Monday, May 31, 2021

Teachers and Teachers

There are teachers and then there are teachers. On the cusp of teaching my last Jazz History class, I’ve been thinking about what makes teaching more engaging and effective. What is needed to make a class really sing and not just the written melody, but the whole arrangement, plus the solos. 


In her first semester at Brown University, my daughter took a Jazz History class, which delighted me no end. Until I found out that the teacher had the class memorize the dates of each given recording, the names of each musician, the producer and other overly-technical details that matter a little bit, but are near the end of the list of important things. Aargh!


The delight of my Jazz History class has been to go far beyond the surface facts and investigate deeper and wider, to go where most classes never venture. Some thoughts:


WHO: Identify the key musician (not all of them!) in a recording and tell their story. Find quirky little details that attract kids’ attention: like Duke Ellington’s piano teacher Mrs. Clinkscales and Ella’s last-minute decision to sing instead of dance at the Apollo Theater Contest and win. And then keep going. What challenges did they face as a black person in a racist culture, a woman in the patriarchy, a gay person amidst homophobia and so on? And how did they react? 


WHEN: What was happening in that time— musically, culturally, historically? How did the music in that particular moment of historical time draw from the music of the previous? What were the attitudes of the time that created challenges for the musicians? How does each musical style connect to the art of the time, the poetry, the literature?


WHERE: Whether it be New Orleans, Kansas City, Harlem, L.A., the where of jazz matters. 

Culture constellates in both time and places and though genius can flower anywhere, there is an ecology of the jazz biosphere, the musicians who came from Pittsburgh or Philadelphia or San Francisco, but didn’t seem to connect in Hartford or Des Moines or Houston or Seattle. 


HOW: How does jazz work? What to listen for to make sense of the solos, the conversations, the back and forth? What is happening rhythmically, melodically, harmonically? What is the quality of the timbres? The specific musical forms? How did these change through time?


WHY: What does jazz mean to culture? To our humanitarian promise? How does it sing to the zeitgeist of the time? How does it reflect it, shape it, predict it? Why is it important?


For starters. Then the real job of the teacher, the ability to connect this all to the students, to connect to the students themselves, to offer this information as the starting point of the students’ further investigation, to elicit the student responses and reactions to this extraordinary world you’re opening to them. 


The whole direction of this Jazz History class has been to show how it grew larger and larger, how music and styles unimaginable in the 20’s blossomed in the 40’s, how it grew yet larger in each decade to follow. And to teach it all in a way so much larger than memorizing the dates and musicians on each recording. 


Brown University, take note.  

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Distant Graduation

Tomorrow my nephew Damion gets married and I have the honor of playing the piano and the Bulgarian bagpipe. (Not at the same time.) It will be outdoors in 90 degree heat, but still I will need pants more suitable than shorts and less hot than jeans. So I got out my pants from my Palace Hotel piano days and noticed some papers in the pocket. One was the list of SF School graduation speakers from 2019 and the other one of the speeches I gave in 2020, masked, outdoors and outside the students’ house. 


It’s often interesting to get out some clothes worn for special occasions and see what’s in the pocket. And yes, yesterday was another graduation day at the SF School, the first in over four decades in which I have not emceed or spoken about children. School is still an edgy place for outsiders to enter, so I’m not personally insulted that I wasn’t invited, but there was a touch of sadness, especially as I had taught many of these kids for ten years and knew them well and cared about them. So my compromise was to write a note to the whole class which I hope my colleague Sofia posted in a visible place and figured I might as well share it here. 


Dear 8th Graders,        


Today is your special day. The moment you’re launched from the place where you are known, valued and loved out into a larger world. Hopefully, one in which you will feel equally welcomed and appreciated. But it’s likely that you’ll have to work hard to make that so. You’ll be thrown into a larger pond, competing for space, attention, places on the team or in the band. And of course, you’re ready for it, prepared to show who you are and who you’ve yet to become. You have a large group of loving teachers behind you— and though I will sadly miss your graduation, I want you to know I’m one of them!


Some of you I have worked with for ten years, some just a year or two, but all of you have brought me so much happiness. How much I’ve valued our time together, loved playing, singing and dancing with you, enjoyed watching you grow and blossom into perpetually new versions of yourselves, the joyful twinkle of your 3-year old self still alive but now grown larger with your disciplined skills, insights and understandings!


I have a video of some of you playing my arrangement of The Cookie Jar in 4thgrade and have shared it many times with fellow music teachers who watch with amazement at your skill and energy. I call on some of you to improvise and you fearlessly jump in without hesitation, with your fellow musicians dancing with their mallets pointing at each soloist, supporting, enjoying, celebrating your musical ideas and energy. Such joy! Such confidence! Then you switch to recorder and show your versatility. It’s a perfect summary of everything I’ve loved about working with you! 


So consider this my farewell hug in the hug-line, my hopes for your continued happiness, kindness and courage, my wish to run into you some day at SF Jazz Center! Happy graduation and keep in touch!





Avon Gillespie and the Root of Wonder

Avon, it’s that time again. Don’t know how time works in the other world, but here it’s the 32nd anniversary of your passing into that world, a marker I ritually celebrate each year by thinking of you and writing a short note to Rick Layton, Judy Thomas and Mary Shamrock, partners in your praise. You might be happy to know that I’m Zooming once a month with Judy, Mary and also Jane Frazee, Judy Bond, Carolee Stewart and Julie Scott, most of them your contemporaries who in their 80’s are still thinking about the state of Orff Schulwerk in the U.S. Which, as you can imagine, is both the best of times (attention to diversity issues, our Orff-Afrique course, a few promising young teachers) and the worst (membership continuing to plummet, bureaucracy rising, cleverness over aesthetic integrity and all the things you worried about back in the 80’s still worrisome—and perhaps more so with the advent of slick Powerpoint lesson plans and crumbling school systems). 


Remember when Marie Blaney interviewed you a long time ago? I found the rough-draft article on your desk when visiting you at the hospital before you died and later had it published in the Orff Echo (Fall, 1989). She asked: “Do you see a change in the Orff Teacher emerging today as compared to ten years ago?” and your answer could have been given yesterday, still so sadly true of what’s happening now:  


“What we are seeing is more and more safe teaching. Teachers are afraid of taking the risk that process demands. A search for recipes and information rather than experience and discovery is occurring. The difference between process and sequence is becoming more and more clouded. Process is not such a neat package— sequence is more a secure format with step by step expectations rather than explorations as we find in process.”


Yeah! Of course, we need both, but the process should be in the lead. You go on:


“The most important part of any Orff teaching is  to provide the learner with a sense of community— and sense of feeling welcome and ready to participate. The teacher, rather than being the star, should welcome the participants to share. People are more and more trying to astonish us with what they are able to accomplish rather than incorporating the participants into a larger role. When teachers come with visuals and motifs written out for a complete media presentation, we have a sense of preparation for a performance. The learners never once participate in the making of the steps. But as Wilhelm Keller said, the teacher should become more and more superfluous and the learner more and more independent. Most of our job as teachers is to bring learners into the avenues of thinking, rather than to give a body of thoughts. 


Well said, sir! So nice to read your wise words having lived them myself in my teaching these past 35 years since you said them. No wonder I keep you in my heart and continue to honor your memory, which I will do until my last breath—and then, will you meet me on other side? Wouldn’t that be something!


And so, on behalf of the reader, especially those music teachers out there, I’ll close the occasion with your eloquent closing thoughts in the article: 


“ I have always been fascinated with Orff Schulwerk because in Orff, nothing is ever finished. In Orff we are not involved in problem solving but in possibility seeking. In curriculum e have a prescription, but the lifelong work of Orff Schulwerk must be built on roots of wonder. To say that an unchanging curriculum will satisfy the needs of the learner is not what we are about. The teachers is constantly evolving as life is evolving. Orff is a wonderful exposition of that life, of the excitement that life is, that which is constantly changing.”


PS: The Roots of Wonder could be a good name for a rock band!

Friday, May 28, 2021


I just finished listening to David Sedaris’s book The Best of Me on Audible and at the end, there is a bonus interview. Out came the predictable questions, “What advice to you have for young writers?” and the answer often given, be it William Stafford, Anne Lamont or David Sedaris—“Write!” And then the amazement that ambitious authors seem surprised by that advice. 


And the same advice goes for aspiring musician (Play!), athletes (Train!), cooks (Cook!) and so on. And back to writers: Write every day, best at the same time and in the same place in some disciplined routine. Write when you don’t feel like it. Write when the bills are piling up (and pay them after). Write when you have absolutely nothing to say. Just pick up the pen or put your fingers on the keyboard and begin. Let it take you where it will, don’t judge, don’t aim for perfection (Anne Lamont’s reminder to write lots of shitty first drafts), don’t worry if the recycling bin is overflowing with crumpled up paper. (Though that probably doesn’t happen anymore, grabbing the sheet from the typewriter and littering the floor. Most likely, you simply don’t print it and neatly zip it to your electronic trash. Like not being able to slam down the phone in anger with the advent of cell phones, contemporary writers are missing an outlet for their frustration!) In short, simply write.


Then there’s all the next steps. Like “Re-write!” The composer Schoenberg once famously said that his most important tool was an eraser. Again, no satisfying rubbing out and sweeping the shavings off the paper, simply highlight and delete, but really, unlikely that any writers would actually complain about the mechanical ease of re-writing on the screen. But at some point, I find it useful to print and read with paper in hand and cross out or scribble in the margins before returning to the screen. Just yesterday, I brought a new book to Kinko’s for the double-sided copying and binding and that’s the moment when things really begin to feel real. 


And I would add. “Read!” And “Re-read!” Then let it simmer a while, leave it alone, come back to it and  “Re-read yet again!” Then consider reading it out loud—important to hear the music of the sentences. Share it with a friend or a stranger—and watch when their eyes brighten or when they yawn. Imagine yourself as a friend or stranger hearing it for the first time—is it something you would want to read? That's a lot of work after the initial sitting down. If you don't have the patience for it, maybe you're not a writer after all. Mary Oliver once said, “It takes about 70 hours to drag a poem into the light.” 

A case in point. Usually when I sit down to write a blogpost, I already have ideas, thoughts, whole sentences churning in my head. But today I had nothing and thought it would be a good exercise to just start writing and see what came up. And lo and behold, it has turned out to be about what happens when you just sit down and start writing and see what comes up. 


Minus the 70 hours of re-writing, re-reading and re-writing again. 



Thursday, May 27, 2021

No Regrets

I imagine we all have voices inside our head, whether it be speaking directly or just guiding our hand to the book in the bookstore that we don’t know we need, but we do. Mine has been a faithful companion my whole life, accompanying me into those bookstores, record stores, musical instrument stores and whispering, “Get this. You don’t yet know why, but trust me, it will be useful.” And I do trust and it does often turn up as just the thing I need at the moment, even if 30 years later. And the same is true for pursuing relationships with people you meet, making life decisions at a crossroads, answering invitations. A felt intuitive rightness that either proves correct or shows you that this is not the way for you—which proves to be equally useful in putting together the jigsaw puzzle of one’s lifelong guiding image. 


Our men’s group topic last night was regret and this got me thinking how that fit into the above. If it’s true (for me, at least) that this guiding voice either encourages you in the right direction or seems to betray you (but doesn't), there is no room for regret. What happened had  to happen to bring you to where you are now. You will never know what lay in wait for you on “the road not taken,” so all you are left with is the way your choices and how you responded to them led you to the only life you know, the one you are now living. 


And so I spoke about that steadfast, reliable, insistent and relentless inner voice that has guided me from one unknown to the next, advising, “You need this. Do this. Study this. Read this. Listen to this. Save this.“ I rarely knew at the time why each thing might be important, but lo and behold, it always proved to be, without exception. Teaching my jazz class last Monday, that old recording from decades ago surfaced and proved to be precisely the right thing to share in that moment with the class. Those random scraps of paper I save (much to the dismay of my wife) appears mysteriously to be the thing a kid in my class wrote 15 years ago that is perfect for this chapter in my next book. You get the idea.


Of course, there are many small and large regrets in a lifetime. First and foremost, the things we didn’t say to a friend, a loved one or even an enemy before they so suddenly passed away. The language class we dropped out of that would have been so useful now that we’re living for a few months in France. The accidental or intentional ways we hurt people, physically, emotionally, psychically, that we never apologized for. (If you’re lucky, there’s still time! Call them!) The ways we betrayed our friends. The ways we betrayed ourselves. It’s too easy to say “I have no regrets,” too damaging to wallow in them, too cowardly to not even consider them. It’s a subject worthy of our attention, a means to contemplate what lessons might be there to bring us into a less regretful future.


When I first heard the topic, I hadn’t considered the full dimension of possible regret, but focused on one— the regret when the phone rang and we refused the call because we were too busy, too lazy, too scared, too unwilling to risk or hazard the invitation at the other end. We preferred the comfort of the known, however small or limiting it might be, to the larger (and scarier) world of the beckoning unknown. Out of that cowardice or inertia or worry about pleasing others, we would miss our star, walk back into the house without looking up at the night sky and turn on the TV to watch others living their exciting lives. 


And so I thought about the calls which I have received in my work life to teach music to all different sorts of people in all different sorts of situations and couldn’t remember a single one I refused. Time after time, I put myself into the unknown, in faith that it was the right place for me and for the people who showed up. And it always was.  In the course of my 45 years teaching both kids and adults,  I’ve worked with mimes in Maine, Zen monks in Marin, moms in Melbourne, my Men’s Group in McCloud (California). I’ve taught workshops for hippies in communes, IT Apple managers, corporate businessmen, Community Food Store workers,  librarians, jazz musicians in Iceland, university P.E. students in Finland, Conservatory musicians in Prague, deaf children in Japan, Down syndromes people in Mexico. In South Africa, I worked with an elite private girl’s school group of steel drummers, an adult South African Choir, a university jazz band, high school gumboot dancers, kids in Soweto, preschoolers in a Jewish school, elementary math teachers, some of them on the same day! I taught jazz courses in Spanish in Brazil, Colombia, Spain, Portugal and Italy, in English in Iceland, Greece, Taiwan, Thailand, Australia, Ghana and more. I’ve worked with seniors in San Francisco and Salzburg, babies in Canada, 50 preschoolers in Taiwan with a translator and 300 teachers and parents watching. I once gave a week-long Orff course to four people in Galicia and a keynote address to 2,000 in the Philippines. I led the annual neighborhood Christmas caroling and the pandemic neighborhood sing, a year-long online alum singing time and my granddaughter’s 3rd grade class for the year. I answered every call to teach in just about every American state and Canadian province and some 52 countries on six continents. I’ve Zoomed into people’s homes in Iran, New Zealand, the Ukraine, Russia, Italy, Colombia, Switzerland and beyond and though the courage to turn on my computer in my own home is minimal and doesn’t begin to compare to the difficult commitment to get visas, arrange flights, fly 17 hours, deal with jet lag, adjust to radically different climates and cultures, it still reveals a lifetime loyalty to answering the call and continuing the needed conversation.


Throughout it all, there was never a single workshop I didn’t love teaching or learn something from or appreciate the people I got to meet. And so as long as that feeling persists and the body cooperates, I believe I’ll continue. With no regrets. 

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The Gift of Anti-Toxins

My nephew Damion is getting married on Sunday. His father-in-law had the brilliant idea of a gathering of men to help launch him into this new phase of his life. Men in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, most of whom had been married some 30 to 50 years, gathered outdoors seated around a fire pit, the moon rising, coyotes howling in the distance, wild turkeys gobbling and night birds circling overhead. Quite a contrast to the bachelor parties with wild drinking, dancing and some last fling with the ladies before settling down. Doesn’t make for a blockbuster Hollywood movie, but it was a profound gathering that hit depths beyond anyone’s imagination.


The father of the bride was connected in various ways with each of the 12 men, many of them through music and through teaching. Some (like me) were meeting the others for the first time and several knew the bride well, but not Damion. We began going around the circle introducing each other and spontaneously, decided to add our ancestry, from parents to grandparents. That felt right, bringing them into the circle. Then we went around the circle again, ostensibly to give “advice.” But instead of the usual mansplaining posture, people spoke from deep in the heart and mostly just shared their experience of love in all its forms, its joys, sorrows, trials and tribulations. One man read a poem that he had on a rolled paper that he later gifted to Damion. Another spoke of his ritual practice of a shared reflection of each day with his wife, another of the way his wife and he make prayers from their conflicts, yet another fondly recalled his own wedding day. I recited a Yeats poem, spoke of the idea of 3 Marriages (from a David Whyte book) and read out loud my own wedding vows from 42 years ago. Damion's dad perhaps was the most profound, having not prepared anything in advance, but gathering in the energy of the moment, letting silence punctuate his thoughts and then releasing a few words at a time, each of which went directly to the bulls-eye of the heart. At the end, I suggested a song and we surrounded Damion with an energetic “This Little Light of Mine”— and these men could sing!


Damion is on the road to a career in drama therapy, a good choice combining his considerable acting talent realized in high school and college and his interest in mythology, psychology and offering some healing to a broken world. He recently performed a solo show about toxic masculinity and before the song, I suggested that masculinity is not inherently toxic, we are not born into sin and unredeemable, not nature’s mistake in the face of feminine superiority. But we do have to work hard to turn our testosterone towards life, to be life-affirming and life-sustaining and I praised this circle of men as models of people who indeed took that seriously. Their ability to speak from the heart and share their struggles were giving the gift of anti-toxins to toxic masculinity. Not sure-fire vaccinations, but healing medicines to be renewed in each moment of authentic connection. I reminded Damion to not always go to women with his deepest self, the way men of my generation did as they embraced the feminist movement, but to keep a healthy male comradery in his life and to call on us (and other) elders as needed. 

Perhaps to the reader this sounds like a lot of New Age nonsense, but trust me, if all men had such positive experiences of masculinity and such role models and men willing to be vulnerable without denying our male bodies and minds, if all men were so lovingly blessed as Damion felt, don’t you think that would help? And know that his wife-to-be Roxy, had a similar (but of course, different) circle of women gathering around her the night before. These experiences are as old as the proverbial hills in cultures that cultivate human beings instead of mere shoppers, shouters and haters. 

We would do well to take note.


Tuesday, May 25, 2021

New Fox News Anchor

In last night’s Jazz History class, I showed videos of extraordinary musicians that lifted everyone’s hearts and minds into the stratosphere. These included an Indian tabla player, British guitarist, Bengali Indian bass player, a German gypsy (Sinti) guitarist, a Spanish jazz pianist accompanying a flamenco dancer and black American tap dancer, a Brazilian percussionist, a Cuban trumpet player, a Swedish bagpipe player, Moroccan musicians and dancers. We continued to enjoy a fabulous trio of three American black women, a 12-year old Indonesian pianist, a disabled French pianist, a Russian pianist. Then came a duet between an American gay white man and an Israeli woman clarinetist. Are you getting the picture? 


Not only was this the healing antidote to Marjorie Taylor Greene comparing mask-wearing to the Holocaust, but it also was the obvious solution to the devastating effect of Fox News on the American psyche. So I have a proposal. 


After every news segment, I demand equal time by showing videos of extraordinary jazz musicians who represent the groups that the other anchors have just tried to make you afraid of. The groups they trick you into thinking that they’re to blame and if only you’ll keep voting for the guys who want to keep the world a uniform good-ole-boys club of white males in charge while the others serve them, clean for them, make money for them, offer them sex, etc., everything will just be fine. All the time driving their Japanese cars with the oil from Saudi Arabia while listening to music from the African diaspora, drinking their Russian vodka, French wine or German beer, Brazilian coffee or Thai iced tea, eating Italian pizza, Turkish kebabs, Chinese noodles, Native American corn, working on computers made in China, fixed by phone services in India and enjoying all the benefits of a democracy that came from Greece and the Iroquois Confederacy while trying to convince you that the problems we face are because your neighbor is an immigrant. (Ironically, the only groups who can rightfully claim that last phrase are the Native Americans.)


If they hire me, then they can rightfully claim their old slogan “ A Fair and Balanced Look at the News.” If not, the same lies keep rolling on fed by the same ignorance of people like the above list of jazz musicians. While I’m waiting for the call, how about you Fox News viewers taking a break and joining my next Jazz History class? You have nothing to lose but your illusions and you just might win back your Soul. 

Monday, May 24, 2021

The New Normal

Besides the personal pleasure they’ve given me on these long pandemic evenings, what do the following TV Series have in common? 


• Downtown Abbey

• The Office

• A Place to Call Home

• Call My Agent

• Last Tango in Halifax

• Seaside Hotel

• Schitt’s Creek


If you’ve seen more than one of these, take a moment to think of the characters. Got it?


And one more hint. It’s something that TV wouldn’t have shown twenty or thirty years ago.


Give up? It’s no earthshaking insight and yet, significant that each of these shows (and many others I’ve either forgotten I’ve seen or haven’t seen) all have a major character who is gay or lesbian. In the ones that are set from long ago, there is attention paid to the struggles they went through— electroshock “cures,” hiding it from fellow workers or Nazi occupiers, personal shame as the culture’s disapproval leaks into the psyche. The more contemporary ones are more—and rightfully so—casual, more out front and in the case of Schitt’s Creek, lots of kissing, a wedding and clear expression of the genuine deep love bond between David and Patrick and the delight of the parents in sharing their joy.


I’m reading Lush Life, the biography of Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington’s partner in jazz crime who gifted Duke with his songs and arrangements and gifted the jazz world with his memorable compositions—Take the A Train, Lush Life, Satin Doll, Chelsea Bridge, Lotus Blossom and many more. He was unusual in that he was fairly up front about being a black gay man in the 40’s through the 60’s, but he certainly suffered from being at the wrong end of the wholly accepted homophobia of his day. I think he would be delighted to watch these shows and feel that mainstream TV has helped the culture move closer to normalization of simply choosing who you love. The new normal is growing and Amen to that!


Of course, many still resist and though these kinds of TV series and movies help, knowing people in the LGBTQ community who happen to be family members, friends or colleagues helps more, still I have given up on any logical approaches to convincing people determined to hate to consider changing. The contradictions in the human psyche have grown too extreme for me to comprehend and I reluctantly accept that there is no social program that will point us toward more tolerance, acceptance, compassion and celebration of the many ways we can love others and express the essence of our own beautiful soul. 


But these kinds of shows just might help. Check them out!

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Afghani Jazz

Someone sent me an interesting interview with Ashraf Ghandi, the President of Afghanistan. When asked about his Peacemaking Plan, he said: 


“I have been working on this for two decades. There are lessons. Peacemaking is not jazz.

It’s not improvisation.”


First interesting thing? The President of Afghanistan is talking about jazz! And relating it to politics. I wonder if he knew that Dizzy Gillespie ran for President in 1964. (I wonder if you knew that!) He goes on to say:


“In order to do jazz, you need 10,000 hours of preparation.”


He got that right! But he failed to connect the fact that his two decades of work is that preparation and once things get formally set in motion, once the melody and chord changes and rhythms of the Peacemaking Plan are set down like a jazz composition, it is the jazz sensibility that will make it actually work. For the jazz improviser is intelligently responding to the needs of that moment, in conversation with fellow jazz musicians. A plan is a plan, but to make it come to life requires that level of intelligence, of awareness, of conversation to the ever-shifting changes of what’s actually happening. All improvisation must sing back to that theme, but also extend it, vary it, re-phrase it according to the ever-new moment. And drawing from those hours of preparation. Without that preparation, improvisation is just mindless reactive babbling. But without that improvised spontaneity, the plan is just a document vulnerable to mindless stiff adherence. Jazz improvisation balances the formal and informal, the prepared speech and the live conversation, the known and the unknown, the set form and the variety within form. 


So President Ghandi, I respectfully disagree: Peacemaking is jazz and all politicians would do well to be trained in its ways. Not that they have to practice long hours at an instrument, but get a taste of how jazz works and how it can apply outside the musical world. If you ever want to set up a workshop with your Cabinet, I’m your man. 


And President Biden, I offer you the same. 



Saturday, May 22, 2021

Be Prepared

Though I never was in Boy Scouts, I like their motto. The slightly longer version: 


Be Prepared: in Body by making yourself strong and active and able to do the right thing at the right moment, and do it.


I would add “in body, mind, heart and spirit…” 


In my profession as teacher and specifically music teacher, that means learning all the details of my craft, practicing them, striving to master them. You know the drill. The correct fingerings, the scales, the harmonic understanding, the phrasing, the attention to dynamics and timbre, the hours put in to learn a repertoire. This is the what of any music curriculum and though necessary, I’m sorry to report (no surprise to any of you who have suffered through these kinds of lessons) that the discipline of learning life-enhancing, joyful, soul-stirring music is often dull, tedious, grueling, a trudge through swamp with a heavy backpack instead of a frolic in the field. 


But it doesn’t have to be. Enter my life’s work of the Orff approach to music education, a chance to have your cake and eat it too by “playing” your way through the necessary skills and understandings and discovering, “Hey! This is tasty!” Orff teachers often (though not always) are far ahead of their colleagues who are throwing erasers at their students who squawk out of tune and miss the rhythm, tend to have more fun and join the kids in the circle to try things out, fail, laugh, try again. 


This is a good first step to remediating what I consider wrong-headed thinking in music education. But it is only the first step. The next question—So What?— is the one that invites us to consider far beyond pleasing the parents at concerts why we’re doing this work and why we think it’s worthy to pass on to children.  A question we don’t ask often enough. And here’s one answer: 


To be able to do the right thing at the right moment.


For me, this kind of preparation has been a mysterious inner voice that has guided me through record stores and bookstores, browsing until something calls out to me from the bin or the shelves and I think, “I’m going to need this someday.” And lo and behold, 95% of the time I do! And the other 5% is still patiently waiting for its moment!


It is the same impulse that has led me to learning folk tales and myths, memorizing poetry, learning to play and sing hundreds of folk songs, learning some 400 jazz standards on piano, memorizing a few pieces each from the dead white guys in Europe, playing rudimentary banjo, guitar, ukulele, dulcimer, accordion, bagpipe, recorder, tinwhistle and percussion instruments of all types. None of it is to step on to the concert stage or dazzle the world with my (non-existent) virtuosity. All of it is preparation for an occasion I can’t predict, but know it will be needed and will bring the right thing to the moment. At my school, we often say “A song for every occasion,” but the same is true for “A story for every occasion, a poem for every occasion, a musical piece for every occasion, a dance for every occasion.”


And then comes the Now What? Are you alert to the need? Do you step forth and offer what’s needed? To you fulfill the last few words of the Boy Scout mandate? 


To be able to do the right thing at the right moment—and do it.


So yesterday, I joined the 5th grade class on their 7-mile walk to school, a once-monthly ritual my brilliant teacher daughter created and caretakes. Even before mile two, one boy was in tears insisting that he couldn’t do it. And so I leapt to his side and began telling him a Korean folk tale about patience and perseverance. When that ended, there were still miles ahead and so told him a longer German folk tale about hiding one’s gold until the time is right. 


On one level, it didn’t really matter what the story was. The simple act of immersing oneself in story helps you disappear into another world where you don’t notice your hurting legs. But it also helped to choose stories with images, characters, situations and messages that are useful to building a character, to guiding a soul. And while I could make a fuss about how wonderfully multi-cultural I was being, how I switched some genders to achieve balance and so on, none of that was the point. It was simply the healing art of storytelling. And my wise decision to follow that inner guide that suggested I have stories at the tip of my tongue, that I wasn’t dependent on a book or my phone. I went on to sing him a relevant song and had there been more time, probably could have pulled up a poem for the occasion. 


At the end, I told him that if he was having this problem on a walk sometime and I wasn’t there, that he could tell the story to someone else. Whether telling or listening, the effect is the same. And so my dedication to having kids learn a couple of hundred songs, memorize and recite a few poems, learn some dances that might be just would an occasion calls for. Help them be prepared in body, mind, heart and soul “to be able to do the right thing at the right moment and do it.”


May I recommend you consider the same? Learn a few stories, poems, songs that are easily accessible to all? Of course, your own way to be of use may come from another place—giving a needed massage, offering useful medical advice, cooking a meal or simply calling up your capacity for deep listening. But if you believe, as I do, that we are here to be of use to each other, to offer our unique way of service, to discover the particular ways we can help others, then remember the old motto: 

“Be prepared.”

Friday, May 21, 2021

Another Look at Diversity

I've started a new jigsaw puzzle and am learning yet more lessons from the wisdom of its teachings. (Perhaps I should start a new cult? Jigsaw Puzzle Way!) Different colors and shapes and distinct markings (like letters in words) make it so much easier to put things together and figure things out and enjoy the emerging image. I loved the map of San Francisco puzzle, matching the streets I had walked on and placing them easily in their neighborhoods—until it got to the all-blue Bay with pieces one color and essentially one shape, no markings or distinctive features. It took me as long to put together the last 50 pieces as the previous 950 and I can testify—it was not fun.


So my new puzzle is a Victory Garden alive with the vibrant colors of beets, watermelons, pumpkins, corn, tomatoes, sunflowers, some welcome words and a great variety of puzzle shapes. Such pleasure! Such satisfaction! Such rich imagery! Why would anyone resist this? Why would people go so far out of their way to live in houses that mostly look alike filled with people that mostly look alike, think alike (if you can call it thinking), feel the same things (if you can call it feeling). Why would they spend so much time of their precious time working to keep the lively colors and shapes out of their neighborhood, out of their own minds and hearts? 


Just wondering. 


Thursday, May 20, 2021

The Pat on the Shoulder, The Kick in the Butt

If you’re the same as you were yesterday, what’s tomorrow for? – Jewish saying


You are perfect as you are. But we could all stand a little improvement. —Suzuki Roshi


I left off yesterday with the questions, “How can we aspire to do yet better than ‘the best we can.’? How can we embrace our essential nature and still strive to improve? What actually helps us move the next inch down the road?”


There are as many strategies as there are people to invent them and each one is unique, must fit the particular way we’re put together. No one size that fits all. But of course, many practices and helpful hints— meditation, art, reading, walks in the woods, all the tried-and-true ways to get off the merry-go-round of distraction, consumption, addiction, mere mindless repetition of less-than-good ideas, feelings, habits that others have handed down, that society lures us into for someone else’s profit. But even if we have the good sense to go to the meditation retreat or sign up for the art class, none of it will “save” us. It is our effort, our discipline, our choice of what to read and how to interpret it, our struggle with the medium of artistic expression that has called us, our particular way of walking through the world and noticing the things that call out to us in a different way from anyone else. All of this is in company with some internal guide that knows when we’ve fallen into grace, when we're off-kilter, a sense as reliable as knowing when we’re hungry, knowing when we’re full. 


And parallel with that is our engagement with the world and the world’s response to us. We all need some kind of outside affirmation, some encouragement from others along the way. We need the constant reminder to try just a bit harder, do just a bit better, avoid the trap of self-complacency. There is nothing more frightening—and more dangerous—than a person doing harm in the world who doesn’t see it, doesn’t care to see it, refuses to make an effort. Likewise, the part of ourselves that refuses the call and takes the easy road of Popeye’s advice; “I yam what I yam.” Yes, but don’t forget Suzuki Roshi’s clause— “But you could stand a little improvement.”


For me, that help comes in two forms. The pat on the shoulder that lets me know I stumbled into the words that brought insight or solace, the actions that brought happiness to others, the response that was just right for the call. As a teacher, I have my drawerful of such affirmations from kids and adults I’ve taught, friends and family, awaiting me for a rainy day when the spirit needs some uplift.


But just as important—and probably more so— is the kick in the butt. The example of someone else who dares the vulnerability I might shy away from, the courage beyond what I’ve managed, the insight deeper than my surface thoughts, the love and compassion fuller than I’ve allowed myself. Mostly, this ass-whipping comes not from direct confrontation, but simply the model offered to the alert seeker. If I go to a workshop, a poetry class, a concert, I want both. Some sense that I’m on the right track and then whap!!! Damn! I have so much work to do! Like right at this moment, I’ve been multitasking a bit watching a fabulous duo perform online—John Clayton on bass and his son, Gerald on piano. I’ve stopped many times with mouth open listening to the flow of musical ideas, impeccable technique, perfect timbre and wonderful communication. Kicking my butt!! You can bet your life I’ll be playing the piano for a long time tomorrow.

And therein lies my final advice, nothing new or startling, but all of this is simply reminders of what we already know. So remember: surround yourself by beings higher up on the evolutionary path. Those at the bottom get on the news, but pass them by. Hang out— live or through books/ recordings/ videos—with those who help your being. 


And finally, amidst all the small triumphs and many failures, remember Thelonious Monk’s advice:


“Keep on tryin’!” 

Doing Our Best

We're all doing our best” said Ryk in the post I shared yesterday and today, David Whyte said in his online course about Self-Compassion: “ We should have patience towards others knowing that everyone is struggling. As a friend of mine says, “Everyone’s doing their best— and it’s never very good.’ You’re doing your best, but so is everyone else and that’s the place where we can meet.”


On some deep level, I fully embrace this idea. We’re all the walking wounded. If only we knew each other’s stories, our compassion would grow exponentially. Think of a child who is withdrawn and doesn’t participate in your class and then you find out their beloved grandparent had just died. Your initial reaction of impatience or even anger is replaced by understanding and compassion. 


And yet. Are we all really doing our best? Could we really say that about King Leopold, Hitler, Papa Doc, Idi Amin, Trump, Mitch McConnell, the Proud Boys, the Qanon followers, etc. etc. etc? On one hand, we could delve into their childhoods and try to see how the people they became were an obvious consequence of the trauma they experienced. We could consider that had we had their experiences, we might have not acted any differently. But still. 


To take it down a notch, are the people standing by silently in the face of purposeful hurting doing their best? Or the teachers gathered around the water cooler outraged about an action from the head suddenly silent and withdrawn when a colleague speaks up in the staff meeting? And where is the line between understanding behaviors and standing up against them? Between empathy and accountability? Between imagining that people are doing the best they can and demanding that they, that all of us, do better? Every day, in myself, in the people I know, in the people I read about in the news, I see countless examples of people not doing their best. (And note—that includes me.) And so I want to be cautious about too casually accepting “we are all doing our best” as gospel truth.


It seems like there is but one step to actually doing our best. It is to simply acknowledge that we are wounded, we are less than whole, we are perpetually “on the way.” And that simple step is what actually puts us on the way. Once on the way, we’ll need more. Stay tuned tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Empathy and Accountability

If you read the three parts of “Talking to the Other,” you might have noticed the way I got pulled into the macho squaring-off dynamic. Seeing how the “other” relished each comment as a way to fling back the meticulously hoarded ammunition he delighted in hurling and how it was bumming me out to feel there was no attempt at a dialogue that led to better understanding, I finally took Nietzche’s advice— “Where one cannot love, there one should pass by”— and unfriended him. 


And then the next day was an unrelated post by an Orff colleague that serendipitously hit the key points of what I had just gone through! With his permission, I share here some wise words from Ryk Groetchen:


I am thankful for those who point out the ways that I might make better choices. Even though it may be difficult to hear that my actions are causing distress, this information helps me to make healthier choices in the future. Hearing that I acted in a harmful way does not diminish my humanity—indeed, it gives me tools for self-reflection, and helps me to improve my game.


We must acknowledge that people who endure trauma sometimes pass this trauma on to others. It is a big task to stop the cycle of violence. We're all doing our best.


But we must really support one another to be our best selves. The fact that we have endured trauma must be taken into account by an empathetic community, but we also must be held accountable for the ways in which our behavior affects others. 


As a community, we must recognize the ways in which victims of trauma pass this distress on to others, and we must find kind and supportive ways of intervening and directing trauma victims toward positive support systems. 


The fact that one has endured trauma is not a free pass to act out against others.


I like this so much. Especially the balance between empathy and accountability, understanding trauma without excusing the choice to pass it on. Like all good ideas well-presented, it sparked more questions for me. Which I’ll get to later, possibly in conversation with Ryk. Someone I can have a conversation with because he’s someone who is looking to “improve his game” through “tools of self-reflection.”


And so am I. And so should we all.  

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Soundtrack for Our Better Selves

Out of my routine, having spent four days with the grandkids while my daughter and husband tried to put their house back together after their mini-disaster of a basement flood way back in February. Happy to be of help, happy to be in 80-degree Portland weather, always happy to be with the grandkids (minus the unexpected little screams in the car!) and didn’t we have a fine time, exploring the wealth of beautiful playground and parks in this most-livable city. One day in company with old college friends and their grandkids and the next with my nephew and his kids. The usual card games (kids won them all), watching them scooter and skateboard, a game of basketball HORSE (kids won again! Malik making baskets at almost 6-years old!), a lovely dinner out. Oh, and getting to sing with Zadie’s 3rd graders in person! After a year of online music classes, I could actually hear them sing and see their whole bodies doing the motions. Less than ideal, outdoors with roaring traffic, masks on, too short a time, but still so sweet to keep my connection to kids. 


And then home, happily to re-unite with the piano, with morning meditation, with our kitchen, with our current TV series, the Danish Seaside Hotel (one of my favorites from the year's offerings).  (Less so with the freezing fog, but today looks sunny.) And then, joy of all joy, yet another Jazz History class, this one about the way jazz traveled around the world and the world brought it back to the U.S. to further widen music that already came from such rich blend of cultures. 


One of the students wasn’t there and after class, I found out why. I wrote this letter to the class this morning and invite you to join us to send your healing thoughts to someone who brings such joy to every occasion. Here’s the letter: 


Deep gratitude for yet another class of joyful music and important information. The poet Coleridge once said: “Every object properly seen (and heard! my addition) unlocks another faculty of the soul.”  I hope that as each classes widens further this extraordinary language contained in that tiny word jazz, reaches yet higher and digs down yet deeper, we can feel our own souls expand, discover hidden faculties that were in need of a voice to express them. We can feel the enormous quantity of music and dance and song and story we’ve touched on in over 60 hours as a soundtrack for our better selves. 


It’s strange how connected I feel to you all in spite of all the barriers of Zoom. It shows that technology alone will never connect us without something worthy to share, but it also can’t shut out the determined power of Soul Force in spite of its paltry two-dimensions. I feel us as a genuine community, bonded together by these shared experiences of witnessing the miraculous, considering and caring about the hard stories, feeling the inspiration of the efforts these musicians making that inspire us to our own greater efforts. 


And as Kofi and Herlin noted, a community of any size has responsibilities to its members. We are each other’s insurance companies, therapists, soul food service providers. I would like to feel that when one of us in need of one kind or another, we can turn to each other in confidence that others are there for us. 


And in this moment, one of us is indeed in need of our healing thoughts. I noted last night that Maria Olga hadn’t  joined us and after class, I found out why. She has suffered so much recently through her mother’s illness, recent political turmoil in Colombia— and now is in the hospital with pneumonia and COVID. Aaargh!!! So let’s send her the full measure of our individual and collective light and love. 


Maria Olga came to my jazz course and Level trainings in 2010 and beyond and then I had the good fortune to connect with her again teaching in Colombia. In that Jazz Course, we went to the Jewish Home as we always do and I remember her singing that classic Latin jazz song (how could I have forgotten to include that yesterday?!) Besame Mucho to my dear friend Fran. Who kept talking about it many years later. I also found a clip from that Jazz Class when we performed for the Intro and Master classes on the last day. The tune? Listen Here! (the one I mentioned yesterday). And Maria Olga is leading the dancers while playing guiro and that has a brief inspired guiro/dance solo! Watch it!


Maria Olga, I hope you are reading this and get to watch it and can feel our collective loving energy coming your way. We love you!  - Doug

Saturday, May 15, 2021

The Power of Literacy

Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater, had a wife and couldn’t keep her.

He put her in a pumpkin shell, and there he kept her very well.


Not my favorite rhyme and one I choose not to do with the kids. Domestic imprisonment is not a theme I support. However, I came across another verse:


Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater, had another and didn’t love her.

Peter learned to read and spell, and then he loved her very well. *


My interpretation? That literacy has the capacity to help open the heart to love. But how?


Fiction: Enlarges our power to imagine the other, to step inside other shoes.

A woman working with teens in jail asked them what they planned to do when they got out and was met with blank stares. She discovered that they couldn’t imagine a future, but simply reacted impulsively to the sensation of the moment, just moved from one sensation to another. She found out that none of them had been read or told stories as kids, none of them read books. They lacked the ability to project themselves into a story, into a situation, with multiple models of how they might respond. So she began telling them stories, eventually had them start writing their own story and that changed everything. 


Non-fiction: Encourages us to engage in ideas supported by authority.

“Author” and “authority” are connected and unlike “publishing” on Facebook, requires authentic background to present ideas coherently, with multiple references from other authors on the subject, often coupled with a practice of reflection combined with life experience. The reader can—and should—approach the ideas with both openness and a healthy doubt. By reading other points of view on the subject, one can establish one’s own point of view. Note— point of view is distinct from opinion, the latter frivolous and instinctive with no expectation of supporting data, the latter crafted from a more rigorous discipline. Not only does our healthy curiosity stay alive through non-fiction reading, but our capacity to think independently protects us from mindlessly accepting conspiracy theories or lies told by people purposefully manipulating us for their own ends. 


Poetry: Provides a direct road to the soul.

Poetry combines both the story aspect of fiction and the ideas of non-fiction, but it’s primary gift is like music, with the rhythms and musical sounds of language and images going directly to the soul and lifting us up to a larger world. Again, people who not only know that the soul is real, but are committed to enlarging their own through the encounter with poetry are people who might open up more fully to compassion, caring and love. 


Let me be clear. People in oral cultures can experience all three, telling stories around the campfire, discussing ideas, reciting poetry or singing their sung versions. It's not all about books. But in a literate culture, people who don’t read— meaning mostly people who can read, but choose not to—are often narrowed in their experience of the world, vulnerable to Fox News and Qanon insanities and less likely to open their minds and hearts in the way that both the world and their own souls need.


This is on my mind because I’m noticing how much happier my almost-six-year-old grandson Malik is since he has learned how to read. Last year, he was inching through those primary readers, but now he is as fluent as can be, reading chapter books effortlessly with a rhythmic flow and not even pausing at words like “camouflage, lasagna, sandcastles” and more, with good inflection and perfect comprehension. Not only has his imaginative world expanded, but his sense of accomplishment of independence, of growing toward a capable adulthood, has risen many notches. I can’t easily attribute the diminishment of whining or crabbiness solely to reading, but I suspect there’s a deep connection. He now has a private world into which he can retreat and the freedom to choose which worlds attract him. 


Joseph Campbell, one of the more influential and fascinating thinkers I’ve encountered in my life, said he had a five-year period where he read every day for eight hours. Like monks sitting in meditation in caves or John Coltrane practicing his horn “25 hours a day,” reading became his yogic practice that brought him into the fullness of his extraordinary capacity for thought, understanding and deep compassion. It’s an authentic path. One of many, but so freely available to all. 


 Thanks for reading this!