Friday, May 31, 2019

Elevating the Frivolous

It’s the last week of school. Kids are choreographing their dances for the Samba Contest, working on their Cookie Jar skills, preparing themselves for the Mud Pie Complete Control Challenge. It is a feast of frivolous fun festive fanciful games and activities that form part of our school’s unique character. Dare I say the backbone? The idea that fun and frivolity have a place in the body of serious education has informed my life’s work and if not the backbone of my school, it’s also not the toenail. I’ve managed to help elevated the apparently frivolous to a place of dignity and worth. 

First off, it fits the way children are put together. They’re funny and fun-loving and if we’re going to help develop their equally natural serious hard-working selves, we would do well to meet them at their level. Secondly, to be serious without humor is no good for anyone. And likewise to be constantly humorous without seriousness. And finally, it’s memorable. Talk to kids 40 years later and they still remember these moments. Much more than their math test.

Elevating the frivolous. Consider it.

Report From the Wild

Back from a delicious two days camping with 23 5thgraders, their teacher (my daughter), a few fellow staff and some wonderful parents. It is the sole survivor of our traditional Calaveras camping trip, that extraordinary adventure in the Sierras that ended our school year with 60 kids (3rd, 4th, 5thgrade) for five days for 20 glorious years. We braved rattlesnakes, bears, three-day rains with leaky tents, heating up morning bagels in the snow, helicopters looking for escaped convicts, trips to the emergency room with kids, drug dealers roaming in Stockton Parks where we lunched, buses stuck on the hill outside our school and more and wasn’t that fun? Yes, it was. 

Now the scope is reduced (though this year my daughter expanded it to four days), the site is closer (China Camp), the legal paranoia increased (no beer for staff), but the feeling and the spirit and the rituals we established are alive and well. As I’ve long known, the kids that drive you crazy trying to behave in the confined spaces of the school classroom are in heaven out in the wild, finding dead lizards, running after frisbees, climbing trees, singing with spirit around the campfire. With no schedule breathing down our necks and the luxury of time to hang out with kids, fellow teachers and parents alike, we discover so much more about each other. One kid who memorized almost every Hamilton song, another making up complex riddles, a teacher doing handsprings, a parent playing impressive ukulele and so on. 

Sharing their highlights at the end of the day, so many kids expressed their delight in seeing something other than human beings— the wild turkeys that trotted through camp, various deer, relentless raccoons, an osprey on the hunt. Everything gets put into proper proportion when two-legged folks are not the only show in town and when the daily show is always three-dimensional, with texture and color and smell with barely a screen in sight. 

It’s a beautiful way to end the school year. Or start it. Or heck, live it! May camping prevail!

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

A Touch of Humor

Humor is certainly one of the 21stcentury survival skills. When the leader of our country sides with a dictator insulting one of our politicians and the same leader of such low-level intelligence has the temerity to call his opponent a “man of low I.Q.,” whatever is left of our capacity for outrage needs a touch of humor. 

With that in mind, I stumbled on some pretty funny one-liners that someone once sent me and now’s the time to share them. Enjoy!

1. Where there's a will, I want to be in it.
2. The last thing I want to do is hurt you. But it's still on my list.
3. Since light travels faster than sound, some people appear bright until you hear them speak.
4. If I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.
5. We never really grow up, we only learn how to act in public.
6. War does not determine who is right - only who is left..
7. Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.
8. They begin the evening news with *Good Evening,* then proceed to tell you why it isn't.
9. To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.
10. Buses stop in bus stations. Trains stop in train stations. On my desk is a work station.
11. I thought I wanted a career. Turns out I just wanted paychecks.
12. In filling out an application, where it says, *In case of emergency, notify:* I put *DOCTOR.*
13. I didn't say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you.
14. Women will never be equal to men until they can walk down the street with a bald head and a beer gut, and still think they are sexy.
15. Behind every successful man is his woman. Behind the fall of a successful man is usually another woman.
16. A clear conscience is the sign of a fuzzy memory.
17. You do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive twice.
18. Money can't buy happiness, but it sure makes misery easier to live with.
19. There's a fine line between cuddling and holding someone down so they can't get away.
20. I used to be indecisive. Now I'm not so sure.
21. You're never too old to learn something stupid.
22. To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.
23. Nostalgia isn't what it used to be.
24. Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.
25. I'm supposed to respect my elders, but it's getting harder and harder for me to find one now.

Monday, May 27, 2019

21st Century Man

No question that I came in to it kickin’ and screamin,’ but the last couple of hours has confirmed that I’m pretty solidly a 21stcentury man now. On a simple trip to Trader Joe’s and the Apple Store, I found myself clickin’ and tickin’, swipin’ and wipin’, chargin’ and enlargin’. I forgot the grocery list and my wife took a photo and sent it by Messenger. A friend sent a Youtube video asking if this is the song we were supposed to learn this Saturday. People who seem so eager to talk to me from Lithuania, Slovenia, Morocco, Niger, Burundi kept calling and I eagerly added them to my new BLOCK CONTACT list purchased via the Ap Store, where I also got a magnifying glass to try to read a tiny-printed score I downloaded on the computer. I ordered an external disk drive at the Apple Store, advised that it would be expensive and take five days to fix my internal disk drive, got my password rejected, had to crosscheck with a new one sent via e-mail and enter the 4-digit code to get it and then also prove I wasn’t a robot, which at this point was a bit questionable. 

The good news was that I spent the hour before my walk-in Apple Store appointment walking around Lake Merced and dreaming about my book I’ve re-entered and came up with a perfect solution as to how to finally structure the chapters. And didn’t even write it down on my phone, but kept it my head! My old 20thcentury self still alive and kicking! 

Then, of course, back home to the 21stcentury antique (6-years old!) computer to post this on my blog and then back to the 19th/ 20thcentury piano to play some 18thcentury music. Tomorrow some Medieval recorders and ancient drums. And later this week camping out in the Marin hills with 5thgraders, sleeping on the timeless earth—well, maybe with an Insulite pad. 

I’m a Renaissance cross-century man! I like it.

Today's Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson, that esteemed American thinker and writer, once said:

This time, like all times, is a very good one if we but know what to do with it.

 Thank you, Ralph. That is excellent advice. But I think you would be astounded by the particular insanities of our time. And since you’re not here to help us, I appeal to you readers out there:

Any ideas?

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Threading the Thread

Training for the Marathon. Practicing for the concert. Tending a garden. These kinds of things weave a thread between the days, connect the passing of time, stave off the chaos of randomness with meaning and purpose. We could all do with some of that.

The “holding the thread” poem I shared several posts ago is about a lifetime commitment to your own way of seeing the world, your own inborn sense of what you can do and what you can express that no one else quite can in the same way. But we also must weave the thread, day by day, week by week, year by year, as we walk through the grand tapestry of life. 

And this isn’t easy. Always tempting to go from one sensation to the next, get thrown off-track by the 1001 distractions now given extra strength from machines and electrons. To find ourselves just passing time, killing time, getting through rather than co-creating each moment of time’s passing. Not to say we don’t deserve some time out on the couch watching TV. But even here, the things that satisfy most these days are the threaded Mini-series. More than the half-hour sitcom or the two-hour movie, the six to ten seasons of connected plot put us into an imaginative life not our own, but still resonant with the satisfaction of the thread. 

Teaching, of course, is an automatic thread. Especially if, like me, you’re a music teacher who works with the same kids over an 11-year period. That’s quite a project, witnessing the evolution of skills and understanding, noting the core unchangeable character of each child’s own thread, being surprised by the little twists and turns in the tapestry. But teaching class after class, we don’t always feel the pleasure of the connection. Especially now in the last weeks of school, when the concerts are done and everyone is thirsting for summer. A good time to just play and that’s fine, but it’s a bit like time out with TV.

All of this come to the surface because after a two-month absence, I dove back into writing my almost-done-but-not-quite book that I started in the Fall and immediately felt the difference between that and just writing these blogposts or checking e-mail. The engine of thought is turned on and whether walking, biking, sleeping, the needed words are appearing as gifts. Gifts to be immediately set down before they fly away.

Meanwhile, for the dwindling number actually reading these posts, I hope at least a few serve more as reminders than distractions, invitations to remember and renew your own work with your unique thread. The world is waiting.

Saturday, May 25, 2019


In addition to the little Memo notebook I carry in my front pocket—and have for some 35 years—I now have a document sitting in the middle of my computer desktop that says “To Do.” Using my sophisticated skills, I make my list of items and then cross-out the things I’ve done. Move those to the bottom of the list and raise others to the top. 

Now I’m thinking I need another document titled “To Be.” Reminders like: 

1)   Sit with my back against a tree and just watch the world.
2)   Wander aimlessly in a new neighborhood. Don’t bring the phone.
3)   Sit an extra period of meditation.
4)   As always, play piano. 
5)   Write a poem without expecting to.

I always think that the purpose of the “to do” list is to cross off the things that must be done so I can finally have time to “be.” But there is no end to that list and one can easily get addicted to putting items on and crossing them off and forgetting entirely that there’s more to good living than answering e-mails, arranging flights, filling out forms and generally kowtowing to the world’s constant demands. A life well-lived puts doing and being in constant conversation with each other. 

I believe this was best expressed by graffiti I often saw in the Antioch College bathrooms:

“To be is to do.” —Plato

“To do is to be.” —Sartre

“Do-be-do-be-do.” —Frank Sinatra

Friday, May 24, 2019

Guitars, Motions and Peacock Feathers

Habitually, I mostly play piano on the weekly Friday visit to the Jewish Home for the Aged and occasionally sing while playing. But inspired by Austrian Orff teacher Christine Schonherr, who works with elders in Salzburg, I did something different today. Instead of starting with Bach, Ragtime or a jazz standard at the piano, I sat close to the residents with my guitar and led a Singing Time like the ones I do each day at school. A simple folk song repertoire with recognizable tunes and words they can sing along with—Home on the Range, Oh Susannah, Take Me Out to the Ball Game and the like. And then motions. She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain  could be a physical therapist’s anthem, with up and down, side to side, circular, midline-crossing, different body parts motions. Not to mention the mental acuity to remember a sequence in reverse. The engagement was palpable and the folks very happy to be moving as they could and singing.

And then my partner-in-crime Laura Ruppert, again inspired by Christine, brought peacock feathers and handed them out. The residents used them like conductor’s batons as I played John Phillip Sousa marches, Johann Strauss waltzes, Offenbach’s “Can-Can.” And then I asked the folks to close their eyes while Laura and a few other visitors circulated amongst them tickling their hands and arms with the feathers while I played The Moonlight Sonataon the piano. I looked up from the printed score and saw a roomful of blissful faces. 

Then Laura sang Offenbach’s Barcarolle and Gounod’s Ave Maria, filling the pin-drop silence of the listeners. One women had such an expression of sublime joy on her face as the notes washed over her and erased all symptoms of time’s passing. From there, another singer joined us as we swung our way through some jazz songs—Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man, Heaven, Somebody Loves You, Alfie, Get Me to the Church on Time. For that one-hour of singing, listening, moving, conducting, from folk to classical to jazz, with some sensual peacock feathers thrown in, we were in a church filled with more spirit that just about any church I’ve ever been in—except perhaps, one with a Gospel Choir. But even that doesn’t have the range of emotion that we led out. 

And just the day before, I led a preschool singing time with 80 kids in which we reviewed the songs we had sung throughout the year, just one short verse of each. We counted the songs while we sang and came up with 30 songs in 25 minutes. And at least another 30 that we’ll get to next Singing Time. And my heart-throb moment in that was a 4-year-old belting out Free at Lastwith such her hand on her chest and such passion in her face.

As someone who sang very little the first 20 years of my life, I’m astounded that this has become just about my favorite thing to do and that I’ve learned to do it so well. My gift is to almost effortlessly pluck out the next song from a storehouse of some 500 and more and find the one just right for the moment. One that comes from the one before and leads to the one ahead. No papers to shuffle, no books to open to find the score, no i-Phone to look up the lyrics, just all (well, almost all) at my finger and tongue’s tip. Like any human being, I’ve made some dubious and bad choices in my life, but learning these songs and how to share them is not one of them! Perhaps the best choice I ever made. 

And then I get spontaneous messages like this one from 5-year-old Ripley to confirm that I got it right:

Thursday, May 23, 2019

The Adult in Charge

As I’ve said many times before: I may have written eight acclaimed books, one a “best-seller” in the Orff world, taught in 45 countries worldwide, been awarded a few prizes, given a couple of thousand workshops and generally climbed to the top of the ladder in my chosen profession, but when it comes down to it, the kids don’t care. They’re not impressed. They’re perfectly happy to talk while I’m talking, listen to my directions and do the opposite, get way off task and show no interest in my reminders to re-focus, try to have fun by making fun of the activity at hand. In short, contrary to my impressive speech I give at workshops about how my goal is to leave class happier than when I walked in—and for the kids to do the same— neither was true with one particular class yesterday.

So now my choices as to how to think about what happened and how to respond. The first impulse are thoughts like these:

• Kids today have no respect. 
• They’re totally unable to focus and pay attention to the tasks at hand.
• They’re horrible at listening.
• They’re rude and lack even the most basic etiquettes.
• Their parents spoil them. 
• They’re way too entitled.
• All those damn screens are destroying even the most basic social/emotional skills.
• If only so-and-so wasn’t in the class, it would be much better. 
• I’m getting too old for this crap.
• Hey, I’m not having fun and I have retirement options.


It’s entirely unproductive to entertain thoughts like these. But hey, I did it anyway. As would we all.

But here’s the difference. I gave myself about a minute to go through the list and then reminded myself, “I’m the adult in the situation. Not that the kids don’t have responsibilities, but it’s my responsibility to lead them to theirs.”

And so the next day, I began class with a calm statement of my displeasure with yesterday’s behavior, a clear summary of what was unacceptable and what the consequences would be if it happened again today. Setting clear limits and expectations and consequences is part of what it means to be an adult.

And then, with a smile, I proceeded to lead a class that I knew they would love, one that unleashes their imagination, gives permission to their humor, gets their mind thinking in coordination with an expressive body, gets them working, playing and creating together in a kid-friendly way and has a mild competitive element where judges choose them if they do something well (and by the end, each team is invariably chosen). Everyone was thoroughly engaged, with the program, having a great deal of fun and we all left the class happier than when we walked in.

If I reacted only as a child, I would have stuck with all those first-impulse complaints. If I reacted only as an adult, I would have punished them in some ways, shamed them, had them pay lip-service to promising to be more respectful. The true adult is one who carries the child within and is in conversation with the best part of the child-mind— the curious, funny, imaginative, joyful one, not the needy, whiny, self-centered part. The true adult also carries the adult within, the one able to step back, analyze, respond thoughtfully and compassionately and renew one’s determination to create an atmosphere that brings forth our best selves, no matter what age of people are in the room. 

Every day in the news, we see either whiny children in adult bodies or fossilized adults who have shut down their joyful childlike self. Not a lot of positive models out there. But again, the true adult complains with a purpose and then moves on to create a healing antidote, a positively constructed way to be just a bit better than we were yesterday. It has taken me a long time to grow up, but experiences like yesterday’s difficult class and today’s joyful one have helped me get closer to that elusive being called an adult. 

I often quote Tom Robbins: “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” But I think I need an addendum: “It’s never too late to become a functioning adult.” Congress, take note!


What is soap? Really? What is it made from? Who invented it and when? What did people do before it was invented for a few hundred thousand years? Why doesn’t soap get dirty?
Where did Soap Operas get their name from?

Soap. One of those many things we use every day without ever pondering what it actually is, where it came from and how important it is to our lives. Like democracy. 

This, as my kids used to say, is my DTOTD—Deep Thought of the Day. Written after I showered and felt sufficient gratitude for—soap. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Old Thoughts on Some Still Current Realities

I was thrilled to find the old Pingry High School newspaper that I had long thought about and hoped to track down. It had an article I wrote about the racial situation in the United States in 1968. I was 17-years old and yes, the article is below my current standard of good writing. But my intention was good and I hit on some truths that have guided my life. Back then, I had met Bill Blackshear, my African-American fellow passionate basketball friend in 8thgrade and Dave Fullilove, another African-American friend from Pingry. I had yet to have my life transformed by African-American jazz musicians I would never meet in person—folks like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane—well, the list is long—and some folks who I had the good fortune to meet and even play with at my school—Bobby McFerrin, Milt Jackson, Stefon Harris, Linda Tillery and more. I had yet to meet my Orff mentor Avon Gillespie, my Ghanaian teacher and friend Kofi Gbolonyo, my son-in-law Ronnie Taylor and my grandchildren Zadie and Malik, all people of color who lifted (and still lift) my world with their spirit, but have suffered the barbs of racism that are still sadly continuing 50-years after this article. 

I don’t love the ending and their could have been some useful editing, but mostly the article seems to hold up. Though the use of the word “Negro” and the consistent masculine pronouns makes it feel outdated, the harsh truths and realities are still relevant. Particularly the first paragraph—the purposeful ignorance and refusal to raise awareness. Here is the article: 

“X” Is For the Unknown

The problem of a sheltered Pingy being unaware of the outside world is a very real one and is nowhere more pressing than in regard to the Negro situation. It is this state of unawareness that causes people to draw false conclusions concerning the Negro and his problems. And it is these conclusions which are the basis of racism in America today. 

The Negroes were “freed” 105 years ago from one form of slavery only to journey north to the “promised land” and become economically enslaved in the ghetto. Such statements frequently made my unaware whites as, ‘The Negroes are a lazy people who would rather sit around and collect relief checks instead of working,’ become immediately absurd when one becomes familiar with the horrors of life in the ghetto. These people ask that the Negro pick himself up by his bootstraps when he doesn’t have any boots. They seem to forget that the Negroes are human beings and they are no less adept and can’t be expected to be more adept than any other human being at overcoming impossible odds to break out of their living hell. In the ghetto, everday living is viewed as a survival of the fittest. Thousands of children are forced to drop out of school to take up a form of hustling so that they may survive. Narcotics almost invariably become a part of the ghetto dwellers life for many have to keep ‘high’ just to face their miserable existence. Prison is a home away from home for many. Negroes in the ghetto (which constitute almost 65% of the Negro population) have the misfortune of living in a  society which crushes them and then condemns them for not being able to withstand the weight. 

In a discussion concerning today’s Negro, the question of the riots almost invariably comes up. The first question raised is, “Are they logical means of attaining equality?” In order to answer this question, I refer to a quote from The Autobiography of Malcom X.”

‘ I remember well how my mother asked me why I couldn’t be a nice boy like my brother Wilfred; but I would think to myself that Wilfred, for being so nice and quiet, often stayed hungry. So early in life I had learned that if you want something, you had better make some noise.’

Actually, whether you agree with the accomplishments of the riots is secondary. The important question is, ‘Is it psychologically justifiable for the Negroes as human beings to react as they have to a continued state of oppression?’ I maintain that it is. If you still insist that the riots are reflections of the Negroes’ destructive nature, can you term them any less horrible that the lynching of 1846 Negroes between 1900 and 1930? What today’s Negro is essentially saying is no different from what Patrick Henry said in his famous statement, ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’

Black Power. What is it? Conrad Prusak, in his article in the last issue of the Pingry Record, concluded that Black Power was something to be put in the same category as violence, riots and destruction. The mistake he and so many other people make is to link Black Power to violence and perceive it as a bid for black domination and exploitation. Black power, hoever, is probably the best movement today for advancing the Negro cause. It deals with the problem from all aspects—social, economical and political, in a manner which is beneficial to Negro interests. 

On the social level, Black Power seeks to erase the self-degradation imposed on the Negroes by whites and replace it with a sense of racial pride and dignity. No longer shoul a Negro have to apologize for the color of his skin. He can now say, “I’m black and I’m proud of it.”
The concept of racial pride serves also a cohesive factor in achieving racial unity, a vital step in bettering the Negro situation. Thus, when the white people are ready to come to terms with the blacks (and hopefully, they will one day), they will be dealing with a psychologically healthy and united group of people.

Secondly, Black Power seeks to strengthen the ghetto economically. Every day, Negroes do business with white merchants who leave the ghetto at night to return to their suburban homes. Thus, all the Negroes’ economic potential flows on a one-way street, out of the ghetto and into the hands of the white exploiter. Black Power seeks the strengthening of Negro business and enterprise, and the prerequisite that any white merchant setting up a business in the ghetto must reinvest a substantial portion of his income or face economic boycott. This would be a step in erasing Negro dependence on whites, a primary cause in their failure to achieve equal rights. They would no longer have to accept compromises from the white establishment because of their dependence. 

Although the Negro in various areas might achieve a good education and financial stability, the whites still control the school, the police force and other facets of the community which prevent the Negro from fully attaining the equality he apparently had achieved. It soon became clear that the legislation which was passed because of the Civil Rights movement was not enough. It became clear that economic stability and a good education were not enough to achieve an equal status. Enforcement of the laws was the key. Unfortunately, Negroes in a politically powerful position have not used their power effectively because they sacrifice their position as a voice for the oppressed Negro in return for some material gains and status which few Negroes are allowed to achieve. Black power seeks to harness the political potential of the Negroes and channel it into an independent party whose leaders are not responsible to the white power structure and thus, less likely to betray their people for a pat on the back. 

What Black Power essentially seeks is total independence from the whites—not separation, but independence. Once the Negroes raise themselves up from a subordinate position to an equal one, terms such as integration become meaningful and not until then. It is clear that the white establishment never had and does not intent to allow the Negro to achieve the rights every other American takes for granted. Black Power lifts the burden from the unresponsive whites and transfers it to the blacks. The cry it makes to the whites is not, “’Help us’ but ‘Don’t try to stop us.’

When various students in Pingry saw me reading the book Black Power, they asked me why I was reading it. They couldn’t understand me becoming involved without being forced to. In this instance, the white person (me) chose whether he wished to become involved or not. Unfortunately, it was (and is) a small minority that took it upon themselves to investigate the Negro situation. Soon, however, the Negroes aren’t going to give us the luxury of a choice. So far, the riots have destroyed merely the symbols of white aggression, not the whites themselves. Yet, the same white racism which led to the burning of white stores could conceivably be extended to include the whites. You may choose to go home to your house on the hill and pull down the shades to the realities of the outside world. But one day you may go home only to find your house burned to the ground. For the Negroes will not be stopped in their efforts to achieve their rights as human beings.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Holding the Thread

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

                            -William Stafford

Sometimes I wonder if I’m over-interested in my own autobiography. But the truth is, it’s not about me. It’s about the genius/daimon/ thread that has been by my side my whole life and my slow journey of merging personal biography with the Soul’s destiny that’s of interest. The details change, but it’s a universal experience, that sense of having come to birth to fulfill a particular destiny and to contribute to some grand scheme in a way that moves evolution forward. The journey is fraught with wrong turns, refusals, closed doors that we stop knocking on, opening doors that we miss. It’s not an easy thing to hold the thread and follow its winding. But it the journey we’re meant for. 

So my 50thHigh School Reunion is still echoing and it turned out to be extremely meaningful to see how some threads began there that I have indeed followed. Some—like pole vaulting—had their brief mayfly existence and the time spent playing Bach on the organ shifted to jazz on the piano, but though I think college was where I first began to come into my own, it really began around 11thgrade in high school and I can name some of the books that led me to certain awakenings that were in their tender bud form: Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown opening my eyes to the racial situation in America, How Children Fail by John Holt that gave language to my dissatisfaction with school, Walden by Thoreau and Leaves of Grass by Whitman that connected me to the natural world and some sense that spirituality was in the forest and not in the church. 

So I was thrilled to discover an old school newspaper I had long hoped to find that had an article I wrote about Black Power (to be shared here soon), a short story in the literary magazine about finding a wise old man in the woods and a little news item announcing that I had been elected to the newly formed Student/ Faculty Assembly seeking to change some of my school’s outdated practices. The latter in particular was a big surprise because I didn’t remember it! And I was moved to think the students had actually elected me. I was never the Big Man on Campus and I felt like I leaned toward the invisible side, but apparently, I was more present than I thought and that thread of being always outspoken and critical while working to help create models of positive change began earlier than I thought. 

That thread of thinking about what might be improved and marrying vision with action, I’ve held it my whole life. And I found (again, a surprise) a photo that captured a bit of it. Here my hair was beginning to grow (well, that’s a thread I lost!), the look of thinking was real and not posed, in the background is a blurred image of Dave Fullilove, one of my best friends from that time, one of two black students in a class of 90 (who so sadly passed away in 1991). There’s a lot being spoken in that image and it equally moved me that someone thought to put it in the school newspaper. (I put this on Facebook and someone said, “You’re Doug Goodkin the VIth?!” But VI means Form VI, a Country Day School way of describing 12thgrade). 

And so 50 years later, time indeed has kept unfolding, things have changed, loved ones have died, tragedies have happened. But this small two-legged creature has kept hold of that thread and never let go and that has been a great blessing. 

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Tracks of Time

While fiercely loyal to and deeply grateful for my Antioch College years, I’ve always felt lukewarm about my high school experience in Pingry. As a suit-and-tie Country Day school for young gentlemen where we called the teachers “Sir,” it never felt like it fit my character and I never felt wholly known or seen by either the teachers or my fellow classmates. I was always appreciative for the English Department and for the education that got me into college, but never felt compelled to go to a single reunion these past 50 years. Until the 50 year Reunion.

I’m so happy I did. Yesterday was the first of two and for this lifelong student of humanity, it was both moving and fascinating. We each wore a name tag with our high school picture on it, those fresh, young faces unmarked by the tracks of time and the stories that awaited us. I often didn’t need to look at the tag before recognizing that same face 50-years later, with the same character of expression now brought to a fuller blossom by the stories of a half-a-century of life. Stories filled with accidents, surgeries, grief and loss, hard-won little wisdoms, forgiveness. Each story familiar and yet unique and always interesting, each worthy of a TV Mini-series.

There were 30 of us from that class of 90, 9 who had passed away and many who were there in the stories we shared with each other, the memorable pranks, sports triumphs, funny moments and “whatever happened to…” queries. There was a moment in which each shared a thumbnail version of their story. On the surface, there were a lot of doctors, a few lawyers, some in the financial world and some teachers, with many professing a love for some kind of making music and hiking, biking, skiing, kayaking. A few were raising animals or grafting trees. The swimming champion from that time spent a lifetime coaching swimming, the talented golfer continued to tour the amateur golf circuit, the cross-country champion continued to run. I met two that were engaged in a Buddhist practice, one who spoke about the pain of being gay back in those times. 

My wife came on the second of the two days and asked who the cool group was and it struck me, “All of us.” At 68-years-old, we were finally free of the need to prove ourselves, to compare and contrast, to put down or rise up. As one alum remarked, “Everyone seems pretty comfortable in their own skin.” Exactly the feeling I got, as those young fresh faces looking at us from the photo on the wall were now marked with the tracks of time and the path was simply to grow into yourself. (Later I thought it might be  self-selecting group and those who weren’t wholly at peace with who they became probably wouldn’t come to a reunion.). 

More to come.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Things You Don't Know

At least 4 days a week since 1982, I have a driven a certain route to school. I know that the one street I mostly drive on changes names some 5 times—from 7thAvenue to Laguna Honda to Woodside to Oshaunnessy to Bosworth. But today, taking the bus to school, I discovered that before this street makes a T-junction with Alemany, it has yet one more name—Lyell. 

You would think that driving this route some 5,000 times over 36 years, I would know that. But I didn’t. Our brains are small and knowledge is vast and the next time I feel the slightest twinge of arrogance that I know a lot, I’ll remember Lyell Street.

What don’t you know that you think you should?


Who knows why these things randomly happen, but my Dashboard on my computer just decided it was tired of opening for me. So I went to my go-to personal tech support guy at school—Saint Stephen, we call him— and he messed around with things for five minutes and finally said, “Try re-starting.” And that’s all it took. 

In fact, 9 out of 10 times, that’s exactly what’s needed to troubleshoot on the computer and perhaps it’s the same in life too. We used to call it a “do-over” when I was a kid. It’s comforting to know that such a simple solution is often all that’s needed. 

I’m looking forward to a big “re-start” in November of 2020, a chance to get serious about the democracy the Constitution promised having now seen how fragile it is when ignorance, mean-spiritedness, apathy and narcissism have their way. But the climate-change issue feels like a different ballgame. Approaching the time when the only re-start is a dire one—humans out of the picture and the earth tries again, maybe with a different species at top. Or a few leftover humans beginning the gene pool again. Preferably not Republicans. 

Meanwhile, the world keeps spinning around. Second Spring Concert tonight, the Warriors won the first game of Round 3, I finished Season 5 of an excellent series called A Place to Call Home and plenty of conflict, tension, deep problems there, but all in human-sized proportion and the bad guys (and gals) mostly getting their just desserts. It happens, sometimes. 

And when things look bleak, don’t forget this simple advice: 


Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Just a Bit

In two hours, I’ll be back at school escorting (along with my two colleagues) sixty 3rd, 4th and 5th graders onto the stage for our annual Spring Concert. After rehearsing with them non-stop all day. Pushing pianos into the room, lifting xylophones, making sure every mallet is in place and who took that guitar pick? I’m sure it will be a joyful event tonight with happy kids and happy parents. 

But five minutes after receiving the flowers, the three of us will start making sure everything is in place for another full day of Middle School rehearsals with 90 kids, followed by their concert that night. Usually that would be followed by a couple of hours returning the instruments to the music room the next morning, but I’ll miss that because I’ll be getting on a red-eye flight to Newark, New Jersey, arriving at 8:00 am. And 9:00 am, I’ll begin my six-hour Jazz and Orff workshop for some 25 teachers at NJPAC. 

I’m running solely on dark chocolate and heirloom popcorn and though 150 kids playing music gives energy and joy and happiness, let’s be honest here. It’s also exhausting. I’m starting to question whether this kind of work at this kind of pace with this age of kids’ energy might be a wee bit much for this 67-year-old. I’m always boasting about how good teaching and good music and generally good work refreshes and rejuvenates and I’m not exactly lying. But it’s not the whole story. Am I feeling tired at the end of all this?

Well, just a bit. And I’m only halfway through the marathon of the next two days. After my workshop day, I begin two days at my 50thhigh school reunion and having not seen most of my fellow classmates for some—well, 50 years!— I’d like to be at full throttle. We’ll see how that goes. If they ask me if I feel my age, I might just honestly answer:

“Just a bit.”

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Real Mother Goose

Can’t resist sharing what I put on Facebook:

This my reward for biking to Stowe Lake. A dog came by and this Mother Goose spread its wings and shooed that dog away from her goslings. A good reminder for us to be so vigilant and protective of our children, keeping them in mind when each decision that impacts their future is up for discussion, be it hiring a music teacher or protecting old growth forest or defending the Constitution. That's today's Mother's Day message from Mother Goose. 

Ode to the Paperclip

"Order is the only possibility of rest." —Wendell Berry

Today my desk littered with records of payments made or received. 

The detritus of my publishing life, my meager financial life, a jumble of chaos begging for coherence.

CD Baby, Midpoint Trade, Vicks, Aerocorporation, Schott, Alfred, Peripole, West, Madrobin Music, JW Pepper, Long & McQuade, CDA alongside workshop contracts, flights information, Visa statement, B of A statements, Morgan Stanley, Janus, TIA, etc., etc. and yet again etc.

The paperclip to the rescue! Pile the papers together and bind them with a simple action and lo and behold, order is restored! 

Into the letter holder they go, snuggled cozily together in the family where they belong. 
The world is made harmonious by the simplest of tools. 

And let’s not forget nearby relatives— the stapler, the rubber band, the clothes hanger. 
My definition of wealth is have enough of each.

Hail to the paperclip!

Thank You, Mrs. Lutz

Somebody asked me about my childhood piano teacher today and I told her that she was neither mean nor particularly inspired. Mostly I remembered the bowl of candy in her waiting room, a real treat since I was forbidden candy at my house. I used to stuff my pockets and then pretend to cough during the lesson while popping some in my mouth.

But today I wondered whether I had properly thanked Mrs. Lutz for helping move me in the direction of music. On Sunday, I sang for over an hour with kids from 1 to 9 years old, who were there with their parents who just happened to be SF School alumni students mostly in their early 40’s. And with them were some of their parents, my friends and colleagues. Three generations enjoying an hour of pure happiness, with an extra layer of heartfelt nostalgia for songs we all used to sing together way back then. 

From Tuesday through Friday, I sang with the elementary kids each day for 20 minutes, as I have done during all my long years at school. Mostly some of the fun songs we hadn’t sung this year, so there was a great spirit at each Singing Time. On Thursday, a fabulous Preschool Singing Time weaving songs into the story of Rumpelstiltskin. On Friday, my weekly visit to the Jewish Home for the Aged (where I learned that one of the regular participants, Doris, has just passed away—at 111 years old!). The music began with me playing Bach on the piano, continued to a touch of Grieg, Chopin, Beethoven and Mozart, on to Scott Joplin, and then segued to some jazz accompanied my singer friend, Laura Rupert and ending with some songs from the Mikado. Well, almost ending. One of the women asked if I could play a Yiddish song and she sang along to Raisins and Almonds.

That night, I went to my sister’s solo dance concert celebrating 50 years as a modern dancer. She also took piano lessons with Mrs. Lutz and her musical dance interpretation of The Goldberg Variations showed that foundation.

Today, Saturday, I played at another Senior Center where I began playing a Strauss waltz and suddenly, one of the women perked up and sang along with the melody! And so went another hour of happiness undimmed by the harsh realities of the world, cradled in the timeless loving hands of music where everything makes sense. Then a short rehearsal at my house with jazz trumpeter Scott Jensen and guitarist Kai Lyons and some 2 hours of exciting jazz played this evening at a house concert (including a guest appearance by Laura). 

And that was my week. One group of 1 to 79-year-olds, another of 3-5 year-olds, another of 6-10 year olds, two groups of 80 to 100 year-olds, another group of 30 to 50 year olds. Oh, and rehearsals with 11-14 year-olds for the Spring Concert next week. Folk songs, stories, classical piano pieces, light opera, jazz of many styles. The Warriors have millions watching and cheering when they share their life’s discipline of basketball and here I am with anywhere from 15 to 100 people at a time and no one’s watching. But I know that the way I get to use my life’s discipline brings great joy and happiness one small group at a time. 

And for that, I thank Mrs. Lutz.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Walking Through the Door

The best choice I ever made was to spend most of my entire life in the company of children. Their effervescent curiosity, their expressive faces and bodies, their boundless energy and infectious laughs (like the 3-year old who laughed uproariously at a joke I made at Singing Time the other day)— all of it keeps me in touch with my own childlike self even as I’ve had to grow into adult concerns and responsibilities. 

There is also often a deep wisdom far beyond the count of years that astounds me. Like when the learning specialist at my school stopped me in the hall the other day and told me (in Yiddish) that she wanted to brag about her student. And proceeded to have Saskia Berry, an 8-year old girl, read me her poem. As follows (minus the spelling mistakes):

Through each door I walk.

not knowing what is in front.

not knowing what will come.

But still, slowly
                                               I walk

walk through each door
                                                             of my future.

As I get ready to announce some changes in my future, prepare to consciously close one door and take the next step forward through new doors, the wise words of an 8-year old girl spoke the words I needed to hear, the courage I need to muster. 

Isn’t that remarkable?

Thursday, May 9, 2019

No Child Left Behind

A student from my Orff Institut Special Course class is doing a review of an article I wrote 15 years ago and asked if I had anything new to add. I had completely forgotten about this article, so I re-read it and hey, it held up! Indeed, I had nothing new to add for nothing had changed in these timeless truths except the political climate referred to in the opening paragraph. And in fact, that hasn't changed either, just different buzzwords to name the catastrophe. So I offer the article again here for those curious: 

“No Child Left Behind” is the current buzz phrase for our nation’s educational plan and while teachers struggle to adjust their curriculums to the same old stupid plan of teaching to meaningless tests, the children suffer. “No child left behind” is the sugar pill given to parents who want to believe that their child will be a winner, like Lake Wobegon’s mythical children who are all above average, But in a school system based on competition, someone must be below average for someone present system, you can’t give A’s to everyone. An A loses its value if no one gets a B, C, or D. 

When education is built on a different cornerstone—that students are not to be pitted against each other’s achievements, but rather against their own talent and genius—“no child left out” is a more appropriate slogan. The idea that everyone should excel in every subject or else be considered failing in school is based on a fantasy directly opposed to the reality of daily life. Difficulty in some subjects is one of the things that leads towards our own strengths. My dismal inability to understand the first thing about what goes on in a car engine saved me hours of tinkering with cars that were better spent practicing piano. My car mechanic’s failure in piano lessons led him to search for his own form of intelligence. I can now give piano lessons to his child and both he and I are quite happy that he can fix my car. The adult world is based on people following the star of their own native intelligence. 

This is not to suggest that students not be required to encounter all the different disciplines that call forth their intelligences. A more enlightened school would not necessarily excuse me from mechanics class (I wish that had been a required study!) or my car mechanic from the history of symphonic music. But it strongly suggests that a teacher figure out how to explain the fugue of rods and pistons to me and explain the engine of Beethoven to my mechanic. And that after we gave it the old college try, we be excused from the stigma of failure because we didn’t choose to analyze the 5th or rebuild the engine in our spare time.

My subject of area of music has been traditionally given the status of an elective reserved for that mysterious population, “the talented.” Yet at my school, it is a required subject for each of the 11 years between three years old through 8th grade. If we went through high school. I would lobby strongly for it to continue to be a required subject for all. I enter class each day with the assumption that each child is inherently musical and that every human being loves music unless neglected by a school system that doesn’t recognize its value or wounded by a music teacher searching for some students to win prizes for him. Every class is a challenge for me to prove my assumption and to date—some 30 years of teaching—I have not been disappointed. 

The reason I feel so confident that every child will feel successful on some basic level is that my teaching is informed by an ingenious approach known as Orff Schulwerk, with over eight decades of practice in discovering where each person’s musical genious lies. For some, it is singing, for others dancing, still others listening and analyzing. Some find their muse through instrumental play—and here it gets very specific. Third-rate violinist Art Tatum finally tries the piano and makes more progress in two weeks than he did in four years. He takes the hint to abandon violin and pursue piano and becomes one of the most remarkable technicians in the history of jazz piano—and perhaps all piano. That muse not only hides behind instruments, but musical styles as well. The failed concert pianist discovers Balinese gamelan and becomes a virtuoso player in a distinctly different tradition. 

Good teachers have always searched for the ways to engage their students specific to their interests and capacities for understanding. Now that approach has been summarized in a thinking called Differentiated Instruction and teaching training courses are preparing future teachers with a wide range of ideas and techniques to help them reach students who don’t fit the fantasy mold of the “normal”—which in my experience, is every student. Much attention is given these days to those with special learning needs and there are indeed some students that are struggling with the tasks of school that need special attention and strategies and compensations. However, the truer statement is that every student has special learning needs. Witness me in car mechanics. Or my car mechanic in music. 

Differentiated Instruction is a new name for an old practice in Orff Schulwerk. Because most Orff teachers teach General Music, they automatically must accommodate a wide variety of backgrounds, talents and interests. Naturally, the same is true for language arts, science, math, art and P.E. teachers as well. Music, however, may represent one of the more challenging disciplines for inclusion, since every ensemble piece is only as strong as its proverbial missing link. Traditional music teachers solve this problem with damaging “mouth the words” strategies. Some innovative teachers refuse to sacrifice their student’s self-esteem to the musical performance. And yet when the performance itself suffers, the students as a group are not uplifted and the music doesn’t complete its possibility. How can we produce beautiful music and still elicit successful participation from every student? Below are some strategies, none foolproof, but all useful in creating an inclusive musical community.

1.   WORK IN A WIDE SCOPE OF MEDIA: Everyone must play, sing, dance, act, recite poetry, slap their body and more. By offering a wide range of means to musically express oneself, the students have more opportunities to encounter their preferred musical modality. The student struggling with singing or lost in music theory may well be the best shaker player to come down the pike in a while. The frustrated xylophone player will be delighted to make up a dance to the piece. The timid singer feels just fine reciting the dramatic poem. In short, there are multiple ways in which to contribute decisively to a performance.

The democracy of Orff instruments—everyone at the same level of practice and exposure— allows for learning each part of the music, from the bass to supporting rhythms to melodies. By learning all parts, students not only hear the music more fully, but get to find what suits their fancy. “The melody is too difficult in this piece? I think I’ll choose that simple rocking bass. Bass too boring? I’m going for that hot conga drum part.”

      3. SIMPLIFY PARTS—PLAY MELODIC FRAGMENTS: Since Orff ensembles often 
have  children doubling parts, it is not only fine, but often aesthetically better to have some children play fragments of melodies while others play the whole melody. From playing the accented notes to the answer part of a question-answer melody, a few well-chosen notes can add a lot, help the student relax, yet also feel an integral part.

      4.   CREATE AT YOUR LEVEL OF COMFORT: Orff classes abound in opportunities to 
             improvise and compose. The cardinal rule of creation is that students can only 
             create at their level of skill and understanding. Any student can have a hard time
             learning someone else’s  music, but no one improvises music too difficult for him 
             or herself to do. Of course, students improvising don’t always feel successful or 
              musical and may need some guidance. But experience shows that everyone can 
              create something that is of value to the group, be it a motion, a choice of an 
              instrument, an accompanying pattern or new words to a song.

Ours is a star-obsessed culture, but Michael Jordan is nothing without his teammates that pass him the ball and every performance by Meryl Streep has hundreds of unseen hands behind it. The music class will have its moments as well where the talents of a few will come to center stage and be properly appreciated, but the foundation of the whole show is the group ensemble work. “No Child Left Behind” runs on the fantasy of everyone as a superstar, but “no child left out” means that everyone contributes from his or her own interest and capability and every contribution is valuable.

DISCOVERY: When I took a group of students to perform at a big music education conference, I created the show with particular students in mind. This song would be good for this student’s voice, that song for another’s. This student should improvise here, that student should dance there. Sometimes we neglect talent in the name of “fairness,” afraid that no one should shine brighter than another. The answer is not to dull their brilliance, but to keep searching for material in which other students can show theirs. And at the same time, we must keep encouraging all students to try new things that are difficult for them. For one piece, I had our “star singer” try the drums and he later wrote that that was one of his favorite moments in the year of music!

This is where Differentiated Instruction scares teachers and seems overwhelming.
How can one teach the same material differently to each student? Again, multiple strategies are crucial here. In my case, I might have everyone sing a melody and go off to the xylophones to try to “find it.” Those with trained ears can work things out on their own while I go sit next to others and play a phrase at a time on their xylophone. Some may ask to see it written. Some may ask if they can play triangle on this piece. This process is made easier when the student comes to understand his or her preferred strategy and can articulate it to the teacher.

The above guidelines should help both music and other teachers navigate through the difficult waters of true teaching. Those who find it too much work may choose to teach at on-line universities where learning is simply disembodied facts flying through screens. But for those of us who are called to this noble profession of teaching, teaching each student one at a time in the group is what makes our life interesting, challenging and rewarding. And most importantly, it makes the children happy.