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.