Friday, January 31, 2014

Splendor in the Grass

There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparalled in celestial light
The glory and freshness of a dream.

It is not now as it hath been of yore
Turn wheresoever I may
By night or day
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

This is Wordsworth in his epic poem, Intimations of Immortality. By my standards, he was young when he wrote that— 34. Perhaps too young to already feel the loss of his sense of wonder, to be jaded by “been there and done that” so many times, it had lost its freshness. And yet I remember 34—up to your ears in bills and responsibility and not as much time to “wander lonely as a cloud” as when you were a kid or the post-college student traveling around the world.

Well, we all know what that feels like and while I looked forward to being in the romantic city of Savannah, I wasn’t wholly feeling it. Maybe because I was teaching four or five workshops a day and then rushing to deal with e-mail in my hotel room in-between sessions. Not the best choice. But then again, two days ago was an ice storm and it was freezing outside!

But today, after I finished my last workshop, I stepped out of the Conference Center and lo and behold! there was the Savannah of my dreams, “apparelled in celestial light.” After two cold clouded days, the sun emerged, the temperature rose and all was reborn. So I went on the quaint water taxi to do what I love to do in strange cities— stroll about aimlessly along the riverfront, amble through a succession of seductive scenic squares, sit for a spell to soak in the sight of the splashing fountains, wander with Wordsworth’s poem on my tongue. Well, the penultimate stanza for starters, with the lines of “though nothing can bring back the hour, of splendor in the grass and glory in the flower” (from which came the Warren Beatty/ Natalie Wood classic film Splendor in the Grass) and its subsequent line: “in the primal sympathy which having been must ever be.”

Yes, William, that indeed is correct. When I managed to resist looking in the store window reflection to see my actual face, I remember that post-college kid and touched again that feeling of walking ageless and nameless through the town. The same spring in my step and lightness in my heart as that younger man who walked through so many towns in this wide wonderful world. Free. Unburdened. Left alone to think my own quirky thoughts, to keep dreaming ahead to what yet may be, to look longingly at the lovely women as if they too wouldn’t notice my old face, to gaze out at the still heron on the river’s edge, the hovering gulls, the sun setting behind the sprawling bridge.

In the windowless forced air over-carpeted room in the Conference Center, I spent many hours helping to release the neglected inner children of responsible adult music teachers, giving them permission to play their way into stirring music and dance, to charge the air with their laughter and good fellow-feeling, effortlessly (with 39 years of practice) stitching all the little games and exercises together to create a coherent confluence of harmonious sound and movement that sent them humming out the door. Hooray for that! No longer feeling the need to convert them to the Orff way, to try to dazzle or impress them, to convince them buy my books— just play together and enjoy!

And so today, I earned this blog’s title. Earned anew my stripes as a music teacher with activities, good music, ideas and a touch of inspiration, that somebody in particular sharing from my little corner of creation. And then the anonymous traveler,  that nameless nobody-special just moving along with the fellow tourists, drifting like the logs on the river, standing still like the heron at river’s edge partaking in the glory of creation. Keeping alive the sense of splendor in the grass, even with its frosted edge on this last day of January.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Whether the Weather

Whether the weather be cold
Or whether the weather be hot
We’ll weather the weather whatever the weather
Whether we like it or not.

The perfect poem for my flight to Savannah yesterday! I was walking out the door to drive to the airport when the phone rang. It was the warm, concerned voice of the automated United robot telling me my flight to Savannah from Washington DC had been cancelled. I called immediately to get that obnoxious jovial recording and decided to just get to the airport and take my chances.

The first person I talked to was not encouraging. “Yes, the flight to Savannah is cancelled and in fact, all our flights to Savannah are cancelled because of an ice storm.” “That’s fine, but lets talk about how you’re going to get me there.” I was picturing flights to nearby places with all-night bus trips. After all, I had six workshops to give at a major state convention plus a talk. “Neither rain nor sleet nor snow nor ice storms shall stop the Orff teacher from fulfilling his appointed rounds” my professional credo. Many back and forths later, they got me on a flight on American Airlines. Apparently, the Savannah airport is closed to United, but not to American. Huh? It would get me in 3 hours later that my original flight and of course, there’s a chance that I’d be stranded in Dallas. Or at the Savannah Airport, as apparently the bridges were closed to get into Savannah.

So it was a somewhat tense exciting time for me, a very boring travel story for you. I did make all connections, got a cab to the hotel and 12 hours later, arrived at my hotel room to prepare for a day of workshops. The three most interesting parts of the trip so far?

  1. Somehow I got a pre-board status on American and didn’t have to take off my shoes or jacket to go through security. Just walked through. How exactly does that work?

  1. I saw the movie The Runner on the plane, which after American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street drives home the point that all young men want to do is make heaps of money, be surrounded by sexy girls and eventually get caught by the law. Who are these people? Not the crowd I ever hung out with.

  1. After my workshop tonight, a security guard who had been peeking in the door came up to me and said, “I don’t understand anything about music, but if you had been my teacher, I would.”  I invited him to take part in the workshop tomorrow if he had time off. He shook my hand, visibly moved.

And so was I. For a moment like that, I would weather any weather and fly 12-hours without a moment’s hesitation.

Swingin' in Fresno

Sometimes a dream comes true. Sometimes your hard work pays off. Sometimes everything you’ve cared about and paid attention to and worked to master finds a place that welcomes it, that needs it, that appreciates it. Sometimes you’re in the right place at the right time with the right people and the door opens to the right opportunity.  And that’s how I got to Fresno with my first jazz-band ever (now almost two years together), The Pentatonics.

Early Saturday morning, four of my now-favorite people on the planet and I loaded ourselves and our instruments in a mini-van and began the three-hour road trip to Fresno. Great conversation, good humor, good snacks. Quick check-in at the Fresno hotel and drive on to neighboring Sanger for an afternoon of workshops. We began by transforming 15 shy and timid Middle Schoolers in a jazz band into smiling, energetic and confident performers, then worked the same magic with the High School band. Both groups put away the chairs, the music stands, the jazz charts and at the beginning, their instruments and came to the circle to express everything they knew (and much they didn’t know they knew) in their bodies, voices, ears and imagination. Jazz as conversation, jazz as storytelling, jazz as the energies of the body given a voice. Then they brought out their instruments and guided by the expertise of each Pentatonic member, transferred all they had done to their particular instrument and put it together with movement choreography and a form that developed organically from our explorations. By the end, the Middle School was playing a swingin’ version of Count Basies “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” and the High School a crazy New York City traffic jam choreographed version of Thelonious Monk’s “Little Rootie Tootie,” both without a single note of written music. I had never done the latter with a group before and as one student noted in a reflection period, “At the beginning, it seemed like a random group of activities, but then everything came together into one coherent whole.” Nice observation!

That evening, we performed a short history of jazz complete with an African xylophone piece, an African-American body percussion piece, a spiritual updated, an ragtime novelty tune with a live “silent movie” mime shtick, a medium tempo “happy song” from the 30’s, a time-stopping ballad, a burning jazz tune ending with a poignant modern hymn. The music spoke for itself, but why not also give a little historical background and put it into context? And I did. In the middle, the two bands performed what we practice and at the end, we called them up again for a wild ride through the C-Jam Blues, with every one of the 30 plus kids and their teachers soloing!

Their have been many memorable moments in my career when I’ve stopped and thought, “This is the culmination of my life’s work.” That’s what I felt again here— all those hours spent alone in the living room working on jazz piano without knowing why, all the work with kids and adults exploring every corner of the Orff approach, all the determination I’ve had to put feet on my winged dreams, all the gratitude I’ve felt for the help of seen and unseen hands, the grace and the just plain good luck to meet these remarkable musicians, caring teachers and superb human beings (that’s you guys— Joshi, Marty, Sam and Micah!). My cup runneth over. And to end as I have before:

Happy. Thank you. More please.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Holding the Thread: A Letter to Pete Seeger

In 1955, a folksinger named Pete Seeger was summoned to the Halls of Power in Washington, DC, where he was denounced by the fascist Senator Joe McCarthy to be blacklisted as a Communist. He was charged with contempt of Court (a contempt wholly deserved) and sentenced to 10 years in prison, though the charge was appealed and revoked before he ever was incarcerated. The U.S. Government wanted to shut him up and deny him access to public venues that would carry the message of justice and freedom to the American people.

In 2009, he was invited back to Washington DC to celebrate the inaugaration of America’s first black president, Barack Obama. Now the government was asking him to sing his message loud and clear to millions of television viewers worldwide, those hardy and now beloved songs about justice, freedom and love. The world had changed a lot in those intervening 54 years. And it was due in no small part to the unrelenting work of this remarkable and humble man.

Pete, I never met you, but I have much to ask you and much to praise. I wonder how you felt as a 90-year old man singing on that occasion. Was there a moment when you paused and thought, “Well, will you look at this? Who could have imagined it?” as you played your banjo with the inscription, “This machine surrounds hate— and forces it to surrender.” Perhaps you had a moment of naughty pleasure thinking “In your face, Joe McCarthy!”, a moment of sweet remembrance for all the fallen comrades you had shared the vision with, a moment of astonishment that this had come to pass in your lifetime. But I suspect that soon after such sweet reflections, you thought, “There sure is a lot more to do! Back to work!” Indeed, two years later, you appeared in an Occupy Wall Street rally, still feisty after all these years. How I admire that!

And what a work it was. Your concerns ranged widely, from fair labor practice to civil rights to environmental issues to anti-war work and beyond. You worked with the hammer of justice and the bell of freedom, but mostly you worked with the song of love and your love of song, using music as the vehicle to not only protest what’s wrong, but to create what’s right, to take on the big issues with songs like We Shall Overcome and delight the children with your song/story, The Foolish Frog, to approach a life of moral uprightedness with the seriousness it deserved but also with the play and enjoyment and fun all serious work needs. Gandhi spoke with his fasting body, Martin Luther King with his booming oration, and you, Pete Seeger, with the twang of your banjo.

Reading your short biography only, it’s stunning how much you influenced my life without me knowing it. Not only writing the songs that I sing with the kids that frame some of our ceremonies, not only bringing the banjo more front and center, not only the mix of music and community, music and social justice, music and children, but some surprising further connections. Like helping bring steel drums and South African songs to America long before Harry Belafonte and Paul Simon, like your work with Alan Lomax and performances with Josh White and Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie and (surprise!) your singing with Bess Lomax Hawes, the woman who co-wrote the book “Step It Down” with Bessie Jones, bringing the work of the Georgia Sea Island Singers into American music education and informing so much of my own work. Not to mention your influence with the folk musicians I listened to in my formative years— Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, Kingston Trio and beyond— and those memorable songs like Turn, Turn, Turn and Where Have All the Flowers Gone.

But most impressive was your longevity, not just in years but in your unbroken sustaining vision. William Stafford has a beautiful poem about holding the thread that keeps us true to ourselves (see below). He says, “While you hold it you can’t get lost…You don’t ever let go of the thread.” And you didn’t. Your moral compass never seemed to flag and you defied the stereotype of the young rebel who sells out when faced with a mortgage, fame or the natural conservative bent of aging. You kept your true north to your dying day, spoke out clearly and strongly about injustice in all its many faces —and seemed to have a good time doing it.

My voice is small, my Earth Day Rap low on the hit parade, my public venue limited to Facebook, my blog and workshops, my bravery in speaking out small peanuts compared to staring down Congress. But though the size is different, the intent is the same— transformation of self and world through music with people of all sizes and shapes and races and creeds. And not only with the banjo, but with bagpipe and accordion as well!

I guess I didn’t know it until too late to tell you, but Pete, you are my hero! Thank you for these gifts beyond measure. Your work is done and the next chapter is in our hands. Be assured that we will keep weaving the cloth of justice and good living with the thread you bequeathed us. And now, my good man, enjoy a well-deserved rest.


There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
Things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
Or die. And you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

-William Stafford

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Happy Anniversary to TED

It was exactly one year ago today that my long-dreamed of date with TED (well, technically, TEDx) happened. It didn’t make me rich or famous. It didn’t inspire viewers to rush to find out where they could buy my books. It didn’t fill my calendar with more speaking engagements. It didn’t catch the attention of the TED minus the x Channel and inspire them to give me another talk with five extra minutes. It didn’t mark the turning point of a re-commitment to inspired music education throughout the United States and beyond. We follow our passion and look for opportunity to share it and imagine that what we care about will make a significant dent in the world. It doesn’t appear that my talk even made a hint of a wrinkle.

But like all things worth doing, it was good for me to prepare, helped hone my thinking about what’s important and helped me think about how to communicate it to strangers. It has been nice to have another medium beyond my books and this blog to go further than my body can travel. And for a subject—why music education in schools?— that gets very little airplay in our nations’ public discourse and let’s face it, is way low on people’s list of what they’re thinking about when they wake up in the morning, I think it did pretty well: 8,604 page views,  106 people who took time to say they liked it, 0 who gave it at thumbs-down. And 15 who took time to write comments that ranged to the over-inflated: “You are so Great, Sir!” “I am so honored to have studied with this amazing man.” “Legend?” to the appreciative “Wonderful!” Super! “Thank you.”to the “Huh?”— “Conejo means rabbit in Spanish.”

And while I’m in this anniversary mode, this day was also when I flew to Korea three years ago and initiated the theme of this blog (the actual first entry was 1/11/11, an auspicious date!). And in my numbers-nerd mode, may I report that over the three years there have been 707 pieces I’ve written and posted, 115 followers, 71, 359 page views . Okay, I know Justin Beiber gets that much attention every three hours, but still, I’m gratified that I not only get to share my experiences and thoughts in a public venue, but that some people actually read it and occasionally find it affirming or thought-provoking or entertaining or evocative. That’s enough for me.

So on the occasion of these multiple anniversaries, my gratitude to all the readers and viewers and my hopes that I continue to be worthy of the mild attention I’m getting. And TED, feel free to call me for a second date.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Shocking Confession

I bet I got your attention with that title! I wonder what you’re imagining. I took a quarter away from a kid who was playing with it in class and didn’t give it back? I taught a lesson without any differentiated instruction? I didn’t step up and step down at a staff meeting? No, the real truth is much harder to imagine, more scandalous, more apt to get me excommunicated from the initimate circle of teachers. Okay, brace yourself. Here it is:

I wrote report cards tonight— and enjoyed it!!!!

If there’s one thing that unites us teachers, it’s our mutual dread of report card writing. But tonight, I set up at my newly cleaned desk by the window, put on a Keith Jarrett Trio CD, piled the newly minted tests with much of the vital information I needed at my fingertips and proceeded to write a love letter of appreciation to each 8th grader— of course, with a few hints about what to work on next. Okay, I confess that after 22 in one long stretch, I needed to stretch, play along with Keith on the piano, step outside for some fresh air and clear my head of kids for the moment. But then back I went— and I was still enjoying it!

As any teacher knows, the hardest part about grading is hitting that wall when the report card asks how so and so is doing in such and such and you’re struck with that dreaded feeling— “I have no idea!” Or you’re searching for the necessary positive comments and you realize that it’s hard for you to find them in this particular child that goodness knows, you’ve tried hard to love, but let’s face it, they haven’t made it easy! Or you look over the grades and realize that all your students are in a Lake Wobegon parallel universe where every child is below average— and it occurs to you that it just might be your fault. Or you’re a specialist teaching some 500 children and are supposed to pretend that you know them. The reasons to hate filling out report cards are many and varied. 

So why did I enjoy it so much? First of all, music is pretty low pressure on the parent or high school transcript Richter scale. In 39 years of teaching, no parent has ever come up to me on the verge of a nervous breakdown because their kid couldn’t correctly identify the Mixolydian scale or because I caught them playing the xylophone without alternating mallets. Secondly, I designed the report cards to be simple and touch on the things that I cared most about— participation, effort, enthusiasm, progress, insight— and spared myself the micro-managed details: “Can swing in 3/4 time.” “Can swing in 2/4 and 4/4 time at various tempos.” Can swing in 7/8 time using the minor pentatonic scale with smears and glides over a transposed 12-bar blues with altered chords.” Thirdly, because I had the tests that not only showed what my 8th graders now knew about jazz, but also what it meant to them. And what a pleasure it was to receive their thanks for opening their ears to music they were growing to love and understand that they might never have encountered on their own.

But mostly I enjoyed it because I love these thirty-two 8th graders. All of them. I love sharing music I love in a style of teaching I love with particular pieces I love. I love watching how each responds to the challenges thrown at them and each finds their way to a breakthrough moment and I love noticing that moment and naming it in the report card. I love thinking about the next challenge that lies ahead— “Don’t be afraid to honk that saxophone, give it more oomph and soul! You’re playing the blues!” “Consider developing an interpretive dance to that poem you recited.” “Let’s work a bit on the intonation of that bass.”

And yes, I also love the moment when……I’m done!!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Detached Outrage

Let’s face it— I’ve lived in La La Land most of my life. The San Francisco I’ve known is more likely to be guided by Dr. King’s “the arc of the moral universe is long , but it bends towards justice” than “screw the other guy before he screws you.” The school I’ve worked at has been committed to treating children— and each other—kindly with a deep faith in their “imaginative, intellectual and humanitarian promise” (our mission statement).  The field of Orff Schulwerk is strewn with colorful wildflowers inviting all who participate to skip gaily around holding hands. It has made for a mostly lovely life and the rare opportunity to attempt to co-create with others Gandhi’s “change we want to see in the world.”

But it has its downside. When your ideal expectations are thwarted, you feel outraged, betrayed, shocked. When you expect things to work, you’re indignant when they don’t. When you assume good intentions, you’re confused when people treat you badly. When poor decisions are made, your youthful idealism becomes a laughable naiveté. How to navigate the treacherous waters when vision meets the “real world?” How to keep the sweet from turning bitter, how to avoid being eaten away by your own outrage?

Mr. Mose Allison, that wise and clever bluesman who’s been around the block a few times, has a great suggestion in the form of a 12-bar blues:

If life is driving you to drink, you’re sittin’ around wonderin’ just what to think,
Well, I got some consolation, I’ll give it to you if I might.
I don’t worry about a thing ‘cause I know nothin’s gonna be alright.

This world is just one big trouble spot, some have plenty, some have not,
I used to be trouble, but I finally saw the light.
Now I don’t worry about a thing ‘cause I know nothin’s gonna be alright.

Don’t waste your time tryin’ to be a go-getter,
Things will get worse before they get any better
You know there’s always someone playin’ around with dynamite.
But I don’t worry about a thing ‘cause I know nothin’s gonna be alright.

Amen, brother! Yes, incompetent people will rise to the top. Yes, power will cloud vision. Yes, good-hearted people will be silent when they should speak up. Yes, decisions are apt to be made that lean more toward comfort than courage, personal gain than service, protecting privilege than including the dispossessed, sheer stupidity than deep thinking. Yes, the American Hustlers and Wolves of Wall Street are all around us, preying on our naiveté and our innocent assumptions of good intentions.

So without turning cynical, giving up on hope, losing your capacity for outrage, without taking your eyes off the prize, lower your expectations. Sleep on the floor so you won’t be so battered when pushed off the bed. Keep a sense of humor. Don’t be surprised by the next incomprehensible decision from above. Greet it with a wink, “Ah, here you are. I’ve been expecting you. What is it this time?” Give your whiny little child five minutes and then shake him or her awake and get back to the world of pro-action over re-action. Practice detached outrage.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Dear Diary

I’m sorry I haven’t written in a while. Really, I’m not much busier than I usually am, but I just never found the right moment. You know how it is. Well, maybe you don’t, because you’re just a screen with no original thoughts and nothing every happens to you unless I say so. Well, anyway, here’s what I’ve been doing since I last wrote.

Friday: It was our Martin Luther King celebration at school. It was in our new, big Community Center and the lighting was wrong, but I managed to cry anyway. But it’s kind of funny, because our school now is very fussy about background FBI checks and things like that and I wonder if Martin Luther King could have gotten a job with us. Maybe not. So he couldn’t come to his own celebration.

Saturday: I had a rehearsal with my Pentatonics band. I LOVE playing jazz and hanging out with these guys! We’re all excited about our road trip to Fresno next week. Yeah! I don’t think I’ll be able to write about what happens— you know the saying; “What happens in Fresno, stays in Fresno!” Maybe it will inspire the plot of Hangover 4. Well, in my dreams! We’ll probably go to bed early and watch Seinfeld reruns in the motel.

At night, went to a 40th wedding anniversary party that night of an old friend. Weird that all my friends look so old. What happened to them? Ha ha! But still a great spirit amongst us old hippies. And 40 years waking up next to the same person. “Oh, you’re still here?” That’s really something.

Sunday: We went on our annual New Year’s walk with friends, a tradition 32 years old! Walked the ridge above Lagunitas in Marin, perfect weather, the ritual licorice snack and photo at the peak, minus all the kids— they’re all grown up and away or busy. And then back to our friends’ beautiful home where I screamed and shouted “GO NINERS!” until all the air came out like a popped balloon and I said some bad words that I can’t repeat here. Thank God I’m not a sports fan! Finished the evening with Downton Abbey. Kind of like the football game, everyone trying to move their ball up the field, but a bit more subtle. (Wow! That’s a big word for me!)

Monday: Yesterday was …um… let’s see. Well……hmm. I can’t remember! Oh yeah, a bit of a fight with a certain magazine that rejected my article because it wasn’t scholarly enough. Gee whiz, can’t a person just think and have an original idea without a footnote anymore? But I’m supposed to be very professional here, so don’t try to guess which magazine or tell anyone.

Tuesday: I sat down and vowed not to leave until I answered every last e-mail. And I did it! Aren’t you proud of me, dear diary?And then I started to write report cards. Fun, fun, fun!

Well, Dear Diary, that’s about all I have to say. See you again sometime.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Interesting Times

“Hey, let’s go bike out to the ocean and watch the sunset!” is not an offer commonly made in January in San Francisco. Or any month for that matter. It usually would involve either howling winds or driving rain or fog so dense you can barely see your hand in front of you, never mind a distand sunset. But tonight that’s exactly what my wife and I did and it was glorious. The San Francisco of my dreams, the perfect temperature that it has been all week (hovering around 70), a pristine blue sky with its sparkling Mediterranean light. Up above the Cliff House, the coastline curving south, the seals out on the rocks, the folks strolling about the ruins of Sutro Baths below, the Marin hills to the north, the Farallon Islands on the horizon and the sun balanced like a beach ball on the ocean’s edge before sinking down to announce the close of day. Exercise, beauty and comraderie to punctuate the end of a full day of teaching and ease into the beckoning evening. Yeah!!

And yet. “May you live in interesting times” says the blessing and the curse. I suspect all times are interesting (or are they?) but what’s important is to try to understand precisely how they are interesting. In this case, it’s that sense of pure joy good weather brings marred by that ink blot of doubt— “It’s January. This should not be.” My heater should be chugging away, the rains should be falling and even occasionally flooding, the plum blossoms should stay tucked in their branches for another few weeks (already saw one tree in full bloom!). We joke around— “If this be climate change, bring it on!”— but underneath is a sense of uneasiness.

It’s a good skill to perceive the light insight every shadow, but the maddening reverse truth is that a shadow lurks in every light. The weather turns good and we worry. We welcome a new baby and look at the population numbers rising. We breed sensitive, aware, caring people committed to healing the devastation of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and find that we’re afraid to talk to anybody for fear of offense. We revel in electronic freedoms and then realize NSA’s looking over our shoulder. ( Is one of them reading this now and chortling, “You’re damn right, buddy!”?) We can watch video on demand and satisfy most every urge and then realize that we can watch videos on demand and satisfy most every urge.

Interesting times, indeed. But still beautiful the sunset in this most magnificent jeweled city. See you there tomorrow. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Blame It on Bach

It all started innocently enough. My plan was to deal with some deliquent workshop notes and then continue the cleansing of my front room, accompanied by Rosalyn Turreck playing Bach Partita’s on CD. By the time she had finished Partita No. 2, I had gotten things neatly arranged on the computer desktop, but thought, “Maybe I’ll play along with her just once to get me in the mood to work.”

Bad idea. Long after the CD finished, I was still at the piano weaving my way through the intricacies of Bach’s remarkable mind. Two hours later I thought, “Hmm. Maybe I should get back to that other work.” 

Can you blame me? How could I not be seduced by this man’s genius? It takes me half an hour to compose a little Orff arrangement in pentatonic scale with drone, ostinato and color part and here this guy is spinning out this complex counterpoints like a spider effortlessly weaving a web. With one crucial difference—the spider has the design down and as far as my scientific knowledge goes, pretty much spins the same design each time. But Bach does a different one for each composition. Which might not be that impressive except for one little fact— he composed over 1100 works! And if Partita No. 2 counts as one work, there are six distinct sections within that work. Oh, and by the way, he did this without any computers or even ball point pens or electricity. Pretty much feather quills and candlelight if he got an idea after the sun went down. Oh, and did I mention there were 20 children running around the house? Not that he probably cooked for them, changed diapers and read bedtime stories (though apparently some music instructions since many of his sons became composers in their own rights), but still a lot of chaos in a house for a sensitive artist trying to work. It’s simply mind-boggling.

And then the music itself. Such a beautiful blend of heart and intellect, technical virtuosity and soulful expression. In all twelve keys, all tempos, a variety of meters and forms and textures and orchestrations— the keyboard works, the violin and cello suites, the chorales for singers, the concertos for orchestra with solo instrument, the sacred masses. Did the guy ever rest?

Procrastination is a vice, but when Bach is a reason, it can be a virtue as well. So if you don’t get the workshop notes on time or I’m late for my appointment or I need a little more time to finish those report cards, well, you can blame it on Bach. What a glorious excuse!!

And now to work. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sunday in the Park

Finally I had the good sense to walk out the door and turn the few hundred yards to Golden Gate Park. 51 degrees in January and a blue sky that was at once welcome and not. We had a teasing mist and light rain yesterday, hopes raised for the precipitation we so dearly need. But now the sun was spreading its benificent light and the park was alive with motion. The Caroussel was spinning, the swings were swinging, the frisbess were floating, the seagulls soaring. Over by the hill, the Sunday drummers and gyrating dancers, across the way the tennis balls lobbed and whammed over the net. Out on Kennedy Drive, the bicycle wheels rolling, the rollerbladers whirling and twirling, the joggers bobbing, the walkers…well, walking. Everywhere a carnival of motion, a San Francisco Sabbath, all out in the air away from the screens and chores and duties.

Me, too, a lighter weight to my stride after a busy week and off to my spot in the Arboretum where St. Francis bends over offering a perpetual blessing to the rhodendron bush now bare. The smells of rosemary and wild onion and sage and the bench where a bell from Veracruz, Mexico used to hang that is mysteriously gone. Writing in my blue journal trying to capture a bit of the week’s magic, to be read some rainy day (please!) sometime hence, perhaps when I'm in need of remembering how things were when each day demanded the full range of my meager abilities. 

The year has fully turned and this morning I saw the first plum blossom on our garden’s tree, a single bloom sent as a scout to announce the February color to come, San Francisco’s early spring. A few more weeks of school await, culminating with the dreaded report cards, that teacher’s hurdle than we know we must leap over and keeps banging our shins. But also a pleasure to sit and imagine and remember each child and try to celebrate their shining moments and name their challenges that ask for their effort. Come February, it's my mid-year time off, with inviting Orff travels awaiting in Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Chile, Brazil, my blog's title earned anew. 

Earlier this afternoon, caught the end of the 49’ers football game and shared in the excitement of approaching the Super Bowl without really deserving it. I’m a shameless fair-weather fan, not willing to pay my dues and watch a whole season’s worth and endure those Budweiser commercials. More and more I loathe the culture that breeds winners and losers and yet, I’m as excited as the next guy when the San Francisco teams are in the championships. A place for everything, everything in its place. In the day by day, we would do well to lean heavily to shared victories of people old and young claiming their proper humanity and keep the scoreboards off to the side. But life is life and volleyball is volleyball and I prefer to play with a net and keep score.

Nobody in the park today cared if you were walking, jogging, roller skating, biking, throwing a football or riding a Caroussel horse. Nobody valued one over the other, nobody was keeping score, nobody was judged on their ability to wholly savor Spring’s promise on the way. And wasn’t it fine?!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Energy Is Eternal Delight

Plunged from the restless rhythms of vacation into the firestorm of school, it has been quite a week. No time for reflective blog entries, but a joyful time nonetheless. Tuesday a full day of teaching with the little darlings and an extra three hours giving an after-school workshop to teachers-in training— home at 8 pm. Wednesday yet another day of eight straight classes followed by an evening gathering of the men’s group celebrating the beginning of our 24th year of gathering. (As my mother likes to say in her talkative moments: “Imagine that!”) Thursday a replay of Tuesday with a second afternoon workshop, dinner at 8. Friday a full morning at school and then drive to San Jose to give a workshop at the CMEA Conference. Now Saturday, about to return to school to lead a six hour workshop, from there to the school Board-Staff party and then leaving early to accompany a singer on piano at a club. By all logical standards, I should be exhausted. But I’m not.

When we do whole heartedly that which we are meant to do, the things that use the full force of our passions and interests and skills, a sweet energy flows through our veins and we are carried through the day wholly alive, alert, firing on all cylinders. It’s 5 am, by my normal clock routine way too early to be up and about, but the Spirit awakened before the Body and like a kid on Christmas morning, is shouting, “Let’s go!” When we’re in the groove, set down by Grace into the zone, busyness is not business but the eternal delight of feeling needed and useful and happy for the chance to do that which brings us and others happiness at the same time. Body and Soul are in perfect alignment, the delicious rhythms of the day carry us through like a jazz drummer on the high throne and you can feel all the invisible ones shouting from the audience, “Yeah, man! You go!” William Blake captured it all in his epic poem “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.”

All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors.
  1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.
  2. That Energy, call'd Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call'd Good, is alone from the Soul.
  3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.
But the following Contraries to these are True
  1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call'd Body is a portion of Soul discern'd by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.
  2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
  3. Energy is Eternal Delight

Monday, January 6, 2014

A Culture of Help

The 8th grade was getting ready for their annual St. George and the Dragon play and the time came to choose parts.

“What if two people want the same part?” one asked.

I answered, “ Then they’ll have to audition.”

“If you’re the only one who wants a part, do you get it automatically?”

“No. What if you’re no good?” with my tongue firmly in cheek.

Without missing a beat and with a big smile on her face, one 8th grader answered,

“Why, then we just help them figure out how to do it better and keep on helping them. That’s the San Francisco School way!!”

How happy was I in the moment?. She got it!! We’re all here to help each other. That’s the job of the school. To help students rise to their highest promise and sometimes beyond where they thought they could go. And the teacher’s job is to find out precisely what kind of help the student needs in each encounter and keep searching for the multitude of strategies available until they find the one aligned with the student’s learning style and needs. We are all smart, but we are smart in very specific ways and a lot of what looks like failure on the student’s part is failute on the teacher’s part to find the way the student learns. Some students need images, some need movement, some need concrete objects, some need things put into rhythm and rhyme, some need analogies, some need personal attention, some need to be left alone to figure it out, some simply need more time. All need the sense that the teacher and their fellow classmates are there to help them. Not there to shame them or judge them or compete with them, there to help and when needed, to be helped.

This is much on my mind lately as a dear person I know is struggling in a higher ed school that still operates on the sink and swim method. “Here’s the bar, leap over it and if you can’t, get out.” When he went to a teacher to ask for some help, she actually demoted his grade for asking! And after one quarter of school, where he passed six classes and failed one, they sent a letter of dismissal. Received the day after Christmas.

If I were in charge of the world (and by the way, World, when is that going to happen?), I would dismiss each and every teacher who shamefully allowed this to happen. Send them a letter on their birthday. Ha ha! No, first I’d try to help them understand how cruel the culture is and give them a chance to reform. If they don’t progress, I’d redirect them to join a profession worthy of their cruelty— have them go work with the “Wolf of Wall Street” or be a prison guard or work for Bill O-Reilly’s talk show.

In each of the 8th grade groups, there ended up being two people equally passionate about a particular part. We did have an informal audition and in each case, both were fine. I checked in with them to re-assess how much they really wanted the part and when no one backed down, considered the “rock, paper, scissors method.” But in the end, I simply doubled the part. Instead of just Father Christmas, we had Father and Mother (in drag) Christmas. We had two Jack Finney’s who argued on stage about who was the real one. In both cases, it enhanced the play and everybody was happy. It was a solution typical of a culture of help.

Doctors take the Hippocractic Oath: “First, do no harm.” I suggest each teacher be sworn in with the Educator’s Oath. “First, do no harm. And then help.”

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Walking Poetry

In the fourth day of my revived “poetry project” and I’ve re-memorized some 20 poems.
It’s a remarkable way to take a walk, the words mixed with the muscle memory and the passing landscape and oxygen sent to the brain through physical exertion. I already had a winning idea (free for the taking) of the “Toddler Exercise Program.” Bring some two-year olds to the gym and have the adults copy everything they do. Guarenteed better work-out than Crossfit and Zumba combined! Now my new idea—The Walking Poetry Project. Culture and calorie-burning mixed!

Today I walked up to the Sutro Heights forest behind U.C. Med Center and took a trail that circumnavigated the hill, with stunning views of the Sunset District, Golden Gate Bridge, Marin Hills, framed through the tall and narrow eucalyptus trees. Another warm sunny day (in January?) and the Mediterranean light giving a sparkle to everything. So I sat down and in-between Yeats and Keats, wrote my own little poem. Not slated for immortality, but fun to try it out. Read it out loud for maximum effect. 


Traipsing through the tree-lined streets
Treasures tripping off the tongue.
Hopkins, Housman, Wordsworth, Keats,
Words declaimed and sometimes sung.

Turning up the wooded trail,
The splendid city spread below.
Distant boats with hoisted sail,
Reciting poems from long ago.

Amongst the eucalyptus trees,
The winding path and poison oak.
I walk alone free as I please
To speak anew what once was spoke.

Wordsworth walked ‘round England’s lakes
Keats dreamed lines in Nature’s bower.
Frost stopped to view the downy flakes,
Each place filled with its own power.

And so this place and so this day
All through the dappled  woods I roam,
Kept company by those from far away
Still living in their spoken poems.

Thursday, January 2, 2014


An i-Pad is a window to the world and so school boards find money (never available for music programs) to equip the children. An i-Pod opens a universe of sounds and sung stories and so our children walk around with wires drooping from their ears. A Smart-Phone offers instant and constant connection and so people of all ages walk unseeing through the streets hooked into their private (now made all-too-public) conversations. Our machines are marvelous manifestations of our deep needs and they are now with us 24/7, an extension of our curious minds, aesthetic desires, social needs.

But our eyes are also windows to the world and it just may be that wholly seeing the frost on the morning grass, the wild geese flocking overhead, the son and father playing catch is as interesting, important and stirring as the latest Youtube clip. Our ears are open to worlds of sounds, from the duck’s raucous laughter to the crickets evening chirp to the music of our own voice singing, preferably with others. Our hands can touch things other than plastic, can feel the rough bark of trees or smooth sanded curve of a chair leg or the fur of the dog or the skin of a loved one. Our nose can smell all the smells not available on-line— at least until they come up with the scratch-and-sniff computer. Our tongues can taste the burst of the honey-crisp apple, the explosion of contrast in the Miang Kum appetizer and the kiss that defies the “everything you want is on this machine” skewered logic.

And let’s not forget the way books, those remarkable bound technologies with spines, immerse us into other lives and thoughts not our own that become our own and shape who we are and might be. A journal with white pages and a pen or pencil is a marvelous storage unit to record our footprints as we walk this earth. And 88 keys on a piano would require lifetimes beyond count to wholly exhaust our sonic imaginations. 

My gift to myself on New Year’s Day was to re-memorize some of the 42 poems I learned a couple of years back. What a joy to walk the streets reciting such eloquent language and feeling the freedom of having it available for me without a screen or even paper. Equally a pleasure to walk through the world singing songs stored in that memory system of neurons, axons and dendrites in the human brain, available to call forth as needed to soothe Zadie or connect a group of people or simply give me some sonic pleasure. Fine to have all these technologies to learn, document, store, share, pass on to others, but let’s not forget the true freedom of the treasures close at hand—mind, body and heart.

And so off I go on my bike (ah, there’s a technology) in company with Shakespeare, Dickinson, Frost, Hopkins, Housman, Yeats and Mary Oliver, with a glistening sunny day to lift my heart higher, careening down hills and chugging up them, the sounds of seagulls, the sparkle of the sea and the miracle of life’s treasures close at hand. Alive. Alert.  Free. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Letting Go

I lived in the same house for the first 18 years of my life. 542 Sheridan Ave., Roselle, New Jersey. When my parents finally moved from there in 1992, I wrote a letter to the house. I was that nostalgic about bricks and mortar and wood. When my school celebrated my 20th year of teaching, my speech was an ode to my music room, the place where all the miracles I had witnessed there were stored in the beams and walls and the old mirror (still there!) from 1975. When the new construction plans some years back included the possibility of demolishing that music room, I threatened to chain myself to the doorway. Only once after graduating did I visit my old high school, which had moved to the new campus. The photos on the walls were the same, but there was nothing else recognizable about the place. It moved me not.

Note the pattern here? I have a deep affection for places and the wisdom of preserving them, the pleasure of revisiting them as they were. And yet I know time marches on and things change and war or natural disaster can wipe out an entire field of stored memories. Every day at school, I walk down the hall where the old elementary school used to be and wonder where I am. And then turn the corner to the preschool and feel welcomed into the familiar space that housed my same self in all its changing faces these past 39 years.

And so the photo. A childhood friend who I now know only through the annual Christmas card send me the devastating news and this photo. My childhood home was no more. There were two massive oak trees in the front yard, the ones that had perpetually pushed up the sidewalk and posed a danger for mailmen, the ones who kept me company outside my bedroom window, home to countless squirrels and birds, provider of leaves to rake and jump in the piles, markers of the seasons, these two trees fell during Hurricane Sandy and demolished the house. And so they rebuilt entirely. Now this bizarre building stands next to my familiar neighbor’s houses and the sight of it hurts me to my heart. (Oddly enough, the old rickety garage in the back apparently survived, the last remnant of my nostalgia.)

And so the question arises. “Where does the Soul live? Does the loss of my house make a dent in my cherished memories? Haven’t I survived the demolition of the elementary school space I knew for so long and adapted to the new building? Does it really make sense to mourn the loss of physical spaces?” Well, the heart doesn’t pay attention to questions like this, it cares not for philosophical justifications. It feels what it feels and that alone is real and truth be told, I am so sad that my house is gone. I really am.

The Buddhist doctrine of non-attachment is so often misunderstood. People think it means some kind of calm detachment, some kind of jazz cool, putting a distance between yourself and emotional involvement so that you’ll never get hurt and accept everything as it comes with a philosophical shrug. But I think it’s the opposite. To love things and people beyond any reasonable level, knowing that the time will come to say goodbye, to let go, to shift from physical presence to precious memory, be it houses, experiences or people. Mary Oliver says it perfectly:

“To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.”

Goodbye old house. I love you.