Wednesday, March 30, 2022

To Be of Use

 I always knew that my “retirement” was not going to mean lawn bowling, golf or cruises, but the reality of it —even narrowed by two years of pandemic— is an occasion for great gratitude. I believed fervently in my life’s mission of dynamic music education, not only as an offering to the world for music’s healing tonics, to children for meeting them at their level of delight and dignity, but also for my own unabashed pleasure in playful teaching and playful music-making. It was clear that I would continue tending the garden of what I spent my lifetime cultivating — the seed-planting, the watering, the weeding and sharing the harvest with others at the table— but I didn’t yet know what shape it would take. 


Yesterday, I attended a morning sharing concert for parents of 1stand 3rd graders at the school where I subbed a couple of weeks ago. I had taught two of the six pieces and even got to drum alongside some 3rd graders for one of them. Sitting in on the band of 3rd graders is an honor and delight equal to being asked to play with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Maybe more. 


After the concert, I walked down the street to the Middle School and co-taught the piece Sway to a fabulous group of 6th graders. By the end of one hour, they had put together the melody and bass on xylophones accompanied by the tumbao pattern on the congas. One hour. From scratch. They sounded great and they knew it. We all did. At the end, many rushed over figured out how to play the melody on the piano while others walked out singing. 


Back to the lower school, which is behind an apartment building for Seniors and up to play piano for the 80 and 90 year-olds. Warmed up the room with Bach’s Cello Suite (on piano) and then one of the residents asked if I knew a Chinese song to play for the person sitting next to him. I did— at least the melodies minus the words. In honor of another resident in the room, he requested a Russian song. No problem— I had three at my fingertips. Then a Spanish song. I started talking Spanish to the two people he pointed out and found out they were from Guatemala and Ecuador. I didn’t have those folk songs repertoire easily accessible in my memory, but they were delighted when I played La Paloma, Besame Mucho, Solamente Una Vez and … Sway! And sang along. Another woman requested The Moonlight Sonata and off I went— at least for the first 64 bars or so. A man asked about ragtime and I was playing the Maple Leaf Rag before he finished his sentence. 


It was quite a day. All of this— including one more class back at the Upper School with 5th graders— is to say that I’m lucky beyond my wildest expectations that the choices I’ve made about what to do and what to study and what to practice and keep alive in my memory have turned out to be useful for others. And that I continue to find the venues and the opportunities that allow me to be of use in this new world of post-retirement. To have the chance to continue to share the fruits of my labors with people of all ages and circumstances. I never doubted for a moment that the work that chose me was real and necessary, but couldn’t know what shape it would take.


Marge Piercy’s poem “To Be of Use” ends thus:


… the thing worth doing well done

Has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident. 

Greek amphoras for wine or oil,

Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums

But you know they were made to be used.

The pitcher cries for water to carry

And a person for work that is real. 


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