Thursday, July 30, 2015

Frozen Trumpets

Let’s talk about trauma. I shouldn’t, because I have a talk in exactly two hours and I need to prepare a Powerpoint. But since my talk is titled “The Humanitarian Musician,” the topic is relevant.

Trauma in the physical body is damage to a biological organism that comes from physical harm from an external source. Trauma can also be psychological, damage to the psyche that comes from a severely distressing event. Social trauma comes from systems of oppression and stigma, as found in racism or sexism or fundamentalism. In all cases, trauma causes a person to go into shock or denial, to shut down, to close up, to numb oneself to feeling as survival strategies, because it’s simply too painful to remember or feel. It’s a healthy physiological response, but an unhealthy way to live a life. People who have been traumatized experience unpredictable emotions, depression, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.

In the normal cause of events, time can help soften the effects, but alone cannot heal them. And here’s an important piece of information that every one should consider:

Trauma lives on in the memory of the nervous system so that if something triggers an association with the traumatic event, all the emotions of that time come back as if it was happening in that moment. The body remembers what the mind has worked so hard to forget or get over. No amount of reasoning can convince the body flooded with the chemicals such emotions release that there is nothing to worry about.

In my work as an Orff music teacher, I often hear stories like the one a student shared today. As a Level III student, she is vibrant, alive, alert and fully aware and fully receptive to the invitation of the Orff approach to freely express herself. She takes risks, improvises, freely explores the sonic possibilities of recorders, xylophones and her percussive, dancing body. But today she confessed that if she holds a trumpet in her hand and is asked to improvise, she freezes and can’t think of a thing to do. Because she learned the trumpet in the narrow approach of pushing down valves while reading symbols and in the context of the competitive jazz band where the hot soloists were rewarded and the rest felt inadequate, the simple act of holding a trumpet in her hand releases all those traumatic feelings.

Now trumpet trauma is minor compared to veterans of horrific wars (read all wars), but the general feeling is exactly the same. That sense of being frozen, shut down, unsafe, wholly in the instinctive brain stem with no access to the imagination of the neo-cortex. For her to recover, she would need to pick up the trumpet as if for the first time and play a successful solo on one note, even for 4 beats. I could help her do that, playing piano with her and slowly reprogramming her nervous system to experience the pleasure of a successful note improvised on the spot. She would need to do this over and over and over again until the new emotion started to overshadow the old. A slow, laborious process and along with a re-telling of the stories surrounding the event from a new perspective, the only kind of healing available. (The scene in Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams—may he rest in peace— tells the shut-down and traumatized Matt Damon that the parental abuse he experienced was not his fault at a moment when he was primed to hear it is a case in point. The re-told story combined with the genuine caring of the therapist was able to open again those doors to the heart so long shut down.)

Maybe I’ll write a screenplay as a rebuttal to Whiplash. Because just as the emotional body remembers trauma, so does it remember joy and love and affection and fun. Kids in such classes may not remember the details, but their nervous system remembers the feeling tone and it stays with them their whole life. I know I could have been a better music teacher to all the kids I’ve taught and could have loved certain ones more than I was capable of at the moment. But at the far end of the career, I’m getting lots of testimonies from kids who remember me with affection because of the echo of the fun and games I aimed for in each and every class. That’s a good start to my talk today— and I better get to work organizing it!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015


I turned 64 years old today. It’s the iconic number Paul McCartney prophesized, writing his famous song when he was 16 years old. I believe I was 18 years old when I first heard it. (It would be some eleven years before it was recorded. Just for the record, Paul is older than me. 73 to be exact.) At those young ages, both Paul and I had to dig to imagine what it would be like to actually be 64 years old. We were in the prime of our youth, all possibility and dreams and life beckoning us from ahead. I’m sure he couldn’t have imagined his leap into a fame beyond all human proportion. And on a more modest level, I couldn’t imagine my good fortune in a life that has been blessed with work so rich, rewarding, fun and satisfying and just enough fame to get me around to some 42 countries to teach what I love.

But at 64 years old, part of me is still wondering what I want to be when I grow up. Might I be a jazz musician? A respected author? A speaker at college graduations, one of which will give me that long-awaited honorary doctorate? Goodness knows I’ve stayed faithful both to piano and the writer’s craft, practicing some of both most every day. Is it too late?

The jury is still out on those possibilities, but meanwhile, there is one title I believe I can claim without hesitation or apology. Teacher. Some 300 people around the world sent me Facebook birthday greetings today and many of them used the titles—“Teacher. Dear teacher. Inspired teacher. My teacher.”  Such modest popularity (not quite up to Paul McCartney’s standard) did not come from people listening to my music or reading my books. It came from classes and workshops and courses I gave in one place or another. Sometimes they were large groups and I didn’t get to personally connect with the students, sometimes smaller groups and longer periods of time and I remember them when I see them ten years later. Some of these Facebook friends were from amongst the few thousand kids I’ve taught at The San Francisco School over the last forty years. But in any case, it is my work as a teacher that has made the connection, provided some model or affirmation or challenge or new idea or inspiration or just plain fun that was memorable and significant for them. And that means the world to me.

So teacher it is. I’m happy with that. I’m thrilled that I can still get down on the floor with kids and adults and yet more thrilled that I can still get up! (Though a bit slower each year.) I’m pleased that I can still folk dance as we will tonight and play some pretty hot body percussion. My fingers still work at the piano, guitar, banjo, accordion, recorder, xylophone and more, my breath is enough to fill my singing lungs or my bagpipe bag. I can travel 20 hours on a plane and wake up the next jet-lagged morning and teach for six hours. I can still enjoy the tried-and-true material I’ve collected over the years without ever feeling bored or tired by it and still come up with new things that thrill me.

I’m less thrilled with the number 64, but it has not yet closed any doors. Indeed, I feel like I’m at the top of my game. What makes me sad is knowing that it won’t always be so and the years left before that dreaded day comes are fewer each orbit around the sun. Out of 120 people here in retreat, I am literally the oldest person and that’s downright weird. Because as so many my age confess, “I feel like the same young person inside.”

“It’s just a number” say some and there’s some truth in that. But it’s also a number that carries real weight and a mathematical reality that is inescapable. I’m not going to pretend that I carry it lightly. But it’s indeed how I carry that weight that is the question for my age and if today is any indication, it’s with great joy in the opportunity to play, sing, dance, write and yes, teach. As long as my students still need me and the venue still feeds me, I’m a happy camper.

And just for the record, I hope Paul McCartney is too.

The Power of Prepositions

Yesterday was the first day of the annual Orff Training I teach and direct in Carmel Valley and quite a day that was. A fun opening to let the wild rumpus begin, great classes all day and a stirring two hours of an evening polyphonic singing session masterfully led by our visiting guest teacher Polo Vallejo.

After teaching my three classes, I sat around the pool reading the goals of my 24 students and was so moved by their passion, enthusiasm and ability to articulate what’s important. One teacher from Finland (Tea Ylikoski, to be exact) talked about her vision of an education “with the children, for the children and from the children” and there you have it. Lincoln’s Gettsyburg Address talked of a government of the people, by the people and for the people, another example of prepositional power. Might this be the new Manifesto for inspired education?

With the children means that the teacher is part of the circle of learning, investigating, exploring, growing, celebrating side by side with the children he or she is teaching. As the elder, we teachers have a special role, but at the end of the matter, we’re all on our way and are traveling together down the royal road of learning.

For the children means that we keep the little ones at the center of all class planning, school policies and decision making, considering what children deeply need, deserve and love. So much education is infected with adult notions that have little or nothing to do with the way children of different ages are actually put together. Children need to move, need to engage the world with their senses, need to imagine and create and explore and we stick them in rows and tell them to sit down, be still and shut-up—until such time as they raise their hand with the right answer. If we wrapped education around the way children actually are, schools could finally rise to their possibility and promise.

From the children means that even as we impart our wisdom and share our knowledge, we want to know what questions they have, what answers they have found, what surprising creations they’ve come up with, what interesting thoughts are in their minds. Not only are they different from us because they are children and we are adults, but they are having different childhoods than we had because they are growing up in different times. No teachers in my time had to convince me to go out to play or warn me about addiction to i-Pads or asked me to identify my sexuality at 13 years old. If we keep their concerns and questions at the center, invite them to constantly share and show their thoughts and ideas and dreams, we again can radically transform education without having to learn a single new piece of jargon.

With the children, for the children, by the children. I like it.

And so will the children.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Searching for Lanyards

There are times when we are grateful beyond measure for life online. The twins are having a meltdown, we need to shop for something and our spouse has the car. And it’s raining. And even if we had the car, there’s no way we’re going to strap in those screaming banshees and publicly humiliate ourselves by displaying our poor parenting skills at Nordstroms. So it’s off to Amazon we go. Or our babysitter fell through and we haven’t ridden our bike in five days. Online workout in the living room, baby! We need information for our term paper due yesterday and the library (“Huh? Library?” say the under 20 yr.-olds) is closed. Hail Google!

But when everything transfers to the convenience of online, both personally and collectively, there is some loss, some small quality missing that starts to add up and life is just a little bit less pleasurable than it should or could be.

In two weeks, I will officiate the Memorial Service for my mother-in-law. My wife wisely thought that Billy Collin’s exquisite poem “The Lanyard” could be just right for the occasion. But her brother had doubts. “Who the heck knows what a lanyard is? I  don’t know what a lanyard is!” So we thought it would help to have one at hand to hold up. Simple, yes?

But just where does one get a lanyard? Or the fixings to make one? I bought a kit once a while back, but can’t find it anywhere in my house and so started the search again. Turns out that what some stores (like the one on Haight St. I went to) are calling sunglass straps lanyards. But I want those multi-colored plastic strips that have no practical purpose whatsoever.

And so this morning, I set off for some errands on my bike (no living room exercise video necessary!) and remembered a toy store in the West Portal District. There was a young woman at the counter and me of little faith thought, “No way she’s ever heard of a lanyard.”
And so our conversation began.

“Good morning. I have a challenge for you. Did you ever go to summer camp? Do you know what a lanyard is?”

Her eyes lit up. “Absolutely! I’ve made tons of them!”

“Really? That’s fantastic. Might you have some material or a kit of sorts here?”

“Hmm. I don’t think so. But I got my material at Michaels. Down in San Mateo. Lots of choices. I researched it extensively and it was the only place I found.”

“Michaels it is, then! Thanks so much. Now, one more question. Have you ever read a poem by someone named Billy Collins titled ‘The Lanyard’?”


“Well, you gave me Michaels, so that’s my gift back to you. Check it out!”

“Thanks! I certainly will!”

Now this little exchange is not going to solve the epidemic of random shootings in our country nor soften the hard edge of greed that has us by the throat. But this kind of simple exchange, with exercise, fresh air and the adventure of the unknown thrown in the mix, is just the kind of thing that brings the quality of life up a notch or two, creates a good feeling of community, exchanging conversation along with the goods. You don’t get that at Amazon.

Off to Michaels. 

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Truth and Beauty

Yes, that is the name of a book by Ann Patchett and I just finished reading her essay about how some “concerned parents” at a South Carolina University took her exquisite tribute to a friend who had died and turned it into something hideous, making her “an accessory to rape, murder, sexual harassment and a $50,000 swindle.” (See her essay “The Love Between Two Women” in her book This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.”) Turns out that the book was required reading for the freshman and some parent decided it would destroy the moral fabric of the youth, the University and the nation. I wish I could report that everyone ignored the fellow as a raving lunatic, but somehow such folks (read Hitler) call out the latent lunatics just waiting for the crowd for protection and off we go into Bizarro-world. (Kind of like Donald Trump running for President.) Ms. Patchett weathers that storm with characteristic grace, but not without the undertone of “What the f**k?!!!”

This business of fearful, narrow-minded and yes, sometimes certifiably crazy people turning something beautiful into something ugly is far too common an occurrence for my taste. It has happened to me, it has happened to people I know, people making a lovely gesture and having it interpreted as a transgression. The truth gets spun into a lie, beauty turns ugly. And when that happens, the door is wide open for lies to be disguised as truth and ugliness to be the new standard of “beauty.”

I just watched again the old Frank Capra movie Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and the beauty-to-ugly story is at the center of the film. A guy likes to play the tuba, write poetry and give away a $20 million dollar inheritance to help farmers out of work and is called into court as insane. Every sincere gesture on his part is interpreted and misinterpreted as either laughable, malicious, dangerous or just plain loony. (Of course, I can’t give away the end, but if you’ve seen Mr. Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, you know he has a punch line to deliver and it's mostly about the triumph of human values over money. In the land of the Almighty Dollar, it’s actually quite remarkable that his movies weren’t banned!) We all interpret— and misinterpret— words and actions according to our values and mindset and when someone takes your sincere gesture or heartfelt words and twists them into unrecognizable shapes, it often reveals more about them than us. Perhaps it’s best just to think and/or say; “Either I failed miserably to say it clearly or you failed miserably to hear it clearly or everything in-between. So let’s start over.”

At any rate, such strange things are part of what’s called “character building,” a call to try to articulate yet more clearly one’s intention or dig deep into the source of one’s strength. Duke Ellington responded to the racist pulling of a Pulitzer Prize saying, “I moped long enough to write a blues” and Ann Patchett responded with a stunning essay (also in the above book) titled “The Right to Read.”

And that’s what’s really weird about the whole scenario. Often the “Limiters,” those people in power or those who grab power to stop us or vilify us or misunderstand us, often push us to better work, sharper vision, deeper determination and we end up having to thank them. Not necessarily to their face (they wouldn’t get it), but in our hearts because they provided the heat to temper the sword of our passion.