Tuesday, April 30, 2013


A welcome farewell to April, in hopes that a single turn of a calendar page can bring new light and life after a dark few weeks. Here are some Blog titles and themes that never ended up seeing the light of the screen. Have fun imagining what I would have written.

Farewell Fox Trot at the Herbst

The Rubber Dagger of Love

Stray Cells

Kafka on Acid

• Shoo Fly Don’t Bother Me

The Jazz Wagon Train

PS Submit your own Blog with any of the above titles and maybe I'll publish it!

Monday, April 29, 2013

The John Henry Challenge

If you ever find yourself in the situation of needing to get a group of five-years quiet and looking at you with rapt attention, I recommend singing the song John Henry. Never fails to get the room down to a pin-drop silence as those young minds take a trip with the hammer-swingin’ hero beating down the mechanical steam drill— and then dropping dead at the end. Don’t know which is more captivating— the hero’s quest of man against machine or the win-lose scenario of breaking your heart in the process and laying down your hammer to die. But trust me— the kids are mesmerized. Every time.

My own heart is breaking as the mental i-Padded steam drills have broken down all resistance in schools and declared victory— our machines are more interesting than our teachers. And we’re turning over the minds and hearts of our children to them. Us old hammer-swingin’ types are ancient history— no more nuances of knowing just where in the mountain of ignorance to place the pick and chip away until the light is revealed, of knowing how much pressure to apply, when to tap lightly, when to swing mightily, where to place the dynamite to blast open a world previously unrevealed. Just the relentless mechanical chug-chug of the heartless steam drill banging away in its uniform disco beat.

Today I visited my daughter’s five-year old class and entered with my own version of the hammer— a ukelele. I had a mere 30 minutes at the end of a long morning to capture their attention and up I stepped with a few chords and three songs that opened the doors to diminishing mathematical patterns, diminishing sizes, sequence, word syllables, pronouns, rhymes, alliteration, farmyard information, food and fun with their friends. Throw in a few dozen key musical concepts, the invitation to create and share ideas, humor, kinesthetic development and coordination and so on and all the cynics who think it’s not education if something isn’t plugged in might have to re-think their paradigm. But of course, the key word there is “think” and that’s precisely what we’re moving away from. The only way to attract their attention is to stage a competition of mythological proportions.

And here it is! I offer my own John Henry challenge to be witnessed and adjudicated by education’s top thinkers. Me against the i-Pad. Nothing personal, i-Pad, you’re a lovely little machine that has many redeemable features, but I don’t want you raising my children. And so I challenge you to an education duel. Give me an hour with any age child, armed with nothing but my own body, voice and mind and perhaps a few supplements like the ukelele, banjo, blackboard and chalk, paper and pencil (all of these optional) and then you take your hour and let the judges decide. Maybe once and for all we’ll declare that any teacher who is not more interesting than the screen they turn on is disqualified to nurture the next generation of vibrant, thinking, feeling human beings. Any teacher who is spending more time looking at the screen with the students than looking at the students themselves is likewise unworthy.

Any takers?! I say, “Bring ‘em on!”

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Birthday Letter to Mom

Dear Mom,

It's your birthday! I began the day visiting you, hoping to take you out for a ride. But your 92-year old body had other plans. You roused briefly when the nurse mentioned ice cream, but shook your head firmly "No!" when we asked if you wanted to get up. And so I sat by your side and held your hand and talked to you while you slept. I thanked you yet again for your unconditional love, I told you about the mean people trying to hurt me, I talked to you about how happy Dad would be about these five years we've had together since he left. I wondered out loud how I will go on without you someday, a day that in any case will come much sooner than I would wish, but perhaps be finally welcomed by you, released from the difficult demands of all those years stored in your bones and the capricious winds of your failing mind. 

But meanwhile, every day is a gift beyond measure, a toast to the surprise of your tenacious endurance. You, who were always the most beset with physical and mental frailties, have far outlived everyone on all sides of our family. Imagine that! Is it just to keep me company as I play piano, to play air piano by my side with such pleasure in your face, a bounce in your tired body and delight in the last notes, just to keep showering me with your praise and delight in the person you think I am (and hope I deserve)? 

I finally left you sleeping, went to the piano in the Atrium and played a distant Happy Birthday to you. Fran and Patsy joined me with some of the old jazz standards and I missed you by my side, but hope you heard the music. Tomorrow I come again, not knowing which of your many selves will greet me, but ready to accept and love them all.

Happy Birthday, Mom, from your loving son. 

Zarathustra Revisited

When was the last time you sat down and read some Nietzsche? If you’re over 50, I suspect that, like me, your answer might be “College.” If you’re under 50, your answer might be, “Who?”

Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher, born 1844, died 1900. He was infamous for asserting that “God is dead,” admired Buddhism and created a notion of the superman that far preceded Clark Kent and was later shamefully distorted as leading to Nazism, He went insane (syphilis?) in 1888 after having written books with provocative titles like The Antichrist, Twilight of the Idols, Ecce Homo and perhaps his tour-de-force Thus Spoke Zarathustra. He had a love-hate relationship with Richard Wagner, sported a big handlebar mustache and never married.

Back in those college days, my brother-in-law was a big Nietzsche fan and inspired by him, I purchased The Portable Nietzsche, a 704 page paperback that cost a whole $2.25. New. Lately, some quotes I had memorized back then have been floating to the surface of my always churning mind and this morning, I pulled out that old book from the shelves and noted my underlines from so many lifetimes ago. Not only I had accurately memorized the quotes word for word, but re-discovered some others that felt like old friends. A most delightful reunion it has been—Zarathustra holds up! And so I’ll yield the floor to my friend Fred, who has brought me comfort and strength in a time of need.

• One must become a sea to receive a polluted river without becoming unclean.

• Where one can no longer love, there one should pass by.

• This is my good; this I love, it pleases me wholly…This bird builds its nest with me, therefore I love and caress it, it dwells with me, sitting on its golden eggs.”

• Who among you can laugh and be elevated at the same time?Whoever climbs the highest mountain laughs at all tragic seriousness.

• Flee, my friend, into your solitude and where the air is raw and strong. It is not your lot to shoo flies.

• Mistrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful.

• There is more valor when one refrains and passes by, in order to save oneself for the worthier enemy.

• What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.

• And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh.

And finally, Nietzsche’s famous quote about music. Few people know the phrase just before it, in bold below, which now has endeared him to me forever.

• How little is required for pleasure. The sound of a bagpipe. Without music, life would be an error.

Friday, April 26, 2013

School's Out!

No, it’s not summer vacation yet, though both teachers and students are starting to count the calendar days. There’s still weekly staff meetings and according to my teacher friends, a lot of them these days have to do with technology— the electronic, screened kind, that is. No question about it—the machines are taking over, much to everyone’s delight.

And why not? As teachers, there’s really nothing more to teach. Basic math skills? Why bother? Calculators have been around a long time, honey. Penmanship? Ha ha! Have you heard of the keyboard? Foreign language? You gotta be kidding. First off, everyone’s speaking English and when they don’t, I got the Google translator ap. Piano lessons? Dial up Youtube. But why bother with that old tired instrument— just splash some sounds together on GarageBand and goodbye pesky music teachers. Research skills? I got Wikapediea and I know how to use it, even if I have trouble spelling it. And speaking of which, Spell Check makes that quaint skill obsolete. Jazz history? My Facebook friends reminded me that it is Ella Fitzgerald’s birthday. Field trip to a museum? Why bother? Click of a button and all of Picasso is mine.

And as anyone knows, it’s a bit of a joke to train the teachers to learn and re-learn the latest and greatest when the kids are ten steps ahead of them. So the new role of teachers is simply to minimize the number of Justin Beiber hits in any i-Padded classroom and still bring home the same salary. Pretty good deal!!

But somebody’s gonna get wise and realize that schools have been rendered to the dinosaur burying grounds and there goes the profession of teaching. We better start scrambling to justify the real estate, salaries and health benefits. We need a new mission statement for education. Here’s some options.

• To teach all the things that can’t be found on a screen. (Homework: Make a list of them. If you can’t think of any, turn in your teacher certification now.)

• To provide a meaning and a context for all the marvelous things which can be stored and transmitted on our devices. Help kids know what to look for and why and figure out the next question that keeps them searching.

• To be a holding ground for the pre-screen knowledge and ways of knowing when the electricity goes out.

I had a few more, but I know that you’re scrolling past this Blog to check out the latest Justin Beiber, so why bother?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Living Math

A provocative little piece of wisdom crossed my Facebook path this morning:

 “Happiness multiplies itself when shared, grief divides itself.”

And that’s why we have weddings and funerals.

I’m a big fan of community exultation to celebrate our joys and collective rituals to share the load of grief. A bunch of bodies in a room with earphones all plugged into their little private happiness or people walking the streets eyes down carrying the full burden of sorrows alone is healthy for exactly no one. And so while the big buzz in education is the i-Pad revolution, I continue to sit barefoot on the floor in a circle with the ancient technologies of body, voice and mind to teach the living math of how to generate joy and heal sorrow through music. A song and dance for every occasion sung and danced in a living community. It is so terribly old-fashioned and so wondrously powerful.

The gift of the instant access of images on screens is the chance to see people living authentic lives, to view the Sasa dance from Samoa or Kecak from Bali, to watch happy kids in an inspired Orff class or see the old movie clips of Bill Robinson dancing on the stairs. But the one thing you don’t often see on screens is people sitting alone spending all their time looking at screens.

Let’s remember to teach kids the art of living our happiness in full view and together with our neighbors, of sharing the weight of our personal and collective suffering through a powerful sung wailing rather than a solitary whimpy whining. A living, useful and necessary math.

Multiplication and division turn out to be so much important than the right answers on the test sheet.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Living Pond

I’m no biologist, but I have this image of what constitutes a healthy pond of water. I imagine it being fed by a mountain spring at one end with an outlet feeding into the waters further down the mountain on its way to the ocean. That movement insures a constant cleansing and refreshing, the flow of a healthy organism. If the spring were to be cut off, no new waters could enter and the pond would eventually drain itself and disappear. If there were no outlet, it would back up and overflow. If both ends were closed, it would begin to stagnate. And as any Biology 101 class will tell you, stagnant water becomes a breeding ground for mosquitoes and various bacteria and parasites dangerous to our health.

I’ve just returned from two most glorious days in the Carmel Valley with some 80 beautiful souls gathering to partake of the theme of Jazz and Orff Schulwerk: Roots and Branches. A more harmonious, spirit-lifting, soul-stirring time would be hard to imagine. As a Conference host and teacher, I opened on Friday night with the old children’s song:

Old Man Mosie, sick in the head, called for the doctor and the doctor said.
‘ Please step forward, turn around, do the Hokey-Pokey and get out of town!’”

I congratulated everyone on having the good sense to listen to their inner doctor and get out of town to refresh themselves. I invited them to step forward out of their known comfort zone, turn around to see the things that we miss when we habitually look in one direction only, get up and dance—after all, the Hokey Pokey is really what it’s all about!

I believe that the ensuing two days was indeed just what the doctor ordered and what magnificent doctors there were! My fellow teachers Linda Tillery, Marty Wehner, Derique McGee, Sofia Lopez-Ibor, Connie Doolan, Jackie Rago (and informally, my Ghanaian xylophone teacher S.K. Kakraba Lobi, pictured above) each brought the gifts from their little corner of creation to the enthusiastic participants with the full force of their life’s work and delivered it with passion, clarity and dedication to passing on the good news.

The Saturday night Untalent Show was as remarkable a testament to the depth and breadth of human possibility as one could ever hope to see, opening with my Pentatonics Jazz Band (Joshi Marshall, Sam Heminger, Micah McClain, Marty Wehner, Connie Doolan, myself and guest artist Zack Pitt-Smith) and closing with me playing solo piano with lights off and everyone lying down on the floor. In-between were some 40 to 50 performers astounding us with their virtuosity, surprising us with their quirky creativity, tickling our funny bone with their humor and touching our heart with their sincerity.
Sunday morning we completed the workshop offerings and that gathered in the barn theater for the closing. After a short Ghana xylophone piece adapted for Orff instruments, an 80-person band playing the catchy tune Sway and a Hambone jam, we offered the well-deserved thanks to all who had made this possible—my fellow conference chairs Jeannie McKenzie and Bee Tee, Hidden Valley director Peter Meckel, the cooks and many more— and then I said some final words.

Here is where I invoked the image of the living pond and the way our time together had gotten the waters swirling and churning. Look up stagnant in the dictionary and you see descriptions like this: “Not moving or flowing. Foul or stale from standing. Showing little or no sign of activity or advancement; not developing or progressing; inactive; lacking vitality, sluggish or dull.” You could feel in every minute of the weekend how our vitality had been strengthened and renewed, our progress jump-started, our stuck parts unglued and moving again. We had swum together in the refreshing waters of the living pond, cleansed ourselves in its healing waters, splashed around together going nowhere in full delight in the play of it all. A present filled with the presence of the past has a different weight and texture to it, with more vibrant and cleansing water in its pond and I believe we all felt that.

But as if that weren’t enough, there was something else that had happened there. Those mountain springs were the voice of the ancestors, the griefs and exultations, triumphs and failures of the past feeding into the pond of our present moment. By singing their songs and dancing their dances and playing their music, we had brought the ancestors into the room to witness it and encourage us. Because all of this joyful music came from the depths of human depravity, ignorance, hatred and greed in the form of the slave trade, we were helping to heal the hurts by telling the stories of those who have come before, from Avon Gillespie to Dizzy Gillespie, from Bessie Smith to Bessie Jones, from Linda Tillery’s Uncle Tom to Tom Jobim.

And then here we all were as teachers, dedicating our lives to the future by meeting the children we teach in the present. I showed a picture of my granddaughter Zadie and thanked everyone for doing the work to help clear her future path as a mixed-race person. And, of course, to help create the future all children deserve. Our living pond, fed from the past, was heading toward the outlet of the future, flowing to the ocean were we will all meet again, past, present and future dissolved in its vast waters.

The room was quiet in only the way that rooms get quiet when an image takes hold and gives language to our deepest hopes and possibilities. The springs of the past feeding into the refreshing waters of the present leading to a more loving and needed future. That image put the experience of a bunch of folks having a romping good time together into a higher perspective, granted a dignity and importance to the work far beyond “party!”

Then from the words and the image back to jumping back into the pond as Linda led us to a sung and danced finale that made Mardi Gras seem like a dull church service. My deepest gratitude to all who made this possible. Louis said it all: “It’s a wonderful world.”

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Heart of the Matter

A friend just sent me this stunning photo of herself with her newborn. To be held and kissed like this is the most blessed and necessary way to begin this life— wanted, welcomed and loved with the full measure of our boundless heart. If we are fortunate, it also is the preferred way to leave this life— held, coddled and kissed as we move into that last passageway.

And if we are very fortunate, it is also the way we live all the days in-between. 

May it be so!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Soul Man

Here’s a startling fact. There are administrators in this world who lead by the handshake, solve issues with honest conversation and keep the big picture over their desk. Mr. Peter Meckel is one of them. He is an oasis in the desert of Adminomania and keeps himself pure by never going to Administration Conferences, by greeting the Carmel Hills each morning and surrounding himself with music. He created and has sustained for 50 years the marvelous retreat center known as Hidden Valley Music Seminars

I’ve seen Peter off and on every two years at the Orff Mini-conference that we’ve held there since 1987. Two years ago, I spoke with Peter about hosting our Orff Summer Course. He called me into his office, looked at his calendar, erased one thing and moved it elsewhere, then turned to me and said, “Okay. You’re in.” “What about a contract? “ I asked. “Oh, just save the e-mails between us, that will suffice.” My kind of guy!!!

And so we held our annual Orff training course there last summer and what a glorious affair that was. At every gathering and performance in the barn/theater, there was Peter sitting off in the corner with his ear-to-ear grin beholding the marvels and beaming with the pleasure of helping bring such beauty to this world, enjoying the profundity that these teachers would be bringing it to the children they teach. Every time I invited Peter to speak to the group, his words further enriched the occasion and inspired the people.

I arrived yesterday for our 13th Miniconference a broken man, worn down to the nub by the intolerable injustice, malevolence, short-sightedness, cold-heartedness that has slipped into one of my beloved communities with me as the scapegoat and felt it all start to slip away the moment I stepped out the car door. A friend greeting me asked if I had been here all day, because in one short second, she noted that I felt at home. And that feeling deepened exponentially when we finally gathered in the theater, 75 beautiful souls ready to rock the house with thunderous musical passion and bring it to a lullaby silence with the ring of a glockenspiel. Some of us have shared this sacred workshop space for over thirty years and some are brand new friends that we’ve known forever.

After a week of pleading to be seen, valued and understood by people with neither the intention nor capacity to welcome the ground I stand on with my life’s work and vision, here was my tribe at last, folks who need no convincing because we share the same garden. Such heart and soul in this room as the shamans began the healing with the full force of their own life’s journey on behalf of their ancestor’s past struggles and triumphs, their descendant’s future challenges and glories, their colleague’s present dilemmas and breakthroughs. Linda Tillery, Derique McGee, my Ghanaian xylophone teacher SK Kakraba Lobi, my fellow Pentatonics band-member Marty Wehner and I led the group into a bone-deep communion that helped me feel like an exiled-Odysseus returning home to the land of his belonging.

As always, I introduced Peter and invited him to speak and as always, he reached deep beyond the cliché and gifted us with his benediction. “Thoreau said that we each begin to plan how to build our temple when we are a child and by the time we are an adult, it has become a shed,” he began. “If you have been so fortunate to build that temple, I invite you to inhabit it yet more richly in your few days here. If you, like so many of us, have settled for the shed, it’s not to late to build an addition! ”

The song, “He’s a soul man!" came to mind and what a rare thing that has become to encounter in our cold-screened, litigation-driven, proscribed-processed professional world. What a pleasure to know that there are still people who sit in offices with their humanity in full view and share it so generously in their official capacities. Thank you, Peter Meckel, for the privilege of our crossed paths and may it continue far into the future!

Now I have to go prepare today’s classes.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Fugal Episode

Have you brushed up on your music history and theory lately? Remember the episodes in Bach’s fugues? They are the connecting pieces between the stated fugal subject, the filler that doesn’t have much musical value beyond getting you from one place to another.

My last stated subject was in a dark minor key and truth be told, it’s only gotten worse in the past four days. I leaned on my dependable strategy of using the piano as a big lovable Teddy Bear, a generous portion of comfort food, a friend to listen and speak back with such utter coherence and clarity. Today she shouted back as I segued from Faure to Jobim’s O Grande Amor and suddenly found myself in Cecil Taylor’s world, expressing the full range of my anger and inconsolable sadness on the Steinway’s whole voice (three more assignments for your music history class— Faure, Jobim and Cecil Taylor!). Someone was about to enter the music room to remind me of a meeting and respectfully waited outside while I worked out some solace in the fierce passageways of the black and whites. I felt 3% better afterward—catharsis is real. And no one got hurt.

With a marvelous Jazz-Orff retreat coming up this weekend, I’m hoping for a shift to a glorious major key radiant with sunshine and Spring awakening in the Carmel Valley. But meanwhile, I don’t want to leave the reader back in the dark unresolved chords of outrage and grief. And so this rambling episode about nothing in particular, just the hope to bridge hell and heaven and keep the storyline moving.

Tomorrow is the celebration of my Mom’s 92nd birthday where she lives (the real date, April 27th), so there’s the first Spring breeze to lighten up my spirit. In three weeks, daughter Kerala and granddaughter Zadie come to visit and that will be cherry trees in bloom in Washington for this weary wintry warrior. I had a gold mine visit to Green Apple bookstore after being angry at my last four books and came back thrilled with the novel A Tiger’s Wife, uplifted by Stephen Dunn’s poetry and Henry Miller’s On Writing and a lovely graduation speech book by my crush-author Anne Patchett. After a windy Monday that almost knocked me off my bike and did knock my daughter Talia off of hers—twice— the weather got warm and the breeze grew still.

And so patches of light shine through this little episode and I’ll keep you posted as to what unfolds.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Life with the Sons of Bitches

It always takes me by surprise. After scoring several crowd-cheering 100-yard return touchdowns, I’m back to Charlie Brown kicking the football while Lucy snatches it away. The law of compensation says—“For each foot you ascend, there will be an equal and compensating foot (or hundred yards) of descent.” You’d think by now, I’d just prepare for its coming, keep on eye out and say with a twinkle in my eye, “Where are you hiding, you bastard?! Where are you going to jump out from now?” And yet, each time it surprises me. Oh well.

How many pearls do you throw before swine before having the good sense to just let them roll around in the mud while you attend to more important matters? How much of your lifetime of crafted faith in human potential and transformation do you keep investing in folks before you understand that they ain’t never gonna change? How much “good intentions” do you keep assuming before you realize that crafty people are actively working to do you harm out of their own fear and cramped hearts? When do you finally say, like poet Stephen Dunn, “I’ve had it with all stingy-hearted sons of bitches” and finally mean it? When do you refuse those “defiling and disfiguring shapes that the mirror of malicious eyes casts upon your eye” (Yeats). These have been the questions haunting me at 2 a.m. as I deal with the next round of outrage that has come my way.

I’ll spare the details both because no one really wants to pick up another’s dirty laundry and because the greater point a writer is always aiming for is not mere personal complaint, but exposition of a universal occurrence. Who amongst us has not feeled wronged, misunderstood, betrayed, libeled and how do we react? Should we ultimately be thankful because this grist for the mill grinds the flour of one’s vision yet finer and truer? Shall we be compassionate that some are so fearful that they feel threatened by a quality of truth that you speak, live and embody? Shall we swallow the bitter pill of power mishandled and keep our eyes on the prize of the important work? All of the above?

I’m going to begin my day here with a little Scarlatti therapy on the piano, the maddening chaos of incomprehensible decisions transformed to the beauty of pattern and the pattern of beauty. Sing a little blues, hug a few trees, ride out to the ocean and let the pounding of waves wash away the debris and hope to return to this public journal yet more committed, yet more clear, yet more compassionate and yet more determined to use my voice to not only speak on behalf of beauty, but also to “undo the folded lie” (W.H. Auden), to not only clothe the children in the fabric of their own astounding splendor, but to note when the Emperor has no clothes, to not only lead the school ceremonies on those courageous souls who spoke out against injustice at their own peril, but to put myself on the line when injustice steps through our own school gates. To turn the white heat of anger and the cold blue of exile toward greater compassion, in the style of Wendell Berry:

“ ‘Treat your worst enemies  as if they could become your best friends.’…
   Tough, but ‘All right,” our Mary said, ‘We’ll be nice to the sons of bitches.’”

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Use It or Lose It

We have a voice. Let us sing.

We have hands. Let us clap.

We have a body. Let us dance.

We have a mind. Let us think.

We have an imagination. Let us create.

We have a heart. Let us feel.

We have a soul. Let us rejoice.

With and without words, this is what I told the 60 children and adults who came to my hands-on jazz workshop (with help from my fellow Pentatonics musicians) at The San Francisco Jazz Center.

And for some 70 minutes without a pause, from the six-month old to the 60-year old, that is precisely what we did.

There is nothing sadder than human possibility untapped, nothing more glorious than using the whole spectrum of our marvelously expressive selves. When one six-year old boy was crying because the class was over, he was saying in child-speak, "Here I felt wholly alive. Don't let it stop."

Thursday, April 11, 2013

A Banquet of Consequences

“We all must sit down someday to a banquet of consequences.”  -Robert Louis Stevenson

I’ve always taken this quote to mean that all the deferred hopes, all the regrettable actions, all the secret hurts that we carry, will come back some day to haunt us. We will all have our day of reckoning.

But now I wonder. A banquet, after all, is a joyous affair. Perhaps Stevenson meant the opposite—all our hopes to which we’ve remained faithful, our long-pursued dreams, our tenacious loyalties, will finally come to fruition. After years of patient waiting on the shore, our ship will finally come in.

Indeed, that well describes my life these past few weeks. A few highlights:

• My daughter Talia, living a vibrant and courageous life abroad in Argentina for three and a half years, has not only returned to her native home (our rent-free house, to be exact!), but got herself a job teaching first grade next year at the school that has been our second family home for almost four decades! I was so happy for her South American adventure, but missed her so much—now we’ll be at staff meetings together!

• My daughter Kerala has been away on the East Coast for so long. Four at Brown University in Providence, another five in the same town launching her magazine Glimpse and then six years in Washington DC continuing the same with National Geographic and then switching to non-profit work with Ka-Boom!, building playgrounds and advocating for the important of free play in children’s lives. After some fifteen years, she finally is coming back to the West Coast, to Portland, Oregon, to be exact, where her husband Ronnie will go to chiropractic school and she’ll either continue her Ka-Boom! work long-distance or start a new venture. Now our delightful granddaughter Zadie will be a much-shorter plane ride (or long train ride) away. Hooray!!!

• Three years ago, I announced my desire to give a TED talk. Two years ago, I got a nibble for a TEDx talk. Two months ago, I got to give it. One week ago, it went up on Youtube and thanks to the spiraling word-of-mouth of Facebook, some 2300 folks have watched my 15 minute talk on “Why Music in Schools.” Amazing.

• Four years ago, I made a connection with the SF Jazz Festival and held mini-jam sessions out in the lobby before their Family Jazz Concerts. This Saturday, I’ll give a bonafide workshop to kids and parents after the Family Jazz Concert and have hopes that my group The Pentatonics will get to give such a concert (followed by the workshop) sometime next year. A long-time dream connecting my work with jazz for young children with this prestigious organization. Boom chick a boom, baby!

• Five years ago, I announced at the Orff Summer Training I direct the dream of creating an “Orff Institut West” here in San Francisco, a place where people could study this transformational teaching practice year-round. Three years ago, I proposed an Apprenticeship Program at The San Francisco School whereby teachers could study directly with myself and my colleagues Sofia Lopez-Ibor and James Harding in the actual real-life environment of a school, observing our classes with children and eventually assisting us. A much-needed and groundbreaking pilot program in the world of Orff pedagogy. My initial proposal was deferred by the school to be looked at again two years later and just last week, we accepted our first five students for this Fall.

• Some folks who I’ve long wondered about who disappeared from view showed up again (with a little help from my friends—Facebook friends, that is) and it was a delight to catch up and even settle old scores. (See posting about The Cookie Jar).

• And finally, there’s this Blog, over two years going strong and this my 500th posting. My longtime dream of having a “newspaper column” without having to go to journalism school.

And so it appears that sometimes perseverance and patience pays off.  In today’s “I want everything NOW” world, it’s a good reminder that the most important things that finally come our way have been paid for by many hours, days, months and yes, years, of patience and impatience, hope and despair, gratitude and bitterness.

And so I raise a glass to all the seen and unseen helpers and invite them to join me at the banquet. None of this is about personal glory, all of this is about the vision I hold being given a nod by World. The table is spread before me and it is a most delicious feast indeed.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Cookie Jar Bumper Sticker

I tell the story often of my glorious defeat. Every year at The San Francisco School since the 1980’s, I’ve hosted the Cookie Jar Championships, complete with cookies and cookie jar and certificate for the winners.

(For those poor folks in the dark, the Cookie Jar is a kid’s game with the following dialogue over a steady pat-clap beat:

  1. Who stole the cookies from the cookie jar. Number 2 stole the cookies from the cookie jar.
  1. Who me?  1. Yes, you!  2. Couldn’t be.  1. Then who?
     2.   Number 3 stole the cookies from the cookier jar.

  1. Who me?  2. Yes, you.  3. Couldn’t be.  2. Then who?
  1. Number 4  stole the cookies from the cookie jar.
And so on. If you call the wrong number or forget the dialogue or say it too late, you’re out. For more details, buy my book “Now’s the Time.” Or ask a kid.)

And so, the story of my memorable defeat. Year after year, I crowned the kid Cookie Jar champion and at the end, they played against me. If they won, I took them out for an ice cream sundae— on top of the first prize jar of cookies. And year after year, I remained unvanquished. Until…………

Michael Canaveral.

He beat me. Unbelievable, but true. He was in 4th grade. And yet more amazing, he returned to the school today 23 years after his stunning victory. Hadn’t seen him or heard about him in all that time. But in workshop after workshop, I relived that remarkable moment as I told people the story. And always wondered what it meant to him.

A few weeks ago, I found him on Facebook and wrote to make sure it was the right Michael Canaveral by asking, “Are you the one who went to The San Francisco School?” His reply? “I can’t believe you don’t remember the kid who beat you in the Cookie Jar Contest!” Aha. He remembered.

A couple of weeks later, I saw he was coming to San Francisco. And so, of course, I challenged him to a rematch. Today, he came to school and I introduced him to the kids as a school legend. I then interviewed him about what he remembered and was amazed that he told the story much the same way that I did.

Michael: “ So there were the two of us and you made a mistake and there was this dead silence for about 6 seconds, as if no one could believe what just happened. And then a thunderous roar and everyone came rushing toward me.”

Me: “That’s exactly what I remember. Except the thunderous roar always plays in slow motion, like a movie with trumpets playing in exultation in the background. How did the whole thing make you feel?”

Michael: “Well, it was simply unbelievable. You were the Cookie Jar god. Year after year we all watched you defeat all the David’s trying to topple Goliath and no one ever thought it was possible. And then there I was, having done it!”

Michael also remembered that Bobby McFerrin, a school parent at the time, was watching the contest. After Michael won, I invited Bobby to play against him and Michael vanquished him in two rounds. That makes a good part of the story when sharing it with teachers worldwide.

So I played Michael again in front of 100 kids. Guess who they were rooting for? I have to say that he did a great job given his 23-year hiatus. We went for about five minutes straight and truth be told, when he finally broke down, I didn’t feel any glory in it. I worried for a moment it would put a blemish on his beautiful memory, but as I said to the kids, we were now tied (a future rematch scheduled for 2023) and no matter what happened, it didn’t cancel his legendary victory.

So finally to the punch line. I’m tired of the sports heros, valedictorians, bumper stickers proclaiming “My child is an honor student” or the new version “My child can beat up your honor student child.” The Cookie Jar is an intense game of attention, concentration, rhythm and grace under pressure. It is as worthy of celebration as the usual fare and more fun and refreshingly different. So I’m going to get bumper stickers made for this year’s contest:  “My child was the 2013 Cookie Jar champion.”

And get a special one made for Michael. “I was the 1990 Cookie Jar Champion— and also beat Doug!!” I hope he proudly displays it on his car.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Invitation to the Nuance

“Lack of attention to subtlety and nuance.”

That’s what has risen to the top of my ongoing “What’s Wrong With the World” list. I know it may seem incredibly precious and privileged next to, “the bombs are falling on my town,” “drugs are ravishing my neighborhood” or “my family can’t get enough to eat.” I recognize that. But we all stand on our own experience and my refrigerator is sufficiently full, my neighborhood relatively peaceful and the blessed absence of war in my land my daily reality. As the Irish say, “After a full belly, all is poetry.”

Or is it? Perhaps only if you’re prepared to savor the delicate flavors of words artfully chosen and feelings exquisitely expressed. Lately it feels like the dials around me are set to “mediocre, loud, assaulting, frivolous and all of the above.” People are more tuned into the Harlem Shake than Billie Holiday’s poignant Harlem revelations, so innured by the constant throb of the disco beat with no variation in tempo or timbre that they can’t appreciate the way Billie turned a phrase and bent a note and made your spinal chord tingle. Folks are more prone to revel in Gangnam style than allow themselves to feel how Artur Rubinstein could shade a Chopin chord to give a common feeling an uncommon nuanced expression. All is bright primary colors and the broad range of tints in-between are lost in the mix.

Anyone who knows my work as a music teacher knows I’m fine hanging out with the kids in the neighborhood of the quirky, weird, goofy and edgy, the land of “the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play Pinochle on your stout” and “I told ma and ma told pa and Johnny got a whoopin’ and a Ha! Ha! Ha!” We’re not singing Mozart canons every day or playing haunting arpeggios on finely-tuned harps. But I do aim for at least a few moments of the sublime, whether it come from well-placed glockenspiel notes ringing in the silence, a time-stopping minor melody sung by a child with eyes closed, a beautiful conducted gesture in a musical game or a poem written while listening to Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom.” Little moments of unspeakable beauty spoken through the child’s innate artistry risen to the top.

And it is the invitation of the teacher who welcomes it and notices it that helps it come forth into a world where it is welcomed. Because I am primed to be perpetually on the lookout for the grace of transcendance, I can walk through my colleague’s classes and be stopped in my tracks by the splendor of children cradled in beauty’s hand. But I see other people walk through and keep walking, untouched by the moment, unmindful of the nuances. Fed on a steady diet of sarcasm, it’s hard for some to spot the sincere. Pumped up to the nth decibel of the pounding disco beat, it’s difficult for some to feel the difference between piano and pianissimo. Content to merely shake one’s booty, it’s hard for some to spot the subtleties of polyrhythms in the West African’s dancer’s body.

Whether it be music, dance, painting, language, food or wine, it is the nuances that bring color and shape and tone and texture to life and we would be well advised to develop a sensitivity to them, an appreciation of them, a habit of welcoming them. And of course, pass that on to the children.


Friday, April 5, 2013

Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Rudy Benton, a local P.E. teacher I have long admired, was once nominated for a national award for his work. He created a non-competitive community approach to physical education that was inclusive, broad in its scope and great, great fun. I remember his reaction when notified of his nomination: “I really hope I get this, not so much for me, but for the recognition and dignity it gives to this vision of teaching P.E. This would be an important affirmation that I would receive on behalf of all my fellow teachers who believe in this approach.” That’s a great reason for wanting to be famous.

I think I have wanted to be famous ever since I read the autobiography of Andrew Jackson in 4th grade. Never mind that he turned out to be a brutal human being. It was his sense that destiny had chosen him that intrigued me even as a kid. As an adult, I was not particularly driven by a hunger for fame, but always kept one eye on it in my peripheral vision. What mostly got me up in the morning—and still does—was the pleasure of my chosen work and the satisfaction of trying to do it as well as I could. But side by side was the desire to spread the good news further than my class and to keep enlarging the waters in which I was swimming. I had chosen (or was chosen by) a craft that is a very small pond in the world—music education—and it felt just fine to be a big fish in that tiny body of water. But I kept looking for the tributaries that connected it with the larger world and sailed down them whenever I could.

The recognition of my work that began to trickle in allowed me to present at conferences and workshops and summer courses and eventually, lifted me up to an international circuit that continues to be a source of great pleasure and satisfaction. The articles and books that followed helped some of that work travel further than my body could go. I grew to appreciate the true gift of any measure of fame— the opportunities to keep working and reaching people with something of value. It was the perfect proportion— enough to keep the offers coming in without having to wear sunglasses in public. I think I can honestly say I never was tempted to value the potential adoration and use it to my advantage or convert it to food for the ego— I just genuinely appreciated, and still do, the chance to play, sing and dance with wonderful people worldwide.

But still there was always a small seed of bitterness. In Spain, I’ve been interviewed multiple times on television and radio, had several full-page interviews in El Pais, the national newspaper. But in 38 years of teaching in San Francisco, there has never been the tiniest morsel of recognition in any of the local media except some years back when a friend alerted the Chronicle that I had been given the Pro Merito Award from the Orff Foundation in Munich. That got me a five-sentence paragraph next to the story of the guy who murdered his family. Yippee.

Like Rudy Benton, I want a larger fame on behalf of music, of music education, of the Orff approach, of the teachers who teach imaginatively and with love, of the children themselves. With this blog, I reach about 100 people daily, with my books, some more, in my workshops 40 or 50 at a time, but still I’ve thirsted to reach a larger audience. I’ve nominated myself to be interviewed by Terry Gross or be invited to a radio show or two, keep throwing the line in the big fish of World waiting for a bite. And waiting. And waiting.

And finally the first nibble has come. The TEDx talk I did two months ago is finally up on Youtube. Don’t expect it will go viral next to the Harlem Shake and Gangnam style, that are much more socially redeeming and important milestones in our evolution as a species. (Not!) But my 15 minutes—literally— of potential fame has arrived in the form of my talk “Why Music in Schools.” You can contribute to its trip around the virtual world by both viewing and passing it on. Of course, there are a thousand ways it could be better, but feels like a good start to get people thinking that perhaps music and music education is a tad more important and far-reaching than just shaking your booty to the dubious music and even more dubious text of the Harlem Shake. Just maybe.

Go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zKZAfDcU6BQ&feature=youtu.be

And just to let you know, if this does get me on Oprah (is she still on the air?), I’ll still talk to you out in public and continue to offer workshops for dirt-cheap prices. Like the one tomorrow. Hurry up and sign-up before I get too famous!!!!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Threefold Path to Humility

Want to cure your arrogance? I recommend going to a Venezuelan music workshop with Jackie Rago. When you teach what you know, you appear as a god to your students, flashing the same tricks you’ve developed over the years that produce an almost predictable awe and reverence. “How does he do that?” There’s always the danger of resting on your laurels, enjoying the praise just a bit too much, feeling just an ounce over a healthy dose of pride.

So go to Jackie’s class and though you may be the equivalent of the University hot-shot Doctor of Whatever with your oft-quoted published works, it’s back to kindergarten for you. Whatever you think you can do, sit next to Jackie with a pair of maracas, a plate and fork, a drum or any other percussion instrument and be prepared to be thoroughly humbled by a master musician who is thoroughly humble herself. It’s a sheer delight and an agonizing torture. Take your pick.

Arrogance and humility are kissin’ cousins. Anyone who has accomplished anything worthy has had the temerity to think that they’re up to the task to go beyond where others have traveled. That takes a can-do confidence that is essential, but can harden into arrogance without taking care. Sometimes what passes for humility is a lack of confidence, a shallow faith in one’s god-like powers. Perhaps true humility only arises after passing through arrogance. Have the courage of your convictions and state them, live them, with passion. But sometimes it’s good to stop talking and listen and it’s always good to habitually put yourself in the world of beginner’s mind. In my work as a music teacher and a musician, I have three strategies that help keep me properly humbled.

  1. Be a Perpetual Student: We are rightfully satisfied with what we know and the effort we made to know it. But keep one foot in the world of what we don’t yet know and enjoy the freshness of the kindergarten mind. In some ways, just keeping up with the latest technology makes us perpetual beginners by necessity. But go further. Learn French or Farsi or bone up on the history of American musical theater or civil rights or the collected works of Marcel Proust. As soon as you get to the Head of the Class, purposely pick the card that sends you back to kindergarten.

  1. Choose a difficult craft: The world of music is large and our accomplishments are small. Always something to improve on. We can only master what we spend 10,000 hours practicing and there are not enough 10,000 hours to go around to master it all. So take that Venezuelan music class or Indian tabla drumming or didjeridoo technique while also improving the details of your chosen slice. Same goes for the Orff approach. Too much to master in one lifetime, so as soon as you improve your recorder technique, go to that dance class or lecture on motivation by Daniel Pink.

  1. Teach children: Giving adult workshops, I’m in that comfort zone of sharing something I’ve learned to do well appreciated by people who need some of what I can offer and thus, so appreciative. But then I go back to teaching my kids, who couldn’t care less about your credentials and theories. They’re in your class saying in their behavioral way, “I got issues and challenges and quirky needs and I don’t care how well-crafted your lesson is. I’m hyped up like I’ve overdosed on Red Bull or depressed flatter than a smushed pancake because so-and-so wouldn’t let me in that game. How are you going to deal with that?!

And so I arrogantly offer these humble thoughts, humbly offer these arrogant thoughts and stop here so I can practice some Venezuelan rhythms. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

April Vows

It’s the turn of the month and a good time to make some short-term vows. For the month of April, I resolve to:

• Stop being upset about the California bill that slashed Medical so that folks like my Mom can no longer stay at the Jewish Home for the Aged and this glorious, needed and well-staffed program will be laying off its workers left and right and only accepting short-term rehab people with lots of money to pay for it. I’m sure the State Legislature had very good reasons to abandon our elders— like keeping up with the budget for prisons.

• Stop worrying that the Memphis School District in Tennessee, for over thirty years a shining model of commitment to music education in the public schools (with a particular emphasis on the Orff approach), has decided that enough is enough and is beginning their slash and burn cuts of such programs. It’s clear that we all can get along just fine without music and that money will be much better spent paying politicians and upgrading computers every 7 seconds.

• Stop wasting my time advocating for music education when it’s clear no one really cares. Instead, I think I’ll shift priorities and become a spokesperson for more sex and violence in media, getting more people to watch the Super Bowl and advocating for toddler-friendly computers.

• Stop wasting my time working on the piano when it’s clear that I’m not going to go on a World Tour playing duets with Keith Jarrett. Instead, I’ll finally take that class on something easier to master, like managing my Retirement funds, using an i-Phone or brain surgery.

• Stop writing this blog. David Sedaris or Dave Barry I’m not, so why bother? Unless I can get a job as a columnist for newspapers that barely exist anymore.

All this and more I vow.


NOT! April Fool’s Day!!!