Whether I’m planning an Orff class for kids, an Orff workshop with adults, playing a familiar jazz tune or imagining a social policy, this is the motto that guides me. It has kept my work fresh and new for over 45 years, kept my music constantly interesting (to me, at least!) and given a certain freshness and vitality to all aspects of my life.
In the face of crisis—and that’s clearly where we all are now—it also has proven to be a handy companion and a useful discipline. It’s a question that helps keep things moving, keep things bearable, that opens the door to a new perspective and sheds light on the possible renewal just around the corner from the collapse.
Like all of us, I have always planned ahead “as if” what I plan can actually happen— and it almost always does. Until now. All of that changed on March 16thwhen school announced we would be closing for a few weeks. A few weeks? Little did we know. The pandemic clearly had other plans.
And this my retirement year. How I dreamed for almost a year about the last few months of school where I would sweetly savor “the last” of each milestone of school—the Cookie Jar Contest, the last Spring concert, the last 5thgrade camping trip and the last of the remarkable last week of school—the closing rituals, the final singing times, the Mud Pie Song, the Hug Line, the 8thgrade graduation, the final staff luncheon and yet more. How I looked forward to a big party of rip-roaring fun, bringing together many of the thousand-plus kids I had taught for 45 years joined with all the local teachers I had trained since 1976. How excited I was about the separate Alum Concert all lined up at The Presidio Theater where my Pentatonics Band and my colleagues James and Sofia and I could play music with select alums who went on to become musicians and dancers.
None of that happened. My consolation was looking forward to the summer courses—Orff-Afrique in Ghana, the annual Levels at Hidden Valley, a Jazz Course in New Jersey and a World Music Course in Vancouver. One by one, I watched them disappear. Well, at least then the Fall— workshops in San Francisco, St. Louis and Little Rock, courses in Russia, the Ukraine, Armenia and Italy. Oops! Don’t think so. I imagined school reopening and pictured me dropping in at school for choice events, showing up with my bagpipe at Halloween, maybe helping with the St. George play in December, subbing for James and Sofia when they wanted to travel during the school year, going on a field trip with my daughter Talia and her 5thgrade class and giving them part of my S.F. tour. I had the transition neatly plotted out and all the happiness of doing what I loved for so long, now without the staff meetings, report cards and fighting for a parking space at school. But it wasn’t to be.
And so as each plan became a provisional possibility that never happened, I turned to my companion question: “How else can we do this?” Now it was not just a luxury that made music classes more intriguing, more interesting, more satisfying—it was the necessary question that determined if and how I could continue with the things that had sustained me throughout my many long years of teaching.
“How else can we do this?” I suspect you know the first answer— ZOOM!! Whoever could have imagined I would turn to a technological solution as the savior? But so it was. Zoom allowed a version of Orff-Afrique, my Jazz Course and many courses from the SF Orff faculty to sustain us through the summer. Zoom allowed me to “go to” St. Louis, Little Rock, Canada, Russia, Armenia, Ukraine and beyond to keep some connection minus the hand-held circles, singing in canon, dinners out and immersion in different cultures.
“How else can we do this?” New possibilities emerged. Back in April, I started an Alumni Zoom singing, gathering the “kids” now 30, 40 and even 50 years old together to sing the old songs, many with their own children on their laps. We did this once a week for some three months and it was also here that I put together a slide show and got to give a sort of farewell speech to the people, kids and former teachers, who had lived that life together. The Alumni Sing continues, now once a month and my alum “grandkids” are learning a lot of the repertoire their parents did.
“How else can we do this?” Since my wife worked (for 42 years) as the art teacher at The San Francisco School, my daughters Kerala and Talia attended school for 11 years each and Talia now teaches at school in her 10thyear, I had always hoped my grandchildren could go there and I could be their music teacher. But San Francisco is an expensive place for an alum from our school to live, especially since we told them to follow their bliss and not care about money! So with my grandchildren Zadie and Malik in Portland, Oregon, the best I could do was to an occasional guest class at their wonderful local public school whenever I visited.
Until now. With Zoom, I’ve started a weekly singing time with Zadie’s 3rdgrade class which looks like it will continue throughout the year. Isn’t that a pleasure? And just yesterday, I did a Halloween singing time for…my daughter Kerala’s colleagues at her workplace! Wasn’t that fun!
“How else can we do this?” Zoom was not the only answer. Knowing that it was safer to be outside six feet or more apart, I began a neighborhood singing time on the street and sidewalk. In the Spring, we gathered twice a week for about 45 minutes, took a break in the summer and resumed in the Fall, now once every two weeks. It is mostly the neighbors with kids ranging from 2 to 10 years old, neighbors who didn’t know each other before this, but have certainly come to enjoy each other now. One definition of community is a group of people who know the same songs and that is exactly what we’ve become. Drawing from my repertoire of over 200 songs that I’ve done in our daily Singing Times at the SF School, I’ve shared some of the greatest hits that are just right for the different ages of kids. Songs with motions, songs with a lot of repetition or choruses to join in on (no printed words needed), songs for different occasions (lots of protest songs, recently Halloween songs), clapping games (to be played just with the family members) and even dances adapted for the situation. Turns out the kids—and adults—are pretty good singers so at least a few times a month I can actually hear songs sung in canon or in parts! (Terrible on Zoom.)
None of this is to be too casual about the very real grief and suffering this pandemic has brought—and continues to bring. My own sadness about my 45-year grand symphonic work at The San Francisco School ending with all the instruments going out of tune, the musicians playing the wrong notes and the audience leaving is my little personal corner of heartache and it’s real. And also small compared to loved ones dying and the circle of those that loved them unable to gather around the bedside. No one should ever be casual about the “good things” that happened—and continue to happen— in the pandemic without acknowledging this very real sense of loss and suffering.
And yet life goes on as it can and in fact, it is the music that can help sustain us and bring us together in this time of crisis. As kids begin to return to a modified school experience, it is clearly preferable for them to be there in their full body outside of that two-dimensional gridded square on the screen. But the “no singing” mandate, while understandable in terms of physical health, is a bitter pill to swallow in terms of mental health. The very thing we need more than ever to help us through this is the very thing that is shut down.
“How else can we do this?” With legal pressures outside the school gates, my casual neighborhood solution of singing outside properly distanced probably can’t happen. But isn’t that a shame. While we wait for the vaccine and proper leadership to control the pandemic, why not get together your own neighborhood sing? And wouldn’t it be wonderful if such things could become a new cultural norm of the future, not depend upon pandemics to organize? The kind of community music-making found in New Orleans, Ghana, Bali, Ireland and beyond, the sense that people were made to gather and be together and that music, dance and song are some of the most joyful ways to do so. So why not have all neighborhoods out on the streets or in the backyards or in the parks gathering to play, sing and dance? Just because. Just for the comradery, pleasure and joy. Think about it.