Friday, May 31, 2013

Numbers Nerd

My daughter has accused me of many things in her post-teenage years, but came up with a new one yesterday— a numbers nerd. And she’s right. I’m overly fascinated with things like my odometer turning to 222,222, dates like 1/31/13, phone numbers like 987-6789.

And yes, I was aware when I passed my 500th blog, am waiting for my 94 followers to reach 100, keep checking the number of video views on my TEDx talk (as of today, 4,093). Sometimes my Brief Vitae reads like a math puzzle— 8 books, 38 years at one school, 39 countries teaching the Orff approach, but who’s counting? Well, I am, I guess.

So now a confession. With one hour left in May, Pacific time, I really want to push my 19 entries to 20. Just feels right. So what better way to do it than confess my nerdy love affair with numbers? Mostly I think I’m about celebrating all the things that can’t be measured and quantified and yet, I’m fascinated and occasionally obsessed with measuring and quantifying some of them.

So there you have it. I now have my 20th blog for May and outed myself as a numbers nerd. I feel so much better now! 35 times better, to be exact, than the 74 times I thought about confessing, all in exactly 173 words.

Jazz Jeopardy

When St. Peter meets me at the gates and asks me what I have to show for this incarnation, I think “I played Jazz Jeopardy with kids” is as good a ticket into heaven as any. I started this back in the early ‘80’s at Cazadero Music Camp and it has been a regular feature of my 8th grade year-long jazz study for at least 25 years. I played it on Tuesday with the kids and then gave them the individual final exam on Wednesday. I’m always shocked to discover that they seem to know so much when they play the game and forget it all the next day, but of course, that’s the old teacher syndrome of asking the kids, “What was Duke Ellington’s piano teacher’s name?” and one kid answers “Mrs.Clinkscales” and you’re so relieved that someone got it that you assume they all now understand. When in fact, it was one kid out of sixteen and that kid got it because you forgot to erase it from the board from the previous class!

So the individual final exam is the real deal, not as much fun as the group Jazz Jeopardy, but good to get a reality check on what the kids actually absorbed from your semester of effort initiating them into this enormous world. And also pretty amusing. Some of the answers I got filling in the blank of “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that ______” included “beat, rhythm, ring, thing, D (?!!), and love.” And yes, more than one child answered the question “What is the B section of the jazz standard called?” with “The B section.” Well, yes, but.

So if you’re taking the time to read this blog, why not give yourself the test and see how you’d stack up next to my 8th graders? There was a listening section that I’ll have to leave out here and a personal reflection that I may save for a future blog, so you’re getting the short version. Test your jazz literacy and then Google the answers after you’ve scored yourself. 20 questions, five points a question, the average score of my 8th graders was 80.

Good luck!

8th GRADE JAZZ FINAL—May 29, 2013            NAME __________________


1.  Which Southern city has been called The Birthplace of Jazz?

2.  Whose musical career started in a reform school for kids?

3. Who was nicknamed Satchmo?

4. What was the name of the theater in Harlem where Ella Fitzgerald won a contest?

5. What children’s song did Ella sing with the Chick Webb Band that helped make her name known?

6. Ella sang the above song in a movie called “Ride “em Cowboy” staring a comedy duo also famous for their “Who’s on First?” routine. What were their names?

7.  With migration, the center of jazz in the late ‘20’s and the 1930’s moved from New Orleans to which neighborhood in New York?

8. What was the name of a popular dance style in the 1930’s and who was it named for?

9.  What was the famous ballroom in Harlem where the above style was danced?

10. Who got a job at a local café after singing a song and making the patrons cry?

11. Which famous piano player was born in Toledo, Ohio?

12. What was the name of the fabulous tap-dancing brothers featured in Stormy Weather?


1. Write a third line to this blues verse (no one answer— invent your own following the basic guidelines of blues poetry).

            "My baby left this mornin', just about half-past four,
              My baby left this mornin', just about half-past four,

2. Using the I, IV and V chords, fill in the 12-bar blues progression

            /       /        /      /      /      /      /      /      /      /       /      /
         1         2          3         4        5        6        7         8       9      10      11       12

3. How many bars in a jazz standard AABA form? (Think of a song like “Side by Side.”)

4. What are the five notes in the basic blues scale in the key of G?

5. What is the word for a short, repeated melodic pattern in jazz?

6. What is the B section of the jazz standard called?

7. “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that ________.”

 8. What are the three instruments in the “rhythm section?” 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

In Praise of Grief

It was a typical i-Pod moment driving in the car—randomly scrolling the alphabet without looking and just landing somewhere and listening to whatever comes on. I hit upon the burning guitar of Jimmy Rosenberg, the 15-year old gypsy wonder from the group Sinti (whatever happened to him?) playing Que Pasa? The next thing that came up was “Questions.” It was from a talk given by Martin Prechtel on Grief and Praise and one of the wisest, funniest and most soul-stirring talks I’ve had the privilege to hear. He is an American, part Swiss-German, part-Native American, who was initiated as a shaman by a Mayan tribe in Guatemala. In this talk, he explained to us “have-a-nice-day-Americans” that grief and praise in this Mayan culture are the same thing, or at least share the same root. People incapable of proper grieving (the kind that when you’re through, “you don’t look so good”) are also incapable of proper praising. And in a downwardly spiraling cycle, people who aren’t properly praised, as children or adults, carry yet more grief and are blocked from praising others.

The praise he’s talking about is not the pat on the back “good job!” variety (though that has its place). It’s about seeing deeply into the heart and soul of a person’s beauty and letting them know in many different ways that you see them, hear them, know them, celebrate them, understand a part of them, love them. Sometimes praise means simply giving folks an opportunity to express themselves in the form that suits their character.

The other day, I went to visit my Mom and my 98-year old friend Ben, who asked for my “advice.” Apparently, a doctor or someone told him he should stop playing piano, but having not played if for several months, he’s finding that he’s missing it. I knew Ben had played piano most every day of his later life and told him that it was essential to his spirit. I got off the bench, rolled him up the keys and requested “Besame Mucho.” Off he went and then continued with two more. He did seem a little winded from the effort, but he was smiling ear-to-ear in happiness and kep shaking my hand with tears welling up thanking me for encouraging him. Not a big effort on my part, just making a space for his Spirit to be set free.

Seems so simple. Why don’t we all give each other such permission and praise? Probably because the moment we open ourselves to joy we realize that sorrow is close behind. To affirm life is to love something so much it hurts and it will hurt because everything we love is bound by mortality. Inside the exuberant Yes! of affirming praise is the seed of loss and the grief of saying goodbye. So we opt for the safe middle ground and surround ourselves with all the strategies and distractions to keep the extremes at bay.

There’s more to Martin Prechtel’s story, the part about doing this work on behalf of those who we have lost, the spirits in the other world who need both our grief and our praise. When we pay our dues to the ancestors, they do their part to keep us alive and soulful. When we sing from the belly or weep with heaving sobs, they come to check it out.They love to congregate around the gospel church and tend to stay away from Walmart. But that’s another story.

I know I have many stones of grief waiting to turn to water and too much that has been left unpraised. But where I have managed to open doors to people’s musicality or encouraged them directly or by example to take the death-defiant risk of expressing the heart of who they are, it is by the grace of all that I have met with the full measure of my sorrow and the full measure of my joy.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The New Honor Roll

It has been quite a week in my old home town— um, school. I managed to squeeze in two old traditions I began some 35 years ago— The Samba Contest and The Cookie Jar Contest. The first is a Brazilian-style mini-Carnaval with cross-graded (and sometimes cross-dressed!) kids choreographing their own samba routine in groups of two to eight. The dancers are between first and fifth grade and they practice for four or five days during their precious recess time. The 6th grade splits into judges, decorators and musicians in the “batterie” percussion ensemble.

On the day of the contest, the drums are thundering, the bells are firing, the samba whistle is blowing and the music room is awash with colorful movement and spirited singing. At the end, the judges announce the winners. Everyone is a “winner” in some category— best costume, best style, most gymnastic, best choreographed and my favorite from this year—best “swag”— and then there also is an overall first, second and third place winner. All get cool hand-made certificates and some post-samba snacks. It’s really quite a spectacle and just having kids dancing to kids playing live music is remarkable enough these days.

Then came the Cookie Jar Contest, 12-kids who made it to the finals in this game of rhythm, speech and sharp attention. One slip of the tongue or pause in the rhythm and you’re out, your dreams of Cookie Jar glory shattered— until next year. The winner gets—you guessed it— a cookie jar (thanks Cost Plus!) filled with cookies. All participants again get a certificate and have a little post-contest cookie party.

I’ve offered up The Frozen Logger competition— the chance for any kid to get up in front of the whole elementary school and attempt to sing all eleven verses of The Frozen Logger folk song by memory. Some kids asked for the words to study, but so far no takers— I may have to let this one go for this year.

Coming up is the Mud Pie Celebration, a whole class of kids singing “The Mud Pie Song” ( the “One Bottle of Pop” song with new words I made up) and then sitting in absolute stillness and silence looking down at their mudpie dessert (chococalte sauce over ice cream with crumbled Oreo cookies) in a state of “complete control.” If anyone moves or laughs, the teachers snatch their mudpie away. My job is to see if I can get them cracking up with such mature statements as “stinky socks!" or belly-button juice!” It’s a sight to behold.

And so, while most schools continue with their narrow view of what’s worthy of celebration in the human mind, body and heart, the old tired Honor Roll and Athletic Trophies, we aim to expand the possibilities with samba, cookie jars, frozen loggers and mudpies. Why not celebrate kids’ ability to express themselves collectively through organized spirited movement? To honor them for grace under pressure, keeping attentice in the midst of the cookie jar storm. To acknowledge them for memory and song and effort made to remember and perform? To celebrate their ability to sit calm and composed while ice cream melts in front of their eyes and sadistic music teachers try to make them laugh?

The world as it is is divided between the “My child is on the honor roll at…” bumper sticker and “My child can beat up your honor roll child” sticker. (Or the one I saw today: “My child skateboards better than your honor roll child.”) I’m looking forward to the day when cars abound with “Cookie Jar Champion 2013!”, “Frozen Logger expert!”, “My child is a mudpie yogi” or “My child danced exuberantly in the 2014 samba contest.”Or the one my Mom could put on her wheelchair: “My child has published over 500 blogs — and still won’t shut up!”

My friends, there are lots of ways to shine in this world. Let’s enjoy them!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

I'll See You in My Dreams

I’ve taken the most marvelous trips lately back to places that I’ve known and loved. My childhood home in Roselle, New Jersey, my college town of Yellow Springs, Ohio, a school in the North Carolina mountains, the Zen Center atop Mt. Baldy outside L.A. and a village in Bali, for starters. In each place, I’ve felt the effortless glow of being precisely where I need to be, held and cradled by the very landscape, graced with a renewed sense of wonder and intimately connected with the houses, streets, trees.

I imagine we all have sacred sites like this in our lives where we passed through an important initiation or fell in love with a person, a passion, a place or experienced a fleeting passage through a door that would define our life to come. When we re-visit them, we recall the beauty of that time, the excitement, the transcendent emotions. And so each night this past week, I’ve had the good fortune to return to one of these places without having to book accommodations or endure long plane rides. Simply go there in my dreams— and awaken refreshed.

Amazing what goes on beneath the surface of the conscious mind. Some benevolent dreamkeeper is taking me back to these lands of deep belonging and giving me the chance to renew my membership in my present home and community. Last night included sharing a workshop with my elementary school gym teacher, Mr. Salcito. I was thrilled to know that he was 92 (in my dream) and still going strong. I remembered he owed me a prize that he had never delivered for winning the pie-eating contest when I was 9-years old and was about to ask him to pay up and take me out for dessert when I so rudely woke up. Guess I’ll have to let that one go.

In this life where we struggle to control and direct everything, there is so much that is out of our hands. The weather, our health, our partner’s life habits, for example. But particularly our dreams. Back to the “who’s in charge?” question. Our conscious mind has no coin in the land in dreams, except to suggest all the things it’s leaving out so some other director can compensate. It is extraordinary to me how quickly things from the world above appear in the world below— like writing a blog in a dream, for example— but always on their own terms in their own strange dream language.

Imagine if we could program our own dreams! That would be a power that I’m certain we would quickly abuse and turn into disaster. So even as we have become gods in the upper world in ways that would astonish our ancestors, we are frail and vulnerable children always in the land of dreams. Lately, I’ve been led by the hand to the many homes I have known and it is a blessing. Where shall I go tonight?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Worthy Opponent

Every day, 88 soldiers stand ready to aim their guns at me and kill any vestige of self-satisfaction I might have. They march me mercilessly through their boot camp, make me scale walls and wriggle under fences, jump from rock to rock in churning waters. If I drift into dream, they shout in my face. If I don’t bring dream into exercise, they whisper threats in my ear. It’s an integrated black and white army and the soldiers come from both sides of the tracks, training in ghettos and palaces, ramshackle churches and soaring cathedrals. If I manage to make it through a drill without a scratch, get a perfect score in the obstacle course, there’s no guarantee that the next time I won’t be thrown to the ground, dispirited and discouraged. But it’s the war I signed up for and there is great glory in doing battle with this 88-soldier troupe known as (did you guess it?)— the piano.

Anyone reading this month’s blogs must have noticed my discrete (as much as I’m capable of being discrete!) references to another kind of struggle, drawn into the vortex of small skirmishes that diminish any sense of honor or dignity. I’ve been thrown to the ground by fear, ignorance, mean-spiritedness, narrowmindedness, and all my attempts to engage only bring more shame and pettiness and draw me deeper into the downward spiral, None of it needed to happen, none of it should have happened by my moral compass of what is just and true and right, but that’s the world we all must inhabit by virtue of sharing the planet. Had I been higher on the Sainthood or Bodhisattva scale, I could have absorbed it and paid it the scant attention it deserved. I think of the Zen story of a monk who was accused of fathering a child and mandated to raise him. He responded “Is that so?” and accepted the child. A year later, they discovered he indeed wasn’t the father and took the child away. He responded again, “Is that so?” and went on with his life. Well, sounds good in a Zen book, but who amongst us is so calmly detached? I ended up spending so much time paying out to Caesar that God got left behind in the background. That was my failure.

The poet Rilke wrote the most extraordinary anthem of choosing worthy battles in a poem called The Man Watching (this translation by Robert Bly), admonishing us to disengage from trying to win the petty ones.

“What we choose to fight is so tiny!
  What fights with us is so great!…
  When we win, it’s with small things
  And the triumph itself makes us small.

What is extraordinary and eternal does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
When the wrestlers’ sinews grew long like metal strings,
He felt them under his fingers like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel (who often simply declined the fight)
Went away proud and strengthened and great from that harsh hand,
That kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
By constantly greater beings.”

So yesterday, I turned back to the worthy opponents of those 88 keys and did glorious battle with FaurĂ©, Scriabin, Mendelsohn, Monk, Billy Strayhorn and others. I felt those deep chords of music under my fingers, patiently got up again when thrown to the ground, endured a string of defeats, won a few minor victories and stood up thoroughly kneaded and changed—taller, stronger, larger and ready to enter the fray again the next day. Which is here now. Charge!!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Whose In Charge?

I keep waiting for my guest to go, but nearly six weeks later, there’s no sign of him leaving the house. He’s eating up all my thoughts, putting his dirty feet on my furniture and every time he’s around, my heart starts pounding in a way that’s making me nervous— this can’t be good for me. If it happens just before bed, I know I’m in for it, jolted awake by my guest’s loud music at 2:30 in the morning.

At the same time that I’m fed up with him, I’m fascinated by this heart-pounding signal. It’s a surefire sign that he’s telling me something profound that I need to pay attention to. It’s entirely out of my “executive function” control. I can’t will it away with rational thought, subdue it with meditation, step to the side of it with Scarlatti on the piano, send it away with wine, whiskey or other substances (none of which I partake of anyway). It helps a little to walk and ride my bike, but not much— he’s right there with me every step and wheel turn.

You know the fairy tales when the evil person dumps a bunch of seeds on the ground and says, “Sort these before morning or else” ? This guest is a seed-sorter and writing, writing, writing helps a little bit. Talking helps as well. But the guest won’t leave until he dances with the right people and if they aren’t following the steps, he sits in the corner and waits. Eating all my food.

If wine doesn’t help, neither does whining and in the midst of pain and suffering, I’m fascinated by these bodily signals (heart-pounding) that have their own wisdom and agenda. We have this illusion that our rational minds are in charge, but the Gnostics, Freud and others suggest that there are many voices conversing in our heads and hearts and Mr. Executive isn’t always the one to pay attention to. Ah, there’s a seed-sorting. Which voice is worthy of our attention and when and how much? If you have an answer, drop me a line. Meanwhile, be still, my beating heart. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

To My New Facebook Friend

Hello Michael,

I saw your name in the “Add 1 Friend” column— and so I did. And you accepted! 40 years since I sang next to you in the college choir and truth be told, can’t remember thinking of you much during all that time. But your name sparked the clear image of your innocent face, not even bearded yet, sitting near me each day on the bus that Pierre drove through the European countryside, aiming for the cathedrals where we strange long-haired hippies would fill the air with the sweet sounds of Dufay. We weren’t fast friends, but I always enjoyed you and we shared some of the same stories during those two months.

I looked at your photo on the page and squinted to recognize your face. After all, we both have turned to sleep each night some 12,000 times since then, Time walking over our bodies and awakening each morning just a millimeter different until we arrived at these faces we have now. Yours seems a kind face, a content face and I’m happy to imagine a life well-lived between Innocence and Experience.

I’m thinking of this driving up Highway One on a glorious California day when Dufay rises up from the i-Pod and yes, that was us all those years back, singing Flos Florum in the church in Ronchamp. Here we are again, dancing in those tones, each note connecting the procession of selves we have been. The road which stretched out so endlessly before us back then is mostly behind us now. But still I am driving forward, there is more road ahead and these faces we have now may one day be the ones we squint to recognize within the weathered ones to come.

So a wave from across the country and four decades, a moment to remember that marvelous time and fortify and re-invigorate ourselves for what lies ahead. Thanks for being my Facebook friend!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Letter to 8th Grade Parents

The end of the school year is upon us. Sometimes it feels like a welcome and well-earned cadence to a symphonic work, those last chords announcing the new music of Summer. But as often as not, it comes as a mild shock and surprise. Already? Wasn’t it just yesterday that we rang the gongs of the first day of school?

And perhaps that same surprise for the longer span of your children’s tenure at The San Francisco School. Whether three years or eleven years or somewhere in-between, the double sense that it was a slow and glorious unfolding and also went by in a flash. (Soundtrack with “Sunrise Sunset” playing here.)

Do you remember that first day when your children entered the school doors? They came in as a question mark. Would they make friends? Would they fit in and be accepted? Would they measure up to the work? Build the pink tower, cook the hurry-up cake, clap to the beat, draw a house? Master the intricacies of reading and writing and ‘ritmetic, weaving, xylophone and recorder technique, dribbling the ball with both hands, putting together a coherent Spanish sentence? Understand quadratic equations, Manifest Destiny, climate change, converse with their Nicaraguan host family, solo in the 12-bar blues and cross-mallet their way through Vivaldi, compete in the Futsal championship, enter the city-wide Science Fair, participate in the Amnesty group?

And here they are at the far-end of the question, a glorious, affirming answer. Yes ! Yes! And again Yes!! Now you see how you needn’t have worried as you begin to gather the threads of who’ve they been to celebrate them so joyfully at graduation. Each without exception an unequivocal Yes!! to the children we dreamed they might become, to the future adults the world needs and deserves. Each in his or her own style and character and personality, but all joined in their common values of humanity, integrity and social justice, their common fearlessness in expressing themselves and affirming what they stand for in the face of pressure to simply conform to some narrow-sliced standard. They are precisely the children we are proud to send forth to represent the deep values of the school culture and precisely the children you are so proud to claim as your own. It was a work we all did together, you the parents in your homes, we the teachers in the school and they the kids, sometimes in harmony with our efforts, sometimes in defiance as they sought to sort out their own dreams about themselves from our dreams about them. We all three made maddening mistakes, but none of them fatal and all of them in service of learning how to do it better yet.

Of course, it ain’t over yet. Graduation is a snapshot moment of the wondrous answers these children have become, but those answers are but a moment’s pause before the next questions. Perhaps it is the very notion that we are all of us questions aimed toward the answers that become the next questions that allows us to send them forth in confidence that they will grow and prosper in each succeeding phase of their lives. When we become fixed answers with no more questions to be asked, we stagnate, get stuck, lose that vitality of the 1st grade bursting into school with such enthusiasm, filled with the bubbling excitement of life’s promise. That beginner’s mind we invoke in our opening gong ceremony each year, renewed each year through the habit of perpetual questioning.

It’s always bittersweet for me to bid farewell to these kids, but also to the parents. Year after year, I pause and think about the families that have been present for so long, given so much to the school, been such an integral part of our community. I make a list of those kids who represent the last sibling and sigh, think of those who still have other kids here and smile, wonder what it will be like not to see certain faces at carpool. After 38 years of ongoing goodbyes, it doesn’t get easier. But I do know that life flows on and we survive it (until we won’t) and that community is not bound by time or place, but continues in our heart’s memories.

So on the cusp of graduation, an advance congratulations to you all for your child’s grand success and my gratitude for all the years.

Much love,

Doug Goodkin

PS And please read my next e-mail about the Jazz Field Trip!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

One-Room Schoolhouse

One of the stranger things we do in our schools and culture at large is segregate by age. The first thing I notice when I travel to more village-centered cultures is that all the ages hang out together. Families often have several generations under one roof, kids of different ages are out playing clapping games, teenagers are working with their elders and so on. Meanwhile, our kids go through some 20 years of schooling hanging out almost exclusively with their peers. The grandparents are sequestered away in old age homes, the newly retired moving to their gated retirement communities, the parents close in age are chatting on the soccer league sidelines. In the long view of human culture, this is just plain weird.

But there is a logic to it. First, that deep-seated drive to be amongst our own. From the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria to the boys on one side of the circle and the girls on the other, to the white-haired folks chatting in the lobby of the Garrison Keilor talk, we are magnetically drawn to those who share some of our experiences and age is certainly a valid category for that. I love hanging out with folks of all ages, but when I start making references to F Troup or the 1910 Fruitgum Company and am met with blank stares, I suddenly crave my peer-group companions.

When it comes to school and a calibrated curriculum, the logic runs yet deeper. My school began with mixed grades—1st-2nd/3rd-4th, 5th-6th. It had a few advantages, but it was difficult to teach a sequenced curriculum and when push came to shove, the pecking order of Nature’s law prevailed and mostly kids hung out with their same age. In music class, there were many activities that worked just fine with mixed ages— folk dances, singing, anything involving creative exploration. But to introduce recorder in a mixed- 3rd-4th and yet again the next year made no sense. I think all the teachers ended up being happier to focus on one grade at a time and the kids as well.

However, we did much in mixed groups— the daily singing time, the end of the year camping trip, a few years where we tried out school families across the grades. And I believe because we began with that flexible grouping, the school culture was less obsessed with identifiying solely with one's peers and kids crossed ages at recess and in day care in what felt like—and still feels like— a healthy way.

All this comes to mind because I just had a week of mixed music classes with elementary and preschoolers— 5th grade with 5-year olds, 4th grade with 4-year olds, 1st grade with 3-year olds— and it was simply wonderful. Just sitting in a circle with a young one in-between each of the older ones was sheer delight and as they partnered-up, the pleasure increased. In some activities, the older one was guiding, in some the younger was teaching the game they knew, in some both were learning something new at the same time. The usual behavorial routines in each group were broken up and everyone was more attentive than ever.

So a reminder to enjoy the clarity of the one-grade-per-age school structure while taking care to habitually mix it up. The Japanese screen door model over the firm concrete walls. And bring the grandparents in more often and go the Old Age homes more often. The healthy human community is a snapshot of all our different ages and stages co-inhabiting the same sacred ground, giving a live human model of what lies ahead, a live human reminder of what we’ve left behind and each age contributing from their particular stage of genius.

And on top of that, it’s a lot of fun.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Way to Ordination

“One can’t make a new heaven and earth with ‘facts.’ There are no’ facts’—there is only the fact that man, every man everywhere in the world, is on his way to ordination. Some men take the long route and some take the short route. Every man is working out his destiny in his own way and nobody can be of help except by being kind, generous and patient.”               – Henry Miller: Tropic of Capricorn

It was a glorious 2nd grade music class. We danced. A spirited play-party dance, two lines, partners facing. Bow, swing your pardner, do-si-do, the whole nine yards. The boy who was sullen last class smiled the whole time. The girl often struggling with pattern got all the steps right. The boy with Asbergers, always shut away in his own dream-world, wholly participated the entire dance— and even corrected some other kids! The two kids often at odds with each other were partners and happily so. Like I said. Glorious.

There is no app for any of this. None of it fits on the i-Pad, except to view from afar through the thick wall of the screen. Nothing on the machines we’re infatuated with gets the heart pumping, the hands sweating, the spirit rising with each swing and sashay. Nothing else teaches the children what it’s like to give and receive weight from a partner, what a wonder it is to be lost in the swirling motion of coherent patterns, how to join mind and movement so that thought is active and activity thoughtful. Nothing on our little hand-held devices reveals so much of each child’s character or announces the breakthroughs they’ve just made.

The schools we have known forever have mostly been about a narrow slice of our full, glowing humanity. They began in clear knowledge that this was their job— to teach the 3R’s and leave the rest of it to family, neighborhood, culture. That has changed radically in our times, the whole village raising the child changed to the pop culture exploiting the child for profit, addicting kids to fast food, constant consumption, action-packed video games and the like. With few neighborhoods meeting in the barn for community dances and sings on Friday night, the burden falls to the schools. Which mostly continue the old-factory model of churning out facts that must be swallowed without chewing and regurgitated on the old tired standardized tests. The same old narrow slice of who we are and who we might become.

The school that I have envisioned has always been about transformation, transforming the raw potential of children into the flesh and bones realization as the body, mind, heart and imagination find their way to ordination. 38 years of my life devoted to making a “new heaven and earth” class by class, with as much patience, faith and kindness as I can manage. Today some of it paid off.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Recipe for a Perfect 7th Grade Music Class

  1. Put stools in a circle before they enter. (Every stool must be identical.)

  1. Wear a new Columbia fleece vest with the tags still on. (Other brands accepted.)

  1. Count on someone commenting on the tag. (They did.)

  1. Ask them to figure out why. (“You’re going to return it.”)

  1. Why? (Multiple theories.)

  1. Model the vest so they guess what my wife and daughter disapproved of. (One size too big.) Vote on how many agree.

  1. Discuss one student’s comment: “You should make up your own mind and not listen to them.”

  1. Follow the thread: “When is it wise to listen to folks with more experience in fashion? When is it time to trust your own judgement?”

  1. Share your difficulty in finding vests at various stores because it’s out of season, even though foggy summer in San Francisco is the perfect season.

  1. Segue into summer across the Bay and everyone at summer camp in 105 degree heat and the counselor promising ice cream if everyone can play one rhythm for five minutes straight without missing a beat.

  1.  Go into the Juba shtick where the campers have to slap mosquitoes without losing the basic beat.

  1.  Go to Plan B for teaching the Juba rhythm to differentiate instruction for those who didn’t succeed with mosquito slapping.

  1. Teach the song. Ask for comments on relation between the patted rhythm and the text. (one in 6/8, the other in 4/4). Try a variation.

  1. Discuss the meaning of the text. (Enslaved folks eating leftovers while the slave masters got the good parts of the food.)

  1.  Segue into the song and game Soup Soup and play so that one by one, students peel off to the xylophones and play the “Soup Soup” response on A.

  1. When all are at the xylophones, transform “Soup Soup” to the C-Jam Blues. (In this case, the A-Jam Blues.)

  1.  With xylos set in pentatonic scale, all solo on C-Jam Blues while teacher plays piano.

  1.  Return to melody and end with Duke’s famous tag and all playing tremelo on G.

  1.  End at the stroke of 9:00 am, the precise end of the 45 minute period.

  1. At the end of the day, go to the other Sports Basement Store and return vest for the correct size.
   21. Take off tag.

That’s how simple the perfect 7th grade music class can be.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Procession of Selves

Before photographs, all we had was the mirror to show our gradual metamorphosis from babe to elder. But now— and more than ever— we have the record of our lives in slide show format and we are never less than astonished at the physical changes. Most elders report that they carry the image of their younger selves with them until the brutal contradiction of the mirror or the photo taken yesterday. And why not? All the people we have been indeed are alive inside of us, for better or for worse.

And so on Mother’s Day, I searched for some old slides of my Mom made digital to store on the laptop and came across this one from a rare vacation she took with my Dad away from us kids. There she stands, radiating a beauty that I have to take care not to admire too much before Freud finds me out. Is she the same one sitting in the wheelchair each day I visit? What connects these two people? What greater mystery do we know than the fact that both images carry a Soul born to this Earth to discover why it was sent? Is it proper or grossly egocentric to suggest that part of that mission was to birth myself and my sister, just as part of our mission has been to bring our own children into the world?

A mother is never just a mother, but for some, that fundamental act of creation and all the caretaking that follows and all the blessing of unconditional love that at least my mother continues to radiate to me, is enough. My Mom didn’t build a better mousetrap nor record her story in words, tones or painted images, didn’t teach my kids to garden or knit. She struggled mightily with her bipolar demons and debilitating migraines and did whatever she could to survive it. But throughout it all, she also left the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for me in the milkbox, drove me to gymnastics and left me free to follow my bliss at each stage of development.

Now she is my greatest fan when I sit at the piano, giving me the feedback I crave with her gestures, expressions and frequently expressed wonder that I can do what I do. We’ve processed through our changing selves side-by-side and at 92 and 62, are blessed with the opportunity to continue to do so. And I, for one, am forever grateful.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Bella Notte

It was my last night with little Zadie before another separation of a few months. Mama, Mima and Tita (Kerala, Karen and Aunt Talia)  had gone off to hear Fran Lebowitz speak, so it was to be our special night together. We began with some piano playing, putting rocks in containers and taking them out, taking the lids off Tupperware and putting them back on— you know, the usual 18-month entertainment fare. But tonight I had something special planned— to watch our first movie together.

People who know me may be aghast. Encouraging an 18-month old to stare at a screen?
Well, everything in balance and let’s face it, we had had a full week of live music and dance, walks in the park, playing in the playground, throwing and fetching the ball, hugging and snuggling and giggling, working on vocabulary (added “shoe” “Hey, you!” and “I love you”) and more. We earned a moment lost in the magic of the silver screen, even if it was on our old TV.

So we settled down for a Friday night viewing, sprawled out on the living room floor and heads together on the pillow watching the old classic, “The Lady and the Tramp.” For the first 45-minutes, Zadie’s running commentary (every 20 seconds or so) was “Doggie!” We then added “water” and “uh-oh” and had ourselves a delightful time talking to each other and thoroughly enjoying the show. Truth be told, it kind of felt like my first genuine grandpa moment, a special moment together that we both felt as such— well, in my fantasy, at least.

When the gals game back, there we still were, me on the floor sitting on a pillow with Zadie on my lap while Tony sang with his accordion to Lady and the Tramp—“This is the night, such a beautiful night and they call it bella notte.”

And it was. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Sacred Space Re-Sanctified

In 1969, a group of visionary parents bought a church on a little street called Gaven St. and turned into a school. When I arrived in 1975, I was given the room that used to be the chapel for my music program. That always felt right, since each class well-taught and well-received (and it was a bumpy road for awhile!) felt like a worship service minus the dogma and theology or the need to put a name to the sacred forces behind joyful expression and expressive jubilation. At the party celebrating my 20th year at the school, I gave a speech about the music room, the space where so many miraculous works unfolded and named some of the memorable ones. Almost 20 more years since then, the walls hold yet more records of what the human spirit unleashed can accomplish, from children and adults alike.

And today, another sacred event was added to the room’s memory as my granddaughter Zadie walked through the doors. She sampled the xylophones, the piano, the drumset, the congas, the shakers and the wind chimes, enthralled with all the different voice available to sing the spirit. She danced to the 7th grade’s music, helped me teach Table Rhythms to the 8th grade, sat on the choral risers with the 5th grade. But the highlight was the spontaneous circle of 100 elementary kids who gathered around her at Singing Time and sang to her while she danced in the middle. They then stood up and copied her movements while I played “Yes, Sir, That’s My Zadie” on the piano and a more hilarious and sacred event would be hard to come by. The girl is not shy!

This day with Zadie will take its place amongst the potent sacred history of the SF School Music Room, join the Graduations and Samba contests and Cookie Jar contests and Halloween extravaganzas and Martin Luther King ceremonies and exalted guest artist moments (Milt Jackson, Bobby McFerrin and beyond) and singing fests and adult workshops and quiet tender moments in the daily music classes and Sofia’s choir singing last week at Grandparent’s Day and James’ Golden Gate Bridge project presentation last year and farewells to beloved teachers, the whole heart and soul of a community gathered in this old chapel made sacred anew each day truth is told and sung and danced and witnessed by the community together.

Zadie spent five hours at the school surrounded by adoring children and teachers, dancing her heart out, visiting the bunnies and geese, uncapping markers and capping them back up again. When we left, I put her in the car seat and she was asleep after five seconds. She was riding high on Spirit, but even Spirit could use a nap once in a while. Thanks to my darling granddaughter for yet another taste of the sacred in ye old music room.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Loves of My Life

This morning,  I pushed my granddaughter Zadie in a stroller through the park. The flowers were blooming, the bees were buzzing, the air was fragrant. She sang from her seat and I sang back. Every chance I got, I kissed her smooth cheek, the unwritten page of her life to come, and reminded her that I loved her.

This afternoon, I pushed my mother Florence in her wheelchair around the grounds of her Old Age Home. The flowers were blooming, the bees were buzzing, the air was fragrant. She commented in pithy one-liners from her seat and I sang to her. Every chance I got, I kissed her rough cheek, lined with her 92-year story, and reminded her that I loved her.

And then, I brought the two of them together and played piano while my Mom clapped and danced in her chair and Zadie clapped and twirled and jumped and rocked and ran around, to the utter delight of all present. My Mom kissed Zadie’s cheek and told her she loved her and we lifted Zadie up to return the favor (though not quite in her skillset yet at 18 months old). I believe they both understood each other perfectly. And so did I.

The Zombie Apocalypse

People sometimes ask how I write these blogs and the answers are varied. Often, I have some experience that merits reflection or I read an article or poem or book that invites further thoughts or I write simply to survive, to sort out the seeds of a situation. But sometimes it happens that a title presents itself to me and then I figure out what to say about it. When my daughter casually mentioned something about surviving the Zombie Apocalpyse, I knew a blog was soon to follow! Great title! (And also a good name for a rock band.)

First, I had to do that painstaking 10-second Google research. I thought Zombie might refer to people walking around brain-dead and be a great metaphor for the victims of conformity education. But hey, it’s the U.S. of A and nuanced metaphor isn’t our strong suit. Instead, I found the references to all the horror films like The Night of the Living Dead and some tips on how to outrun the ghoulish creatures and such, with the tongue not wholly in the cheek.

So it turns out that Zombie isn’t the most accurate description of one who is sleepwalking through this life. There is a Haitian Voudoun version that came from earlier versions of the Congo and some of these descriptions are similar to the Buddhist Hungry Ghosts. What I’m thinking about, though, and running into more often than I care to, is best described in the movie The Stepford Wives, a Grade B underground classic about women in a suburban town who undergo an operation to be robotic non-thinking obedient husband-pleasing companions. They look like us and talk like us, but there’s not an original brain-cell in their body. They’ve always been with us—both men and women.  I’ve met them at the Russian Consulate, Heathrow Immigration and all those places where people are trained to go by the book when the situation demands reading in-between the lines.

But now they’re creeping into places they don’t belong. Their arms aren’t outstretched, there is no blank, vacant stare on ghastly faces. In fact, they might be smiling. There’s always something up their sleeve and it’s not their heart. They hide behind the official language of doublespeak and claim to be transparent when they couldn’t be more opaque. 

How to survive the Zombie/Stepford-Wived Apocalypse? It ain't gonna help to get expensive running shoes. Just raise children to think, question, critique, imagine, speak up, to give language to their heart and to put heart into their words. The only way to de-populate the Living Dead is to people the earth with living, thinking, feeling folks. And that starts with the kids. 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Another Vote for Beauty

“Beauty has no obvious use; nor is there any clear cultural necessity for it. Yet civilization could not do without it.”  Sigmund Freud: Civilization and Its Discontents

“You are always eager to make everything useful, yet here is a useless plot. It would be much better to have salads here than bouquets.”

…the bishop replied, “You are mistaken. The beautiful is as useful as the useful.” He added after a moment’s pause. “Perhaps more so.” — Victor Hugo: Les Miserables

It took a visit from my wife’s cousin to get us out of our routines and be tourists in our town. We did ye ole Lombard St. run (and distraught to see the Vertigo house had been changed! Sacrilege!!!) and headed up to Coit Tower. With the bonus of yet another rare warm San Francisco night, we stood in awe of the Bay Bridge below, its newly created undulating lights our destination.

For you out-of-towners, the bridge lights have been described as an “iconic light sculpture” designed by the artist Leo Villareal. Using LEDs (light-emitting diodes) and computer-driven imagery, the lights move in long-looping patterns, sometimes looking like fish swimming across, sometimes exploding into dazzling slow-motion fireworks. The effect is mesmerizing and stunning, especially viewed from Coit Tower on a warm Spring night. We “oohed” and “aaaahed” alongside many other folks who had chosen to spend Friday night witnessing a spot of beauty to cap off a week of work and open the door to the weekend. Lovely.

Over on the other side stood the Golden Gate Bridge, that other icon of dreams and grace and splendor looking a little forlorn. We were imagining its younger Bay Bridge sister, always the neglected one, shouting across “In your face, batch!” Even in beauty, I suppose the seeds of envy, bitterness, revenge are present.

In my TEDx talk on “Why Music in Schools” (still time to see it! Just google me and TEDx Conejo), I ended with Beauty as one of the compelling reason for arts education. When I introduced the Spring Concert the other night, I spoke of this again, invited the audience to notice the many faces of Beauty the children would be showing them. Not only the beauty of each piece of music calibrated to the child’s level of understanding, the dances, the songs, the games, the choreography, the art work slide show, but also the connected “ands” between them all. And not only the material, but the beauty of each child and the particular way he or she receives it and expresses it. And not only the quiet moments of beauty that bring the house down to a hush, but the humorous ones, the boisterous ones, the swingin’ ones, the zany ones, the driving dynamic ones. All the many faces of beauty.

The Bay Bridge lights are scheduled to be displayed for two years, thought it’s hard to imagine shutting them down when the time is up. Well worth a trip to Coit Tower. Put it on your list.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Broken Mallet of Doom

It doesn’t take much to make me happy. Yesterday found me in deep meditation about how to fix what didn’t work in the Spring Concert rehearsal with the kids— with a two-hour deadline before performance that night! I hit upon the three things I needed— a fake beard, a pig nose and new vibraphone mallets. Just what you were thinking, yes?

First stop at Cliff’s Hardware yielded one and a half out of three— got the fake beard, but had to settle for a pig pacifier. Then to Haight Ashbury Music Center and as my cynical self suspected, they didn’t have the precise mallets I needed. But I tried out a few pair and found something I thought even better. Things were looking up! And then a couple of doors down, I popped into Mendell’s and voila! just the pig nose I needed! The skies parted, the trumpets sounded, celestial light flooded over me— I was a happy man.

Turns out that indeed, the pig nose and fake beard helped save the day for 2nd grade and the new vibraphone mallets helped as well with 4th. My colleagues’ work with 1st, 3rd, and 5th was simply breathtaking and the whole evening a wonderful affirmation of why I’m in this line of work. But no time to relax yet— tomorrow was the Middle School rehearsals and that night, their concert.

And so I woke up with concert details on my mind and on a rare warm day, mounted my bike to ride to the Brava Theater. The 8th grade’s version of “Love Is Just Around the Corner” was singing in my mind, I was enjoying the flow of fellow bicyclists and loving my city in its summer clothes. And I was thinking about those vibraphone mallets, and how happy I was going to be to show them off to the 8th graders. Like I said, it doesn’t take much to please me and I have a special affection for a new pair of just-right mallets for the vibes.

I entered the theater with a spring in my step, greeted my colleague Sofia and within one minute of starting to set the stage, she showed me something: a broken vibraphone mallet! Yes, the one I had just bought that had been used for exactly two pieces last night! And yes, they were the last pair at the Music Store and no, no other store in San Francisco carries them, and yes, the concert was tonight.

My fall from light and bright to doom and gloom was swift and devastating. I was crushed. What have I done to deserve such pain and sorrow?! How I needed to be happy for more than five minutes! Was that too much to ask? And by the way, just who or what am I asking? Never been a big fan of the Supreme Being, who if he/she/it exists must have more important things on his/her/ its mind than my broken mallet (or the equivalent of 7 billion broken mallets to contend with). I do have a sense of angels and helping hands and karmic flow and muses and lost twins and inner voices worth listening to, but what exactly are they all trying to tell me? And why am I failing all their tests so miserably?

Well, with two hours before concert time, there’s no time to ponder that. I need to pay attention to whether a djembe played with brushes is a suitable replacement for the missing snare drum and how to position the piano so the sightlines work. Wish me luck.