Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Buns of Steel

Amidst the thousand interactions a teacher has with students, always a few choice stories rise to the surface. I can’t say I have one for each of the few thousand kids I’ve taught these past four decades, but I have a lot.
To kick off the occasion of the school’s 50th year, our annual parent meeting featured a panel discussion with three alums. One I hadn’t seen in quite a while and immediately asked her, “Do you remember Buns of Steel?” Without missing a beat, she replied, “Not only do I remember it, I just re-read my entry about it in my school journal. Here it is!” She opened the page of the journal in her hand and indeed, there it was.
She might have been in third grade at the time and our Holiday Show play was titled “King Hop.” It’s a simple story from a German children’s book that tells of a King who did his kingly duties with dignity. But every night, when no one was looking, he jumped up and down on his bed like a gleeful child.
One day, some nosy ministers peeked through the keyhole and caught him. They held a meeting and unanimously agreed to ban all further jumping on the bed. The King reluctantly signed the new law and from that day on, grew sicker and sicker. They brought in all sorts of doctor to try to cure him. One put him on a strict diet of tofu and alfalfa sprouts, but he only got worse. One tried to make him laugh, to no avail. And one, our petite 3rd grader now alum, announced, “He just needs exercise! And I have just the thing!” With that, she whipped out a Buns of Steel exercise video and proceeded to dance energetically. It brought down the house.
I always wonder if the kids (turned adults) remember the same little stories that I do. And I’m discovering that 9 times out of 10, they do. Those silly little things that somehow loom large in our memory. This story could have ended with her career choice to head the Jane Fonda Workout Corporation, but instead she works for Google and is doing humanitarian projects with Google employees in Ghana and India. No matter. She remembered that funny little moment and so did I and it was enough to share our delight together.

Then and Now

While my wife is on a mission to clean house, go back through all the years of accumulated stuff and purge, I remain grateful for the things I have kept. (Well, not all. It is time to get rid of some of the cassette tapes and Orff T-shirts and Orff Conference notes from 1982 and so on). But the handwritten journals I’ve kept faithfully since 1973 are a treasure, a record of this small mortal being who keeps struggling with the same issues and loving the same joys and there it is in black and white to prove it.
Well, some of it. I was curious whether my first official Orff Chapter workshop was in L.A. in the Fall of 1985 or Chicago, so I dipped back to my journal to discover that I had only a single entry all Fall! Something about riding on Amtrak (which makes me think it was L.A. after all). And then on the occasion of my daughter Kerala’s 35th birthday, thought I’d see what I wrote about her. There is one entry on September 18th, 12 days before she was born. And then the next one is on…December 31st!! So much for record-keeping.
We did keep a journal for her and all my writing about her is to her, so all was not lost. But on the occasion of her birthday, here’s what I wrote anticipating her arrival.( Note that we didn’t know the gender ahead of time!) :
Sept. 18, 1980
A sea of fuschias dipping gracefully in the slight breeze, the low roar of traffic and the high pitch of birds. Golden Gate Park on a Thursday afternoon, savoring a moment of solitude. Time alone and time with people, all part of the same fabric, a fabric which is on the verge of adding a new color and shape, the child who will emerge any moment now. This child who has grown from a thought to a walnut-sized fetus to a moving, kicking being to a firm, smooth roundness in the belly with feet, elbows, bottom ,knees surfacing at different times. Karen and I are as prepared as possible for his/her transition to this world. While we wait, we’re searching out movies and nightlife, imagining some last fling as a childless couple. Soon, our Sunday scouring of the pink pages to check out the week’s events will be replaced by long walks and sits in the park with the baby.
Indeed, this is the delight I anticipate more than anything. Long years of sharing my child’s first encounters with the many facets of this world— from the first breath of air to the first taste of milk to the first laugh to the first time laying in grass to the first sight of snow all the way through to the first Charlie Chaplin or Hitchcock film, the first hearing of John Coltrane, the first time reading The Lord of the Rings and so on.
And, of course, my joy in sharing those moments will be balanced by the many first encounters with suffering, from hunger pains to teething pains to the first burn or scraped knee, to the first broken toy to the first fight with a friend all the way through first jilt from a lover, the first agony of separateness, the first encounter with death. The whole catastrophe!
Meanwhile, more child musings will probably go into his/her journal, but for now, my joyful anticipation is herein recorded and my brief moment in the park closed.
That was then. Now Kerala is a mother ushering her own baby boy and three-year old girl and 16 year old stepson through all their encounters with the magic, mystery, pain and joy of life. 35 years old! How did that happen?
I’m grateful for it all. Happy birthday to my darling daughter.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Ultimate Oxymoron

I'm sorry, I just can't resist sharing the sign I passed driving through Washington DC yesterday:


Better than Recess!

Yep, a third grader said that after he was leaving my class. I taught a guest class at a school in Maryland and the kids were lined up at the door. “It’s recess now,” said his friend and he retorted, “This was better than recess!” No higher compliment could be paid to an elementary school music teacher.
Why would he say that? Recess is free time! Time to play with your friends or alone, time to explore, no right and wrong answers to worry about, no one telling you what to do. What could be better than that?
Without that boy here to interview, I can only guess. But my guess is this. He discovered he could play fabulous music that he had no idea was possible for him to play. In 30 short minutes, he was led by a step-by-step process of revelation how simple parts could combine together to create a swingin’ jazz piece playable by an 8-year old— and one that sounded good! He discovered something he didn’t even know he was looking for in a convivial atmosphere where everyone was happy and all were involved, contributing, discovering their own little epiphanies. And led by a teacher who enjoyed them, was interested in them, had used his time these past decades dedicated to discovering how to do this better. He never actually knew the teacher’s name (mine) nor would be likely to see him again, but none of that mattered. For 30 minutes in a school day, he was led to a new land within himself.
I awoke at 5:15 this morning in Annapolis (2:15 am California time), was driven an hour to the school, taught three third grade classes, one second grade, one high school jazz band, short lunch, then first grade, then kindergarten, an hour to the airport, sit on the runway an hour, fly 5 hours with a crying baby next to me, another hour to BART and bus home and now awake at 5:30 am San Francisco time with a full day of school ahead. Was it all worth it to hear those five words?
Yes it was. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Pope and Mr. Trump

Two people attracting mass crowds. One goes to hospitals, prisons, old age homes and more and preaches the gospel of peace and love and courage to face pressing issues and spiritual promise, speaking with humor and a smile. The other shouts and harangues with an angry face and preaches division and ridicule and exclusion and winners over losers and blaming the poor and the marginalized and promoting ignorance.
The millions in one audience go away humbled and inspired and teary-eyed and hopeful. Those in the other more angry and vindictive and outraged about the wrong things for the wrong reasons.
That people are hungry for leadership is clear by the sheer numbers. When a leader takes the responsibility of leading people to their own best selves, offering comfort, solace, hope, truth and the courage to face life’s difficult questions, the world is refreshed. When the power of public voice is used for mere personal power and feeds people’s distrust and prejudice and discomfort with thinking, the world is endangered.
Leaders, use your power wisely.
Followers, choose your leaders wisely. 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Life in the Metacrusis

As I will someday articulate more clearly in my book awaiting the time to write it, just about all of life can be understood, articulated and lived in musical terms. For example, the idea of meter in music, the grouping of beats that create the different feelings of a waltz or a march or wild Bulgarian dance piece, is commonly known as an essential in music study and commonly felt in the body of the listener. But simply grouping beats in mathematical arrangements falls far short of musicality. Within each grouping, there is a hierarchy of weight that gives a different character to each beat in the group, a weight best understood and felt by dancing and feeling the differences in the body.
For example, in a waltz, the first beat in the group, the downbeat, has a greater weight then the other two. The large gravitational fall as you step that first beat or conduct with a downward gesture announces itself in no uncertain terms. Called the crusis, it releases energy, which is then carried forward by the next beat, the metacrusis. The metacrusis then reaches a crisis of how far it can go and is suspended up in the air with the upbeat preparing for the next crusis—the anacrusis. Like a ball suspended at the height of the bounce, the anacrusis falls into the waiting arms of the next crusis.
And so here it is, the end of September. The big crusis of starting school in late August, putting my shoulder to the heavy wheel of 9 months of teaching ahead, has now reached the metacrusis, the follow-through on those initial efforts and all systems now rolling along. I’m in the groove of the schedule and delightfully so. Four weeks after our summer’s end reunion, the kids and I are so happy each class and looking forward to the next.
The 5-year olds have mastered five contra dances and connected by similarities between them and delighted by the differences, they really get where they are in time and space, how the forms work and can release themselves fully to the pleasure of swingin’ their partner.
The 4th grade has accomplished two multi-media pieces, a jazz poem with a blues groove and a Lithiuanian song about a rooster. They’ve spoken and sung, played parts on recorder and xylophone, created dances with their partner and with both pieces, had one group play for the other group dancing and then switch. Such musicality, such kinesthetic joy, such festive community!
Each of the 8th grade groups has performed a jazz blues, understanding how the bass, drums, chords, melodies, improvising scales and form works and now have begun their journey into jazz standards with Stompin’ at the Savoy and Louise. In listening class, they’ve begun the grand adventure of connecting the dots between Robert Johnson and the Rolling Stones, between Scott Joplin and everything pop radio throws at them today.
Meanwhile, in singing time, it’s the great Train Song Extravaganza after the Welcome songs, California songs and Cowboy song themes. Such gusto in the singing, such a sense of togetherness when 100 kids sing together every day, such an opening door into history and geography and language arts and structured patterns of songs, not to mention a repertoire that will appear as needed around some future campfire, sickbed, party or alum reunion.
So the Metacrusis Train is a ‘rollin’ and it’s a fine feeling. So happy to have climbed aboard.