Sunday, June 6, 2021

Life in the Pentatonic Scale

Did you ever look back at some time in your old life and wonder, “How the hell did I do that?” While my daughter is enjoying the palpable release of the last class with her 5thgrade, the last staff meeting, the last report card, for me this entry into June is just another day. What used to feel like a grand Beethoven drama, with all the tension of unresolved harmonies aiming for the final thundering chords is like a simple pentatonic scale meandering over a drone. Tiny little tensions (the re tone over the do of the drone) but the scale of the drama is toned down from grand opera to a casual sit-com. 


But it didn’t used to be like that. Thinking back on what I and my colleagues James and Sofia used to do the last month of school has me shaking my head in disbelief. For starters, the Spring Concert. Not only did we have to prepare 190 kids in each of 16 classes to get up on stage and play, sing and dance with coherence and joyful pleasure, making sure every mallet and triangle beater was in place and that no one had misplaced the peacock feather props, but we also had to arrange the theater, the U-haul van, the parent crew to help. We had to pack the van, drive the van, park the van, unload the van, set up the stage, talk with the lighting director, acclimate the kids to the stage, do the dress rehearsal that day within the confines of the given schedule and perform the concert that night. 


And then as the last note sounded and the parents gave the customary applause, we got to bask in the glory of it all. For one minute. Then it was soliciting help from the parents, clearing the stage and packing the van, driving it back to school and parking it, getting ourselves back home and early next morning, unpacking the van, re-setting the instruments in the music room, returning the van and then rush back to school to teach our regularly scheduled classes. Did we really do that?


It gets worse. The next week, we turned the music room into a recording studio so we could make the next school cassette tape/CD, an annual tradition I began in 1983 and continued until 2012, making 26 recordings of some thousand plus pieces that we had arranged or composed for the Orff Ensemble, taught, directed and documented. Again, all within the school schedule, with 30 to 45 minutes to get each class immortalized in a permanent listening form, with volunteer school parents as recording engineers and the challenge of balls bouncing against the music room door or kids at recess shouting or squeaky tricycles circling outside the music room window. Never mind the kids recording who were sneezing or laughing or talking or playing the wrong note loud and clear in the last two seconds of the recording. And now an additional 80 kids in the mix as we recorded the preschoolers. (Have you ever tried explaining how recording works to a 3-year old?) One whole week to get some 40 to 60 pieces laid down with just the right balance. 


But that’s just the beginning. Then came the mixing at Duncan Street recording studios in our “free time” on the weekend, sitting in a studio for some 8 hours a day listening to take after take (24 takes on a one-minute 1st grade piece was the record), deciding the best or splicing some together, working with the levels, deciding the order, sometimes calling up kids and asking them to come into the studio to overdub. Slow, painstaking, at times grueling work to get it all in a final recording that we could stand to listen to and feel that it adequately represented our work.


But then came the liner notes. Collecting art work from the kids, getting a parent graphic designer to put it together, writing the liner notes, asking permission for some pieces, getting it to the printer. 


Were we done yet? Of course not! We had to get the tapes/CD’s duplicated and liner notes done in time for the full production, find the place that did this work, take it all to the place that did this work, pick it up when it was ready. Hopefully before the last day of school, where we would then sell them to the parents to earn back some of the considerable expense, often on the last day of school, out on the sidewalk hawking the CD’s as we said goodbye to the kids and the parents picking them up. Yet again, how the hell did we do that?!!!!


But of course, there’s more. A week or so after recording, we were also preparing for the annual 5-day camping trip with 60 3rd/4th/5th graders! Along with the classroom teachers, renting a bus to take us to the Sierras, renting a van, shopping for the week’s groceries, picking up the van, packing the van and bus and then the five days of 24/7 camping with some kids who had never camped and others who had never spent a night away from home. With the added drama of raccoons, bears, rattlesnakes, snow, escaped convicts, rain on leaky tents. We loved it! But it was a helluva lot of work and when we returned to school, we had to return the van, clean the Coleman stoves, re-store all the equipment, divvy up the leftover food and so on and so on.


Just in time for the last week of school ceremonies—staff-8th grade basketball game, move-up day, end-of-year slide show, mud-pie dessert ritual, closing day ceremonies, hug-line—and we’re done!! Well, almost. There was that little matter of—oh yeah, Graduation! Then the graduation party. Then three more days of staff meetings and farewells to staff members leaving. Now are we done?


Nope. Don’t forget report cards!!!! We wanted to, but we couldn’t. But when we signed off on that last one, now we could exhale fully and breathe in the glorious summer that awaited us. Unless our back went out in the hug line or we caught a terrible cold on our first day of summer or the postponed hernia operation was finally scheduled. 


Do I miss it? Not exactly. Though it’s true that in sex, music and life, the greater the tension, the greater the release, I’m perfectly happy to have the day after others finish school to feel pretty much like the day before they finished. Life in the pentatonic scale is good.


But let me be clear. That life I lived, that work I did without a single extra penny of pay, official job title or acknowledgement in my job description contract, was utterly insane. Batshit crazy.

And I loved every minute of it.


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