Saturday, August 31, 2019

Puzzles for Pammie

My wife, still summering in Michigan, was on her way to her brother’s birthday weekend when they got the call that their sister Pammie was rushed to the hospital. Pammie was the youngest of the four children and when they found out after a year or two that she was what we now call a “Special Needs” child, they sent her to an institution in Kansas. She eventually learned to dress herself, do simple puzzles, enjoy children’s movies, but language was extremely limited. I know of three other families that had similar children with the same choice to make and they all chose to keep the child in the family. But I understand that this was the 50’s and two of those other families are in Spain where the strong family structure helps support such a choice. 

I’m not sure exactly when, but Pammie eventually came to Ann Arbor and lived in a house with other people like her and professional caretakers. The parents would come visit or bring her to their home on a regular basis and do puzzles with her, go out to restaurants or serve meals in the home, occasionally go to a movie. Whenever my wife Karen visited her folks, she always included such a visit with Pammie. If I was with her, I’d go as well and so over the years, maybe had 20 or 25 visits with my sister-in-law. 

Though Pammie had been to the hospital many times over the years, this one was severe, beginning with choking and stopping breathing until CPR revived her. But by this time, there was brain damage and other severe consequences. I talked with Karen this afternoon and she and her brothers were on the way to visit Pammie again (they had already had one visit to the hospital). One hour later, I got the news that Pammie had died.

Of course, by this time, this was what they were expecting and they were understandably philosophical about her quality of life and resigned to bidding her goodbye. But still to get the news brings a finality to it all that is always hard to wholly accept and deserves some thought, some tears, some sense of pause in the business of life to be with the feelings. Over the years of Christmas shopping, Karen always had “puzzle for Pammie” on the list and now that will be no more. 

For now, just these words to mark the moment and send Pammie off to the other world with a reminder that her sibings loved her and the thought that perhaps her parents are awaiting her in one form or another. R.I.P. to Pamela Shultz.

Perks of Pack-Rattery

I don’t easily throw things away and sometimes the rewards are great. At the end of my first year of teaching in 1976, we had a Staff/Board Retreat and were asked to write down some reflections to certain questions. I saved mine in an old file and was stunned to re-read it recently. Turns out that even though my language was a bit fluffy and long-sentenced, I still stand by everything I wrote all those years ago! Re-reading this affirms that my vision was clear back then and I knew exactly what I hoped to accomplish—and then spent the next 44 years accomplishing it. 

All the things I emphasize in my workshops about teaching— keeping a beginner’s mind about what you don’t yet know, teaching adults to deepen the teaching with kids, creating community, accenting music as personal expression, being openly vulnerable, using music to cultivate humanitarian promise and empathy—well, it’s all there in seed form.
The mighty oak of those years already had the blueprint in the acorn. No surprise, but fascinating to see it in black and white—well, blue Bic-pen and faded white. 

Here’s Part I: 

• To share what I know and what I don’t know and what we all know. Sharing what I know solidifies it within myself. Having to present it means tracing back to the course and getting in touch with the process of development, which also means getting in touch with my own process of development, and thus, quickening it within myself. 

• I work with children because teaching is where I plug into the greater process of survival and energy-exchange/ recycling. The invisible realm of focusing and channeling group energy to create a joyous and self-expanding event is my workshop, voices, bodies and their musical extensions my tools. 

• Specific goals are children/ people acquiring the vocabulary to speak in music, to know how music can serve them when words fail, to loose the song in their hears. 

• Sharing what I don’t know means opening up and allowing others to help expand my limited vision. It means sharing my confusion as well as my certainty. It means continually looking into the perfect mirror that children are and see my own anxiety reflected, as well as my own joy. The school serves as a thermometer of my own state of being, a supportive community that simultaneously challenges me and brings me to task when I halt the flow and get stuck. 

• Sharing what we all know means dissolving all confining roles—teacher/ student, woman/man, person/tree and being with all people and things in affirmation of our unity. The mutual celebration of our common experience. 

The Lion's Paws

A rare weekend with nothing scheduled. Nothing! The house to myself, the days to myself, somewhat caught up with the constant list. A good time to wash the sheets, clean out the closet, straighten my desk, finish my book (writing it, that is), replenish the refrigerator and don’t forget a nice long bike ride to get the body humming again. 

So all was looking promising and then I checked in on Facebook and saw that on August 31, 2012, I joined Facebook and they were “celebrating” our 7thyear anniversary. Seven years?! Wasn’t that just yesterday? And then read that Mary Tyler Moore, my childhood crush, passed away at 80 years old. By all standards, 80 years is a good run, but then it struck me—that’s only 12 years from now for me. Suddenly, I was feeling the lion’s paw of devouring time scratching away and it was not the happiest of feelings.

As so many elders will tell you, we’re constantly astonished by the face that appears in our mirror and baffled by the mathematics of the years. Inside we mostly feel 25 or 40 or one of my favorite ages, 52. Or 3 or 8 or less happily, 13. I was thinking yesterday that I’m one of the few Orff teachers I know—and I know a lot—and perhaps the only male Orff teacher I know that stills sits in a circle with 3-year-olds playing Old King Glory. In fact, I believe that all of the “famous” male music-teacher in the generation above—my own teacher Avon Gillespie, Jos Wuytack, Richard Gill, Bob Abramson, Herman Regner and more never worked with preschool children. And likewise my colleagues in my generation—Steve Calantropio, Wolfgang Hartman, Rick Layton, Jim Solomon, Bob DeFrece and more—didn’t consistently teach this age. And certainly didn’t for 45 years! That doesn’t make me special, but it’s interesting to note and I believe it is a large part of what I have to offer that’s unique.

And how I love it. Within two classes with 5-year-olds, they’re already greeting me in the halls with the mixed feeling of rock star and old friend. They see the 5-year old in me still alive and vibrant in an old body and know that we understand each other very well. And we do. 

So to close with Shakespeare’s plea to swift-footed Time in his 19thSonnet, I believe I could change the last line to “My love shall in my preschool teaching ever live young.” Not so poetic, but you get the idea. On to the next 48 hours of the rest of my life.

    Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion's paws,
    And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
   Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger's jaws,
   And burn the long-liv'd Phoenix in her blood;
   Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleets,
   And do whate'er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
   To the wide world and all her fading sweets;
   But I forbid thee one more heinous crime:
   O, carve not with the hours my love's fair brow,
   Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen!
   Him in thy course untainted do allow
   For beauty's pattern to succeeding men.
   Yet do thy worst, old Time! Despite thy wrong
   My love shall in my verse ever live young.

Friday, August 30, 2019

The Triumph That Awaits

My Ghanaian friend Kofi Gbolonyo was checking in with friends about a proposed venture and ended with the sentiment, “No Trial, No Tribulation—No Triumph.” I like that! Without daring to try something out, one would be closed to both the suffering and glory to follow. And without the tribulation, the deep roots sinking down into the darkness, why no flowering triumph branching out into the sky. 

So often we choose to stay safe and condemn ourselves to a bland, middle of the road lukewarm life. It’s when we set foot on the path that has no GPS Destination, but simply looks enticing and feels worthy of exploration that things start to get moving. If it’s the path that’s meant for us, there is no question that some version of the Emerald City awaits at the far end of the Yellow Brick Road. But many trials and tribulations on the way. 

Of course, one never wholly arrives and those trials are renewed daily—or at least weekly or monthly. But their size changes and the ability to navigate them changes. I can happily report that class after class these days is almost pure Triumph, with just the right size dose of Trial and Tribulation—the recalcitrant kids, the outraged parent, the grouchy colleague—to keep things honest, humble and interesting. After more than 7,000 classes, I finally know enough about what I’m doing to get straight to the pure joy of it. And the kids feel it and know it too. 7 classes today and each one a jewel and now on to sing with the Seniors. 

In short, I’m glad I signed up for the trials, endured the tribulations and savored the triumphs. On to the weekend.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Love It or Leave It!

Back in the late 60’s when I was coming of age and questioning “the Establishment,” “love it or leave it” was the mantra of the far Right (which was wrong). “Why don’t you go to Russia?” they shouted at the people protesting, equating our citizen’s duty to question with an act of hating our country. 

Now a half-century later, I say to the Repugnaticans the same: “Love it or leave it!“
Because their words and their actions show so clearly that they don’t love it, indeed, are traitors to the country’s founding principles. Consider: 

• They don’t love the people that worked to make us what we are. The workers that physically built the economy through hard labor, much of it unpaid or underpaid. And still today, the people that pick the fruit, clean the houses, work in the factories, build the roads and so on. 

• They don’t love the civil rights workers and the social activists who edge us closer to actually realizing the vision of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

•  They don’t love the Constitution itself except when it protects their unearned privilege.

• They don’t love the law, looking for their sneaky ways to suppress votes, skew the elections, hide money offshore, publicly lie and use influence to avoid consequence.

• They don’t love the land, the national parks, the farms, selling our precious natural resources down the polluted river so they can drive to Walmart in their SUV’s. 

• They don’t love the schools and the hard-working teachers who teach their children and certainly don’t care about the children themselves as they threaten their future with purposeful ignorance about climate change. 

• They don’t love freedom of the press, led by their “fake-news” so-called leader.

• They don’t love the Statue of Liberty, doing everything they can to turn away those huddled masses unless they happen to be a model from Slovenia who breaks all the rules to get in. 

And so on. 

As for Russia, they too, might as well go there since that’s how they won the election.

Love it or leave it, people and leave the rest of us patriots to complete the work the Founding Fathers didn’t get to. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Jamming with the 8th Graders

Here’s the deal: When it comes to education, everyone is fussing about this system or that system, this approach or that, this surefire method or that machine that will change your teaching. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to what it always has— an intelligent caring human being who knows stuff and knows how to communicate it and knows how to awaken curiosity and passion in students. 

I’m considering putting together a book sharing my 8thgrade Jazz History Curriculum and yes, it could be helpful and I could write lesson plans that any reasonable recipe-follower can use to teach. But none of it would allow for a lesson like the one I gave today in our opening class. 

After a quick musical warm-up, I invited my class of 8thGrade Jazz Historians to join my on my television program and share what they know about the history of jazz. I gave them a minute to get their story together and gave them permission to give a convincing fake-version if they didn’t know much. Which, of course, they didn’t. 

The results were imaginative, hilarious and occasionally spot-on. From their sharings, I then highlighted the little bits of truth they had stumbled upon and elaborated on them. Having exercised their own imagination, they now listened with a different kind of ear to the real story of how, in this 400thyear of still suffering from the effects of a barbaric system of slavery. 

The class felt like a good jazz jam session, their stories like snippets of musical phrases that I could then shape and respond to. That means I need to know things and know how to elaborate or condense as needed. No curriculum book can give you that. The teacher as the repository of hard-earned knowledge is the first step and then a simple idea to get the jam session going (the Jazz History TV Show) is the next and then the ability to take off from there into the center of the lesson.  But note: in order to know how to respond to, contrast, extent, affirm an idea, you have to have a large body of knowledge and a jazz musician’s comfort with improvisation. 

At the end of the class, several kids spontaneously thanked me and I always take that as a good sign that I’ve done my job well and they’ve noticed that extra little touch of artistry. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Live and Learn

Note to self written at 4:30 am:

If you are not a habitual coffee drinker, don’t have a large FrappĂ© while meeting with your colleagues at 4:30 pm the afternoon before. 

Monday, August 26, 2019

Paddling the Canoe: Eulogy for Shannon Schneble

(Yesterday was a Memorial Service for a colleague at school and her son gave me the honor of speaking at the event. Below is the talk I gave.)

Shannon and I go way back. 1975, to be precise, when we both began our jobs at The San Francisco School. I discovered that we both went to Antioch College (though I never met her there—she was a bit older), which immediately created a certain kind of bond. In those early years, we often had lunch together in the kitchen and had long conversations about how screwed up the world was. We agreed on that! (I also remember her shaking the salt shaker over her lunch while we talked—for about 30 seconds!) I have a photo of the 1978 camping trip at Lake Oroville and there she was, camping with the elementary kids even though she mostly taught preschool. In the Fall of that year, Karen and I had a year leave of absence to travel around the world and Shannon took over Karen’s job teaching elementary art. When we returned, I remember talking with her about our travels and soon after, she herself went to Indonesia and did even more adventurous traveling going to a more remote island. So we had many ways to connect—including me teaching her son Sotweed, who was in that groundbreaking group of eight kids who recorded the first school Cassette tape in 1983—Music From Five Continents. In those first 10 or 15 years, I definitely had the feeling that we both were on the same side of creating a new, more creative and caring, generation. 

After a while, Shannon stopped eating in the kitchen and our conversations grew fewer and she started to express her sense that the school had lost its soul. I disagreed and then later, began to agree, but hadn’t given up on its revival—and it felt like she had. So our connections grew weaker. But still it was meaningful to pass each other in the hall every day for 42 years. That’s a rare thing in this life. And I always respected her work, appreciated her wonderful summer camp that allowed the school feeling to continue when school was closed, gave young kids like Aidan a chance to work with younger kids, saw her tenderness as she stroked kids’ backs at the daily naptime. And thought confused why she continued so long at the school having fallen out of love with it, I always respected her longevity. I was sad that she closed the door to a school celebration when she retired, but it was at least honest and true to her character. She never took a moment to say goodbye to me and I did write her a note at the end expressing some of the above, but I never heard from her. Then one day teaching my Orff class in the summer at school, I was closing up the building and saw a light on in her room. There she was, gathering the last of her personal things. After some casual conversation, I asked her if she ever got my note and she replied with a quick, “Yes. Thanks.” So I thanked her again out loud, hugged her goodbye and I believe that was the last time I saw her.

Nobody knows what really happens on the other side of this life, but every culture has some idea about it. If you believe the white-robed angels one, I can imagine Shannon appearing at Heaven’s gate and when St. Peter finds out she devoted her life to nurturing children, he throws open the door and says,  “You’re in!” I imagine Shannon peeking in at the smiling beatific beings playing harps and asking, “What else do you have?” Or at least, “Is there a smoking section?”

The Balinese believe that heaven is exactly like earth, only everything is backwards. So I can picture Shannon in the daycare/nap room which is now on the other side of the hall with the furniture re-arranged and still working on art projects with kids. 

One of the lovelier images comes from an indigenous Mayan group in Guatemala. In this cosmology, the dead travel across an ocean to the Beach of Stars, where they are welcomed by the ancestors, those who have passed before. They change from a person-spirit to a nature-spirit and come back to visit us in the form of clouds or plants or trees or just simply a felt presence. But in order for them to reach the Beach of Stars, they have to be grieved by those left behind. That’s why we’re here. Without their bodies, they can’t paddle their own canoe. So they depend on us. Every tear we shed is a paddle of the canoe that gets the spirit across the Ocean. Also funny stories and loving remembrance and gratitude for having known the person. And of course, songs. 

All of these traditions have some sense of coming Home, even as you leave your home here. So let’s stand and sing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” Of course, Shannon would have hated this. But this is as much for us as it is for her. I can imagine her scowling at this Kumbaya moment but hopefully, as the canoe begins to move, finally accepting how much love and gratitude she deserved from the life she led. Let’s sing. 

Cooking for One

My wife is drawing out her time at the summer home on Lake Michigan because she’s retired and she can. That gives me a rare two weeks alone in my own house and truth be told, I love it. Everything stays exactly where I put it (except that TV remote!), the energy in the air is entirely my own, no one else’s that I have to respond to or react to and though the line between Solitude and Loneliness is thin, it has mostly been on the Solitude side of things. Don’t we all need some of that?

But the most challenging part is cooking for one. I seem to be engaged in an ongoing battle between the shelf life of some foods and my capacity to eat it in time. Doesn’t feel like half of cooking for two, but more like a fourth of it, some intriguing math that I don’t understand. But I guess it makes sense. If we cook for two and there’s leftovers, then either of us might eat them the next day. Cooking for one, you’re the only show in town.

Then there’s the pleasure of sharing a meal well-prepared. After years of making fun of my Dougzpacho, my friend Sofia finally taught me how to make the real thing (gazpacho) and along with the leftover quinoa salad, grilled vegetables, Tartinne country whole wheat bread with goat cheese, early girl tomatoes and arugula, I had a 4-star restaurant-worthy meal last night. Alone. I enjoyed it but something was definitely missing. Oh yeah, my wife. 

I’m hearing stories of people cooking for one who have fallen in love with their Thermomix (Sofia), their Air Fryer (daughter Talia) and other devices that cook food while you’re gone. Seems like a good strategy and intriguing even when cooking for large groups. Good retirement project. 

Meanwhile, another week of the bachelor life and then back to the shared life, of which food at that shared table and a companion on the couch moving on to the next year of the Australian mini-series “A Place to Call Home” will bring other pleasures. Until then, still trying to figure out the art of cooking for one. 

Anyone want to come over for dinner?

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Two Lists

• Unload the dishwasher.
• Take out the compost/ garbage/ recycling
• Sweep the floor
• Do the laundry
• Pay the bills
• Answer all e-mails

This my Sunday morning so far and how I love it. Small, manageable, doable tasks with a clear beginning and ending and a tangible result. A nice change from: 

• Finish writing the book that will reform all of music education.
• Help heal 400 years of slavery in the United States.
• Get rid of the horrible, horrible person in the White House.
• Ponder the insanity of the El Paso Walmart making a memorial in their store to the people murdered there while still continuing to sell assault rifles.
• Solve climate change. 

Well, we need both. But doesn’t it feel good to take the weight off the world of your shoulders for a few moments and just organize your desk? Yes, it does. 

Why We Need Each Other

The other night, I paused a video I was watching to pull down some shades in the room. One shade came crashing down and after a futile effort to re-attach it, decided to just resume the movie. But I couldn’t find the remote I had had in my hand. So I looked in every nook and cranny of the 10-foot area in which the drama took place and I simply couldn’t find it. Old-timers who remember “The Twilight Zone” can understand my sense that something beyond human comprehension had just happened. The remote simply disappeared. Picked up the couch cushions, looked under the couch, looked on every nearby surface, checked my shirt and pants pockets 12 times. Really, it was 45-minutes of non-stop searching with my concept of reality severely challenged. Finally gave up, but it bothered the hell out of me! The next day I looked again and I began to feel that every time I entered that room, I would be reminded that the world is mysterious and doesn’t make sense—and not in a good way. 

So two nights later, I had the Orff Interns over to dinner and told them the story and Bahareh, our Intern from Toronto/ Iran, went to the couch and dug around in a little nook-and-cranny I had missed and came out with the remote, like a grand fish that she could show the grandchildren! Order was restored! I went out to the deck to fire up the barbecue and five minutes later returned to see she had fixed the shade!! I told her if she solved one more problem in my house, I would have to marry her. 

After dinner, we all went to the front room to sing around the piano and someone took out a Turkish string instrument I had in the room called a Baglama. Someone had gifted this to me a couple of years ago, but I never figured how how to tune it. Bahareh looked at it and said, “I can tune it!”

So now I have to break the news to my wife. 

a tiny bit of learning

This summer, a teacher who took our Intro. to Orff Course tried to explain to her 6-year old daughter what the class was about. “Basically, I’m trying to learn how to make music classes more fun.” “Oh, I know how to do that!!” replied the enthusiastic daughter and proceeded to write out the list. Music teachers—indeed, ALL teachers— take note:

Friday, August 23, 2019

Love at All Ages

Usually I describe the beginning of school as putting my shoulder to the wheel of the year and pushing its heavy weight, straining to get it rolling. This year it was like a gentle nudge from my finger. Two days of meetings, three days with kids and it’s rolling and I’m loving the ride. First classes with 5-year-olds, 4thgrade, 6thgrade and 8thgrade and each one a jewel. The double pleasure of having yet again 4 wonderful Interns to witness, enjoy, participate and contribute. 

Today they asked me which was my favorite age and I said, as I often say, “3-year-olds and 8thgrade.” But then quickly added, “Well, I’ve really grown to love the 5-year-olds and 4thgrade is great and I enjoyed 6thgrade today and though I haven’t taught them in a while, I’ve always loved 1stand 3rd. And then there’s the 4-year-olds and 2nd and 5thgrade."  In short, I love them all. After all these years, I’ve finally figured out the kinds of things that hit them where they live and isn’t that part of the trick, to find the dignity and delight of each developmental stage? 

Musically as well as in other ways. Truth be told, we—the 5-year olds and I—composed a piece based on their names and it was as musically satisfying as the Bach Partita I started the day with. I did a similar name game with 4thgrade with percussion instruments and had to grab my camera to video a particular tasteful combination of rhythms and instruments. I got the 8thgrade grooving on my Boom Chick a Boom beginner’s jazz piece and 20-minutes into their first formal jazz experience with me, they were deep in the groove. And when an Intern and his friend pulled out their saxophones and started soloing over the top, the kids were as lifted up as I was—"Dang! 20 minutes and we sound great!!!!” 

Our first elementary singing time with 100 kids had many goose-bump moments and wasn’t it so joyful to be back at preschool singing? Yes, it was! And then ended the week as I do when I’m in the school rhythm—a glorious hour of music at the Jewish Home for the Aged where I’ve found the perfect things for that age. 

Truth be told, I’m having a little “buyer’s remorse” announcing my retirement in June. Why would I ever leave this? Should I reconsider? Well, one day at a time. Meanwhile, gratitude abounds. On to the weekend!

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Life on the Mountain

We had another marvelous Opening Ceremony at The San Francisco School. One hour of song, ritual, speech and music. In the “Earth Day Rap” part, the 4thand 5thgrade teachers talked about stewardship of the planet, starting with the little things—"recycle, bicycle, don’t you drive by yourself.” Next up was a song called “Gonna Build Me a Mountain” (it’s on my Boom Chick a Boom CD if you’re curious!) and I gave this talk as a preface. The opening about the bicycle was picking up from the teacher talking about riding his bike to school. 

 If you ride your bike in San Francisco, you might notice there are a lot of hills. This is good! It’s hard to ride up them and that makes us strong. It’s also fun to ride down them, to feel the wind in our face, to coast without pedaling. But you can’t get to the downhill without the uphill. In biking and in life. And sometimes the road is just flat and that’s good too. Like here on Gaven Street. 

But don’t be fooled. There’s actually an enormous mountain here. Its address is 300 Gaven St. It’s a mountain that people have been building for 54 years. We’re standing on it today as a gift from the teachers, students and parents of the past, which includes as long ago as 1966 and as recently as last year. Anything that’s good about this most remarkable place came from the hard, hard work, the vision, the wise choices that those who came before us made. Also the foolish choices— we probably learned the most from them!

Standing here before you, I want to salute all of these people. Every single one. And I know almost all of them! I grew up with them and am still growing up with them. Kids who I taught are as old as 50+ and the results are in—we did good work. 

Our job is to keep building that mountain beyond what they were able to do. To work hard with clear vision so that people 50 years from now might thank and remember us. To savor and enjoy who we are now and consider who we are not yet. 

Martin Luther King said in one of his speeches that he had climbed to the top of the mountain and seen the Promised Land. That’s one of the benefits of mountain climbing. We can see further than what’s right at our feet and get a bigger perspective about who we are and why we’re here. And I can say that I also have climbed to the top of the mountain here on Gaven Street and I, too, have seen the Promised Land. It turns out that it’s not far away like some shining Oz, but right here, right now, right where we are and with all the people sitting next to you. This is Heaven. It really is. I’m here to testify that there is no heaven finer than this.

But Heaven is not a place, it’s not a noun. It is a verb, a work in progress, a place we make in our hearts by how we live and how we live together. And this is important to understand: There is no Heaven without Hell. We make Hell by all the ways we suffer when we misunderstand each other, disappoint each other, betray each other, treat each other less kindly that we should. And of course we will do all of that. We will wound and we will be wounded. We will hurt and we will be hurt. That’s just how things are in this life. No escaping that. 

How we react to those hurts and wounds is the key, the way to make Heaven from Hell. How we apologize, to ourselves and others, how we forgive, ourselves and others, is what can turn sorrow to joy. We can begin to heal those wounds every time we choose kindness over cruelty, knowledge over ignorance, caring over indifference, courageous conversation over malicious gossip. If we are to choose—and there’s always a choice—let’s go with our better selves. 

Here’s the truth. Everyone in this room is a beautiful, luminous being capable of loving and worthy of being loved. Everyone has the possibility to do great things, be they small or big. Everyone deserves a loving welcome and a sense of belonging. Everyone matters. Each of us have come to this earth as a question— how can we use our gifts to heal and help and give something the world needs?  Each of us is necessary. Let’s not forget that. 

Kids, you are so lucky to be surrounded by teachers who love you more than you can imagine. They love you before they even meet you and then they love you for real when they get to know you and find out what specifically there is to love. Please show them. Your teachers work so hard to bring out your genius, who stay up at night worrying about you and thinking how to make you happy by giving you the things you need. Not the things you think you want —like Gameboy or candy— but the things you deeply need. 

Kids, don’t waste a minute of your time here. You need to work hard to discover your genius. Pay attention. Listen to these teachers who work so hard for you. Step up to the challenge of each class and don’t make us teachers have to sing and dance to get your attention. Be respectful, to yourself, the teachers and your classmates and above all, be kind. It costs so little and the reward is so great. 

I confess that I was not a good student. I didn’t like school and it didn’t like me. Then I chose to be a teacher dedicated to making school more fun, more celebratory, more soulful. I wanted to help make a school like the one I wished I had gone to. And this is that place. As they say, it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.

So here on the first day of this new year, let’s resolve to build a mountain that we can look back on when we gather again in June and feel proud about what we did. Here’s the double truth: “Only one person can do it and that person is YOU!” and it’s most fun if we do it together, “Side by side.” Here’s the mountain you build by yourself (do motions to “mountain, mountain, build a mountain”)and here’s how you do it together (as above with partner).Let’s sing this song like we mean it and build a year that is worthy of the word Heaven. Off we go!! (Sing song: “Gonna Build Me a Mountain.”) 

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

First Day of School

So as I’m about to start my first day of my last year at SF School, I thought it would be interesting to try to remember my first day at SF School when I first started teaching there. So I took out the old journal from that time, excited to re-read my thoughts. There were many entries from my 1975 summer travels to Guatemala, Belize, New Jersey and Ohio. On Aug. 24th, I flew back to San Francisco and wrote the following: 

“So this summer of constant traveling ends with the journey that is no journey. Having explored worlds within and without, renewed friendships and re-visited old homes, it is time to begin my new life in San Francisco. A new chance to create a life that feeds my spirit and serves others, ready to daily renew contact with the Source, expand in all directions musically, learn how to be with kids again, penetrate through relationship to the place that unites us, take responsibility for my human life. These are the tasks at hand. Infinitely refreshed by my travels, my heart is filled with gladness as the City appears over the wingtip. Thanks to all people and places, my this world which is one realize and manifest it’s inherent unity. “San Francisco, here I come. Right back where I started from.”

A bit flowery, but not too bad for a 24-year old kid. That list pretty much defined what I ended up doing. Now I was excited to read all about my first day of school. The next entry was:

8/25—A morning sitting (meditation) that left me radiant, meetings all day at school, eyes focused downward and all vibrating, receiving and outpouring energy. “Energy is eternal delight.” Good to be back at a school, felt fairly comfortable, thought overwhelmed by the task at hand, which includes moving to our new apartment. More later on people, places and platypuses. Karen and friend carousing in bed. I wish she’d cut off her bangs.”

Well, that doesn’t reveal much beyond “fairly comfortable” being at the school. I was ready to read on about the first actual day of teaching kids and hear all about my first impressions, my struggles, my successes and so on. I turned the page and there was:


WHAT?!!! Not a single entry for almost seven months!!!! And then my above entry was all about a trip to the desert. And so it went for the next two years. Some entries about summer travels and not a word about the first three years of my life at school. So my hopes to re-visit my first impressions of teaching at school were dashed. I remember a few things from those years and have some photos, but I definitely don’t remember anything about my first day of school. For any of those years! I know we didn’t have anything approaching the elaborate Opening Ceremony we now have, but I really wonder what we did? Just had the kids go straight to class? Aaargh! I’m angry with my former self.

Oh well. Footprints in the sand, washed away by the tides of time. I’m sure I’ll write something tomorrow about the opening day, as I probably have these last eight years of posting blogs and perhaps did in my later journals. In fact, I should check those out. I’ll get back to you. 

Or not.

A Light Step

My first day back at school meetings did not begin auspiciously. I arrive late for the first meeting, a presentation about anti-harassment. This is important to help people be safe and turn-around the too-casual tolerance of bullying, sexual abuse, micro-aggressive talk and such. But once things get in the hands of the law or a systematically correct way to be with your colleagues, the humor is the first to go and everyone’s walking on eggshells nervous they might offend someone. Luckily, while everyone was nodding their heads during the talk about not hugging without permission and such, afterwards there was the kind of humor that can come when people know each other well and can relax, with the caveat that if someone doesn’t feel comfortable with a comment or a hug on any particular day, they’re free to express it and we all need to listen and take it seriously.

I then got into a little tussle with my two “Dream-team” colleagues. Yes, that happens. But we said what we felt, it hung in the air for ten minutes and then cleared away like a good rainstorm that washes the air clean. We went on to meet about the hundreds of details in our intricately connected lives, from school to courses beyond to performances to publishing and made some progress whittling that long list down. I got to meet some new teachers, re-connected with the old, had a hard conversation with a parent upset about some things her child experienced in the school (not in my class, so easy to listen). So though it was far from a conflict-free day, I found myself walking with a light step and an irrepressible happiness down in my bones. 

I know I’ll soon have to stop blabbing about this being my last year and simply enjoy each day as if it was my first, but it both affirmed that indeed this place is still the right place for me to be and made my doubt whether I should leave! But knowing I can come back to sub or visit or partake in various ceremonies, I believe I’ll stick with my decision. I suspect much awaits me on the other side of that closed (not locked!) door and I’m eager to see what it is and enjoy it thoroughly. 

Small Town City

Waiting for the 44 bus to take me home after my flight from Chicago, two different cars with school alumni stopped and shouted their hellos to me. Yesterday, an alum was at the counter ready to sell me shoes in my neighborhood store. Another woman on the street corner soliciting funds for Responsible Hip-Hop looked in amazement when I asked if she knew a former student of mine who is a hip-hop artist. “This is his organization! He’s my main man!!” 

When you’ve taught for as long as I have, your former students are everywhere. I love running into them! Though sometimes I’ve been nervous that one might be a nurse at my next colonoscopy exam. Luckily, not yet. 

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Things to Do with the Grandchildren

Read Pippi Longstockings and Curious George. Play go-fish and supervise Solitaire. Swim in the lake. Go up the big “Sugarbowl” sand dune. Run down it. Teach chopsticks on the piano. Go to the Drive-In movie to see the Lion King. Play miniature golf before the movie while swatting mosquitoes. Play catch and paddleball down at the beach. Canoe and tip over. Rough-house. Chase them when they steal my glasses case from my front pocket. Videotape spontaneous songs. Teach songs. Hike in the woods and avoid poison ivy. Tell four fairy tales while hiking. Jump off of sand dunes. Run from the waves. Dig a hole in the sand. Teach body percussion. Walk to the Frankfort lighthouse. Bake cookies. Watch them draw. Cuddle. Watch “The Red Balloon” video. Play beanbag toss at a restaurant and challenge a couple. Play piano at the open mic there (me) while the kids danced. Play Concentration 64 in the 6 hour car ride to Chicago. Also Cookie Jar and Old Doc Jones. Listen to my “Boomchicka Boom CD.” Answer “when are we going to get there?” questions 55 times. Stop for ice cream. Eat at Appleby’s (way up) and Chilis (way down). Swim in the hotel pool. Sit in the hot tub. Talk to Aunt Talia on Facetime. Hug goodbye at 4 in the morning. Feel happy for the time we’ve had together. Feel sad that I won’t see them for another six weeks. 

If summer has to end, well, this has been the perfect way. 

Friday, August 16, 2019

School Dreams

Just about every year for the last 44, I’ve ended summer at a family cottage on Lake Michigan. That’s when the school dreams—or nightmares—begin to kick in. And so as I prepare my 45th—and last—year at The San Francisco School, the pattern holds. 

It began with realizing I had a 5thgrade class about to enter and had no idea what I was going to do. While I was frantically looking at my last year’s planning book, the class had entered and seated themselves in the room’s hallway in complete silence. I passed out cups for them to balance on their head and explained that if they talked or the cup dropped, they were out. Naturally, they started talking and the kids weren’t following the rules. So I made a new one that those out would be the judges to see who else was talking. While I was playing piano, one (who I will be teaching this year!) was shouting and trying to steal things from a refrigerator and I restrained her and she started punching me and I threatened to call her parents. Meanwhile, my colleague James had entered and let me know that he  was supposed to be teaching 5thgrade and he had his class all planned. I asked if I could finish it and on it went. 

Then the dream switched to packing up to leave a hotel. I was naked in the bathroom brushing my teeth when the maid came to clean the room and she just stood there waiting for me. I suggested she start by making the bed, got dressed and packed up. My wife and daughter and I rolled the suitcases outside and I was sitting with them on a busy street corner while they went to do something. An old friend passed by and I went to talk to him and when I turned around, all the suitcases were gone. Not a happy night of dreaming!

Meanwhile, the daydreams of the opening day of school have begun as I get ready to shoulder the heavy wheel of the school year to get it rolling. Only this year, everything will feel different knowing it’s my last. I can imagine each milestone—“My last Opening Ceremony! Last Halloween! Last Holiday Plays! Last St. George and the Dragon!" And so on.

Well, as they say, one day at a time. And this day, my last full day at the lake with my wife, daughter and two delightful grandchildren, is awaiting me.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Cellular Memory

On the last day of my Level III Orff training, we sing four songs that demonstrate moving from minor to major or major to minor. The songs—from the Ukraine, Bulgaria, Estonia and Finland/ Sweden—are hauntingly beautiful and by the end, not a single person cares that I artfully slipped them into the melodic/harmonic sequence so that they affirmed key theoretical concepts. As it should be. Revealing the details of theory in a neat sequence that moves from one known to the next unknown is part of artful teaching. But at the end of the day, it’s the particular strings in the heart that the tones pluck that make all the difference in the world—or not. 

Vem Kan Segla, the song from a Finnish island where the inhabitants speak Swedish, is about how maddeningly difficult it is to say goodbye to friends without crying. The exquisite arrangement by Daniel Hellden tugs at those major/ minor strings so that the notes themselves evoke longing. But when the group, now in their last day of six intense weeks together spread out over three summers, reads the translation, well, then the waterworks start. And now we need another song that tells how maddeningly difficult it is to sing a song while weeping. Try it. Doesn’t sound good.

So this led me to telling them the story of how I was in Canada teaching a course when I got the news—on this day 12 years ago—that my Dad had passed away after six months of trying to come back to life from open-heart surgery at 89 years old. I had said my goodbyes over and over during those six months, but still, when the final news hits, it hurts. I taught my Toronto class without sharing the news until the end of the day. And then we tried to sing Vem Kam Seglato collectively bid farewell to my Dad. Never did that song sound so bad! The notes were simply drowned out by sobbing.

Of course, as I told my Level III that story, the sobs came back again, embedded in the cellular memory of that moment now so long ago. That’s the indelible truth of neuroscience which we don’t always wholly understand. Deep emotion, be it ecstatic joy, deep sorrow or horrendous trauma, buries itself in our neurons and sleeps there—well, forever. To be awakened by various “triggers” and boom! there we are again, right back in that moment. 

And so I call this story up yet again in honor of my dear father. The timetable of loss keeps moving forward and it seems amazing that it is twelve years since I kissed his check or felt the vibration of his voice with my hand on his back or shared the news of the day. But cellular memory defies the ticking clock of time and I can still feel my father in all his various incarnations, by my side. Here’s to you, Dad!

The Joys of Betrayal

My birthday gift from daughter Talia was a book titled: “The Coddling of the American Mind.” It is excellent. The two authors hit every nail straight on the head as they examine disturbing new trends in American culture, most made with good intentions but with disastrous results. (Indeed, the subtitle is: “How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.”) From the way hand sanitizers subvert building a strong and healthy immune system to university policy’s designed to protect students from controversial ideas, this is a thorough examination of what is not working, why it happened and how we might turn it around. 

Amidst dozens of important insights, this paragraph struck me:

There are two very different ways to damage children’s development. One is to neglect and underprotect them, exposing them to severe and chronic adversity. The other is to overmoniter and overprotect them, denying them the thousands of small challenges, risks and adversities that they need to face on their own in order to become strong and resilient adults. 

Amen to both. In the first instance, we mindlessly allow them full freedom with screens that are addicting them earlier and earlier and robbing them of needed physical and social play. We allow the NRA to continue their strong-armed lobbying to put assault weapons in the hands of youth who enter schools. We allow advertisers full freedom to get into the heads of vulnerable young children to addict them to harmful products like fast food. Underprotection is rampant.

Our solution? Overprotect them, keep them away from “dangerous” playgrounds, replace free play with adult-organized play complete with sponsor’s T-shirts, schedules and screaming parents on the sidelines, ban peanuts from schools and so on. 

In their chapter “The Decline of Play,” the authors affirm that our genes give us a first draft of a blueprint for survival and then turn over the work to experience, the things we need in any particular environment to both survive and thrive. As noted:

“…the brain expects the child to engage in thousands of hours of play—including thousands of falls, scrapes, conflicts, insults, alliances, betrayals, status competitions, and acts of exclusion—in order to develop. Children who are deprived of play are less likely to develop into physically and socially competent teens and adults.”

I’m amongst the guilty in telling kids climbing trees “Be careful!”, monitoring their conflicts, wondering how my school and I have failed when kids exclude each other or are mean to their classmates. And though there are times when adult help and intervention is needed, I’m beginning to see how it weakens kids’ abilities to handle their own conflicts, grow some resilience, strengthen their social immune systems. In my new book, I have a section BE SAFE/ TAKE RISKS. I do want my class to be a bully-free and emotionally safe space and at the same time, give kids lots of opportunities to take risks, experience power dynamics when making things up in small groups, face the challenge of difficult music kicking their butt alongside the realization, “I can do it!” It’s an ongoing conversation.

Meanwhile, I looked at the list and thought about my own life of “falls, scrapes, conflicts, insults, alliances, betrayals…” Some as recently as last week. It’s good to remember that this is what we signed up for in this human incarnation and the challenge is not to avoid them, but learn how to negotiate them and grow stronger through them. Though I would never choose that any of the above to happen, I indeed must thank all my enemies because every time they slammed the door in my face, another door opened. If any wisdom is coming with age, it’s learning not to react with such astonishment and outrage (though often justified), but feel confident that I’ll get through it and it will lead me to someplace equally interesting. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Parachute Wisdom and Driverless Cars

Two tidbits that arose during our final discussions at the Orff training:

1)    A mind is like a parachute—it only functions when it’s open.

             And note what happens when it doesn’t open—you fall to your death. The countryside is          littered with the bodies of those who refuse to open their mind beyond FOX News    

2)   Teachers who admire you and praise you and sternly remind you to get to work are showing you precisely how they love you. They are the only teachers worth spending time with. Love is the driver of the car of education and without it, we’re stalled. And don’t tell me the driverless car run by computers is a viable substitute. It’s not.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Beyond Teaching

Teaching Orff courses as I do is like a storm on the ocean. The waves are breaking and churning up the sand below. These intense two weeks ended as they should, with thunderous, crashing final chords followed by tender moments of silence interrupted by the sniffles of 100 people weeping. Believe me, people in these courses get exactly what they need in terms of great material to bring to their students, inspired ideas as to how to develop it and new music and movement skills and understanding that improve their own artistic expression. 

But that’s just a start. They also forge lifelong-friendships and connections with those they’ve played, sung and danced with far beyond the norm. The vertical transmission from teacher to student is powerful and meaningful, but the horizontal connections between students is equally a part of the experience. Sometimes I feel, as in New Orleans, that I was the host of an ongoing party interrupted by classes! Though the classes themselves were part of the party and the after-hours party part of the classes. 

Then there’s the deep healing that is real and palpable. People discovering they are more musical than their mean childhood music teacher told them, people feeling that that hole of non-belonging in their soul was finally filled and that the frozen parts of themselves were flowing again, lubricated by day after day of tears. Really, we could charge more money for the combination of therapy and spiritual retreat, but that would cheapen it. This way, everyone gets more than they thought they signed up for and that’s a pleasure.

“Beyond teaching” means that all of this is part and parcel of the kind of education our
kids deserve beyond the skills and facts. But it also means that though that churning ocean dug up lots of ideas and thoughts that deserve to be set down here, I am finally on a serious vacation, combining real beach time with grandkid bonding. I’m coaching Zadie through her Solitaire game, Malik is building with legos and they’re both wearing the shirts I bought them in New Orleans (see photo). Training them to make the right kind of trouble in this world, side by side. 

A summer’s day awaits us, the beckoning lake, the walk up the dune, possible Drive-in Movie tonight. Time for me to take a real break from teaching (6 days) before school starts up again. Let the teaching insights lie unspoken—goodness knows between these blogposts, articles, books and lectures, I’ve said more than enough! The world will go on just fine without it. Off to the lake!

Thursday, August 8, 2019

The Pros and Cons of Weeping

“Live close to tears” said Albert Camus and I agree with this thought. But I might add, “Not too close.” There are always tears in these Orff courses and I shed my fair share of them. But this year, there have been more (from me) than usual and at a higher level of intensity. 

On the pro side, tears are like a good rain that wash away the dust, replenish the rivers, water the plants and clear the air. We suffer when things are blocked and tears help unlock our stored grief and get it flowing again. Tears are signs that we’re living honestly, wholly accepting the price of a human incarnation. We will suffer and we will exult and tears are good companions for both. 

On the con side, it’s hard to sing songs when we’re weeping. It’s hard to teach when you can’t squeak a sentence out. And because of mirror neurons, the teacher’s tears will unleash the students’ and the class plans are washed away in collective salty water. But hey, there are more important things in this life than fulfilling one’s class plans. And the ultimate class plan is to remind students that we’re all in the mess together and also all in the joy together, so let it flow!

One more day to go in this most intense of Orff Courses and am thinking I should rent a kayak for the flood of tears that certainly will come. We’ll’ see how it goes. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

The Defiant Ones

There’s a powerful scene in the movie The Defiant Ones with Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis. They are a black man and a white man who escape from a chain gang chained together and when the one complains about racism, the other answers with “That’s just the way things are. Nothing you can do about it.” And the movie goes on to show him he’s wrong. You always have a choice and each choice that refuses to accept and allow ignorance and hatred to continue brings us one step closer to diminishing its power.

It may seem an odd way to introduce the next sentence, but tonight were the teaching lessons of the 29 students in my Level III class. As has happened repeatedly the past 8 to 10 years, the quality of the lessons touched me to the core—fun, imaginative, musical, energetic, flowing, touching on just about every faculty a good teacher wants to awaken in his or her students. 

Some people think that training like this is not relevant to American music teachers who are required to simply count the beans the school board spills out on the floor, that they need detailed recipes that fulfill pre-ordained standards. But we do not teach to the person we already are. We teach to the person we long to become. We teach to the person we didn’t yet know we are (but always suspected it) and bring our slumbering soul awake and out of hiding. We don’t teach to continue the way things are, but to radically transform them to what they could be. 

And in my considerable experience, when we give out the invitation to our students to dare beyond the norm, when we defy the expectation that the status quo is good enough, when we create the necessary safety that helps people risk, why, the people respond to it. I know all 29 of my students did tonight. And the result was glorious.

On this shrinking planet, we’re all chained together. Let us escape from the prisons we’ve created and be the Defiant Ones.

Advice from Thumper's Mother

I believe Bqmbi was the first movie I ever saw and I do remember being terrified by the forest fire and sad about Bambi’s mother. I also remember a cute little scene in which Thumper the rabbit said something about baby Bambi struggling to walk being clumsy and his mother admonishing him:

“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

With a slight shift, that could be a rule for these Blogposts:

“If you don’t have anything interesting to say, don’t say anything at all.”

A rule I’ve just broken. 

Sunday, August 4, 2019

The Hall of Shame

I’m thoroughly enjoying a stimulating book called “The Coddling of the American Mind.” It’s calling us to task for our obsession with “Safetyism,” our good intention to protect children from harm backfiring because we are compromising their resilience and weakening their immune system by over-protecting them. Take away all peanuts from a school if one child has an allergy and a few years later, there is a rise in peanut allergies. Put hand sanitizer every ten feet and we get sick more often. Shield children from the realities of life’s hard truths— sickness, old age, death as if they were royal Buddhas (see Buddha’s story)— and they have no strength to face life’s sorrows. A good-hearted person might see a butterfly struggling to leave the cocoon and assist it, but in so doing takes away precisely what the butterfly needs to survive. Kids who eat dirt, get scraped knees, weep mightily when their pet dies are doing precisely what they need to to build strong bodies, immune systems and emotional health. 

But here’s the rub. While we’ve weirdly agreed that one kid falling from a rope swing over the lake means taking down the swing so no children will ever enjoy it, we seem just fine continuing to manufacture and casually sell deadly assault weapons while cutting medical coverage to get help with mental health issues and cutting school programs that might help kids feel valuable and that they belong—like Orff music programs, for example. The things that seriously protect children from assaults that they will never recover from— death by random terrorism—are the things we’re not willing to insist on. And yes, peanut allergies are a real danger to those who have them and we should know what dishes contain them if they ask and train those folks to take care of themselves. But assault weapons are proving to be a real danger to all of us who dare decide to go to a Festival, a movie, a church, a synagogue or a shopping mall. Might we pay just a little bit more attention to this?

There have been three mass shootings in the last 8 days in America. One in Gilroy close to where I’m teaching at the moment, one in Texas close to where another teacher lives and one in Dayton close to the college I attended. It doesn’t really matter whether I have a personal connection with these places, because all shootings are the responsibility of all American citizens to grieve and take action ten thousand times beyond those hypocritical “thoughts and prayers.” Three incidents in 8 days. And the NRA goes merrily on its way and the politicians keep moving gun control that has proven to make a huge difference in actual civilized countries to the back of the line and people get their panties all twisted up about a peanut found in school while blithely excusing the next assault weapon terrorist attack. 

We are all now card-carrying members of the Hall of Shame. Relax about peanuts and get to work on guns. All of us.