Thursday, July 31, 2014

Wild Thing

I began my annual summer course lecture with a guitar, three chords and a rendition of the Trogg’s big hit, Wild Thing. Because fact of the matter is that it is the wildness I encountered in my first—and subsequent— Orff class that “made my heart sing” and made “everything groovy.” I didn’t care about any “rubrics for assessing the SLOs aligned with the current levels of DKOs using FIP techniques.” I was much more interested in the LSD-like ecstacies induced by vibrant music and dance. And still am.

Several generations removed from the initial groundbreaking-work of Orff, Keetman and Gunther, people who talked about “freeing powers of our primeval nature, awakening to the profundity of things, releasing the power of the spirit,” their radical work has become diluted and deluded. I read these articles that sound like dry sociological tracts with pseudo-scientific jargon and wonder, “Where is the art? Where is the poetry? Where is self-discovery and awakening? Where is play? Where is the electric energy? Where is the changing screen with mystery and intrigue and sexuality and sensuality changing clothes behind it preparing for the Witch’s Dance?  (This the story Orff chooses to open his autobiography “Das Schulwerk: Volume III,” telling of a friend visiting the dancer Mary Wigman.)  People have turned the stunning verbs of shaping artistic impulses and the charged adjectives Orff used to describe Wigman— “wild, electric, proud, mysterious”— into the heavy bricks of dead nouns like “creativity, collaboration, 21st Century thinking skills.”

Orff often spoke of his work as a wildflower, a plant that established itself where it was needed and where conditions were favorable. He warned that “wildflowers always prosper in places where carefully planned and cultivated plants often produce disappointing results.” In various recent American Orff workshops I’ve attended, Orff’s wildflower feels like an endangered species. Little did he know just how over-planned and cultivated those plants would become when sucked into the vortex of American schools and a materialistic culture obsessed with measurement. We’d much rather go to the mall than engage in conversation with the wildness lying dormant within or go hiking in the wilderness without. 

In my talk, I invoked Gary Snyder’s “The Practice of the Wild” for some thoughts on its place in the ecology of human culture. He frees the word "wild" from it's perception as "unruly, rude, licentious, destructive, primitive, savage" (all Oxford English Dictionary definitions) and restores it to it's life-affirming qualities of "self-propogating, self-maintaining, flourishing in the beauty of its innate properties within the order of natural systems, outrageous, spontaneous, physical, ecstatic, sexual, free." The overlap with Orff's language is noteworthy.

Western culture has a long history of distrust and fear of the wild, with disastrous consequences for people living close to the earth in small communities. It projected that fear onto Native Americans and Africans and used it to excuse genocide and slavery. It associated women with the wild and led to witch-burning. And most importantly for us teachers, it feared the wildness of children and incarcerated them in places called schools. There their wild spirits were—and still are— cut away and chopped up and neglected and punished in those prisons, held “hostage from love.” In this repressive climate, putting a little Orff class in the corner that must conform to the standards of the bureaucrats is simply an amusing entertainment far from Orff’s injunction to prevent spiritual erosion.

But here in Carmel, the weird and wild is alive and well as some 100 folks from around the world convene to play, sing, dance, cavort with an electric energy sufficient to light up Las Vegas. In American classrooms, I don’t find those icons of the wild—the majestic lion, the soaring eagle, the playful otter, the howling at the moon wolf. Or even the independent house cat or the caged parrot screeching embarassing swear words in front of the company. But I feel them all here and it’s glorious.

As I write, night descends and music is everywhere— recorders, Brazilian songs, jazz jam session, raucous laughter, ukuleles. We’re away from the assessors, from the ugly language and narrow thought, from the mindless bureaucrats poised to “put a sharp knife into the sacred, tender vision of our beautiful hearts.”

I closed with a poem from Hafiz and everything he dreams of is happening here. The world may constantly fall short of what it could be and consistently disappoint me, but here is the one I want to live in— and I am! For at least 8 more days. The poem, translated by Daniel Ladinsky (with one short stanza omitted):

We have not come here to take prisoners.
But to surrender ever more deeply to
Freedom and joy.

We have not come into this exquisite world
To hold ourselves hostage from love.

Run, my dear, from anything that may not strengthen
Your precious budding wings.

Run like hell my dear
From anyone likely
To put a sharp knife
Into the sacred, tender vision
Of your beautiful heart…

For we have not come here to take prisoners
Or to confine our wondrous spirits.

But to experience ever and ever more deeply
Our divine courage, freedom and

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Swimming Your Life

It was a fine birthday yesterday, but truth be told, I’m glad it’s over. At once exhilarating and exhausting to read all the Facebook greetings! But we all want to feel cared for and remembered, yes? And thanks to the ease of typing two words on Facebook in contrast to getting the card, the stamp, the address, filling in all that blank space with a meaningful message and dropping it into a mailbox, that sense of feeling valued was some 50 times more present!

Events like birthdays offer an opportunity to pause, reflect, take stock of where you’ve been and consider where you still want to go. Not always a happy invitation! But at the moment, the World is in accord with my trajectory, offering chances to keep doing the work I love with wonderful people who I appreciate more each day. The Facebook greetings ran the gamut from people I recently met on my Orff travels to almost forgotten elementary school friends— and then all those in-between. I especially loved the little notes from former SFS students and their affirmations that our excursions into music, dance, drama, self-expression, ritual and beyond continued to echo on somehow in their lives.

On days like birthdays and New Year’s, I create an expectation that I have to have a model day and do the things I should do in all the days to come. And so I awoke and sat zazen meditation, went for a short bike ride, played a Solitaire game, ate oatmeal for breakfast and went on to teach three classes to the lovely  Level III students at our San Francisco International Orff Course. After writing my birthday blog and some Facebook time in the afternoon, I jumped into the swimming pool and had a little lesson in Finnish. And then decided that I should swim laps, one for each year of my life.

Well, that turned out to be interesting! A bit more exercise than I bargained for (J ), but certainly needed. And once I got going, I decided that I should try to remember an event for each of the years. A few people were counting the laps at the beginning and I’d pop up and say things like, ”I’m going to high school!” Or “I just met Avon!” or “My daughter Kerala was born!” They quickly lost interest (as expected), but it was interesting for me to see what I could remember for each year and combine the physical exercise with the mental exercise of remembering my life. Could I make a shtick out of it? “Swimming your way to Self-Reflection: A Life Journey Experience.”

Dinner out with the 10 other fun teachers and then ending the day playing jazz with my great partner-in-crime Joshi Marshall and then continuing on into the jam session with other remarkable musicians. 

And there you have it. The Orff/Zen/ Jazz of my previous blog carrying on as I enter my 63rd year. With some swimming, biking, blogging, eating thrown in. A fine day by any standard.


Monday, July 28, 2014

Letter to a Young Man on His Birthday

Dear Doug,

Biking in the Carmel Valley, morning fog swirling through the branches of the live oak trees and curling over the rolling brown-grassed hills, I recall a former self walking down a road in Bali. It was you on your 36th birthday. You got up early and snuck away from your wife and two young children and just started wandering down a road close to a beach watching the fishermen bring in their haul. As I remember, you were happy. Studying a bamboo xylophone for two months in Bali, loving sharing the adventure with your wife Karen and 6-year old Kerala and 2-year old Talia. The head of your school and the development director and their children (your music students) were there as well, inspired by your cultural curiosity to join you and see where you got the ideas that you brought back to the school in a new form, folded into the emerging school ceremonial life. Wasn’t that a fine feeling! Wasn’t that a grand time as the school was still evolving, built day by day by the inspired work of the teachers and their collective shared vision!

You had been teaching there 12 years, Karen for 13, Kerala had finished a glorious first grade and Talia was about to start in preschool. The Middle School was only two years old and you were just starting to initiate your Orff and Jazz program there. The Opening Ceremony, Halloween Intery Mintery ritual, the Winter Plays, the just-begun Revels, The Samba Contest, the Cookie Jar Contest, the Hug-line and Mud-pie song were all in place and going strong, as was the glorious Calaveras Camping Trip. You were the sole music teacher for all the kids for 11 years. You met James briefly that summer in Bali (little realizing what lay ahead) and had no notion whatsoever about someone in Spain named Sofia.

Elsewhere in your professional life, you had just taught your first Level 1 with your Orff mentor Avon Gillespie and had one more teaching collaboration ahead of you before he passed away in 1989. You had not yet taught in the Orff Institut, but in a mere three years, you would and a thousand glorious doors would open up for you that led to 24 years of traveling and teaching around the world. You hadn’t published any books yet, but were always typing away on articles and had begun to formulate the idea of the Jazz book. The following summer, you would teach your first Jazz/Orff Course, revealing another turn in the path that you are still walking to this day.

You had lived five years in your home on 2nd Avenue, still went down occasionally to Mt Baldy for intensive 7-day meditation retreats (your teacher, Sasaki Roshi, then 80 years old!). Your Mom and Dad were still in New Jersey and it would be another five years before they moved out to Novato, California. You had no computer yet nor did any of your friends, dialed a rotary phone with a cord, rolled out a funky TV from the hall closet for the once-a-week family watching of the Bill Cosby Show, Family Affair, a Different World and when the kids were in bed, Cheers. South Africa was still in the grips of apartheid, the Berlin Wall was up and the Soviet Union was still a country and still the enemy.

And so, young man, your birthday has rolled around yet again and now the digits are reversed. Then you were 36, now you are 63. You haven’t been back to Mt. Baldy since 1996, but did a three-day sesshin with your 100-year old teacher seven years ago in Sonoma County. (And just yesterday, he passed away at 107 years old. Rest in peace, Joshu Sasaki Roshi.) But still you mostly begin the morning with zazen meditation, a practice that has served you faithfully for some 41 years now. You never did get “enlightened” and it doesn’t look like you ever will, but still a pleasure to breathe yourself into the world, feel the boundaries drop and let your everyday ego disappear into love. For a short time, at least.

I think you’d be pleased to know that the paths you chose and those that chose you have been sturdy, reliable, challenging, stimulating and capable of opening your heart to the grand mysteries of this life, in connection with fellow travelers. Orff. Jazz. Zen. Those short pithy words that can blow open our petty concerns in astounding ways if we stay dedicated to the discipline and open to surprise. 

At 63, your Mom recently passed a few months ago, your Zen teacher yesterday, your Dad seven years ago, Avon 25 years ago, many of the jazz greats that kept you company moving on (most recently, Charlie Haden), you can feel the line moving up and the folks at the front dropping off and suddenly, you are often the oldest person in a gathering of 100 Orff teachers. And so you step up, trembling in terror, astounded by the advancing numbers, surprised by the face in the mirror, but somehow ready to take the baton.

But part of you is still 13, so hurt when someone doesn’t recognize your contribution, grieving over some of the changes that have swept through your school community and the apparent complete disregard of your contribution for almost 40 years, impatient for the world to recognize what you have to offer to jazz education and indeed, all of education, wondering why Oprah or Terry Gross haven’t called, furious at the news, distraught by the epidemic ignorance and organized hatred and the NRA and the mean-spirited Tea Party mentality and aghast at how far short of our vision back in the late ‘60’s our generation has fallen.

And yet, I hope you'll be glad to hear that at 63 years old, you are happy. You are grateful for your good fortune and the fruits that have ripened from your persistent work. You feel blessed to spend your birthday with 100 lovely souls doing the healing work that they all are doing. You feel lucky that you can still ride a bike up a big hill as you did this morning, that you are still living in your beautiful home on 2nd Avenue and that your family has expanded to the first granddaughter who you will Skype with tonight. 200 people on Facebook have greeted you when previously five or six birthday cards used to drop through the mail slot, an unexpected perk of electronic technology. Some of them are from your childhood, some high school, some college, some your students at The San Francisco School, some your students and colleagues at Orff courses worldwide. You know almost all 200 of them and it gives you great pleasure to picture each one and think about how your paths crossed and remember the wonderful work they’re doing or the wonderful fun you’ve all had together.

So there you have it, young man. I think you would enjoy hanging out with the older man you’ve become and he would appreciate you, even though you are 27 years younger. (Maybe tomorrow I will write to the 27 years older man of 90, fate willing, I would hope to become.)

Meanwhile, have a happy birthday in Bali. I’m having a great one here in Carmel Valley.



Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sacred Games

My music room at school used to be the chapel in a Baptist church. I like to think it still is the sacred center of school life. For almost 40 years, I’ve kept up some preachin’ and prayin’ in there, but mostly we’ve taken a different route to the Spirit: children’s games. Clapping plays, hand jive, ring plays, you name it, we’ve played it. The playing alone is enough, but I always add another layer of spiritual instruction, moral instruction, life lessons. Or rather reveal the layers already there.

Feeling a little sick in the head? Listen to Old Man Mosie’s doctor and “do the hokey pokey and get out of town!” Feeling disappointed in life and negative about things? Boom chick a boom your way to “Uh huh! Oh yeah! All right! Once more!” Stuck in a bad relationship? Sip some lemonade and then “kick your boyfriend out of town.”

And then a few levels deeper in. Carrying the burden of shame and guilt for the sins of your Ancestors? Go sit down in a saucer with Little Sally Walker, “ cryin’ and a’weepin’ over all she has done” and then “rise, Sally, rise, wipe those cryin’ eyes.” Or want to feel yet more profoundly the presence of loved ones now gone? Just go way down yonder in the brickyard and “Remember me” while you “step it, step it, step it down.” Need a reminder that you are worthy of love? Off you go into “as I look into your eyes, I behold with sweet surprise, there is somebody waiting for me.” You get the idea.

A game for every occasion, a therapy for every ill. The words remind and inspire, but more importantly, the message comes through the nerves, muscles, sinews of the body carried on the breath of song in company with a partner and partners. The Spirit awakens through boisterous play, raucous laughter, solemn tones. Not just reading words in a book or listening to the minister, but playing, singing, dancing the message so you get the word’s meanings, but also the body’s meaning, the heart’s meaning and sometimes the Soul’s meaning.

We began the Jazz Course with So Glad I’m Here and ended with one of my all-time favorite games, Little Johnny Brown. Ah, now there’s a game with multiple messages.

Little Johnny Brown, lay your comfort down…

 The player goes into the middle of the circle and lays out a scarf, representing a comforter. Like Linus, we all need our security blanket, but the game says that the circle of community is our security blanket and we no longer need the symbolic one.

Fold up the corner, Johnny Brown…

Make an effort here and do it neatly. Make your bed to start the day with some semblance of order. Art as the way to take the rumpled blankets of our dreamlife and put them into some kind of coherent expression.

Show us your motion, Johnny Brown…
 In my four-word music class mission statement, “Blend in. Stand out,” this is the standing out part. Show us who you are, what your particular motion is, how you think and live and love and move differently from anyone else because each of us is unique.

We can do the motion, Johnny Brown…

 And we’ll mirror it back to you, amplified manifold, so you can see your own beauty that you offered to the community given back by the community.

 Lope like a buzzard, Johnny Brown…

 I usually skip this one, but I shouldn’t. The buzzard feeds on the dead and so do we. We’re here by the grace of their efforts and our job is to keep their work moving forward, to eat their accomplishment that become an indelible part of us.

Take it to your friend now, Johnny Brown…

You’ve had your moment to shine, now blend back into the group, sing and dance with strength and conviction to help inspire the next player to be their whole self now that they’re in the middle. It’s not about the celebrity or superstar showing off in the middle of the ring, it’s about every person getting a chance to show how they can contribute. Nobody’s judging the motions or putting them in a hierarchy. Just be honest, be sincere, show us how you feel and who you are in the moment.

We’ve tried our hand at all the “ism” religions and from my point of view, it’s not going so well. So what about The Church of Sacred Games? Well, no need to invent it, since it already exists under the name “Orff Course,” where every day is Sunday.

Speaking of which, on to the next one! Carmel Valley, here I come!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Make 'Em Laugh!

I'm in the midst of the power and beauty of the Jazz Course, carried along by the music, the stories and the thrilling moments in the class from these 20 soulful teachers. Yesterday, my Pentatonics jazz group played for the kids and other Orff teachers on campus, so happy to be opening the door to this music to the children in company with these fabulous musicians. Thrilled when 4-year old Carter sang the first verse to Jeepers Creepers, when two kids came up to lead When You're Smilin', when these young kids listened in rapt silence to Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, drawn in by Joshi Marshall’s always remarkable opening on sax.

And speaking of that song, today took the Jazz class to the Jewish Home for the Aged and somewhere in the middle of sharing music with the folks at the other end of life’s journey, I suddenly missed my Mom sitting at my right, ached for another chance to kiss her cheek at the end of the song and watch her face as the music sent her to a heaven on earth. But so it is, the bitter comes with the sweet and sweet it was to watch Cyril sing in his 95-year old dramatic way Buddy Can You Spare a Dime and Fran bring the house to a quiet lull with Embraceable You and loving the Jazz Class improvising a train around the folks while we sang Chattanooga Choo Choo— well, isn’t that a fine way to end the day?

When the smoke clears, I want to write a Blog prompted by a T-shirt I saw on Facebook—“Keep Orff weird.” It has become so tame and domesticated and pruned to a bare branch with no fragrance or color. So while showing some “Youtube greatest jazz-related clips” to the group and watching Donald O’Connor throw himself down to the floor and spin around laughing and jump into walls in what is truly a singular piece of divine madness, I couldn’t help but think, “That’s what I want!! Let’s have some Orff classes like that!!”

Come to think of it, just about all the clips had a touch of divine lunacy— Harpo Marx cavorting with his wild eyes playing the pennywhistle, Gene Kelly singin' in the rain, Whitey's Lindy Hoppers throwing their partner over their heads, the Nicholas Brothers leaping up and sliding down giant staircases. Crazy!! Who does things like that? And with such joy and abandon and yes, humor, a quality of humor different from Hangover I, II or III and one we’re perhaps losing.

Well, no more to say now, got to plan tomorrow’s classes and think about how to keep the sparks of divine madness lit to see if they catch fire.