Sunday, August 7, 2022

The Art of Praise

One of many fine ceremonies at The San Francisco School is an 8th grade graduation in which select teachers talk about a student. After years of trial and error, we refined it to a written statement with two minutes to capture the essence of the student. The hope was to avoid cliché (“She’s cool! She’s awesome! She’s so smart!”) and find some kind of resonating image (“Fire and water. On the outside, calm as a jeweled lake, but inside, the fire of passion is aflame!”) Teachers got much better at it and would work for an hour or so to do their two or three chosen students justice.


Everything I learned and practice at the school resonated further out into my workshop and course work— and back in the other direction as well. But instead of talking about three students reading from paper, I freestyled with each of the 24 Level III students. Without a single one pre-planned. Just talked about one and then looked to see who was next and hoped the right words would appear. And they did! A risky venture, especially if I happened to find just the right thing for one person but floundered with the next. In full public view.


But it never happened. Because of the three to four hours daily for ten days with these lovely people, every day fully immersed in the practice of revelation, I certainly sawthem and felt the particular facet of the beauty we all share. And so I made it to the end of the 24 and feeling the sobs as I hugged each one after each little talk, it seemed that the words had hit the mark.


A few hours later, I gathered with ten fellow teachers and four interns for our farewell lunch and having written thank you cards to each that morning, I decided to read each out loud instead of have them read them privately. After all, praise and witness is fine as a private gesture, but reaches its full flower in public acknowledgement. And so off I went again, reading each out loud and then giving them the card along with the other envelope with their check. More tears and laughter.


When I got to the bottom of the stack, there was one left. Mine. No one stepped forth to gift me with their words, so I made a quick short speech, “Doug! You’re a kick-ass teacher! But your best quality is learning how to praise others.” 


It took me a long time to get there, but I believe that’s true. 


Saturday, August 6, 2022

The Wedding

And so it arrived. The bittersweet moment when 24 Level III students in the SF International Orff Course stood before their teachers and fellows students to graduate. On the sweet side of the emotional roller coaster was the pride in what they accomplished, the satisfaction knowing the sacrifices they made to achieve this honor and top of the list, the extraordinary emotion of standing side-by-side with the fellow graduates they came to know and love, some of whom will be lifelong friends. All of this and more, mixed with the truth that graduation in this field means you’re ready to begin a work that is never finished and the great sadness that there is no Level IV course for them to return to. Like I said, bittersweet. 


As the Master of Ceremony, I turned to the “congregation” of Level I and Level II students, some of them perhaps already imagining themselves there next year, and began:


“Dearly Beloved. We are gathered here to witness a marriage, a marriage between the present lives of these 24 beautiful souls with their future teacher self who they met and courted and proposed to and accepted here in this place. 


In reality, we are here to celebrate multiple marriages with these lovely people. A marriage between who they were and who they have become. A marriage between who they are now and who they yet will become. A marriage between their hidden self and their revealed self.  Between their last accomplishment and their next possibility. Between their musician and dancer self. Their artist and teacher self. Their childlike and adult self. There’s a lot to celebrate. 


For some of them it will be a lifelong commitment. You know, the “for better or worse, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, ‘till death do us part” kind. For others, there may be other turns in the path that take them to new life partners. But I believe that this moment and all the many moments that led to it, will be forever memorable.


And so, to you Level III students, with these certificates and flowers and hugs, to the glorious teaching and artistic life that awaits you, we thee wed.”

It was a glorious wedding. And the Level II students caught the tossed bouquet. I will see them next year.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Tenth Heaven

When I was sixteen years old, I had just read Thoreau’s Walden and felt tuned in to the natural world through his example in a way I hadn’t been before. I remember going to a nearby wooded park in New Jersey and walking to a lake. Sitting there, watching the gentle motion of the water and listening to the birds and wrapped in the green of the forest trees, I had a mild epiphany of sorts, feeling "I belong to this world and it’s a beautiful world to belong to." 

Walking back on the path, I passed some people coming the other way and uncharacteristically, looked them in the eye and greeted them with a smile. I felt that impulse to share the good news with whoever might come my way. It wasn’t enough for me to feel something special, it wasn’t complete until there was some kind of sharing with others, whether through a greeting and smile, a poem or song or painting. 


None of it came close to the missionary idea of conversion. My intention never was and still not is to convince people to believe something that I happen to think is true, but to lead them to the kind of experience that reveals what normally is hidden, that opens their heart, their mind, their body. From that, they can draw their own conclusions. 


I thought of this tonight at our Wednesday night “Untalent Show,” always an extraordinary few hours in our annual Orff Course. In the classes, people are unified through the pedagogy of the Schulwerk and bring their whole selves to making music, dancing and creating new pieces or dances in styles that are not the property of any one identity. But on this night, they happily share the essence of their cultural upbringing, though even here crossing lines as someone from outside Spain may have studied Flamenco and a Spanish person may be an expert in Taiko drumming. But regardless, the power of the music comes through as we are immersed in music from Iran, Thailand, many parts of Spain, Brazil, Colombia, U.S. jazz, a Croation folk song and beyond. I should have been content to just enjoy it for what it was (and is), but my lifelong habit has me yearning to share it with others, more so than ever now as whole groups of people seem determined to shut out “the other” and wish all the world to be just like them. God forbid!

Their xenophobia, prejudices and downright racism of course makes me angry, but also makes me sad that they are shutting themselves out from the beauty we all experienced tonight—and indeed throughout the course. 18 countries and languages represented in our group of 90 people and it makes for a gathering so rich, so joyful, so interesting, so eye-opening and heart-opening and mind-opening that I can’t help but feel sorry for the people who refuse to open their doors to it. 


Of course, I know that if I required them to come to the concert or invited them to come without any prior interest on their side, nothing would change. Just as Thoreau helped me to walk differently through the woods, so might Rumi and Hafiz and Mirabai and Basho and Antonio Machado and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Amanda Gorman and Mary Oliver might help spark people’s curiosity to know the folks beyond their borders, not to mention the long list of musicians, dancers, actors, artists who can do the same. 


Meanwhile, my birthday last week in company with these people catapulted me to the next layer above seventh heaven, the Level III Practicum Teaching last night got me into the ninth and tonight, was certainly the tenth. I haven’t the slightest idea what I did to deserve visits to ten layers of heaven, but perhaps it started with Thoreau and there’s no end in sight. We’ll see what the last two days of the course bring.


Forever Eight

I spent most of third grade in the hall. I simply was bored with much of school and thought it  better to have fun that be meekly obedient. I’d like to think that as I matured, I tempered my naughty impulses with good citizenship and responsible adult-like behavior. But part of me was—and is—forever naughty.


So imagine my delight when one of the students doing her Level III Practicum teaching dumped a bag of trash out on the floor and had the students improvising with discarded cans, paper plates, toilet paper tubes and the like. Hardly the dignified lesson a responsible teacher trainer would approve of. But how I loved it!! A lesson filled with delicious humor, unexpected twists and turns, wholly in the character of the quirky human being who brought it all to life. In short, I loved it! And just for the record, she had washed out some of the cans ahead of time and worked trash collection into the lesson so it all went back into the plastic bag with no discernible signs of its earlier presence on the dance floor. 


Just about each of the 12 lessons had at least one zany moment. From reciting rhythms echoing rubber chickens and pigs to a text about cows, cats and pigs playing “moo-sic, mewo-sic, maaah- sic,” the bearded man dressed as a witch, the game of getting to play instruments when someone stole your feathered-boa tail— and on and on. And out of it all, exquisite music and dance, clear university-approved musical concepts and Social-Emotional Learning far beyond any tame textbook-type. 


Each lesson a jewel, because after eight days together, the students understood that I preferred them to be playful from the depths of their own character than serious play-acting some societal norm of the dignified teacher. And so their inner child, their particular genius, their authentic character was not only allowed to come out and play, but actively encouraged. With great results, both musical and personal. There was so much love in that room because after all, wouldn’t we rather see people in their most delightful 8-year old self than in their petrified adult persona? I know I do. 

In the post- Practicum reflection, I drove the point home quoting Andre Gide: “It is better to fail at your own life than succeed in someone else’s.”  And so at an age when you would think I would have grown up, I still claim my naughty (but responsible) eight-year old self as the life I was meant to lead and the one I plan on continuing to. And bringing along anyone else along for the ride who gets how damn fun it all is! Climb aboard!

Sir Gawain: Part 3

(And here is the final act of the story, a reminder to the Supreme Court that they are not qualified to control the choices of an entire gender. Kansas has already won an important victory to defend Pro-choice rights, with other states hopefully to follow! In all sorts of situations, it is the people most affected by decisions that should have the most voice in the matter. As the Loathly Lady story makes clear. 

When we last left off, King Arthur had received the answer to the riddle from Dame Ragnell and rides back to meet again the Knight.)

The King then thanked the Lady and rode through mire and moor,

‘Till he reached the spot that he had been a year and day before.

And there he calmly waited, the very same black knight.

He rose in all his armor when King Arthur came in sight.


“Come, oh King, do tell me, what answers thou dost give.

If they be wrong, you soon shall die, if they be right, you’ll live.”


The King first tried the answers he’d collected in his books.

In hopes of sparing Gawain’s marriage to someone of Dame’s looks.

The Knight heard all the answers and to every one said nay.


“King Arthur, now prepare to die, for all your wrongs, now pay!”


“Wait!” the good King shouted, “I’ve one more answer still.

What a woman wants the most in life is certainly her will.”


“Who told you that?!”  the black Knight shrieked, “It surely was my sister!

I know not how you got that answers, unless, you rogue, you kissed her!”


The King turned green his stomach churned, he shuddered at the thought.

“Begone, black Knight, stay no more, your effort’s been for nought.”


King Arthur went back to the woods and met again the Dame.

He rode with her back to his Court, his head was hung in shame.

And all who gathered turned their heads in pity at the sight.

But every loyal, out he stepped Sir Gawain, the good night.

He greeted Dame Ragnell, who was now his bride-to-be,

While all his fellow knights prayed for him secretly.


The Queen took her aside and said, “Let a quiet wedding be.”

“No, a high Mass and a banquet is just the thing for me!”


The servant took her to her room and began to dress the bride.

The King’s heart was so heavy, he began to wish he’d died.

Sir Gawain wondered how he’d face her unappetizing snout.

And for one prolonged moment, he began to feel some doubt.


A dance was held, all did their best, to hold up and seem gay.

But when the couple entered, their courage did give way.

When seated at the banquet, her manners were uncouth.

When they left for their chambers, all wept for the fair youth.


The time, it came, to lay in bed, Gawain, he turned away.

“Pray, now that we are married, do kiss me,” she did say.

He gathered all his courage and gave to her the kiss.

“Do open your eyes and look upon your bride in all her bliss.”


Sir Gawain’s mouth hung open, his hair on end did stand.

When he beheld the fairest maid in this or any land.

“You, good sir, released me, from a wicked, evil spell.

But it is only half done, do listen while I tell.

I thank you for your courage, for you brave deed so bold.

But alas, this lasts but half a day, my beauty will not hold.

So you must choose, sir, here and now, whichever you think right,

Fair in evening, foul by day or fair, then foul at night.”


“Alas, my wife, the choice is hard, for if you’re fair at night.

Then all day long amongst the rest, you’d be a grievous sight.

But if you’re fair for all the day, the good Sir Gawain said,

"I cannot help but wonder about our marriage bed.

Though I want to choose what’s right, it’s impossible to do.

Pray let it be as you desire, the choice is up to you.”


“Ah, good knight, I bless your soul,” said the lovely Dame Ragnell.

You’ve now released me fully, for you’ve given me my will.”


 So she stayed fair both day and night and they made merry joy.

The like of which was never known by any girl or boy.

Our story’s done, we now must go, we stay no longer here.

We wish you all make merry joy, today and all the year.


             THE END

Sir Gawain: Part 2

(Our story left off with King Arthur and Sir Gawain ready to interview every woman they met as to what they most want in this life. After many failures, the answer is revealed!)

So King Arthur rode of one way, Sir Gawain rode the other.

And asked of everyone they met, maiden, wife or mother.

“ I desire riches.” “I would like fine clothes.”

“I wish that I could straighten my large and crooked nose.”

“I desire wisdom, I care not much for wealth.”

“There is but one thing I want most and that thing is good health.”

“I would like good children.” “Just give me a handsome man.”

“Get me as far away from men as possibly I can.”

“I’d fain be free of everything that brings worry and vex.”

“The only thing that I care for is that there be good sex.”


Sir Gawain wrote the answers down, King Arthur did the same.

After many months of traveling, the two did meet again.

They exchanged  their books and the answers they did read.

But quickly grew discouraged as so very few agreed.


One month remained before the King must ride back to that spot.

He was restless and unsatisfied with the answers they had got.

He spurred his horse into some woods where he had never been.

And there he met the ugliest had that he had ever seen.


More pimples than true skin there were, of haird she’d hardly any.

Except for those that grew on her nose and these were far too many.

Two yellow teeth stuck boldly out, one up the other down.

Her neck was thick, her ears were huge, her mouth locked in a frown.

Her breath was foul, her dress was torn and hung down like a sack.

She rode a handsome horse and had a lute tied to her back.


She went up to King Arthur and she spoke directly out.

It took every bit of the King’s strength to not turn round about.


“If I do not help thee, thou surely will be dead.

Grant to me my wish if you hope to save your head.”


“I know not, my good Lady, how you know about my task.

But if you can solve the riddle, I will give you what you ask.”


“You must grant me a night to wed, his name is Sir Gawain.

If you don’t give this promise, your quest will be in vain.”


“I cannot promise for my knight, it is up to him to say.”


“Then go home now and ask him, I’ll give to thee a day.”


King Arthur found his nephew and relayed what had been said.

“Though she be foul as Beezlebub, for you, I shall her wed.”


“Then I must return to tell her upon this very hour.

Of all the knights I’ve ever known, thou surely bearest the flower.”


The King returned and told the hag the promise Gawain made.

“Pray tell me now the answer for which I’ve dearly paid.”


Thou now shall learn what women want or my name’s not Dame Ragnell

What a woman wants the most in life is this, good sir—her will.

 (More to come) 

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Sir Gawain: Part 1


                                    ©Doug Goodkin 1990


King Arthur and his knights, a ‘hunting they did go.

They had no expectation of meeting friend or foe.

King Arthur spied a deer and went off on his own.

He rode for half a mile before he brought it down.

Dismounting from his horse, he stooped to dress his kill.

When a black knight did appear and King Arthur felt a chill.


“Well met, King Arthur,“ said the knight,“you are alone at last.

Prepare to meet thy death, for you’ve wronged me in the past.”


“What honor is that,” King Arthur said, “to kill an unarmed man?

Whatever wrong I’ve done you, I’ll right it if I can.”


“Too late for that,“the knight replied, “though ‘tis true the fight’s not fair.

I’ll make to thee a condition, if only this you’ll swear..

Return right here in a year and a say, dressed in your hunter’s green,

With the answer to this riddle or bid farewell your queen.


You may ask it of a lover, a servant or a wife.

What does a woman most desire in all this earthy life?

If you fail to answer tightly, your life belongs to me.

Yet if you answer rightly, then I will set your free.”


King Arthur gave his pledge and the black knight rode away.

The King returned to meet his knights, but not a word did say.

Sir Gawain quickly noticed, for he was a fine young lad.

And spoke to him in private, “Prithee, why so sad?”


The King revealed his secret, for Gawain he did trust.

They put their heads together, the matter did discuss.


“We shall both ride off, one East , one West and wherever thou dost goest,

Ask of everyone you see what a woman dost want most.”

(Note: A good topic of discussion with friends and family. Talk it over before reading on tomorrow)


A Story for Our Time

Day 6 in my Level III training is a journey through 400 years of music history in three hours, from Gregorian Chant to Palestrina. By singing select works and analyzing how styles changed and developed, from the single monophonic line to the 4-part polyphony of functional harmony, we gain some insight into our own work teaching kids to move from pentatonic scales to diatonic modes to I-IV-V harmonies. 


Along the way, I offer many ideas about culture, consciousness and community. How, for example, in the Dark Ages, the extreme patriarchy of the Judeo- Christian religion failed to ignite the imagination that requires opposites to prosper. How it was the ascendance of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus around the 12thcentury that ignited a cultural explosion that marked a turning point in Western culture. Notre Dame, for example, that exquisite cathedral dedicated to “Our Lady” was built in 1163. In the same century, the King Arthur stories arose and the Knight’s code of chivalry toward women and art of courtly love, along with the worship of the Virgin Mary, allowed for the entrance of the feminine into the psyche. Soon after came the love stories— Abelard and Heloise, Lancelot and Guinevere, Robin Hood and Maid Marian, Tristan and Isolde, the forerunners of Romeo and Juliet leading eventually to Tony and Maria. Dante’s extraordinary Divine Comedy was sparked by seeing an 8-year old girl, Beatrice. The rise of the troubadours in Southern France, Spain, Portugal and Italy, the trouveres in northern France, the Minnesingers in Germany, elevated the feminine to a romanticized ideal and sparked an imagination that flowered in song, poetry, painting and the building of the great cathedrals.


One of the turning points documenting the change in attitude to both the feminine archetype and actual women was a fable called Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady. After reading this way back in 1990, I wrote a rhymed version in one uninterrupted sitting at my dining room table and later performed it, with music and dance added, with the 7th graders at my school. I hadn’t thought about it in a while, but after telling a short version to my Level III, went back to the poem to see if it held up.


It did. And more than ever today, as the faithful reader will discover when they find out the answer to the riddle. People are accusing the Supreme Court of turning the clock back to the 1950’s, but it’s more like they’ve de-evolved all the way back to the 11th century. Read on and you’ll see how. 


Monday, August 1, 2022

The Ear and the Eye

To be a musician is to wield a special kind of power. The ability to sit down at a piano or pick up a guitar or blow through a saxophone has the power to impress, to enchant, to mesmerize, to draw people around us into a web of sound. We can charge the air, give a shape and color to an occasion, move bodies and open hearts. We can change how people feel, offer them solace and comfort or energy and vitality or at least, a few moments of distraction from the troubled world. We can seduce, proclaim, unveil a glimpse of our own tender hearts, show off a virtuosity achieved through dedication and sacrifice like a peacock spreading its tail. We can give meaning to apparent chaos, reveal the mathematics of the mind, order the random mish-mash of the daily round so it becomes coherent and comprehensible. 


How we learn and how we play music brings different energies to that power. We create distinctly different musicians in our choices of formal and informal music education. We create different assumptions about what music is and what being a musician means. We create different types of audience participation when music is played. 


When my Ghanaian friend Kofi Gbolonyo travels by plane, his seatmate asks, “What do you do?” and Kofi replies, “I’m a musician,” the next question is invariably, “What instrument do you play?” (If he says he’s a music teacher, they’ll ask “What instrument do you teach?”) Kofi patiently explains, “I said I was a musician. That means I can play anything you put in front of me. This tray table. My body. The words in the Skymall magazine.” For Kofi, to be a musician means to experience and express the world through sound and rhythm in whatever form is available. For the Western public, music means playing a particular instrument and most of our formal music study begins by choosing a particular instrument and taking lessons. And 90% of that formal training (guitar and drum set exceptions) begins with learning to decipher written musical notation. 



To sit in front of a page of black dots and lines and translate them into a glorious sound is a praiseworthy power. Through a curious ability to decode symbols and transform them to a living stream of rhythm and melody and harmony, we can play far beyond our own musical understanding and become a vessel for Bach’s genius or Charlie Parker’s (through transcribed solos) imaginative improvisations. 


Learning to read music gives us the power to access an enormous body of work in markedly different styles. Learning to write music gives us the power to preserve our inspired improvisations or songs that come to us a gift and to send them across time to future musicians and across space to folks in other places. The technology of literacy, both in words and music, is a relative newcomer to millennia of music-making, a mere six or seven hundred years, but one that has contributed mightily to human achievement. Imagine if Bach had simply improvised his genius in front of a small group of churchgoers or taught by rote his compositions to a choir. 



Another dimension of musical power is to be able to hear a song, sing a song and figure out how to play the song. This becomes a more portable power, not dependent on having one’s music book on hand, and opens us up to a body of work often not captured in print. The ability to duplicate sung melodies on keys or strings, to imitate the touch from listening to recordings or live musicians, to feel the nuances of the rhythms and the dynamics of the phrasing, to hear the implied or stated chords and either imitate note for note or find one’s own voicings, is a delicious power indeed. 



Yet another dimension is to simply sit down and plunk down one’s hands on the keys and begin an improvised journey from note to note, conjuring an organic structure and tonality and feeling out of thin air, composing on the spot with no preconceived idea of style, key, form, chord pattern. Now you are wholly independent of other’s work, written or heard, with the freedom to fully express emotion in sound and musical motion. At the same time, we’re never wholly independent and everything you’ve heard or played with be present in some way as you venture into your unwalked paths of possibility.


Reading and writing music, playing existing songs by ear, improvising and composing music—each carries its own assumptions about what music is and how it is to be learned. Each confers a different kind of power, a different relationship to musical development, a different experience as a player and a listener. In an ideal world, a developed musician would be able to do all three (though even here, many exceptions— many fabulous Western musicians have trouble improvising and many remarkable Indian, Balinese, African, etc. musicians will play virtuosic music at high levels without ever reading or writing a note). 


But life is short and time is limited and when it comes to teaching music to children once or twice a week, we have some choices that we need to make. We know where traditional Western music instruction— music as learning what keys to press down by reading notation— leads. The eye is favored over the ear, the mind can “cheat” and play things it doesn’t wholly understand, the body can be reduced to fingers and arms only and the imagination is left dormant, passed over in the effort of simply playing the correct notes. This will work fine for a handful of musicians who are wired to truly hear what they are playing, to feel the rhythms and phrasing fully in their body, to unconsciously sing along with the notes they’ve deciphered. But many simply endure this wooden approach, learn how to play Minuet in G on the piano, Hot Cross Buns on the recorder and Louie Louie on the guitar and then call it a day. The children deserve something larger, something more effective, something more long-lasting. 



In the world of language, sound always precedes symbol. No child has ever learned to read and write before he or she speaks. And yet the child may indeed come to the first piano lesson without significant experiences in moving to the beat, singing a wide variety of songs in tune, listening to a large repertoire of live and recorded music, creating music from simple materials and starting to form their own musical sentences they way they did with words. When they sit down at the piano to look at a page with middle C’s and quarter notes and 88 keys to press down, they’re assuming that music is found in the papered black dots and the ivoried black and white keys. Without knowing how sounds speak and rhythms move and textures connect musical thoughts, they’re not prepared to venture forth onto the keyboard.


And so common sense tells us that music education begins with simple, everyday things, ideally offered by the adults surrounding the child, be they parents, teachers or neighbors. Being bounced on the knee to rhythmic chant, sung to and sung with, danced with and dancing alone, exploring the sonic potential of everything that crosses their path. They need to be constantly immersed in the bath of music drawn by the surrounding adult and older kid culture before they can swim into formal lessons. 


And so— sing what you hear, play what you sing, hear what you play and around the circle we go. Then if the need appears to notate it all or check the existing notation, by all means do so. Yet beware that in a visually dominant culture, the ratio of the senses are unevenly distributed and some rebalancing is in order. That is precisely one of the great gifts of Orff Schulwerk, jazz as it used to be learned and folk music of all sorts. It’s all yours for the taking, regardless of how you were taught. 


I suggest “take it!”