Sunday, April 29, 2018

Meeting the Unexpected

I imagine every field of work has its own criteria for mastery and that the alert practitioner can always find something to improve. And I suspect that the true test of mastery, the one that separates a stellar expert from a competent one, comes from meeting the unexpected. You may have spent years crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s, but when confronted with the unknown, you have to reach from a deeper part of yourself and improvise your way through the situation. Whether it’s a pilot discovering one wing is on fire or a chef suddenly out of a needed ingredient with all stores closed, it’s the larger vision and deeper practice that will see her or him through.

This on my mind arriving in Mexico City in a quite different Orff workshop circumstance than I’m used to. 99 out of 100 invitations come from people who have seen my work at a conference or a course and want more of it. And they are mostly, though not always, people who I have met and remember. This invitation came from out of the blue from folks who had seen something online or looked at my Website and felt that sufficient to invite me to a Festival they were preparing. In this particular gathering, there had never been an Orff workshop (or at least to my knowledge) and while many of the invited teachers were teaching kids, I was working with teachers for three days, six hours per day. I didn’t know the organizers nor the fellow teachers, who, as it turned out, were mostly Suzuki teachers who had worked in this Festival before.

No matter, I was game, especially as it has long been a dream of mine to teach an Orff Course in Mexico, a place that seems musically and culturally ripe for this kind of work. With the added advantage that it’s close to California and I can teach in Spanish. I got picked up at the airport by three young guys who kind of reminded me of the characters in Y Tu Mamá Tambien, though in fact, they were quite polite and cordial to me. Got checked into a hotel, ate at a restaurant upstairs that I thought would be free (ie, chargeable to my room) which didn’t turn out to be the case and I hadn’t changed any money. (Luckily, my credit card worked.) The food was excellent, but one room away was a pounding disco beat at full volume followed by some dubious Karaoke. In the lobby was a Starbucks, across the street a Subway sandwich shop and down the block a Bikram Yoga place. Welcome to Mexico?

My class didn’t begin until 10 am, a luxury for me, so I enjoyed a leisurely morning the next day and sauntered down for breakfast at 8:45. There I was met from someone from the Festival who seemed anxious to get me to my class. When I mentioned I hadn’t eaten and there was plenty of time, he showed me the time on his phone. It said 9:45. I had 15 minutes! Turns out that I re-set my watch one hour ahead, but in reality, it was supposed to be two hours.

And so I rushed to class without a drop of breakfast, arrived in a room with rows of seats facing the center. Got to work moving them off to the sides. There were Orff instruments there, but many only had one mallet. I asked if someone could fetch a little fruit or something so I wouldn’t have to teach for three hours on an empty stomach.  This was not an auspicious beginning!

But the most baffling was a woman there with her adult daughter, perhaps with Downs Syndrome and in a wheelchair. She couldn’t easily grab things with her hands, her speech seemed rudimentary and how was I going to do circle dances with someone in a wheelchair? Here was an unexpected situation that I’ve rarely encountered and no one thought to advise me ahead of time so that I might think about it. I must confess that I was concerned and a bit annoyed.

But here was that test of mastery in my field. And that field is not only to figure out how to get the maximum music out of anyone whose path I cross, but also figure out how to celebrate and enjoy each person. And I’m proud to report that I figured a lot out. Went over and introduced myself, found out her name was Claudia, brought her into the circle for the first activity and adjusted my plan to not move around in the circle. I chose her as a partner in one of the clapping plays and when it finally came time to dance, I gave her a tambourine to accompany the song from the side. Later, as we began to sing, she sang right along, a half a beat behind and a whole tone off pitch. But no matter. I was thrilled with her energy, her joy, her determination to participate at her level. At the end of the first day, I thanked the class for a lovely day and gave special thanks to my favorite student—Claudia! 

This morning, she was there eager and ready to go and her mother said she had a question. Between her difficult speech and the Spanish, I didn’t quite get it, but her mother translated:
“What is the difference between Orff and Kodaly?”  

Whoah!!! That is a sophisticated question!!! It really took me by surprise, but I answered it seriously and she listened intently. Later in the class, I did a dance with her that involved swinging a partner (simply turning her around in her chair) and then moving through space to find a new partner. She was so happy! And so was I.

Later still, she joined a group improvising a dance and they created a moment in which her mother pushed her through a tunnel of arms. At the end, when all the groups shared their dances and then pointed at their favorite group, her group won hands down.

So many highlights in these two days! Getting to do my version of Bate Chocolate in the country of origin, a group coming up with a dance move I’ve never seen but now will rob and incorporate into my work, thoroughly enjoying the 24 students, some 10 of which are men(!), integrating violin, viola, melodica, cuatro and guitar into the Orff Ensemble. But hands down, meeting Claudia tops them all. I’ll bring my camera tomorrow for a photo!

And thanks to the 10th International Festival Cedros for the invite. One more day tomorrow and hopes for a morning of tourism.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

My Life in Comics

I loved comic books as a kid. Not so much the Marvel Comics or Archie, but the kind made by Dell and later, Gold Key. A lot of TV shows and movies, with heavy accent on Disney films. Things like Pollyanna, Swiss Family Robinson, 101 Dalmations and so on. I remember prices ranging from 10 to 25 cents, all of which fit comfortably with my modest allowance. So a trip to Debbie and Irv’s corner store to see what was new was a big thrill and a weekly ritual.

Somewhere along the way, my mother decided that reading comics would warp my brain and keep me from reading actual books. She was wrong. Not only did I read habitually as a kid (books and comics), but I kept it up throughout high school and college and into my adult life (well, not the comics). And I knew she was wrong, but hey, I was a kid and the only power I had was the power of subterfuge. So when she banned them, I continued to secretly buy them. I'd come home through the side door, stick them under my shirt and go straight to the basement where I hid them in a special place.

Why am I thinking about comics? Because one of the comic books I habitually bought was Dennis the Menace and two that really struck my imagination were Dennis the Menace in Hawaii and Dennis the Menace in Mexico. I still remember some of the panels of the latter when they went to the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco. And here I am for the first time in Mexico City and thinking I should try to go there.

I honored what would have been my Mom’s 97th birthday yesterday and am happy to say that I believed I forgave her all her motherly shortcomings before she died at 93. She was bi-polar and in her manic phase, was capable of doing some damage. Like banning Christmas for one year, stealing some money from my savings account, changing my choice of studying Russian in 9th grade to Spanish without consulting me (though here in Mexico, I thank her for that!). But one of the most difficult transgressions to forgive was her deciding (perhaps I was in college?) to throw away all my comic books that she found. Not only would they probably be worth a fortune now, but it would warm my heart to cross a bridge back to my childhood by re-reading the old comic classics. I could have prepared for this trip with the Dennis the Menace one!

But that’s okay, Mom, I forgive you. Now I wonder if I could find that comic online.

Friday, April 27, 2018


Can one only be happy when the news is good? When your political candidate wins the race and the bad people are ousted? Would something have to happen that matches your fantasy of the way you want the world to be or the way you want your world to be? Does it depend on mastering that Bach piano piece and getting through it without a single mistake? Would it need something to happen that advances your career? Or improves your love life? Would every technology need to work flawlessly before you could feel wholly content? Would everyone you meet need to treat you kindly or admire you or adore you or let you know how you inspired them? Would you need 500 “likes” on every Facebook post and affirming comments? Would the tomatoes need to be juicy and the strawberries sweet and the bananas without blemish and each meal cooked to perfection? In short, would your happiness depend upon what happens each day, each moment, the world agreeing to your fantasy of how it should be?

I suspect some part of us would answer, “Of course!” And it’s true that these things have an effect. I’m at the airport and quite happy that I got TSA approval and got to walk through security without taking off my shoes, belt, jacket and take my laptop out. I’m happy that I seem to be in First Class and I don’t quite know how that happened. I’m happy to be in the United Club eating couscous and could be drinking a beer if it wasn’t so early in the morning. I’m happy that I’m going to Mexico City, a place I’ve never been and teaching a three day Orff course in a place I’ve never taught. I’m happy that the second 8th group played well in class and that I had the presence of mind to keep after a student who was melting down from not getting the part and working with him for two minutes without the chaos of the rest of the class, he got it perfectly and left class a bit happier himself.

And I’m a bit sad that I’m argued with a friend yesterday and it did not go well. I’m not so happy with the lack of focus in my first 8th grade class today and my inability to wholly get them to rehearse better. Today is my Mom’s 97th birthday and I’m sad not to share it with her, though had her body and mind kept deteriorating as is Nature’s way for four years after she left us, it would not actually be a happy birthday visit. I’m sad down to my bones that my country willfully elected someone of the most banal character who surrounds himself with equal misfits totally incompetent, corrupt, narrow of mind and heart and only a little bit happy that the whole show is starting to fall apart. I’m sad that every time I’ve seen the Warriors play in the last few weeks, they’ve played terribly and lost (but happy that Steph is coming back and they’re still in the playoffs).

So you see how it goes. When we tie our happiness to outer events, we give away our power to create our own sense of contentment and are at the mercy of forces outside of our control. My first peek into this folly was as a teenager following the New York Knicks basketball team. I was such an involved sports fan that I literally woke up miserable if they had lost the night before and finally, had to go cold turkey and stop watching. I think this is the essence of the Buddhist notion of non-attachment. It’s human and fine and even a good thing to let your passion loose and care about things far beyond what they deserve, but you have to know how and when to rein it in and get it back on the leash. In the moment, you may yell and scream in pain or euphoria, but when it’s over, time to detach and pay attention to the new moment. It’s not about detaching and not caring so that you don’t have to suffer the pain of loss, it’s about caring but making yourself large enough that you don’t identify wholly with that passion, it’s just a piece of the larger puzzle.

So the things that happen that make us happy or sad and everything in-between are like the waves of the ocean, sometimes gentle, sometimes large, sometimes tidal and tsunami, but at the end, it’s all surface stuff. The deeper happiness lies in the calm of the depths below, the place you can reach by sitting still and breathing yourself down to the bottom of your sea of thought, wholly independent of the motion on the surface.

It makes me a little happy to have this venue to share the chatter in my head. But if this blogging were to end tomorrow, I believe I could still claim some happiness. And now to the pleasure of my ritual Crostics Puzzle. Happy birthday, Mom and Dad, I’ll write soon about going to the one place outside of the U.S. you went to regularly. Meanwhile, I’m happy for all the time we had together. And happy to be here, alive, breathing, off on another adventure.

Thursday, April 26, 2018


I’ve sometimes written some blogs under the pseudonym “Numbers Nerd” and it’s true that I find some curious beauty and mystery and synchronicity and more in the way that numbers work and fall together sometimes. And so I couldn’t help but notice that in my last 67 blogs, I was reliving the years that I’ve lived. That is to say, when I wrote “Analog Reflections,” it was the one thousand nine hundred and fifty first blog I wrote since I began this project—ie,1951, the year I was born. So each time I noticed the number associated with the blog, I recalled something from that year of my life. I know, too much time on my hands.

Earlier today’s was 2018, the year we’re in. And so from this blog on, I’m writing into the future. Maybe I need to be careful about what I say, just in case the tone or the topic will turn out to be something prophetic for that year. It’s a lot of pressure!

So just in case, I’m so happy that the Democrats have taken back both the House and the Senate, that three conservative judges have retired from the Supreme Court and that the leader who never should have been is either in jail or exiled to Mar de Lago to play bad golf for the rest of his life and carry his own clubs since caddies are forbidden to work for him under the terms of his impeachment. I’m happy to report that the World Tour with Doug Goodkin & the Pentatonics is going well and that I was very honored to receive that honorary doctorate and that my surprise best-selling status of my last book was helped by the Terry Gross interview and Oprah endorsement. My daughter in Portland put down a down-payment on a house in San Francisco since winning the lottery and my grandchildren were accepted into The San Francisco School.
And so on.

Best wishes to 2019.

Guest Crusader

At the recent Canadian Orff Conference, a teacher who has taken several of my summer courses shared that his son wrote a paper about the importance of music education. He told his son to watch my TEDx talk and to read a few of the things I had written. How happy did that make me? And yet more so when I asked if I could read the piece and he sent it to me. And so I share it below.
Important thing to know before reading: His son, the author of this well-written, heartfelt and right-up-my-alley essay, in in 8th grade. I love this next generation!!
How many of you have heard some music this week? I can’t imagine that any of you would say no. After all, music is everywhere; it is around us all the time. Being musical is a part of what it means to be human. In fact, it may even make you smarter. Mrs. Wiersma and fellow classmates, today I am going to talk to you about the importance of music education. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato once said, “I would teach children music, physics, and philosophy; but most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning.” Perhaps some of you have felt that music is not very important in education. If so, I want to challenge you with my belief that music education shows students that they are musical beings; that music helps students achieve higher grades; and lastly that it is important to start music early on in life.
Let’s begin with my first point. Music education provides students with the opportunity to feel that they are musical beings. This is an important aspect of self-awareness for any child, whether they pursue music or not, because it reveals a person’s passion for something creative. Music promotes discipline of the mind, which motivates one to practice, succeed and improve. Music can offer students relief of stress and it helps them to calm down and focus when finishing a task, whether they are listening or playing music. Music gives children the opportunity to belong. They feel valued because of something they can do. In an ensemble, the group depends on their musical input; their participation matters. This helps children in making friends and connections both in and outside of musical groups. Clearly, allowing children to truly believe that they are musical is a gift that can shape who they become.
Secondly, music helps students achieve higher academic scores for a few different reasons. A 2007 study in The Journal for Research in Music Education showed that music education improves students grades, especially in standardized testing. Music helps build imagination and helps to give students a good attitude towards school through an intellectual interest in learning offered through music. This is important because it allows kids to want to learn and understand new concepts and ideas. From a report done by The National Association for Music Education, schools with music programs have a graduation rate of 90.2 percent, whereas schools without these programs have a rate of 72.9 percent. This shows that a student who attends a school including musical education will do better in later years. Children who receive a musical education can obtain better math skills, because of the practice they have in counting time and rhythm. They can also develop superior auditory skills and are able to pinpoint certain patterns in different sounds better than others, such as in languages. Having these skills can contribute to employment or other opportunities.
Lastly, music education is not just for older people; in fact starting music at an earlier age is better for shaping one’s musical experience. Doug Goodkin, a forty year music education veteran from The San Francisco School, says that it is important for students to begin their music education early on, because, as he states, after the first eight or nine years of life, “any potential in the brain that doesn’t meet the right experience may be lost”. Goodkin’s approach is to immerse students in music from the very beginning of their lives. Starting early really pays off in the end, and I can talk from experience, that starting to learn when young is the best foundation for a musician. Music helps people with memorization because of the training that they have in memorizing music. When kids are using these skills at a young age, it becomes easier for them to work on these same skills when they are older. Music helps develop the part of the brain that is used for language and reasoning, which means that, if students are learning music at a young age, their language and reasoning skills may be advanced. These skills help young children to make decisions and to learn how to speak their mother tongue, as well as other languages. Starting music early is very important because it can be the most shaping thing that can be done to improve a student’s life.
You are musical, whether you like it or not. Again, hear the words of Plato who said, “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and joy to life and to everything.” Great schools provide an education in music for every student. Also, everyone wants better grades, and what better way to improve them, than through something fun, like music? Finally, many of you may say, “music is not for kids;” however this is not true, as I have said, it is even more important to start music as a child. After hearing about the many benefits that music has on one's life I leave you with a challenge: the next time that you can choose whether to practice music or to do something else, think about what you may be missing.