Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Without Machines

This morning I cleaned out my closet. Picked through my shirts, sorted, hung on new hangers, discarded for the Thrift store. Then I cleaned my desk. Shuffled through papers, wrote some checks, put them in envelopes, affixed stamps. Organized the piano books on top of the piano and then played a bit. Washed out the oatmeal pot, cleaned out the refrigerater, chopped some vegetables and got some soup started. After a couple of hours of touching fabric, paper, ivory keys, wood-handled knives, water, vegetables, I was buzzing with tactile pleasure, satisfied with the look of three-dimensional clothes neatly hung and organized, papers tucked into the letter organizer, books stacked atop the piano, condiments lined up in the refrigerator. 

It feels okay to arrange my files on my laptop desktop, but it’s just not the same. The virtual world is…well, virtual: “existing or resulting in essence or effect though not in actual fact, form.” This morning I touched real things that had weight, texture, color, shape, form. I was happy without machines.

And then I turned on the laptop to write this blog. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Happy with Machines?

I had the good fortune to hear author Zadie Smith speak last night. I’ve enjoyed her books, but the big pull was to connect with the person who inspired my granddaughter’s name. She proved to be an eloquent, charming, funny and thoroughly educated person with multiple perspectives across class, race and culture (born to a Jamaican mother and British father in working class London and now teaching at NYU in the U.S.). She’s conversant with a wide range of authors while still grounded in Dickens and Shakespeare and other dead white guys.

In talking about the inevitable impact of Facebook and fast-paced media (“most of my students confess they can’t make it through a novel”), she came to this simple conclusion: “The question is whether these machines are making us happier. If yes, enjoy! If not, stop.”

Which prompted me to wonder, “Are they making me happier or more miserable?” And the answer of course is, “Yes.” Today, the wireless cut out on me a dozen times. Half of them at school and half at home. It’s a pleasure to post these blogs, it’s great to announce workshops and such and e-mail has certainly become the default way of contact from the frivolous to the profound. But it would be interesting to chronicle the number of times a stranger entering the room would find me cursing at a screen. That can’t be good for my health.

The cliché is that technology is neutral and it is we who use it for good or bad. As anyone who has done their homework and read Marshal McCluhan or Neal Postman can testify, that’s only partially true. Each technology accents different parts of the psyche at the expense of another. The difference between radio and TV, for example, is profound.

And we all have different deep-seated longing that certain technologies promise to fulfill and then fall short— like mistaking a Facebook friend for a real friend. We have deep-structures in the brain that stay alert for flickering motion for survival’s sake and seduces us to keep looking at a football game we couldn’t care less at in a sports bar instead of attending to the scintillating conversation of our friend at the table.

But in terms of what we watch, how much we watch, how and where and with whom and for what reason we watch, yes, we still can choose all of the above and that makes all the difference in the world. The Youtube video of the two twin babies talking out of context is pure entertainment, but when shown after a scat-singing exercise in tandem with Jazz Dispute and having read the book The Singing Neanderthals, it carries a greater meaning and weight.

Today we showed the 6th grade a remarkable artful short on Youtube about rhythm and life in a Mali village. We used Apple TV and an i-Pad while admiring people who still work with their hands, pounding millet, cutting a tree to make a drum, forging an iron bell, tuning into the rhythm of language sprouting into song— in short, people who were not walking around with i-Pads in their backpacks surfing Youtube. At the end, the narrator pleads for the continuity of their way of life— which has something to do with keeping the i-Pads away. Irony piled on top of irony.

In the 8th grade class, the machines were extremely useful in framing the long, convoluted and just plain weird history of the minstrel show, the granddaddy of Broadway musicals. We saw Al Jolson sing Mammy and then dug deeper (on the i-Pads) to uncover things about Daddy Rice and Jump Jim Crow, Ernest Hogan and his unreapeatable hit song, Clorindy and the Origin of the Cakewalk. Modern technology used with a purpose and a point of view. So hooray for the chance to make these points vivid. But we could have arrived at a similar place through books or storytelling. Or maybe if we all were just out living our lives, hanging out with the kids I see out the window building a fort from milk crates, we could finally forget about the sordid history of just about everything and just enjoy being together on this bountiful earth without a single screen to mediate. Might that make us happier? Just wondering.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Jazz Playground

Say say, oh playmate. Come out and play with me.
 And bring your dollies three. Climb up my apple tree.
Slide down my rainbarrel, into my cellar door.
And we’ll be jolly friends, forever more, more, more.”

Yesterday afternoon I played perhaps the best concert of my modest performing career. My partner in crime was the great Joshi Marshall on sax and the gracious host who opened her beautiful home and shared her remarkable Grotian piano (also literally sharing it also in an inspired duet with me) was Samia Clark. It was a late Sunday afternoon, the weather perfect, the food extraordinary (pumpkin tiramisu!) and three people independently commented after it was over that they noticed the setting sun on the golden leaves out the window while we were playing Autumn in New York.

The duet is perhaps the most revealing and vulnerable format, two musicians listening and responding with a conversational intensity distinct from the large group format. I always feel like I’m the low end of pianistic technical flash and polish, still growing toward the latest hip jazz chords, scales and voicings. But the breadth of my dilettantish musical career— from Scarlatti to Scriabin to Satchmo, from Bali to Brazil to Burkina Faso— all leaks into my conception of entering a jazz tune and catches people’s attention— they have to listen with more attentive ears and at the end of the matter, the depth and quality of listening is 90% of the concert experience. The lovely house, the intimate setting, the autumn trees out the window, the convivial company, the exceptional piano, the carefully-crafted and selected repertoire, the interplay between Joshi and I, the familiar tunes given a new face all combined to make some memorable musical magic. One woman said, “I felt like you were speaking to each person separately, each of us going on our own surprising yet familiar journey with each piece.” Well, maybe a little weird to review one’s own concert, but it’s as much a complement to the audience as to Joshi and I and a chance to look at what makes any musical event notable.

But perhaps the quality in yesterday’s music that was the most important is the sense of play, that feeling of being set loose together in the playground and joyfully romping from one thing to another. For that I can credit the Orff approach and my four decades of playing with children. You might take a tumble down the slide or miss a rung of the monkey bar, but no one is judging you or assessing you in the playground— and you aren’t judging yourself either. And that gives you such freedom! I played a little of a classical piece yesterday and I was instantly transported back to those old piano recitals where you lived in fear of hitting a wrong note. But in jazz, it’s different. As Joshi said, “If it’s wrong once, it’s wrong. If it’s wrong twice, it’s jazz!”

So this my way of announcing to the world, “Hey, we’re available to play at your house!”
(If there’s a decent piano there). We’d love to get this message:

Say, say jazz players. Come join us in our home.
And bring your saxophone. Sing out those pretty tones.
Climb up the blues scale. Slide down to end the tune.
Can’t wait to hear you play, we’ll see you soon!”

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Mutant Mosquito

The mosquito was back last night. Frankly, I don’t get it. It’s almost November, the house is a cold as a proverbial witch’s teat and as far as I know, there are no stagnant pools of water in the vicinity. What mutant strand of mosquito is evolving here?

And what’s with the constant buzzing in my ear? Can’t it just suck my blood and go off somewhere to digest? What’s with the constant “Naa naa naa naa naa naa na-naa naa” teasing that’s making me miserable? Is there some mosquito counseling center that might help the species mature emotionally? Some Miss Manners column with a five-step program?

  1. Land on unsuspecting prey.
  2. Insert probiscus.
  3. Suck blood.
  4. Thank your victim for the meal.
  5. Fly away.
I suppose evolution suggests that I need to be larger physically, emotionally and spiritually here and pity the lower life form. I’ll take some small pleasure in my more varied diet, my opposable thumb and a voice that can sing more than one annoying note. But I must admit that Mutant Mosquito has the superior name for a cool rock band. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Power of One

… mosquito buzzing in your ear to completely destroy a night’s sleep.

And so while we grapple with life’s Everest-size problems, it’s those tiny whining things can undo us.

PS The Power of One is also an excellent South African novel.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Premature Nostalgia

Ancient cave paintings. Portraits of kings. The family photo album. From pre-history to yesterday’s graffiti on the freeway bridge, we humans have a deep “Kilroy was here” urge to mark our presence. (Maybe the entire history of art is nothing more than the human equivalent of dogs peeing on trees.) Not only to let others know that we were here, but to document for ourselves the arch of our ever-changing self. Save for a rainy day the photos of old girlfriends (“now, what was her name again?), the Woodstock ticket, the babies grown kids grown adults grown parents.

But when someone had the bright idea of cameras on cell phones, that natural urge went into intense overdrive. The ratio between living and documenting the living has always been high on the side of the living— now it seems we’re crossing the line where we’re documenting almost half of what we’re living. Today’s conversations:

“Here’s a shot of today’s breakfast.”

“Here’s me and my friends at the coffee shop. Here we are the next day. And here we are at the bar that night.”

“Hey check out this photo of us. Man those were good times.”
“But didn’t you just take this yesterday?”

Not only is every moment available for documentation, but then there’s the storage and organization and by the way, who has time to look at these things? There’s some 10 family photo albums on my bookshelves with perhaps 50 photos each over the past 40 years. Today we shoot 500 photos in a week! Do the math. Is life long enough to document, organize and review?

And I’m talking, as always, to myself here. These 650 plus blogs are my own photo library in words. But running experience through the neuron circuitry of language has a different feel than clicking the photo and I think a different effect. At any rate, it’s all footprints in the sand, eventually washed away by the tide.

Hey, anyone want to see my photos of the footprints?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Price of Admission

Hey you music teachers out there! Want an amazing pedagogical practice that will transform your teaching, make kids happy, feed your own artistic and spiritual life and keep you fresh and excited about teaching after 40 years of non-stop classes? Of course you do! Who wouldn’t?

But there is a price. You have to work your tail off every day of your teaching life, constantly hit the walls of your limitations and be expected to keep trying to climb over them, write apology letters to all your former students for your less-than-stellar teaching. Once you get through the door, it’s a great show. But you better be prepared to pay the price of admission. And you don’t get to sit in the center orchestra seats and watch it. You’re at once the director, the conductor, the theater tech crew, the stage set-up and clean-up crew (non-Union wages) and often the composer, arranger, screenwriter, producer as well. It ain’t easy. But it sure is rewarding! And when everything is clicking— ie, happy, engaged children— there’s few things finer or more fun.

So went my talk with a music supervisor thinking about who to send to the summer Orff training. As much as I want the world to see the beauty and wisdom of the Orff approach to music, movement, education and life in general, I recognize that it’s not for everyone. You have to have a certain predisposition to this way of working and thinking and a hearty appetite for improvisation mixed with precision.Though I base my life on the belief that all people are capable of such high-level development of mind, body, heart and spirit, I’ve lived long enough to know that many will decline the journey. And many more will find other journeys that fit their style better. And so Orff never will be a mass movement and that’s just fine with me. But for those who are intrigued, the door is always open and my hand happily waves you in.

Just be prepared to pay the price of admission!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Drive-By Love

Had a lovely Monday visiting a Level III Orff grad doing fine work combining choir and Orff Schulwerk. Followed by the pleasure of teaching two different 4th grade classes. One with 50 kids, body slapping and nursery rhymes, the other a more intimate class with 25 kids, Table Rhythms and a Halloween chant. As always, my hope was to give them something concrete, tangible, memorable, practiceable, fun, engaging, musically challenging to do that connects them both with their own possibility and with their classmates—all in 30 minutes. How do I know it worked?

First, from reading the temperature of the room, the engagement of the students, the smiles on their faces and laughs at the funny parts, the determination on their faces in the challenging parts. But when a student in the first class approached me afterwards and said, “When will you be back?” and one in the second raced inside as I was leaving and ran out again with a piece of paper, a quick drawing and the words “Thank you,” I knew that they got what I hoped for.

I love the long-term relationship with the kids at my school— for many of them eleven years of non-stop music-making. (That’s 11/14ths of their life when they graduate!!) But I also love traveling around to schools and doing a drive-by love, jump into class, fill the room with music and fun and hop back in the car. Johnny Appleseed, Santa Claus and the Lone Ranger all rolled into one.

This could be my life after retiring from my school. Even more fun if I just drive by random schools and pop into classes without being invited! Just start clapping and singing and dancing with the kids and then run off to the next school. I might not even check into the office! If you read about me in the paper, now you know who I am. Shh. Don’t tell. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Three Dollar Joke

The alternate title for this blog is First World Problems, a term my daughter Talia uses to describe the stupid little things privileged people get upset about. I had a five-star F.W.P. day and I need to vent. But I see your eyes rolling, so I’ll keep it short.

  1. Typing on the computer this morning, letters started to randomly jump out of sequence and appear elsewhere on the page. Seriously! I re-started and it didn’t help. I let it sit for awhile and the problem was gone. But still the stress hormones of maddening incomprehension had been released and were working to shorten my life span.

  1. Walking to the car, I dropped my I-Pod, which just this once, wasn’t in it’s protective case. The back cover popped off, which made for an intriguing peek into its insides. But no time to be curious—I was counting on it to accompany me on the drive (see below) and here I was on my way to shopping pounding it with my fist to snap it back together. Even ajar, the lights went on, so I had a little hope. When I miraculously managed to snap it together and went to play it, it miraculously worked! Except now the settings were different— things called Slide Show/ TV in/ TV out that I had never seen and no way to get to the songlist. I could skip from one song to the next alphabetically, but with some 5,000 tunes that started at A, this was not going to be a viable strategy when I wanted to play “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” for the kids at school. Aaargh!

  1. Took a leap and decided to take a jazz piano class this afternoon. The problem? It was in Berkeley across the Bay and the BART Transit strike pretty much insured more traffic than usual. And there was. Nothing like getting stuck in traffic with the clock ticking past the class starting time to flood the system with more stress.

  1. I arrive at the Berkeley Jazz School at 2:03 (class began at 2:00) and parking was predictably non-existent, so I went into the parking garage and discovered the rates went up after…you guess it. 2:00. Missed it by three minutes! Dang! 

  1. Got to the class and was disappointed that it was talking instead of playing. Some interesting moments, but the teacher got to the end of the theme a half-hour early. He suggested he fill the remaining time telling jokes, but instead found a tangent to pursue. At the end, I asked him to tell one of the jokes. Big mistake. It was cute enough, about a viola player, but when I got to the parking garage, it was…you guess it.  4:05, two minutes past the 2 hour mark for the $3.00 price. And now it was… $6.00! So I figured that this joke cost me $3. Wasn’t worth it.

Well, at least I got an interesting blog title out of it. 

To Life!

The Recycling Center near my house has been converted to a Community Garden and yesterday I dropped by to see what was going on. Everyone with their shovels and wheelbarrows hauling dirt and filling the raised beds. Recyling is a worthy and necessary venture, but one can’t help but feel the difference between sorting our garbage and aiding the creation of new life from seed. It was a spot of the ancient rural life in the midst of the urban. Everyone in jeans with sleeves rolled up, no posturing or need to be charming or alluring or sexy— in the garden, all are equal. No awards for best dirt-shoveler, no green-thumb grades or bumper stickers, no national standards of gardening to be checked off or assessed. Just everyone freely sharing their little corner of experience and advice. A step off the wheel of getting ahead or struggling to not be behind, down into the dirt of the simple life-affirming acts of preparing the bed, sowing the seed, later watering and tending and weed-pulling. And then marveling at the life that grows, later picking the tomatoes lovingly from the plant or pulling up the greens by the roots and bringing to the dinner table— life created and nurtured and cooked and served to sustain life.

Then this morning to the Farmer’s Market and that same kind of feeling of people gathering in life’s celebration. Music playing, folks tasting, talking, touching, the sun shining between the fog wisps, the smell of fresh-baked bread and ripe apples and pears in the air. This one’s carrot’s might be a brighter orange, that one’s Early Girl tomatoes may attract more than the other’s heirlooms, but no winners or losers here, no high-stakes testing or Farmer’s Market Superbowl, just folks out exchanging the fruits (and vegetables) of this good earth, with convivial conversation and warm hearts.

Last night another life-affirming event at the Young Woman’s Choral Project fund-raising dinner. The highlight was the young women (high school age) singing with the most exquisite vocal sound and ensemble texture in an impressively diverse musical styles. All memorized, all flawlessly performed. As a music teacher, I know what was behind those 30 minutes of music— countless hours of preparation and practice that calls on a person’s highest capabilities— facility with language, the cultivated intelligence of complex musical pattern, the physics and kinesiology of elevated vocal production, a developed sensitivity to the ensemble sound and contrapuntal relationships and a prodigious memory, for starters. All guided by an adult who embodies all those qualities herself and has the love, patience, discipline and dedication to pass it on. Each moment of rehearsal, each e-mail, phone call, meeting to arrange the concert, a vote for life, an act to nurture and sustain life’s promise.

And then every day at The San Francisco School. Sometimes I just stop and look around at what’s happening in any given moment to create such a loving place for children to prosper and grow. At any given moment, 300 plus souls wholly engaged in life’s fullest promise, each adult offering their corner of expertise and particular form of love for children, each child rising as they can to the challenge of discovering what they need to wholly embrace what life offers. Like any one at work, we mostly do what we need to get through the daily schedule still standing, but every once and a while, if we step back and notice, we discover what wonder we’re daily spinning in the emerging tapestry of these children’s lives. And our own.

Cultivating life is slow, patient work. Not sexy, not the crowd-cheering touchdown run, not the awards-dinner adulation, just the steady work of shoveling the dirt, watering the seed, pulling the weed, chopping the carrots. The death-dealers are everywhere— making the new Grand Theft Auto Game, selling the guns, closing the National Parks, blocking a humane health care, manufacturing and selling miniscule plastic water bottles,  hurting the world with heavy shoulders of power. What happened to them? What did their family, school, culture fail to give them so they might step out of destruction and return to creation? What addictive behaviors have we created to make fast food, gambled money, explosive firearms more attractive than vegetables growing, young women singing exquisite music or children happily playing in schools with fingerpaints, dress-up costumes, xylophones, playgrounds, gardens, mind-opening books, curiosity-quenching science experiments and the like? 

Each day, let’s cast our ballot for life or death and arrange our life accordingly.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Keeping My Promise

In “The Blogs That Never Were” posting, I made an offer to publish any pieces written using one of the titles. Lisa Allen, music intern at The SF School, dedicated Orff teacher, accomplished flautist and as you will see, evocative writer, took me up on it. So here it is. I particularly like the scene at the bus station, a reminder of how people can come together in times of public inconvenience. Enjoy!

The Dog in the Wind— Lisa Allen

Like a dog with its head out the car window I enthusiastically set off to the San Francisco Orff Internship with no BART services.  And as in the simple children's story, The Carrot Seed where the adults say, "It won't come up", family members said, "Stay home.  We think you're crazy to get out there today.  It's going to be a mess."  And like a kid playing in a symphony orchestra for the very first time I thought if nothing else, it would be an interesting use of the day to be out there in the center of the struggling hordes mobbing across the bay above ground.  After all, this is a semester where as of yet, nothing suffers in my absence.  Classes won't be waiting outside of locked doors, the school won't be sitting there in the gym waiting for a rehearsal without a conductor, if I'm late it will hardly be noticed. 

So off I went, with the faith of the family dog smelling the sea air on the drive to the beach, eyes half shut against the wind, hairy ears flapping in the breeze, my mother in the driver's seat generously driving me to the transbay bus, line F.  Arriving in plenty of time for the very first stop, my friend, Celia and I had our choice of seats from which to watch the day begin to unfold.  Admittedly, the progress was almost infinitely slower than in the Bart train.  But we had an early start.  And guess what!  This was my first journey above ground to see the new bay bridge headed west!  As I looked around at my fellow passengers I felt a renewed gratitude for my lifelong Berkeley roots.  I love this place!

Upon arriving in SF we were greeted by many, many muni helpers ready to guide us to the needed connecting bus.  And with my ears flopping in the wind I was excited to be in the downtown of a big city, again, reminded of my exciting days living in Paris and New York.  Admittedly the ensuing bus ride was quite long.  But when we arrived at school, serendipitously we had only missed fifteen minutes of class time!  I was in plenty of time to work with Sofia on presenting the speech piece assignment to the seventh graders, as I had hoped.  It was one of those days when there was a beautiful balance of challenge, leisure and connection.  The high point was one of Sofia's most heart-felt talks to the interns over lunchtime.  Her generous spirit runs deep underneath tender guidance toward those under her mentorship.

Then after a spirited performance of Andean flute and drum music from the sixth graders I even had a chance to collaborate with Andrea, finishing out our bird unit with Jack and the Beanstalk with the goose who laid the golden egg actually turning out to be a swan!  (Oh, I forgot the spoiler alert.  Sorry!)

Then out into the wind, again, finding a way back across the bay.  I took what I thought would be the express 9 bus, but it still took an hour to get back to the SF Bus terminal to try to find the Berkeley bus.  And then there it was...  The line for the F bus.  An absolute mob.  By my estimation, it would be midnight before getting home and I hadn't even bothered to use the bathroom before getting there.  And then there was an extremely chatty person next to me in line.  No, I take that back.  Everyone around me was extremely chatty.  Wait a minute, everyone was downright friendly, and calm and reasonable, a general sense that we couldn't do anything about it, so why get too grumpy?  As a matter of fact, the man behind me said, "Well, I guess you and I will be spending the evening together!"

And before we knew it, we were all boarding the bus.  And pretty soon I realized that those in charge knew this was a very stressful situation for a very large crowd.  And so everyone was being very kind and considerate to make sure we had a chance at remaining calm through the ordeal.

We made it across the bay in, well, I won't try to explain how long.  When I got back to downtown Berkeley and found it would be another 30 minutes before the bus would arrive I decided it was the perfect opportunity for a brisk walk up the hill.  And as I climbed the steepest part up Euclid Avenue toward Cedar I thought to myself, "Wow, this walk is far shorter than I remember!"

When I got into the house my mother asked, "Well, was it worth it?"  And like a spaniel turning her back on the wind, circling onto her soft old cushion in her favorite spot, I said, "I wouldn't have missed it for the world."

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Arrested Development

Yes, that TV series was kind of funny, but that’s not what this is about. In fact, the title is deceptive because I’m looking for another term that I don’t know yet, that perhaps doesn’t exist. But first a word about the known term.

There’s a fairy tale called Faithful John about a servant who is turned to stone. He remains so for most of the story until he’s released into a fluid, flowing human being again. The brilliant Jungian analyst, Maria Louise Von –Franz, talked about the metaphor of being turned to stone, the psychological phenomena of arrested development where part of the human psyche shuts down, gets stuck, is locked away or hardened so it can’t grow any more. Not only is such stunted growth sad for the individual, but it can be dangerous to the culture when a toddler or teenage mentality becomes dominant in adulthood. Witness the Republicans who lost the game and are taking their ball away like pouting sore losers, or the frat boy styles of the various good-ole-boys political scenes. So walking around in grown-up bodies are various people throwing toddler temper tantrums or pulling teenage pranks and it’s not a happy scene.

But that’s not what this blog is about. Today I taught the 3-year olds for the first time this year and no one has invented a heaven more heavenly than that hour spent with these remarkable beings. I’ve long announced that my two favorite ages to teach are the 3-year olds and 8th graders (for markedly different reasons) and today reminded me why. This year at school, my colleague James is teaching them and today I subbed—hence, this re-awakened sense of why I love them so much. There’s something about the 3-year old mind that hits me where I live. I could analyze it, but why bother? It just is! The quality of their humor, their curiosity, their infectious excitement, their quirky perceptions, their love affair with rhythm, movement, chant and song.

So what is the term for naming the age that is at your core? Not that I’m stuck in the 3-year old mind and body— I think I’ve done a reasonably good job keeping the growth toward a mature adult alive and flowing. It's more about defining the age or ages that manifest a quality of being you admire and value. Really “ages”— I also loved the 22- year old embarking on the adult journey and was quite happy with the 30 plus-year old raising a family. And in every way except all the associations with the number and the math of mortality, also quite content with the 60 plus-year old starting his first jazz band and still able to ride my bike up the Third Avenue hill.

But those 3-year olds today just stole my heart, melted any trace of the frozen parts, turned all the stones of my psyche into water and now I have to plot how to steal them back from my colleague so that I can teach them every week. Maybe here’s where my teenage prank mentality might be of service!

Three Steps to Happiness

Someone once said to me: “You only need three things for a fulfilling life:

  1. Good work.
  2. Someone to share it with.
  3. Something to look forward to.”
I woke up this morning with this on my mind, so excited about the day. Today I get to begin teaching the ritual Halloween songs and pieces to elementary, will play, sing and dance with the marvelous three-year olds, will rehearse with the Body Music after-school group and try out the new choreography that’s in my head. Good work all with some of my favorite people on the planet (the children). Then already have the delicious leftover stir-fry noodle dish in mind for dinner, followed by a video that takes place in Verona, Italy where I will teach this summer. From there, a family trip to new territory for me in Italy (Amalfi Coast, Cinque Terra) is in the works and already the anticipation of a rare leisure summer trip gives a different brightness to the already luminous here and now. Instead of a list of chores to be endured and gotten through, each part of my day today feels like moving from one joy to the next.

But only if I stop writing and get myself to school! 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Swinging Gate of Doubt

When do we finally get to declare, like Popeye, “I yam what I yam?” When do we finally come to peace with the way we’re put together and stop wishing we were different? When do we fully grow into who we were meant to be? I don’t know about you, but most every day, I’m walking back and forth through the swinging gate of self-doubt and self-acceptance.

I was thinking this weekend at the World Music Rehearsal of all the things I wish I could do or be that I can’t. Things like speak six languages, master the snare drum roll, play tabla, play Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu, really get the Bulgarian bagpipe ornaments, speak English in different accents, play a convincing jazz piano solo, be handy around the house and comfortable in the garden… well, the list is quite long. The healthy part of self-doubt is the way it pushes you forward, keeps you moving and occasionally reaps rewards (I’m hopeless with the English accents and handyman stuff, but I’m getting closer in the jazz piano and even Chopin realm). Maybe people completely content with who they are have set the bar too low.

It’s the conversation between the doubt and the confidence that keeps things interesting, but truth be told, I’m ready to enjoy a bit more of the confidence side. Whenever I see a multi-faceted flowing and colorful Orff class (like the kind my colleagues Sofia and James often teach) or hear a great piano player and even watch someone graciously host a dinner party, I find myself thinking, “Dang! Why can’t I do that?!!” If it’s close to my reach, it sets me thinking about how I might approach it, but I often need to be stern with myself and remind myself that I can only do it in my style, with my voice, with my way of thinking, however short it falls of what I hope it might be. There simply is no other choice.

I keep coming back to Suzuki-Roshi’s brilliant quote that covers both the desire to improve and the affirmation of who we are. No one has said it better:

“You are perfect as you are. But we could all stand a little improvement.”

The Blogs That Never Were

During the past five days, busy as always, I had ideas for blogs that never made it out of my head. That’s the maddening thing about the imagination. We all have great ideas for the next invention, great American novel, screenplay turned Hollywood blockbuster or additions to our house, but it’s that big leap from conception to creation that is the killer. Without it, the world will never know what we’re capable of and how it might be refreshed by our thoughts given form. Of course, in the case of this blog, it’s no big loss, but there are those five books I keep wanting to write. The back burner’s getting crowded and there’s mold growing in the pots.

Anyway, some titles of the blogs that never were:

Finish Your Ice Cream!

• The End of the Five and Dime

• Polymorphic Perversity

• A Miracle Photo

• No Need for Angels

• Like a Dog with It’s Head Out the Car Window

Oh, well. Life will go on just fine, thank you very much, without these fleshed out little stories. While you’re waiting for a genuine entry, write your own little story based on any of the above titles. If you send it to me, I’ll post it as a guest blog entry. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Sorry and Thanks

What to do about Columbus Day? Old habits die hard, but if you ever take a moment to read from Columbus’ journal (see first chapter of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States), I can’t imagine how anyone could justify the continued celebration of brutality, greed, arrogance, genocide and persecution, all in the name of God, of course. Here in California, we’ve tried to switch it to Indigenous People’s Day, but it hasn’t exactly taken off.

I wrote about this in my ABC’s book, our need for heroes, our reluctance to let them go when they’ve been built up to us and in the case of Columbus, his mythic status as the daring explorer going beyond the boundaries of accepted knowledge and changing our worldview— a worthy quality. Mostly lies, that "whole world is flat, think I’ll prove it different" shtick. More about follow the money (“I hear there’s gold in them there hills!”), but it would be too honest to name that myth out loud.

Given what we now know— or should know (most still don’t)— what’s an appropriate use of this holiday? I do suggest reading that Zinn chapter mentioned above and spreading the word. One Facebook post suggested celebrating by breaking and entering someone’s house and telling them it’s your home now. (Be sure to bring a flag). Here in San Francisco there was a ceremony performed by the few remaining indigenous Ohlone Indians (though way too early in the morning for me).

But I imagine most folks, as we do on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day and other such holidays, will simply think “Yee ha! A day off!” and go for a long bike ride, as I’m about to do. But at least a pause (this blog) to apologize to all who suffered from Coumbus and what he represented and some gratitude to have the privilege of being here now in this place, something that ironically wouldn’t have happened without him. And the renewed vow to keep telling the true story and be alert to signs that the Columbus mentality (still with us) is at it again and stave off its future incarnations. 

I wonder what our Congressional representatives are doing today? I guess not taking a hike in a National Park. Hmm.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Coins on the Floor—Again

This morning when I took my pants off the back of my chair, all the coins scattered to the floor. “Dad!” I shouted. For when I was a boy—and how very long ago that feels now!—the same thing often happened to him. The moment I heard the jangle of metal on the wooden floor, I leaped from my bed and scrambled to pick up as many as I could. The game was that whatever I could grab before he did, I got to keep. (Hmm. The thought just struck that perhaps he did that on purpose to get me out of bed— the foolproof “coin on the floor” alarm clock.)

My Dad has been gone six years now, but all it takes is a quarter falling from a pocket to invoke his memory.

(While writing this blog, the title felt familiar and sure enough, I cross-checked with my alphabetical list of blog titles and found an identical one (minus “again”). I wrote about this on April 16, 2012. I guess there’s only so many stories a fellow has to tell.)

Saturday, October 12, 2013

God Exists

While theologians and skeptics have been arguing for centuries about the existence of God, tonight I was shown irrefutable proof.

Driving to the Presidio Theater on Chestnut St., I arrived five minutes before the movie started faced with the usual impossible task of parking in San Francisco. Yet as I pulled up to the theater, at the very moment I approached the theater, the miracle happened. A woman got in her car to pull out. She opened the door, got in and pulled away and the whole operation took 15 seconds. No fixing up her make-up or checking her text messages or looking for something for ten minutes in her purse. In and out.

But most remarkable of all. The spot was across the street from the theater! Let me repeat that. In San Francisco, on Chestnut St., just before the movie “Enough Said” started on a Saturday night, I got a parking place across the street! As to the question of God’s existence, I can only reply, “Enough said.”

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Joy and Obligation

Sometimes I start the day by reaching randomly for a book on my poetry shelves and opening to a page, hoping for some words that will give shape to my day. Today it was Pablo Neruda and a poem titled Summary that ended,

“My life was always singing its way between joy and obligation.”

Ah, there’s a theme. We all have our particular joys and we all have our common obligations— how do we make them meet? I’m reminded of the quote in my blog “mission statement,” about being “torn between my desire to improve the world and my desire to enjoy the world” (E.B. White). The Puritan in us is all obligation and duty, the social activist is all improvement, the old hippie or New Ager is all pleasure and balancing our biorhythms, the consumer all accumulating the toys and machines for our constant entertainment. How do we get these various selves to sit down and talk or to stand up and sing as they thread through the maze of play and work, joy and obligation?

No blueprint answer for all to follow, just the daily dialogue that we each have to create. All I can add to the conversation is the thought of finding the joys within the obligations, searching out the obligations within the joys. Doing my duty as a son to visit my Mom in her state of advanced dementia is my obligation. Playing piano for her or buying her ice cream as we sit out in the sun is my joy. Playing piano whenever and wherever I can is high on the list of my current joys. Searching out performance venues and organizing rehearsals for my Pentatonics group is my obligation. As is the mandate to actually practice and get it right. Teaching children is my pleasure, going to staff meetings my responsibility. In the teaching, I am constantly surprised to remember how much obligation lies inside of that contract— fine to spin out imaginative, fun and spirited classes, but then comes the hard work of reaching further to the kids who aren’t quite getting it— and letting me know in all sorts of socially dubious behavior.  And as for the staff meeting, an enticing snack makes the gathering more pleasurable, though I often think that we could do so much more to enliven things with an opening game or song or creative exercise.

Well, you get the idea. Today the piano beckons on the joyful side, 46 e-mails on the obligation side. Let the conversation begin!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Everything In Its Place

Today I gave a little talk to the Interns about Montessori and Orff. Some robust discussion followed and a few new insights that provoked further thoughts. I began in great admiration of Maria Montessori’s accomplishments— her keen insight into the nature of children, her astute observations that led to carefully thought out pedagogy, her hard work and dedication. Our school begain as a Montessori school (and still is in the preschool), my own children were Montessori-trained, as are just about all the children I’ve taught there over the years.

As brilliant as she was, her genius in one direction necessitated some gaps in another. As a doctor (the first woman doctor in Italy), she was a scientist and as a scientist, she leaned heavily toward the logical, the practical, the analytic mind, the work ethic. She believed in an ordered universe and created a Montessori environment in which there was “a place for everything and everything in its place.” This credo ranged from the material put back neatly on the shelf to the proper steps of good work habits. I admire that. My front room is still pleading with me to act on it. It’s a vital part of solid education and child-raising and some semblance of a successful adult life. But it’s not the whole deal.

What’s missing? Precisely the things that Orff Schulwerk encourages— the communal circle more than the individual workplace, fanciful play more than practical work with right and wrong answers, attention to the imagination more than the intellect (at least at the beginning stages of music education. As the children progress all these apparent opposites marry in equitable doses according to the developmental level.) My colleague Sofia astutely observed that the Montessori bells, the one musical activity Montessori invented, are simply about getting the right answer in ordering them in a scale. She never suggested that the children actually create music with them.

And here is where Montessori and Orff part ways. One seeks to discover order through the rational mind, detailed observation, analysis of cause and effect. The other seeks to create order through a carefully-honed intuition searching for just the right note, just the right gesture, just the right color or shape on the canvas. There are rules to guide it, but no rule can open the door to the finished work of art. Leonard Bernstein once said that Beethoven wasn’t as good as others when it came to melodies, harmonies, forms, but his genius lay in composing music in which note felt inevitable, fell precisely into “its place” as if ordained from above. One can say the same about Miles Davis’ improvisations or Bob Dylan’s song lyrics. For the scientist, the right understanding can crystallize into a technology that can be made the same each time. The artist has no such comfort. The right note one day might be the wrong the next.

At my school, Montessori and Orff form a good complementary team. Two contemporaries who never met (as far as I know) but their work resonates on in life-affirming ways. One can only be grateful.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Living Inside the Song

As often happens, writing about something puts me on some vibrational wavelength that magnetically attracts other similar thoughts. Yesterday’s blog was about immersing children in a song culture, filling their storehouse with a wide range of profound, funny, dynamic, soothing, storied songs that will see them through the long Winters of the soul and enhance their bright Springs and Summers. Then this morning I “just happened” to re-read this glorious passage from the poetry collection “The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart” (Robert Bly, James Hillman, Michael Meade).

“While our European-American tradition questions and argues, and has to teach poetry to sullen students in English classes, other cultures, speaking Spanish, Russian, Arabic, to say nothing of the many tongues of Africa and the Indian subcontinent, grow up inside poems, drenched through with poetic metaphors and rhythms. As we learn to criticize, to take a poem apart, to get its meaning, they learn to listen and to recite.”

“Growing up inside poems, drenched through with poetic metaphors and rhythms.” I often talk about immersing children in the bath of music and so the “drenched” verb above is spot on. To live inside the song and to absorb the essence of it like a sponge. (This the metaphor Maria Montessori’s uses in her brilliant book “The Absorbent Mind” to describe how children learn in the first five years of life.) So while later, we will take some time to analyze and verbalize the components of music, to take the music apart and put it back together, the first step is always to step into the water. Absorb the whole of it through the pores of the skin, adjust the temperature as necessary, soak or swim or float or doggie paddle as needed, begin simply by the pleasure of immersion in water and step out cleansed and refreshed.

Bly, Hillman and Meade continue:

“We live in a poetically underdeveloped nation. People blame their own lives for a deficiency in the culture. For, without the fanciful delicacy and the powerful truths that poems convey, emotions and imagination flatten out. There’s a lack of spirit, of vision. The loss in the heart appears as a loss of heart to take up the great cultural challenges that are part of every man’s citizenship. It is in this sense that we have come to think that working in poetry and myth with people is a therapy of the culture at its psychic roots.”

Breathtaking. Could be a music educator’s mission statement. Song (which is sung poetry) carries “fanciful delicacies and powerful truths” and children who grow up without it will not grow into the full promise of their emotional and imaginative life. They will become voters unprepared to fulfill their responsibility, citizens unable to think with head and heart connected. They will mindlessly accept leaders without spirit or vision because they lack both themselves. Thus “working in poetry and myth” and song with children is a deep “therapy of culture at its psychic roots.”

It’s another warm summer day in San Francisco. Time to jump into the water with the children. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Filling the Storehouse

“If you want your children to be brilliant, tell them fairy tales.
  If you want them to be exceptionally brilliant? … Tell them more fairy tales.”

                                                            -Attributed to Albert Einstein

I’m talking a lot and writing a lot and thinking a lot about creating a musical culture in a school. What does that mean and how does one actually do it? Thanks to the presence of the Interns, who are causing the SF School music staff to reflect even deeper than we ordinarily do and are casting their own mirrored reflection on what they see back to us, I keep coming back to the Singing Time we have every day with the elementary children. I’ve come to realize that it is a rare part of schools and school music programs and besides the long list of benefits regarding language, math, history, it plays an enormous part in developing our children’s musicality. Just how and why is worth a ponder.

A song is a remarkable piece of technology. As mentioned above, it carries stories, sentiments, patterned mathematical structures, vocabulary, rhythm, rhyme and much much more. But the melody is at the center of most music and the daily immersion in a wide variety of melodies brought close to the heart and into the ear through the voice also feeds the mind’s understanding of both the similarities and differences in melodic shapes and phrases.The mind begins to absorb the larger patterns of melody-making and starts to make predictions. Such predictions form a feedback loop, reaffirming understanding when they’re correct and enlarging it when they’re not.

Each new song a child learns goes into the mind’s storehouse, where it serves as a point of reference for the next new song. When a new song is learned, the mind searches for familiar patterns and tries to relate the new information to what is already known. Not just in music, of course. All knowledge is based on prior knowledge and our first strategy when we encounter something new is to try to compare it to something familiar. I noticed when my wife and I traveled around the world years back when places really were different, that we were constantly commenting “This place reminds me of that other place” in an effort to orient ourself. We in fact do this with each new thing or piece of information we encounter.

The more examples we have in our storehouse (Einstein’s “more fairy tales”), the deeper richer and more textured and nuanced our understanding becomes. And the quicker we learn the next new thing. One of the most impressive things guests notice when they come and teach a song to our kids at our school is how fast the children absorb it, learn it and remember it. And it is no small part due to that storehouse of over 150 songs in diverse styles that the kids in our school know.

Without such prior knowledge, without a storehouse of diverse stories, melodies, emotions, perspectives, what have you, the learner simply cannot advance very far. So one of the best strategies for creating the above average children every parent wants is to to fill their storehouses with plenty and make sure that plenty is of the highest caliber. It’s not only that the kids in our school know lots of songs, it’s that they know lots of great songs and lots of songs from different places in different languages from different times and different cultures. The grain in their storehouse is both delicious and nutritious,filled not only with songs, but also stories (story and storehouse are etymologically related), dances, experiences in nature, exposure to dynamic ideas.

I don’t need much convincing that education is important, but when I think of what dry schooling or overhyped pop-media throw into the children, preparing them for nothing but either boredom or hypermanic sensation, I want to shake the culture by the shoulders and shout, “Wake up! Put inspired schooling at the top of every budget and town meeting and give the children what they deserve.”

Friends, sing lots of songs with children. Lots. You’ll notice the difference. And tell them some fairy tales while you’re at it.

A Summer's Night

I wrote my ode to Fall (“October Song”)  in September and now in October, it’s time to praise a rare summer’s night in San Francisco. I mean the kind when the air has no hint of a distant fog chill, when no winds blow through one’s short sleeves shirts, when the streets are filled with folks promenading in amazement that they can take an evening stroll past the outdoor diners without shivering.

On Thursday and Friday, I gave two full days of workshops in Boise, Idaho, both indoors in an echoey gym, but there the evening was also warm and allowed for an outdoor dinner with a polka band evoking Oktoberfest. Came in late Friday night and up early Saturday morning to my colleague James Harding’s workshop in our new school Community Center, 110 fellow music ed conspirators gathered in jubilation. Some, like me, have been attending these events since the 1970’ and ‘80’s, and many since at least the 90’s. Such pleasures.

And then the customary dinner out with the local Orff Board in the growing hip neighborhood called Dogpatch. Several square blocks of chic restaurants and the young folks out on a Saturday night. But the first sign of some strangeness to come was the celebrated ice cream store, Miscellaneous, with lines around the corner at 5:30, closed by 7:30. New York and Barcelona we are not.

The post-dinner plan was to go to a boat called the Balclutha and enjoy a hearty evening of singing sea chanteys. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect for it.  However, the monthly sing  had been cancelled because of some mean-spirited, self-serving and verging on just plain-evil shenanigans in Washington that closed down certain parts of the government. I needn’t point my finger— suffice it to say that after cleaning off my bookshelves, I took back the “I Hate Republicans Reader” from the recycling box. With no chantey sing, took off in search of a movie and without an I-Phone amongst us, looked for a newspaper on a corner to see what was playing. 10 newspapers boxes, but all of them empty except for one advertising rag. The evening’s theme had been set.

So a daring drive to the Embarcadero Theaters to just take our chances and see what’s there. Ascended the stairs and—“Closed.” For renovations. The entire Embarcadero Complex was deserted and a weird moment of getting lost in the parking lot and feeling like we were in a bad scene in a movie, walking the deserted bowels of the buildings waiting for someone to appear in a shadows. And we did a hear a blood-curdling scream in the distance. Honest.

Finally found the car and set off for the Opera Plaza near the Civic Center. Lucked into a movie worth watching and yet another sign of this strange emptiness in San Francisco— there was parking on the street. On a Saturday night! The movie— Wadjda— was about a young girl in Saudi Arabia who wanted a bicycle and the resistance in a culture with very narrow ideas about what girls can and can’t do. Aargh! Humans! Why do people seek to limit and confine and narrow the whole range of our human possibility, clipping the most beautiful parts of the flower that want nothing more than to bloom? It’s bad enough that people do it to themselves, but then they get in power and do it to others. While music teachers gather on their day off to discover their own possibility for blooming and enjoy each other’s fragrance. In my Idaho workshop, there was a transplanted Californian who told me that when he was in elementary school, they had just cut his music program. So as a 25-year old, he had his first xylophone solo in my class and it was beautiful. I invoked Tom Robbin’s quote and told him he had just proved it yet again, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”

Now it’s Sunday morning and summer is still with us. Which part of the flower will bloom today? 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Stirring the Miso

Many years back, when I was baking my own bread, culturing my own yogurt, sprouting my own alfafa seeds, I flirted with the idea of making homemade miso paste. I read a recipe and was excited about each step of the way until I came to the last: “Stir once a day for two years.” Ha ha! I decided that it would be worse than having a dog. If I went off for the summer, there would be no miso-stirring kennel. Or I could sublet my place with this addendum: “Must be responsible miso-stirrer.”

So now it’s October and I’m back from the granddaughter visit in Portland, dove back into school on Tuesday, again on Wednesday and out that night to fly to Boise, Idaho. Taught a full day today to an enthusiastic crowd of 100 or so (highlight was the trombone/sax/flute/trumpet/oboe, viola, clarinet, collective jam on Step Back Baby!)another day of world of World Music tomorrow and back home in time to go to my colleague James’ Orff Workshop at the SF School Community Center on Saturday. So not much time for reflective thinking or inspired writing.

Is there a link between the above two paragraphs? Only this. This blog is a little like the miso stirring I never did. No pressure to write on schedule, but if too many days go by without an entry, ti feels wrong. So this the image that made this entry almost worthy and now off to an evening gathering of music teachers jamming in the living room. Maybe we’ll riff on the song we sang today—Soup Soup— and I’ll be sure to sing out, “That miso soup!”