Thursday, May 19, 2022

The Art of Blessing

After five weeks away, I’m back helping out teaching music to kids at Children Day’s School. At lunchtime, a 7th grader who I did a few classes with back in October came up to me. “Remember you said I had potential?” he said with a smile. I answered, “You’re Levi, yes? Absolutely! Are you doing anything with it?” All his friends around him chimed in “No!”, as 7th grade friends would. “Well, don’t wait too long!”


This was the boy who in the very first class I taught was singing too loud and kind of fooling around, but when I invited them to dance, had some great moves. I stopped the class and said, “Wow! I didn’t get to watch everyone, but there was one of you in particular who really impressed me with his style and energy.” In the silly way I do, I dramatically went around the circle and then stopped in front of this boy Levi. “Can everyone copy his motion”?


At the end of class, I called him aside and asked if he was studying any music and dance outside of class. He said no and I told him, “Well consider it. You have great potential.”


And he remembered that. Six months later. I imagine many adults— and peers— are often yelling at him to stop doing this and stop doing that, but here I was telling him that this energy was not bad, just needed to be funneled into artful expression. It obviously made an impression. Not that he’s suddenly taking hip-hop dance classes or taking up an instrument, but that an adult blessed him with the thought that he might be better than he thought he was. 


Don’t we all need that? Don’t we remember the adults— a special teacher or aunt or uncle or sometimes even a stranger at a bus stop— who said something that made us feel seen or known, even beyond what we could see or know in ourselves? Dear reader, take a moment to think of the people in your life who gave you that gift and take a moment to thank them. Maybe even call them or write them a note if they’re still on the planet. 


This kind of praise and blessing is as essential to us as bread and water. It doesn’t come from Facebook telling us “we value your memories” or the guy on stage yelling “I love you all!” or the fake scripted “I like the way you put your pencil away without breaking it.” It doesn’t come from a quota system where you make sure each person in the circle is praised exactly the same amount for the same amount of time, worried that someone might feel left out.  It certainly doesn’t come from multiple-choice pre-written computer comments on the report card. 


To praise authentically, you first have to be aware of what is praiseworthy. Little artistic breakthroughs, acts of kindness, efforts above and beyond the call of duty. You have to constantly watch the children, alert to the moment when the right word is needed and take the time to give it. It can—and should— come side-by-side with a challenge. “I see this in you. This is what you need to do to have it fully blossom. Are you up to it? If you make the commitment, I’ll help you and when you go beyond where I can go, I’ll help you find the next helper.” Sometimes it’s just hanging out together and sharing enthusiasms— books you love for the aspiring writer, music you love for the up and coming musician and so on.


Most likely, it comes from people who themselves have been blessed and thus, have a model of how that can change people’s lives. Which means that if you start to practice the art of blessing, you send forth ripples in the pond that will continue to echo into the future and affect people who you will never meet, blessed by the person you blessed. 


It’s also possible that you learned the absolute need for such praise by the absence of it in your life and your determination to stop the chain of refusing to see, value or know others and tell them about it. A teacher I know who gave the gifts of blessing to her students for over 35 years was recently celebrated at a retirement party. Her mother attended and witnessed all the love and appreciation this teacher inspired. When she asked her Mom at the end, “Well, what did you think?” the response was, “Well, the snacks were good.” 


As she told me this story, I could feel the pain in her voice. Over 70 years old, she was still hoping for her mother’s blessing and more than a little bit heartbroken that it was not there. It should have been. It should have been. And perhaps never was for her mother, so the neglect kept moving down the generations. Until the teacher put up a Stop sign and turned it around for her own daughter and her own students. It’s possible.


Having thought of who blessed you in your life, think of who you blessed in the next generation. And keep going. It’s never too late. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2022


According to the test, I don’t have Covid — and thank goodness for that. However, I do have a good old-fashioned cold, certainly courtesy of 12-hours in an enclosed tube with a couple of hundred people, all masked, but many of them coughing. Combined with no sleep and an immune system that begged me to stop. 


As confessed recently, my sense of resilience, my capacity for patience, my ability to accept what the world offers, seems to have diminished as I age. And related to that is my whiny, whimpy self that hates being sick. Well, that’s always been true, but since I’ve gotten exactly one cold in over two years and that for only two days, I’m not used to this feeling.


“Compare and despair” is sometimes wise counsel, but I can’t help think about some extraordinary artists I admire who struggled with health their whole life. I’m thinking of the artist Frida Kahlo, bedridden as a child from polio and then again in a later bus accident. Painter Touluse-Lautrec and jazz pianist Michel Petrucianni, both whom suffered from a rare bone disease in which their bones kept breaking and neither grew taller than five feet. Classical composer and pianist Frederic Chopin who died at 39 and suffered ill health his whole life while composing some of the most exquisite piano music ever penned. The poet Rainier Marie Rilke who suffered from leukemia and spent much time in sanatoriums. Jazz drummer Chick Webb who had leukemia of the spine. It’s quite a list.


If you—like me— think that you have to feel well, be in tip-top health, balance your biorhythms and meticulously oversee your diet in order to accomplish something worthwhile, think again. That Chopin can compose Berceuse,  a piece that inspires, uplifts and reveals heartbreaking beauty, while feeling like crap is a lesson for us all.


So instead of lying around in bed, I’m going to the piano. Don’t expect a masterpiece— or even a minipiece— but I’m going to test out my theory. Spirit can triumph over body.


Wish me luck! 

Tuesday, May 17, 2022


Resilience. Whether it’s aging, the pandemic or the constant assault of the news, I notice I’m not as resilient as I’d like to be these days. Doesn’t take much to set me off— machines that don’t work, Swiss banks that won’t change money, overpriced train tickets that no one ever collects, lines that move too slowly. I feel the blood pressure rising and impatience taking charge. I used to think of myself as Mr. Mellow, unflustered by traffic jams or sticky computer keys or plans that go awry. 


But not anymore. Does aging suggest that the hourglass of time is hyper-aware that not a second should be wasted on these petty little annoyances? 


And so I ask myself: “Why do I grant them so much power to upset me? Is happiness only a perfect-temperature-bike-ride through Elysian fields with gelato at the end? Might I dig a little deeper to some surer serenity not at the mercy of the whims of fate and fortune? Can I grow a skin thick enough to make the darts of annoyance glance off?” One would hope so.


And one would be wrong. No sooner had I pledged myself to resilience than I had to wait in an unnecessary line at the Barcelona Airport to just “double-check” our boarding card, a line with one agent that moved at the pace that would make snails honk their horns. Each person who made it to the front seemed to be discussing the question of whether God exists and considering all the different points of view. After 30-40 minutes of this maddening waiting in line, finally made it to the front and on to the plane for the 12-hour journey, fully expecting another such line at American customs.


And then, a gift from the gods! Zipped through customs in 5 minutes without even stopping to talk to an agent! Joy of joys! And then penalized by 55 minutes where the baggage belt didn’t budge and nobody knew why. A good time to practice patience and resilience, but I was failing miserably.


And so today, back home catching up on errands, I went to deposit a check in the ATM. But the ATM declined. My bank has been closed for 6 months but now was open and my excitement about dealing with human beings was alive and well as I entered the bank. Two tellers, two people in line ahead of me. 


Yet once again, the conversation of each customer with the bank tellers either seemed to be continuing a debate on the fine points of whether a Supreme Being exists or reviewing the book they recently read— War and Peace for one, Les Miserables for the other. What I thought would be a two-minute transaction was now stretching to 20 or 30. 


Breathe in. Breathe out. I tried it for a couple of minutes and yes, it helped a little. Instead of wishing for the perfect plan seamlessly executed, the practice of accepting what the world gives you—like waking up with a tickle in my throat at 2:30 am in the jet-lagged morning and never quite being able to go back to sleep— is probably the greatest power a human being can cultivate. 

But it takes a lot of work. And frankly, I don’t have the time or patience! 



Monday, May 16, 2022

All Good


“California, here we come, right back where we started from…”


Woke up in Zurich, 20-minute train to the airport, 3-hour wait to fly to Barcelona, 3-hour layover there before boarding the 12-hour 4-movie flight to San Francisco. A remarkable 5-minute zip through Customs followed by a maddening 55 minutes before the baggage belt moved. Some 20 straight hours of travel, about one of which was spent sleeping, before the welcome return to my home and city. Might I be getting a bit too old for this?


Nevertheless, as enchanted to be back amongst the century-old wooden homes as I was by the centuries-old stone ones, as happy to see Montery pines and cypruses as I was to see Italian varieties, as delighted by the Thai take-out our daughter Talia brought to us as the next fresh pasta and caprese salad. “Right back where we started from,” at once so easily familiar, as if we never left, and seen with some fresh appreciation, moving from the delights of travel to the delights of the settled life. It’s all good.


Finally horizontal at 9:30 pm SF time and now awake at 5:00 am SF time. Back in my morning sweatpants and happy to reunite with my meditation cushions. A morning shopping, haircut, unpacking, laundry and perhaps a bike ride await, ready to begin the next chapter in this perpetually new and renewed life. 



Sunday, May 15, 2022

Parting Glances

A minor miracle— we made it through the 12 Gates of the City to actually get our boarding passes in hand. So much anguish filling out one form after another before setting foot in the airport , many of which no one ever asked to see. Even now in the airport, the free Wi-fi demands a phone number that it refuses to recognize. 

When it works, our electronic fantasies of efficiency can be helpful, but in the end, it probably is more inefficient than the human beings who used to do some of these jobs. And minus the potential pleasure of human interaction. Arriving at our last hotel in Walhalla, there was an open door you could walk through without a code! A reception desk! A smiling person behind the reception desk who gave us a key! Someone I could not only ask about nearby restaurants, but someone who gave me a 15% discount card for the one around the corner. Sheer joy!!!


So now at the Barcelona Airport with a two-hour layover and a good time to say some final goodbyes to Switzerland and more distant arriverdercis to Italy. Hard to believe that amidst digging for all my associations with Switzerland, I forgot the most obvious— Swiss cheese! Also muesli and more obscure, Swiss Kriss, Louis Armstrong’s favorite laxative. A few parting observations:


• Cranes: The national building seems to be enormous yellow cranes. Every single small town had them, some as many as 10 or 12. Eventually, we just accepted them as part of the landscape.


• Unmasked: The whole country is. On the street, in the stores, on the trains, in the airport and most happy for me, in the music workshops. I was content to teach live human beings in Italy with masks, but teaching without in Switzerland was the next level of return to a normalcy worth celebrating. Let’s hope Covid agrees.


• Smoking: Lots of it! While I often leave Europe feeling that the U.S. has so much to learn to reach a higher level of culture, sociability, care for its citizens, aesthetics and so on, Switzerland could follow California’s lead and stop smoking so much! 


• Men’s Groups: Not the artificial kind where we set a schedule to discuss our feelings, but endless groups of men hanging out at restaurants, on park benches, at the outdoor cafĂ©. Same as in Italy. Haven’t seen similar public gatherings of women, but perhaps they gather at each other’s homes, relieved that the men aren’t around. Or doing the household chores and child-raising the men are neglecting. In my little world of Orff Schulwerk, be it in South America, Europe or Asia, the women are all the organizers and they are all quite comfortable and supremely competent being in charge of these organizations. 


And so on. Now’s a good time to give a shout-out to my faithful luggage, the purple suitcase I lived out of for four weeks, my trusty backpack that carried what I needed when I needed it. My appreciation for all the small things that are gold to the traveler— the safety pin that held my sunglasses together, the occasional plastic bags that we needed for the food we bought at markets, the clothespins that kept things from spilling out, the laundry soap we brought, the scrap paper to mark the Rummy 500 scores. Apologies to my biking shorts, bathing suit, camping towel and blue shirt for lugging them all around and virtually never using them. They got their revenge by punishing me with extra unneeded weight. 


But all in all, I packed well and though I look forward to wearing the shirts awaiting me in the closet back home and to returning the suitcase to the basement and opening drawers, there is a certain pride and pleasure in doing with less and carrying most of what you need around with you (with the help of wheels on suitcases and waiting beds in hotels). 


One final thanks to all our hosts, from the bike tour operators to the Orff friends, to the hotel managers, restaurant workers, bus and train drivers, IT workers that helped us keep in touch via e-mail/ What’s Ap/ Facebook/ blogs. Auf wiedersehen, arrividerci and goodbye to it all— for now. I look forward to return visits!


Saturday, May 14, 2022

Some Thoughts on Treason While Waiting for the Results of My Covid Test

While waiting for the results of my Covid test in the Swiss village of Dagmesellen, I happened to look at the inside of my passport, where there is this inspiring quote:


“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”


Union. Justice. Tranquility. Welfare. Liberty. Each and every one of which the Repugnitan Party is actively trying to shut down. Why are they not being tried for treason?


Take Union. President Obama began his first term reaching across the table to work together and the unspoken (and spoken) answer was “Not on your life. We will do everything in our power to work against you, discredit you, spread lies about you and vote against everything you propose.” This was a conscious, active decision, a premeditated policy that started in the mid-90’s with Newt Gingrich’s purposively divisive politics that had nothing to do with the common good of “we the people”—all the people of the United States. The new party line was “We the people who look like us and think like us and are white, male, rich ‘Christians.’ ” ("Christians" in quotes because anyone who has seriously studied Jesus knows he would not approve.)

And on it has continued, culminating in a President who narrowed the “we” down further to anyone who agreed with him, no matter what garbage spewed from his mouth insulting Mexicans, Muslims, women, the disabled, the Democrats, the journalists and more. Their rallying cry is to sow the seeds of division at all costs, a cry amplified by Fox News and beyond. They’re at it again with Biden. No allegiance to the President and the Constitution they swore to uphold. Treason.


Then Justice. Have you noticed all the shenanigans to stop citizens from voting? Ongoing, relentless and shameless. The long support of absolving police from murdering black people, the thinking nothing of locking immigrant kids in cages and now taking away the right of women to control their bodies. Criminals like the last President and so many of his cronies still walking around free while these traitors keep doing everything they can to build the wall that keeps the moral arc from coming closer to Justice. 


Domestic Tranquility? Dream on. Every action, every word on Fox news, designed to foment division, to stir up hatred, to sow the seeds of discord. 


The common defence? (Interesting ,the only word not capitalized). Let’s imagine that the treason stops short of not supporting the military. I don’t enough of the details to comment.

We’ll give them one point.


But when it comes to Welfare, meaning the well-being of our citizens, every action is about privatizing services like health care and mental health care and education in favor of those who inherited the money through the privilege of race and gender and the hell with the rest. Go back through the policies of every government since Reagan and you’ll see that any bill designed to promote the general welfare came from Democrats, often vehemently opposed by Republicans. 


Which brings us to Liberty, not only for our current citizens, but with forethought for Posterity and the lives of our descendants. All they do is block, block, block any steps towards a genuine progress that shows care, support, equality. They denied the election, denied Covid, denied climate change and now are hard at work denying children the right to know their history, denying women the right to control their bodies when impregnated by men who have no accountability, denying voters the right to vote simply and freely and when their plan to make certain of them with darker skin stand in line for ten hours comes to fruition, then criminalizing anyone who brings them a drink of water. The depth of the shamelessness, the height of the treason, is simply extraordinary. And yet here they are, not only walking around free, but somehow with the power to keep shutting down democracy as envisioned in the Constitution. 


Can we require Congress to recite the above Preamble each and every day and re-affirm their allegiance and hold them accountable when they don’t? If so, when? If not, why not?

P.S. I tested negative so I can get on my flight home. Can I please come back to a country where Democracy still exists?


Friday, May 13, 2022

Winding Up

Bike ride we did, on our next-to-last day here in the small village of Dagmersellen. Borrowed our host Melanie’s electric bicycles and set off on the river path, riding in the rain. Something we managed to avoid in all those other days of biking. It was a mild rain and stopped after 20 minutes or so and wasn’t it lovely to be back on a bike in the countryside, alongside a river and fields and distant mountains. Arrived in the town of Zofingel and walked the bikes through the charming Old Town, stopping for coffee and carrot cake. 


Earlier, I asked Melanie to remind me how she fell into Orff Schulwerk. She told me she took the three-year Music and Movement program run by my other host in Basel at the University and for a project, had to pick a book from their library to read and summarize. Her choice? My book Now’s the Time: Teaching Jazz to All Ages! She noticed my Website in the back and as she put it, was surprised that I was still alive! So she wrote to me with a question and I answered her and in the exchanges, mentioned the Orff Intern program I had started at The San Francisco School. Lo and behold, she applied, was accepted, joined us in 2014 and then continued the next three summers with our Orff Levels program in the Carmel Valley. In the years that followed, she married a farmer, had two lovely children and continued to teach music. Her sister, cousin and mother-in-law all came to the workshop here that I taught!


In the morning before the bike ride, I accompanied her to a class she was teaching for older people —ie, my age!— in one of the most beautiful music rooms I’ve ever seen, complete with wood floor, grand piano and a stunning view out the window. It was a lovely class and a privilege for me to be her student. Just one of dozens of stories about the way  lives can intertwine, especially if you’re a teacher. 


Between the class and the bike ride, Karen and I set out to change money and for all my praise of Switzerland, this is something they could work on. It was a simple request at three different banks to just hand them some Euros and ask for Swiss francs in return, but none of them would do it. We haven’t seen any money-changers in any place we’ve been, various places have rejected our credit cards and the ATM’s don’t accept our debit cards. Again, Melanie came to the rescue, but come on, Switzerland, it’s to your advantage to make it easy to accept our money!


We ended the day with Melanie’s family at the farm and had a great conversation with her farmer husband, who after a long day of work in the fields, came back fresh and energetic and playing with the kids and telling us about farming with great gusto and enthusiasm. It’s not a life that looks easy to me, but it clearly fit his character and of course, I have to thank him and his fellow farmers for getting food and milk on the table. 


Today is a morning Covid test, a train ride to Zurich and one last stroll around a city before the long plane ride home. A sunny day with perfect temperature and hopes that all connections get made. 



It’s time. My razor’s dull, my shaving soap is a thin crescent moon, my hair’s too long and I have two more pair of clean underwear— one for tomorrow and one for Sunday’s flight home. Almost done with my Crostic book puzzles, just started the last available book we brought to read—and it’s short— and taught my last workshop. The last four weeks have been some of the best of the last two years. But all good things must end. 


Of course, much to look forward to— my home, my city, my family and friends, my piano. But part of me dreading re-entering the heart of the Beast that continues to devour its children, that stands on its fake-righteous platform of pro-life and then does absolutely nothing to sustain life. No accountability for the fathers, no help for struggling mothers, no attention to policies that help preserve a world for the next generation, no money for schools and new policies that prohibit schools from teaching children what they need to know. The depth of the depravity is mind-boggling and heartbreaking and such a contrast to the kindness of each and every human being I’ve met in these glorious four weeks. 


Re-turn means to turn again, to turn and to turn as in the Shaker song, hoping through turning we may come round right. This time has indeed been a turning with delight, but the re-turn promises signing endless petitions to remind those in power that decent human beings still exist and we will have our say. But the cost is entering the hellish mind-set of the empowered privileged using their position and intelligence to hurt others in some perverted notion of winning. The Grizzlies whomped the hell out of the Warriors last night and that was painful to watch, but at least I knew that their victory came from their superb teamwork and hard-earned talent. You couldn’t help but respect them and even applaud them for their extraordinary play.


But the same tired old criminals in the Senate and Supreme Court are winning their despicable victories not from their disciplined efforts to become competent human beings, but from the inheritance of a narrative that ravished the land and whole groups of people and renders them unaccountable. They see kindness coming around the corner and work twice as hard to wound, disfigure or murder it. And then gloat about it. Aaargh! I don’t want to return to them!!


Well, two more days here in peaceful Switzerland. Errands like the bank and a Covid test, but also hoping for a bike ride today and an amble through Zurich tomorrow. To savor a few more minutes of peace and tranquility before facing the snarling jaws of my country’s news. 

May we all turn and turn until we find the place just right. 



Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Snapshots of Switzerland


While eating lunch in Chur, Switzerland, a sparrow perched on a nearby chair. I’m no bird expert, but it seemed pretty much the same as any sparrow I’ve seen in the United States and I could understand its song. But not so human beings, those complex creatures who at heart are the same everywhere, but so different according to language, culture, religion, history, all of which makes us both interesting and maddeningly at odds with each other.


Crossing the border from Italy, I could feel the difference in architecture, in language, the different bodies and faces of the Swiss-German, the different foods, the different landscapes. In Italy, restaurants open at 8, here they close at 8. No more Euros, but Swiss francs here. Brown bread and barlauch (a wild onion-like plant) soup, those fabulous comforters they also have in Germany and Austria and excellent English spoken everywhere in this land of German, French and Italian. More smoking (including indoors in one restaurant!) here than Italy, a similar culture of men hanging out together without having to form Men's Groups. In the midst of idyllic countryside, an advanced technology milking cows with computer-driven machines and mowing lawns with self-driven robots. 


Then the intriguing history of consciously chosen neutrality, having not fought in any war since 1815. The establishment of the Red Cross which inverted the flag’s colors for its emblem. The last Western republic to grant women the right to vote (in 1971!), but then a swift ascent into the political structure and the first woman president in 1999. The national hero the mythic figure of William Tell and the most known literary character a little girl named Heidi. The birthplace of some giants in their field— Albert Einstein and Carl Jung, for example. The site of the Montreux Jazz Festival, where Bill Evans recorded a memorable album and Miles, Ella, Count Basie, Oscar Peterson and more also performed and were recorded. 


Most intriguing to me is Switzerland’s contribution to alternative education. Jean-Jacques Rosseau, a French-Swiss, whose book Emile: A Treatise on Education was published in 1762, was one of the first to consciously envision an education that reached beyond reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic. The baton was carried further down the field by Swiss German Johann Pestalozzi (1746-1827), who founded several experimental schools. (I gave an Orff workshop at a Pestalozzi School in Argentina some ten years ago). The German educator Freidrich Froebel was Pestalozzi’s student and continued his work. (He was the one who invented the term “kindergarten.”) 


In the field of music education, Emile Jacques Dalcroze was a composer and pedagogue who began exploring a new approach to music teaching he called Eurythmics, returning music to the body and ear in the midst of the rise of Conservatory training. His daring experiments as a teacher in the Geneva Conservatory (starting in 1892) led him to establish his own school in Hellerau, Germany, in 1910. Notable figures in the growing modern-dance world—Hanya Holm, Mary Wigman, Rudolph Laban, amongst others—spent some time at that school. I have heard that a young Carl Orff visited, as well as Maria Montessori (who was also influenced by Pestalozzi). Dalzcrose returned to Geneva in 1914 to open another school and today, Geneva remains the home of the Dalcroze Institute. 


Yesterday, I gave my third Orff workshop in Switzerland in the small town of Dagmersellen and felt the same excitement from the students I felt in the other two I had given in 2015. Great energy and musicianship, deep thought and a bubbling sense of humor breaking through the famous Swiss reserve. Today, I teach University students in Basel and expect the same. Stay tuned for that report. 

Switzerland of the Heart

Sitting on the border of Italy and Switzerland waiting to board the Bernina Express, I recalled a former self eating a peaceful lunch surrounded by mountains, soaking in the tranquility of the scene in whole-wheat-bread-and-cheese bliss. Like every person entering this last stage of life, I find myself astounded. ClichĂ© though it be, I wonder “How is it possible that that young man was eating that lunch almost 50 years ago?!!!”


Yet so it was. The year was 1973 and I was 22 years old traveling to Europe for the first time with the Antioch College Chorus. So much life in-between stored in the neurons, muscles and bones of this body, the accumulated stories of both constant travel and a long settled life in San Francisco.  Even though the calendar and mirrors make it clear that the person then and the person now are most definitely not the same, inside they most certainly are. And though the outside differences— loss of hair, white hair, a bit more bulk and the tracks of life’s stories told in wrinkled skin and their weight present in sagging parts— are real, I’m deeply grateful that this old body can still walk eight miles a day, bike ride 25 or 30, sit on the floor—and get up again! The mind is every bit as sharp and robust, enlarged by a thousand or so books, thousands of pages of writing journals, articles, blogs, books, Crostics, conversations, observations. And the heart? Every bit as tender and open to feeling the full range of emotion, vulnerable to being broken and strong enough to stand up after being knocked down. 


So here I still am, almost a half-century later, poised to enter the Switzerland of the Heart, where the riches of joyfully lived experience are secure in the banks earning interest, the warring factions of self are brought together in a peacemaking Geneva Convention, the yodels sung from all those years ago are still echoing in the mountains. In the place where the majesty of the Matterhorn meets the delicacy of the alpine flower, where the tools of artful living are neatly gathered in the Swiss army knife, where the precision of the clocks is joined with the timelessness of Heidi’s long, ambling days with her grandfather. 


There will be no future self 50 years hence remembering this one and that carries some sadness. Yet it also colors each moment with its true significance and reminds me to savor more attentively, love more deeply, live more fully,  in the Switzerland of the Heart. 


Tuesday, May 10, 2022

What Is Permitted

After the group of music teachers in Verona played their “secret songs” (see last post), one teacher commented: “That was lovely the way we were all listening so intently. But we are mature adults. What do you do when the kids aren’t listening? As my kids probably won’t be!”


My answer?


Celebrate! Now you know what you need to teach them—how to listen better.

In my class, any behavior that doesn’t directly harm someone physically or mentally (name-calling, ridicule, bullying, etc.), that doesn’t harm the materials, etc. is permitted. The first time. That’s how I know what they need to learn and what I need to teach them. If they’re talking while the teacher gives directions or not listening when their fellow classmates are playing or are doing something wrong on purpose to try to be funny— you know, all the things that kids do and have always done and so did we—I see it as an opportunity to convince them to consider how what they’re doing hurts the music, the group atmosphere, their own learning. I don’t stop it right away the first time, but just watch when the dancers going into the center bump into each other and think it’s sooooo funny. And then I give a little talk and we practice again how to go 4 steps in and 4 steps out keeping our neighbors in our peripheral vision so no-one goes in further than anyone else. And certainly no one bumps into each other. We practice it. "In 2-3-4- freeze!! Oops! Looks like two people are ahead of their neighbors. Let's try again."


Mostly, I make clear what I think we’re trying to do— I mean, really trying to do on a deep level. Creating something beautiful, finding beauty in ourselves and each other, surprising ourselves with doing something better than we ever thought we could, etc. And I find that kids respond to this kind of talk. Simply telling them to stop or yelling at them is what they get all day long from parents and teachers and siblings. But calmly clarifying why it’s better to listen when others are playing changes the game. No guarantee—kids are flawed human beings like all of us— but in my experience, much more effective.


Behavior is the language of children and when I see behavior that falls short of the mark, I smile and think, “Okay, what are they trying to tell me? I thought today’s lesson was going to be about eighth notes, but I see we need to spend some time attending to how to play the drum without breaking the skin.” This idea not only applies to kids’ “bad behavior,” but to every aspect of responding to the activity. The teacher is constantly observing and then thinking, “Oops! Didn’t spend enough time on mallet technique. Oh my gosh, I thought they could play this game with a scarf, but first they need to actually know how to fold up the corner.” And so on.


By giving permission to kids to show us their first draft response to the activity, we understand what is actually needed in today’s lesson. Instead of burdening them with some perfect student fantasy, we let them be the imperfect beings they are and then move them one inch closer to a better musician, student, human being. And that, after all, is what we’re here for.

Monday, May 9, 2022

The Secret Song

How do I know I’m not finished with my work? When new ideas or new variations of things I’ve done one way for years and now discovered another way, keep appearing. One idea that came to me years back that has borne bountiful fruit is called the Secret Song. Gather the kids around and with a whispered voice, tell them about a secret song that lies within the xylophone bars like gold in the earth, waiting only for them to find it and release it into the world. All they need is a pair of mallets to dig around, a listening ear to notice when the song has announced itself and a mind that can remember it when it’s time to share. Off they go into the corners of the room as far away from each other as they can and ten minutes later, come back to share their golden sounds. 


I’ve done this as a first class in xylophones with 5-year olds and not said a thing about mallet technique or phrasing or rhythm or home notes. I just come into it with a firm faith in the innate musicality of every child and a firm belief that they will reveal, to me, their classmates and themselves, their unique way of musical thinking. And I have never been disappointed. Each and every one indeed performs a piece that justly deserves the title of “music.” Without exception.


In my last year of teaching, I tried it with 6th graders as well, some of whom were new to school and had never played the xylophone, some who had been playing for six or more years. Again, the results were spectacular. This is a class that each person, each age level, each level of musical background, can equally enjoy and achieve success. If Zakir Hussein, Esperanza Spalding, Bobby McFerrin and Yo Yo Ma were in the class, I believe they would be as engaged as the rank beginner and all could share their results without worry about better or worse, higher or lower. 


In my adult teaching, the groups are usually too large to do anything but describe the process and show a video of the kids, but with 15 students in my Verona class, I not only had each go off to create one, but came up with a new idea about sharing. We re-gathered in a circle and whoever wanted to play first after I finished the directions could and then whoever was inspired to follow could. If two started playing at the same time (which didn’t happen), they could play a duet. I reminded them that this would be a concert never played before in the entire history of humanity and would never be played again. 


The result was stunning. Each one unique, some demonstrating intriguing mallet techniques that later the whole group could practice, some approaching it rhythmically, some more melodically, some with busy energy, some with a sense of space, no two alike. It was a supremely musical experience. 


The way I think, I suggested that this class also was living proof that each of us has a unique irreplaceable voice that the world is waiting for. Just as no two human beings have the same body, mind, heart, fingerprints, etc., so do no two people think exactly alike as they create music. The world keeps trying to narrow us down to think alike, to feel alike, to march to the same drummer with someone else (or now machines) setting the beat and tempo, but the Soul has its own blueprint and yearns to be expressed, refuses to be reduced to the herd mentality. So much of school is trying to shut that down, train us to obedience and the party line, but in my music class, the whole of you is not only invited, but encouraged to reveal its glory. Here all of the authentic you is welcome. Here we want to hear your secret song. 


Ah, fellow Orff teachers and all teachers, this work is so needed. Let us continue. 


Saturday, May 7, 2022

Meeting the Moment


A few posts back, I quoted the old cowboy song “Back in the saddle again, back where a friend is a friend…” and while that referred to getting back on the bike after a two-day rest, now it perfectly describes the feeling of giving my first workshop outside the U.S. in over two years. After singing the praises of three weeks of traveling as nobody in particular, now it’s time to shout “Hallelujah!” as I resume my life as somebody in particular, that traveling music teacher taking the reins of the horse and steering in the direction I’ve been traveling my whole adult life. Following the yellow brick road to the magical land of Oz where music, children, teaching converge and the wicked witches don’t dare enter. (Though here in Verona, I have to take special care with the horse, as horse meat is one of the staples of the menu!)


My two day workshop is focused on the role of improvisation in Orff Schulwerk, in all its varied and glorious facets. Improvisation with the speaking voice, the singing voice, body percussion, movement, Orff instruments, any instruments, drama and beyond. What a joy to teach in person and do all the things that don’t work online! Singing, speaking, body percussion in canon! Circle dances. Small group movement choreography. Live Orff instrument playing with multiple parts. Back in my role as the man behind the curtain pulling the levers to create the feeling of magic, a magic that’s not an illusion, but is real and tangible and just needs the structures I’m offering to be released.


After many activities, with the help of my friend who translated, I thought that if we were going to spend two days exploring improvisation, it would be a good idea to have some kind of definition to clarify what we’re doing and consider why it’s important. So I came up with one on the spot.


Improvisation is meeting the needs of the moment using everything you know and everything you don’t yet know. 


Not bad. In the music class, “the needs of the moment” are simply how to extend a given rhythm, melody, set motions, musical accompaniments, music and/or dance structures to make it personal, to expand the form, to make it come alive far beyond simply duplicating what someone else has created, to become co-creators of a piece of music or dance. Naturally, we bring everything we know to the task— our technical skills, our musical understandings, our ways of thinking and feeling musically. Everything we already know. And then enter the world of imagination, where the things we don’t know or didn’t know that we know, come into play and we surprise ourselves and others with creating something in the moment that we have never quite done before. 


This brings a whole different kind of involvement in the music study, a whole different feeling beyond simply reproducing what others have done and feeling tense and nervous about getting it right while the strict teachers glowers at us if we make a mistake. It affirms that we are indeed imaginative beings capable of more than most people have ever given us credit for, that our ideas count, that our creations—from an 8-beat scat singing of the first sound of our name or a short improvised movement to a full blown composition or choreography— are worthy to be shared, that they matter, that we matter. Not only does it feed the enthusiasm and interest that every teacher dreams of in their students, but it inspires the motivation to practice and refine and improve that any art form demands. Instead of doing it as a drudge and a chore, it becomes a joy and a pleasure and damn fun!

Everybody wins. And for those nervous teachers wanting accountability from their students, making sure they are understanding the essence of the lesson, improvisation is always the final exam that reveals precisely what we know and can do and gives the hints as to what the next step in our development is. 


Being who I am, I imagined outside the box of the music class to the quality of improvisation in our life, meeting the needs of any moment with the whole of our heart and intelligence. The entire pandemic was an exercise in improvisation! The needs of the moment— how are we going to survive this? How are we going to spend what we thought was two weeks isolated in our homes that became two years and get through it with some measure of sanity? And so we brought everything we knew to the moment—thank you, Dr. Fauci and others— and everything we didn’t yet know, calling up resources we didn’t know we had to grow more comfortable with solitude, to discover not only TV series and jigsaw puzzles, but our capacity to walk outdoors five miles a day, to educate ourselves about Black Lives Matter beyond what we ever did in our busy lives, to awaken our political selves and awaken our poetic selves and awaken our spiritual selves. 


Knowing how to improvise in music or dance certainly doesn’t automatically cross the bridge to articulate and needed improvisation in life, but it’s a good start to consider both. 

So here in Verona, fifteen lovely and dedicated music teachers set out to do just that and yesterday’s results were simply spectacular. In 30 more minutes, we set off again. 


I enjoyed my time off the horse (and on the bike), but dang! It feels good to be back in the saddle again. Yee-haw!


Friday, May 6, 2022

Book Report

I still bring books with me when I travel. The paper and print kind. Yesterday, I reluctantly finished one of them that I found simply by browsing back in San Francisco, another old-fashioned habit that serves me well. The Bad Muslim Discount by Syed M. Masood, did not disappoint, filled with the qualities I appreciate in a story. Well-told, well-written, appealing and complex characters who go through some kind of transformation, a peek into a different culture and way of thinking (the two main characters are immigrants from Pakistan and Iraq), with the extra bonus of humor and much of it taking place in San Francisco. Like the best books I’ve read, I always looked forward to re-entering the story and was always somewhat sorry for it to end. 


Another bonus was some well-spoken gems worthy of a pencil underlining and so in today’s post, I’ll share some. Out of context, but still compelling. And in the spirit of my 5th grade book reports, “I suggest you read this book.”


• That is how monsters multiply, spreading their hurt into the world in a cycle of misery that doesn’t have an end. Sometimes victims act in a way that deserves censure. The fact they’re victims doesn’t exempt them from moral consequences. You don’t get to hurt other people because someone hurt you. That can’t be how the world works.”


• We should be honest about who we are and what we do. We should tell the truth about things, even when it doesn’t sound good or feel good or sell well. It’s not “enhanced interrogation,” it’s torture. It’s not an “extrajudicial killing,” it’s murder. We should call things by their real names.


• Zuha took me to Sacramento, to a train station on I Street, which was a squat, long building that looked like it was made from reddish-brown bricks. It probably wasn’t. In America, they build things out of wood and then put false faces on them, to make them seem like they are stronger, more durable, that they really are.


• I couldn’t be angry with him because he felt more like a brother to me then, in that moment when we were both broken and imperfect, than he ever had before.


• It’s part of growing up to realize that often, perhaps inevitably, we are left with incomplete stories about the lives of other people. It is impossible, therefore, to understand any other being as completely, or incompletely, as we understand ourselves. The best we can do is find some common ground in self-evident truths about how we are, if not the same, then at least similar. We can recognize that our experiences of the world, no matter how various and varied, how tinged with excess or want or joy or sorrow, make us all irredeemably, undeniably, irrepressibly, human. 


From Here to There

Today had one purpose only— to start from here and get to there. After two days of promised rain that didn’t deliver, today it did. Just a sprinkle, but timed so that it began just as we started to walk the mile to the bus stop with our luggage jostling behind us up and down the bumpy road. But the rain was light enough and though 20 minutes late, the bus appeared and we were off. 


An hour ride to Foggia, then get a train ticket to Bari. “20 Euros for two” the agent said “and the next train leaves on Platform 6 at 12:02.” It was 12:00. We ran to the Platform, no train in sight, waited ten minutes, no announcements on the sign. Back to Platform 1 we noted there was another train scheduled to Bari in five minutes. It came and we made the mistake of asking an official if we could use the tickets for Bari. The answer was no, we had to rebook with the agent and the train would be there for ten minutes. We ran into the station and of course, there was a line of five people with three agents and each one seemed to be having a discussion about the state of the world or a play-by-play recount of the last Warrior’s game. What is the problem with approaching the window, saying “1 ticket to ______”, a nod of the head, a swoosh of a machine and Bam, there’s the ticket? But no.


I impatiently cut in front of the next person in line to let the woman who sold us the ticket know that she sold us a ticket for no train. She simply refunded my money and waved us back into the line. Ten minutes later, she sold us a ticket to Bari— for 50 Euros. And the waiting train was gone. So another 30 minutes until the next, which of course, was 15 minutes late. Finally we got on. 


An hour later, we pulled into Bari Train station and then went to take the local train to the airport. Easy to get a ticket, but next train was 50 minutes later. Finally came, at the airport, more line-waiting, got the ticket and breezed through security with shoes on and computers in backpacks and things were looking up. And then– you guessed it: the 30-minute delayed flight that stretched to 55. And free wi-fi not working for me, so no way to What’s Ap my host in Verona waiting to pick us up. Finally, they call our flight, long line, get on a bus that sits on the runway for ten more minutes, out to the plane and an hour later, made it to Verona, some 10 hours after we left the house.  Isn’t travel fun?


This is precisely the kind of story that will send my daughter running from the room the moment I begin it. “Nobody wants to hear it, Dad!” And she’s right. 


But nevertheless, I persist and will post this. My excuse? In case you felt some small pang of envy as I described the delights and wonders of the previous two weeks, now you can enjoy some schadenfreude, happy that I’m traveling and you’re not. 

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Walking to Know and Preserve


“How do people spend their days?” I often wonder. Of course, such a question is an immense luxury. For most of the people of the world and most of the world’s history, the answer is, “Whatever it takes to survive.” Hunting, gathering, farming, weaving, building or else other kinds of work that brings in money to pay others to do that work that brings food to your table, insures a roof over your head, provides a vehicle to get from one place to another. In that context, it’s not a deep question.


It’s also a question relevant for my peer group of retired people. We all have worked some 40 hours weekly for at least 40 or 45 years and that pretty much accounts for a lot of our time. In my case, it was fun, fun work playing games, playing music, dancing and more with kids. But though it wasn’t backbreaking labor in the rice fields, it also was hard, hard work. If you don’t believe me, ask Bobby McFerrin. As a parent in my school, he once threw a party for his third-grade son Taylor in which his classmates went to a recording studio to record a song. Afterwards he told me, “I don’t know how you do it. That was the hardest four hours of my life!!!”


If we complain about working too hard and working too much— as all of us do or have— we should also consider the double-edged sword of retirement. The moments when you wake up and think, “Hey, I can do anything I want today!” with glee and just as often, “Hey, I can do anything I want today. But what the heck do I want to do?” Freedom without structure can be just as difficult as structure without freedom. And that’s when the question “How do you spend your days?” becomes interesting.


This bike trip has been a perfect blend of a structured schedule, a clear daily goal (bike from here to there), freedom to deviate and dilly-dally along the route if you so choose, then the predictable three-hour evening dinner in the restaurant. Once the bike trip ended, three of us went to an Air B &B near the hilltop town of Monte San Angelo, as noted in yesterday’s blog. Today, Karen and I bid farewell to Mary at noon and had the entire afternoon to ourselves. But what to do? There’s always the routines we bring with us—reading, writing, sketching, cards, crostics— but vacation invites something else. And so we did one of the finest things a person can do when nothing else invites us. We walked. 


Just got out and put one leg in front of another and walked. As our “failed” hike yesterday made clear, it doesn’t always matter so much where you walk. Just walk and listen and look and attend and observe and get the old body moving as evolution intended. (One anthropologist theorized that our ancestors walked an average of 12 miles a day). 


And so we walked. Took the right fork instead of the left and though that’s a terrible decision in politics, it was the perfect decision in hiking as we actually found a marked trail. I was already writing in my head this post about the joys of walking when I read this sign. Clearly I wasn’t the only person who thought this way!

We did get to the town on the top (the equivalent of some 148 flights and 7 ½ miles according to my phone ap) and feeling the return journey a bit much hiking in my Tivas and shorts and the air getting cold, we bought a bus ticket for a bus that never came. I was up for hitchhiking, but just when we were discussing it, a taxi came by and we negotiated the price down the mountain. Home again to the barking dogs and one final dinner here in Puglia cooked in our B &B kitchen. 


So remember. When life is beating you down or the endless hours of the day are stretching out before you with no enticing invitation or you’re tempted to go down the rabbit hole of news or Facebook or Youtube, just get out and walk. Wherever you are, whoever you’re with, walk. Walk to know the world. Walk to preserve your sanity. 


Just walk.