And so the five-week journey in Asia draws to a close. Taught my last of some 40 classes from this past week, stomach heading slowly north to normal, uplifted as always by the small ones and concerned about the large ones. Taught mostly middle school and high school the past day and a half and had their full attention, got them up and moving and doing things out of the comfort zone, spoke serious words about music’s power and social justice and such with respectful listening and all of that was good. But in the game of ping-pong that I love to play, it took all my effort to get a pong back. No matter how good the school, it just seems to always gradually wear away exuberance and enthusiasm and curiosity and questioning and replace it with the right-answer right-note right-brushstroke straightjacket. After teaching three pieces in a row to a group of high school band folks without charts or music stands and each hitting a groove and sounding good and them having to find the notes and feel the scale and shape the phrases of their improvisation and listen to my ping riff and answer with their pong riff and people form the hall magnetically attracted because they heard something dynamic and vital and musical happening beyond just rehearsing the score, I asked the kids to comment on the experience. Dead silence. Finally, one tentative answer: “I had to think a lot more.”
“Thank you!” I almost shouted. And isn’t that a good thing. When you’re reading someone else’s notes, it a limited form of thinking and not bad in and of itself, but if it’s the only show in town, something is missing.
My next class was 2nd graders who I had taught the day before and they came bounding into the room, saw me and burst into dancing Bow Belinda. Spontaneously, joyfully, competently. Reviewing the dance was in my plan, but they beat me to it and I just went to the piano to accompany them and when the rest of the class straggled in, they just jumped in and joined the dance. That’s what I’m talking about, people! So happy, so exuberant, so much of what music and dance should be before we get so damn serious and analytical about it. I loved jamming with the high school kids who had chops and could feel the groove, but I wished for more of that Bow Belinda energy in the playing.
I wish the 2nd graders could have been the final cadence, but there was one more class of first graders who were convinced that doing the game wrong on purpose and silly was the best idea ever and I had to redirect them to get a bit more serious. So that’s my job, the traffic cop of the flow of human emotion, lighting fires under those nodding off to sleep and calming down those overcome by their own exuberance.
Tonight a final dinner out with the team here and a show at Lincoln Center Jazz Club in Shanghai. Part of me feels like it should be Chinese Opera, but the Chinese themselves mostly don’t think so and if the new modern has to sprout here, I still believe that jazz is the most universal of all the possibilities.