Thursday, February 28, 2019


My wife and I both share 28 as our birthdate, 5 months apart. She also shares the same day and month (today) with my long-time colleague James, an old friend Julie, the son of the school cook Eddie and the singer Ysaye Barnwell. Our wedding anniversaty is on the 28th. My two daughters natal dates are the 26thand 30th, so average them together and you get—28. 

28 is a perfect number, which means it is equal to the sum of its proper divisors—1 +2+4+7+14= 28. (It shares this quality with the number 6, 496 and 8,128, just in case you were wondering.).

I never heard of the Angel Number 28, but apparently its meaning is to encourage you to use all your intelligence to accomplish all your desires in life. And wealth, prosperity and abundance will manifest soon. Well, okay. 

According to Wikipedia, 28 is also a harmonic divisor number, a happy number, a triangular number, a hexagonal number and a centered nonagonal number. It’s also a Stormer number and a Keith number. Of course, you knew all that. 

But it may have slipped your mind that 28 is the 3rdpositive integer with a prime factorization of the form 22q where q is an odd prime. Just to remind you.

Most important of all every school child knows that “there are 28 oriented diffeomorphism classes of manifolds homeomorphic to the 7-sphere.” I think about this daily, don’t you? And may I suggest that when conversation flags in your first on-line date, that you throw that sentence into the mix? Definitely a crowd-pleaser.

I always thought that 28 was the completion of the Saturn cycle, meaning that Saturn returned to the same place in its orbit as when you were born. And therefore, a threshold of great transition, a new life announcing itself. Also the 4thtime your cells have completely regenerated, which (I think) happens every 7 years. But Wiki says the Saturn cycle is when you reach 29. Well, close enough. 

As for me, 28 was indeed a prophetic year. I turned 28 on July 28thon the last day of an extraordinary year-long trip around the world. I celebrated my birthday with a cupcake in a park in Tokyo, Japan, flew home crossing the International Dateline and had my birthday again in San Francisco. And then proceeded to return to my teaching job at school for another 40 years, get married, get pregnant (well, technically, my wife) and became a father soon after my 29thbirthday. The beginning of a new cycle indeed. 

It would be ideal if this was the 28thpost in my February blog, but you can’t have it all.
And now I have 28 minutes to get ready for a birthday dinner with my wife and daughter. 
Happy end of February!

Wednesday, February 27, 2019


 I believe that with the time spent looking for lost or misplaced objects, I could have written the Great American novel or mastered Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto. Tonight I opened my desk drawer for my check-book and there it wasn’t. Couldn’t locate it in the 5 other possible locations my weary brain could imagine and pictured hours of ransacking the house ahead. And then tried a small backpack I carry around sometimes and lo and behold, there it was! 

Looking for things is among my top five not-favorite things to do, along with school report cards, reading depressing news, discovering a new mysterious and apparently unsolvable ache and pain in my body, and waking up at 2 in the jet-lagged morning with a full load of classes to teach the next day. As anyone my age can tell you, it happens more and more. Thank goodness I have never been the “now where are my keys?” type, but I’m edging closer. 

Meanwhile, just found out that report cards are due soon, the more children are suffering in detention camps, that my neck pain hasn’t gone away and that Singapore time is still in my confused body. But hey, I did find my checkbook and I’m on the edge of my seat hoping Michael Cohen’s whistle-blowing will reveal the truth once-and-for-all and that the guy who so needs to leave will start packing his bags soon. 

That is, if he can remember where he put his suitcase.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Wee Small Hours of the Morning

 Woke at 2:15 in the jet-lagged morning with rain sounding on the windowpane. Read for an hour with no sign that sleep was forthcoming. A full day of school tomorrow and the glamor of travel is starting to look a bit dimmer. Sitting upright for 14 plus hours in a plane is not anyone’s first choice of fun. However, the four movies I watched helped enormously, especially since some of them were excellent (The Wife, for example). Travel as a chance to catch up on films. But then there's more to come—the re-entry.

Compared to hot and sunny Singapore, chilly and rainy San Francisco was not as inviting as a homecoming might be. My hopes to regenerate exercise on my bike dashed by the rain and the chance to re-enter a more controlled diet thrown off-course by some stomach bug courtesy of the Saturday night noodle restaurant in Singapore. The reunion with the piano was most welcome and though the plum blossoms are gone, I’m looking forward to the crab apple trees in the Arboretum. But three full days back at school and off again this Friday to Kansas City— looks like that visit will have to wait. 

Travel writers don’t often invite their armchair traveler readers into the wee hours of the morning when jet-lag strikes mercilessly and for good reason— one would much rather read about the place in Singapore where fish nibble dead skin from your dangling feet in the water than your 2am strategies to get through the night. But it’s all part of the package. 

Now it’s 4:30 am and I turn to attempt sleep once more. Thanks for keeping me company.

PS The “Wee Small Hours of the Morning” is a great tune, with a nice vocal rendition by Frank Sinatra and a poetic piano version by Fred Hersch. 

Monday, February 25, 2019

Changing the Narrative

Most of the small evils in the world come from our flawed nature— territorial squabbles, envy, poor communication, insecurities and undeveloped personalities. The big evils, the things that cause untold and unnecessary suffering to millions, may come from the same roots magnified manifold, but all need some kind of narrative to sustain them and drive them forward. Within the logic of the narrative, all killings and oppression make sense. What’s needed is not to encourage people to please be a bit nicer to each other, but a complete shift of narrative. 

Thus, Manifest Destiny drove the robbing of land and genocide of Native Americans. The Theory of Racial Superiority made slavery look like benevolent whites were doing the poor Africans a favor providing food, shelter and work. The Master Race made extermination of Jews necessary. The story of Adam’s rib (and other such tales) made men Master of the Household and women their inferior servant. The Trickle Down Theory justified no taxes for the rich and cheered on Wall Street’s heartless greed. 

And so it continues. Today, there are more such narratives disguised as truth designed to promote fear so people like Mr. T. can get elected.  "The unprecedented number of illegal immigrants who are rapists and murderers are threatening to swarm over the border—we need a Wall!!" "Affirmative action and welfare rewards lazy people of color! That's why whites will lose all job opportunities and are becoming an oppressed class. We need White Power!"
FOX News and right-wing radio feeds these kinds of stories to the folks whose jobs have been sold overseas and who are being duped by the rich people like Mr. T. who cares nothing for them beyond their votes.  They purposefully let the lies pass unchallenged and though balanced by the New York Times and the Washington Post, their intentional control of the nation’s narrative has fueled and allowed such atrocities as the election of a President who has told over 1500 fact-checkable lies to the populace. And a fearful public hungry to justify their own smallness, ignorance and prejudice eats it up. 

One antidote to all of this is any story, be it the truth of fact or the truth of fiction, that exposes the lie of hurtful narrative. Anything that shows the humanity of groups purposefully demonized, anything that reveals how small exclusive points of view can grow to larger inclusive ones, anything that celebrates the heroism and courage of those who dare to speak out and burst through the glass ceiling of imposed limits, is a radical vote for a more humane humanity. Anything that can open a closed mind, open a closed heart, shift arrogance to humility and hatred to acceptance to kindness, is feeding the needed and necessary new narrative of hope and justice. 

And that brings us to the Oscars. I was thrilled that the winning film was one that had it all. The painful truth of how racism worked, the determination to bring beauty into all that ugliness as Don Shirley offered his music to audiences black and white, the utter strangeness of whites willing to accept the music, but not let the musician use the bathroom (a theme also inThe Help and Hidden Figures), the slowly transforming relationship between the musician and the chauffeur and the latter’s opened mind and heart. Fox and the Toddler may be trying to control the narrative of the Daily News, but Hollywood, while still perpetuating its share of stereotype and gratuitous senseless violence, has most definitely expanded the narratives we need to be discussing and not only brought them into our homes and theaters, but honored them with its most coveted prize. Recent Oscar-winning films like The Green Book, Moonlight, 12 Years a Slave taking on racism, Spotlight sexual abuse in the church, The King’s Speech dealing with disability and so on. This year’s films, including Black K Klansmen, Roma, A Star Is Born, Vice continuing the theme of artful exploration of big issues brought into a human-size story. The list these past few years seems long. 

And the number of people of color, immigrants, women who were honored both in the forefront and behind the scenes was notable. And soon, hopefully, not so noticeable, just the reality of who we are and without having to make a big deal of it. It only becomes a big deal because of those who would wish that we all looked exactly alike, worshipped alike, married alike and so on. 

So hooray for Hollywood! May it continue to challenge the hurtful narratives and create the hopeful ones and spark the kinds of discussions we should be having in our schools, our neighborhoods, our families to edge one step closer to our country’s promise. 

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Swimming at the Airport

I’ve been in some interesting airports in my life. Some have rows of Adirondack rocking chairs, some have pianos available to play (and I do), some have a simulated rain forest to walk through when you depart the plane. Many have shower facilities and most have some kind of prayer/ meditation room. Some have children’s mini-playgrounds, some massage chairs or live masseuses. All, of course, have stores and restaurants and cafes and such. But I’ve never been in an airport that has a swimming pool. Until now.

Truth be told, I haven’t seen it and am too unambitious to leave the lounge to search for it. But according to my reliable sources, Changi Airport in Singapore has a swimming pool. If you have a two or three hour layover, make sure to pack your swimming trunks in your carry-on. What better way to pass the time?

With some 14 or 15 hours of chair time ahead on the return flight to San Francisco, I really should suit up. But again, inertia prevails and not enough time anyway, with boarding in 45 minutes. But I think I should put it on my bucket list for any return trip to Singapore. Just for a story to tell the grandchildren. Or better yet, something to do with the grandchildren if we ever take a trip to Asia together! 

Maybe San Francisco Airport can build a frisbee golf course. We have to keep up. 

Path with No End

Just finished the third of three short courses in Singapore, each one a great pleasure and mightily impressed by the enthusiasm, energy and musicality of these Singapore music teachers. And today, one of them asked one of the best questions I’ve ever been asked in an Orff workshop:

“Is there an end to this path?”

Wow. Without hesitation, I answered:

“Orff Schulwerk is a pedagogy of possibility and there is no end to possibility. It is the craft of the imagination and there is no boundary to the imagination. It is the field of music and despite having mostly 5 to 12 notes for all of recorded history, still new melodies that have never been sung are being composed. There may be a finite amount of knowledge and musical concepts that can fit in the Harvard Dictionary of Music (and even here, hundreds of other dictionaries must be written to accommodate the sheer diversity of musical style), but the combinations and re-combinations of these musical elements are virtually infinite. As are the number of connections in the brain that thinking music demands and the multiplicity of nuanced emotion the heart can hold.

In short, properly considered, there is no end to this path. 

And yet, the end is ever-present, in each step walked with integrity, courage, truth and love. There is no Emerald City at the end of the Yellow Brick Road with some hidden Wizard pulling ropes. Rather a constant beauty that one can see and touch and taste all around us in each moment of teaching, lions and tigers and bears included. 

I repeat: There is no end to this path. And that’s what makes it worth the walking.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Almost Enough

It’s a cool early morning 78 degrees in Singapore. The orange rooftops of Little India are not yet reflecting midday heat, the world seems young and full of promise. Another breakfast mixing India, China and Switzerland and waiting for my driver for the final day of two two-day jazz courses. “Gratitude is what turns what we have into enough”— a lovely quote that came my way and if I counted all the blessings that made today possible, it would certainly more than enough. 

And yet. In the past few weeks, there has been a new series of cricks in my neck that don’t seem to be going away on their own. Not bad enough to incapacitate me, but noticeable enough that I don’t feel wholly my usual physical self. I’m dreading the thought of a long series of tests to reveal some deteriorating spinal disk or suggestion that I re-train the way I walk or sit or work. So while still happy teaching these folks and swimming after work in the hotel pool and having some hotel room solitude, I’m feeling this canker in the midst of the gratitude I should be feeling. It makes it hard to accept that my life exactly as it is in this moment is wholly enough. It’s almost enough. But can I get my old neck back, please?

During question and answer time, one of the students asked me how old I was. A bit off-topic, I thought, so I asked her why she wanted to know. She said that she and her friends wondered how I had the stamina I had and where it came from. So I happily confessed my 67 years and answered simply, hands outspread, “From this. The chance to make great music and make it joyfully in a way that complete strangers feel like friends after the first 20 minutes together. From the way you all are giving energy back, having so much fun being kids again doing clapping games or improvising motions while making up scat solos with the first sound of your name. The clock ticks on, but when we’re like this, linear time is suspended and we’re in a world that has no age.”

All of the above is true. But when the class over, my neck shows up and reminds me:
” You’re 67.” And “enough “then turns into “almost enough.”

Nevertheless, I persist.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Elevator Music

How different life would have been without the elevator! Every day here in Singapore, I am driven from the Academy of Singapore Teachers (an impressive institution devoted entirely to professional development) to my hotel. I pass downtown with its forest of skyscraper banks and fancy hotels with their penthouse views and always feel a sense of homecoming as we arrive in Little India, where most buildings (except my 14 floor hotel!) are two stories high. Back in a world of more human proportions, more intimacy, more down-to-earth (literally and figuratively) feeling. 

It was the elevator that made our thirst to ascend to the heavens a concrete (and steel) reality. As New York City walk-up apartment dwellers can testify, 5 floors is about the limit of human upward propulsion—and accompanied by curses if you’re on the 5thfloor carrying groceries or the suitcase of your guest. Without Mr. Otis, the World Trade Center tragedy and the visual blight the Sales Force Tower has imposed on San Francisco would never have been. The movies King Kong, An Affair to Remember and Sleepless in Seattle would have had to be re-filmed. And the English language would be one phrase smaller, would have to get along without the term “elevator music.”

Speaking of which, I received an e-mail from a Canadian music teacher sharing her enthusiasm for some material she had learned from me in a workshop. And more meaningful yet, sharing her students’ enthusiasm. She wrote: 

Hello, Doug!  I hope this finds you well.  In the spring of 2018, I introduced my middle school (grade 8) students to your arrangement of Soul Sauce, which we performed on stage to an audience of almost 1000 in our city of Calgary, Alberta, Canada.  It was a smashing success!  95% of my students are from India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan and of course, have never experienced such music.  When I introduced it, they thought it sounded like “elevator music”, but after a couple of weeks, one student concluded, 

“If this is elevator music, I don’t wanna get off the elevator!”  

So even as I lament the havoc elevators have caused in human culture, their invitation to leave the soil and soul of mother earth and dwell in some abstract world of money and privilege, their weird invitation to stop climbing stairs so we can take the elevator to the gym on the 15thfloor and work out on Stairmaster, I now have a new image of my life’s purpose: to initiate children into elevator music so vibrant and hip and soulful that they don’t want to get off of the elevator. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Walls of Jericho

(Another version of the thoughts from the last post that I shared in Facebook)

Walked through the streets of Singapore on Sunday hearing Hindu chants, Muslim calls to prayer, Christian church choirs, Buddhist intonations. Inside the synagogue, the Jewish cantors were singing, in another building, a Balinese gamelan was rehearsing and the next day, my class of teachers were joyfully playing Step Back Baby on their way to the blues. All the many facets of our common Divine Spirit were alive and vibrant and not a single vibration was claiming itself as the only true and worthy one. Amidst all the shameful shouting and posturing and toddler-tantrum demanding of taxpayers money to fuel yet more division with the Wall, we need to realize that the wall has already been built, in the sense that Duke Ellington said long ago:

"Of all the walls, the tallest, most invisible, and most insidious… is the wall of prejudice."

The mandate of our times is to fight the battle of Jericho, play the trumpets—and sitars and djembes and Bulgarian bagpipes—that will make those walls come tumblin’ down. Let that be the mandate of the music education of the future! 

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Prayer in All Languages

This morning, part of me awoke in a Singapore dawn. Another part was still trying to catch up to my corporeal body all the way from San Francisco, where it was late afternoon the day before. Musically speaking, my body is in canon with itself, waiting for unison in a day or two. 

I sat my customary morning meditation and chanted my customary ancient Sino-Japanese chants designed to restore the world to harmony and keep hurting loved ones wrapped in healing thoughts. Down I went to a (multi-)Continental breakfast—Indian flatbread with coconut curry, Chinese noodles, Swiss muesli and good ole eggs and potatoes. Then out into my Little India neighborhood, following my feet which led me to a Hindu Kali temple. I entered to the sounds of men chanting in ancient Sanskrit—different rhythms, melodies, syllables, syntax singing the same message as their Buddhist cousin. 

On I walked and some 10 blocks later, heard “Hallelujah!” being sung inside the Hinghwa Methodist Church. A few blocks away was Singapore’s Arab neighborhood and my timing was off, but earlier or later I would have heard the Muslim call to prayer coming from the mosque. And certainly some cantor in a Singaporean Jewish synagogue was intoning “Baruch Adonai.” Like my breakfast, it was a multi-continental song of devotion, of praise, of people plucking a moment from their daily pursuit of ambition to consider how small we are and how large and unfathomable the universe is. To try to catch at least a spark of the infinite heat and light of some divine force that has and needs no name. To sing and chant their way to a short spiritual renewal and refreshment that will see them through the week, to be reminded yet again the following Sunday having forgotten it all in the pushing and pulling of the daily round. 

And what is the common thread joining these diverse calls to Spirit? Why, music, of course! Dogma divides and faith can be childish wishing and hoping and prayer can be self-centered and selfish, but music is the house Spirit lives in. The rhythm of these songs and chants awakens the body to receive the Spirit, the melodies open the Heart, the syllables go beyond literal meaning to musical meaning, all of it tied with silken threads to connect us to our fellow choir members. And if the song be in earnest and true, it will connect us to all choir members of all denominations, drill down to the common ground we share and insist that we stop all this squabbling about whether Allah or Yahweh or God or Krishna or Buddha are the correct names. What matter if the rhythms resounding throughout a Singapore Sunday are in different meters, melodies in different keys, words in different languages? Doesn’t that make the glory of Creation, whose hymn is diversity, yet more alive, more vibrant, more true? And don’t stop at the usual big Five. In villages in the South American rainforest, throughout the African continent, in the peaks of the Himalayas or the beaches of the South Seas, there are a thousand other ways to sing praise and gratitude, a thousand other names for the Divine Spirit.  Welcome to them all!

My walk through a potpourri of prayer was as delicious as my breakfast. All you frightened dividers of humanity, come join the party. It’s much more fun that hatred and walls and government-manufactured fear. Honest. The real National—and International— Emergency—is purposeful exclusion and insistence that only one name is correct. I propose 5.7 billion dollars be spent to bring the unbelievers to the mosques, temples, churches, village drum circles and teach them the songs that reveal our common humanity. What say you, Congress?

Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Daily Grind

“Life is a grindstone. Whether it grinds you down or polishes you up depends on what you’re made of.”

A friend posted this and though it seems somewhat Hallmark card-ish, I actually like it. Gives a whole new meaning to “back to the grind.” I’ve experienced both reactions to the coarse grain of the daily round, but would like to think it has leaned mostly to the polishing side. 

Today is the last day of an intense 6-weeks back at school and then I’m off on a plane to Singapore. 17 hours. And 20 minutes. Truth be told, I could almost imagine sleeping a good deal of that time. Suddenly, I’m feeling a bit on the worn-down side. Between the non-stop rain and the 2ndgrade play and trying to figure out the schedule for the next few months at school, I’m ready for a break. 

But mostly, it is polishing work (even more so with my shiny head from my new too-short haircut!). I love it when new sequences organically arise that flow just perfectly and are happily shareable with adults in my workshops. My review of the last 6 weeks with the 5thgrade today was such an occasion, impressive not only in its sense of artistry, but in its revelation of the great musical distances we have travelled. It has been a wild ride on the Orff transport vehicles—body percussion, speech, song, drums, Orff instrument ensemble, recorder and recently, ukulele! We’ve unveiled the power of 16thnotes, I-IV-V chords, canons, improvised modal scales and more concrete skills and concepts while making powerful music each step of the way. A lot of polishing going down!!!

Three different adult workshops ahead, but also time at the poolside and all of it welcome. Sunscreen cream instead of harsh grinding stones. I’m ready.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Edge of Comfort

I’ve endured my share of rigorous marathon-like exploits in my life. 

My first 7-day Zen meditation retreat, for example, atop a wintry Mt. Baldy in thin robes, awakening at 3 am, going to bed close to midnight, sitting with pained legs for most of those waking hours getting whacked by a stick if I moved and meeting the enigmatic, non-English speaking Roshi four times a day to be immediately dismissed after giving the wrong answer to his unanswerable questions. 

Then there was Day 2 of the Machu Picchu hike, a steady ascent in the cold rain on stairs made for giants while the native porters whisked by with heavy loads on their back, the equally painful descent, all of this with a bad stomach for some 26 miles and me 62 years old. 

I should throw in the terror of being asked to teach 30 preschoolers in Taiwan whom I had never met in front of 150 teachers and parents watching. For an hour. 

You get the idea. 

So when I treated myself to a walk through my old beloved city on a sunny day after constant rain, I was mildly complaining about the cold—it was perhaps 44 degrees out! Okay, it’s a 100 degrees more than many places in the Midwest recently, but still it felt cold to me. So as I walked by Aquatic Park, I couldn’t help but notice the members of the Dolphin Club swimming in the freezing cold water—without a wet suit. I had three reactions:

1)   I feel ashamed that I was complaining to myself that I was a little chilly. What a wimp I am! I’m amazed by you willingly subjecting yourself to this and admire your strength and daring and ability to endure something so painful. What discipline! What determination! What fortitude!

2)   I am indeed impressed by your iron constitution, but hey, to each his own. It’s not my way. And perhaps sitting on the meditation pillow or hiking by my side up Machu Picchu and certainly standing in front of those 30 Taiwanese preschoolers, you might be admiring me.

3)   Are you people out of your freakin’ mind?!!! What’s wrong with you??!!! Why in Gods’ name would you ever willingly throw yourself in that water when you could be at home by a warm fire reading about an expedition to Antartica?

But I do get that there is a strange kind of pleasure in testing the limits of the human body, of going far beyond reasonable comfort and testing your mettle, of feeling more alive when you’re doing something hard. As for me, I’m not the least bit interested in scaling Mt. Everest, but neither do I seek life on a beach 24/7 sipping Mai Tais. I like to go to the edge of comfort, be it physical, mental or emotional and see what’s out there. Sometimes cross over into yet more danger and excitement, sometimes just peek and be happy to sit back down.

But there’s no way you’ll get me to join the Dolphin Club. Give me the Taiwanese preschoolers any day.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The End of Vanity

A couple of years ago, I left my wife for another woman. To cut my hair, that is. My wife always did it somewhat reluctantly, so she was thrilled when I found someone a few blocks away who did a better job in a shorter time for a mere $15. 

But just when I went to see my new locks-and-tresses-trimmer yesterday, she was on vacation and someone else was in her place who convinced me she could  do a good job.  I took a chance and emerged with the haircut from hell. Way too short and not a good look for me at a time when I could use every square inch of good looks. 

But really, what’s the point? Physical attraction is designed to ensure a mate to help hold the ladder while washing high windows, keep you company on long, lonely rainy nights and if you so desire, partner in continuing the species and creating children who will entertain you and visit you in the Old Age Home. At my age, whatever good looks I had has done its job. Why care about my appearance? 

I was devastated when I first noticed a receding hairline at a tragically young 19 years old, one that kept diminishing so I went from a virile Samson-like shoulder length hair to officially bald by 30 years old. But I had time to get used to the new look and though my granddaughter often brings it up, “Pop-pop, why don’t you have any hair?” I can’t say that I’ve noticed that people seem physically repulsed by my presence or loved me any less because I failed the George Clooney test. I comfort myself with the fact that Gandhi was not exactly our definition of handsome and somehow Frank Sinatra still inspired school-girl crushes. 

Yet to be honest, some measure of vanity persists in me. The mirror that  keeps not showing the face I think it should seems even more broken than usual. I think I’ll be wearing my Spanish hat both indoors and out for the next few weeks. 

Saturday, February 9, 2019

More Cowbell—Not!

As my Orff colleagues will testify, one of the most important skills a teacher can have is know who will play the bass bars or drum set or cowbell. Because we are training the entire musician and not just the technical instrument player, kids in Orff classes always play different instruments and different parts of the music in the Orff Ensemble. Following my strict oath of “teach all the parts to everyone all the time,” kids usually rotate through all the parts before settling on one part for an eventual performance. How that choice happens is relaxed, casual and mysterious, a combination of the child’s choice and the teacher’s suggestion. However, being fallible, we sometimes err in letting kids try things out they’re not prepared for and suddenly we realize the whole ship is going down unless something dramatic happens soon— like a child’s breakthrough or a way to switch them off of that part without evoking damage to their self-esteem. 

In some ensembles, it is the bass and drums that are secretly in charge. Though they seem to be in the background, they are like the offensive guards of the football team. Without them, the quarterback would constantly get sacked. A good jazz drummer can make a whole band swing with a  rolled up newspaper on the edge of the stage. A good bass player anchors all the harmonies that would otherwise collapse and crash without her/him. 

And likewise in the Orff ensemble. The bass drones that provide the solid earth from which the melodies alight can feel like an earthquake if the child is not reliable and steady. A drummer just ahead or behind the beat (and not tastefully so), makes the group feel like they’re swimming upstream and getting nowhere. So the cardinal rule? Put your best, most dependable musicians on those parts and don’t think you’re doing anyone a favor by letting someone unprepared try it out. 

And so yesterday, a child new to the school got what seemed like the easiest part in the Latin jazz piece— a cowbell playing a steady beat. But nothing is easy until you hear it and for a number of reasons, this child couldn’t. I can’t describe how maddening it feels to try to play with an erratic cowbell. When someone plays on the beat, we take it for granted and focus on the pyrotechnics of the horns or electric guitar solo. Now I am ready to personally thank every cowbell player who has ever successfully played it. 

I tried moving the child to a quieter guiro, with more disastrous results. Finally, still trying to reward him for his sincere efforts, I told him I was giving him the most special instrument we have at school— a real donkey’s jaw with loose teeth that rattle (it’s called a quijada-look it up!). His new job was to hit it once every 8 beats, preferably on beat 1. He was thrilled and had a merry old time hitting it on beats 7.4, 6.8, 1.9 and so on. Still, it was better than the cowbell.

In my way, I like to draw parallels beyond music and here it is: Following the procedures and basic standard practices of a few century-old political system is like playing the beat on the cowbell. You may not like the music, but at least the cowbell is on time. What we have here is an errant child who simply cannot hear the most basic part of working in a group, listening to the others, holding his part and it is wreaking havoc. Unbearable. Let’s just give him a donkey jaw and tell him to go off in the corner and hit it whenever he wants.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Lots of Songs

One of many great pleasures in my job is leading the preschoolers down the hall after music class to their classroom. Naturally, we do it with a song, often with improvised verses greeting the people we pass. After dropping them off, one of the new teachers said to me, “You know lots of songs!” And that is true.

But I didn’t learn them growing up in my house, school or church. The only two songs I remember from my twice-weekly music classes in elementary school were Erie Canal and a song called Baked Potato. The Unitarian Church I sporadically attended wasn’t that big on singing and my Dad had two songs he occasionally sang to me—There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea and a song he made up called Piggy Piggy Poo. That’s a pretty small repertoire in my formative years.

On the record player, I was much more apt to listen to Beethoven than Frank Sinatra, though once the Beatles kicked in in my adolescence, I did listen to the same songs every red-blooded American did—Beach Boys, Smokey Robinson, Four Seasons, Temptations, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and so on and so on. I didn’t have a magnet mind for either the words or the tunes, but it did expand my repertoire. 

When I first began working at The San Francisco School in 1975, I inherited a daily Singing Time and that was when I went to work in earnest. Alan Lomax’s Folk Songs of North America  was my Bible and armed with my guitar and three to six chords, I learned and remembered some few hundred folk songs, including all eleven verses to The Frozen Logger. I also worked on a Spanish repertoire and still try to have at least a few songs in some 20 different languages at my fingertips. 

Working on jazz piano, I dove into the Great American Songbook and again, having a specific need made that investigation more focused and serious. When I met Fran Hament at the Jewish Home for the Aged where my Mom spent her last six years, my weekly visit playing the piano included all the songs that Fran could sing—somewhere around 300. So I set myself the task of not only learning to play them without paper in front of me, but to learn the words as well. 

Yesterday I went to visit Pamela, the now-retired 1stgrade teacher of 40 years from my school. She is in the hospital recovering from a difficult heart operation and now ready for live visits from the many folks sending her love with cards, thoughts and prayers. Naturally, I brought my ukulele and joined her husband Jim, son Nathan and 7-year-old grandson Jimmy who were visiting. I’ve known Pamela and Jim (who also worked at the school for 10 years) since 1975, taught Nathan for 11 years and sadly, am not teaching Jimmy. But because of our time at the school, we had a shared repertoire and off we went into song after song. Pamela didn’t just listen, but actively sang along. Such fun to sing the old school warhorses like Side by Side, De Colores, Skinnamarink, Jamaica Farewell, Chattanooga Choo Choo and such. Sensitive, as only a music teacher of kids might be, to Jimmy participating, we also sang Comin’ Around the Mountain and a fun version of This Old Man with him having to fill in the rhyming words. Other visitors had reported that Pamela seemed to tire after about ten minutes, but we went on for an hour and could have kept going. Why?

Why, music, of course. It not only goes from vibration to vibration to energize the body and sharpen the mind, but touches the heart when the chosen songs carry the memory of former times lived joyfully in company with loved ones. No secret. If Pamela had had a hospital roommate that spoke Spanish or Bulgarian, I could have chosen a song for them as well. In short, taking time in your life to learn lots of songs is one of the most supremely pleasurable and useful things you can do. You are armed and ready for any occasion to bring people together, to lift people out of any pain in the present or further express their joy. Whether it be sad, glad, mad or bad you’re feeling, you’re ready to meet those feelings and express them, transform them, transpose them. But when you’re sad, glad, mad or bad, don’t depend on you i-Pad. Store them in your memory, release them with your voice and extra credit if you can accompany with a  ukulele, guitar or what-have-you. You’ll be able to connect with the 2-years before they have many words and the 102 year-olds after their words have flown away. 

And not so bad for all the ages in-between either. 

Thursday, February 7, 2019

New Vistas

Mostly we think of aging as decline and deterioration. With mysterious pains in my neck recently, I can attest to that. 

But when it comes to teaching, I’m at the top of my game. I’m noticing three things:

1)   I’m enjoying the kids more than ever. The way the 2ndgraders are improvising their way through our first drafts of the Jack and the Beanstalk play, their enthusiastic—and often good—suggestions, their funny versions of their characters, their sheer delight in bringing a story to life. 

2)   I’m more impatient than ever with side-conversations, kids not attending, kids doing things silly on purpose. Not in an angry way, but in a firm and clear way—“life is too short for you not to take full advantage of this opportunity I’m giving you. If you can convince me your side conversation is more relevant, interesting and important than what I’m saying at the moment, do so. Otherwise stop. Now.”

3)   I’m more purposeful about praise and blessing, both publicly and privately noting when someone leaps over the bar and sometimes clearing it by a few feet. Letting them know I saw it and it impressed me and they should know that whatever they did is worth noticing and worth working on further. 

All of this makes teaching so much more rewarding, satisfying and pleasurable than it has been. And since it has been rewarding, satisfying and pleasurable from Day One, that’s saying a lot. It also is tedious and difficult work. Sometimes a stroll on a moonlit beach or a romp through a field or drifting lazily down a river, but mostly a slowly ascending mountain climb, with stops to enjoy the view. Each new vista reveals more of the big picture of who human beings are and what they can accomplish and both are so much greater and hopeful than any lie-filled State of the Union depicts. 

These my bread-crumbs strewn on the path for anyone to follow. Attend to your work, do it well with a constant eye as to how to do it better and new vistas will open up. 

Even if your neck hurts.

Monday, February 4, 2019

The Apple Close to the Tree

The 5thgrade teacher at our school posted this lovely piece: 

“Every year I get prematurely nostalgic in January when we get our class picture. It’s a reminder that this will become my memory of them. That this will be taped to the wall, along with the other eleven. That our relationship, as we know it has a known end point. That they will pass me in the hall next year and not say hi and I will be devastated. 

Each class becomes my family. I think about them, brag about them to anyone who will listen, and I love them madly. I put our class picture on the fridge and when friends come over for dinner, I bring it with me to the table so I can show them the faces behind my stories. They point at a child in the front row, hands neatly tucked in their lap and I squeal their name. “Oh, I LOVE her!” They they point to a student in the back row, shoulders pinched back and stern face. “I LOVE HIM!” 

Teacher training programs don’t talk about love. We don’t have professional development about love. It’s never been the trending buzz word. There aren’t thousands of scholarly articles about how to incorporate love into your teaching. It can be scowled at, as if it’s an unprofessional word to use. Yet it is the key to everything. To unlocking students’ worth, humanity, potential, growth. 

I will never forget what a student said when prompted for examples of how to use “show, don’t tell” in writing- “So instead of writing, ‘Talia loves us,’ writing ‘Talia touches her hand to her heart when she teaches?’ “ There was an immediate unanimous nod- “You do do that!” It’s true. I will be the first to list my shortcomings as a teacher and it’s long, but I can confidently say that I teach with my hand constantly on my heart. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 Now that’s a teacher who all children deserve. That’s a teacher who has stepped up to the challenge of her calling. That’s a teacher who offers a model to which all teachers should aspire. 

And she is my daughter.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

The Lure of the Spectacle

Last year, 111 million people gathered around a glowing screen to watch grown men thrash and mutilate each other for a couple of hours. This year, the projection is down to 103 million. I guess some 8 million folks figured they might do something better with their time.

There is every reason in the world for me not to watch the Super Bowl. Well, at least three. As follows: 

1)   I don’t follow football and just found out today who is playing. And it’s not San Francisco. If the New Orleans Saints were playing—and they should have been—I think I’d be more excited. But between Boston and L.A., I just don’t care.

2)    The NFL team owners decided that anyone “taking a knee” during the National Anthem would be fined and punished. It is not only anti-American (remember freedom of speech?), but according to many sources, illegal. 

3)   A 30-second ad for beer or Pepsi or what-have-you during the Super Bowl costs some 5 million dollars. 30 seconds. At my salary, that money could fund some 20 high-quality music programs in schools for five years that could change the lives of several thousand children. And that’s just one 30-second ad. Add them all up and you can see how topsy-turvy our priorities are in this country. 

So there are the three good reasons not to watch it.

And yet, I might.  Here’s three reasons why:

1)   12 years ago, I watched the Super Bowl in a hospital room with my Dad who was trying to recover from heart surgery. Don’t remember much about the game, but it was a father-son kind of thing to do and had a certain sweetness. I remember making him promise we’d watch it together again the next year and he ended up breaking that promise. So sometimes I watch it on his behalf.

2)   I love watching basketball and prefer everything about the game— including the high ethics and appeal of the players on the Warriors. But I did play “sandlot” football as a kid and have enjoyed watching the battle for territory and some sublime aesthetic moments with long passes, interceptions, runs through the gaps in the defense.

3)   It’s a rainy indoor day in San Francisco, just the kind made for staying indoors and feeling part of some mass spectacle so you can trade a few stories around the water-cooler the next day. 

So I’ll probably tune in. But my protest will be playing Bach, Bird or Brubeck on the piano every time an ad comes on. And during the half-time. Maybe write a postcard to my Congressperson. Take that, NFL!!!! 

When Things Disappear

Woke up at 4 am with my sentences in my head and went to the kitchen to jot them down on a piece of paper. When I shut off the lights and turned to go back to bed, I heard the pen drop from the counter. Turned the lights on again to look for it on the floor and it was nowhere to be found within a ten-foot radius. Swept my hand under the stove and refrigerator. Nothing. It simply disappeared.

In Hawaii, our extended family of seven had to tie five of our suitcases on to the roof of the van to make them fit. Stopping for gas on a rushed dash to the airport, I noticed one was not there. This made no sense. We thought all five were connected with a rope strung through each, we were driving a straight road with no turns and we never heard a thing. So we backtracked to the house in the rainy night and looked on the side of the road. Nothing. Dashed back to the airport and assumed someone would report it to us eventually when they found it. Four weeks later—nothing. It was my daughter’s and it was filled with new clothes and shoes she had just bought with her Christmas bonus money. Bummer. 

So it appears that the world that we try to wrestle down to predictable, controllable and understandable things defies us, is still strange and mysterious. Keep your eye out for the suitcase and pen.

PS: Later swept a yardstick under the stove and the pen appeared. Still strange how it could have rolled so far, but there’s one mystery solved. Now about that suitcase…

Friday, February 1, 2019

Five-Word Mantra

(Rabbit!) February has arrived. What a strange month! The time when the Chinese lion sends Valentines to Lincoln, Washington and Harriet Tubman. When the Superbowl players get an Oscar while the groundhogs peek their heads out to watch. A short month, but a lot going on! 

After my morning meditation, I thought about what I’d like February to bring me and what I’d like to bring to February and it struck me forcefully—mostly more of the same of everything I’m doing and feeling. I’m not waiting for Jesus to save me or for a winning lottery ticket to drop through the mail slot or the unknown fantasy love-of-my-life to wink at me at the coffee shop. Mostly, my petition to the February gods is continued good health, proficient piano fingers, alive imaginative class-planning and book-writing and blogpost entries, enough rain mixed with some welcome sunny days, unbroken good relations with the children I teach, a good movie or two on my long Singapore flights and so on. Of course, I would be thrilled for an impeachment announcement on President’s Day and wouldn’t turn down an interview with Terry Gross or the news of my Grammy-nominated CD. And I certainly would accept the offer to be given a great price for a house or two in San Francisco for my kids. Still enough desire driving my days that I have one eye out for the next opportunity around the corner. 

But truth be told, no free trip to a tropical island would make me happier than I am at this moment in my life. The life I’ve always dreamed of living is mostly the life I am living and though it’s hard work, I simply can’t imagine things more joyful than each class I get to teach at school, each Friday afternoon playing piano and singing with the 90-year-olds, each time the music flows freely from the fingers or even a walk to the corner store past the blossoming plum trees. 

And so my hope for February is a five-word mantra from a sleeper movie I once saw on a plane:

Happy. Thank you. More, please.