fighting.

• Don’t be a silent worker on the assembly line of manufactured consent.

• Don’t pin your hopes on someone changing. They won’t.

• Don’t be silent because they want you to, but for your own health, shut-up occasionally
   and go play the piano.

Like now. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Proud Papa

When I say I’m a proud papa, I don’t mean to say I’m proud of my two children, Kerala and Talia. Of course, I am, and excessively so. I sometimes wonder if I should have been the kind of father who scolds and criticizes and then once in a blue moon, gives praise and kind words that mean so much because they’ve been withheld for so long. My praise of my children is like a daily toothbrush, mere routine for them and probably not valued more than a squeeze of toothpaste.

Be that as it may, what I mean by today’s title is that I’m proud of some of the things I’ve done as a father. I can’t go so far as to claim as I’m a great Dad because I have living children to tell the true stories and expose me as a fraud. But along with the thousand mistakes and hundred things I could have done better, both my wife Karen and I hit on some winning moments in the childraising game.

Besides the rainproof roof and the healthy food and meals eaten together and the publicly presentable clothes and the nightly bedtime stories and one wonderful school after another, there were some fun, quirky routines and practices that other parents might find intriguing. Amongst them:

• The TV in the closet to be rolled out each Thursday night for two or three shows we all watched together. (Back then, things like The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers, etc.) Then rolled out again a few times a month for an occasional video.

• The journals we kept from the day of their birth through high school, marking their developmental breakthroughs, funny moments and our unending praise of them in print.With photos glued in. (As a new Mom, Kerala recently re-read hers and found it enlightening and fun.)

• Neighborhood Easter egg hunts, summer barbecues, Halloween pumpkin carving and Christmas caroling.

• Talia Day and Kerala Day, when they could chose whatever they wanted to do and wherever they wanted to go (within reason) and I was at their bidding. Related to this was going on one out-of-town workshop trip with me each year.

• Travels to “exotic” places. Talia was toilet-trained in Bali, Kerala learned to snorkel in Fiji, we all got to boast about the record number of mosquitoes in two minutes in Costa Rica, they both had to fend off marriage proposals in Ghana, and so on.

But the thing that Karen and I did particularly well was The Birthday Party. Each one was an invitation for us to outdo the previous and go to the limits of our imagination. They started simply with piñatas and fishing for party favors in the cardboard ocean, but increased in complexity as the kids aged. Some were standard fun local things, like miniature golf, sailing in the Bay and the Tactile Dome in the Exploratium and others were truly homegrown. Kerala shared her 10th birthday with a classmate and we started the party at our house with all the kids dressed in fake tuxes and gowns sipping fake martinis and then they all traveled by limousine (not too expensive if you share with the other family) to the other girl’s house. Talia’s 13th birthday was The Vertigo Theme, where we drove around San Francisco with the six kids invited videotaping our own version of the Hitchcock classic, complete with wigs, hats and a few props. We then came back and watched it (still have the video) and then watched the real film. There were neighborhood scavenger hunts and then more elaborate ones in North Beach, Chinatown and Nob Hill. Drinks at the top of the Fairmont and in the Tonga Room. Driving the teenager party girls to Mt. Tam while they hiked in to West Point Inn and spent the night there sans parents. And so it went.

Today is Talia’s 28th birthday. She’s on some beach in Uruguay out of e-mail range. Perhaps she’s organized a scavenger hunt or is telling the Vertigo story. Or just chilling dreaming of her last week of teaching in Argentina and then turning her compass homeward after being away for over three years. Whatever she’s doing, wherever she is, I hope she’s having a grand Talia day and that she knows that her Papa is proud of her.

And wishes he could be there to organize the party! 

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Walmart Trample

I’m holding my breath that we can make it through the day without someone being trampled to death at Walmart. For many years now, it has been like a ritual sacrifice to the Gods of Consumption. The morning TV is in hog heaven covering “Black Friday Hyped and Hectic,” but so far no tragic Walmart reports. I’m just wondering if anyone else finds it odd that one day we’re gathered around the dinner table with our loved ones and the next day elbowing, pushing and shoving each other to be the first to grab Nintendo 55.

Facebook abounds with testimonies about Thanksgiving as the most lovely of holidays. The theme is family, friends and gratitude, things not often given airplay in our national discourse. Hallmark Cards has still mostly left it alone and the only presents expected is presence. I called it yesterday the most American of holidays, calling for Art Tatum on the i-Pod, eating native root vegetables, tossing a football and/or watching the game. It’s a holiday we can showcase to the world and be proud that we value spending a day cooking, visiting, taking time to play chess or board games and give thanks.

And then the next day? Black Friday. It’s as if the effort to simply enjoy a day without shopping is too much for our default setting of Buy! Buy! Buy! and we feel compelled to engage in rampant, franctic, hyped and hectic consumption. Is this the real American holiday? Is Thanksgiving an anomaly and the Walmart Trample our true National Dance?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist—or a social scientist—to understand that dollars has long been the centerpiece on the American table. Dickens observed this about us over 150 years ago (read Martin Chuzzlewit). And remember Bush’s advice immediately after 9/11? “Keep shopping,” Jesus must have had a prophetic vision of our American garages, basements and attics when he advised, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust does corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal.”

So which is the true America? Or do these two days side-by-side symbolize the Jekkyl and Hyde of our strange personality? Regardless of who we have been, we can still choose who we want to become. Friends, my advice is to stay away from Walmart—today and every day. Remember that consumption was the old term for tuberculosis, a debilitating disease of the lungs. Consumptive people had fever, night sweats, chills, fatigue, trouble breathing— just like the folks dreaming of being the first in the Walmart parking lot early on Black Friday. Instead of driving to the Mall, walk in the woods. Breathe the fresh air of festive gathering. Keep gratitude at the center of your daily discourse.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgivings I Have Known

“Where have I been other Thanksgivings?” is a little game I play with myself as this ritual marker in the year rolls around. Without my journals at my fingertips, not an easy question to answer, but interesting to see what surfaces in the memory.

Growing up in New Jersey, we often had a family over to share the day and in retrospect, it perhaps was my first encounter with the foreign. The father was from Egypt and his three kids were named Mona, Omar and Ramses. I believe my folks met them at the Unitarian Church and later my Dad became business partners working on the first biodegradable detergents.

On my first Thanksgiving back from college in 1969, I went to my girlfriend’s house in Brooklyn and shared the day with famous or soon-to-be-famous authors Sol Yurick, Marge Piercy and Eric Carle. I’m sure none of them would remember meeting another long-haired hippie against the war, but they became part of my name-dropping list. Even yesterday, my daughter was reading “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” to granddaughter Zadie and I was able to impress her with “Did you know that I once had Thanksgiving dinner with Eric Carle?” Ka-ching! Big points.

A couple of years later I spent my first Thanksgiving far away from home at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio with a rag-tag group of folks who couldn’t get home for the holiday. But it was at that dinner that I first heard a Scott Joplin record (the Joshua Rifkin one) and it proved to be a significant doorway into committing myself to jazz piano. And along with Art Tatum,  I still play this music on Thanksgiving Day, this most American of musics for this most American of holidays.

Settling in San Francisco in the early 70’s, I remember a Thanksgiving with my sister, her husband and some of her modern dancer friends from the Margeret Jenkins Dance Company. My brother-in-law made a macrobiotic pumpkin pie with no sweetening. I was trying hard to participate in the brave new world we were creating, but this went too far!

And then came the flat on Castro St., my first time living with a woman who was soon to become wife and a few months into my first big job with no inkling that 38 years later, I would still be there. We had twenty people over to eat, that exciting feeling of being young adults creating a family larger than mere blood ties. The next year in someone’s barn in Sonoma County, another with the folks in the Ockeghem Chorus I helped start and then our most different to date, a modest Greek salad in Athens, Greece about to fly to India in our year of travel around the world.

And on it went. First turkey meal with two-month old daughter Kerala, my sister in labor on our couch while we ate quickly at the table nearby, Karen’s water breaking just as we were leaving from our Calistoga gathering. Cooking with Kerala today, I asked her what she remembered and out came the stories of eating too much pumpkin pie and never eating it since, fasting all day to further enjoy the meal and getting a horrible stomache after, spending some of it in her room when we finally caught her torturing her sister Talia. Once the kids came, we alternated years with my sister’s family, were blessed with fifteen Thanksgivings with my parents after they moved out in 1992 and had a delightful moment when Kerala came home on a cheap ticket from Brown University, rang the bell and surprised us!

And here I am in another memorable moment, first Thanksgiving with little Zadie, Kerala, husband, Ronnie, Karen (Talia peeking in on Skye) in company with step-grandson Alijah and his grandfather on a beautiful sunny day in Washington DC. Obama is in the White House nearby, the 49’ers are showing promise for the Super Bowl, but the lion’s share of gratitude is simply that we are here, blessed with the gift of life. My little stories above mean little to the people who weren’t there (and maybe not much to them), but it’s an exercise I recommend. Take a moment to remember those who were with us, those who still are, those who have gone, and give our little bow of gratitude that such miracles came to pass. Happy Thanksgiving, friends. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Orff Village Elders

Some 44 years ago, 10 people sat in a living room and dreamed up an American association that would carry forth the vision of Carl Orff and Gunild Keetman’s revolutionary approach to music education. They named it the American Orff Schulwerk Association (AOSA) and watched it grow from those humble beginnings to an association 5,000 strong at its peak, with an additional 5,000 or so members belonging to over 100 local chapters. The entire edifice was built on volunteer labor, music teachers who had to learn the basics of running an organization on top of their day job teaching children. They figured out how to host a national conference that grew from some 100 attendees in the earlier ones to over 2,000 at their peak, launched a quality quarterly magazine, created a structure to incorporated local chapters in most of the states across the country and much more. The national headquarters were in someone’s garage for years. The whole show was run by passion, can-do confidence and trust in their own intelligence. And it worked.

But they didn’t do it all alone. Every step of the way there was partnership with profressionals outside the music education world. There were the musical instrument companies, the publishers, the printers, the bookdealers, the accountants, the lawyers, the insurance people, the hotels and conference centers— in short, all the folks any organization needs to realize its mission. These auxiliary relationships played—and play— an essential role. No organization can do without them.

But what was essential, is essential and will always be essential, is a clearly defined relationship between the keepers of the vision and the supplemental professionals. Those volunteer music teachers turned National Board Members, magazine editors, workshop, conference and summer course organizers are the ones qualified to make the important decisions. The outside hired professionals are in a secondary role in service of the vision. They are there to help, not lead. When we give our power over to the marketing folks or the lawyers or the loan companies to make policy decisions, that’s when the trouble starts. When we apply the business model to all situations, when branding and image and profit sit at the head of the table where wisdom and vision and experience formerly sat, things start to get a little crazy. And that’s the cliff that AOSA is teetering on now.

What kind of thinking sits behind this willingness to let people who don't know us determine our future? The idea that the trained professional is smarter than the village elder. And so the guy sitting in University classrooms studying agriculture by reading books and taking notes on Power Point presentations goes to Italy or Bali to tell the farmers how to do things right. And of course, he knows nothing. The local farmers who have lived intimately with the land and inherited practices suited precisely to their place have very little to learn from this outsider. Maybe something— no need to slam the door entirely. But they get to decide what will make sense based on their intimate knowledge of their particular situation.

And that’s precisely the same for us Orff teachers. We know exactly how to recruit new members— do good work and show it. Virtually every single person of the thousand plus in our recent Conference will testify— “I’m here because I went to a workshop and it changed my life forever.” Some might say they read a book or heard a recording or visited a class or went to a kid’s performance or even saw something on Youtube and that’s what brought them to the workshop. Supplemental media are real and important, attractive advertising images are fine, state-of-the-art Website helps, but the real deal is the work itself and hooking people into a lifetime of difficulty and challenge that will ultimately bring deep reward.

In short, we veteran Orff teachers are the village elders with the wisdom and knowledge far beyond the narrow confines of the marketing guy. We’ve proven that we can create and sustain an organization that touches thousands of children and teachers worldwide. We’ve responded to changes in technologies, political climates, educational trends and have the capacity to be at the forefront of determining our own future. We’re smart, we’re savvy, we’re dedicated and committed. When we don’t know something, we know who to ask. When we need help, we figure out how to get it. When we get advice, we filter it through our intimate knowledge of who we are and what’s fundamentally important about our work. At least I hope we do. I’ll keep you posted. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Remembering What's Important

“I must say that I still feel a glow from your inspirational time here. When you get a real jolt to your sedentary ways, it's not because some high flyer flits through town with some new, over-hyped, revolutionary way of doing things. It's because someone like you came along and made us re-visit and reconsider the very core notions of our approaches to educating children. You helped us remember what’s important.”

This affirmation from a veteran teacher in Nova Scotia touched me to the core. My field of music teaching, like any worthy pursuit, has a complex sequence of details that must be mastered slowly over a long period of time. How to craft a lesson so that it flows with the precision and beauty of a Bach Partita. How to find the heart of a piece of material and start to chip away at it until its glorious form is revealed. How to connect all the notes between one lesson and the next so that the themes connect and develop like an emerging sonata. It’s a long list and a slow road to mastery.

But at the end of the matter, the driving force behind all the details, the true north that lets you know whether you’re on track or lost is as simple as this—remember what’s important. Begin with a vision, sharpen the focus of your guiding image, start each moment with the endgame in mind and all the rest will follow.

In the recent Orff Conference, I experimented with an emerging new format—the Living Lecture (tentative name for a new form of teaching I’m developing). It consists of playing a game or singing a song or doing a dance (in this case, a combination of all three with the song Shoo Fly) that poses a problem that needs to be quickly and collectively solved. We do the dance, the group identifies the problem (often more than one), suggests a solution (often more than one) and we try it. Then I speak a bit about the larger principle that sits behind the problem and its solution and then return to the dance with a new problem to be solved. Again a short talk on a new theme revealed that relates to all of education and the dance again, each time with a variation.

The potential negative of the approach is that the teacher in the workshop can’t wholly settle into one mode (the active doing) or the other (the reflective thinking). The potential positive is that when the framing idea is articulated, the mind is wide open, the heart open, the blood flowing, the brain oxygenated— in short, the participants are wholly ripe to listen and receive the idea. Then when they return to the next activity, the ideas sink down into the muscles until the next point of reflection. 

Still a work in progress, but many folks reported that they like it. Perhaps the next step would be a cooler and slower reflection at the end reviewing the main points and taking notes— an old-fashioned tried and tested way of absorbing and remembering information, but all of it more animated and sinking deeper because of the physical, social, emotional, imaginative and analytic experiences preceding it.

By the end, we touched on some of the following truths that can inform how we teach:

• We are problem solvers. That’s how we survived in a hostile world and that’s what we need to survive in the world to come. Create classes that offer problems.

• Every problem solved creates another problem. Each questioned answered generates the next question. Create activities that generate more inquiry.

• Boredom is the root of all creativity. The short-circuiting of boredom in children (and adults) through the instant gratification of machines is a grave danger. Give children some moments when things repeat often enough to start to feel boring and watch what happens.

• We are social creatures and social learners. Create a community of learners.

“Only that day dawns to which we are awake… The sun is but a morning star.” (Henry David Thoreau’s last lines in Walden.) Each class is an opportunity to awaken.

A little taste of remembering what’s important. So simple, so clear, so immensely difficult.

But a word of warning. The clearer the vision, the deeper the clarity, the stronger the commitment, then the less patience one has for crap, for ignorance, short-sightedness and narrow thinking. The radar that signals you to be aware and beware of the Sirens trying to sing you to the death of your passion operates at a high level. You may notice when the Emperor has no clothes, “flitting through town with some new, over-hyped, revolutionary way of doing things.” And amidst all the glories of the recent Conference (of which there were many and worthy of noting here), the naked Emperor moment came like a surprise attack on a sunny day in Central Park. That coming up (or not) in the next blog.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Gathering of the Tribes

Tomorrow night, I will gather with a group of friends at a bar in St. Louis and dazzle them with this list: Portland, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Kansas City, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, Denver, San Diego, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Philadephia, Dallas, Memphis, Seattle, Tampa, Phoenix, Rochester, Cincinnatti, Las Vegas, Louisville, Long Beach, Birmingham, Omaha, San Jose, Charlottesville, Milwaukee, Spokane, Pittsburgh. What does it all mean? A list of cities that voted for Obama? Locations of Starbucks? Places where the mayor has given me the keys to the city?

Some of you readers might recognize the places where some 2,000 people have gathered each November for three days of fun, frivolity, philosophy and professional development.
They’re a group of committed, wacky and passionate professionals who often work in isolation, are given little recognition from the wider world and even less money, are checking their mailboxes each year for pink slips casually informing them their job is gone, are carrying heavy objects from their car even at 89 years old or driving U-hauls around in the wee hours of the morning.

Perhaps you recognize the tribe described here— Orff teachers! The cities listed above are where I’ve gathered with them every year since 1982 at the American Orff Schulwerk Association’s National Conference. It’s a time we all look forward to, a chance to be with like-minded people who share similar experiences, a place to play, sing and dance in workshops all day, refreshed by new material, new ideas and the pleasure of being a student again. And of course, a time to just hang out and laugh and gossip and feel outraged by this person’s “wrong” interpretation or be inspired by that person’s brilliance.

It’s a little like a 2,000 person family reunion. Whenever I hear someone say, “we’re like a family” with starry eyes, meaning to show how close-knit and loving we are, I think of actual family reunions with everyone’s lifetime issues coming to the Thanksgiving table, all the betrayals, disappointments, unequal affections, eccentric uncles, same old tired jokes and patterns and sharp-tongued innuendos and thinly disguised barbs. As with any group of people, all these are present at the Conferences with the folks who have known each other for years. But the thing that I admire is that the person who’s back you just stabbed huddled in the hall with your cronies is the same one who may end up as your partner in the evening folk dance. After the painful fake smile and desparate look around the dance circle for someone to save you, you dance together and come away softening your view that this person is the devil incarnate. And hopefully they do too.

Meanwhile, I’m so grateful to all the people who give up two years of their life to throw a three-day party. This ritual gathering has been central to my life for exactly thirty years— never missed one yet! I’ve come to them heavy-hearted or jubilant, depending on the outcome of the national election, but in both cases, they served to either comfort or celebrate. I’ve taught workshops in some twenty of them, performed with my kids from school and the adult performing group Xephyr and will debut my new jazz/Orff group The Pentatonics in this St. Louis Conference. As I go through the list seated with my friends, we collectively offer up our memories, from memorable workshops and performances to wild banquets and trips to see Graceland or Cirque du Soleil or the Civil Rights Museum or Blues clubs on Beale Street. What will we remember from St. Louis?

I’ll keep you posted.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Why Lester Young Refused to Be an Orff Teacher

There’s a story in jazz circles that Lester Young used to be a drummer, but got discouraged after the gigs when all the girls went off with the horn and piano players while he was still packing up his drums. So for the noblest of reasons—ie, women—he decided to switch to tenor sax. His sex life improved  and, as you Lester Young fans can testify, the world is richer for his musical choice.

If Lester had gotten a job as an Orff teacher, he would have switched to Kodaly in a heartbeat. After the Kodaly concert, the teacher puts some music in a briefcase and perhaps a music stand and is free to go out for beers with his/her adoring fans. Whereas the Orff teacher is already thinking about who will gather the mallets during the applause. While others are basking in the afterglow of work well-done, the Orff teacher—well, at least James, Sofia and I still in a school with no theater (about to change in six months!)—is pleading with a few parents to stick around to help load the U-haul van.

And so after three months of hard work, numerous eight-hour rehearsals with 10 to 12 year old kids and the great pleasure of sharing the stage with one of the more varied and interesting group of musicians you can imagine in the recent World Music Festival, the U-haul pattern persisted. Today I slipped out during rehearsal to drive across town to rent it, drive it back, park it, rush back to rehearsal in time for…snack. Found some kids eating pizza and hoped they’d catch me up on what I missed.

We performed—magnificently, I might add— and while the farewell hugs after the show began, I rushed out to get the U-haul and bring it around to the loading dock. Some parents indeed had helped and while they loaded the truck, I went down to the parking lot to get my bike and stick it in the back. By the time the truck was loaded, everyone was gone—no thank yous or satisfying farewells.

To add insult to injury, the U-haul place didn’t have the key to the lock they provided and so Sofia and I drove around looking for 24-hour Walgreens. After first going to two that were closed, we found one at 18th and Castro, and bought a tiny lock that barely fit. I dropped her at home and then came the task of finding a parking place large enough for the truck. Fifteen minutes of circling in the Inner Sunset and I found it.

Tomorrow off I go to school (mind you, this is my time off from school) to unload the van, return the U-haul and wonder if I’ll get reimbursed the $60 for the rental, $10 for the gas, $8 for the lock— and of course, never even consider getting paid for the time. We are ORFF TEACHERS, committed to our lifelong motto— WHATEVER IT TAKES. And of course, we’ll do it for free.

Oh, the stories I could tell. The midnight moment with instruments on the sidewalk that wouldn’t fit in the van, me trying to strap them on my back and ride them home on my bike—in the rain. Or the time after the Holiday Plays when everyone was gone and the house manager wanted to get paid and James and I were the only ones left, counting quarters found in remote pockets. The time parents put everything out on the sidewalk to load and someone (not a school parent) walked off with James’ computer. A lovely way to end the show. Someday we’ll write our memoir—Our Life With U-Haul. But meanwhile, I probably need to move that truck early tomorrow morning for street cleaning.

Maybe I’ll take up tenor sax.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

In Our Own Best Interest

Listening to the radio show “Left, Right and Center,” I found out that the two richest counties in California, Marin County and Silicon Valley, both voted in favor of Proposition 30, a proposition designed to raise revenues for California's failing schools. The strategy was to increase sales tax and also increase the taxes on high-income earners— ie, rich people. Amidst the other good news of Tuesday's election was that the proposition passed.

Back in the late '70's, there was another proposition— 13— where Californians voted to reduce property tax, much of which went to education and libraries and health clinics and other humane ventures. Within a decade or so, California plummeted from number 1 in education to number 48, right up there with Mississippi. Music programs were slashed and cut to close to zero and still in San Francisco, there is no general music in the elementary schools unless a parent group funds it. So Proposition 30 is the first step in a long time designed to overturn the damage. 

The radio host was commenting on how interesting it was that not only did the proposition pass, but that the two richest counties voted in favor of it. And that’s when the Right Wing representative, a reasonable enough guy on the surface, commented, “I’d like to go to those counties to find out how these people were convinced to vote against their own best interest.”

And that’s why I will never be a Republican. Because the whole thinking seems to be  based on “I got mine and ain’t no one gonna take it from me.” And that fantasy extends to thinking that everyone who is well-to-do is so by their own initiative and hard work, completely discounting the incredible privilege of white skin, parents who pay for SAT tutors, favors from the good-ole-boys club and all those folks who were born on third base and think they hit a triple. But more important than that is the perception that these rich folks were voting against their own interest, i.e. their chance to buy an extra summer home and a new yacht.

Kudos to those Marin County and Silicon Valley folks who understand that it is in their own best interest to educate well the children of the next generation. Not just their own, but all of them. The tired old “looking out for number one” philosophy is completely against the current of what’s needed. The recent election is forcing Republicans to look at their policy of excluding women or Latinos or blacks for the wrong reason—their own political survival— instead of the right one—these are worthy people who have much to contribute and certainly deserve what the Constitution promises. As long as they’re not in charge, I can afford to feel sorry for GOP— they are missing so much richness and they must secretly suffer from their hearts being two sizes too small. It’s when they get into positions of power and foist their cynical viewpoint on the rest of us that my blood starts boiling. But if current trends continue, that might not be for a long, long time.

Meanwhile, let’s train the next generation to understand what’s truly in their best interest— a system that shows children we care and trains them in great schools publicly funded. For that kind of education, we’ll need some more money for schools. And now in California we’ll have it! The beginning of a cycle that feeds on itself to rise up the spiral and get out of the gutter. May it be so!

Friday, November 9, 2012


Now that the big operatic dramas are done—the Giant’s World Series, Barack’s stunning victory and my re-commitment to eating oatmeal every morning, I’m free to pay attention to the interesting things in life. Like keys.

At the end of my recent men’s group meeting, where the sixth of nine men announced his retirement, he summarized his life change thus: “I’m down to two keys.” And then all the men reached in their pocket and dangled their tangible connection to the workaday world, measured in the number of keys. Now there’s an interesting point of view!

What’s on my ring? Two house keys, four school keys (three of which are obsolete), one car key, one bike key. So basically I have Five-Key Status and if I retired, it would only go down one notch.

At any rate, my mind free from election anxiety and such, I started to think about keys. How I feel funny if I don’t have some in my left pants pocket. How unsatisfying the flat cards of hotels feel or the keypad release is and how I miss the satisfaction of the entrance, the turn, the click. How I like the sound of the jingle. How I hate it when they don’t work and curse the invention of locks. How the key is invested with power and access and the sense of being in charge and trusted, a member of the inner circle who can enter closed spaces or keep others out. How education is giving children keys to understanding, unlocking the experiences and concepts that open worlds. How there are key ideas, key players and 12 musical keys as well. Then there are the songs, like Paper of Pins’ “I’ll give to you the keys to my heart…”, the game “Who has the penny, who has the key…?, the funny chant using key adjectives—“big key, small key, etc,” ending with “monkey.” I thought of Key West in the Florida Keys, key lime pie, my friend who works at The Key School, the children’s call from the Lassie TV Show “Key a-key!!!” and the kid who went to my school nicknamed Kiki.

Okay, I got way too much time on my hands. Is there another election coming up soon?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Hope Revived

Let me be honest here. When I saw the long faces at Romney Headquarters watching the numbers creep up and then take that beautiful vaulting leap over Ohio to 275, I did not feel sorry for them. When I saw their sad faces and slumped shoulders watching Times Square explode with joy, I did not feel much compassion for them. As an aspiring good Buddhist, I tried not to gloat. But let’s face it— I still cheer when the bad guys get their just desserts in the movies. I felt that fairy-tale satisfaction of the happy ending, when the monsters see their own gruesome reflection in the mirror and flee in terror or die from fright. That most beautiful of numbers— 275 still ascending to 302—was a mirror to the Republicans showing the end of (well, one can hope) the culture of exclusion and privilege. It was the happiest of endings and I slept like a baby.

Amidst the tangible horrors of the Bush Error, those who died in wars or from poor health care or who lost their jobs or lost their homes or lost their capacity to think amidst the stern call for obedience, there was the feeling of public discourse hitting new lows. When the person at the top sits at a $1,000 a plate fund raising dinner and says to those gathered, “Welcome to the world of the haves and the have-mores” with an arrogant smirk on his face and the snide chuckles of his followers” (go see that clip in Michael Moore’s movie Fahrenheit 9/11), he throws the barn doors wide open to a stampede of smug privilege. And off the Republicans went, letting the Bill O-Reilly’s, Ann Coulters, Rush Limbaughs and Newt Gingriches set the tone of hate-talk and cowboy swagger. The shameless effort to demonize Obama instead of stand behind him as President, the rise of the fanatic Tea Party, the illegal bullying at the polls or tampering with votes while espousing God and country, the priority of protecting their money and privilege over serving the most basic needs of people with health care and decent public education— well, the list goes on. Shameful, shameful and making me feel ashamed that they were becoming the voice of America.

Though I would have somehow gotten through the next four years with the likes of Romney, the ascendance of this regressive good ole boys club would have shadowed my every day. It would be like watching a movie over and over where the bullies always win, reading a fairy tale where the giant with no heart in his body keeps causing damage. Of course, I know that in the Republican fold there are decent people who love their family and take care of their dog and even have a political philosophy with some points worth considering, but it’s the whole tone of exclusion, denial (climate change? Naw, don’t worry—buy that Hummer!), ignorance, lip service to Jesus without ever once considering that they would slam the door in his face if he came around barefoot and bearded talking about how the meek shall inherit the earth.

But for the moment I can let go of the anger. The mirror has been held up and the people have spoken. I looked at all the white faces at Romney Headquarters, the rich men and the Stepford-wived women, and then looked at those folks in Times Square and the difference was striking. If the Republicans want to regain credibility, they would do well to take those Times Square folks into account. Stop the swing to the right, towards more fanaticism and more exclusion and start to think about the folks they’ve had the luxury of leaving out. No more. The new America is waking up and going to the polls, standing for hours in lines to claim their voice and their vote, using Democracy for what it intended. 75% Latino vote! Women claiming their reproductive rights! Gay rights groups! A leader who says out loud “Black, white, old, young, rich, poor, gay, straight—you’re all in the club! Let’s get moving together, deal with the big issues that face us.”

And that is the next step. A few days of well-deserved exultation and exhales, knowing we won’t be struggling against exclusive and regressive politics and then roll up our sleeves and get to work. Keep active. Keep involved, Keep the pressure on to keep moving toward the whole promise of America, where people are free to love (Go Maine! Legal same-sex marriage!), free to follow their pleasure that harms no one (Go Colorado! Legal marijuana!), free to feel part of this grand venture (Go Maryland! Immigrants rights!). Obama’s victory speech once again revived the feeling of hope that democracy is alive and well and still works and exhorted us to keep the momentum going. (My own pledge is to get more involved in the politics of education.) And Romney’s concession speech was also good, a step away from continued polarization and toward genuine bipartisan cooperation.

The mood is jubilant and the world sparkles just a little bit brighter. It’s a new day. Here’s a lovely poem about it all.


Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost, green thrives, the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war,
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss, sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.

-Sheenagh Pugh

Monday, November 5, 2012

Waiting to Exhale

Six weeks after my daughter Kerala was born, Ronald Reagan was elected President. Two weeks before my daughter Talia was born, he was re-elected. Then came the senior Bush. The joy of their childhoods was set against a political backdrop that spent billions on a Star Wars nuclear shield and plans to deliver the mail after the nuclear holocaust. It was 12 long and painful years when the only thing that trickled down was stupidity and greed and fear and finally, an election day of exultation when Bill Clinton took office. How sweet that was.

Well, you all know what happened next. Another four years with Bill and then the horror of the Bush years. When W. stole the second election, I was sitting at a school meeting as people tried to talk about who was on for carpool duty. I felt as if the house was on fire and people were saying, “Pass the butter.” I ended up running screaming from the meeting and fell into the arms of the old head of school, weeping copiously.

The depth of my grief was matched by the height of my joy when Barack won four years ago. I wrote a poem about Jesse Jackson’s face and if all goes well tomorrow, will reprint it on this blog. I’m allowing myself to feel cautiously optimistic, but like so many people I know, find myself holding my breath and waiting, waiting, waiting, to exhale.

It’s not that the Democrats offer the height of the human experiment, but whereas it may once have been true that the difference between the Democrat and the Republican candidate was minimal, a quick look at the line up at the Republican Convention and then Mitt himself shows that the gap has widened significantly. And I just happen to think that we can’t afford a single minute of regressive politics, narrow thinking, outright denial (yes, climate change is real), never mind four whole years. Yes, the lobbyists and the corporations run the whole show, but don’t tell me it doesn’t make a HUGE difference as to who’s at the top. I lived through George W. and I lived through Barack and I can testify that it does. And so can millions of others.

Nothing more to say that hasn’t been said, just waiting, waiting, waiting. Final prayers mixed with phone calls to Ohio.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Sound Your Barbaric Yawp

Spent all day today at the rehearsal for the World Music Festival. This is the fourth year I’ve been involved in the Festival with my colleagues and select kids from the school and each one has been astounding. This one is called “The Opera Project” and today I got to hear the guest artists from abroad representing Korean, Chinese, Tibetan and Azerbaijan Opera. Though each style was unique, they all had one thing in common— singers going to the extreme edge of human vocal production. And of course, this is exactly the case in Western Opera as well.

Whitman, who proclaimed in his Leaves of Grass: “I sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world,” would have loved today’s rehearsal, as each of the magnified voices proclaimed the energy of nature’s grand displays— the volcanic explosion, howling hurricane wind, booming thunder or roaring waterfall. In fact, the Korean artist lived for eight years next to a large waterfall to learn how to outsing it. Life as high drama, as anguish far beyond the petty expression of mere words, of exultation not captured in polite sentences. The first sounds from the Korean singer today were more like a primal scream than a pretty musical phrase and damn if we don’t need that sometimes.

I had a lovely week at school with the kids, but fell back into the high drama of school politics. Instead of trying to sort it out with logical arguments, I could have used some of that singer’s voice. In fact, I’m thinking that I should hire him out to come with me to the next meeting. I’m picturing something like this:

“This issue has been referred to our sub-committee, who is checking it out with our insurance broker, who is recommending we create a new administrative position…”


“Well, as I was saying…”


“Yes, thank you for sharing that. I believe we’ll adjourn the meeting now.”

“All I have is my voice to undo the folded lie” said W.H. Auden and I always felt he was talking about truth-telling. But he also could have been making a bid for operatic (pick your culture) singing, where the intensity proclaims, “Life is unbearable! We suffer so much, we lose so much, we hurt so much. Our enemies hate us, our friends betray us, our lovers leave us, our children move away—or move back in. Bad people get away with murder, good people have bad things happen to them, raving lunatics run for president and sometimes get elected.  Not too mention hurricanes, floods, tornados, earthquakes tsunamis!!! It’s a terror to be alive!!! “ And we go around inside brightly-lit malls telling each other to have a nice day when we should be screaming in the streets!

And then the joys that also don’t fit into “how was your day, dear?” They also deserve some yelps of delight and cries of exultation and coyote howls of euphoria. Life is opera and we can pay money to hear the singers show us or unleash those voices ourselves.

Of course, such histrionics are hard to maintain 24/7 and would quickly become the new norm even if we could. Sometimes we need to outsing waterfalls and sometimes we just need to lie down by a quiet stream and be silent.

In two days, though, it’s opera all the way. I’m practicing all the styles— Italian, Korean, Tibetan, etc.—to rise to the occasion. May it be a joyous song!