Monday, February 27, 2017

A Taxing Time

It’s that time of the year when we meet with our tax guy. To prepare, I take out a used manila envelope stuffed with receipts from 2016 and start to sort them out. It’s a nice contrast to all the screen time, handling these thin little crinkly, wrinkled receipts and remembering what concert I went to, what CD or book I bought. It’s a funky system, but it works and makes me feel good that I still buy books and CD’s and support the authors and artists who create them, still go to concerts and such. And in my simple world of a lowly paid music teacher, it’s nickel and dime stuff—$6 for this book, $18 for that CD, $24 for that concert, all part of my ongoing professional development. I’m meticulously adding long strings of numbers to get my tiny tax break and at the end, the whole year’s worth probably adds up to some Wall St. mogul’s lunch which his expense account pays for.

I actually believe in taxes as a means to pay for the plethora of government services I enjoy—from fixing the potholes in the road to keeping the libraries open to supporting (up to a point) the military to contributing to health care to, top of my list, supporting public education. But now I’m thinking of this guy leading the charge who refuses to reveal his taxes, who publicly calls himself smart on a national debate because he didn’t pay much (if any) tax to the government he’s supposedly running and who wants to increase military spending by 52 billion dollars. That’s 52 BILLION. I’m still sweating about buying a new pair of $60 mallets for school every two years and now I’m supposed to contribute to a 52 billion dollar INCREASE over an already over-inflated military budget, some to create more nuclear weapons which will most certainly hasten our demise.

That doesn’t feel good.

I know it’s a long shot, like the class prank where all the kids are supposed to do something at the same time like turn around and pull down their pants and moon the teacher. If everyone does it, no one will get in trouble. But when the critical moment comes, everyone secretly backs down and that one trusting kid is left alone with his pants down. But my friends, what if millions of us simply refused to pay taxes until:

1)    The President reveals his.
2)    Corporations and billionaires are forced to pay their fair share.
3)    Military spending decreases by a small amount (by their standards) and gives the money to education.
4)    Pigs fly.

Anyone with me? 1-2-3- withhold!! Aw, come on!

Moonlighting in La La Land

14 hours straight in the back row of Economy Plus to arrive home to San Francisco in the movie theater in the sky. Read my book, did three Crostic puzzles, slept for five minutes and watched some five movies to pass the time. The surprisingly engaging fun fluff of Keeping Up with the Jones, Masterminds (both featuring a trimmer version of Zack Galifianakis), Ghostbusters, Jack Reacher and then the classic Jimmy Stewart Anatomy of a Murder (where he plays piano with Duke Ellington!). Between those movies and looking at the screens around me, I saw more guns and explosions and fist-fights and murders than I ever have seen (thank goodness) in my entire lifetime of real living. No question that appealing to the lower chakras of sex and violence is what sells movies and who knows what affect it really has on our psyche and general world view of life on this planet as brutal, a battle for survival and the need to be tough and armed and always looking out for number one.

Movies, like novels and music, can be mere entertainment and distraction from the important things in life, a way to numb us to and shut down feeling and keep us from paying attention to what actually needs attention. But it can also elevate and reveal and inspire and help us confront and get through life’s sins and sorrows. Kenny G and Coltrane played the same instrument, Danielle Steele and Shakespeare used (mostly) the same language on paper, Frank Capra and the latest shoot-‘em-up director used the same media of film—it’s up to us which we choose. And not to be too snobby about it— I secretly enjoy some time with the non-complex hero who always shoots the bad guys and the pot-boiler story and some dubious music (but not Kenny G!). They all have their place in the ecology of art — the more advanced evolutionary forms need the bottom feeders somehow. But to stay too long in the reptilean fight or flight part of our brain is good for exactly no one and a disaster for a culture.

So after arriving in San Francisco at 9:00 am, sleeping in my bed until noon and walking through Golden Gate Park in much chiller weather than Singapore, I sat down with my wife to watch the Oscars. Along with Election Returns and the Super Bowl, the third spectacle of the year with millions of viewers. And what an inspiring evening that turned out to be! The constant reminder through the winner’s accents, words and works of the way immigrants and the marginalized have defined the best promise of American culture and the oft-repeated publicly-stated renewal of vows to keep working on behalf of art, truth and social justice in the face of what’s happening in the news. Using their voices and the occasion of a million times more viewers than any person’s Facebook posts to remind ourselves and the world watching what we really value and what is needed to keep that moral arc bending the right direction. And then that bizarre mistake at the end that actually made the real choice even stronger. I wrote in Facebook:

Kudos to the Oscars for rising to the top of art's role to shake up the world with truth, love and beauty. Using this most public forum to show the world that we are more determined than ever to speak and act on behalf of diversity and justice. And what an ending! La La Land was fun and escaping from hard times into musicals was a big strategy in the Depression-ravaged 30's and war-torn 40's. But it feels like now we need less escape and distraction and diversion and mere entertainment and more facing the real struggles and challenges of keeping the light of humanity lit, in ourselves and in our communities and in our civic engagement. Moonlight was one of the most complex films of the year, dealing with poverty, racism, substance abuse, bullying, homophobia—and also love, forgiveness, redemption— with courageous honesty. Given the themes in the movies nominated and the inspiring speeches made, it was the perfect choice (I would have been happy with Fences also) to end the evening. Thank you, Hollywood.

And then added a second post:

So the Patriots win the Super Bowl in the last moments against impossible odds. Moonlight deservedly wins the Oscar when at first it didn't. Maybe there's hope the true Election Results will finally come in?

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Odds and Ends

I ended five glorious days of teaching at the United World College Singapore East Asia School (longest school title ever!) yesterday. The kids started to recognize me, either asking about my rubber chicken as I passed by in the hall or patting Juba or making the motions to our “building a mountain song.” Some even remembered me as the “To Stop the Train” guy from last year. “Make yourself memorable” is my advice for all teachers and with a little help from my friends, (see last blog), looks like I’ve managed to do that.

The kids in general were marvelous. Real children with children’s energy and joy, but also polite, focused and respectful— a bit more than my kids back in San Francisco! I learned two new cool clapping plays from them—Tic Tac Toe and High Low Piggalow and loved playing two piano concerts for them: one with a Jazz theme and one with the story of my childhood piano lessons and what they were missing. The teachers were likewise hard-working dedicated folks and we had a grand time playing Marko Skace on professional marimbas in seven different modes and seven different meters.

So on Saturday, I decided after five full days of work it would be a good time to—give a 6-hour workshop! Thanks to Paul Grosse who organized it, some 45 Singaporeans mostly working in the public schools (and some 40 turned away!) came on their day off to climb another inch up the mountain of inspired teaching and what a grand time we had! A truly spirited group, quite quick with some challenging body percussion, great blues soloists on the Orff instruments and fun dancers in our Conflict Resolution Oxdansen dance. I got to speak firmly and honestly about the disaster in my country relating it to the work we were doing now, in this moment, and I felt a strong quality of sympathetic listening. There were two people who came who asked if I remembered them from a four-hour workshop in 2008 and miraculously, I did!

After the workshop, off I went to dinner with four of the future Board Members of Orff Singapore and wasn’t that fun! Of course, being Singapore, we went to the mall and had out choice of cuisines. Settled for some good Japanese food and had a rollicking good discussion about pedagogy sprinkled with gossip from the Orff network worldwide. (Anyone’s ears burning?) We also talked about future Singapore possibilities and the excitement was tangible, especially the thought of me getting to bring my whole Pentatonics Jazz group! Let’s hope.

And now, just as I conquered jet lag, we will be companions again as I turn back home for a 15-hour flight. Before I turn for a blessed non jet-lagged sleep, some little odds and ends:

• In one class, I gave the same task to a group of 4th grade girls and a group of boys and asked them to comment on what they noticed. One astute girl said, “The girls were more organized. The boys were more reckless.” Brilliant! And, by the way, they both came up with great dances at the end.

• I moved hotels and my new one, the Park Rochester, boasted of a robot who would deliver your room service. Too creepy for me to even consider.

• A Singapore newspaper listed the most heavily trafficked cities in the world. Not surprisingly, L.A. was first and New York was second. But depressingly true, San Francisco was 4th!!! In the world!

• In order to buy a car in Singapore, you have pay some $30,000 (US) just for permission to buy the car. Which will cost (a small one) some $25,000 more. I repeat. $30,000!!!! And it expires every 10 years! Well, that’s one way to keep traffic down. Or one way to keep the rich folks with the privileges.

• Driving around, my hosts told me I was in West Singapore. I asked, “What sets it apart from the other neighborhoods? Oh, I see —it has some high-rise apartments and malls!” Ha ha!. Makes me appreciate the uniqueness and character of San Francisco neighborhoods.

• Talking with the teachers, it seems like the Singapore Educational Bureaucracy is awash with initials and acronyms designed to keep teachers occupied jumping through hoops so that they don’t have time to actually teach with and to their passion. Sigh. The same all over. But nice sense of resistance from the teachers I talked with. That’s not always the same all over.

Thanks, Singapore, for a memorable six days. I have a feeling I’ll be back.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Traveling Companions

I love everything about growing old. Except growing old. But to carry inside my life’s work and so thoroughly enjoy the company of other elders like Old King Glory, Old Man Mosie, Old Doc Jones, Old King Cole, Grandpa Griggs and Grandma Moses is a great joy. Not to mention the young ones like Little Sally Walker, Little Tommy Tinker, Little Johnny Brown and Wee Willie Winkie, my medical man Doctor Foster, my gardener Peter Piper. Ayele, Rashshid, Marko, Anna, Lisa and others in my international entourage also travel with me without ever getting their passports checked or fearing they’ll get turned away at the border.

I bring them all with me to every class with kids or adults and everyone is always so delighted to meet them and spend time together. Many of them have been at my side these four days at the United World College in Singapore and in every class they have appeared, happy children have left happier. And me too.

As always, my classes are based on constant repetition, needed to make the neuron connection, joined to variation, needed to keep the brain alive, alert and active, tucked inside. The same thing one hundred different ways. And so I’m looking for ways to say the same things 100 different ways, the constant truths of my life choices—I love children, I love teaching, I love music, I love the play of it all, I love the work of it all. I love having gathered this community of material and taking it wherever I go, ready at a moment’s notice to bring a spark of joy to whatever venue presents itself. And yes, I was doing this when I was in my 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, but not with the same clarity, assurance and dependable repertoire, those tried-and-true war horses that never tire and never let me down.

Thank you, my friends. And who wants to come to class with me tomorrow?

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Early Morning Talk

Well, hello 2 am. Here we are again in the middle of a jet-lagged Singapore night. We have to stop meeting like this. Really. But it is an interesting time to hang out and there’s plenty to do. Catch up on e-mails, read, brush up on Solitaire skills. And yes, a full day of teaching ahead, but the first two days have been fine, wholly energized by the privilege of sharing my life’s work with eager, fun, attentive and appreciative children who leave class humming the song they’ve just learned to play, sing and dance.

Singapore joins Spain, Salzburg, Sao Paolo, Sydney and Scotland as S-places where I seem to have taught a lot. 2008, 2011, 2015, 2016, 2017, to be exact, at three different International Schools, a University, a Conference, an Orff Chapter workshop. In my spare time, I’ve been on the Singapore Flyer Ferris Wheel, strolled the Botanic Gardens, seen the aquarium, went to a Balinese gamelan rehearsal in Little India, sipped a Singapore Sling at Raffles Bar, enjoyed the mix of Indian, Malay and Chinese cuisine and culture, walked pass the uninviting posh stores in the mage-Malls.

It’s an interesting place, to be sure, but a bit too much on the consumer than the cultural side for my taste (though as is always the case with places with lots of money, plenty of opportunities to hear all kinds of music or see theater and dance). But except for the buzzing energy in one-storied buildinged Little India, I’m not feeling much of the spirit of the street or the village —it gets buried under the pop-music blaring in the Malls and people mostly out shopping for goods. Then there’s the whole government response to marijuana and chewing gum.

But I don’t come here to either judge or wholly partake of the place. It’s the great gift of working with all sorts of kids doing what I do best that brings satisfaction to the blog-titled “traveling music teacher.” And now alongside the always-fun and musically-satisfying activities and chances to help kids feel more musical than they’ve ever been and help their teachers consider the pedagogical details to apply to their own inspired teaching, I’m talking to the kids more than ever about kindness and social justice. Mostly in the context of the African and African-American material, but not exclusively.

If I’m to be remembered for any particular talent, I would be happy that someone noticed my honed-over-years ability to talk to 3-year olds and 8th graders about the same subject in a way that makes sense to them. I put the story of politically-approved, religiously-sanctioned, economically-motivated and pseudo-scientifically-justified human cruelty in the context of the child’s world of being nice to friends and knowing what it’s like to be teased or bullied or ignored and how brave one must be to break the cycle of harm. And I’m noticing a profound hush falling over the room these days as kids ponder what I’m saying. They’re really listening.
And I often end with, “My generation did our best to stop these things, but we didn’t do well enough. I hope you can do better.” And then, of course, a song to complete it all.

I am completely convinced that, in the words of the Albert King song, “had we told it like it was, it wouldn’t be like it is.” The fact that we don’t tell kids the truth about what happened before and why or tell it in a bland and matter-of-fact way (“Slavery in the United States lasted from 1619 to 1863…”) has everything to do with why we haven’t been able to heal the gaping wound of institutional racism and sexism and classism and all the other isms that have grown fat on our silence and reared their ugly heads with renewed vigor and power. Schoolteachers and parents, take note. And I’m not talking about leftist political indoctrination here. That’s boring and unfair to the child. I’m talking about counting on the inherent compassion and sense of justice children feel even as they grab their sister’s toys and finding a way to connect the personal with the historical forces at the child’s level. It’s not easy, but it’s necessary.

So, 2am, I hoped to use this time to steer slightly left of the political catastrophe and just return to the blog’s original “confessions of a traveling music teacher” begun six years ago with my trip to Korea. Give the armchair traveler the feeling of being in another place enjoying the perspective of wandering through and witnessing the passing parade of humanity. But these days the true north of every confession is the re-doubled commitment to keep revealing all the Emperors with no clothes while doing the day-to-day healing work of laughing with and loving children and the adults who teach them. And now it’s 3 am and time to restore myself with needed sleep so I can work and play with full-energy today.

Good night.