Thursday, May 14, 2015

Full Circle

“Honor your father and mother” is the 5th Commandment and worthy of attention. From teen-hood on, I critiqued my parents and that also felt important, a way to build a self beyond what was handed down, to separate out the ignorances of their era from the new possibilities of mine, to decide which cycles I would continue with my own children and which I would attempt to break. Having passed through such a process, the honoring felt more honest and true, with a genuine gratitude for the life they gave me, the work they did to raise me, the care they showed me. The health of a family and the health of a culture comes from the conversation between questioning and honoring the ancestors. If it's only dutiful honoring, it falls short. If it's only angry questioning, it falls short. Both are necessary. But these days, the honoring is often neglected.

And so in my daily work at school, I tell story after story about this song or that, this tradition or the other, this piece of music. I talk about the kid who wrote the songsheet 40 years ago (Phoebe Lockwood!), tell the story of my sole defeat in the Cookie Jar contest by 4th grader Michael Canaveral, show the video of Milt Jackson playing our Orff instruments in the music room. And not only the personal stories that took place in our school community, but the larger stories. I tell about the Ghanaian xylophone we have and its title as the ancestor of the Orff instruments when someone sent one to Carl Orff  back in the 1920’s or the Thai ranad xylophone that was given as a gift to Sofia and I when we taught in Thailand. If I introduce Tom Jobim as the composer of the song we're playing, I mention that the airport in Rio is named after him and set the thought in motion that maybe the Toledo Airport might be named after Art Tatum or suggest that Reagan Airport in Washington D.C. be changed to the Duke Ellington Airport. 

In the Spring Concert last night, the evening was so much more than just kids playing music on instruments. Each piece has a little story worth telling. We publicly remembered our Fall Interns who taught us pieces from Thailand, Dagesthan and Brazil —and then played them. Sofia talked about the composer of the piece the 7th grade was playing and how she studied ballet with his daughter. James told the fascinating story of Mussoursky and why he wrote “Pictures at an Exhibition.” I told the story of listening to my first jazz album by Dave Brubeck and playing my first jazz piece (Take Five) when I was in 8th grade and then getting to meet Mr. Brubeck with my own 8th grade class back in 2001. Each little story a gesture of gratitude to those who contributed to this evening of music.

But the most powerful story was the one of how the music program began at The San Francisco School and the chance to publicly thank in front of the community the woman who made it possible. She came to the concert, back to the San Francisco School four decades after her daughter was in the preschool. I dedicate the concert to her and the short story is in the program notes that follow. What a beautiful closing of a circle that was, me in tears so grateful for the opportunity to publicly thank her and her sitting tearfully amazed at what had grown from the simple gesture all those years back. Our cups were running over the whole concert. Below the program notes:

Small acts of generosity can reap rich results. In 1974, the Carol and Thaddeus Kusmierski, two SF School parents, donated six Orff instruments to the school in memory of a departed sibling. The Orff approach to music education was relatively new in the United States (the American Orff Schulwerk Association was founded in 1968) but it was gaining ground as an innovative, effective and fun way to learn music. With no formal program yet at The San Francisco School, teachers were intrigued and eager to learn how to use the instruments and begin a comprehensive program beyond just singing.

And so they agreed to hire a teacher to train them in the use of the instruments and set aside six evenings for classes. Karen Shultz, the school’s first art teacher, told a fellow member in a community choir about it. His name was Doug Goodkin. He had taken a semester of Orff Schulwerk in college and was teaching volunteer music classes at the Rivendell School. Excited by the thought of getting further Orff training, Doug asked Karen if he might join the class. The staff agreed and the classes began.

Unfortunately—and fortunately in other respects—the teacher was terrible and fired after two classes. Doug offered to teach one class to the staff based on his college study. After the class, he was asked, “What are you doing next year?” There was no money for a position, no previous thought of starting a music program, no formal interview or hiring committee. Just a casual meeting with the administrator after a Board discussion and Doug was hired.

Forty years later, The SF School Music Program is recognized worldwide as an innovative and progressive force in music education. James joined in 1990, Sofia in 1996 and the three not only continued to grow the program with the kids, but to train teachers worldwide, publish books and articles, perform with kids at Orff Conferences and beyond. Without those first six instruments donated by the Kusmierskis, none of it would have come to pass. On behalf of all the years of joyful music, song, dance and drama, the music staff thanks Carol and Thaddeus Kusmierski for lighting the fire. This concert is dedicated to them.

PS And we’re still playing those first six instruments! You’ll hear them tonight!

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