Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Old King Glory

“Old King Glory of the mountain. 
The mountain was so high. 
It nearly touched the sky. 
The first one, the second one, the third follow me.”

I believe the very last thing I should teach in my very last class at The San Francisco School should be “Old King Glory of the Mountain.” It is probably the game I’ve played more often than any other in my 44 years there—and still play today.

I like the imagery—the King, the mountain, the “old” (elder) King and the fact that it was so high it nearly touched the sky. That means it takes a lifetime or two to actually climb up it. And on the way, you collect people, one, two, three at a time, to follow you. I’d say that’s exactly what I’ve done. And am still doing.

Michelangelo once said: 

“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is so low and we reach it.”

The glory of this work is too aim high and yes, we miss it daily, but we keep climbing. If we aim low— let’s get kids drawing on i-Pads and learning how to make cool sounds with Garage Band—and reach it, we short-change everyone.

As for me, I’m going to keep climbing. Anyone want to follow?

From Crap to Cool

I had an uncharacteristically (wow! Great Boggle word!) confrontational class with 8thgrade the other day. Compared to what it could be, it was quite mild, but I was trying to teach all the parts to a new Latin piece and I pretty much have the process down. A circle of instruments, show one part and get two kids playing, then show the next part and they move on and two more played what they did and so on. However, coming off my 6thgrade class, there was no time to set up the instruments, so I was trying to set them up while we were rotating and kids ended up having to wait a bit before they came up to play. Once they got there, they were challenged both because it was new and a little tricky and because they hadn’t spent their waiting time preparing their parts. So unlike the typical class, there was very little positive musical feedback coming and that was unpleasant for everyone.

Suddenly, one looked at the clock and shouted, “It’s time to go!” My response was, “Not yet! We need some musical satisfaction here and to be perfectly honest, you guys sound like crap!!” I think they were shocked that I would dare to criticize them and between them wanting to go to recess and feeling like they were just insulted, there was a little bit of pushback. Like I said, so mild compared to the horror stories you could hear with 8thgrade. More of a slight disgruntled grouchiness and mumbling. We persisted a bit longer, played a tiny bit better and then I let them go.

When the next group came in, I asked them how I generally leaned when talking about them—toward praise or criticism? “Praise!” they almost unanimously agreed and I said, “Yes, that’s true. But only when you deserve it. And it’s a good sign that you feel praised, because it means you’ve worked hard to deserve it.” I then told them what happened in the last class. I admitted my part in it, not being as prepared as I wanted to be, but also reminded them that they had a job to do and needed to really attend to the preparation piece as I showed them a technique and had them play rhythms on their body, speak the part and mimic the technique. I gave my 50-yeard line talk: “I’ll come 50 yards out to you, you come 50 yards out to me and that’s where the learning will take place.” Needless to say, the second class was much better.

I saw the first group again today and acknowledged what happened and told them that I would do my part to turn it around and expected them to do theirs. And whether because they had short memories, or generally trusted me, or were simply motivated from inside to get the music sounding better, they indeed played wonderfully. I shouted out at one point: “You guys sound… great!” And so did the second group. So we all left happy.

The moral of the story: It is perfectly fine to tell kids they sound like crap when they do, as long as you the teacher acknowledge your part in the dynamic and do what you need to do to turn it around. And have faith that they will do their part. And then they do! And note: No external reward or points or pizza party needed. Just the pleasure of mastery and the satisfaction of playing well. The music is its own reward. 

Today’s lesson is titled: From Crap to Cool: A Journey Worth Making.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Back to the Basics

My school administrator told me he just came back from an Education Conference where they were discussing “the latest and greatest in education” and my unspoken response was “Uh-oh.” Because often that means one of three things:

1)   The latest technological gizmo
2)   The latest packaged deal filled with educational jargon and 26 steps to memorize (and then promptly forget).
3)   The latest bandwagon on which we feel compelled to jump that changes schedules, programs, salaried employees, makes us distrust our own hard-earned wisdom of what we know actually works with children and then fades away until the next bandwagon drives by.

Meanwhile, in the glorious countryside of the Carmel Valley with Spring on the loose and wildflowers a-bloom, I went to our once-every-two-years Orff Mini-conference Retreat led by six strong, vibrant, musical, fun and loving women teachers presenting the music from their home cultures of Iceland, Norway and Finland. They’ve jumped into the 21stcentury with a book that’s entirely on a Website with free material complete with scores, videos, class plan suggestions. And yet, their actual workshops were not looking at the screen, but being wholly present in the body in a circle, making artistic, sensual, imaginative and musical connections with ourselves and with each other. They taught with the whole of their bodily musical presence, with eye-contact, movement and smiles and offered material born from the soil of their cultures so that you could feel their ancestors singing through them. The primary technologies were our speaking, singing voices, our clapping hands and stamping feet, our blended sounds and movements. The materials used included wood, metal and skin instruments, paints, paper, sticks, wildflowers. In short, the real deal. 

The real “back to the basics” means back to the elemental, primary experience of this life on this living earth. Discovering the miracles the human body, voice and mind is capable of before extending it and transmitting it out further with electronic assistance. The real latest and greatest is simply remembering the miracles that lie at our feet and our vast, unbounded imaginative potential at our fingertips. And the reminder that you don’t have to go to Africa to repair our fragmented, broken, disconnected, alienated selves. It’s available equally with different colors and sounds and inflections in Scandinavia and indeed, in every spot on this wide and varied planet where people attend to the gifts their ancestors bequeathed them. That’s the kind of conference that indeed is worthy and can make a profound difference in the lives of young children.

Thanks to the teachers, the students, the organizers, the host setting, the wildflowers and the weather for the reminder. (Those curious about these women’s work can go to www.nordicsounds. But only after you’ve gone out and hugged a tree.)

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Worthy Praise

Today was my Mom’s 98thbirthday, though not really, since she left us 5 years ago. But here at the Mini-Conference at my Carmel Valley Orff home, with 6 Nordic women who are both good friends and astound me with their talents, I once again played a jazz ballad with people lying under the piano. This one was in honor of my Mom’s birthday and though I rarely feel that I play as well I imagine I want things to sound, there were a few moments when I felt her presence. 

My issues as a musician could fill a book and I know why. (It has to do with a shaky childhood foundation.) But I have had the good fortune to sometimes create an intimate space that draws people in and releases precisely the feelings I hope the music can— vulnerability, a touch of sadness, a bittersweet joy, a sense of time pausing. Many post-playing hugs from people who felt touched and that was all the affirmation I need to keep trying to inch forward musically from my shaky foundation. 

Perhaps the most remarkable and welcome praise I received was from a student in my Salzburg course a few weeks back. She wrote:

When you started to play solo, I felt that sounds were going into me, taking me and carrying me to the instrument. It was strange and painful just to seat on a seat and listen to on the distance. I had a strong physical instinctive wish to be next to the instrument, to touch it, to hug it, to lay my head down on the surface and to feel, feel, feel, absorb vibrations. I was crying during the whole piece, I couldn't stop or control it.

And I was crying the whole evening after the concert. It was like pure beauty touched me. 
I felt that you were hearing sounds very deeply, I felt that you were breathing, relaxed and allowed to flow to move, I heard a story. I don't remember such experience in my life. I suspected what it was to hear music by the whole being but I have never heard music that way. 

I am so grateful for your musicianship and your working hard with this attitude to sound, to the sense of music. I am so grateful that your playing touched and talked with my core, not my mind. 
And I am grateful so much that now I can tell you that experience.  

Worthy praise, indeed. I guess I’ll stick with it. Happy birthday, Mom.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Transparent to Transcendence

Somewhere in Alice in Wonderland, someone talks about running twice as fast to just stay in the same place. That well describes this moment in my always busy life trying to keep all the things I’m juggling (to mix metaphors here) up in the air and not come crashing down. The end result is it is hard to be wholly present with the future, present and past all shouting for my attention.

But I did have an hour or so where I was drawn fully into someone else’s extraordinary presence when I attended a concert by one of the six Nordic women come to San Francisco to present at our once-every-two-years Orff retreat down here in the Carmel Valley. I know each of these strong, beautiful and vibrant women from Iceland, Finland and Norway, and it was the concert by Ruth Meyer that briefly chased away my to-do list and brought me into a world rarely visited but always known. 

Ruth has devoted her life to studying the sonic capabilities of the human voice and blended various traditions world-wide into her own personal statement. Armed with her compelling bodily presence and an encyclopedia of ways to produce sounds with that most profound and expressive of all human instruments, the voice, she brought the room to a listening hush and took us on a remarkable trip. Most impressive was her artistic way to use technique and virtuosity to serve the musical needs of the moment, never to show them off simply to dazzle and amaze, though dazzling and amazing they all were. You could palpably feel many presences singing through her, from her own Norwegian ancestry to that of other cultures to the natural world, all of this made yet more intriguing by a serendipitous counterpoint of sounds—horns, sirens, homeless people shouting—outside the window on Market Street. 

In talking with her after the concert and praising her, I told her about Joseph Campbell’s quote “transparent to transcendence.” So many singers, musicians, political figures channel or generate an electric energy that astounds the audience and that is fine as far as it goes. We all need to be woken out of our slumber and feel just a little bit more alive. But then comes the razor edge’s moment when all that energy stops at the performer, makes us admire and worship him or her, makes him or her crave the admiration and there we create the diva, the super-star, who will suffer from the excess of people’s own creative energy turned over to their human-size shoulders. Elvis just one of a thousand examples.

But to be transparent to transcendence is to have that energy pass through the performer and gather up the audience to be part of it all. To take all one’s talent and hard-work and mysterious charisma and bring it into service of the music, the gathering of people, the culture as a whole. That’s a rare gift and one that Ruth blessed us with.

Now back to my list.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Problem. Incubation. A-ha!

I’m always looking for pithy ways to capture the ways in which we really learn and grow. Don’t know where I first saw this one, but I lived it this morning. Yesterday had a class with the 5thgrade who I hadn’t seen in a couple of months because of all my travels. Now was the time to check back in on two pieces we had done to see if we could get them ready for the Spring Concert. So we reviewed all the parts in a kind of helter-skelter way and the tone of the class felt exactly like that—helter-skelter. It’s okay as part of the creative process, like writing horrible first-drafts, but two helter-skelter classes in a row is not a happy situation. So the problem was laid out before me. 

In short, how to take all the separate parts of two pieces I had created from a text and arranged with Orff instruments, recorders, body percussion, singing, percussion instruments, improvisation and more and put them together into one coherent whole. To move from the Romance of messy exploration to the Precision of performance. 

Step number one is to coherently name the problem and I did. Things needed to be set in a clear sequential form and the kids needed to pick one instrument and one part that they would practice and perfect. 

Now came the Incubation. Out of the dizzying array of sonic and kinesthetic possibilities, which would I keep and which throw out? And what would be the best form to feature each media? So the wheels in the brain started turning, both when I pedaled them with focused thought and then on their own in my sleep and in my daydreams. And then literally when I pedaled to school on my bike (in honor of Earth Week), arriving with 10 minutes before my class started. 

I wrote out a possible form of both pieces on the Board, settled the kids to show what their choices were and released them to their chosen instruments and a short period of practice. Then off we went trying it all and with a few changes that were obvious once we tried them, we were going strong! Exciting, forceful music and the kids were 150% behind it, on top of it, around it, into it. This was our “A-ha!” reward, along with some others and kids improvised phrases and started to mold their best ideas into a remembered, composed part. 

And here, surprisingly, I will highly praise the i-Phone as a tool of remembrance. I took pictures of the ensemble so I could remember who was playing what and even recorded snippets of solos that they might want to remember in case they forget in the weeks to come. I also used it to take a photo of the form as I put it on the board. Of course, it worked okay before, kids mostly remembering what they played or me taking the time to write it down. Also to write down in my planning book the form we finally settled on. But nice to have one more back-up in my photos. 

As with school, so with life. Problem—of the thousand things that can go awry with human beings, which one is calling for our attention now? Name it and state your intent to “solve” it (some are unsolvable, but still deserve attention). Then incubate it and prepare for the “A-ha!” And with politics as well. The horror of the last three years is to publicly expose and name problems people like me didn’t realize were still so prevalent. Who could have guessed that there was so much racism still running rampant, so many people willing to excuse outright lying and sheer stupidity, so many people thinking it’s not important for them to vote? But a lot of incubation has been happening in these three years and many “A-ha’s!” May it continue!

For now, the next problem is clear. Will the Warriors beat the Clippers next game? I’m going to sleep on it.

Monday, April 22, 2019

The Running Greeting

Every morning for some 15 years, my wife, two daughters and I got into the car to go to school, where my wife and I were teachers and the kids were students. Then we drove home at the end of the day and walked into the house together. That meant I didn’t get that experience of returning home from the "office" and have my kids run down the hall shouting "Daddy's home!"and leaping into my open arms. (And it goes without saying that my wife missed out on this also). 

But I did my share of weekend traveling and that's when I enjoyed the marvelous enthusiasm of young children running with such glee to greet me, that exuberant no-holds barred joy that makes you feel that all the diapers and tantrums and less sleep was worth it. If this was payback for all the trials of young parenting, it was a pretty good deal!

And now it’s back again! Zadie and Malik greeting me at the airport by running full speed shouting "Pop-Pop!" And again when I arrived from my Air B&B to their house the next morning. The next day, when I visited at their school and there came Zadie, running clear across the playground!  One minute later, they may be busily playing by themselves or mad you won’t give them ice cream before dinner, but that “run at first sight” explosion that a 3 and 7-year-old offer is a gift beyond my daily experience. I mean, let’s face it, no matter how good your relationship with your boss or colleagues, chances are they don’t run to greet you each day. And even your best childhood friend who you haven’t seen in 10 years will maintain their hard-earned adult decorum and walk casually up to give you a high five or cursory hug. 

So while the grandchildren are still fresh and innocent, before they know enough about me that they might someday see me and run the other way, I plan to enjoy every moment of the Run and Greet. It's a good feeling.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Keep Moving

For the past 30 years or so, I’ve passed a neighbor jogging. The pace is slowing, but now in his 70’s, he’s still out there running. I asked him what inspired him and his answer was simple: “My Dad had two good words of advice for me: ‘Keep moving.’”

So many ways to interpret that! For me, it’s not jogging, but coming back from Turkey to two days in New Orleans preparing my summer class there, then two days in San Francisco teaching at school and now two days in Portland with the grandchildren. Then a short week back at school hosting Scandinavian teachers come to teach at the Orff Mini-conference and then drive down to Carmel Valley for the Conference itself. Next weekend is a Men’s Group Retreat in Marin County and two weeks later, my 50thHigh School Reunion in New Jersey. Keep moving, indeed!

Of course, I wouldn’t mind letting a little grass grow under my feet in San Francisco to enjoy a different kind of pleasure. The rhythmic groove of a daily schedule, time at the piano, actually cooking again in the kitchen and shopping and bike riding and tune back into the Australian Mini-Series we’ve been watching. “Stay put” is equally wise counsel if we know how to shape our day well. 

But for now, it’s life on the move and as always, loving the grandchildren time and the cycles of life as we hide Easter eggs for them as we did for our children and as our parents did for us. Playing Sorry and Go-Fish at night, riding bikes in the school playground, reading books and having Zadie read books to us. And though yesterday began with typical Portland rain, the sun emerged in all its glory and Spring was in the air.

“Keep moving” is also good mental advice, continuing to think further than you have and read beyond your immediate experience and discuss with those who don’t habitually agree with you. Play the next jazz piece, improvise a new kind of solo, try out a new technique. Cook a new dish, make a new friend, write a new post on the blog. You get the idea. 

Like my neighbor, you could also jog. 

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The 50-Yard Line

A beginning music teacher is learning to swim the best way. He threw himself in the deep waters of teaching at a school that hadn’t had a music program before and it appears that some of the kids keep throwing him back in the deep water each time he comes up for air. But being a thoughtful reflective person, I have complete faith he’ll not only keep his head above water, but learn to swim and enjoy the cool, refreshing waters. It will take time and a little help from his friends. So below is my answer to his excellent questions:

…This brings up one of the most interesting aspects of teaching as a profession and art. Are the students who are not following directions to blame? Or can I look at their lack of following directions as really, the fact that they are not engaging with my “lesson” and that the responsibility lies on me to develop a more robust and accommodating classroom flow?

And my response: 

Though in the long run, the 50-yard line is where I believe the ultimate responsibility is, in the short run, I think the best response is for you to pretend it's all your fault and to work on developing the "more robust and accommodating classroom flow." For one thing, your own lesson is the thing you have the most control over, certainly more than fixing habitual attention issues in kids or remediating dubious parenting or fixing our culture of over-entitlement, etc. Though children do have responsibility toward their own level of engagement, you first have to make sure you've done everything in your power to engage them. Make sure things are simple enough for early success, complex enough for worthy challenge. Use techniques of non-verbal teaching to avoid over-explaining and keep an unbroken flow to the music you're releasing so that there is little space for inattention. Watch the children like a hawk to note when you or the material has made a connection and let them know that you saw the best musician they can be in that moment. For starters.

Here's a quote that has helped me: "Behavior is the language of children." If habitual inattention persists, then an actual private conversation with a kid can help both you and them find the words to communicate what the issue is. You can ask them: "Which part of music class do you like best? (And don't accept "none.") Singing? Dancing? Playing? Improvising? Games?" You can tell them without anger that you notice they're not wholly engaged and that you're doing your part to make the lessons more interesting and doing your part (by talking to them) to take the time to find out how you can teach them better. And then here's a good place to throw in the 50 yard image and remind them that they have a responsibility for their own learning and level of attention and you expect them to do their part. Shake hands on it!

Hope some of this is helpful. In the words of the great Thelonious Monk, when asked to comment on the performance of a college band:

“Keep on tryin’!”

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Life with the Other

In the past four weeks, I’ve most been with people who on the surface are quite different from me. Different mother tongue, different cultural upbringing, different religion. They eat some different foods, sing some different songs, play some different instruments. Many had different skin tones or different body types. And yet, we found a way to connect. In fact, connect more deeply than I often do with people who seem to be just like me.

It’s indisputable that we are hard-wired for sameness. Left alone in any social setting, boys will group together and girls will group together. The black kids will sit together in the cafeteria long after Jim Crow has been dismantled. Parents from the same elementary school who didn’t particularly hang out together will cluster at the new high school parent night. Sameness is our default setting that brings comfort and familiarity, a safe base from which to venture out.

But our development into adulthood invites us to venture out, from the toddler taking steps further and further away from the parent to the bold move to talk to a stranger at a party to tasting new foods, reading new books, studying new musical styles, traveling to a new place and daring to wander beyond Starbucks. The pull to explore the other is as central to our nature as our urge toward sameness, but requires a more conscious effort and demands an openness and curiosity that our upbringing either supports and encourages or shuts down and denies. 

The negative side of the comfort of sameness is our fear and distrust of the other, again, probably biologically-based from our survival instinct from our ancient predator-prey roots. Is this “other” dangerous to me? The brain begins with its fight/ flight/freeze instinctive response until the other has proven trustworthy. Of course, within our “tribe” there are layers of fear and distrust, some alpha male hierarchy that has its own layers of self and other, but the dynamic between two antelope is less threatening than antelope and lion. We may begin with that antelope-lion dynamic, but human beings have the capacity to move beyond the brain stem to the warmth of emotion and the ability to reason, we are made to move beyond our initial instincts. 

And yet so many don’t. We cling obsessively to outer sameness and are threatened beyond reason by anything different. Kids taunting and teasing and bullying all kinds of others—physically or mentally disabled, kids in different places on the gender spectrum— need to be educated into acceptance, tolerance, compassion and eventually, true friendship. Adults who feed that reptile brain with socially constructed assumptions of race, sexuality, religion, class, etc. and feed that initial distrust or fear and build a society around that (listen to any right-wing radio talk show for an example) are causing great damage to culture, the people they wrongly define and themselves. Anyone with three functioning human brain cells and a sliver of an open heart can see in stories like Green BookHidden FiguresThe Help  that they not only continue a legacy of purposeful harm and suffering to others, but they imprison themselves in a small world where they miss the possibility to be friends with whole populations, to learn from them and learn with them. They shut down the potential for “the other” to solve the problem the world needs solved. And so on.

I don’t get it. How poor my life would have been, would still be, without this constant encounter with a host of others who I talk with, walk with, share meals with, play music with, laugh with and listen to until all categories dissolved and all I see is my friend Kofi or Wayan or Mandana or Rodrigo or Wolfgang or Avon or ……well, the list is long. 

When it comes right down to it, we are all “others” to each other. Might as well enjoy it.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Roundup

Writing is the act of corralling the wild horses of thought and experience. Fencing them in with paper or screens so you can count who’s there, feed them, groom them, name them. 
That’s pretty much the point of these daily blog posts or journal writing and it’s somehow necessary to the way I move through this world. 

So waking up to New Orleans morning crows in a beautiful old house so generously offered by one of the students in my last year’s Jazz Course who is helping, enormously, to bring the airy dream of teaching the course in New Orleans this summer down to the ground of reality. Today I will look at the teaching spaces and talk to housing people and try to anticipate what’s needed to make the party fun for the almost 50 people signed-up to attend. It’s one thing to be accountable for their experience of six hours of class for some 10 days. Of that, I have no doubts. But to line up the details of the teaching spaces, housing, lunch options, field trip possibilities, guest artist invitations, transportation ideas and more is, to continue the metaphor, a horse of quite a different color! I have some 12 waking hours ahead to get that a bit more worked out.

But meanwhile, how to round up the wild-horse freedom and delight romping through the countryside of the imagination these last three weeks in four beautiful cities—Salzburg, Verona, Izmir, Istanbul—with some 200 adults and kids from some 14 different countries and cultures? Such pleasure, such privilege and the proper response is the title of an airplane movie I saw once and think of often: “Happy. Thank you. More please.”

As for Turkey, the last of the three, what did I notice? Little quirky things like a coffee frappuccino with applesauce in it, getting my fortune told from the grounds of my Turkish coffee, smoking in restaurants, double security at airports—one just to enter the airport, the next going to the gate, guards at school entrances opening trunks of cars. Istanbul such a blend of ancient history (its original name as Constantinople) and mixed cultures—Muslims, Christians, Jews who escaped from Spain, —and perhaps the only major city where you can cross from the European to the Asian side and back again. 

It’s a place suffering greatly from 25 years of Trump-like dictatorship without the hope of the 4-year term limit, free speech (no Turkish Stephen Colbert is publicly criticizing the government on TV) and a dependable judicial system. A place where I couldn’t write this in a public blog without fear of consequences. And yet, the people I meet are far from beaten down. They’re smart, caring, compassionate, politically astute and still hopeful despite the odds. As are the Iranians who joined the Turks in my last course. I find that consistently impressive. And think with shame of all my fellow Americans who could change things with the simple act of voting and don’t.

So with these horses safely tucked in and resting, off I go into the New Orleans day. 

Monday, April 15, 2019

Turkish Delights

Hard to imagine a more beautiful day. Finished my two and a half day Orff Course and by inner criteria—my sense of the enthusiastic energy in the room, a steady stream of smiles, laughter and beautiful music, the thoughtful questions— it was an unqualified success. Then the outer criteria—the number of photos taken of me with each person (at their request) and some many times over. Then, of course, the tears after the final song and sincere goodbye hugs. That such affirmation has become the norm in this work is tribute to the work itself, the hunger of the participants and their capacity to recognize and appreciate delicious and nutritious food and my unwavering commitment to do this as well as I can. Hooray for it all.

Then whisked off by ex-Intern Didem, her lovely husband and baby to be a tourist around the Galata Tower and then go to a Sufi house to witness the whirling dervishes. A first for me to see this live and it was simply stunning to see the swirling white skirts while some 10 men kept spinning and spinning, like children out in a field of wildflowers under a blue sky, finding some still center that connected them to the gravitational center of their own Spirit. Accompanied by the lovely ney flute, drum, singing and kanun string instrument. My only complaint was that Didem was not allowed in with her baby, the hosts afraid a baby’s cry would disturb the men’s concentration. Well, okay, people don’t bring babies into the Zen Center, but I couldn’t help but think of the Ghanaian trance ceremonies I witnessed and how children and babies of all ages were always present. How else to absorb the vibrations of the presence of Spirit?

From there, a pre-dinner dessert of Turkish delight, pistachio rolls, the ever-present tea and halvah, a food strangely from my childhood that I haven’t eaten in a long time. And where did my mother buy it and why? Funny to find some comfort food in Istanbul.

Farewell to this lovely family and met up with some folks from the Orff course at a restaurant with roving musicians. Five young guys with two violins, dumbek drum, tambourine and the dulcimer-like kanun made their way to our table and led off with a song I actually knew—Uskudara! I pulled out my sopranino recorder and played along (in a mercifully-friendly key) and thus began an hour of jamming with spoons, recorder, body percussion and eventually, dancing. Including two boys who sang a duet and did some flossing (dancing) to Turkish music. Each musician with virtuosic skills wedded to great spirit and energy and wasn’t that a fine way to end my time here? Crawled into bed at 1 am, happy and content and ready to wake up and pack for the last leg of this most marvelous 4 weeks of travel and teaching. Old friendships renewed, new Facebook friends, little breakthroughs in my teaching, connections with landscapes and culture and food and my own solitude. 

And now boarding the plane for the first of three long flights. Onward!

Independent Study

When I first began investigating jazz piano in my early 20’s, I took one lesson with jazz pianist Art Lande. That one lesson was enough for a year of work before I took the second one. A bit earlier in my life, I had my first Orff classes with Avon Gillespie, meeting one day a week for 10 weeks. That saw me through the next ten years of working out what he introduced before I took the next course with him

A few students who I met in the most recent Orff workshop I gave in Istanbul were asking me about opportunities for further development. Should they look for a Music Education Master’s Program in a University? Come to the 9-month Special Course in Salzburg? The 4-month Intern Program in San Francisco? Another woman who did the Intern Program with us in San Francisco and took our three-Level Orff training in Carmel and did the 3-Level Orff training in Turkey was wondering if she should now go the Special Course. 

Of course, I believe in “Orff Course.” And it’s in my interest to entice people to study more—especially with me! But truth be told, my most significant development as a teacher came from a different place. At different times, I wondered if I should get a Masters or a PhD in music education, if I should take all the Kodaly Levels and all the Dalcroze Levels or learn German and take the B Course (now defunct) at The Orff Institut in Salzburg. I’m sure all or any of that would have been a factor in my development.

But at the end of the day, the true training program was teaching children class after class (at a rate of some 5 to 8 classes per day), day after day (175 per year, to be exact), year after year (44 to date). Following what worked, adjusting or abandoning what didn’t, exploring with the children, experimenting, keeping alert to their needs and figuring out what I needed to do to help meet them. There simply is no substitute for that. 

And once you’re in that rhythm, deciding to do a thorough training in another approach or with another person thinking that it can broaden you might actually be a distraction. You have to temporarily abandon your own way of thinking about things to get inside the mind and character of someone else. I’ve heard writers say that when they’re writing, they stop reading others so that they can stay truer to their own style of expression. I’ve heard a few singers say the same. Isn’t that interesting?

It takes a long, long time to develop one’s unique voice and every study you do, be it a single jazz piano lesson or a full-blown doctorate program, becomes an overtone in your fundamental voice that gives body and a particular blend. But it takes a certain unshakeable conviction in one’s own character and way of thinking to stop trying to be like everyone—or any one—else. I believe that I have achieved a personal voice in my Orff Schulwerk teaching that is unmistakably and wholly mine. But still to this day, I walk through my colleagues James or Sofia’s class and think, “Dang! Why didn’t I think of that?” And the answer is simple. “Because I thought of this and it works just as well with the children because it’s my authentic way that’s true to my particular character.”

So, fellow Orff students, teachers, colleagues, by all means, constant refreshment with Orff workshops, courses, seminars, but beyond your basic Orff training, Independent Study is the way to really develop, teaching class after class with children (or adults) and stayed tuned to what’s happening. No Master Teacher has more to offer you than the child in your class. Especially the one who doesn’t get it or is not interested and doesn’t want to get it. Figuring out how to reach that child is all the training you’ll ever need and certainly, the best training you’ll ever get. 

Now to understand all of this more deeply, come to my next Orff Course!!

Saturday, April 13, 2019


"And have you decided that probably nothing important is ever easy? 
Not, say for the first sixty years…"            -Mary Oliver: Halleluia

My sister just sent me a flyer for her upcoming show titled: APPROACHING 70: 50 Years of Life in Dance. And this got me thinking about longevity, about perseverance.

In my own life, I've spent 61 years playing piano, 46 years keeping a journal, 46 years practicing Zen meditation, 45 years in the same marriage, 44 years at the same school, 43 years giving Orff workshops to teachers, 35 years in the same house, 30 years traveling worldwide and teaching, 30 years meeting in the same Men’s Group. I would say that perseverance and long-term commitment runs deep in my blood. And my sister’s too, still dancing after all these years. The riches of longevity, the gifts of staying the course. 

All of it vulnerable to entropy, some sense of winding down, of becoming mere habit, of a  flame slowly burning out with no new sparks to re-ignite it. But at least in my teaching, piano playing, writing, the enthusiasm has not waned, indeed, the flame feels like it’s burning brighter than ever before. I spoke about this yesterday in the workshop. A pool of water will be stagnant if there is no spring feeding into it and no outlet flowing out from it. (Okay, the writer in me aware that I’ve mixed metaphors moving from fire to water, but hey, I’m teaching in an hour and no time to fix it! Let’s stay with the water for now.)

The outflow is sharing the ideas, processes and material I’ve spent a lifetime developing so that it will flow out to teachers who in turn will help allay the thirst of their students with its refreshing waters. And the spring feeding into it all is the habit of asking, “What else can we do? How else can we do this?”, that creative act of imagining and re-imagining a world of possibility. Even if I repeat the material (and I do—often) and even if I repeat more or less the same way of presenting it (also fairly often), I’m still searching for different ways to talk about it, different contexts in which to place it. And occasionally a new twist and turn appears and I’m happy to follow it. 

The spring itself is connected to a larger cycle of replenishment in the Water Cycle and thus, is perpetually renewed. Thus, art and that sense of tapping into an unending flow of perpetual possibility that refreshes and keeps it all alive, new, and vibrant. Not to mention the energy of the people themselves in the workshop reacting to the material and giving back their own excitement and enthusiasm. Recently a student commented that she was always surprised when an activity ended and she realized we had been working and playing for an hour and a half. Wholly immersed in the flow, there was no sense of time passing. That’s a good sign that springs are flowing.

Yesterday, passion. Today, perseverance. Tomorrow? Pepperoni Pizza?


My fifth group of people in as many days, but before I even began, I was moved. Many of the people trickling in were people I knew. Didem, who I shared 4 memorable months with in the Intern program, in my workshop again but now with her baby. Sencer, a Turkish man and Mohsen, an Iranian man from Shiraz were both in the 2017 Special Course in Salzburg. Sanae from Dohar and Melis from Ankara had done the Level Training with us, Hannah from the U.S. was a familiar face. 

Then there were the gifts carried by some students. A drum from Shahram from Shiraz, Iran, a CD from Nastaran in Tehran, food of all sorts. Such generosity. 

The reunion with Mohsen was especially touching, a minute of a bone-crunching hug followed by many kisses on the cheek. He told me how I left a hole in his heart when I left the Special Course after two intensive weeks and then kept telling me during the workshop that he wanted to chew on me, without the slightest weird overtone. Such sincere passion, his love of the way I work and unabashed enthusiasm for my energy. That just doesn’t happen with the men I know in the U.S. 

Past midnight now after an obscenely delicious and too-much meal with my host Ezo’s dynamic mother writing on-the-spot poems about the handsome young men (not me!) sharing the table. Laughter, convivial conversation, the full embrace of life with unencumbered passion. These two young men creating aps for mindfulness meditation came to my workshop and jumped right in with both feet and then gave a review at dinner more profound than many of my American colleague’s reflections who have done this work for decades.

And so passion. The dictionary says, “a strong or extravagant fondness, enthusiasm, or desire for anything or anybody” and that sums up a lot of my feeling for jazz, Orff, family and friends and life in general. There is an intensity, a zest and zeal for life that I feel in various cultures—like the Spanish, the Italians, the Turks, the Ghanaians, the Brazilians and more—and that I relate to. Passion is also connected etymologically to suffering, as in the Passion of Jesus Christ, and it is clear to me that the height of zest for life is related to the depth of the capacity for suffering. Some people and cultures prefer to distance themselves from the passion of emotion and hold life at an arm’s length distance and that has its place. But let’s just say that I prefer Coltrane over Kenny G. 

One more day of workshop enjoying the passion of the Turks and Iranians. More to come.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Waking Up

Now it’s Istanbul and more rain and Ezo, another lovely host-friend and another stirring workshop with another 30 people. That’s my bumper sticker: “Changing the world one workshop at a time.”

Dinner at a restaurant on the Bosporus River looking out at the bridge that is the twin of the Golden Gate. At once home and exotic. After the lovely meal of shrimp and greens and eggplant salad, we looked ahead to plan the next day and Ezo said, “Would you like to wake up tomorrow?” And my clear answer, “Yes, I would.”

Now it’s the next day and I did. It is enough. 

The Story Not Told

We did not take our daughter Talia to church or synagogue growing up, so it was our fault she missed the “Honor Thy Father and Mother” memo. We did raise her to speak out and so it’s just desserts that when I start to tell an airport story, she rolls her eyes and tells me in no uncertain terms that she’s not interested. I get how it often is just a “you had to be there” situation or a “be glad that you were not,” but hey, we all share our experience and airports are a big part of mine.

But in her honor, I will not  tell the story of my missed flight in Izmir, how I was waiting at the gate right next to the correct one and somehow didn’t realize it and when I handed the woman my ticket to board, I thought she said I was the wrong boarding group and should wait and when I waited until the line was almost all through and went again, she told me that (actually) it was the wrong flight and the right one was at the gate next door and how I rushed there and of course, it had left already so I went back out Security to the Pegasus Airlines ticket counter and cut to the front and they waved me to the office across the way and I got there just as a man was dropping off a bag, which happened to be mine which they had not loaded on to the plane when they realized I wasn’t on it (here the story would need extra bells and whistles—how amazing was the timing of that?) and how the man behind the counter said he could get me on the next flight at 9:30 and it was 9:05 and I paid him the extra $34 and rushed back to the ticket counter where they let me cut in again and sent my bag off and went through security again and to the gate and on to the plane and arrived in Istanbul an hour later certain that my bag didn’t make it and how it did and how someone met me and got me into a car with a wood floor and some sweets and how I’m writing this on a busy highway in pouring rain en route to my host’s house in Istanbul where I’ll spend the afternoon finishing the notes to yesterday’s workshop and preparing for tonight’s. 

In deference to my daughter Talia, that’s the story I’m not going to tell. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

This and That

The Aegean Sea in the view out the window of my friend Banu’s apartment in Izmir. First time in this San Francisco-like city with its water, hills, architecture with character and liberal history. The day began in rain but after an extraordinary lunch of 12 different vegetable dishes, the sun graced us with its warmth and light. We walked along the water and talked about this marvelous world of Orff Schulwerk we’ve had the good grace to land in—including all the gnarly gossip and small outrages over this person or that. The usual Human Comedy and Tragedy. 

There have been high and low moments these past two days. On a bus in Verona, my good friend Arianna translated the racial slurs a man was spewing at a black man who was drunk and serving his own form of verbal abuse. That was not happy. But then the next morning, I flew to Rome and then boarding the bus to the next plane to Turkey, saw the most beautiful rainbow. For five minutes straight. 

Successfully negotiated all three flights to Izmir, but though I arrived safe and sound, my bags did not. Aargh! I went through this in Spain a few years ago and it was not a happy thing. So now two days in my same clothes, including teaching in them unshaven tonight, and a vague hope the bags will arrive tomorrow. The life of the constant traveler.

Now preparing for three hours of body slapping with 30 Turkish music teachers—and again, the slight astonishment that this is how I make my living. Go figure. 

Monday, April 8, 2019

Life on the Farm

When I was young, I never could have imagined that someone would have paid for my flight, hotel and all my meals to travel to Italy. And that once there, I’d get to enjoy wonderful people and great food in restaurants and then get paid yet more money, in fact, more than I earn working at my school. To do what? 

To teach people how to slap their own bodies and make animal sounds in precise musical patterns. 

On the real farm, the squawking animals get the farmer out of bed at ungodly hours to feed the chickens, stack the hay and milk the cow. Me, I just get to sing a song about it. The real farmer goes on to feed slop to the pigs, work on the tractor, plow the fields. I just get to go over to the xylophones and play some simple parts to accompany the song. Back on the real farmer, people are out in the field together picking the corn or working with their neighbors to build a barn. My neighbors go off in small groups to create a barnyard of animal sounds based on rhythm patterns I had taught. 

I have great respect and gratitude for farmers doing the work to bring food to my table, but listening to these music teachers share their barnyard-sound musical creations with such humor, I couldn’t help but think:

I love my job. 

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Some Things Are Made for Searching

I’ve been digging into old files on the laptop to try to find a hilarious piece describing a Schubert Symphony from a business cost-analysis viewpoint. Can’t find it (if any of you can, please send it to me!), but did uncover some interesting old pieces I wrote. Like my answer to this letter I received in 2009:

Dear sir,

I'm Jinky Jane, master student  from UMS Malaysia. May I ask sir some opinion for my research? Teachers use to teach singing and sometimes with unpitched percussion in standard 1 to 3. I plan to design a module using Orff-Schulwerk approach on bamboo xylophone(pitch percussion instrument).

Can this research design as an experimental research with control group or treatment group? To investigate the effectiveness of the module on developmental rhythm aptitude and music aptitude. But I’m not sure if I will have a problem if the control group uses unpitched percussion and treatment group uses pitch percussion(to teach borduns, accompainment etc) + Orff-Schulwerk approach.

Can I compare the pre-test and post-test results?


Yours sincerely,
Jinky Jane

And my answer: (I was going to keep the author anonymous, but with a name like Jinky Jane, I couldn’t resist including it!)

Hello Jinky Jane,

Thank you for your questions. I understand that sometimes research can yield interesting findings, but it is not my way of thinking about children and education. I find it distasteful to experiment on children when some simple common sense will tell us the answers we seek. I have taught children for 34 years and I can say with clear authority that we should not choose between singing, dancing, unpitched instrument playing and pitched instrument playing—each one gives children something different and each one is essential. And the most important things it gives to them cannot be measured as pre-test or post-test results— it is the communion with their classmates, their encounter with their own expressive possibilities, the faculties of their souls that are opened by each new piece of music, the way music class can put a frame around their joy and sadness and a thousand other things that art gives to us that scientific measurement cannot touch. 

You don't need scientific testing to know that children who sing everyday guided by a teacher who loves to sing and knows how to choose repertoire, direct the group and train the vocal instrument will become better singers and grow to understand how melodies work. Children who play percussion, again with a teacher who knows how to play and communicate effective technique and share exciting pieces, will grow in their rhythmic skill and understanding. Children who play in the Orff ensemble, again guided by the knowledgeable and enthusiastic teacher, will grow in their understanding of ensemble playing, ensemble texture, orchestration and other essential musical skills. It would be cruel to have one group of children just do one of the above and another group something different just to prove the obvious. ALL children need constant, joyful and expertly-guided experiences in ALL aspects of music-making. 

Note that in each of the above, the prepared and loving teacher is a necessary ingredient. My suggestion would be to abandon the proposed research and instead, do your own search as to your capabilities as a music teacher—get training, read, refine your teaching skills by watching the children in your classes and seeing how they react—if they are happy, enthusiastic, excited, motivated, you're on the right track. When they are not, it's your job to re-consider how to reframe your lesson. Having taught children from 3 years to 14 years old for so many years at one school, this is still the way I'm learning how to teach. With experience, you get better at it, but you never wholly arrive—every class is a new challenge and every child an invitation to figure out how to reach him or her. 

I know this is not the answer you were hoping for, but it's the most honest one I can give.

Thanks for listening,

Doug Goodkin

I never heard back from her. 

(Jinky Jane, if you’re there reading this, let’s talk!)

Friday, April 5, 2019

Reach in. Reach up. Reach out.

After 27 classes in 10 days, over 40 hours of joyful music and dance together, my time with the Special Course came to an end. We sang some beautiful farewell songs and came to the cadence that announces, “The Song is Over.” But as Irving Berlin continued, “but the melody lingers on.” And indeed it will, in the days, weeks, months and even years to come. 

And then we said a different kind of goodbye this morning at breakfast, as each one of these 17 lovely souls got to speak of their “takeaway” from our time together, choose one thing out of the many to share. This is a strong moment for me as a teacher, the Mirror of Truth reflected back to me to discover what struck them, what helped them, what touched them or moved them. 

Predictably—and thankfully—none of them said “You’re an awesome teacher!” I would have been disappointed to hear that they merely praised my teaching. Of course, a little is okay, but real teaching is about the student, not the teacher. It’s about what the teacher was able to awaken in the student, what new ideas considered or old ideas confirmed came forth in the classes. I love hearing people testify that they understood something more clearly or grew more comfortable in a skill they had previously had doubts about or understood why their teaching hadn’t been as flowing as musical as they’d like it to be. Without exception, each sharing helped us all to know that the time was well-spent and served as reminders to remember what is so easy to forget in the heat of busy teaching schedules in schools that don’t often talk about such things. 

As someone constantly in search of the words or phrases that eloquently sing what most of us know but haven’t found how to say it, I was moved by one student’s (Michele Ellis, to give her due credit!) summary, paraphrased as follows:

1)   Reach in. Look inside for the music that sings in you, for your own way of thinking and organizing your teaching, for the stamp of your character that gives you a unique voice as an artist, teacher and human being.

2)   Reach up.  Work hard to constantly aspire yet one inch higher, to get yet a larger view, to push your “daydream up the mountain slope.”

3)   Reach out. Share it all with the world, formally in your classes, informally in your writing, in your performances or recordings or writing. Engage with everyone who comes across your path and discover what they have to offer you as well.

Reach in, reach up, reach out. A nice pithy way to remember what’s important. Thanks to Michele for this and hope my definitions did yours justice. 

Another student’s summary was even pithier, summarizing everything important that had happened in two weeks in one word


For that one, well, you just had to be there.