Sunday, November 30, 2014

Mission Statement

Machado may have had it right when he said, “Your footprints are the path and nothing else. There is no way. We make the way as we walk.” But it does help to have some idea of where you want to go. Hence, every institution has its Mission Statement and most of us make our New Year’s Resolutions. Looking back over the path I’ve taken, the way I’ve made as I walked through 40 years of music classes with kids, I’ve come up with a kind of reverse Mission Statement, putting words to my intentions that have been mostly realized in small ways and await my continued efforts to enlarge their impact.

All of this came about after being interviewed for a Graduate School thesis comparing my work with Lowell Mason. A hefty comparison and one I appreciate while doubting whether I deserve it. In terms of intention, yes, in terms of effect, hardly. Lowell Mason was a Singing School teacher back in the early 1800’s who was in the right place at the right time schmoozing with the right people. While training teachers in an evolving music education method influenced by Pestalozzi, he helped create and taught at the Boston Academy of Music. Through that work, he got to speak with the Boston School Committee and convince them to include music in the curriculum of the first public schools in the United States. The year was 1838. Small moment, big effect and one that paved the way for the Orff approach some 130 years later to take root in American schools. Without Lowell Mason, Carl Orff and my own teacher Avon Gillespie, I don’t know what I would have done with my life!

When one inherits the mantle of exalted work, one is obliged to realize the depth of what has been handed down and work to increase the height and breadth. And so, my backward-looking Mission Statement, summarized:

• To continue Lowell Mason’s work of advocating for music for all children at all ages in all schools.

• To realize the depth of Orff’s vision of a holistic music education with integrated arts, group learning, aural transmission, playful exploration and creative endeavor at the center.

• To expand Orff’s vision to include new body percussion techniques, world music, jazz.

• To realize Orff’s intuition that his work belonged in schools and Avon Gillespie’s hope to put music at the center of the school’s community and academic life.

• To expand this work beyond schools to people in all walks of life in all places at all ages.

May it continue to bear fruit in ever-larger gardens!

Homage to November

And so the last day of November and the year is drawing to a close. Yesterday it snowed briefly up here in Portland, Oregon and last night we shivered away through the Zoo Lights, the magical electrical exhibit difficult to appreciate in the 32-degree night air and a dinner of popcorn and pretzels while waiting an hour for the five-minute train ride through the zoo. The highlight of the evening was the Max train ride back home, with Zadie telling some stories to herself, with gestures, facial expressions and intonations that would rival the best professional storyteller. This morning, my computer is a rectangular sheet of ice before the heat kicks in, this wimpy San Franciscan glad he doesn’t live in Minnesota and wondering about Florida retirement real estate. (Though if I headed South, I'd go to Rio!)

It has been quite a month. The San Francisco Day of the Dead celebration, the Orff Conference in Nashville, my Family Jazz workshop at NJPAC in Newark, New Jersey, a neighbor’s memorial service, a school alum’s baby shower, granddaughter Zadie’s 3rd birthday and daughter Talia’s 30th
A joyful month of teaching at school, made yet more delightful by the presence of the enthusiastic Interns and their own contributions as they begin to teach the kids. The Holiday Show scripts are written and cast as we turn toward the last three weeks of the Fall Semester rich with ritual, performance and celebration. The days are shorter, the air is colder and a few blessed rains have watered drought-stricken California, with hopes for more and yet more to come.

Here in Portland, the family stays warm under thick blankets before waking up to the day’s possibilities. One thought is to take Zadie to her first movie in a movie theater. (I believe we took her mom Kerala to her first movie at 12-days old!) As I write, I hear the doorknob turn and out steps Zadie! No contest between a morning hug from my darling granddaughter and clicking on these computer keys. Thanks to November and onward!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Mythology of Desire

Time for another confession. This staunch anti-consumer found himself in Macy’s on Black Friday. Horrors!!! Well, I have a few excuses.

It started with the Portland Macy’s Day Parade. Though I grew up a half-hour outside of New York City, I never got closer to the famous Manhattan parade than watching The Miracle of 34th St. Too bad, because I like parades! Seen lots of remarkable processions worldwide, from Ghana to India to Sri Lanka to Bali to Japan and beyond and though the music and costuming varies, the spirit is the same. Here were inflated floats, people dressed as animals, marching bands, stilt-walkers, baton twirlers and the like and fun to see it through the eyes of my granddaughter, twinkling with excitement.

But it was Portland, after all, so close to the end, the light rain picked up to heavy and we needed some asylum. What better place than Macy’s, where Santa was due to take his orders? And so we joined the line in the bedroom section for Zadie’s first exposure to that jolly old man. And in-between monitoring Zadie jumping on some beds and talking to the kids in line in front of me (they wanted a remote-control helicopter and a Barbie), I was thinking about this induction into American consumerism, that the conversation with Santa was mostly around “What do you want?” I have no problem with the mythology of Santa as a jolly spirit freely bestowing gifts and holding his “naughty and nice” threat over the unsuspecting child is a step better than the boogeyman (though should be reserved only for desperate situations— like kids plucking off ornaments at the neighbor’s Christmas party), but reducing the whole matter to the level of dubious material gifts (Barbie) calls into question my deepest-held values. And here I was about to perpetuate them.

But standing in line, I found an escape clause. What is our desire for presents but a concrete manifestation of deeper desires? Why was I anxiously awaiting Gary Snyder’s new book or keeping an eye out for the next jazz CD I think I need? Why does that new shirt from my birthday still give me pleasure? Why did I have Bulgarian bagpipe on my Christmas list for three years? Each thing we desire has another story behind it and one essential to our continued development and evolution. If the question “What do you want?” is followed by “Why do you want it?” it gives a different spin to the whole enterprise. Try it yourself and also with your older children. If the answer is “Because my friends have it” or “It will be cool for five minutes and then I’ll never play with it again,” maybe it can re-direct our wishes toward some more genuine desire.

And so the moment finally came when it was Zadie’s turn. Santa had a real beard (this was Portland, after all) and seemed a gentle man. (My wife couldn’t stop talking about him, making me suspicious of some thoughts about sitting on his lap.) When it came time for the all-important question “And what do you want?” Zadie rose to the occasion: “Red.” “Anything else?” Santa continued. Zadie: “Hmmm. Yellow.” That’s my girl!

We got a little coloring book and a box of crayons and lo and behold, there was a red crayon and a yellow crayon. The magic has begun!

P.S. We took a photo with a phone and declined the $48.00 four-photos Macy’s offered. And walked out of the store without buying anything. In your face, Black Friday!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgivings I Have Known

Each holiday comes as a bookmark in the pages of the year and I always enjoy taking a moment to remember where I was at other times. Amidst 63 Thanksgivings, a few stand out:

1969— Brooklyn with my girlfriend Lynne Lerner’s family and friends that included authors Marge Piercy and Sol Yurick. Marge Piercy later became quite famous!

1972—Antioch College where I first heard a recording of Scott Joplin’s music that sent me down the path of jazz piano. That was the Nonesuch Joshua Rifkin recording.

1974—Downey St., San Francisco, where my brother-in-law cooked a macrobiotic pumpkin pie with no sugar. All of us pretending that it was an improvement and secretly yearning for the old tradition. (He never made it again.)

1976—Castro St., SF, hosting the event with wife-to-be Karen and some twenty friends who weren’t going home to their parents for the holiday. That sense of creating our own new, extended family.

1978—Athens, Greece in the midst of a year trip around the world with Karen. We ate a feta cheese salad and decided not to risk our lives crossing Iran in the midst of a revolution and to fly to India instead. (Good choice.)

1983— Second Ave., SF, with my sister Ginny going into labor on our couch while we were basting the turkey. Nephew Ian born soon after. Ginny missed the pumpkin pie.

1984—Calistoga with Karen’s water breaking right after Thanksgiving dinner. Daughter Talia born soon after.  (One day after Ian’s birthday.)

1993—Sebastopol at my sister’s house, with my parents newly moved from New Jersey and the full extended family. And that was it for the next 15 plus years, alternating between Sebastopol and San Francisco.

2012— Washington, DC at my daughter Kerala’s house with husband Ronnie and first Thanksgiving with granddaughter Zadie. A new chapter.

(I wonder if anyone has ever put together a book collecting memorable Thanksgiving stories. Everyone has one, yes?)

So on a rainy day in Portland, Oregon, Zadie in the bath, Ronnie, his Dad and son Alijah taking a drive to the Columbia Gorge, me about to get to work on my incredible cranberry sauce recipe (water, sugar, cranberries— done!), time to turn my attention to the here and now, having enjoyed my little excursion down Memory Lane. Good to try to remember all who I’ve shared the table with, though some names and even faces elude me. But imagining them joining us today. Blessings to all.


Some three-year olds I know have the calm serenity of Gautama Buddha. They sit quietly collected into themselves, quietly absorbed in a task or observing the world.

My granddaughter Zadie is not one of them.

She is an exuberant firecracker, jumping about, dancing, running, exploding in screams of delight with an abundant energy that could light Las Vegas. If we could figure out how to lease her to the power companies and run her on a treadmill, it would pay for her college education. If the labelers got ahold her of her, they might invent a new category of ADHHHHD.

But the way I see it is that she simply got a large dose of life force doled out to her and though it can be exhausting to some adults running at a different speed, let’s call it infectious exuberance. Once you get drawn into her orbit, you can catch a bit of that unbridled excitement that runs through her veins. Goodness knows we could all use a bit of that as life tries to flatten us down to the vegetative state of couch potatoes.

Yesterday, we played the new drum together I bought her, she danced while I played ukulele to her directions of “Stop!” and “Go!” and “Faster!” We walked to brunch—or rather ran from one corner to another while “the big bad wolf!” chased us. I sat while she scurried around her play kitchen singing while cooking for me and feeding me. She kicked away laughing as I tried to get her pajamas on until (and I can’t believe I did this!) I had to remind her about Santa and naughty kids (it worked!). And to balance out this portrait, she did sit relatively still as I read her some of the new books we gave her as belated birthday presents.

Today is Thanksgiving and isn’t it obvious what I’m thankful for? Amidst hundreds of other blessings, Zadie stands out, twirling an electric gizmo I bought her over her head. At three, she is a powerful dynamo of sheer energy, but as Blake said, “Energy is eternal delight.” Watch out, World, and don’t say I didn’t warn you! Zadie is here!”