Saturday, November 30, 2013

Miraculous Speech

If these blogs have been remiss in crowing about my fabulous granddaughter, it’s only because I don’t want to waste a minute of time with her spent writing about her instead. But now that she's napping, I'm off trying to sneak one in. If she already stole my heart the moment I first saw her almost two years ago, now it’s on ongoing case of breaking and entering. In the mere three days since I’ve been here, her spoken vocabulary has virtually doubled! It’s an extraordinary feat to witness, this explosion of language and how it changes her life.

Her Dad relayed in hilarious pantomime a look she used to give him sitting on the couch before she was mobile, one he interpreted as “I’m really not happy that I have to sit here while you get to walk around.” And it’s true that she seemed more content crawling and then walking and now jumping, skipping, galloping and oh my, the dancing! More independence, more control, more choice, more freedom, more opportunity to get to explore this big wide world.

And now the same is true as she inhales each new word and starts to piece together her own forming thoughts and needs and desires and observations in little sentences. Why do we make such a fuss about oil on Hanukah or the Virgin of Guadulupe? Isn’t this miracle enough? And as she speaks, she gains a different kind of control, a different freedom of expression, a different way to explore and get to know the world. And she is markedly happier because of it all.

From these short phrases to the eventual  jewels of Shakespeare on the tongue, language’s promise to both make sense of apparent chaos and bathe in its soothing music. The truth may set us free, but the truth articulated in eloquent language will make us freer yet, showering us with controlled expression and expressive control. It gives us the inner power that is the best antidote to the temptation of firearms and killer video games and addictive shopping and ceaseless swearing.

And hearkening back to an old essay of mine, Dance, Sing and Read, I hold by my sense that expressing oneself through the articulated body, through the singing voice, through ideas beautifully spoken and understood, is a pretty good way to navigate through this life. Zadie is enjoying the first fruits of all three and it is a wonder to behold.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Pilgrims in Bikinis

Such a pleasure to have the whole family together at Thanksgiving for the first time in five years! It was a sunny day in Portland, Oregon and little Zadie kept us smiling, laughing and amazed the whole day. The meal was an abundance of fabulous food lovingly prepared and joyfully shared by our new extended families with nephew Ian and his in-laws. At one point, people shared unusual Thanksgivings they have had and Talia told of hosting 40 people in Buenos Aires with a turkey defrosted overnight in a bathtub and changing the water every 30 minutes. Then cooking the whole meal the next day in bikinis. (November is summer in Argentina.)

And so—kaching!— the title for a blog that deserves to be more amusing. Had the Pilgrim ancestors witnessed the bikini cooking, I imagine there would have been enough rolling over in the grave to make New England San Francisco’s rival in earthquakes. Too tired at the end of the long day to take the image farther, but you’re welcome to borrow it and perhaps win a short story contest. Pilgrims in bikinis. Imagine that.

Testing for Teachers

How do you know whether you’re meant to be a teacher? How can you tell if you have what it takes? How can you check or how can others help you evaluate if you’re ready?

Giving a workshop to classroom teachers the other day, I came up a little test to see who's qualified to be a teacher, three signs that this path is right for you and it’s right for the children. One out of three is sometimes sufficient to qualify for the honor of leading children toward their future. Two is better and if you’re not three for three, at least you might consider aiming yourself in that direction. The list:

  1. Love the children
  2. Love your craft.
  3. Love ideas.

Love the children. This is perhaps the beginning and end of the matter. You love being around children, their fresh minds, their energetic bodies, their astoundingly compassionate (or occasionally innocently cruel) hearts. You think about them before and after class.

Love your craft. You’re a science teacher obsessed with the dung beetle, an English teacher enamored by Emily Dickinson, a math teacher who wakes up in the morning to converse with numbers. As a result, your students suddenly are fascinated by the dung beetle, are inspired to write Emily Dickinson-style poems about the dung beetle, are analyzing the syllable structure of Emily’s body of work or are counting the eggs of the dung beetle. Education as infection, the overflow of your passion spilling out to the children.

Love ideas. Education abounds with ideas about the human mind and how it grows, the human heart and how it develops, the human body and how it can be trained for eloquence and expression. It is the place where culture and community can be consciously nurtured (or sadly neglected) and a place found worthy of our great thinkers— neuroscientists, philosophers, poets, psychologists, artists and beyond. One fertile idea can transform an entire classroom as we consider the art and science of teaching.

Some fine teachers love children and never read a single book about education, some like them well enough, but are passionate about pedagogy, some don’t think much about educational philosophy or dream about the children, but show up with their enthusiasm for their subject every day. Lots of combinations possible and worthwhile to reflect on your own teaching style. But one word of advice. If you’re 0 for 3, get out now. You’ll hurt yourself and hurt the children and goodness knows, there’s plenty of other jobs that pay more!

Meanwhile, note the common verb in my list above. A word that is conspiculously absent from the public debate about schools and education. A word that should be evoked at the beginning and end of every teacher-training program. A word that should be uppermost in our mind as we slog through the day-today. Love, love and again, love. That’s why you’re a teacher.

Monday, November 25, 2013

10,000 Hours

Hurtling East on highway 80 in the California night, listening to a book on tape through a complicated system of an ancient Walkman connected to a cassette tape converter. On my way to Grass Valley for a workshop with classroom teachers tomorrow after a stimulating World music Rehearsal practicing an Indian vocal rhythm piece with that marvelous language. “Kitataka Terekita Ta Dhin Ta-ki-ta Ta.” The syllables flowing from the lips of experienced practitioners like liquid honey while us clumsy newcomers trip over our own tongues.

The book I’m listening to is “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, a surprising look at what makes successful people successful that debunks much of the “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps” mythology (and what the heck are bootstraps anyway?). But referring to other research, the 10,000 hour truth is invoked— ain’t nothing worthy accomplished without putting in your 10,000 hours of focused practice. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Only one punch line possible here and despite my naïve “just feel it” and “disciplined practice is so compulsive and boring” coming of age in the mellow “be here now” late 60’s, there simply is no way to sidestep that truth.

There is another blog waiting about how the “get there later” that practice implies can also be the “be here now” if we consider a different approach to practice, especially one more social and fun in company with others instead of being locked away in Conservaotry practice rooms. I love that Zen is called Zen practice rather than Zen faith and belief, meaning that mediation is the verb of our intuition that the world is a spiritual place and our daily practice renews and deepens our understanding of that essential fact. I like that doctors have a practice, though I hope they’re not stumbling over their beginning scales on my body. Practice implies that we are perpetually on our way and never wholly arrived, always approaching mastery and that’s why my field (the one where I’ve truly done my time— probably approaching 30,000 hours of classes with kids!) insists on the term “the Orff approach.” 

In my advancing old age, I’m finally seeing both the wisdom, efficacy and joy of practice. Gave my second duet house concert the other night with the always-inspiring Joshi Marshall and lo and behold, we entered new territory having done this twice in the same month. And the time I’m spending with Chopin, Beethoven, Scarlatti, Grieg and Charlie Parker daily kicking my butt is paying off as my fingers fly over the keys. Practice works!

I spent some of my drive reviewing the Indian syllables, trying to relax my tongue so they could flow more effortlessly. A good way to keep awake and a good place to practice!

One down. 9, 999 to go.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Keepin' It Real

“Is this real? Is this real? This life I am living?”

This morning I emerged from morning meditation and stepped outside with compost bucket in hand. Walked barefoot over the rain-soaked earth through wet golden leaves, inhaled the pungent smell of decay in the compost bin and re-entered the house a different person, brought back to some solid ground of “real.” And I remembered the Haida Indian song above quoted in an old Gary Snyder book of essays.

I always thought of this quote as one of those partings of the veil between waking and dreaming, that sense that all is illusion, that sliver of doubt that drives seekers to Buddhism or art or a general habit of deep-questioning. But many layers to this simple inquiry. It might also be asking, “Is this authentic, the life I have chosen? Is this life I have chosen aligned with the life that has chosen me? Is this what I’m meant to be doing and are these people the people I’m meant to do it with and is this place the place I’m meant to do it in?” All questions, like the best questions, that simply lead to other questions and keep us honest, keep us moving, "keep it real.” Going through the school gates each day to the bubbling laughter and yelps and shouts of children, tucked into my window seat on the plane on the way to the workshop, seated at the piano preparing for the next house concert, that sense of authenticity is always by my side. In a different way, the same roasting root vegetables, curled up on the couch with Hitchcock on the screen or blanketed in the bed with Dickens in my hand, all reminders of the real life that has blessed me and I’ve been blessed to recognize and pursue.

At school yesterday, an 8th grader was talking about her new favorite ap on her phone— something that makes the sound of rain and invokes a certain indoors-coziness she values. Well, at least this was an aesthetic appreciation, but these days, the old quote carries a new layer of meaning as we ensconce ourselves in a virtual life far away from bare feet on wet earth and decaying compost. Is reality TV real? Is shopping at Walmart? Are Facebook friends real friends? Is walking through the world talking non-stop through thin wires without attending to the place we’re walking real? Are the 56 messages in my e-mail box awaiting my response the real life I hoped to live?

Just wondering. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Birthday in the Clouds

Dad, today would have been your 95th birthday. I remember as a kid lying on the grass in Warinanco Park near our house looking up at the shifting faces in the clouds and wondering if it was the departed souls looking down at us. It was a sweet thought. I’d like to do that today and look for you, but hey, I still have a job and besides, there’s a light rain. I imagine birthdays lose their meaning once you’ve crossed to the other side, but for us mortals left here, it is yet another way to remember and keep you alive in our hearts.

There’s much I wish you could see here— and perhaps you do. Your great-granddaughter’s 2nd birthday yesterday, her jumping on the bed while we Skyped, stopping in mild alarm when I played my bagpipe and then continuing her jumping to gaida music! Tearing open the puzzle present Karen sent and doing it right away, while naming all the colors of the different shapes. I wish you could see Kerala, your first grandchild, as a mother and know how wonderful she is. And how proud you would be of Ronnie on his way to becomine a doctor in chiropractic school. We will spend Thanksgiving with them next week in Portland and what a pleasure that will be!

I want you to know what a joy it is to get a snack in the school kitchen and have Talia walk in. Yes, she’s teaching first grade here and she’s a marvel, beloved by kids, parents and fellow staff alike. I wish she liked old black-and-white movies as much as I do and sit next to me on the couch to enjoy them together, but in the list of disappointments that we might have in our own children, that’s pretty small!!

Karen’s in her 40th year at school, I’m in my 39th and we both still like our work as much as we did all those years back. That’s a gift beyond measure. Ariel came over yesterday and commented that in my Conference I went to the Hambone Summit— while I got to slap my body silly, she was listening to how to make numbers behave on screens. And amidst the avalanche of electronic technology that has fallen into just about every corner of life, Karen still has to prepare the paints, wet the clay, take out the weaving materials while leading children into the pleasure of self-expression with things that get their hands dirty. Hooray for that!

And then there’s Mom. Still with us at 92 and many days I wonder why. Nothing much left but lying in bed and eating. But then she perks up and starts talking and smiles while I play piano or inhales the fresh air in the garden and exclaims, “Isn’t that lovely?” Five years now the faithful son visiting her at least twice a week and though she won’t remember it, I’ll mention your birthday.

That’s the news, Dad, such as it is. Hope the clouds are not littered with the frivolous i-Cloud droppings of our earthly life and you have a moment to look down and smile. I know you’re there somewhere.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Love Poem to My School

Today I opened a small book to enter the large world of Gerard Manley Hopkins. He was a Jesuit priest who was a conflicted poet and crafted perhaps some of the most intense, dense and condensed poems in the English language. He was a master of alliteration and wrote whole essays on the intricacies of his theories of poetic rhythms. Though Christ and God enter his work, he mostly praises their handiwork—sea and skylarks, rose-moles and brinded-cows, kingfishers and dragonflies and other glories of this sweet earth.

This morning, my eye fell on a casual poem he wrote in the visitor’s book at a place called Penmaen Pool. It struck me that by keeping the form and cadence and changing the words, I could write an ode to my place of work, The San Francisco School. Many years back I wrote a song about the school to the tune of The Girl from Ipanema that we still sing at graduation and Side by Side is informally our national anthem, but I thought it would be distinctive to have a school poem. As my mind began churning, there was a familiarity to it all and due to some surprising organization on my part, I actually found it on my computer— I had done this back in 2008!! So today, I added one verse, re-thought a few things and voila! our school poem was re-born. And so I offer it here. Best if read out loud.

(Derived from and parts outright stolen from Gerard Manley Hopkin’s Penmaen Pool)

Who long for rest, who look for pleasure
Away from counter, court or pool.
Oh where live well your lease of leisure
But here at, here at SF School?

You’ll dare the drum, you’ll risk the riff,
Each craft has here its tackle and tool.
Come clasp the crevice and climb the cliff
Ascend the scale at SF School.

From what’s yonder past  freeway’s roar,
That crooked world of cool or cruel,
Those droning dreams that bellow or bore,
You’ll find respite at SF School.

You’ll build pink towers, trace sanded letter
Sketch a cat, a dog, a mule
Let go best and strive for better
‘longside your friends at SF School.

Here’s both sun and stormy weather,
Both blazing heat and gusty cool.
Where side by side we walk together
Here at The San Francisco School.

Here we touch-taste-smell and see
And stitch it through with Golden Rule,
We are the change we want to be,
Though mere mortals we at SF School.

Here parents play and parents pay
And parents pray for teachers who’ll
Lift their children into the day
Of learning loving at their school.

So come who pine for peace or pleasure
Away from counter, court or pool,
Spend here your measure of time and treasure
And taste the treats of SF School.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Holding on for the Ride

A joyful evening of wild dancing to live music (ah, the poor DJ’ed generation, you don’t know what you’re missing!) to top off my 32nd national Orff Conference, with a a gin and tonic chaser at the bar with the party folks and four too-short hours of sleep before boarding the plane home from Denver. Planning the upcoming plays with my colleagues in row 32, landing home to a sunny San Francisco and the good sense to sit in the yard with a fresh apple, walnuts, my handwritten journal and a pen. And what did I write about?

The fall leaves on the table. The quiet city hum sitting in a spot of sun. The review of the glorious moments in the four-day Conference alongside the usual disappointments and critiques. The remarkable circumstance of a bad idea set in motion by a committee pulled back and re-thought as a result of intelligent and civil discussion. It can happen! The sensation of healing, of staying with people for the long haul and moving from shouting across the divide of two microphones to sitting in a circle together. It can happen! The sensation that I’m finally beginning to shed the crusty skins of my accumulated bitterness and angers and move towards forgiveness and acceptance. It can happen!

And so a moment to pause in the fresh air of mid-day. Warm. Quiet. Peaceful. Content. Old by calendar years, but younger than I’ve ever been in many ways, energized to keep grabbing life’s tail and hold on for the ride. Life’s bounty before me on my backyard table and grateful and eager to partake. Much awaiting me this week— my granddaughter Zadie’s 2nd birthday tomorrow and what would have been my father-in-laws 89th, my Dad’s birthday the next day and what would have been his 95th, a visit with my Mom, rehearsal with my Pentatonic’s jazz band, another duet concert with Joshi, the sax player and school, school, school. Miles to go before I sleep and many, many promises to keep. But I’m holding on for the ride and ain’t it grand?!

The Privilege of Pre-check

I approached the woman checking ID’s at Airport Security. She looked at my ticket and started shouting, “Preacher! Preacher!” Well, it was Sunday morning and maybe she had heard about my reputation to stand up on soapboxes, but I soon figured out that she was shouting “Pre-check!” and motioned me over to another line. The person there said, “Don’t take anything out of your bag or pockets, leave your shoes and jacket on and walk through.”

Really? This was a First-World Heaven, the kind of stupid thing that sent me into spirals of ecstatic disbelief. I hate taking off my shoes, am tired of emptying my pockets and taking the computer out of the bag and particularly despise the hands-above-my-head-legs-spread booth. To just put my bag on the belt, walk through the simple doorway, pick it up on the other side and good-to-go— what a sensation! What had I done to earn it? Why was I suddenly considered trustworthy?

Or might it be that such security scanning is as safe as is necessary and the whole shoes off/ computer out/ pockets emptied is simply to keep us all afraid and humiliated and to keep the new scanning machine companies making profits? It really makes no sense whatsoever.

But hey, we all love being in the carpool lane whizzing by others stuck in traffic, enjoy getting waived to the front of the line just because, feel like the world owes us something for all the indignities it heaps upon us and any scrap of privilege is to be happily accepted. Take a look at my monthly paycheck and the deep respect our culture holds for teachers (not!) and you can see why walking through the pre-check security is probably going to be the pinnacle of privilege I’ll enjoy in this lfe. See you at the gate!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Made 'em Laugh

Keep this between us, but I got paid money today for showing kids “Singing in the Rain.”
Of course, I justified it splendidly, putting it in the context of “The Jazz Singer “excerpt we had watched earlier that exposed them to one of the weirdest recorded aberrations of human relationship— the Minstrel Show and blackface. The kids know High School Musical, but like most Americans, are wholly ignorant of all the glorious and goriest histories that led up to it. Such a history— which I am attempting in a mere 45 minutes per week— would have to dip into West African oral cultures, West European literate cultures, the slave trade, the avalanche of consequences of slavery and the flimsy philosophies, theologies, scientific theories desparately trying to hold up institutional ignorance and brutality, the move from the Minstrel Show to Vaudeville to Broadway to Hollywood, the impact of emerging technologies, the rise of ragtime and silent movies, Tin Pan Alley, the development of tap dancing, the first talking picture, the manufacture of our collective dreams and mythologies— and that’s just for starters! Behind and alongside of Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds is Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Bill Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and so many more, who laid down the path that led to the Yellow Brick Road.

What’s remarkable is how much of that list (minus the early histories) is in this movie! Here are two hoofers who get their start in vaudeville, move into silent movies and then cross into the new technology of the talking picture— with direct references to The Jazz Singer! The scene in which Don (Gene Kelly) reveals his love for Kathy (Debby Reynolds) is a brilliant exposure of the props behind the dreams— the romantic sunset lighting, the big fan for wind, the mist machine, the enchanting violins— love and romance manufactured, but still we don’t feel it as sham. We hunger for the magic to take us out of our humdrum days and are willing and ready to suspend all disbelief. “Sweep me away!” we implore the screen as we sit in the darkened theater (or Broadway Show) and that’s what the musical is— pure fantasy, lifting us in the air as Fred did with Ginger, sending us to the heavens with a heavenly song, turning the inconvenience of rain into an invitation to dance and sing with joy in our feet and love in our heart. There’s plenty of political incorrections— the sexy-only chorus girls, the background jungle scene, the dumb blonde bombshell (thank goodness, no blackface)— but in the midst of viewing, we’re not interested in deconstruction and critique. Nor should we be.

This film contains not one, but at least four memorable musical moments in the history of American film. The opening Fit as a Fiddle, then Make ‘Em Laugh, Moses Supposes— and of course, Singing in the Rain. Make ‘Em Laugh is my personal favorite, and I nominate Donald O-Connor, along with Danny Kaye, as one of the most brilliant comic dancers/actors. My 8th graders, some entering their adolesence to the soundtrack of Gangsta Rap, were smiling and laughing like innocent 7-year olds— testimony to the staying power of great art. It truly made ‘em laugh.

Next week, Stormy Weather!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Ripples to Bosnia

Yesterday, I went to a concert and a woman approached me in the lobby:

“Do you remember me? I took a workshop with you about 20 years ago. Called you and told you I was going to Bosnia the next day to work with war-ravaged children and asked if you had anything I could take over to them.”

“And what did I say?”

“That yes, you were reasonably sure you did. And so I came to the workshop.”

“And did I?”

“Yes, I used the ideas and material immediately and the children loved it. Thank you.”

“And thank you, both for the work and for telling me about it. One rarely knows what people take out of a workshop and where they take it and with whom.”

I’m not much of a poet, but I’ve always liked this little poem I wrote around my 60th birthday:

Pebble in a Pond

20 years old. Confident, cocky, sure that
that boulder I will heave into the mainstream
will make a big splash in the world.

Each decade, the stone
and the river
 got smaller.

At 60, that once-big splash a mere pebble
In a small pond.

But still it makes ripples, tiny rings
that circle outwards
and sometimes reach the shore
of someone’s life about to be changed.

And so yesterday I found out that many years ago, a little ripple reached some children in Bosnia and gave them a few moments of pleasure. Who would have guessed?

"What Is WRONG with You?!!"

Teaching is perhaps one of the most difficult and effective spiritual paths. The one that will test you to the hilt on the whole “love thy neighbor” idea. Of course, most people’s version of school has nothing to do with love, but from my vantage point, it’s at the center of the whole enterprise— or should be. As Dickens so eloquently put it:

“Thank you, Mr Rokesmith. You love children.”

“I should hope everybody does.”

“They ought,” said Mrs. Boffin., “but we all of us don’t do what we ought, do us?”

The school year starts with great hopes and expectations that every child will be lovable instantly. But they’re not. And some will make us crazy with their behavior. If we remember that “behavior is the language of children,” we needn’t take it personally. They’re telling us things like “This subject is so incomprenhensible to me and it’s so confusing that other kids seem to get it that I have to do something here to survive.” Or  “I haven’t had breakfast in three days” or “My parents are fighting” or a thousand other things. It takes a while for us to notice these patterns and how they interrupt our perfect lessons and we start to get exasperated and angry and either alone in our thoughts or checking it out with fellow teachers or out loud to the child him or herself, we say, “What is wrong with you?!!” with the full force of frustration and judgment.

Though the tone is wrong above, the question is a good one. If the answer has a scientific name, like Dyslexia or Autism or Asperger’s, it changes everything. Judgement turns to understanding turns to compassion. If the answer is a humane one— like a pet or grandparent dying or difficult issues at home— we also lean in further to affection and loving gestures. It is our ignorance—and sometimes the child’s as well— as to what’s going on that keeps the patterns of exasperation and  harsh judgment going, that puts the italics in “wrong” and the exclamation points after the question mark.

As with children, so with everyone. How many of the people who piss us off and drive us crazy might be seen in whole different light if we took the time to ask, “Tell me your story.”? Or if their behavior had a commonly accepted diagnosis like “obsessive compulsive.” Suddenly we’re an inch more understanding when they keep moving everything we put down somewhere else.

If we’re ever going to move this “love your neighbor” thing beyond a convenient soundbyte platitude and make it real, that’s the kind of work we’ll have to do. And while the stories can evoke compassion, they can’t be used as mere excuses in a victim mentality kind of way. We are all responsible for moving beyond our stories to improve our behavior and take responsibility for our actions and the way they affect others.

To review:

• Step one is noticing and asking the question.

• Step two is asking again after removing the italics and exclamation points.

• Step three is listening and re-framing once you know more. Leaning into understanding and compassion.

Where things get really thorny is when you’re trying to love your neighbor while they’re dumping their trash in your yard or throwing loud parties with live heavy metal bands at 2 in the morning. And they’re not interested in hearing your story about why you might find that upsetting. The people I’ve had the most trouble loving are those who have intentionally sought to harm me. That’s a whole different ball game.

But I’ve been told that I have “too-many-ideas-in-one-blog-Syndrome” so I’ll leave it at that. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Shopping at the A & P

I’m shamelessly dating myself here, evoking the old supermarket up on Elmora Ave. in Elizabeth, New Jersey where we used to shop. I believe A & P stood for the Atlantic and Pacific Company and according to a quick Wiki check, it actually was founded in 1859! But though tempting to go into the history of U.S. supermarkets, this entry was born from two words that rose up before me this morning while playing Solitaire— Affirm and Provoke. I should post them at my writing desk, in my classroom, on my piano, reminding me of my twin purpose in writing, in teaching, in performing jazz.

Affirmation. We are luminous beings, radiant with a true nature aligned with all of nature. At the top of evolution’s experiment, we’re graced with immense possibility— to think with dazzling intricacy, feel with profound emotion, move with grace and eloquence. Our gift (and curse) is the opportunity and obligation to choose. The promise of self-actualization is given freely to all, the fulfillment is our lifetime path of what we choose, what we don’t choose, what seems chosen for us. It’s not enough to be generically wondrous— each of us has our own particular way of shining and our unique blend of the rainbow colors. In writing, teaching, performing music, I’m looking at how to remind myself and others of this promise, both in general and specific ways. The most moving comment in my recent concert was “It felt like you were speaking to each of us alone.” The most moving affirmation I received recently was that I managed to capture a bit of each person’s genius in talking about the 22 Level III Orff graduates this summer, found the language and had taken the time to notice each’s unique way of being amidst the general appreciation. And I am always happy to receive comments from readers like “You spoke what I felt but couldn’t quite articulate.” To praise, to affirm, to remind— worthy hopes for us all.

And then provocation. We are none of us as good as we hoped to be, as we might be, as we should be, as we could be. The sun of our original nature may be ceaselessly shining, but the clouds of our ignorance, poor choices, troublesome personalities and just plain old emotional weather are constantly obscuring the light. And so each encounter in a class, concert or piece of writing, at the same time that it lovingly affirms, should be kicking our butt. “Get to work, you worthless, lazy scoundrel! Think deeper! Stop covering your heart! There’s bad things happening out there— raise your voice and speak out! Get out and work! There’s bad things happening inside of us— look them in the face and deal with them! Don’t beat yourself up brutally, but don’t be so smug and self-satisfied either!” To challenge, to question, to provoke— it keeps us honest and growing.

Affirm and Provoke. That’s the A & P store I shop at. See you in aisle 4. 

Get Over Double Trouble

Juba dis and Juba dat and get over double trouble Juba…”

So fun to perform yesterday at our first all-school assembly in our new Community Center! 15 of our Middle School kids pattin’ Juba to open up the Hambone Summit from the Body Music Festival. Here’s how I introduced the show to our kids:

History is a subject all school children must learn and there’s nothing so important and so painful. So much of it is telling stories about how people before us and still today around us treat each other so badly. Slavery in our country is one of the saddest of those stories and even sadder how scientists, politicians, preachers and teachers kept it all going with crafty lies they told so that mean people could sleep better at night. I often wish we didn’t have to tell you about it, but if we don’t, then we can’t notice it when it’s happening again today and we can’t make a vow to stop it.

But history is also one of the most inspiring subjects as we learn about the people who did make vows to stop it and use all their heart and imagination to survive. Juba and Hambone are the stories of people who had their drums taken away and found a way to keep drumming. Who had their stories silenced and found a way to tell them. Who had their spirit crushed and found a way to keep it alive and rise again. And when we pat these rhythms and tell these stories and keep their memory alive, we learn three very important things:

1.  Truth can be told in secret messages hidden inside poetry.
2.  It’s nice to play drums and guitars and such, but the music is not just in skins 
    and strings,it lives close to us, inside our own bodies and voices.
3.  Music lifts us up and helps us sail over, get through, dance around, all our
    double trouble.

Enjoy the show!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Body Slapping for Peace

It’s time for my favorite musical gathering— Keith Terry’s International Body Music Festival. A week of concerts and workshops put on by grown men and women who spend their days slapping their bodies and making odd sounds with their voice. People who come from far and near, from cultures with all sorts of different attitudes about spending your adult lives chasing fun and frivolity (mostly summarized as “Grow up!”), from all walks of life, but united in their determination not to grow up and get serious jobs sitting in front of computers juggling numbers and such. Whether from Bali, Turkey, Greece, Spain, Brazil or Oakland, they are united in their determination to uncover and discover every tone and timbre the human body is capable of producing and join them into a coherent artistry that leaves audiences gasping in amazement.

I’ve moved amongst all kinds of people— from so-called normal adults to Zen students to jazz musicians to Orff teachers and beyond, but I have to say that Body Musicians are some of my favorite people on the planet. You have to be slightly crazy to devote your life to such things, slightly offbeat (and onbeat and in-between beats) and strange, have a low tolerance for dull routine and a high fascination for patterned magic, a stubborn unwillingness to wholly grow-up joined with a fierce dedication to practice and perfect routines— in short, just my kind of folks!

When I find something good, I, like many, feel compelled to convince the world that this is The Way. Not by preaching or proselytizing or scaring people with threats of hell if they don’t clap and snap to the beat five times a day, but simply by inviting them into the party. Besides the proven truths of stimulating the immune system, pumping up the cardiovascular system without the Zumba membership, opening all the channels in the neuro-circuitry of the brain and lighting up the synapses, cultivating rhythmic integration in the body, connecting to your fellow beings in a way many times more profound than the fake smile handshake of peace in the church service, it’s just so damn fun! And free! Available anywhere, anytime, with anyone! Those dang foreigners may have different accents and words than us, different clothes and customs, different foods and festivals, different religious and philosophical beliefs, but hey, they all have bodies and they all can make sounds. Let us join together!

And so Body Music as the untried route to World Peace and Harmony. Besides all the benefits above, body musicians must practice for many hours a day to get their routines in the muscle memory. Consider this: all the time they are practicing, they are not shopping for unnecessary things that are clogging the planet. They’re not buying a gun at Walmart. They’re not using their hand-eye coordination to practice pulling triggers. They’re not listening to hateful talk radio and learning how to despise others. They’re not playing Grand Auto Theft XV. You get the idea. If only Body Music were mandatory in the schools and work place, come on, can’t you feel it? What a wonderful world this would be!

Slap your body for peace! Spread the word— and then get thee to the Body Music Festival! 

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Guard at the Gate

Is there anyone who can honestly say, “I love sitting at the computer for five hours doing busy work?”  Wouldn’t we all rather be fishing? “But I imagine even then, you probably have to look up the Websites to get the fishing permits and fill out the forms and such.

I spent my morning making changes for our Orff Summer Course brochure. It took me way too long (counting some e-mail and Skype multi-tasking) and I’m still not done. How much of our life do we spend preparing to do the thing we love, arranging it, documenting it, advertising it and so on? Why do we do it?

I suspect there is an invisible world of spirits, each assigned a particular corner of human endeavor. Their job is to make sure the bar is set high and no dilettantes can just freely walk in and out. They’re the guards at the gate demanding to see how many hours you practiced before the concert, how many hours you spent organizing the concert, how willing you are to be bored, exhausted, frustrated doing all the petty little things that lead up to your little moments of genuine pleasure. They want to know that you’re serious, that you care enough that you’re willing to sacrifice.

I have a feeling that I’ve whined about this before in these blogs (anyone keeping track?). One reading of this is simply that I’m trying to wrap a philosophy around my present reality that makes me look good— the tireless, dedicated individual doing the behind-the-scenes work that will give 100 people a lot of pleasure this summer at Orff camp. On the other hand, maybe I’m a pitiful fool who is slow to realize I need to hire someone to do this stuff. Take your pick. 

The Examined Life

I stumbled in Billy Collins on the radio yesterday and it was a most delightful chance encounter. The former Poet Laureate of the United States (but of course, you knew that, yes?) is consistently disarming with his wit and strange thinking. A trip through his poems is a walk through the labyrinth of his always intriguing mind as he takes you through unexpected twists and turns to suddenly arrive where you started— or else end up in a neighboring labyrinth.

And so this morning, I grabbed a book of his poems off the shelf and was charmed yet again by his humor laced with profundity. So much of his poetry is about the act itself of writing the poem and you find yourself at his side gazing out the window or contemplating the silverware on the table or listening to the neighbor’s dog barking. Each act of encountering world sparks off strange associations and off you go riding on language to follow them to their dangling conclusion.

The mere act of reading a poem— any poem— is a step off the wheel of simply getting through the day and paying heed to Socrates’ injunction: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Poetry puts a magnifying glass to the everyday objects and experiences perpetually around us and prods us to examine them. And then tell what they awaken in us. Mary Oliver puts it this way:

“…the world, moist and bountiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one world throws at you each morning. ‘Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?’”

 Of course, most of us don’t and many for good reasons—“I’d rather bake a pie or go jogging or say it in tones or paint or ‘Hey! it’s all I can do to survive!’” But language is free and available to all and poetry not just for leisure-class elites. A few moments each day stopping the avalanche of mere sensation and pausing to really see or hear or taste or smell or feel— and then taking the time to take a photo with words instead of your Smartphone— is well worth considering.

For the record, there are many memorable poems by Mr. Collins, but truth be told, I can’t read too many in a row in the same way I can’t listen to too many successive blues songs or bluegrass tunes. The touch of irony and emotional distance in his work starts to wear on me. The charm and humor is everywhere, but I prefer a bit more straightforward feeling and honest vulnerability, some of which his language masks rather than reveals.

But hey, he did inspire me to write this blog and some of his poems are sheer genius (The Lanyard, for example). Thank you, Mr, Collins and keep sitting by the window with that empty chair next to you to invite your readers in.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The 4 H Club

There is a chapter in my book that's been molding on the back burner titled The 4H Club. It defines my vision of a thorough music lesson, one that has challenged the hand, expanded the hearing, revealed the thinking in the head and opened the heart. Conversely, what falls short of the mark—and still way too often— are lessons that neglect one or more of these faculties and missed the connections between them. You can read the full deal when I strap myself down and make myself get this dang book out!

But while washing dishes tonight and preparing a talk for the Orff Interns, I realized that this is also a great model for the teacher, a blueprint to insure continued blossoming. A good summary of my advice to teachers of all ages:

• Keep cultivating the intelligence of the hand. The technique of your chosen instrument or trying a new one, be it the djembe or didjeridoo, sitar or saxophone.

• Keep expanding your hearing. Listen, listen, listen! Recordings, live music, the rhythm of passing trains or cicadas or tuning into your own work rhythms while chopping carrots or riding your bike.

• Keep the mind growing and glowing. Read, read, read! Neuroscience, anthropology, poetry, great fiction, all my books (ha! Thought I’d sneak that in). And write, write, write, articulate your experience and develop your vision through habitual reflection set on white sheets or blue screens.

• Keep opening the heart through the vehicle of music— or any vehicle. Feel the nuances of Chopin, Bach, Indian classical music or West African polyrhythms. Let all the sounds and vibrations in so the emotional life has voices beyond pop radio— from gamelan to grunge to Grieg to Gershwin. And don't forget the most heart-opening vehicle of all— loving the children! Safe to say that as a music teacher, none of the others will matter without this one. 

And heck, no need to limit this to music teachers. Substitute seeing or moving or touching or tasting according to your passion, sewing or skiing or sautéing for the hand and body and yes, always reading and writing and always open the doors to more of the rooms in the heart (yes, it’s going to hurt and yes, it seems easier to keep some closed, but hey, they’ll open eventually and better you do it then have some thugs in the psyche break down with guns raised.)

The 4H Club, baby! Anyone want to join?

United by Loss

One of the most persistent and pernicious lies we tell ourselves is that we’re in this alone. Everyone around us is having a Pepsi moment while we’re wallowing around in the muck. If we’re ever brave enough to sit down and have an honest conversation with someone— and I mean anyone, take your pick, from the stranger on the bus to your colleague who you’ve known for twenty years— we discover that life puts its heavy foot equally on all our necks. One of the marks of healthy culture is to offer opportunities to reveal the lie of individual suffering and be together in the truth of our common griefs and losses.

And so, El Dia de Los Muertos. Went to the celebration in SF’s Mission District last night and carried along by the power of the Aztec Dancers and the Brazilian Maracatu drums, ended up in Garfield Park filled with the exquisite altars. Each uniquely and artfully arranged to honor the passing of a loved one, with flowers, candles, cut paper designs, photos, all put together with love made public. There were also hung papers on clotheslines to simply name the recently departed and here is where it struck me forcibly how we are all united by loss. Not a single person in the enormous throng of people who had not been touched by death, not a single one that would not continue to be touched by death, not a single one that wouldn’t one day be on that clothesline paper— that is, if there is someone left behind willing to take time to honor the moment.

To all my dear ones who have passed on, I public apologize for myself not making you a beautiful altar filled with the things that you loved in this world. But please know that I’ve built these altars in my mind— not the same as making it three dimensional in a shared community setting, but it’s a start. Next year I vow to do better. Meanwhile, please know that you are missed and forever loved.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Early Thanksgiving

No, don’t pass the cranberry sauce and turkeys, relax—you have a few more weeks of struttin’ and peckin’ before stuffin’ and bastin.’. But biking home from my ritual Friday sing with my Mom and the old gang, I was filled with gratitude for it all. That someone diagnosed my Mom’s infection, got her antibiotics and turned her from a crazed old lady spitting and screaming and throwing things back to her sweet old self at my side by the piano. That someone made my windbreaker jacket that allowed me to zip down 7th Avenue on my bike with the breeze around me rather than through me. That I could still actually bike the 10 miles round-trip up and down hills with a young man’s strength. That some bitterness has leeched out of me and allowed me to have a civil meeting that would have been gut-wrenching just five months earlier. That a simple phone call with a credit card number solved my disappearing Website mystery. (It really just vanished! Because I had overlooked a $12 re-registration fee.) Suddenly, everything was worthy of celebration and gratitude— as it mostly should be.

October ended with the mixed bag of my Mom’s infection and me getting a cold balanced by our spectacular Halloween ritual finally witnessed by parents in our new Community Center, getting to tell the Baba Yaga story to 100 open-mouthed and wide-eyed kids with James, Sofia and master musician Jackie Rago as the back-up band, going to San Francisco’s Belvedere St. with the Interns to proudly showcase one of the world’s seven wonders on Halloween night. Went to sleep last night ready for the “hares and rabbit” ritual (done!) and woke up to a promising November.

It looks to be a rich and varied month. Grateful to enter it without the tension of a Presidential election or a home-team World Series (as exciting as those both were last year!) Tomorrow the Day of the Dead celebration to also be shared proudly with the Interns. Next week is the Body Music Festival— workshops and performances with these extraordinary people who spend their time beating their bodies— I love them! And I’m one of them, performing with 15 Middle School kids from our school on Sunday’s Family Show. The next week is the annual Orff National Conference— I’ve been to every one without a miss since 1982. A ritual marker in my year, shifting as I move up the ranks to elder, but still with that neophyte’s excitement about hanging out with friends and colleagues far and wide.

November 18th is my granddaughter’s 2nd birthday, the same as my departed father-in-law's and one day before my departed father’s. Always good to have a reason to go deep into that well of gratitude, for those who gave us life and then rise up to celebrate this two-year old miracle who makes us all so damn happy! And then Thanksgiving, spent up at my daughter’s new home in Portland with just about everyone we usually celebrate with—it has been a while since that happened. And amidst this all, school, school, school, turning toward the December Holiday plays and an ambitious plan to do The Odyssey!

May November be filled for all with the bounty of abundance properly received with gratitude— a cornucopia overflowing not only with the harvest of fruits and vegetables, but love rising, the music flowing, the bodies beating and swaying, the darkening nights turning us inward to good dinner talk, great books and a cozy gathering on the couch with apple cider, fresh popcorn and Hitchcock’s Marnie. That’s my plan tonight.