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.