Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"Let's Try It!"

It’s Spring Concert time. You music teachers know what that means. All the lovely relaxed process starts to tighten the snares, “just get a feel for it” changes to “play the right notes! At the right time!” and you go to bed dreaming about switching Junior to second triangle without him noticing why.

And so I was rehearsing with 8th grade trying to be crystal clear about who plays first and who plays second and for how long and what everyone is doing during the solos and all those details that can make or break your public reputation. After the first piece, one student— we’ll call him Isaac— said, “I don’t think we should end that way. The piece is starting to lose energy. I think we should do that short riff after the solo and call it a day.”

“Isaac, I love that you’re showing some independent musical thought and judgment here. That really makes me happy.”

“Yeah, but we’re not gonna do it, right?”

“Well, let me tell you a story. Many years ago, I helped start an adult Orff performing group named Xephyr. We got together once a week and improvised with our voices, movement, percussion, xylophones, what have you and then started to create some pieces from our collective ideas. And you know how they say that ‘music brings people together?’ and that creating music together is even a higher form of bonding?’”

Heads are nodding out there in the 8th grade class.

“Well, whoever said that is out of their mind! We were always fighting with each other! Person A would suggest an idea and person B would say, “Naw! That will never work” and then person A would start to sulk and get revenge later on when person B offered an idea. People, it was not a pretty sight, all these creative personalities trying to agree on which idea would make the piece flow and really communicate.

“So we decided to create the ‘Xephyr Rule.’ Whenever someone would suggest something, the group would respond, ‘Okay, let’s try it.’ Now inside— and sometimes out loud— there would be a big sarcastic accent, ‘That’s a good idea! (wink wink). Let’s try it!’

“ But what was interesting is that the moment we actually tried it, everyone could tell what was workable and what wasn’t. Many a time I thought I had an inspired idea and when we put it into action, I immediately understood it wasn’t so great. Or it was okay, but needed this or that. Likewise, people who inside would think ‘Terrible idea!’ would try it and revise their opinion. So Isaac, you know what I say to your suggestion?”

“Let’s try it!!!”

“No… NO!!! Ha ha. Just kidding. Of course, we’re going to try it. But before we do, I just want to say that in 99% of jazz tunes, you repeat the head again at the end to give closure. This is highly unorthodox. But—Xephyr rule— let’s try it!”

And so we did. The kids voted at the end for how much they liked it. Who won?

Well, you’ll just have to come to the Spring Concert to find out. Next Wednesday. 7 pm. I don’t want to give anything away, but just a small hint: if you think something was weird about that Sack of Woe piece, it’s Isaac’s fault. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Andronico's Ukelele Band

As always, the world is going to hell in a handbasket. And now I have to read about it. My old AOL was stuck on some news about investing money for four years, but since my computer crashed, I had to update and now I see the headlines. 683 people sentenced to death in Egypt. Tornados ripping through the Southern U.S.  Woman killed six of her babies. The usual.

But tonight I went to Andronicos, alias Park and Shop, my old neighborhood supermarket that I frequented for some 30 years before Trader Joe’s came in. Rode my bike there to get popcorn that TJ’s doesn’t carry. And at the check-out stand, heard some music in the corner where there’s a little cafĂ© seating area. Popcorn in hand, I walked over to listen to 12 assorted amateurs strumming ukuleles and singing Hawaiian songs. Turns out they meet there every Monday night and play through their homemade books of tunes.

Now that makes me happy. The world is ablaze with catastrophe, my little oasis of a school community is turning into a paperwork fingerprinting nightmare where generosity gives way to fear, local schools are giving kids points to show up on time to class that they can then redeem at the school store and I'm feeling like every little victory in sensible, decent, kind and generous human relationships is dying on the legal vine. But in the corner of my local supermarket, folks get together to strum ukeleles and sing songs. Maybe there's hope after all. 

They invited me to come join them next week. That is, after I submit my FBI background check. 

Raisins and Almonds

Yesterday was my Mom’s 93rd birthday. (My daughter insists I should say she passed away at 92, but hey, three weeks before 93 counts as 93 in my mind!) To honor the occasion, I drove to the home in Novato where she and my Dad lived for 15 wonderful years. They were equidistant from their grandchildren in San Francisco and Sebastopol, loved the California weather and enjoyed the Marion Court apartment complex complete with swimming pool. Sweet to walk around there again and remember the good times with the grandkids on our monthly visits.

Later that evening, my sister and her husband and two of her three boys came over and along with Talia, Karen and myself, we had a little ceremony in the backyard planting a the help of her (and some of my Dad’s) ashes. Nephew Kyle read an appropriate Rumi poem called The Pickax, speaking of our rented bodies that are returned to the owners, we sang a song or two and went in for a spaghetti dinner with my attempt at a homemade spaghetti sauce close to what my Mom (and later Dad) used to make.

So sweet to tell stories of “Grandma” over dinner, hear the kids’ point of view about her eccentricities, which were many and ranged from hilarious, amusing, endearing, embarrassing, confusing and just plain weird. They remembered something I hadn’t thought about in a while, the way she used to clip things out from newspapers and magazines that she thought each of us might be interested in— and usually she was right.

On another track, I thought of these little food combinations I learned from her, most of which I haven’t eaten in a while, but now am determined to eat again on special occasions. The one that has remained consistent—and is also the name of a lovely Yiddish lullaby— is raisins and almonds. But then there was sour cream and bananas, molasses and milk, apples with cream cheese and poppy seeds. Distinctive all and things which will be several of many paths to remembrance.

What a difference sharing the mourning with the extended family. That’s how it always has been and always shall and should be— on top of the private moments of solitary ceremony. But to banter back and forth with all the stories— last night, augmented by going through all the photo albums— was just what the doctor ordered.

Along with a few snacks of raisins and almonds.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

What Goes Around…

Last night I went to a high school play featuring some alum students. Today 15 high school alum seniors had a reunion at the SF School and I got to play some jazz with two of them. Tonight I went to SF Jazz Center to see the remarkable SF All-Star Jazz Band, a group of high schoolers that will turn your notion about what high schoolers can do on its head. And the lead singer? A former student.

I always tell people that the alums from our school don’t go into music more than any other school, but now I’m beginning to wonder. Just heard about one alum student making a big splash on the Indy scene and another who won a national singing contest. And countless alums (or their parents) have told me about the different bands they’re in or the chorus they sing in or the group they dance with in Carnaval. (Just today on Facebook, an alum posted a nostalgic photo of the Samba Contest from our school.)

It’s time to do a survey.

I never thought it really mattered. What matters is that the kids I’m with now feel some pleasure in music and some joy in their own ability to express that. No need to assess it all in terms of success in the future— just aiming for each class to offer what's needed in the moment. Judging from the sincere “thank you’s” I got from various 8th graders, 5-year olds and 4th graders in yesterday’s classes, that seems to be going well.

But still, it would be interesting to know how those three to eleven years of music classes has echoed on in the lives of the alums. And goodness knows, after 39 years, there are plenty of alums to ask! Some of them 50 years old!

I’ll get back to you on this one. 

Thursday, April 24, 2014


Why is today unlike any other day? My personal ritual question since my mother’s passing over. The answer? I drove to Walnut Creek to pick up her ashes at the Trident Society.

I was fine entering the office, doing okay when the plastic box came in and I took the envelope with her wedding ring that we had forgotten to remove. I kept it together while the office person gave me the death certificate and when I had to sign my name on a piece of paper. But the first sign of tears came when I had to fill out the line “Relationship to deceased” and I wrote the word “son.”

Never again will anybody call me that.

I waited until I got into the car to let the tears flow freely. I know it will be like this for a while, perhaps the rest of my life. Some small marker of the depth of what has passed will tap me on the shoulder unexpectedly and the grief will blossom full force.

And why not? Why should anyone be proud of “keeping it together” when the situation calls for mourning? Why is “fine” the norm? Who decided that? When we live in the depth of our passion, in full presence and awakened attention, fine is just weird. Joy, grief, belly laughs, shouted outrage are all the emotions du jour. Yeah, I know it’s hard to sustain that level of intensity and really, who wants to be around it all the time? We also need just coasting, lightening up, fine in the repertoire and probably for more hours than the others. But I will say that driving back, the green of the hills were just a bit greener, the sparkling waters of the Bay a bit more sparkly, the Bach I had playing felt like it was lifting me over the beautiful new Bay Bridge toward the resplendent San Francisco skyline. My Mom’s box of ashes on the front seat next to me, Life and Death riding side-by-side and the world awakened a few notches higher.