Monday, September 30, 2013

Natural Habitat

My daughter Kerala’s birthday and my last day to enjoy granddaughter Zadie until Thanksgiving. We expected rain and the morning did not disappoint, but come early afternoon, the sun appeared. We dashed into the car and headed for the zoo. By the time we got there, it was raining again, but no matter— umbrella in hand and stroller top up, off we went.

Things started off on the depressing side— the rain, grey skies, few people and many of the animals either hiding, sleeping or simply gone. But Zadie started to perk up with the sea otter and then a bit more with the orangutan and seemed genuinely delighted to see the elephants and giraffes from her picture books in three-dimensional living color. By now, she was out of her stroller, running up and down the paths, saying hi to the hippo and bye to the flamingos. She got up close to the glass with a monkey on the other side who hissed at her and she roared back. It seemed like an exciting day for her.

But I couldn’t help but notice the sadness in the leopard’s eyes and overall ennui of animals held in captivity. Sure, someone throws them meat and they don’t have to work for a living, but isn’t that what they were made for? To exercise the full lioness of their lion nature out in their natural habitat? Don’t animals feel the same necessity of freedom as deeply as humans? Maybe not dogs and cats with centuries of domestication bred into their genes—though even here, what dog doesn’t prefer to run free in the fields off-leash and what cat doesn’t demand it’s own cat door and non-curfewed hours?

What is the natural habitat for us humans? More complexity there, more choice, more possibility, but freedom to be wholly oneself in the natural habitat that suits us is essential. We were not made for jails, either the iron bar kind nor the cultural bars of racism, sexism, classism, nor the social bars of confining relationships nor the personal bars of our own making. How many parts of ourselves have we tucked away in the cages and visited like exotic animals in zoos?

Zadie didn’t care about any of this and today’s zoos are educational institutions advocating preservation of natural habitat and more. But if given a choice, I’d probably let the leopard run free and simply enjoy reading the book about leopards to Zadie or watching old Wild Kingdom reruns. Meanwhile, it was a marvelous last day together and I'm so happy for the natural habitat her lovely parents have created for her and so grateful that time with grandparents is part of it. Almost two years old, Zadie is 100% Zadie, free to express her nature within the limits of safety and the social contract of playing well with others. May it forever be so!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Running in the Halls

Today was my son-in-law’s birthday (tomorrow my daughter’s) and so we went to one of my favorite places in Portland— The Kennedy School. Built in 1916, it’s the classic elementary school. A simple but aesthetic architecture with wide halls and class photos (next to art work and posters about jazz musicians). It closed as a school in 1975 due to declining enrollment, was slated for demolition and then rescued by the McMenamin Brothers, who bought it and turned it into a hotel. The auditorium is a movie theater, the cafeteria a restaurant, the classrooms hotel rooms with the chalkboards intact. We had a hearty brunch there and while the bill was on its way, I took Zadie out in the halls. She ran gleefully up and down, jumping off steps, galloping up and down rampways, writing on the chalkboard in the hall. She had a good time at the Portland Children’s Museum yesterday, but she had a GREAT time running in the school hallways. I let her enjoy it now, knowing that she won’t be getting that chance again soon!

Later we went to a bicycle shop and she had a pretty good time going up and down stairs, buckling the seat belt in the bike extension, swishing the streamers on the bike handle. In her work at KaBoom!, the non-profit dedicated to building children’s playgrounds in communities, daughter Kerala has done lots of research on children’s play and come to the same conclusions as everyone who has ever looked seriously at the world of children’s play. Playgrounds are great, but so are trees and streams and the boxes that toys come in and a ball or two. For Zadie, the whole world is a playground and everything an opportunity for her curious fingers, her energetic body, her curious mind, her emerging language. No wonder we fall in love with the little ones so easily. They remind us of what we once had that got calcified by facts and figures and too much pre-packaged entertainment as we grew up into that thing called an adult.

One more day to be in her Zen-like presence before returning to work on Tuesday. But what work it is! A lifetime of playing with the children, setting their imaginations free, getting their fingers busy with drums, recorders and xylophones, focusing their exuberantly screaming voices toward powerfully expressive singing voices and reminding them to walk in the halls, but to run in the music room— and freeze at the signal! If I had to grow up to be an adult, not a bad way to go. 

Naming the World

It’s Zadie-time again. Last time I saw my precious granddaughter, she was 17 months old and now she’s 22. When you’re her age, a lot changes in five months! A few new physical milestones, like jumping and increased dexterity with her Legos. But mostly it’s language, language, language. She is in the midst of naming the world. First the important people with their two-syllable alliterations— Mama, Dada, Pop-Pop (grandpa), Mi-ma (grandma), Ti-ta (Aunt Talia), Lo-lo (step-brother Alijah), then her physical needs—Ba-ba (bottle), Bo-bo (pacifier), wa-wa (water). And then, of course, animals (doggie, el’phant), plants (flower, apple), things (car, truck) and so on to the entire noun-spectrum of her tangible world and imaginary world in books and on screens.

It’s a mini-study on the brain and our unique human capacity to not just simply experience the world, but to gather everything we know about each thing we encounter into a tiny explosion of vowels and consonants that is stored in memory. We gain more intimacy with and more power over our surroundings through the act of naming the things we meet. Our whole life long. Zadie’s Dad is studying for his test in organic chemistry and it’s the same deal at another level. He has to learn a whole new language about the structure of cellular make-up. It’s more abstract and complex than “apple,” but it’s the same process at work.

The nouns of language indeed are necessary for control and understanding. My Zen teacher struggled to translate concepts from Japanese that had no equivalent in English. Some of the ground-breaking work in early psychology with Freud and Jung was gathering various complex webs of behavior under nouns that served as tools for understanding—“Oedipus complex, anima and animus, the collective unconscious, etc.” Every musician must eventually come to grips with appoggiaturas, suspensions, polyrhythms, Dorian modes and such to give shape and direction to musical explorations.Indeed, the first step in entering any field of study is to learn the jargon of nouns. As we know, such jargon can be limiting or oversimplified (ADHD) or can mask human greed and power (Manifest Destiny, collateral damage)— the way we use language and the way we understand language reveals much about what we understand, what we value, what we think. But that’s way down the line.

I haven’t read up on this, but I suspect that the next step for Zadie might be the adjectives— hot toast, big truck, mad Mama when the big truck runs over her hot toast. And then things really start to get exciting with the verbs. There’s “cookie” and there’s “me” and one day there’s “me want cookie.” There’s “sad,” there’s “Pop-pop,” there’s “bye-bye,” than there’s “sad Pop-pop goes bye-bye.”

But not yet! Yesterday was a trip to the Children’s Museum in Portland, a fun time in Zadie’s room playing with one toy after another (she can count up to ten as she drops the rings on the upright little pole) and of course, constant singing with the ukelele. She has words and motions down to the Itsy Bitsy Spider, Skinnamarkink, The Wheels on the Bus, ABC, Twinkle Little Star and more of the kid song classics. Her dancing remains inspired and she always can hear the approaching cadence and clap accordingly at the end. (Just like my Mom!) She’s active and fearless and sometimes naughty, in preparation for the “terrible two’s” coming up (ah! There’s a scary noun and adjective!).

Two more days with her with forecasts of 99% chance of rain. But no matter. She’s starting to ask “waz dat?” and this will be our game wherever we are. (I look forward to the existential period of child development—“Why?”) So happy to have her and my daughter (always number two these days) and her husband here on the West Coast, a shorter and cheaper plane flight away. Maybe we’ll even visit sometime on a day when Zadie can learn a new noun rare in Portland— “sun!”

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Workin' in the Rain

It was a joyful morning with granddaughter Zadie, but now she was napping and I set off on an adventurous climb up to Mt. Tabor. It was my Portland initiation, complete with steady rain. Truth be told, some of the world’s weight was on my shoulders. Nothing earth-shattering, just some difficult discussions I needed to have that I didn’t particularly want to have. And so the switch flipped on as it always does, me the star lawyer gathering evidence for the courtroom drama, right up to the eloquent summation to the jury.

But somewhere in the process of trying to figure out where the heck I was on the downward return (my inner GPS true to form in its ineptitude), the switch flipped again and I was planning some 5-year old music classes. Came up with three dynamic activities both connected to each other and to previous knowledge and leading to the next step of emerging musicianship— hot stuff! And not surprisingly, that shoulder weight was mysteriously gone and my step was lighter, even as I wandered in circles hopelessly lost and getting wetter by the minute.

When Duke Ellington had his Pulitzer Prize snatched away at the last minute for shameful racist reasons, he was asked how he felt about it. The ever-elegant Mr. Ellington replied, “I pouted just long enough to write my next blues composition.” How wise he was! The difference between my 30-minute class plan for twenty 5-year olds and Duke’s majestic compositions is simply a difference in degree, not kind. We both petitioned the same gods and they both came through to transform us with the power of the creative imagination.

Most folks pray to Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Krishna, Yahweh, the Great Spirit, what have you, for help in times of need and it’s not a bad impulse. But let’s face it, they’re all rather busy with more urgent manners than regulating the emotional temperature of each of Earth’s 7 billion inhabitants. Better to invoke the Muse and get to work creating something— any kind, any size. From a well-planned and executed dinner to a grand Opera, creative work helps and heals. Gene Kelly comes dancing into the mind, splashing through the puddles with grace, finesse and jubilation.

If you’re not too busy, I’d suggest either listening to Ellington’s Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue or coming next Tuesday to my preschool class. Either way, I think you’ll be uplifted. Even when lost in a drenching Portland rain.

October Song

Came out from under the weather to be wholly in the weather and landed straight into the arms of Fall. I love summer, with its long nights and outdoor beckonings and immersion in the elements of sea, sand and sky, with its invitation to close the doors firmly to school and reawaken ancient impulses to walk freely on this good earth unencumbered by working responsibilities. But truth be told, my favorite season has always been Fall.

What is it about the Fall? As a kid, there was trying to catch the falling leaves spiraling down from the trees in the park, the vibrant leaf colors and satisfying leaf crunchings while walking,  the raking of leaves that was more fun than the shoveling of snow and the mowing of lawns, the jumping in the pile of the raked leaves and their musty smell. In San Francisco, all of that is but a distant memory as the few deciduous trees we pass on 7th Avenue driving to school don’t really change colors until November (though some have started) and don’t fall until December.

But the constant of Fall, whether in San Francisco, Salzburg or Seoul, is that sense of turning inward. The days shorten (dark by 7:15 now), the chill in the air sends the shorts to the back of the closet and brings out the jeans and sweaters, the world closes into itself and invites reflection, the book read by the fire or the long dinner with the kitchen filled with good smells. It’s the time to throw another blanket on the bed and wrap oneself in deep dreams, to hunker down and cozy in and stay sleeping later on the weekends. There are fresh apples, the harvest of greens, pears instead of peaches and hearty soups with fresh-baked breads. The birds are packing their bags, the blackberries passing their peak on the vine, the ants marching one by one taking over from the mosquitoes. And of course, there is school, the re-gathering of children for the monumental task of carrying forth the culture and building our future.

I think I’m not alone in my love of the Fall. Japanese haiku poetry is organized by season and some of the best all seem to be gathered under Fall. Fall well expresses that poetic Japanese view of this fleeting world, it’s the turn in the path toward mortality, but always with the bittersweet edge of beauty. What better metaphor for dying than the leaf blazing forth in its final bold colors and then drifting to its death. In October Song, one of my favorite anthems to Fall, Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band sings:

“The fallen leaves, they jewel the ground. They know the art of dying. And leave with joy, their gold-glad hearts, in the scarlet shadows lying.”

I felt the full feeling of Fall at the airport last night on my way to Portland. When we turn inward, we seek the comfort and company of our fellow folks preparing to face the long winter ahead. And so I felt that pleasant buzz of people gathering in the waiting area and the latent love of my neighbors started to rise up.

My Falls have certain milestones, ritual markers that remind me of the depth and breadth of life’s cycles and the invitation to wholly participate in the offering each season and time of year brings. It’s the time I turn to my annual Dickens book, read and re-read my whole adult life, the time getting on a plane to teach a one-day workshop in some U.S. city means a re-commitment and re-connection to my life’s work, the time of school and it’s fresh energy or the time of sitting down to write my next book on a break from school. There is the promise of Halloween to come and the annual Orff Conference that follows, the reminder to revisit my interior selves that have been constant companions, the chance to carry a book of poetry with me and wander aimlessly on my Monday off through a new San Francisco neighborhood.

And now it’s the time for me to begin my relationship with my daughter’s new home in Portland and oh, joy of all joys, be with my granddaughter Zadie. We already sang and danced last night and read books together and she amazed me with her song repertoire and ability to name the pictures in the alphabet book. More on her later, for now, just this homage to Fall and all the beauty it brings.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Under the Weather

My body like the captain in Mary Poppins booming his cannon to announce a shift in the wind. In that case, the magical Mary comes floating in with her umbrella, in mine, the little germs gather and forecast the inevitable Fall sickness. For no other reason than Summer’s graceful exit and Fall declaring its arrival with the slight chill in the air that changes everything.

Bad time to be sick, (well, when is it a good time?) as I’m about to visit my precious granddaughter after a five month too-long gap since our last visit. Made more difficult because the Skype video connection seems to have disappeared and it’s been four weeks since a Skype-sighting. On the phone, I hear her once-babble and single words shaping themselves into little sentences and am desparate to be there to witness and partake. And sing, of course. She already sang the ABC song on the phone and this proud Pop-Pop thinking it’s quite young to master that (22 months) and she sounds pretty tuneful besides. (Note to self: don’t forget to pack the ukelele.)

So I fortified myself with Wellness pills (echinacea and golden seal), tried to rest when I could and so far think I might keep it at bay. Began feeling under the weather and rising to moving along inside the weather. (Looked up that phrase: comes from sailors who were ill being confined to the hold under the deck and thus, not exposed to, under the weather. How I love language’s little histories.)

So dear reader, get ready for the Zadie Chronicles, transposed from the former home of Washington DC to the the new adventure of Portland, Oregon. Closer, same time zone, cheaper flights, other friends and family there and yes, different weather. Apparently, I’m going to make it just in time for the weekend rain. Under the weather with my umbrella in hand. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Jesus in Preschool

I know Jesus was admired as a great teacher, but I wonder if he ever taught preschool. That’s where his “love your neighbor as yourself” and “turn the other cheek” would be put to the test. I wish I could be a fly on the wall when he told little Matthew:

“Matthew, you shouldn’t be playing with that in your hand during music class. Bring it to me, please.”


“Matthew, please bring that over to me.”

No response.

“Matthew, I’ve asked you two times now. I want you bring that to me. Right now.”


“Mateo, ven aqui! No, you don’t speak Spanish? I was just wondering, since I’ve asked you three times in your mother tongue of English. Now once more, bring that to me.”


“Yoo hoo! I’m over here!”


You get the idea. Later in the class Matthew twirled around on his little carpet square while others were executing the intricate dance figures. Then he got on someone else’s carpet square who pushed him off and Matthew pushed back and I intervened and separated them and then Matthew pushed again and I believe that it was at this moment that I became a lapsed Christian and felt my blood pressure rise as I firmly escorted Matthew out the door.

In my workshops, I always tell teachers that “behavior is the language of children” and our job is to translate. The behavior was clearly saying either “I can’t do what you’re asking” or “ I could do it but I don’t want to” or “It’s much more fun to twirl around by myself and bump into people” or “I am an alien from another planet” or “I’m only five years old! Cut me some slack! I have no idea what’s going on inside my little body and mind!” But indeed it is my job to:

1)    Stop the behavior so the class can proceed harmoniously and the other children can enjoy the experience.
2)    Give clear consequences as to what’s acceptable or not.
3)    Talk it over with the child and another teacher or administrator.
4)    Try to sincerely figure out what’s going on to help that child to participate successfully.
5)    Love that child. But love comes best from understanding and understanding is hard work. Whether a kid is five or fifty-five.

All this is so easy to say and so hard to do. I suspect Jesus would have been a good preschool teacher, but I also bet he would have gotten frustrated and upset a few times. It makes me feel better to think that. On to tomorrow’s class.

Monday, September 23, 2013


“If the tone is not right, nothing’s right.” Poet Mary Oliver said something to that effect and this came to mind as I read the quarterly journal from my field of music education. It seems there’s a move to appear more scholarly and suddenly many articles are strewn with those names and dates in parenthesis that show that the author doesn’t have a single original idea. The texts are riddled with initials describing the latest dry academic concepts so that the reader conveniently can forget we're discussing kids here.  With a few exceptions, there is little of the children being taught and even less of the aesthetic language of our art form. This bothers me. So I tried my hand at revenge by writing my own article. I believe it's worthy of publication and is sure to revolutionize teaching everywhere. As follows:

The Socio-Neurological- Benefits and Overarching-Learning-Outcomes of Succesively Imitated Rhythm Patterns Over Steady Beat Via the Multiple Mediated Paradigm of the Adapted Orff Schulwerk Pedagogy

                                   By Douglas Goodkin: OST, OMG, LSDLOL

Many Music Educational Instructive Technicians (METI) have found great success in applying the Significant Research Discoveries (SRD’s) to corroborate their field study in classrooms nationwide and test their hypothesis that Echo Clapping with Precision (ECIF) increases students’ visual-audio-motor capacities (Michael Jordan 1988), stimulates the phalangic motor response (David Copperfield 1999), notably increases the Mindful Emphathic Syndrome (Oprah Winfrey 2010) while simultaneously producing AAVCR’s (Awesome and Very Cool Rhythms) (Clinkscales 1906) (Hans Hurd 1936) (Ooga Booga 5006 BC).

These strategies also support the CCSSMALIBFTSIRWFABLTC (Common Core State Standards for Musical Arts and Litercay Invented by Failed Teachers Stuck in Rooms with Forced Air, Bad Lighting and Terrible Coffee). The Orff Schulwerk’s mutli-faceted approach has proven especially effective, with its emphasis on going slow, very slow, medium slow, slowish, mediumish, getting faster, fastish, with dynamics that range from pppp,ppp,pp,p,mp,pm,pms,mvp, f, ff, fu, fpfp with multiple techniques—cupped hands, flat hands, slightly curved hand, flattycuppy, cuppyflatty (Reinhard Flatishler 2002) and performed while sitting (long, hook, half-hook, half-long, longingly, hookeywookey, hokeypokey) , standing lying down, downward dogging, storky worky, inner corey and the full range of kinesehtical kinesilogical motorcadish permutations (James Brown 1963). This author believes based on meticulous observation, years of experience, familiarity with the Reflective Observation Therapy (ROT) Method, that every METI should engage in ECIF work to meet the CCSSMALIBFTSIRWFABLTC (while acknowledging in complete transparency that there are other equally valid points of view co-existing within the same wisdom sphere). 

NOTE: The contents of this article are under the full copyright protection of the Mattress Tag Intellectual Property Agency and all violations will be prosecuted to the full extent of the International Bloggers Society Law.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to submit this to journals worldwide. As soon as I can figure out what it means. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Thank You

Here are seven words I don’t hear very much from the kids at my school:

“Please.”  “Excuse me.”  “I’m sorry.”  “Thank you.”

Don’t get me wrong. I love these kids. They are wildly imaginative, fiercely expressive, boisterous, energetic, bursting with joie de vivre, insightful, surprising, affectionate, caring, musical and more. But Miss Manners Poster Children they are not.

We’re working on it. While we all recognize that the parent pleading “What do you say, dear?” and the kid hiding behind the legs reluctantly performing with the mandatory “thank you” seems to have a dash of insincerity to it, we understand that it’s important. “We” being my generation, those kids who put up Lenny Bruce and Jimi Hendrix posters on their college walls (but none of Ann Landers and Emily Post) and then finally grew up and realized that etiquette is a social glue that feels good and makes the day more pleasant.

But in the last couple of weeks at school, I’ve noticed more than once that at the end of class, a child will come over, look me in the eye and say “thank you.” I’m talking about a 5- year old, a 4th grader, an 8th grader. And because I know that it didn’t come from obligation or habitual good manners, it meant so much more to me. Somehow I helped create an experience that touched them and they felt moved from within to let me know. 

In the increasingly insane educational world of “SLOs, GLEs, paper/pencil, pretest/posttest, video or audio or photo documentation, digital products, checklists and rubrics, report cards and wall charts” (a list I recently saw when a music teacher asked on Facebook how his colleagues assessed their students), a kid saying a sincere thank you after class tops it all. It lets you know that he or she got what they needed and you’ve done your work well.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Permission to Remember

In addition to training teachers when I travel, I sometimes go into their classrooms and work with their kids. I recently received this affirmation from a teacher whose kids I taught:

“I can't express how deeply the experience of you teaching in my classroom has affected my own teaching, and freed me to express and use my musical persona as a potent teaching force. Thematic, improvised warmups have so opened up my teaching practice, and the clarity and focus in your teaching have helped me streamline and toss out much of the bullshit in mine. Thanks for that!”

Talking with the Interns at my school the other day, I outlined the thinking behind the way I plan, structure and teach classes. Easy for me to do in a workshop and appear as a flawless teacher, but these Interns had observed three weeks of classes and could clearly see where my theory and practice merged and where they departed. As I talked about how good an idea it is to end class with a closing circle, asking the kids, “What did we do? How did we do it? How did it feel for you? What might we do next?” I followed with, “Of course, you hardly ever see me do this!” My excuse is that I want to play music up to the last minute, but while talking with them, I vowed that I would start to do it more. And then told them, “So you see, 95% of what I say in a workshop or a book or an article is simply a reminder to myself. And to all of us. Most of us know what good teaching feels like, but we simply constantly forget and need reminders. Just like most of us know what good eating or exercising or loving or living feels like, but we’re put together in such a way that we frequently forget and perpetually need reminders.”

The man who wrote to me clearly already knew how to use his “musical persona as a potent teaching force,” but just needed a reminder. And also permission. I wrote back:

“More and more, I see my role as giving reminders to others (and myself) as to what we've always known and permission to go there (something the universities often discourage). Thanks for sharing the above and congrats on your bravery and determination to re-adjust your teaching to fit yourself better!”

What have we forgotten today? Who has given us permission to remember it? Can we be so brave and bold as to give ourselves permission when no one else will?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Dinosaur in Training

In my 8th grade Jazz History Class, we’re listening to an impressive list of hit Rock 'n' Roll songs based on the 12-bar Blues. The list of recording artists who owe at least part of their livelihood to the blues guys is striking— Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Beach Boys, James Brown, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, Beatles, Janis Joplin, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, to name but a few. Without  Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf in one genre, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington in another,  we wouldn't be Rocking around the Clock with Johnny B. Goode and his Hound Dog at the Crossroads of Highway 61 and Route 66. 

When playing Jimi Hendrix, I mentioned his electric, in all senses of that word, performance of The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock. This was an opportune moment to impress the 8th graders with my cool factor— an essential ingredient for teacher success. So I told them:

"So just to let you know, I was at Woodstock. (This is true). You can line up for autographs after class.”

One girl jumped up and said, “Wow! That’s so cool! My grandma was there too!!!!”

No comment. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Growing Straight

You’d think with the advent of Google * you could find any quote ever worth quoting. But somewhere sometime I read a quote that fascinated me, but failed to write it down and name the source (I have a vague memory of Chesterton). The quote was something like this:

The beauty is that everything attempts to grow straight, but nothing succeeds in doing so.

All jokes about sexual preference aside, I think about this often. Our deep need for order sets us on the straight and narrow, but the best part of life is lived in the detours, the wrong turns, the unexpected twists in the road. We admire someone and copy their writing style or jazz solo, but even when we play the same notes, it’s the unique us that pushes through to announce ourself. And New Age Californians to the contrary (are these folks still around?), the punch line is not to be yourself and abandon order and discipline and drill and the details of craft. It is in our attempt to grow straight that the delightful curves begin to emerge. Without that attempt, we’re just floppy. (Parents, take note. If you want your kid to be their full possibility, give them something to push up against— routines, expectations, consequences, etc.)

After two days of inspired piano practice, gifted by the Muses with their full blessing, they withdrew it today, probably just to amuse themselves to see what I’d do. I stuck with it, playing the same pieces as yesterday as if baby elephants were attached to my wrists and by the end of a couple of hours, they backed off a bit and let a few good phrases emerge. Then one piece where I first listened to a version by Chick Corea, stole the general shape of a few of his ideas and let my own voice start to whisper. Not that it’s a voice that has paid it’s dues to be heard professionally, but at least it’s one that has been stubbornly persistent and followed Monk’s advice, “Keep on tryin’.” Really, what else can one do?

I imagine Chesterton (or whoever really authored this quote) had the natural world in mind when he spoke those words. Consult your nearest tree or daffodil to note the unique deviations from the template. Kinsey, that famous and infamous sex researcher, began his career as a biologist and observed hundreds of thousands of gall wasps under a microscope. He concluded that even at the low end of evolution's chain, no two were exactly like, that diversity and variation are life's irreducible facts. If that's so for gall wasps, how much more for humans. And yet in school after school, we seek to conform children to some mythical norm, to make sure they fulfill the national standards and be satisfied if they appear to do so.

It's fine and even necessary to aim them for the highest standards in each craft, but with a different end in mind— for them and us to discover precisely where their variation—and thus, their uniqueness lies.
You see how this works? This blog began as a simple comment on my piano practice and following good essay writing, should have begun with a topic sentence, developed the theme and affirmed it at the conclusion. And yet here I am talking about kids and education again after an excursion into Google, jazz solos, gall wasps, lost quotes and two references to sex. So much for the straight and narrow. I better stop before six other themes pop their head in and insist on air time. Good night. 

* I did search far and wide on Google for the original quote, but no luck. If anyone finds the real quote from above, please let me know!

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Avocado in the Bag

Yesterday I grocery shopped with a homemade burrito meal in mind. But alas, the avocados were not ripe! What's a burrito meal without guacamole? I bought them anyway, hoping that perhaps they’d be ready the next day. To urge them along, I put them in a paper bag with an apple. Someone once told me that aided the ripening process.

I’ve been checking them all morning to see how they’re doing. It’s looking like I might have to wait until tomorrow night. Fact is that you can’t hurry ripening. Everything proceeds at its own timetable. When it’s ready,it’s ready. When it’s not, it’s not.

Not too different from the kids I teach. I want them to come to every class perfectly formed and ready to fulfill my fantasy of the ideal student. But day after day, they insist on coming just as they are. And that means some are quite green in my particular subject and will take a long time to ripen. And often without warning. Like the pears in the Eddie Izzard comedy sketch from his show Definite Article: when he talks about how they’re either rock hard or too mushy, ripe for only 15 minutes: “You put them in the bowl at home, and they sit there, going, "No! No! Don't ripen yet, don't ripen yet. Wait til he goes out the room! Ripen! Now now now!" Sometimes kids seem like that—their 15 minutes for ripening in my music class passed when they were in math class.

Well, not quite. First off, we complex humans have hundreds of ripenings, each one specific. We have one “Aha!” moment in science class, a few years later, perhaps another in poetry class. We improvise a great glockenspiel solo one day and then dance with surprising beauty another day. Some ripenings feel like the confluence of several small ones, the moment when we suddenly feel like we fully inhabit our body, are wholly at peace with our particular way of thinking, finally open the heart to its largest dimension.

But the maddening thing as a teacher and as a student is that no one knows quite when it will happen. All we can do is walk the steps that aim toward ripening and hope for the best. Maybe a good teacher will partner us with an apple in a paper bag, but that’s about all the rushing the process allows. A few years ago, after having taught music for some 35 years, I finally decided to call myself a musician. After playing piano for 56 years, I decided today that I am going to claim myself as a pianist. For the first time.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to practice some more piano and then check that bag to see if the avocados are ready yet. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Footprints in the Sand

I dreamed the other night of the Blog I would write. Title and general outline were clear in my mind and I was confident it would be one of the more articulate entries. When I woke up, it had vanished. I thought if I could retrieve the title, the rest would follow, as it often does. But no luck. Reminded me of ye old college days when, aided by certain controlled substances, “the meaning of life” revealed itself completely, only to disappear the next morning like footprints in the sand after the tide comes in. Sometimes my friends and I would write it down, but the next day it read like those attachments I get that don’t open properly for me and read something like this (and just about as intelligible):

$¥¡∑‚¨Yà∆˙M+~Æø÷­EÖ§ºQC�–ä †8_Ω}≥\o#`≈Ÿ‑[— ≈OR¢Ó¡)lB


So the Blog remained unwritten and the real life I’m supposed to be living called for my attention. Since the last entry, I taught my full Friday with stunning musical achievements by the 4th and 8th graders, another lovely flute-piano duet with Lisa Allen and I playing for my Mom and friends. A superb movie that night—The Butler. Many comment-worthy moments and a blog about the evolution of race relations began to form. But it was not to be.

Saturday had me up early loading Orff instruments in my car to take to The SF Jazz Center with cohorts-in-crime Joshi Marshall and Sam Heminger to lead a Family Jazz Workshop. Last time we did it, the kids did everything and the parents watched, but this time, they all joined in. How often do kids get to play, sing and dance with their parents? Plus the added bonus of “hitting them on the head with a rollin’ pin!” (Imaginary, of course, from the kid’s song “Step Back Baby.”). Family music— that’s a theme worthy of an entry or two. But—you guessed it— it was not to be.

After the workshop, off for a Thai food lunch and then to the Bill Frisell Family Concert. Quite a challenge for the kids, to say the least— one long piece with drums, guitar and violin in no identifiable genre. Still, kids always amaze me. During question time, one of them asked, “What kind of music was that?” Later, another asked, “What’s the most important thing in art? “ The musicians had to dig deep to answer! And what they said was worthy of a Blog entry. But—well, not now.

I loaded up the Orff instruments, drove home and hopped on my bike for some long overdue exercise out to the ocean and around the Legion of Honor. Dinner and an evening rearranging the photo albums so all the poetry books will fit in the same cabinet. Satisfying and many bloggish thoughts arising looking at old photos and reacquainting myself with my old books.

But once again it was not to be. Come Sunday and it was an inspired piano practice that constantly baffles me, graced with a sense that I can hear everything and play everything I hear. Of course, the maddening thing is how seldom this happens in a concert setting! But when it comes, I have the good sense to stick with it. At least until lunch rolled around and a quick ride to the Farmer’s Market and up big hills to keep the exercise routine going. And then settle back in the same place where Opera in the Park was last Sunday to listen to Comedy in the Park.

Life went on—and thankfully so—and I felt a tiny twinge of remorse that I didn’t extract anything interesting to say. But no one is suffering from the silence and truth be told, the whole 600 plus entries of the past few years are nothing more than footprints in the sand. Not that I’m going to stop walking on the beach, just a good reality check not to take it too seriously.

See you on the screen tomorrow. Or not.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Proud Papa

We raise our children to surpass us. Send them forth as arrows that fly beyond where we have stepped. With my two girls, now young women, the first sign was being roundly defeated in Boggle, then humbled by their writing skills, then astonished by their creativity in the kitchen, making my cooking seem so pedestrian and predictable.

Yesterday was Back-to-School night and with some time to spare, I sat in on the first grade presentation. I listened to the teacher so poised and articulate, felt her commitment to her craft shine forth in every sentence, her immense love for the children, both collectively and individually, drip from every word. I thought, “ I sure would love to have this teacher teach my daughter.” And then thought, “Wait a minute. She is my daughter!”

After my 4th grade presentation on the music program, one of the parents came up and said, “Well, I’d like to tell you that you’re great, but what I really want to tell you is that your daughter is really, really great!!” The arrow had been launched two “really’s” beyond my lifetime’s efforts. How does this make me feel?

See title.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Writer's Blogk

All is well. Loving showing San Francisco to the Interns, one of the largest of my independent workshops last Saturday, Opera in the Park, Mary Poppins Sing-a-long, each class with kids a jewel of sorts (some rough, some polished), a happy spirit at school, good music for my Mom and a few SF heat-wave days. And yet, the hidden spring of inspiration, such as it is, that feeds this blog has slowed to a trickle. And always the question in such cases. Why?

Though each thing I’m doing is fun and meaningful, what’s missing is a certain continuity, a certain rhythmic stride that I haven’t yet hit as I shoulder the big wheel of school’s beginning. No surprise, usually takes three to four weeks for me to settle into the schedule, organize my time, choose a few threads to stitch the days today, from my traditional Fall Dickens to a biking routine to a piano routine to a writing routine. Just haven’t felt like I’m wholly arrived back into my San Francisco life after the summer travels. And then there’s still the piles of papers in my front room waiting to be filed.

So not much blogworthy here except a clever title. Maybe that’s enough for now. 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Orff Teacher Wanted— No Warts

Having just come from the Mary Poppins Sing-A-Long at the Castro Theater, it occurs to me that the next time a job teaching music via the Orff approach comes up (or any teaching job, for that matter), the school should have the kids write out the job qualifications. Except for the rosy cheeks, no warts, bringing too many sweets and the weird bit about barley water, the two kids in the movie advertising for a nanny pretty much nailed it. As follows:

If you want this choice position
Have a cheery disposition
Rosy cheeks, no warts
Play games, all sorts

You must be kind, you must be witty
Very sweet and fairly pretty
Take us on outings, give us treats
Sing songs, bring sweets

Never be cross or cruel
Never give us Castor oil or gruel
Love us as a son and daughter
And never smell of barley water.

If you won’t scold or dominate us
We will never give you cause to hate us.
We won’t hid your spectacles, so you can’t see
Put toads in your bed or pepper in your tea

Hurry, hurry, many thanks
Sincerely, Jane and Michael Banks

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Divine Message

Sometimes while preparing to sit a morning meditation, I grab a poetry book to set the tone for the day. Sometimes it’s a game, reaching blindly on the shelf and grabbing a book and turning randomly to a page. But today, I had a clear desire to read a poem by a poet whose work I rarely read, a venerable Irish poet named Seamus Heaney. So I searched in the H’s and came up empty-handed. Then reached behind the books and fished out a couple of Ted Kooser’s books, but still no Seamus Heaney. So I settled for a few poems by Maxine Kumin and went off to teach for the day.

Tonight, I gathered with a group of men and almost fell off my chair when one of them announced, “Hey, did you hear that Seamus Heaney died?” How strange is that? I’m sure we all have stories of such mysterious coincidences, but it doesn’t make them any less remarkable. Why did I feel this strange connection to someone whose work I barely know— really two poems—and why did this thought pop into my head that I should read him right around the time he passed away? And where the heck is that book?

One of his poems I remembered was about dowsing, that ancient art of searching for underground water with a hazel stick. The poem speaks eloquently of the idea of calling, the way in which the secret waters reveal themselves only to those who are worthy by gift, intention and a disciplined practice. Such commitment to one’s work grants us certain powers that are not freely accessible to the casual bystander. And yet our passion can be so strong that merely gripping the wrists of our student can make the stick quiver with electric energy. Below is the poem:


Cut from the green hedge a forked hazel stick
That he held tight by the arms of the V:
Circling the terrain, hunting the pluck,
Of water, nervous, but professionally.

Unfussed. The pluck came sharp as a sting.
The rod jerked down with precise convulsions.
Spring water suddenly broadcasting,
Through a green aerial its secret stations.

The bystanders would ask to have a try.
He handed them the rod without a word.
It lay dead in their grasp till nonchalantly.
He gripped the expectant wrists. The hazel stirred.

Thank you, Mr. Heaney. I know not which secret message you hoped to stir in my mind, but it did drive me to search again for the book and now I found it, a book of selected prose titled “Preoccupations.” I shall read it and perhaps discover why I thought of you this morning. In fact, I just now randomly opened to a page and read this:

All the activity and push of the enterprise, the aim of the poet and of the poetry, is finally to be of service, to ply the effort of the individual work into the larger work of the community as a whole.”

A lovely invitation to keep reading. And so I will, wishing you a resting in peace knowing that you did just that. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A San Francisco Day

I love showing off my city. Especially on a glorious September Day. So yesterday I met up with three of the music interns from afar (Chicago, Italy, Turkey) at Dolores Park to see the last show of the season from that venerable insitution, The San Francisco Mime Troupe. This year’s show was titled “Oil and Water” and expertly walked the thin line between the brutal facts of climate change and dirty politics and signs of hope and calls to action. (“No to Keystone Pipeline! No to war in Syria! Boo Chevron!”). My friend from Turkey was astounded that such radical critiques could be publicly voiced without the actors getting arrested and it was a good reminder that despite our frustrations with political process, free speech is still alive and well and to be valued.

After the show, we sauntered over to the new playground in Dolores Park, which is quite extraordinary. A testament to building something of beauty and fun for our children, including a small section with tuned drum columns and hanging chime bars with mallets. Human imagination and intellect put in service of life and affirmation instead of death and destruction. It’s a good idea.

On we went to Mission Dolores, part of my mission to prepare my guests for the movie we were about to see—the San Francisco classic by Alfred Hitchcock, Vertigo.  While walking through the cemetery, I told the story of my daughter Talia’s 16th birthday party where we went around the city with a videocamera and seven girls making our own version of Vertigo. For the cemetery scene, we made a cardboard gravestone for Carlotta Valdez.

Onward through the bustling streets to the Castro Theater, that icon of cinema glory still alive and well (may it be so for decades to come!). Sadly, the organist was not playing for the 5:00 pm show, but on the screen were photos of all the former movie theaters in their days of glory— the Surf, the Ahlambra, the Avenue, the Bridge, the Coronet and more, all sadly gone in the new world of characterless multi-plexes. With some time before the movie started, I walked out to Castro Street searching for another San Francisco icon, the It’s-It ice cream (two cookies with ice-cream in-between, the whole deal covered in chocolate). Score! (Thank you, Mollie Stone). We savored our tasty treats, the lights went down, the signature music began and off we went into another world.

Of course, I’ve seen Vertigo at least 25 times, but still fun to share it with folks seeing it for the first time. As a veteran, the suspended disbelief art requires began to waver a bit and I found at least four major inconsistencies that Hitchcock could have done better. (For example, in that opening scene, how did Scotty actually get to safety while hanging from that drainpipe? How did he find the correct apartment door when he followed Judy? How could she fake non-surprise when she opened the door? Etc.)

Post movie to a Thai restaurant and so ended a quintessential San Francisco day. Later on, we’ll go on a Vertigo tour through the city. But meanwhile, the three-day weekend has passed and time to re-enter The San Francisco School. I wonder whether the miracles (and high dramas and betrayals and secrets) that have passed in that venerable institution will ever make it worthy to be on somebody’s tour?

Sunday, September 1, 2013

No Progress

“I don’t develop— I am.”  Pablo Picasso

I wanted to title this blog “The Acorn and the Oak,” but thanks to my thorough documentation, I discovered I had already used that title. Next choice was “Testimony of a Pack Rat” and that would have worked well, since this posting was inspired by finally tackling the dreaded piles of papers I’ve referred to many, many times and uncovering an unexpected jewel. But the title wouldn’t have pointed to the main point, soon to be revealed. And so “No Progress” comes from Gary Snyder’s observation: “There is no progress in art or religion.” And though the topic here is my life of teaching music via the Orff approach, it is a religious affair for me and it does deal with transmitting an art form artistically. And so the story.

The year is 1979. My soon-to-be wife Karen and I are fresh from five remarkable months in India, at the tail end of year’s trip around the world. We have arrived in Surakarta, Java, where an old roommate of Karen's has been studying Javanese dance. She helps us get settled and I begin studying Javanese gamelan. For about two lessons, that is, before something suddenly seems terribly wrong. After a bad couple of days of misdiagnosis and useless antibiotics, I discover I have hepatitis. Probably from water in Nepal (it takes a while to manifest).

The cure? Simply complete bed rest and simple diet, with the fear of a much worse re-occurrence if I push the limit and become active too soon. And so I literally have to mostly lay in bed for three weeks with nothing to do but watch my weight go down to a record low of 135. I have a few books, but I need something to give me a continuity to connect the long days ahead. And so I buy some Indonesian school notebooks and set off to write a book (by hand) about teaching music via the Orff approach. Which I did. When I returned to San Francisco, my brother-in-law edited it a bit and typed it up and I sent it off to a publisher in Princeton. And it was this typed manuscript— all 231 pages— that I found today sorting through my papers.

Now keep in mind that I was 27 years old and had been teaching this way for a grand total of three years. Re-reading these pages I expected to laugh uproariously at my naiveté, to shake my head in disbelief how misguided I was, to want to quickly burn it all before someone discovered it and my reputation was forever damaged.

But instead I heard that inexperienced younger self saying the same things I just said to my Level III students. Yes, the language was more stilted, the delivery more clumsy, the experience to back it up wafer-thin compared to now. But I was astounded to see that everything was lined up in place, the ideas solid and dependable, the vision already wholly arrived. Really all that could be said about the 36 years of teaching that followed was simply filling in the details of all the ways the ideas could be manifested, experienced and lived by students and teachers alike.

Below are some paragraphs from the rediscovered manuscript:

Create a Supportive Atmosphere Free From Fear and Competition
Since we are concerned with process as well as product, the primary enmphasis is on each student’s effort to fully realize his or her own musical potential. In this realm, there is no room for comparison with other students. The child’s (or adult’s) motivation should come from within, not from a need to compete. Since making mistakes is part of the process, there is no reason to induce fear. This will only destroy the equilibrium and the sense of relaxation necessary for the music to emerge. A teacher should correct mistakes patiently, like a parent helping a baby learn to walk. The baby is encouraged to pick himself up and try again. Thus, with a well-paced program and a patient teacher, the student will develop the positive self-image vital to success. Free from competition, free from fear of rebuke, encouraged in all serious attempts to express themselves, even initially shy students will eventually participate happily.

Not bad, Doug! And then my closing of the whole book (which needless to say, was rejected by the Princeton publisher and has sat for decades in my closet):

The particular balance of material presented in this book is not a model for all to follow, but simply the aspects of music and teaching that have worked well for me. I invite you to filter it all through your own personal vision, to truly make it your own. Rather than go through the frustration of trying to “do it all,” start from where you are and dig in. Using that as a center, you can begin to expand outwards to broaden the base of your exploration and to dig further to add to the depth.

Good luck to you in your efforts. Remember that your failures are your most valuable teachers. It may two years of teaching every day for things to click and fall into place. Persevere, knowing that you never arrive “there” but are constantly in the process of expanding and refining. To give children the tools and opportunity to express themselves in music and dance is reason enough to plow through the setbacks and frustrations. It is their rightful heritage.

I have nothing to add here. It was true then and it's true now. 

My friends, hold on to your old papers. The oak tree of your life is contained in those acorns. We don't develop— we are.