Sunday, January 31, 2016

June in January

Do you know this tune from the Great American Songbook? Sweet little song about how January can feel like June if you’re in love. Since I’m not in the particular stage of Romance at the moment, I’m doing the next best thing—flying to Australia where it’s summer! Going from turning on the heat in my house to turning on the air-conditioner in my hotel room. I’m ready, willing and able. The Florida retirement has no allure for me and San Francisco winter is pretty mild, but still I get why the elders seek warmer climates. (I wonder if Garrison Keillor will head south when he retires?)

The last few days have been typically intense, playing through five jazz pieces with each of my 8th grade groups, a varied and beautiful sing at the Jewish Home, an all-day workshop with my always-inspiring colleague Sofia and the remarkable Venezuelan musician Jackie Rago now flowering as another inspired Orff teacher, stumbling into a stunning fireworks display seen from the Bay Bridge. (I thought it was to acknowledge this fine workshop on Latin music, but others seem to think it had do with something called the Super Bowl.) Then a memorial service for a dear neighbor who made a notable impact on so many lives through her dedication to legislation around child-care. Some 300 people at her service and one of the dubious perks of dying relatively young (70). When you’re 97, like my dear Bernice from the Jewish Home who just passed away, ain’t many left to mourn.

And so back to the blog’s main theme, the joys and delights of the traveling music teacher alongside 12 hour flights on small seats. In the United Lounge now as my Gold Card expires and enjoying it while I can, since my loyal corporation has demoted me on technicalities and obscure new standards to the lowly Silver Status. Two hours of my life wasted trying to wring some compassion out of the customer reps and understanding for my misunderstandings of their convoluted criteria. Should I have been surprised that they didn’t care? The Corporate Heart is a cold one, and though they love to create the status of a person to avoid taxes, they don’t qualify in my book. Take that, United!! Watch your business drop from my powerful blog! Ha ha!.

Wish me an empty neighbor seat, good movies, the capacity to sleep and a healthy back as I dive down to the land down under.

Seven Steps to Heaven

The jazz literate amongst you might be expecting me to write about Miles Davis' great album of the above title. But the reference is to an American’s interpretation of a Balinese teacher’s lesson—for me, one of the more intriguing conversations in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love (not to be confused with my own Play, Sing & Dance). Her teacher was describing a meditation that takes him up seven levels to heaven, where beauty and love abound. He then described another meditation that went seven levels down to hell. And when asked: “What’s it like in hell?” he replied, “Same like heaven. The universe is a circle. Up, down, all same at end.” (p. 262)

Well, that’s an interesting thought. But the truth of it held me mesmerized driving the other night listening to a radio program featuring five inmates from San Quentin speaking about their experience in that prison’s extraordinary rehab programs. They came in angry, violent, uncared for, unloved, self-loathing, describing their seven step journey to the bottom of the pit and then took these classes on writing poetry, theater, art, yoga and more—and came out the other side. Rarely have I heard such depth of expression coupled with awareness of the harm they had caused. Their determination to heal themselves and help others—fully aware (some were murderers) that they could never rest wholly satisfied in who they were knowing who they had been and what they had done, was breathtaking.

Now me, I’m dedicated to “Let’s get it right the first time” practice, avoiding the need for
 re-covery by never covering children’s shining light potential in the first place. And I suppose there’s a place for this in the world. Perhaps my tiny efforts to constantly speak on behalf of children’s flowering promise, watering them through the power of music, might contribute a few drops in the ocean of healing that’s needed.

But I'm intrigued by the idea of working with the population that never got the nurturing they deserved. It would bring my Tom Robbins quote "It's never too late to have a happy childhood" to a new level of potential truth. And the timing of this radio program seemed auspicious.After not seeing him for some 20 years, I just re-connected with an old San Francisco acquaintance who had gone from selling beer to creating a worldwide program of prison yoga (James Fox, look him up!) and was moved by his stories. I then wished happy birthday to a fellow music teaching colleague who is quite well known in the choral world. Now she’s retired and as she says, “spending a lot of time in jail.” A dramatic pause and then, “Teaching music there, of course!”

My work with kids has expanded out occasionally to babies, seniors, kids on cancer wards, jazz musicians—maybe it’s time for the Orff in Prisons Programs? I don’t want to be flip or na├»ve about this. Playing a good pentatonic glockenspiel solo the second class is not going to melt the heart of a hardened murderer. It would take some inner strength and resources on my part that I’m not sure are wholly there. But first step is this little announcement to myself and World. We’ll see what happens.

And of course, if it works, I’m going to teach them Miles’ great tune Seven Steps to Heaven.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

First Plum Blossom

While folks in Washington DC are shoveling snow off their cars, I stepped out onto my deck in San Francisco and saw my first plum blossom. Such a tiny, fragile wisp of pink flower, but so much power in its whisper: “The earth shall bloom again.” It will soon be followed by others awakening from their short winter’s nap until the branches are filled with a riot of color that lifts the heart and inspires poetry. Compared to Washington or New York or Boston, San Francisco’s winter passes in a wink of an eye, marked by a few deciduous trees amongst the ever-green eucalyptus, Monterey pines and cypresses, heavy (we hope) rainfall, wearing sweaters to work and considering the ski trip to the mountains. Already in January, the magnolia trees say, “Enough. Here’s a few blossoms to announce Spring,” followed by the plums in February and the cherries in March. Then come the Spring winds and the wildflowers in the Marin hills, each with their own pleasure and delight.

Such comfort in the reliable return of these natural cycles. Never in my lifetime has the plum refused to blossom or the wisteria remained bare. Precisely when it all happens and how much rain and what the daily temperature is enough variety to keep us interested and wondering, but the big cycles never fail to come through.

In his excellent book Family Matters, Robert Evans puts his finger on the zeitgeist of our times with a formula:

High predictability = Low anxiety.

            Low predictability = High anxiety.

He talks about it in terms of schools and parent’s anxiety about their children. Will they get into a good college/high/school/elementary school/ preschool with increasing competition? Will there be jobs for them? Will there be jobs for us adults? What about climate change? When parents send outraged e-mails to teachers, it can be a sign of that anxiety at work. By contrast, if a kid grows up in a fishing village where most everyone turns out to fish for a living when they grow up, they’re pretty relaxed about the kids’ grades in math.

When things are changing around us at a tempo never before experienced in a few hundred thousand years of human evolution, with no sense that we can count on anything we hold dear to continue—be it the Constitution, Social Security, our jobs or the glaciers—it creates ongoing stress and anxiety, conditions crippling to human health and happiness. We’re in a constant state of flight or freeze or flight, hunkered down in our brain stem and unable to access the glories of the neo-cortex or the open heart. We cling to false certainties, grope for the illusion of fundamentalist truths, allow ourselves to stop thinking and throw ourselves at the mercy of power-hungry pundits who don’t care to be bothered by facts and aim straight for our fear. It’s not a happy situation.

But the tiny plum blossom on my tree sings to me to cast such fears aside. Align myself with nature’s way of rest and rejuvenation, slow down and step away from the manic screams of distracting screens (except to write this blog).

Friends, Spring is on its way. Even if covered with three feet of snow.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Yes, But…

I was thinking the other day about my readers. This blog is in its 6th year and there has been a slow and steady increase in Followers, up to 167 a few days ago. That astounds me. Like all writers, I’m vulnerable to the constant self-doubt of wondering if anyone likes what I’m writing—or at least is intrigued enough to keep reading. The answer seemed to be yes.

And then for the first time in all these years, a few days ago, I noticed the follower’s number drop. From 167 to 165. And then this morning drop again to 156. It felt like watching the beginning of the Wall St. crash. What’s going on?

And then it occurred to me that my last blog about the dangers of the Internet was so convincing that 11 people decided to stop reading blogs online and are sitting at home cozied in with War and Peace. That’s a good thing! But hey, don’t listen to me! You still could read a blog here and there.

Enlighten me, oh ex-followers! 

Monday, January 25, 2016


One of the cardinal sins of ineffective teaching? Too much information. Too much too fast with too little time to absorb, process, connect. 41 years of teaching under my belt and I’m still committing it!

Some of it comes from sheer excitement of sharing what you know and love, but still, you need to notice when the kids’ eyes glaze over. Arnold Schoenberg once said that the most important tool for a composer is an eraser and that holds true for planning classes as well. Narrow down, focus so that the students can later expand and connect.

So amidst a thousand worries I’ve had about the influx of i-Pads into schools, the way in which the device is constructed to be a technology of constant distractions is on my mind. The technologies we use are not a neutral tool, they come to define what we consider good teaching, good learning, good knowledge. They not only affect our intelligence and our absorption of knowledge, they also affect the way we think about intelligence, the way we think about transmitting knowledge. As a teacher trainer, I’m trying to help people avoid the pitfalls of TMI and there’s a whole arsenal of machines working against me.

I just finished an excellent book by Nicholas Carr called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains and it’s not good news. Nothing surprising for someone like me who has been thinking and talking about this stuff for some thirty years at least. But very well put together and always using the “we” voice—no evil bad guys trying to control our brains for nefarious ends, just us vulnerable humans following our fascination with machines and mathematical thinking and jumping into the electronic pool with both feet without testing, or even wondering about, the quality of the water. Or which part of is will swim and which will sink.

Out of many points, let’s take a moment with the TMI one. The Internet (mostly synonymous with “the computer” these days) is a technology of distraction. While we could technically sit for an hour or more comparing scholarly interpretations of James Joyce’s Ulysses, we won’t. Not only because all the links and hypertext will steer us from the main road and keep us leaving the trail for side paths (whether they’re relevant or not), not only because ads may pop up or a ding inform us of an e-mail or we suddenly remembered we forgot to post on Facebook that we’re studying James Joyce’s Ulysses or breaking news that Trump made a statement that was actually based on a tangible fact (“I am not in the least bit qualified to do this job!”). All this is hard enough, the constant allure of the Sirens and then some actual photos of them in their sexy skimpy outfits, but there’s more. It’s that our very notion of reading and research and thinking has been redefined by the technologies we use and left us in the shallow end of the pool.

Ever been in a classroom during silent reading time? Have you felt the energy in the room, the brain waves of children and adults wholly absorbed with their imaginations turned wholly on, the sense that each was on a private journey that was forming their sense of self, their sense of longing, their sense of belonging? Have you felt the shift when the bell rings and they shake themselves from one form of awakeness to another?

Now compare it to the same people in the same room surfing through their i-Pads or mobile phones, going from one sound-byte to the next, one sensation to the next, one quick hit of information or entertainment that leads nowhere else and comes from nowhere else (that they’re aware of). There’s TMI—too much information, too much interruption, too much idiocy. Can you feel the difference between deep silent reading and shallow Internet surfing?

After an initial and failed flirtation with being a Luddite, I finally came to a convincing stance that exactly no one (except people like Nicholas Carr) is interested in hearing:

“The right tool for the right job at the right time for the right amount of time at the right cost with the right people at the right level of awareness of what it adds to us and what it subtracts. “

We all know that the Internet can be a window into new worlds, something that opens us wider and connects us (even if only through Facebook) further, but we’re less willing to look at what it’s taking away—things like deep reading, deep thinking, prolonged focus, attention to the world while we’re walking, connection to the people next to us (who aren’t looking at their phone) and more. We now have technology detox camps (expensive! and we just used to call them “camp”) and aps that turn off our devices (ironic!).

But a good read through a thought-provoking book is a good idea also. Check it out. And don’t wait for the Youtube graphic summary.