Sunday, May 31, 2015

Worst City in the World

I’m talking about San Francisco. This morning I gave the real picture the postcards don’t show—bone-chilling fog in May! But there’s more bad news.

Tonight I’d thought I’d go the Venetian Room in the fancy Fairmount Hotel to see an alum student make his cabaret debut. It was a 5:00 show, it was Sunday afternoon, I found out the time too late for the bus and there are only three taxicabs in all of San Francisco, so I thought, “Hey. Parking on a Sunday night? Shouldn’t be too hard.” An hour and circling an ever-expanding radius of blocks proved me wrong. Of course, two different times I spotted a place and so did the car in front of me.

This afternoon I did better, biking to the Civic Center to see a free Community Orchestra concert. Yeah, now we’re talkin’! San Francisco rocks! Amongst other things, they performed Peter and the Wolf and our local treasure, Supervisor Tom Ammiano narrated the tale. Before he began, he said, “A friend of mine from Oklahoma decided to come out of the closet and move to San Francisco. Now he’s living in a closet. For $3000 a month.”

So people, pay attention. Terrible weather, skyrocket rents, no parking, great private schools that cost more than my salary at such for about 20 years. More and more skyscrapers ruining the downtown view, road repair that doubles your commute and takes six months for little change (Bosworth St.!). Oh, and did I mention a drought?

So if you’re thinking of moving to San Francisco, don’t. Maybe once people get the real story, the real estate will settle back down to affordable and young people who aren’t earning six figures in IT can actually live here again.

Spread the word. San Francisco sucks.

Frozen Leisure

It was a perfect Sunday morning. My usual start-the-day routine of zazen/ oatmeal/ Solitaire and then a private worship service in the church of jazz, listening to Kenny Barron and Dave Holland duets and then playing the same pieces myself. Out the door mid-morning to stroll through my still charming neighborhood to shop at the Farmer’s Market. Japanese eggplant and early girl tomatoes are now in season and the stalls abound with plums, peaches, nectarines, apricots, strawberries, those colorful sweet announcements that summer is a comin’ in. The buzz of commerce amidst the musician-du-jour singing with his baritone ukulele, the vendors chatting with the customers like they rarely do in Costco.

The week’s produce on my back, down I go into Golden Gate Park, happily passing by my bank, the local bookstore, ye ole video store, the caf├ęs and restaurants, happy to see them and happy that I will pass them all by— no need for money, coffee, books, movies. It’s Sunday and just to be alive and healthy and walking on God’s green earth is enough.

Into the park and to the Big Rec field, various informal soccer games with coats marking goalposts and Frisbee tossing and then a more formal uniformed baseball game. I sit on the bleachers and remember my childhood, when I also lived a half-block away from a park and would often sit to watch the baseball games there. That delightful nothing-in-particular-to-do leisure watching balls and bats and young men running around bases.

Like I said. A perfect Sunday morning away from e-mails and report cards and that giant
to-do list that motors my busy life. Perfect in every way except one.

It was freakin’ freezing out there!!! San Francisco is in it’s 7,000th day of  waking up to fog (well, it feels like that), in some weird “August in May” mode. We expect summer fog in the…well, summer! May can be windy, but never can I remember an entire month of fog just about every single day.

When I was describing the above, I imagine the reader imagining a sunny California day, everyone relaxed and in that mode where all is right with the world, savoring some sun together, the body relaxed and the spirits mellowed as warm weather tends to do. But instead the farmers were huddled and shivering, the shoppers brisk trying to get their stuff and scoot home to a roaring fire or heater. I lasted two minutes at the baseball game.

Now I strive to be a go-with-the-flow kind of guy, that one that happily makes lemonade from lemons and finds the beauty in each thing that comes my way. But this is testing my saint-like patience. I know the world doesn’t owe us a Hollywood life with perfect scenery, a soothing soundtrack and a happy ending, but hey, it’s almost June and by my calendar, we’re due something that feels at least a little bit like the approaching summer. I know, I know, we had it back in February when people in Maine were dreaming of California, but still.

And so I turn to a lunch of strawberries and plums hunched over in my winter jacket.

Friday, May 29, 2015

26 Years of Gratitude

Today marks the 26th year since my mentor, Avon Gillespie, passed away. Every year on May 29th, I write to three other colleagues who were close to him and huddle electronically in a moment of remembrance. It’s the least I can do for this man who opened the door to the life I have lived. How much thanks is enough? I don’t know, but I keep on thanking him, on this day, at the beginning and end of our summer course or whenever he crosses my mind.

Driving home from school with just four days left of my 40th year of teaching there, it struck me that our time together was so short. Once a week in a one-semester class at Antioch College in 1973 and then we didn’t see each other for 10 years. Then two weeks each summer for the next six years, three as his student, three as his colleague in the Orff Level Trainings. By the clock, that’s not a lot of time, especially compared to the 26 years he has been gone. But the spiritual connection between a mentor and an apprentice is outside of time and space. It doesn’t need “quality time” to work on the relationship, it exists in an unseen form before the first meeting and resonates long after the last hug goodbye.

The mentor is the one who lives out in physical form some deep yearning in a person, some half-formed longing not quite yet in focus, but brought alive by the living example of another. We can go to a concert, a basketball game, a poetry reading and be appreciative or astounded or amazed by the virtuosity, soulful presence or accomplishment of the performer, but we don’t necessarily aspire to be like him or her. Only if they’re doing something that feels within our reach and already exists in our spoken or unspoken vision.

Then comes that difficult period where we feel tongue-tied in their presence or long to be noticed or impatiently await their blessing. Our job is to make ourselves vulnerable like that, announce ourselves to them at great risk and follow the necessary steps to receive their teaching. Their job is to notice us, because they need someone to pass the baton on to as much as we need it passed. When they do, that’s when the fun starts. And yes, I meant “fun” a bit tongue-in-cheek, because it’s not a path strewn with roses.

The mentor is both an opening doorway and a high wall to scale. Our first impulse—and it’s a healthy and necessary one— is to imitate, even when we know that it must be but a passing phase to our own voice. Even if we literally play the same notes or teach the same lesson or perfect the same style of jump shot, it will never be the same as the one we’re imitating. We can’t help but put our own spin on it and if we’re alert, that little spin of difference can grow into our own way of phrasing, teaching, shooting the ball. An emerging voice that will be worthy of someone else’s urge to imitate down the line. To be complete, the relationship with the mentor moves from adoration to imitation to side-by-side work and sometimes to surpassing. Like I said, not a path strewn with roses and the rifts that can grow between original geniuses like Freud and Jung (for example) are the stuff of high drama.

I often wish that Avon could see where my own spin has taken me, but in the Soul world where our relationship lives, I have to believe that he does indeed see it. I’d like to think he would be pleased, though today I could feel his frown when I weirdly sang “Head and Shoulders” with the five-year olds in some strange key and tune before I got back on track. (He was a beautiful and powerful singer and I am not. No competition there!) I wonder what our relationship would be like today if he was still here with us at 77 years old. And yes, I still grieve the loss of that possibility. I think I would have loved it.

So, Mr. Avon Gillespie, yet another thanks for all you gave to me and the world and I hope there is a ripple in the great Cosmos that lets you know that you have not been forgotten.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Assessing Assessment

A colleague recently wrote to me with these concerns:

In our curriculum we clearly have standards and together, based on the curriculum, we made Statements of Content students should know by the end of the year.  The problem is we have a very big difference of opinion in what, how and even IF we should be assessing things like 16th notes, read certain rhythms, can they match pitch etc.  And do we need to individually assess​ every kid?  Is it good enough that we could likely predict the outcome for the student?   Is that what's important?  Isn't just making kids love music the most important (we all agree yes that is our main goal...but is it enough?)   

My reply:

The point of assessment OF learning is to make it assessment FOR learning. That is, to hold yourself and the students responsible for knowing where their strength and challenges are and to answer the question "How can I help you? How can you help yourself?"

If you discover that a kid has trouble matching pitch, the point is not to stigmatize them and discourage them with a bad grade, not to judge them and label them, but also not to just ignore it. If matching pitch is a problem, let's try to fix it because it feels better to sing in tune than out of tune. And off you go with whatever strategies you can dig up. And note when a breakthrough occurs. And to do that means yes, assessing every kid. Not always easy and sometimes impossible if you have large groups and a few hundred students. That's another discussion. But if you're going to go to the trouble to write a report card, it needs to be real. 

And though the techniques of assessment and criteria might be different for music than for math, it feels important that it be included in the school policy. That elevates the whole enterprise to a craft to be taken seriously, worked at and improved. Yes, the joy of music is the beginning and end of the matter, but in-between is the reality that deeper understanding and skill bring MORE joy to the experience of music.

We are notoriously nervous as educators that our kids aren’t actually learning what we’re trying to teach them. Maybe our obsession with assessment is lack of faith in our own powers of transmission. And yet it is true that the learning experience is a dance between the teacher and student and both need to work to learn the steps. So somewhere in-between “whatever” and hovering with a red pencil each step of the way is the ongoing conversation to check in on what’s working and what needs more work.

Listening Habits of the Young

It’s the end of school. A good time to do whatever. Today in music listening class, I had the inspired idea to find out something about my 8th grader’s listening habits. And so armed with pencil, paper and a few questions, off we went. The results are worth sharing—here’s some excerpts from their answers:

When do you listen to music? In the car, doing homework, before bed, before a game, while reading, while drawing, while I shower, eating breakfast, while exercising, when I’m sad, when I’m bored, when I’m searching for an answer, when I want to, all the time, whenever I can.

How do you listen to music? On my phone, through earbuds, through headphones, i-Pad,
i-Pod, computer record player, CD’s, radio.

What do you listen to? Alternative, classic rock, pop, punk rock, hip-hop, rap, classical music, indie rock, Swedish rock, electronic music, Latin, jazz.

And most interesting:

Why do you listen to music?

Because music is sorta a way of learning for me, since people usually sing about their experiences.

• ‘Cause I’m sad, happy, or really bored or scared, confused about life.

•  It speaks to my emotions.

• It makes mundane things interesting. It cheers me up.

• Because I want to enjoy the beauty in my life.

• Because it makes me feel better.

• Because I enjoy hearing the different styles in the artists/ composers.

• ‘Cuz I’m sad, ‘cuz I’m mad, And music, makes me feel glad!

• It makes whatever I’m doing more interesting because it has a soundtrack.

• To help me think.

• To prepare me for games (sports). It pumps me up.

• It soothes me. It calms me down.

• It’s reliable. It’s the one thing that never changes.

• Because I like listening to things that are different than what my parents listen to.

• Because it makes me feel better about myself.

• Because it makes me feel like I can relate to some people.

• Because the lyrics can describe situations that I feel and make me feel like I’m not alone.

• Because I am in need of whatever emotion a particular song evokes.

• To shut out the noise of people talking.

• Why not?

Homework for my readers: What’s your answer?