Thursday, February 15, 2018

Somewhere There's Heaven


The first and foremost gift my mentor Avon Gillespie gave me was the sense of the class/ workshop/ course/ full-blown training as a grand piece of music with a sense of an enticing beginning, connected middle and satisfying ending. I don’t just offer random activities anymore than I play two measures of Bach followed by Stephen Foster and then a jazz blues. Each activity leads somewhere and there often is likewise a connection between the activities themselves, some larger line of the whole developing curriculum  like the kind I’ve developed with the 11-year span I teach at school.

For enticing beginnings, I have five to ten different shticks that capture attention, set the tone for things to come, get the group rolling and rollicking, with energy, humor and good music made without a word being spoken.

Once that ball is set in motion, I know how to move it down the field for the touchdown. There is a forward motion as the activity develops in multiple directions at once, always aiming for some kind of satisfying musical cadence.

And then the clear announcement of the final notes, either a rolling surge to the last chord with a dynamic silence to follow or the slow fade out and whispered last note. A collective exhale and we feel that music has fulfilled its promise to lift us from the mundane world of clock time to a sacred ground where everything is in its proper place and makes sense.

This happens on the micro-level within each activity, which ranges anywhere from 15 to 90 minutes. But the same process is at work over the course of the 1, 4, 5 or 10 days of any given course. And in these last two four-day courses, I’ve hit on a surefire ending process that satisfies so many needs at once.

In short, in the final three hour-session, I review with a small group the entire sequence of the 3 ½ days with people filming as a means of remembering things best remembered visually—like dance, body percussion, instrumental techniques and such. And swearing on all that is holy not to spread the video farther than their own personal use. It fulfills John Medina’s Brain Rule: Repeat to remember. By passing through it all again, they re-visit it from a new perspective. What was so novel now feels more familiar. And it also is impressive to see the arc of the 3 plus days in condensed form, giving a reminder that our teaching is just not a collection of random activities, a picking things off the shelves at the mall, but a purposeful, directed sequence of events that build on each other and develop.

After the review, I then show videos of the children I teach and have taught. I start with my granddaughter painting and scat-singing when she was two to show the inherent unity of the arts, then a short clip of my 5-year olds playing a game, on to 4th graders playing their first jazz piece and then another set of 4th graders integrating some of the pieces we have just played in a play about the seasons. After having talked about the children for the past days, here’s the real deal, funny moments and all.

I then show the magnificent concert from the Orff Symposium in Salzburg in 2011, seventeen 6th, 7th and 8th grade kids giving a flawless one-hour concert featuring world music, classical music and jazz. I point out their collective flexibility as they switch instruments on each piece, their effortless flow between singing, dancing, playing, the way their bodies move and sway to the distinct rhythms of each style, their attention to each other, reading each other’s cues, their natural, relaxed quality as they let the music sing through them with no worry that some 600 international music educators are in the audience. And, incidentally, their flawless playing— precise, nuanced and always with a perfect ending— in an impressive variety of contrasting styles, moving seamlessly between Bulgaria, Brazil, Bali, Vivaldi, Miles Davis, Latin jazz and more.

And then I end with my 2008 Jazz Class performing at the Jewish Home and my Mom conducting the drum solo. The spectrum of music-making from the 2-year old to the 92 year-old, the unmistakable ease, joy and impressive musicality of young musicians playing as if it was their home language, the personal touch of my granddaughter and mother, is a perfect affirmation of how this work really can—and does—work, no need to speculate or wonder.

And finally, we stand up inspired by the children and walk ourselves in a spiral and feel the vibrations on each other’s back with our hand as we hum and then go into a simple and lovely Estonian song, ending with our heads on each other’s back, ears pressed to shoulder blade to feel the vibration viscerally and feel the warmth of connection. At the end, we straighten up as if emerging from a trance and whether I’m in Canada, China, Colombia or Finland, there are invariably tears flowing. A few closing words from me and sometimes something else to break the spell and move us back into clock time. One of the body percussion patterns or my Boom Chick a Boom ending: “Uh-uh! Oh yeah! All right! That’s all!”

And so it went this afternoon and it could not have been more perfect. But here in China, there was a coda: Certificates passed out and one by one, coming next to me for a photo. A nice way to make a short personal connection with each of the 85 people.

And then a second coda signing hand drums. And finally, just as I was getting ready to rush to the airport, one of the two men in the course came to say goodbye. He had identified himself as a jazz singer and I told him next time we should jam. Then asked his favorite song and he answered “How High the Moon” and I sat down and played and he sang (quite well, including scat!) and darn if that didn’t keep adding to the richness of the goodbyes. Especially when he sang the lyrics:

Somewhere there’s music, it’s where you are.
Somewhere there’s heaven, how near or far…

Yes, indeed. Music is exactly where I am and where we are and where we all had been for 4 magnificent days. And yep, heaven was as near as each and every session, as far as halfway around the world from San Francisco in Shanghai.

And then off to the airport and on to my next piece of heaven in Guangzhou.

(Feb. 9) 

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