Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Giant With No Heart

Far away there is a lake in the middle of a forest. In the middle of the lake there is an island. In the middle of the island there is a church. Inside the church there is a well. Inside the well there is a duck. Inside the duck there is an egg. Inside the egg is the giant’s heart that he locked away for safekeeping.”
So goes part of the old Norse tale “The Giant With No Heart in His Body.” This was the tale I told after a glorious Intery Mintery Halloween celebration at school. 100 kids sitting open-mouthed and entranced in pin-drop silence as I wove the story of the cruel giant who had the power to freeze people into statues with a wave of his hand. Because he had no heart in his body, he was numb to their pain and acted without a trace of remorse. And because he was a giant, he had the power to cause massive harm and hurt. It appeared that his power was absolute and no one could stop him.
But you know how it goes in fairy tales. The impossible is a call for the extraordinary to kick in and one young man sets off to free his frozen brothers. And the extraordinary does not come with more firepower, semi-automatic weapons, Pentagon strategies. In this case, it begins by the simple act of sharing food with a hungry raven, putting a stranded salmon back into the stream, making a sacrifice to help a starving wolf. All of them promise to be future allies, though the boy is dubious as to how they could ever help him.
Through some clever strategies with the Giant’s wife, the boy does find out where his heart his hidden. And lo and behold, the wolf carries him to that church, the raven retrieves the key from the top of the tower, the salmon gets the egg from the well. The boy begins to squeeze the heart and the giant far-away screams for mercy. The boy agrees to stop if the giant releases his brothers and the giant does so.
Now here is the curious part. The wolf advises him; “Don’t put the heart back in the egg. This is non-negotiable. Squeeze it until it bursts in two.” The boy does so and the giant falls down dead. And that’s how they lived happily ever after.
That’s a hard thought. Would a pacifist have killed Hitler given the opportunity? One death, millions of deaths avoided? It’s a slippery slope to say killing is wrong and then to kill to prevent further killing. But how do you negotiate with someone who has no heart in their body?
Not likely that any of us will ever be tested in such a situation. But there are heartless folks out in the world causing great damage and they do need to be stopped. Being nice and understanding toward them is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. The stakes are high. 
The part that strikes me is the giant. The giant has such power because of his size. And in contemporary terms, that size is the power we confer on someone through media exposure. On Youtube the other day, I saw a drunk Sarah Palin ranting incoherently in response to something Elizabeth Warren said. If she was an eccentric aunt, I could practice my compassion on her. But why does media confer such power to a heartless woman with extremely confused neuron connections in her brain? And remember that such giants can freeze the bodies and hearts of all who come within their range. 
So my advice to the media is to shut off the cameras, cut the cord to their public exposure, stop granting them the illusion that they have the right to spew venom and let them rant and rave to whatever unfortunate family members have to put up with them—and that’s all. Of course, media will never do that because the whole show is about making a show and nothings sells better than rant and rage and all that hits us in the brain stem, at our lowest evolutionary function.
And so the show goes on and the giants stomp about the land with their frozen statue victims on display. Nothing to do but feed hungry ravens and put distressed salmons back in the water. And keep aware of which parts of our own hearts are locked away for safekeeping and create a circle of community where it is safe to bring them out.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Evolution: Which Way?

Singing Halloween songs with preschoolers today, I couldn’t help but think about how superior they are to us adults. We did a song in which they had to make different faces— surprise, scared, scary, silly, happy, zombie, etc. and I defy adult short of Marcel Marceau to match them. Their capacity to show emotion on their faces and in their bodies is so delightfully (and sometimes less delightfully) transparent, whereas we adults are such experts at masking what’s going on. I feel so at home with three year olds. Their sense of humor is often better than adults, their delight more delightful, their quirky minds more quirky. For someone like me trying to live at the center of an expressive art form, these little ones have everything but technique and fully realized conceptual forms. So why are we in a hurry to have them grow up? Seems like the journey to adulthood is one loss after another— wonder, curiosity, innocence, compassion. And don’t get me started on the last third of life.
So here’s the question. Are we getting better or worse? In all sorts of ways. I went to a jazz jam session on Monday and listened to tune after tune mostly written in the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. The same repertoire I’m choosing from in my concert tomorrow. And I couldn’t help but think “Dang, these are great tunes! Memorable and singable melodies, exquisite harmonies, swingin’ rhythms and the invitation for a good jazz player to take each of them out further.” And pretty good lyrics as well— clever rhyme, metaphor, nuance, a sense of poetic craft. I defy anyone to find a song on pop radio today that can go toe-to-toe with Gershwin, Porter, Jerome Kern or Harold Arlen.
In the 50’s and 60’s, there were also great jazz tunes written without lyrics by such greats as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Horace Silver, later Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Freddie Hubbard and beyond. You’d be hard pressed to find more than a handful of tunes in any contemporary fakebook that has been written in the last thirty years. 
I’m not trying to be a nostalgic old curmudgeon here, but is it my imagination that the level of intelligent discourse in say, the Republican debates, is giant steps lower than Nixon’s time? That the Facebook grammar test I just took called me a genius for getting a perfect score on a quiz that seemed to be just baseline understanding of the English language is cause for concern? Are we truly evolving as a culture or backsliding toward Neanderthal times?
Ever an optimist, I do believe that the long arc of the Universe bends towards evolution. Despite much evidence to the contrary in the daily news, the advances in women’s rights, gay marriage, legal marijuana and such (and yes, racial issues, but hard to feel good about that at the moment with what’s happened in the last year) is real and signs of an evolution unimaginable a mere 100 years ago.
Okay, I see I unleashed too big a question here. What’s the punchline? Best I can do is quote Gary Snyder, “There is no progress in art or religion.” But there is social progress, even if it be a few steps forward and one step back. And kids do have to grow up into adults, but they don’t have to grow up into boring, repressed adults— they can keep their kid nature alive each step of the way. 
And that’s why I’ll be trick-or-treating this weekend. Yay! Candy!!!

Unseen Hands

The great educator Maria Montessori thought that young children were graced by an inner guide that knew precisely what they needed to grow and develop. And so she created carefully designed materials to put on shelves that would call out an inner potential—puzzles, building blocks, sandpaper letters, musical bells and such to stimulate the different parts of our psyche. She insisted that children have the freedom to choose what to take from the shelves and trusted their instincts that they would take precisely what they needed. Over and over again until something signaled that they were done with that for the moment and could take out something else.
I think we all have such inner guides, some magnetic compass always searching for our true north. We stand in front of the refrigerator shelves, our closet of clothes, our CD collection, our shelves of books, searching for the thing we need at the moment, the thing that calls louder than its neighbor. There are voices inside of us that guide our hands to this thing and not that and if you stop to think about it, isn’t that a grand mystery? From the micro level of choosing a shirt to the macro of choosing a mate or a career path, it’s the same principle at work. Some invisible conductor waves his/her baton and insists that now is the moment for the violin to enter and the trombone to take a rest and so choice by choice, our grand symphony plays itself out.
But the problem is—and there is always a problem with us frail mortals— that we need to be listening. That conductor may be flailing away, but if we’re checking our text messages, we’ll miss the cue. It takes a certain quality of silence to pay attention and there is a lot of static out in the airwaves. We open the refrigerator and our body knows “carrot,” but our mind is confused by the glitzy Pepsi ads promising to solve our dismal sex life. So much of modern life is a conspiracy to shut those needed voices down, to overpower them with what corporations and governments want you to think you need for their own power and profit.
And yet in the face of it all, the unseen hands and quiet voices and orchestral conductors keep working away and if we’re listening carefully enough, we start to build a life, choice by choice, surround ourselves with the food, the music, the stories, the art, the friends that we are meant to have and keep an eye out and an ear cocked for what’s next.
With my concert tomorrow night, I’m still thinking about what is to be my opening piece and stumbled upon a new one I’ve never played that caught my attention. It appears random, but I do believe that these unseen hands have brought me to this song and I’ve had the good sense to listen to them. Now I just have to learn it.
And so goodbye to words this morning and off to the language of crafted tones. Bye!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Swiss Cheese Musician

Yesterday morning I played piano for three hours alone in preparation for my upcoming concert. In the afternoon, I rehearsed with the singer and trumpet player. In the evening, I went to a jam session at a local bar. Looks like I’m taking a few steps closer to owning the word “musician,” a word I avoided for most of my adult life even as I kept working on music. Why?
When I first read Howard Gardner’s description of musical intelligence, it seemed that many of the descriptions didn’t apply wholly to the way I experience the world. My childhood training was spotty—traditional piano (and organ lessons), but very little singing and no dancing and no improvising. Kept one toe in the water in high school playing my old Bach pieces on the pipe organ and taking one music theory class and one foot in college with my first forays into jazz improvisation, dancing on Saturday night and singing in a choir. Post-college life landed me a job as a music teacher and I learned enough guitar to accompany folk songs with kids, kept working on jazz piano, explored various world music styles and instruments, from gamelan to Bulgarian bagpipe. I stood in the waters of music up to my knees, with my arms folded, like I do in Lake Michigan when the water is cold and I’m not quite ready to commit myself to the full plunge. Always this comfortable distance I created, calling myself a teacher rather than a musician to excuse myself from my musical shortcomings.
The jam session last night was friendly and low-key, but I felt like I belonged. Every day, I feel the holes in my musical training and experience and at my advanced age, not lots of hope that they’ll ever be completely filled. But hey, I may be—to switch metaphors—a swiss cheese musician, but swiss cheese still can taste good and carry some nutritive value!
Sandwich, anyone? 

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Tree in the Forest

You know the old college discussion—“If the tree falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Ah, the luxury of college days, asking questions like that, questions that soon would change to “Can I find a job? Can I find a mate? Who will pay for the wedding?” Then “Cloth or disposable diapers? Can we find a babysitter? Is there a return policy on kids?” Next phase—“Can we afford college? Should we move to Finland?” Still later, “Can I still sit on the floor while I teach the kids? Can I get up again?” And so on.
This Friday will be my practical version of the tree conundrum—“If I give a concert and no one comes to hear it, does the music exist?” I’ve been playing a lot of piano at home and in my own snail’s pace and weird way, felt like I was making “progress,” whatever that is. New conceptions, cleaner technique, deeper feeling my way into each note, more facility with the language of jazz. And so I had the bright idea that I should give a concert to complete the process. Looked up the etymology of “per-form” and came up with things like “to carry through, to see to completion, to fulfill.”

There is some music in the world that is played with no one else around to hear it or lots of music that is never recorded to carry on beyond the moment and yes, it does exist and makes an impact on the player, if nothing else. But the sense of fulfillment is in the sharing and hey, that’s pretty much true of every art form and cooking and sex and just about everything we do that’s worthy of sharing. Much is crafted in solitude, but needs to come out of the woodshed before it feels wholly complete.
And so I rented a hall, made a flyer, splashed it over Facebook, sent it to my group workshop e-mail, sent invites to friends who owe me favors, made a set list, practiced some more, rehearsed with my two partners-in-crime, but all with this familiar gnawing doubt—will anyone come? I mostly hear from all the people who “would love to, but they’re busy that night” and frankly, wish they wouldn’t tell me. Well, it would be okay if there were an equal number who said, “Great! See you then!” but that ain’t the case.
One of the things I love about teaching is that I have a guaranteed audience. The kids keep showing up class after class and in predictable numbers. I don’t have to entice them or thank them or wait for their r.s.v.p.— 8:15 rolls around and there’s 16 8th graders sitting on the risers ready for whatever I have to share. What a deal!!
Of course, I understand that building an audience is the dues an artist must pay. I’ve had friends quit teaching and devote themselves to making their living as a musician and gone to some of their shows at cafes with four people in the audience. And they’ve played as if it was Carnegie Hall. But I’m not so large-hearted and just start thinking of all the people who I’ve been faithful to—going to their art show or choir concert or poetry reading or what have you and then wondering why they’re not at mine, dang it! Or have terrible self-doubts about not being worthy. Ya-da-ya-da.
Well, we’ll see how it works out. I just want enough people there so that those who have come don’t feel embarrassed. The piano’s lovely, the hall as well and it should be a special moment to play with a 16-year old up-and-coming jazz singer who was my student at the SF School from 5 to 12 years old. That’s enough. But still would be nice if some people showed up.
And this much I can guarantee: 
The music will be lovelier than a bunch of trees falling in the forest.