Friday, February 28, 2014

Keep It Running

“Imagine driving through town and shutting off the engine at every light and stop sign.
Not only would it wear and tear the engine and waste gas (more to start up than to keep idling) but it would be maddening to the flow of the drive. And yet this is often the way we teach our music classes.

Once you get the engine of musicality running— the beat bouncing in the body, the tune singing in the ear, the xylophones ringing—keep it going! Even if you need to give a short next direction, keep those motors idling—fingers snapping while you talk, basses continuing with the drone— so all are poised to jump back in. Just as flow is one of the essential joys of a piece of music, a dependable moving stream of sound and motion uninterrupted by cell phones or unneeded explanations, so is it essential to the music class itself. Or any class, for that matter.”

This the paragraph that wrote itself in my awakening 7:00 am mind, the next 160 words in a new book I’m writing tentatively titled “Teach Like It’s Music.” I have two and half weeks to drive as far as I can with this motor running before I have to rest the engine when I take off on my next trip. And this sense of being on constant idle is one of the great pleasures of writing a book— you go to bed with the last sentence purring in your mind and wake up with the next one. There is a musical flow, a rhythmic momentum to the act of writing, a through line that connects all the dots of your days.

It is also one of the great terrors of book-writing— the engine is constantly running, you can’t easily shut it off and give it a rest while you go for a walk or a bike ride. It ain’t over until it’s over and even when you drive home from the hospital with the baby in your hands and finally shut off the car and leave it in the garage, you still have to raise the kid!

But for now, I’m at the beginning stages and happily so and this blog may continue with a short entry here and there, but right now, my heart is elsewhere. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Downtown Guy

I feel so grown-up, sitting at a Starbucks in downtown San Francisco with my laptop open. Treating myself after yet another all-day Orff workshop, this one with some highly musical teachers from the Oakland Unified School District. I have a movie in mind in the neighborhood and a couple of hours to enjoy before it starts. The only downside is being at the mercy of Starbucks music selections, which sometimes leans towards Frank Sinatra, but now is on some insipid Pop playlist. Oh well. Petula Clark’s “Downtown” would be an appropriate choice, as I try to catch that feeling of downtown energy— the buzz in the streets, the twinkling lights, the dressed-for-success folks strutting their stuff.

And speaking of Petula’s classic song, I’m reminded of driving with my colleague James over a decade ago to an Orff conference and somehow we started making up a new version based on the homework assignments we were starting to get from our middle school students. We’ve sung it a couple of times at school since, but mostly it lies buried on my computer. So now’s the time to share it with the world. Enjoy!

DOWNLOAD —sung to the tune of Downtown by Petula Clark
Written by James Harding and Doug Goodkin, April 2001

1) When you’re alone and homework’s getting you down, you can always go—
The teachers won’t know and your folks aren’t around, so turn it on and go—
Just boot up to the Web on your personal computer.
You’ll have time to go outside and try out your new scooter.
What can you lose?
The figures and facts are there,
you can be printing them out while you’re dyeing your hair, so go
Download, it’s just a click away.
Download, no work for you today.
Download, it’s the new techno way out.

2) It’s late at night and you’ve got pages to write about the Civil War—
Hit the Website, you know it’s really all right, ‘cause that’s what techno’s for—
Your prose can be as complex as Immanuel Kant,
All you’ve got to do is chose the paper and the font.
You won’t have to think for yourself,
You can forget all those Cliff Notes, leave the books on the shelf and go
Download, there’s information there.
Download, what do you really care?
Download, sit in the easy chair now.

3) You didn’t do the reading and now you are needing facts about Vietnam—
It’s not really cheating, you’ll find out the meaning if you click—
You hand in a paper that you barely understand.
It never has to pass through your brain or your hand.
Why work so hard?
The grades are much higher there
You’ll be hangin’ at Stanford or in Harvard Square when you
Download—open your eyes and go
Download—you will look wiser if you
Download—just plagiarize, it’s okay.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Jumping Through Hoops

Winging home on yet another plane from yet another day giving a workshop. My spirits are high and my body catching up to itself yet again. Though my immune system is bolstered by my love for this work, I’m not invulnerable. The day at home between the Philippines and Las Vegas was brutal and made me doubt my sanity as I headed back to the airport. But a blessed good night’s sleep and six hours spent with dedicated music teachers willing to give up a Saturday to rise one inch closer to the high bar of their craft has once again energized rather than exhausted me. Have I mentioned how much I love this work?

Las Vegas is in Clark County, one of the only school districts in the nation that has wholly embraced Orff Schulwerk as its preferred approach to music education. Over 200 schools and virtually each with an Orff teacher. And this has held steady for over 25 years! It’s a success story unimaginable in a place like California, still suffering the ravages of Proposition 31 some 35 years back. As always in politics, it comes down to the almighty dollar. Las Vegas generates lots of revenue and though the methods of moneymaking would hardly have been approved of by our Puritan forefathers, at least they’ve made the good decision to pour some of it into music in the schools. The city also features Orff classes in the local University, a healthy Orff summer training program that ranks among the top five in the country, boasts an ex-President of the national Orff association and a couple of local teachers who have written best-selling Orff books. Plenty to be proud of.

And yet. Virtually all these music teachers see their kids once a week for 50 minutes. That’s not a lot of time to cultivate the demanding understanding, techniques, aesthetics of a field as profound as music. One might say that it’s a token amount of time that reveals a lack of real commitment to nurturing the musical intelligence.

Then class size. I heard lots of stories of double and triple classes, meaning between 25 and 60 kids. That’s far too many children for most musical endeavors other than choir and certainly far too many for the intimacy Orff Schulwerk requires. It’s another sign that those in charge are asking music teachers to settle for something unfriendly to their craft.

Besides too little time and too many kids (shall we try reversing that for a change— too much time and too few kids?), then there’s the accountability some teachers have to the next “new idea” to tsunami through the schools. Most maddening of all is the constant story I hear about requiring teachers to state their objectives at the beginning of the class, leaving no space for intrigue, mystery, magical unfolding. (See my blog “Spoiler Alert” for more about this).

I keep trying to level down to the rock bottom of what feels wrong with the "next educational theory" even when its tenets are right. So far I’ve uncovered three things:

  1. Just as in the Orff class, nothing is accomplished without the model experience, it’s clear that teachers don’t learn to teach better just by hearing ideas or steps about how to teach better. They have to experience things themselves as a learner, be guided from the experience to the generating idea and back again. The ideas may be great, but they can’t penetrate by just saying them or hearing them or reading them.

  1. Because these theories are elaborated by people who mostly are not teaching daily classes to children— and therefore have way too much time on their hands— they are often too complicated and elaborate for the mind to wholly absorb them and keep track of them. Again, even when written by smart good-intentioned people, it betrays the cardinal rule of K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple, stupid!).

  1. How little children are mentioned in all of this! How little we are reminded of the way children play their way into discovery, engage themselves in fascinating tasks and figure stuff out, ask questions far beyond what the teacher imagines. As the Las Vegas Orff Chapter’s t-shirt says, good Orff teaching is “child’s play,” but this game of making teachers jump through hoops with proscribed steps is an adult game all the way— and a deadly one for the kids,

Easy enough to complain about all of this, but I have more to offer— some tried-and-true thoughts about what actually works based on fairly lengthy experiences with the subjects of the whole educational deal— meaning the children themselves. Not that anyone cares to listen to a lowly music teacher, but I’ll tell them anyway.

  1. Orff training always begins with experiencing its tenets as a student and then reflecting on its pedagogical ideas. In a mere six weeks spread out over three years (two weeks per summer), people’s teaching improves dramatically. This is not mere conjecture, but tried-and-true fact.

  1. Pedagogical points can be expressed in adultese, but should be translatable so children can understand. And plain talk or poetic talk is better than pseudo-scientific terms. The simple list that Alfred North Whitehead proposes saves reams of paper—learning proceeds from Romance to Precision to Synthesis. In kid talk, you play first, work second and then make up something new where play and work join together. Simple but transformative.

  1. Children are the true north of the whole deal. Watch them, see what works, see how often it works and what other strategies you might need, talk to them, ask them what they need. When they’re happy, it’s working. When they’re miserable, it’s not. No matter how great a pedagogical idea seems, it’s worth nothing until it reaches the children. If it doesn’t, either learn how to apply it better or throw it out. If you have to jump through hoops, jump through with the children the way they like to. (Or like we do in Orff class— three overlapping hoops, one kid steps /dances in and out while three instrumentalists are assigned one hoop each and play when the dance is happening in theirs. That’s the kind of jumping through hoops that kids like!)

Educational policy-makers, you need to come to my workshop. And bring your hula hoop.

Saturday, February 22, 2014


Sign at the Las Vegas Airport, with a smiling blonde bombshell holding the goods:

Mp5, UZI, Thompson, MP40, AK47
Sten, M16, Greasegun, M249 Saw

THE GUN STORE (Minutes from the Strip)

I hoped I would have time after teaching my Orff workshop about caring for the souls of children to go blast a few rounds, but had to catch my plane.

Oh well, maybe next time.

PS No reflection on the Las Vegas music teachers, a lovely caring crowd. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Saved from Embarassment

In line at Passport Control at the Manila Airport, I read this sign:

“MIA is a no ‘wang wang’ zone. Please fall in line to avoid embarrassment.”

I fell in line.

Honorary Doctorate

If I were to dream of a crowning moment of glory to my 13-day Orff workshop marathon, what would it be? A gold medal from the Orff Olympic Committee? A Music Educators Grammy Award? (Yes, they exist.) A TED Talk Contract? An Honorary Doctorate from Harvard? Frankly, I wouldn’t turn down any of it and believe the work is worthy of it all. But none could hold a candle to the actual final half-hour of my long stretch of teaching.

Yesterday morning I gave the TED talk I wanted to give last year (without any TED cameras rolling) with actual time to do something with the audience. 100 parents from the International School of Manila came to my talk and did a short hands-on activity that clearly illuminated the points I wanted to make. That yes, music education is as essential as bread and as precious as diamonds, but first we need to clarify what music is, what education is, what the two together actually sound and look and feel like. Ten minutes of Criss-Cross Applesauce brought the parents a couple of steps closer to understanding and they had a rollicking good time while they were at it.

At the end of the time, one parent approached me and asked what she should do with her 12-year old special needs son who loved music, but didn’t do well with the traditional piano lessons.  “Bring him to me” was my bold reply, daring especially because I haven’t worked that much with kids with extreme special needs. But bring him she did, today at 4 pm to be exact after my full day of teaching kids.

He was on the floor tapping a pair of bongos and I brought over the tubanos (better sound) and djembe and started trying to follow his playing. A bit chaotic at first and then I gave him little patterns to echo and he did—expertly. I mixed up techniques—knocking on the drum head, rubbing it, playing one hand and then the other and he followed me. After about ten minutes of this, we went to the piano and tried similar things on the black keys, with me playing a blues groove bass. Then back to the drums and now the patterns were increasing in complexity, he moved his body to the accents, I sang some songs while we drummed and by the end, he was initiating changes in the pattern. Throughout he would look over at me with a smile when he knew we hit the groove together and at the end when we reluctantly stopped, he shook my hand over and over and thanked me and said goodbye.

Choice between picking up that Honorary Doctorate from Harvard or jamming some more with this boy? No contest. Cancel my flight to Boston.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Local Passion to Global Fashion

That’s what the billboard said in Manila. And it’s  true. In Taipei. In Hong Kong, In Singapore. In Shanghai. In Manila. Well, just about everywhere. Homogenity rules. The same stores, the same restaurants, the same pumped-in music, the same billboards. What was once local passion— the folks plying their craft, the vendors singing out their wares, the street food sellers, the street musicians, the street itself— has given way to global fashion —designer clothes, pouty lips, curved hips, Self, Self, Self in an electronic reflecting pool that would make Narcissus feel ashamed. It’s comfortable, familiar, comforting in a weird way, safe, clean— and wrong!

The nooks and crannies and curves and wriggles of this precious planet are all being steamrolled under to one brightly lit homogenous Flatland. The nesting birds displaced for Gucci, the wildlife evicted for models strutting down runways, the cluttered planet made more muddled by stuff, stuff and more stuff, sent out in designer shopping bags or stuffed in the suitcases of the tourists wheeling away their purchases in Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong. The Soul headed out for the hills away from the blaring lights and disco beat— if any hills can still be found. People asleep to the soul’s needs are fueled by desire pumped up by ads and they’ve done their work well— we are none of us whole or complete without this product or that and when the purchase doesn’t heal the gnawing emptiness, why, it’s time to go shopping again!

In my tiny music class, I advocate for character, uniqueness, self-expression that touches far beyond Self. Why bother when all the students will leave class and go to the Mall? (And the teachers too!)
I invite the students to locate their passion, but not a simple task when it’s blown away by global fashion. We’re suckers for the Super Bowl— hell, even Bob Dylan is selling Chevrolets between plays!—and lost touch with the neighborhood pick-up game. We love the glamour of the Oscars and are missing the beauty of the school play. Rome reveled in spectacles and look what happened to that Empire! I just have to wonder—when the entire planet is one contiguous spectacle, electronically inflated and amplified, where will it fall? And who will be left to pick up the thread of human culture?

Just wondering.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Orff Sesshin

For those not familiar with the term, a sesshin is a Zen meditation retreat, often seven days of intensive practice.  I attended many back in the 1970’s, a few scattered throughout the ‘80’s and ‘90’s and much to my shame as an allegedly practicing Buddhist, very little in the past 15 years. But the point here is not self-deprecation, but acknowledgement of the power of concentrated practice. In anything. When it came to zazen (Zen meditation), I tended to hit my stride somewhere around the 5th day and the quality of the 7th day compared to the 1st was geometrical. People training for marathons or musicians
practicing for concerts know what I’m talking about. There’s a rhythm that accumulates and by eliminating all other distractions for a finite period of time, the practice reaches new depths and heights.

And so having finished my 11th straight days of Orff workshops without a break, I’m in that zone. The forces of serendipity have gathered around me in remarkable ways. Little things like beginning a little music/ dance/ drama with a Chinese folk song about fishing and two minutes into it, noticing a pile of baskets in the corner perfect for miming nets, sitting in to row the fishing boat, carrying on the head or at the hip to sell the fish. At the end, I thought they might do a celebration dance holding the basket over their face like a mask and lo and behold! the baskets had paper cut-out eyes and smiling mouths!

Then today, one of my hosts gave me a tin of cookies and I was worried that I didn’t have room in my suitcase. By mid-morning, I began my planned activity of the Cookie Jar game and Bingo! why not have a contest and give the cookies to the winner? And so I did, to a very happy student (who did her best to beat me as well, but we all know how that turned out! J ). Then I had some mild regret that I hadn’t tried some of the cookies, both out of gratitude for the gift and for my own sweet tooth. So what did I do? You guessed it— stole some of the cookies from the cookie jar!

I taught each day from 9:00 to 6:15 and at the end of each day, felt wholly energized and ready to keep going. It’s really quite extraordinary how some work depletes and some energizes and when you find the latter, hold on to that thread! And in addition to the lovely teachers playing like joyful children with both hilarious and sublime moments, I got to teach kids every day! Fell in love with a four-year old, drew forth some remarkable xylophone improvisations with 5 and 6 year olds witnessed by 60 admiring adults, watched 10 first graders enter the room while the adults were frolicking with Grandma Moses, their eyes wide with wonder that adults were playing, singing and dancing like this! And then how happily they joined in to learn Head and Shoulders Baby and make up their own verses!

We closed the class with some profound reflections and questions that I’ll save for another posting and a spirited Wind-Up the Bunkin. And if I wasn’t already convinced before that some forces are gathered to support me in this work, there was one more sign from the heavens to seal the deal. The last notes sung, the last photos taken, I walked out of the school and —drum roll, please— the sun was shining! Literally the first time I’ve seen in it in 11 days straight! The air was warmer and the world was just a touch more vibrant and alive.

And now I write this from my new hotel in Manila, the Philippines, ready for another two-day round of workshops, talks and consultations, going for my 13-days- straight record! Grateful that such a life can be!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Arctic Orff

I can talk for hours about how music is the voice of the soul, the helpmate of intelligence, the pulse of the feeling heart and the connecting tissue between people, but now I have a new take on it: music as survival! Today I danced because I had to to stay warm. Body percussion took on a new dimension to get the blood flowing and help raise the inner temperature. Carrying Orff instruments up six flights of stairs became a welcome way to generate a bit of heat.

The fact is that Hong Kong is freezing! And worse than Finland, Iceland or Alaska in mid-winter because there is no structure for heating rooms! Everyone is taken by surprise. My host did bring me a stylish black winter coat that has me feeling pretty upscale— with a red scarf to boot! But most importantly— I felt warm for the ten minutes I had it on in the car back to the hotel! Oh, joy of joys!

Then I got to strut my stuff walking to the restaurant with my newly-found elegant self and enjoyed a lovely meal with my Orff friends Kalms and Manchi (and her husband and baby to be). While eating mango pudding shaped like a fish and fried banana, I took out the camera to take a picture of my plate for my kids at the SF School. A silly in-house joke— everytime I ask them to take off F and B from the xylophones, I say “Remove the fish and bananas.” Now I can just show them the photo.

Now back in the hotel planning tomorrow’s classes. If this weather keeps up, I think we’ll be doing a lot of jumping dances, contact improv., vigorous drumming, body percussion with gloves and mittens—whatever it takes to survive the cold.

Or maybe I’ll just keep my borrowed coat on and give a lecture on the elegance of Orff Schulwerk.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Caretakers of the Soul

Why do people go around measuring life with a measuring tape? Why do they poke and prod each thing to see if it measures up to some idea they have about things and miss the essential nature of the thing itself? Why do they look at the number on the tape instead of the thing itself? Why do some of these people teach children and care more about measuring them then knowing and loving them? Why do some of these people teach music and care more about quarter notes then profound beauty?

At the end of two most marvelous days with 30 intelligent, sensitive, funny, warm and musical teachers, a time of revelation (one person’s first blues’ xylophone solo!), of reminders about what’s important (find a way to love each child, even if it takes eleven years!), of reflection (why are we here? And what are we doing?), we ended with a lovely Estonian song that traveled the full range of human emotion through vibrating vowel sounds and ended with us singing ears on our neighbor’s backbone, feeling the vibrations as he or she sang.

My closing words were reminders that life is vibration and music is vibration and in addition to the way music teaches kids about things— about history and science and patterned math and poetic language and social connection and emotional opening, it also is the thing itself, the direct vibration vibrating the strings of our soul with no intermediary needed. As such, we hold the power to change the human heart, body and mind through the art and science of crafted vibration. We are the caretakers of the souls of children and if there is a more worthy job than that, I’d like to know about it.

In the face of this marvelous time together, I’m reading the latest nonsense from the U.S. of A. about assessing children, the same old tired chopping up their wholeness into commodities to be label, packaged, bought and sold at the shopping mall of American education. It hurts my heart. Come on, people! Throw away the damn measuring tape and sing with the child, be lifted up together into the stratosphere of exultation or go down in the vale of grief to emerge healed by tears! Art is that which “thaws the frozen sea within us” (Kafka), the ax that cuts through our fears and timidity, the explosion that bursts our hearts wide open! Teach to the edge of your passion and if your passion has dried up to the point where you don’t notice contrived crap or walk around with your tape measuring all that is insignificant, please take up accounting or some such career. If you’re not willing to live art in every fiber of your being, then don’t teach it!

Meanwhile, thanks to all the Taiwanese Orff teachers, Taipei American School kids and international school teachers I had the pleasure to work with this past week. If we are to caretake children’s souls, we need to take care of our own and each other's. And that we did.

On to Hong Kong!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Vault of the Imagination

Sometimes I feel a small sadness in the people who come to my workshops: “Why can’t I be more creative?” I feel that myself when I’m around certain people who astound me by the range of their imagination. Given the opportunity in the workshop to “make something up” alone or in a group, people invariably rise to the challenge. So it’s clear that the creative impulse is not dead, just slumbering and needs a poke to wake it up. But how to keep it perpetually awake? How to make a habit of creation?

Children are endlessly creative, playing their way each day into the far corners of the imagination. What happened to us adults? Somewhere in the natural process of aging, we start to lock away our imaginative proclivities into some vault for safekeeping. We simply have other things on our mind— the pressing concerns of rent, jobs, mates, raising our imaginative darlings. While our kids are frolicking in their fantasy world, we’re doing their laundry and driving them to soccer. It’s understandable that we stop zooming our spoons in the air like airplanes, more inclined to polish them when the boss comes over to dinner.

But beyond these natural steps towards that sobering animal, “the real world,” the imagination can suffer from the assaults of a culture unmindful of or unfriendly toward its way of being in the world. Certainly in schools today, the locks on the vault are being fortified and the keys tucked away further from our reach. I often call Orff Schulwerk “The Pedagogy of the Imagination” and while it can do a fine job transmitting the nuts and bolts of the music craft, its deeper gift is to pick the lock on the vault and spring our imaginations free.

That’s as good an image as any of what we’re trying to do here— sneak past the security guards and throw open the doors wide. Or better yet— like that actual security guard in Savannah peeking into my class, get them to put down their weapons and join the class!

What did I do right to stumble into such marvelous work? Every day I count my blessings. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Day in the Life

My day began with a jolt. Literally. Knocked about in the middle of the night by a 4.0 earthquake. Went back to sleep wondering if I dreamed it and when I got to school, someone asked me about it and I remembered. Always alarming to feel at the mercy of powerful natural forces, but grateful it was just a jolt and nothing more.

Finished the Banana Song with 5th grade and offered a banana to any student who could sing the song while they played it, with good body movement as well. And two could! Next, I Boom chick-a-boomed with 4th grade, got two administrators to join the rotating circle and both witness and participate in the culture of help and the atmosphere of joyful participation. One said, “That whole sequence was so simple it was profound!”

Oh, why o why can’t I give this workshop to anxious parents, misguided policymakers and others who are burdening children with their own fears and strange notions about what’s important? One 45-minute class of Boom Chick-a-Boom might change their point of view and both they and the children would be so much happier. The children at the end recognized that something important had happened, some capacity in them released, some feeling in the room generated and they swarmed up to me at the end shoving pieces of paper at me asking for my autograph. When they couldn’t find paper, they asked me
to autograph their hand.

Normally I have no patience with the cult of celebrity, but I do recognize that we want to be in the orbits of those stars that give off heat and light and catch some of their juju. No ego in it for me, but just pleased that they recognized the energy and wanted a little keepsake to remember the moment. Kind of fun to be a celebrity and not because I was blown up big on a screen with a blaring soundtrack, but because I helped kids discover a musician beyond who they thought they could be.

Off then to a meeting with the music faculty who had been observing classes and a nice chat about the deep ideas behind every moment it each of the 12 classes I had taught. Such a luxury to talk shop with fellow music teachers, both for me and (I hope) for them.

The afternoon was my jazz history shtick in concert/lecture form playing with bass, drums and trombone (one rehearsal yesterday). I’m kind of getting it down, each piece a different style with an engaging story and often different instruments. Over an hour later, the high school jazz band got out their horns and we launched into a version of Soul Sauce, me teaching all parts by ear. Some hot solos and fun way to end.

Tomorrow I begin a two-day course here with teachers from other Asian International Schools. To make a semblance of a break from work between one venue and the other, I’m going out to dinner all by my lonesome and then treating myself to the DVD of Hitchcock’s Rear Window tonight. Still raining out there, but my ever gracious host Stephen lent me a sweatshirt and finally I’m not cold!

Hoping for a jolt-free night and yet another earth-shaking day. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Finding My Way

Walking back to my hotel from the Taipei American School, I found myself happy. I had packed my summer shirts and shorts, but the weather was colder than ever and the school’s heating system was fixed— to no heat. It was the fifth day of drizzle and I hadn’t seen the sun since I arrived. I was working my sixth 6-hour teaching day in a row without a break and still feeling the last gasp of jet lag. And yet, here I was, walking with a bounce in my step and a lightness in my heart.

Shouldn’t that be enough? Must the mind always poke * and prod and analyze and wonder why? But let’s face it, we’re put together with the notion that reality is repeatable and are always looking to create and re-create the circumstance that makes us happy. And sometimes, there is a useful clue in the analysis.

The first thing that made me happy was being able to find my way from the hotel to school all by myself. And then navigate the maze of school hallways to arrive at my teaching room— two minutes before the kids arrived! And it occurred to me that simply finding my way was the beginning of my happiness. Like the pleasure of the child reaching the next step of independence— from shoe-tying to walking to the corner store alone to getting a driver’s license.

But it was more. Finding my way in the external world meant that new neural pathways were being carved in the brain and that’s what gives us the feeling that life is fresh again. I felt like I was starting a new life and a new job in a new city with new people and getting to know new routes and parks and stores and thus, everything felt… well, new! Whether finding your way from a hotel to a school, starting to learn a new piece of music or falling in love (just remembering and imagining here!), the effect is the same. Life is exciting, each day is an adventure and even when the years say otherwise, there can be the sense of new beginnings. It’s that constant dialogue between the comfort of the familiar and the excitement of the new that makes for artful living.

So off I go in search of a shop to buy a new sweater! Brrrr!

PS * Writing “poke and prod” above reminded me of the 5th grade girl who came up to me after class with her friends today and asked,

“Can I poke you?”

“Excuse me?”

“Well, I have a tradition of poking famous people. I want to add you to the list.”

“Well, in that case, “ I replied, offering her my arm, “how can I refuse? Poke away!”

And she did.

Hope for Old Dogs

I was back with kids today and that was home base. Fast friends in two minutes, even when I had to be a bit stern about too much giggling. And one fabulous kindergarten girl who made me laugh with delight with her motions, so much that I had to stop singing the song and go shake her hand.

After a full day of teaching (this at the Taipei American School), my good friend and host Stephen treated me to a foot massage. It began with a back rub that hit the limit of my pain-o-meter, but figured that those were knotted toxins needing to be released. Either that or willfully-inflicted new neck problems! I’ll find out tomorrow morning. Then a lovely dinner with Stephen’s family and delightful young daughters that got me wondering how to make a Playdough pretzel.

But the highlight of a lovely day was to go by cab and Metro with Martin, another TAS music teacher and jazz drummer. Here was a Taipei I hadn’t seen, past the enticing Lantern Festival decorations and Chang Kai-Shek Memorial, both worthy of another night’s plans. But tonight we were headed to a big band rehearsal led by a remarkable man named Gene Aiken. We walked down some stairs (reminiscent of going to the Village Vanguard) and entered the room filled with the sounds of swingin’ horns working on Body and Soul. The full band was there minus two players— the drummer and pianist! How serendipitous was that!?

So with my new-found confidence, I sat down at the piano with pages of charts and played with a jazz big band—for the first time in my life! Timid at first, I started to get the hang of it and felt carried along by the hiply arranged riffs and syncopated color parts. One of the tunes was a modern re-arrangement of the old ragtime tune “Bill Bailey,” one I had played some forty-two years ago with my ragtag Jug Band of Middle School kids when I was just exploring jazz piano. Here I was again, playing a much hipper version with Taiwanese horn players in a Taipei basement. And the chart called for a long piano solo! I dove in and though no one leapt to their feet in applause at the end, I felt like I held my own. And how great was that to have these horns filling in my spaces!?

The punch line?

You can teach an old Doug new tricks.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Singing in the Rain

No, it’s not time for the Gene Kelly tribute at the Castro Theater and I’m not smitten with new love and dancing in the street. It’s just that it has rained for the three days of my Orff workshop in Taipei, where I once again have the good fortune and blessings to sing, play and dance with some 90 spirited teachers. Besides the pleasure of sharing sublime, dynamic, haunting, soul-stirring music and dance with folks ready to receive it, the deeper ideas about how to make music education both more musical and more educational keep finding their voice in me as I talk about what we did and how we did it and why we did it. A few gems rose up in the heat of the moment, but I can’t remember any of them now!

But though it’s a bit pedestrian, I’m more convinced than ever of these simple truths.

• Music first, theory second, music and theory married third.

• Sound and gesture and movement at the beginning, symbol next if needed, sound and
   gesture and movement at the end.

I showed the video of our 17-kid Salzburg performance that we gave three years ago for the Orff Symposium and there was the living record of kids brought up in the musical culture of our school. The Jungians has something called Depth Psychology — this was Depth Orffology. Kids who flowered in Orff’s vision made concrete and real by the almost four-decades of work in a close to ideal setting. Orff himself, who never actually worked with kids, could only guess that his vision was true— here was the living proof.

One of the workshop highlights was the “project” where small groups created something new using traditional Taiwanese material. And they did! Sections with improvisation, a new text with an intriguing rhythmic structure,  a dance to music not usually danced to, new combinations of instruments, a lullaby with a section in Shanghai dialect rap! That’s the spirit! I told them that improvisation is proof that you’re alive to the moment, responsive to the opportunity that each moment in our changing world offers. We honor our ancestors by keeping their creations alive, but we honor them best by keeping the spirit of creation alive, of using what they didn’t have— from ideas to tools to exposure to other ways— to make it genuine and authentic to our experience of the moment.

And so now I turn to begin all over again with kids at an International School. Rain is predicted for tomorrow— in drought-suffering San Francisco as well— so another day of singing in the rain awaits. Well, singing with the rain outside the window. But who knows? Maybe the moment will call for splashing in some puddles.


Thursday, February 6, 2014

Spoiler Alert

Imagine beginning the telling of a story by telling the end. Who wants to hear it now? Who wants to hear an outline of the whole story with the basic thread of the plot and details about all the characters before beginning “It was a dark and stormy night…”?

Now it is true that before committing yourself to a long-term relationship with a book and even a short-term one to a film, we sometimes like to get a short synopsis and overall feel for the territory. Mystery? Romance? Funny? Poignant? Violent? Sexy? What time period? Where does it take place? And so on.

But mostly we just want the story to tell itself, hook us in with all the variations of “Once upon a time” and all the satisfying diverse endings of “they lived happily ever after— or not” and then let ourselves be carried in the middle by the rhythm and cadence of the flowing language, its music and colors and dramas.

Wherever I teach workshops, be it here, there or anywhere, participants are intrigued by the way I begin in silence, get something moving with gestures and sounds and movements and guide it to some stirring climax without a word being spoken. The very process of teaching becomes like an unfolding piece of music or an engaging story or a lovemaking session— an enticing exploratory beginning, a connected and interesting middle and a satisfying ending. And yet time and again in the United States, people come up to me and confess that they’re not allowed to teach like that because some clever educational guru decided that every lesson must begin by explaining to the students what they will learn today, the key concepts and predictable outcomes. And in some cases teachers tell me that they will be fired if they don’t comply with the script.

Usually I explode in a string of vindictive invectives that betray my impatience with fools and the damage they can do when they rise to positions of authority. And then take a step back and admit that there are times when an overview of what you hope to accomplish is just fine— kind of like the short synopsis mentioned above. The problem is when an idea that might be useful sometimes is elevated to an irrefutable dogma of always. Or else!

I then review the lesson I just gave silently to show how deadly boring and ineffective it would be if I explained ahead of time everything I was about to do. Like the symphony conductor pausing every phrase to tell the audience what was coming next. “That phrase you just heard? We’re going to repeat again a fourth below the tonic.” Or a storyteller giving away the next chapter. “So our hero’s brother enters the story, but don’t get too attached to him, ‘cause he’ll die in the next chapter.” Or Don Juan explaining the sequence of moves he’s about to make. “We’ll start with the kiss and then I’m going to…” Well, let’s keep this a family-friendly blog.

The proscribed school lesson is one big spoiler alert. Let’s teach with more intrigue, more intelligence, more artfulness. If we do… well, I don’t want to give away the ending.

Jet Lag Blues

Come on, everybody, sing along with me!

It’s 2 in the morning, I’m awake in old Taipei
I said it’s 2 in the morning, I’m awake in old Taipei
My body is here while the rest of me is on its way.

Gotta teach tomorrow, no sleep, it sure is a drag
You know I gotta teach tomorrow, no sleep, it sure is a drag
Can someone please tell me how to cure this damn jet lag?

If you’re travelin’ to teach, then you gotta pay your dues.
If you’re travelin’ to teach, you know you gotta pay your dues.
Get out your ukelele and sing the old jet lag blues.


© 2014 Doug Goodkin (shared royalties if you perform on Youtube and it goes viral)

TV in Taiwan—Part II

As promised, the conclusion to my 2004 article: 

"I am a teacher and the school where I teach began as a Montessori school. One of Montessori’s fundamental tenets is to prepare an environment that will stimulate the child’s aptitudes and deepest needs. An inspired Montessori classroom is a joy to observe—the children need little supervision for they are happily working away with materials that keep their fingers busy and their minds alert. Whether counting beads, chopping carrots, building towers or piecing together puzzles, they explore and experiment, discover causes and effects, enjoy both the sensuality and the practical skills of their own hands, find out what their own minds and bodies can do working within the limits of the material world. They are engaged. 

One Montessori tenet is to provide a rich and varied cornucopia of materials carefully chosen by adults. That's our job. Another is to let the child choose what to take from the shelves. That's their job.  Montessori believed that each child has an intuitive blueprint and unspoken knowledge about what he or she needs to be working on. Though adults sometimes gently guide and suggest, mostly they trust that the child will follow what feels right at the moment.

But that inner guide can easily be overpowered by influences outside of the child’s control. Children hungry for sensory involvement and sensation can be seduced by strangers selling candy and forget to eat their vegetables. Responsible adults will provide balanced diets on the dinner table, the classroom shelves and the world at large. But two cardinal truths of the human experience suggest that this might not always happen.

1)    Adults will not always do responsible things.
2)    Given a choice between walking up the stairs and taking the escalator, most of us will take the escalator—even on the way to the gym!

Humans come with a built-in foible. Though everything worthy that we do, think or create comes from a willful effort, there is an alternate program in the system. Evolutionarily speaking, when we crawled out of the sea and began the journey from fins to feet, eggs outside the body to eggs inside, four legs to two legs, each evolutionary advance carried a characteristic of its former self into its new mutation. For example, our brains. Each new layer did not replace the former one, but added on to it. Our brain stem is sometimes called our Reptilian brain because it does what the reptile’s brain does—it reacts instinctively to the world. This function comes for free—that is to say, since it is reactionary and instinctive, no effort is needed to bring it into play. When presented with an alarming stimulus, it is this part of our brain that reacts with flight or fight.

The next layer is often called the mammalian brain and here is where the world of emotion enters. Your pet lizard in its cage will mostly give you the same unchanging stare while the dog at your feet yelps, pleads, whines or barks according to it mood. And the dog part of our brain does as well. But humans have yet another layer, the neo-cortex, the place where conscious thought takes place. Though still connected to—and often at the mercy of—emotion and instinct, this part of the brain has the greatest plasticity (an odd word, since most plastic is solid and rigid, but here it means flexibility and choice). What we experience, what we observe, what we do, what we eat, read, listen to, all make for the unprecedented uniqueness of the human species. The pigeon in Taiwan lives pretty much the same life as the pigeon in San Francisco, but the human beings in each place are made different by their cultural and personal experiences.

Evolution must be trying to tell us something here. “Human beings, embrace your uniqueness, enlarge your brain (or rather, connections in the brain) through conscious effort, bring your instinctive drives up to their higher counterparts—transform food for the body into food for the soul, sexual lust for human love, the outer power of conquering others to the inner power of conquering self. “ Well, that’s easy enough for evolution to say, but we seem to be having some trouble. And it has a lot to do with the fact that our neo-cortex gives us the luxury—and terrifying responsibility of— choice.

 John Steinbeck’s epic novel East of Eden has a remarkable passage about this. Lee, the venerable, wise and eloquent Chinese servant, is discussing a Bible passage with his neighboring Irish farmer friend, Samuel. One translation of the passage has Jehovah telling Cain, “Thus shalt rule over him.” “Him” in this passage is a metaphor for sin. This passage disturbs Lee for it reeks of predestination. If God had ordained “Thou shalt,” then there is no choice or effort on the part of Man. Another translation says, “Do thou rule over him.” This also fails to satisfy Lee, implying that Man need only be obedient, follow rules, do what authority demands without thinking about the deeper reasons for why or how. With the help of Chinese scholars and Hebrew rabbis (a sterling example of the value of multicultural dialogue), they dig deeper and discover the Hebrew word “timshal,” which translates as “Thou mayest.” Lee says:

’Thou mayest’ gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on man.”

So back to the Montessori classroom, the hotel room and the foibles of humankind. Choice carries a responsibility, both personal as to what we choose to do and social as to what we choose to lay before others. Given a choice between effortless Reptilian brain activity and conscious neo-cortical effort, the odds are stacked to the Reptilian side—and all the advertisers and corporations know it. Put video games as one of the choices in the Montessori classroom and the materials will lie neglected on the shelves. Equip every hotel room with a TV and the blank journal will remain unmarked. Put a fast-food joint in every town, with commercials on every kids show and the slow pleasures of talk around the home dinner table will suffer. Amp up the volume, increase the action and the rate of image change, load on the artificial flavors and the capacity to appreciate subtlety and nuance will diminish. This is no mere conjecture—it is irrefutable fact.

For those like me who spend sleepless night worrying about this, there are only two solutions and they are the same in Taiwan, Texas or Timbuktoo. The first is to take collective action to impose limits, to tether economic profit-driven freedom to reduce the range of harm. It can be as simple as Iceland once having one night a week with no television being broadcast or Sweden prohibiting advertisers to prey on children under 8 years old or a town in Minnesota deciding to collectively reduce homework, television and after-school activities to give their children the freedom to play without imposed structures. All of this has already been done, with noticeable results.

But let’s not stop here. What if hotel associations agreed to put the TV’s on roll-away carts in closets and blank journals on desks encouraging submissions to their annual poetry contests? First prize—a week’s free stay. What if all the children who didn’t watch TV on a given school night were asked to stand like flight attendants on Eva Air while their classmates applauded. What if all billboards had the world’s greatest short poems on them? What if there was one pop music radio station and 10 jazz stations?

The details are incidental. Once a family or school or neighborhood or culture decides that life is richer when ‘Thou mayest’ is given some support and institutional structure, the ideas will pour forth. And having moved amongst people put to sleep by corporate media and people perpetually awake, I can testify that the effort is well-worth making—the difference is profound.

The second solution—and of course, my no means, exclusive—is to encourage the wise personal choice, hard as that may be. In my Taiwan hotel room, I surfed through the 72 channels twice, lingering just long enough at the soft porn channel to grow disappointed in myself, and finally shut it off and got to work. But even for someone who has enjoyed a lifetime of self-generated activity, reflective thought and creative endeavors, I still find it hard to resist. But that is what choice is—a determination and enough backbone to resist as appropriate. And of course, there are times when there’s no reason to resist and plopping down in front of an old movie on TV in a strange hotel room is just what the soul needs at the moment!

But the fact is that children plugged in early in life to addictive technologies will have no choice. The corporate psychologists know this and now the war cry is, “Get ‘em while they’re young!” Studies show that children hit unawares before three years old become lifelong, loyal product consumers—that means guaranteed profits for the corporation and a guaranteed loss of human health and happiness.

H.G Wells once wrote, “We are in a race between education and catastrophe.” Education here means directed thought, imaginative dreaming and skillful making. Catastrophe means capitulating to our lowest possibilities, giving ourselves over to the dreams (or nightmares) of others. Corporate mentality did not invent this collective, imposed nightmare—we had the church and the state before that—but it is certainly where the action is taking place today. It is armed with enormous money, powerful technologies and a poisonous mind-set of bottom line profit and constant sensation. Keep hitting the food-sex-power nerves and the people won’t even notice that they are no longer themselves. It’s a David and Goliath battle and everyone tells me it’s hopeless—why fight it? But aren’t these precisely the stories we love? David slaying Goliath, the turtle winning the race against the hare, the winning against all odds? And “winning” occurs at many levels—sometimes the effort alone is a victory.

My sleepless night is suddenly a Taiwan dawn. I flick through the channels once more, noting that the porn channel is now a 6 am boxing match—from sex to power without missing a beat. Outside, the trains in the Metro station begin to flow. Taxis pull up, people start to stream into the station. They move with a purpose and an intention—the work day has begun and they are making an effort to contribute. (Or at least to pay the rent.) Behind the station, the river flows at its steady pace, doing its own kind of work in its place. Above the river are the Kuan Yin mountains shrouded in mist, peeking out at the scene in Buddha-like patience. Kuan Yin (Kannon in Japan, Avalokitesvara in India) is the goddess of compassion. What is she thinking as she looks down at the frenetic hustle and bustle?

I’ve moved from the bed to the writing desk and here’s another institutional horror. There’s a huge mirror running it length and against my better instincts, I look up to see the grizzled old face that has surprisingly become my own. Phones, mirrors and TV’s, the narcissistic artifacts of modern life, placed in every available space in every hotel room.

I defy it all, arranging some pillows on the floor and cross my legs for some Zen meditation, a practice learned in an old boy scout camp in the San Gabriel mountains, the ultimate practice of removing all distracting stimuli and sitting face-to-face with one’s primary self, no intermediaries. Then a shower, breakfast and meet my ride down to Hsin-Yin, ready to teach through the old uniting technologies of hands on skin and bare feet on wood floor. 50 teachers with a translator, trying to find a common ground in drums, recorders, xylophones and our avowed passion to teach children. We indeed are larger than the electronic tools we use. It’s a marvelous world indeed.”

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

TV in Taiwan

When we last left off in the armchair-gripping drama of “Confessions of a Traveling Music Teacher, “ our hero was headed to the San Francisco Airport at 10:30 at night. (Thanks to the generosity of his daughter Talia beginning to pay him back for all the parental favors on the indebtedness chalkboard by giving him a ride late on a school night). He boarded the plane to Taiwan at 12:30 in the morning and was astounded at his luck. The next best thing to upgrade to First Class? A whole row of seats to himself! 14 hours laters, a delightful mix of time spent with Julia Roberts, reading sitting cross-legged and sleeping horizontally, he arrived to a misty mosity 6:30 am Taiwanese morning. Off to the hotel and some more welcome horizontal sleeping before meeting up with his hosts for lunch.

But in the meantime, a curious look at one of the articles mentioned back in “Title Tease.” The idea for a public traveling journal came long before the technology of this user-friendly blog and so a backlog of stories and observations waiting to be shared— or not. But in this case, why not? It marked the last time I was here in ten years ago in 2004 and always interesting to me to see what still rings true and what has shifted. It’s a long article by blog standards, so I’ll start with Part 1 and see if it merits Part 2. Enjoy!

“You know how it goes. You’ve spent hours preparing the Power Point presentation for your class or workshop, checked and double-checked and at the crucial moment, something goes wrong. You fumble with one switch or another, your family photos appear on the screen, people jump up and gather around like men looking under a car hood and shaking their heads, whatever rhythm had been building is broken, the lights come back up and Plan B is hastily thrown together.

This happens far too often to be mere coincidence. I have a theory that machines are trying to tell us something. They are wreaking some revenge. Or rather, our ancestral spirits are speaking through them, having a bit of fun, saying, “Back in our day, we knew how to discuss ideas or how to sing a song or how to tell a story. The power to animate a room and engage a community of learners was always right at our fingertips. Stop giving all your power over to machines! And if you won’t, we’ll make sure they will break down until you learn your lesson!”

And even when such machines—and here, I speak mainly of TV’s, computers and Power Points— work, they exact a price that is invisible to most. One jet-lagged morning in Taiwan, I thought about this and came up with this thought-provoking alliterative phrase—Convenience without consciousness is a cultural catastrophe.

If we are to capitulate to speed and comfort without it becoming a Faustian bargain, we must consciously compensate for the losses. Or put another way, we can only use the technologies that come our way if we first question their limitations, consider how they will change us and dream a way to hold them in check and compensate ourselves for the losses.

To take one simple example. The TV in the hotel room begs you to animate its blank face with a push of a button. But what if the hotel put a blank book with a pen in its place? You, the restless jet-lagged guest, might begin to fill that page—first with doodles that might blossom into drawings or writing random impressions that might grow into a poem, letter or essay. With the blank paper in front of you, you would be face to face with your own imagination. The imagination might groan at first, resist the call in the same way the body protests before going out for its morning jog. But once it gets moving, takes its first breath of fresh air, feels the pleasure of movement, it never fails to rise to the call and leave you feeling better than when you began. You’ve made an effort. You’ve made a statement. You’ve created something. It might not be ready for a Broadway run or the Sistine Chapel, but you’ve entered into the same artistic stream that Neil Simon and Michelangelo swam in. What’s on that paper is wholly yours, the world filtered through your unique point of view.

But instead of blank paper, the hotel puts in TV’s. When you turn it on, you’ve given up your uniqueness, surrendered to the collective dream of businesspeople trained to tap your innate lust for food, sex and power for their own profit. You’re plugged into the home shopping channel or indulging in the sexy soap opera or feeling powerful by watching The Terminator and just how is this helping you rise to your promise? When you scribble a phrase on the paper, “Lights reflected in the river, mountains hidden in the mist, a California afternoon body swimming across time zones to a Taiwanese 3 am,” the universal eye begins to look through your particular “I”—and both you and the world are refreshed. It won’t win the Pulitzer Prize of Poetry, but it was your effort to look outside the window and inside your mood and cultivate a habit of observation and reflection beyond mindless consumption of other’s efforts.

And so my rallying cry: ”Beware of what is put in front of you. Be aware of what is put in front of you. Take care what you put in front of others.” Especially if those others are children.”

To be continued. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Goodbye Machu Picchu

My cover photo of Machu Picchu had a good run on this blog— one year since I actually walked those paths in the swirling mist and a lovely reminder each time I signed on. But good to switch it up once in a while and so this photo of a festival in South India.

For those long faithful readers, you may remember my blogs back in February of 2011 (still available to read for those curious). 32 years after a remarkable trip I took with my wife to the state of Kerala, India (and beyond), we returned with our two daughters— which included the elder named Kerala! It was then— and will be always in my lifetime— the most different place on the planet I had ever encountered. Food, dress, music, language, customs, festivals, architecure — nothing was familiar when we arrived.

Take this photo, for example. How often do you see bare-chested men standing on top of elephants waving big pom-poms? If you look carefully, you’ll see some curved horns in the crowd and could you see through the crowd, you’d see three kinds of drums you’ve never seen or heard in your life (the maddalam, idekka and timela , for those musicologists among you) playing music unlike anything you’ve ever heard. The Festival is called Pooram (no relation to the Jewish Purim) and is celebrated on different days in different villages. The size is determined by the number of elephants. Back in 1979, we saw one such festival with 26 elephants!

I write this at Gate 102 at the San Francisco Airport about to board a flight to Taiwan. Though I hope to enjoy some Shabu Shabu hot pot meals and catch some of the Lantern Festival, I will be staying in hotels with wi-fi and a view of Starbucks out the window. A tamer type of travel, to be sure, but still I hope to bring some of the wacky chaos and elemental power of drums, cymbals, horns and elephants into the Orff workshops I’ll be teaching. And some of the mystery of Machu Picchu as well.

But first, 14 hours on a plane!. See you in Asia.

Title Tease

Hmm. The numbers continue to be high on ye ole blog and I wonder if it’s all music teachers looking for some affirmation, support, advice, ideas. And hey, I got lesson plans too! But for that, you’ll have to buy the books.

BBS (Before Blog Spot), I used to spend my Monday mornings off writing articles. Just because. No one commissioned them or asked me to write them, but it was just my way of constantly questioning what the heck I was doing and trying to make it sound good. Or at least connect it to some larger ideas of human experience. After a few years of this, I made a Kinko’s book titled “Reflections on Orff Schulwerk” (snore) and a couple of years after, another collection titled “Further Reflections on Orff Schulwerk”  ( I needed a Hollywood agent to help me with titles). I gifted them to Dr. Herman Regner, former head of the Orff Institut and his enthusiasm encouraged me to use some of the articles in my book “Play, Sing and Dance” and a few more in “The ABC’s of Education.” Still though, some 75 to 100 remain unread and unpublished.

I peeked at a few tonight to see if I could continue the discussion I started here with something I had already written. One article, “The Ideal Orff Classroom” is a perfect companion to yesterday’s posting, but due to my strange karma where the one tune I need to find on my i-Pod out of 5,000 isn’t there even though it is on i-Tunes and should have been automatically uploaded, sure enough, I could only find the PDF version of the article and can’t locate the original Word document which would allow me to cut and paste a bit. (Actually, for those interested, they can download that PDF article from my Website under About Music Education —

But as I looked at the various titles of the articles, they seemed intriguing and I read with pleasure a few that I had forgotten about. So instead of excerpting the articles themselves, I’ll tease you with some titles— and maybe someday put them together in a real book with a more interesting title than “Reflections….” Meanwhile, for an extra credit assignment, choose a title, write your own article on the theme, send it to me and I’ll choose a winner to post on the Blog. Sound like fun? Here goes!

• A Perfect Solution               
• A Sign of Hope         
• All Your Answers Will Be Questioned
• Beneath the Radar         
• Carrying the Torch   
• Connecting the Dots
• Cruel and Unusual Punishment          
• The Descartes Effect
• The Future is Now
• How Much is Enough? 
• Moral Intelligence    
• Music as Social Life
• Open and Close             
• Pasta Night               
• The Pitfalls of Professionalism
• The Purpose of Pleasure
• The Pretty-Good Class  
• The Real World
  Stripping Away the Extraneous
• To Create Anew        
• TV in Taiwan
• The Wind in our Faces  

Monday, February 3, 2014

A 6/8 Vegan Meal

I’m simply astounded by the number of people who viewed my recent blog— “Do Good Work— Or Else!” On a good day, I have some 80 to 90 viewers. If I point people on Facebook towards a blog, I occasionally get 150-200. But this blog attracted over 800 page views!! I guess it hit a nerve.

The Irish have a saying: “After a full belly, it’s all poetry.” We are primed for survival first and leisurely pastimes second and it’s fine that I have the luxury of waxing poetic about “splendor in the grass,” but when folks can’t afford to fix their lawnmower, well, they’re less apt to care.

I think the nerve I hit lurks in the background of every music teacher’s mind—“Will I have a job next year?” People have reported that the article both bolstered their spirits and fired their determination to focus their energy on the children themselves, while still speaking up about political issues of what’s worthy of the taxpayer’s money.

Another part of the talk I gave at the GMEA Conference that I didn’t include in the article was a brief survey of how people felt about their current jobs. So while I perhaps have the attention of music teachers peeking into this blog, here are some of the questions I asked that you might answer for yourself:

“Who is content with…

• Their class size? (Number of kids in each class)
• Their schedule? (Number of classes per day)
• Their space? (Dedicated music room? Large enough for movement? Friendly space?)
• Their budget? (Enough money to buy needed instruments, books, etc?)
• Their support? (From admin? From fellow teachers? From parents? From students?)
• Their salary and benefits? (Salary or paid per hour? Same rate as classroom teacher?)

I’m happy to report that things are not so bad in Georgia music-education-wise, especially compared with California! Still though, many people had 30 to 35 kids in a class, saw them only once a week, had to move from class to class with a cart. In other words, far from an ideal set-up in which teachers can feel they truly can reach into all the corners of their craft with their kids, that they’re doing something more than making do or getting by, that they are given sufficient time, appropriate class size, excellent facilities  and an overall sense that their work is valued and supported. I suppose there are few things so frustrating as spending years training yourself to pass on the heights and depths of your chosen legacy and never getting to discover what you could actually accomplish if you only had what you needed.

In the American Orff scene these days, there seems to be a swing toward University-style research as the mode that will finally bring us a dignified recognition. I disagree. My philosophy is simple— first search and then re-search— and then search again with new information. The search takes place in a class with kids, often seated on a floor or dancing around a room (with a sprung-wood floor, please). All theories about what works mean nothing until they are forged in the fire of the real responses of real children and the observant, attentive teacher. 

So many research things I see (though certainly not all— no intention to offend here!) are long, convoluted paths to “prove” something my grandmother could have told them in five seconds. Some of it borders on the nerd side, long passionate arguments about whether children should be exposed to 6/8 before 3/4 time or vice-versa, questions that might be interesting in a fantasyland where all schools have music 5 times a week for at least an hour a day. But when someone is bleeding on the floor, you don’t ask them whether they think a gluten-free or vegan diet might better balance their biorhythms.

While we’re discussing the fine points of rhythmic development, the really important issues— “Will I have a job? Will my job allow me to really teach in way the children deserve? Will I finally be accorded some dignity in my chosen profession?”— get put on the backburner. If we want to do some really useful research, how about a nationwide survey asking music teachers of all ages and in all situations the questions I asked above? Get a real portrait of the state of music education and get serious about whether it deserves to be fixed. Anyone have the time or inclination? Talk to me and I’ll help put something together.

Then we’ll talk about the 6/8 issue. Over a vegan meal.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Grammy Award

“And this year’s Grammy award goes to…………

The pitter-patter of morning rain out the window after weeks of drought.

No sweeter music to my ears. 

Do Good Work — Or Else!

"A school board met recently in California to discuss the severe budget cuts. Reflecting on their own experiences as schoolchildren and surveying students in the local schools, story after story came out about boring classes, dull worksheets, mean teachers and the feeling that especially in today’s day and age, with machines to instantly do the work,  math was more irrelevant to real life then it had ever been before. And so they cut the math program in every school in the district.

This was the story I told to a group of elementary music teachers as the invited speaker at a recent State Convention. I then asked how many thought it was true. Predictably, most did not. Then I asked them to imagine the same story told substituting music for math. Not only did they believe it, some had lived it. I went on.

“Here’s the shocking news. I don’t blame the decision-makers. If I was on that Board of Education and had to make some hard choices about what was essential and what kids could do without, remembering my own sad and boring music education in elementary school, I’d cut it too without a moment’s hesitation. It’s the shame of our profession that one of life’s most joyous gifts is one of school’s most dreadfully taught subjects. If school boards and the culture at large don’t value music education, we have only ourselves to blame.”

A pause here for dramatic effect.

“Still, though, if my school music classes were boring and less engaging than they might have been, so were a lot of my math, history, language arts, science classes. Why isn’t someone giving this talk at a math conference, warning his fellow math teachers that they better do good work or their jobs would be eliminated. Or worse yet, they’d be moved to another job and have to teach (gasp!) music! Never happens. But why not? Look at the list circulating these days about 21st Century Learning Skills and what’s important— creativity, innovation, critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration, leadership, social responsibility— music wins hands down!

“So let’s say it out loud. IT ISN’T FAIR! Our jobs are hard enough without the constant shadow hanging over us that we are uninvited guests at the banquet of education and can be asked to leave at a moment’s notice when the food runs low. In addition to having to master the complexity of our craft, we have to constantly defend our profession, learn how to advocate for our jobs, keep up on all the studies showing why music is important. No other teacher has to do that! I’ve never heard a reading teacher speak at a parent meeting and spend most the time trying to convince the parents that reading is important for their children. Let’s say it again. IT ISN’T FAIR!

What can we do about it? Here's the bad news. Until such time as music is accepted unquestionably as essential, we have to be extraordinary teachers. We have to make our classes engaging, dynamic, child-friendly, we have to make ourselves indispensable to the children’s daily experience and indispensable to the culture of the school. We can’t ever rest wholly satisfied with what we’re doing, but must relentlessly probe, reach, seek out the next step to do it better. Knowing all the while that even when we are extraordinary, they still can (and do) cut our program.

“And here’s the good news. Until such time as music is accepted unquestionably as essential, we have to be extraordinary teachers. We have to make our classes engaging, dynamic, child-friendly, we have to make ourselves indispensable to the children’s daily experience and indispensable to the culture of the school. We can’t ever rest wholly satisfied with what we’re doing, but must relentlessly probe, reach, seek out the next step to do it better. Knowing that if our work is stellar, we stand a chance that the kids, parents and colleagues will speak up on our behalf when cuts are threatened.

"It isn’t fair that we have to be amazing teachers or else, but hey, if it helps motivate us to reach the children we teach one step wider and deeper, then we can turn it to a good result. And that’s why I imagine all of you are here at this conference, looking for ways to do what you do well even better.

“So here’s the music teachers' three steps to preserving our jobs:

  1. Do good work.
  2. Do good work.
  3. Do good work.
“We can’t wholly control what happens in the halls of political power or effortlessly convince administrators who have never experienced an inspired music class or insure a solid and healthy economy. But when the door to the music room closes and we’re alone with the children, that’s where the pedal hits the medal and we are in control of what happens. Alone with the children, we are free to do good work.(Though I recognize that even here the long arm of ignorance is reaching in and making us dance to someone else’s bad tune, with proscribed keywords and official procedures and machines that must be used just because. That’s another talk.)

“And just what is good work? Ah, there’s a subject. Well, you know it when you see it. Anything that has kids shouting “Can we do it again?” that sends them out humming happily into the hall, that raises a goosebump, that surprises everyone when a child is graced with a breakthrough expressive moment, that lights up the room with “Aha’s!," that leaves both you and the children feeling better at the end of the class than you did when it started. And so, let’s repeat it: 1. Do good work. 2. Do good work. 3. Do good work.

And then one more.

  1. Tell about it.
“Yes, it’s not fair that we have to explain to people who haven’t experienced it what good music education looks and feels like, but it’s not their fault that they don’t. We need to educate them. And as W.B. Yeats suggested over a century ago when lamenting the state of the arts in the culture, ‘We need to baptize as well as preach.’ Don’t just tell, but share and show. And don’t just show, but invite the parents and fellow teachers and school boards to participate and feel for themselves on the inside what they can’t understand until they’ve done it. But remember that you can’t invite them into something less than good work. You have to astound them by revealing the hidden music inside of them, show them that quarter notes and sonata form is just the surface stuff that their bad music teachers gave too much weight to, that the real deal begins with simple gestures like clapping the rhythms of their names and then drumming them, conversing with a neighbor using just the first sound of their name, creating an instant dance to a simple song and then choreographing a variation, playing five well-chosen notes on the xylophone over the teacher’s blues piano and astonishing themselves with how cool they sound.

"One more piece of good news. My time to talk is over. Back to the workshop and let’s go play some blues!"