Tuesday, January 31, 2023

More, Please

“Called world to quarrel. No answer.”


One of my six-word bios I wrote a while back. But suddenly, World picked up the phone. In just the last few days, I literally got calls or e-mails to:


• Resume my mentoring/ teaching at Children’s Day School on Monday.

• Sub at my old San Francisco School on Tuesday.

• Observe a teacher I trained at Clarendon School on Wednesday.

• Begin at 7-day subbing at Brandeis School on Thursday.

• Resume  performing at The Jewish Home for the Aged on Friday.

• Find a date  to perform at The Redwoods Assisted Living Place.

• Set a date to do some guest kindergarten classes at New Traditions School. 

• Help lead two guest children’s class through UCSF Medical Center mid-February.

• Write an article for the Orff Echo Magazine  on Improvisation.

• Fly to Austin, Texas for a screening of my film at an education conference in March.

• Teach two courses in Bangkok at the end of March.

• Teach and perform at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Boise in April. 

• Give two workshops at the AOSA Orff Conference in New Mexico in November.

• Teach a Jazz Course in Sydney, Australia in January of next year.

• Be a guest artist/ teacher at the Taipei International School next February.

• Respond to an invitation a time to teach in China.


This is not boasting or arrogance. This is astonishment that so much came in at once. This is gratitude for the opportunity to keep working. This is happiness that my work still feels needed, valued and useful, especially in a culture that throws its elders out on the garbage heap. This is the pleasure of always having something to look forward to. None of it is my film being nominated for an Oscar or an invitation to be interviewed by Terry Gross or a call from Wynton Marsalis to head the Children’s Jazz Education Program at Lincoln Center. All of it small and modest and in the realm of changing the world 20 people at a time. And that’s enough. 


More, please.


G.K. Chesterton Quotes: Part 3

The last six in this series.


1) Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.


That’s both the inside and outside kind.

2) Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.


Thinking of all the harmful politicians who graduated from prestigious colleges.

3) Do not be so open-minded that your brains fall out.


Trust and embrace but keep wariness and suspicion close at hand.

4)  To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.


Pay attention gun owners, Hummer drivers, hate speech fanatics.

5) The word "good" has many meanings. For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of five hundred yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man.


Thinking of all the history books that praised Columbus as a good navigator.

 6) The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.


And that’s the difference between the January 6th insurrectionists and those fighting to preserve democracy, justice, environment.


Thanks to G.K. for his invitation to think deeper, with wit and wisdom.


Monday, January 30, 2023

G.K. Chesterton Quotes: Part 2

Here Chesterton begins with two great quotes on travel. The first well describes my snafu at the Hobart Airport. Had I remembered it, I would have been much happier thinking of it as the beginning of a grand adventure. And yes to the second, as my favorite activity arriving somewhere is not to grab the tourist brochures, but just take off wandering aimlessly— occasionally with some advice about good neighborhoods!


Before I said that comments will only detract, but here I can’t resist. The third perfectly describes my life both teaching and playing piano. And bagpipe.


Number four is a good reminder that my constant upstream battles— in my country, in any organization I’m part of, in the school staff meetings— are proof that I’m alive.


Number five is his comment on conspiracy theories long before they reached these epidemic proportions.


And in number six, I believe he is throwing down the gauntlet to all poets far and near. Any one want to meet his challenge? Here’s my attempt:


“When  I got down on my knees,

And asked her to marry me, please.

My long faithful beau, did shake her head no,

And said, “I would rather eat cheese.”


1) An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.


2) The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.

3)  If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.


4) A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.


5) Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.


6)  The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.


G.K. Chesterton Quotes: Part 1

• The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.


• The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.

• To love means loving the unlovable. To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable. Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless.

• The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost.


• The reason angels can fly is because they take themselves lightly.


• I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.


• The world will never starve for want of wonders but only for want of wonder. 

The Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton

Gilbert Keith Chesterton  (29 May 1874 – 14 June 1936) was an English writer, philosopher, Christian apologist, literary and art critic.  He has been referred to as the "prince of paradox.”


So begins the Wikipedia entry on the author of yesterday’s quote. A contemporary of George Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc, H.G. Wells, Bertrand Russel and Clarence Darrow, all great thinkers in their own right, he loved to banter and argue with them. A large man who weighed as much as 290 pounds, he once saw to Shaw, “To look at you, anyone would think that a famine had struck England.” Shaw retorted, “To look at you, anyone would think you had caused it.”


In an article in the Atlantic, James Parker describes him thus:


“In his vastness and mobility, Chesterton continues to elude definition: He was a Catholic convert and an oracular man of letters, a pneumatic cultural presence, an aphorist with the production rate of a pulp novelist. Poetry, criticism, fiction, biography, columns, public debate...Chesterton was a journalist; he was a metaphysician. He was a reactionary; he was a radical. He was a modernist, acutely alive to the rupture in consciousness that produced Eliot's "The Hollow Men"; he was an anti-modernist...a parochial Englishman and a post-Victorian gasbag; he was a mystic wedded to eternity. 


All of these cheerfully contradictory things are true...for the final, resolving fact that he was a genius. Touched once by the live wire of his thought, you don't forget it ... His prose ... [is] supremely entertaining, the stately outlines of an older, heavier rhetoric punctually convulsed by what he once called (in reference to the Book of Job) "earthquake irony". He fulminates wittily; he cracks jokes like thunder. His message, a steady illumination beaming and clanging through every lens and facet of his creativity, was really very straightforward: get on your knees, modern man, and praise God.”


In short, he was my kind of guy! Hard to pigeon-hole, at home with contradiction, wise, witty and caring about the human condition. Truth be told, I haven’t read much of his fiction, though am intrigued to look into his Father Brown detective series. My main acquaintance with him is through various quotes I’ve come across and years back, put together on a page. I briefly entertained the idea of sharing a quote a day and commenting upon it, but quickly discovered that I had no further comments that would expand or shed further light on each one. The delicious imagery and paradoxical truths he captures so brilliant in these short, pithy aphorisms says it all and is not to be improved on, only weakened by any attempt to explain it. 


So read on to the next post and enjoy. Let each one simmer a bit and notice if future occasions have you searching back for the words that say precisely what you need to hear when a particular situation comes your way.


Sunday, January 29, 2023

Dismantling the Fortress

“In everything that yields gracefully, there must be resistance. Bows are beautiful when they bend only because they seek to remain rigid. Rigidity that slightly yields, like justice swayed by pity, is all the beauty of earth. Everything seeks to grow straight, and happily, nothing succeeds in so growing. Try to grow straight and life will bend you.”  - G.K. Chesterton


I was in sunny Australia when the torrential rains in California came. When I returned, the rains had ceased, but I could feel the sense of the air being cleared and the plants sparkling and the whole atmosphere washed clean. Maybe weather— the torrential storms, the constant rains, the gale-force winds, the calm and warm sunshine— is simply the gods venting their anger, weeping their grief, shouting their outrage and then tenderly rejoicing. Maybe Nature’s emotional life is not so different than us humans— or the other way around. Our own need to roar, shout, weep, whine, cry, cry out, cheer, exult is simply the way human nature and Nature are connected. 


A friend asked me how I was recently and I answered with the news of all the things I had been doing. He rephrased: “No, but how are you?!” I had to pause and look inside and realize that I had neither been tangibly happy nor sad, just kind of coasting along in a way that I often don’t. I couldn’t place my finger on what was missing. Until last night.


That’s when I realized that it had been a long time since I wept. A long time since my whole body shook with sobs. I’ve often followed Albert Camus’ advice—“Live close to tears”— but for whatever reason, not so much recently. Until last night. How good it felt. How necessary. It was short but enough to clear the inner sky and open my heart a bit wider. 


The catalyst was the film “A Man Called Otto.” I had seen the original “A Man Called Ove” and read the book, so I didn’t expect many surprises. But the surprise was how deeply it moved me. “Rigidity that slight yields, justice swayed by pity”— that captured a bit of the kind of transformation that always gets to me, the kind of story I love most, the one you encounter sometimes in fiction (Dickens’ Dombey and Son, for example) and yet so rarely in real life. Those moments when a life lived like “a mighty fortress is my God,” the perpetual building of stone walls around the heart to protect it and in so doing, walling off all available joy, beauty, love— and then, a chink in the armor and some of life in all its terror and glory enters. 


Otto is a man already on the run from his emotional life, happier working with dependable machines who only need correct assembling and vigilant maintenance to work correctly, dependably, with no surprises. His heart opens when he meets the love of his life and tenderness, happiness and beauty enters. And then life throws more harm and hurt at him than any human being should have to suffer and the doors to the heart slam shut, leaving nothing but anger at the universe, a rigid routine demanding that all around him follow the rules, a constant simmering rage at life and his fellow creatures. He wants everything to “grow straight” and life keeps bending him, disappointing him, enraging him further.


It's easy to blame him, but would I do any better? Do I do any better? We all build some kind of protection around our heart because loss is everywhere— if not now, it will come and dammit it, it hurts! Me, I start each day in the predictable way cards fall in my Solitaire games—or rather, the ways I can manipulate them no matter how they fall to try to win the game. Then the solid letters in the Crostic puzzle that eventually always make sense and tumble into place. I decide how much of the daily news I let trickle in according to what I think my heart can take. I notice which old hurts and betrayals are still circulating in my mind and choose whether to feed them, try to ignore them or sit with them and listen to what they have to teach me. 


In this way, I am intimately connected with each and every one of my fellow beings, a fellow traveler trying to make my way through the forest of grief and loss and impermanence. The only difference between me and Donald Trump is the choices we make about feeding our fury and fear or our forgiveness of the foibles of both ourselves and others. And this is where a lifetime of dedication to music has helped enormously, the way a simple diminished chord in the right place can unleash a shiver of beauty and a torrent of tears. 


And so Otto meets some neighbors who slowly chip away at his fortress and bring him back to a life where his small simple gestures of kindness take on Biblical proportions of redemption. And reminded me to keep in touch with the unspeakable beauty and heartache of this life we have been granted, to remember both laughter and tears, to dismantle my own citadel and keep the heart open. 


It is Sun-day and the air is clear, the sun is shining, both inside and out. 


Saturday, January 28, 2023


Today is January 28th. It’s the birthday of various remarkable people I’ve had the good fortune to cross paths with. February 28th is my wife’s birthday, as well as my long-time Orff colleague James Harding. July 28th is my birthday. My two daughters were born on September 30thand November 26th. Add them together and divide by two and you get— 28!

In numerology, 28 is seen as a sign of change and new beginnings, as well as a number associated with balance, harmony and compassion. It is often seen as a symbol of coming together or merging two opposing forces, whether they be physical, emotional, or spiritual. If your birth number is 28, this may be a powerful sign that you have the ability to unite seemingly incompatible energies and bring about positive change by being able to see both sides of an issue and find solutions that addresses everyone’s concerns. 

28 days is also close to a complete moon cycle and 28 years to the Saturn cycle (one complete orbit around the sun). In astrology, in the first Saturn return a person leaves youth behind and enters adulthood. With the second return, maturity. And with the third and usually final return, a person enters wise old age. 


My 28th birthday was significant, as it came on the last day of a year’s trip around the world that was the perfect capstone to the freewheeling sense of youth. When I turned 28 on the 28th, I celebrated my birthday in Tokyo, Japan and then flew to San Francisco, where because of crossing the dateline, I celebrated it again there. My wife and I both returned to teach at the school where we would teach for 37 and 41 more years respectively, got married within two months and pregnant within four. 


On my 56th  birthday, my Dad was in his final days and would leave us a few weeks later. I was now the oldest male in the immediate family, a sign that I had hopefully arrived at maturity. If the fates be kind, I hope to reach my 84th birthday, perhaps with some measure of wisdom accompanying me. (84, incidentally, is the age of one of my friends above celebrating her birthday today.)


In 28 minutes, dinner will be ready, so time for me to sign off. Happy 28! 


PS Note: This is the 28th post of the New Year!


Killing Monsters: Part 1

When I was in Adelaide in 100 degree weather, I went into their fabulous State library to get cool. While there, I was curious as to whether they might carry any of my books and looked it up on one of their computers. No books listed, but they did have this article I wrote 20 years ago they I had completely forgotten about. It was a review of a book praising video game culture that was published in some magazine. I re-read it, liked it and so share it here. 



                                                            ©2003 Doug Goodkin


Jones, Gerard. Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence.(New York: Basic Books, 2002). ISBN 0465036953; 272p.; $25.00.



We all love to blame. When things are going wrong—as they inevitably always are—we find some strange comfort in blame. Everyone has a favorite target—Republicans, immigrants, corporations, rap music, the economy—take your pick. The one thing we can be certain of is that the reason for the current state of affairs is invariably complex. The moment we assign it to a single cause, we cut off the possibility of meaningful conversation, and more importantly, meaningful change. 


As a teacher of some thirty years, my own favorite whipping boy has been the media, particularly a predatory entertainment industry that is eroding childhood and unraveling each night the careful work we teachers do each day. When a colleague handed me Gerard Jones’ book Killing Monsters: Why Children NEED Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence, she told me—"This is a book I think you'll hate." Skimming through it, I was prepared to agree. As someone who has spoken out passionately against excessive television viewing and video game playing for children, a book that reassures parents that Mortal Kombat is not only harmless, but actually beneficial for children, did not seem promising.


I reluctantly dove in and was pleasantly surprised to discover that I agreed with much of what Jones has to say:  Kids need to feel empowered through fantasy play, they need to work out aggressions within the safe containers of games; repression is not an effective strategy in changing behavior; television does not cause violence in human beings (witness the history of the world before T.V.). Adults should not project their fears onto children but instead listen to the child's experience. So far, so good. But the more I read, the more I felt vital questions were lightly passed over, strange contradictions left hanging, and distorted facts presented as credible support.


The basic thesis, repeated in every chapter in the book, is sound. Violence and aggression are hard-wired into our system and cannot be sidestepped by mere forbidding and repressing. Playing with these impulses through fantasy and mock aggression, children (and adults) express these impulses in healthy and non-harmful ways. From this premise, Jones goes on to say that the entire industry of violent entertainment—TV, movies, pop music, and video games—is but a modern reincarnation of ancient stories and practices. We adults can relax—the children are doing just fine, growing up into empathetic, caring human beings who are "changing the world just the way we want them to." (1)I wish I could relax as Jones suggests, but in my own experience as a teacher, in my talks with other teachers, and in my readings of the newspaper, I see plenty to be concerned about— or at least informed about.


For starters, if a generation of children is brought up in an electronic environment that permeates their lives more thoroughly than any previous generation of children, it would seem at the very least useful to consider its impact. From Parzival to Pokemon, from Mozart to Eminem, is not a mere switch of mediums. By now we should understand that "the medium is the message" and that different things happen in the human brain and heart when presented through live storytelling, print or electronic media. The amplified power, easy access and intimate connection with advertising and consumerism of today's media is reason enough to attempt to distinguish between a nighttime story told or read by parents and MTV. Jones touches on, but fails to go deeper into questions worth asking. What is the difference between a child's private nightmare and watching Friday the 13th? What is the difference between listening to a fairy tale and playing Grand Theft Auto? What is the difference between the monster the child imagines reading Beauty and the Beastand the one pre-made by Disney? What is the difference between turning a carrot into a play gun and ripping out a spine in a video game? Between fantasizing about killing monsters and watching robbers scalp a man in Nurse Betty?  Between reading a myth in which good violently subdues evil and playing the video game in which you get points by clubbing innocent bystanders at a mall with a baseball bat? Between mediums of storytelling designed to enhance adult guidance and those designed to shut it out? 


If children need to work out fears and aggressions through fantasy and fantasy play, are not dreams, nursery rhymes, fairy tales, playing with action figures and dolls, and play with peers, sufficient? (In one of the more outrageous claims in the book, Jones quotes a psychiatrist who says, "The most aggressive kid in our neighborhood is the one who doesn't get to watch TV at all, because he has no outlet."(2) )  Do video games and TV work exactly the same way as dreams, fairy tales and fantasy play? If so, why pay so much money for them? Do they do the job better? If so, are there other possible consequences and side effects worth examining? These are the kinds of questions the book either ignores or skips lightly over.


Throughout the book, Jones seems more critical of parents wary of the arsenal of mediated violence sold to children than the corporate mercenaries who peddle such violence for profit. He states that "entertainment violence has become far more intense and explicitly gory over the past forty years because the reality with which we confront young people has become so much more intensely and explicitly violent."(3) Here he conveniently ignores what the toy companies know. The human nervous system loves novelty, surprise and sensation, but quickly adapts to the level offered. If your intention is to capture people by shock rather than subtlety, nuance and character development (and in these days of channel surfing, that has become a survival strategy of networks), then everything must be louder, faster and gorier in order to attract attention. As any veteran teacher and learning specialist will tell you, the cost of a constant diet of hyper-sensation is high—on one end, an epidemic of kids diagnosed as ADD and on the other, kids bored with reading, piano practice or watching spiders weave a web. Jones fails to distinguish between a pleasurable pastime and a habit, between a discipline and an addiction. Video games and kid's TV, like sugar, fast food and buying things (with which they are inextricably linked through advertising), are designed to be addictive and the younger the child starts, the better—for the industry, not the child. 


It is well documentedthat children's vocabulary has declined significantly, that both the ability and desire to read have declined, that the ability to distinguish shades of color has declined. Whether or not endless hours in front of TV and video screens is directly responsible for this deterioration is a matter for a more extended debate—suffice it to say that they do not stimulate the language centers in the brain, and, language is an essential tool for non-violent conflict resolution. Jones makes a good case in suggesting that some mock aggressive play is healthy, but does children, parents and teachers a disservice when he fails to recognize how many more strategies and practices for dealing with aggression, i.e., use of language, artistic expression, conflict resolution techniques etc.  He neither seems sufficiently alarmed about the loss of nuance and subtlety nor sufficiently clear about how acting out aggressive impulses leads to greater compassion, understanding and character. He writes: 


Longer-lived shooter games succeed on their complexity and suspense, but for many of them, overstated gore is now part of the package. What was once offensive becomes accepted. The cost of that is a coarsening of popular culture. Entertainment becomes less deft, less graceful, less subtle. Those of us who prefer more polite and suggestive aesthetics find less to like and more to steel ourselves against.

        The gain, however, is that we are reminded what really matters. Our world isn't kept out of barbarism by concealing ugly realities or suppressing shocking images. The bonds that hold us together are empathy, acceptance, and a mutual desire to make the real world better, not a fragile web of constraints and controls."(4)


Did I miss something here? As entertainment becomes more barbarous, we are called back to the task of empathy and a desire to make the world better? Just precisely how does that work? I will walk as far with Jones as to acknowledge children's ability to make certain fantasies—from Superman to Pokemon to Buffy the Vampire Slayer—serve their needs at the moment and then move on. However, releasing tension through mock-aggressive play and imagining you are powerful through fantasy play is a long, long way from attaining lasting inner power, developing solid values and forging a character with integrity. When I see children in a video arcade, I do not leave feeling assured that they are Gandhis-in-training.


As a teacher, I know that real power comes from struggle, not instant gratification. It comes from mastery of something that gives back more than a pre-packaged game—say, language or music or sculpture or sport. I also know that empathy and acceptance comes from constant interaction with other complex human beings and from models, real and imaginary, that inspire. Many of the children Jones interviews tell of how certain pop icons seem to understand their sense of alienation, abuse and pain. Yet it is the very nature of many of these games to feed that alienation, angst and malaise. Violence cannot be squashed down through repression, but neither can it be dealt with effectively through constant expression, imaginary or real. For real change to take place, there must be a transformation and that requires guidance, discipline and a certain amount of restraint. That is the job for the adults in the society to teach—most importantly, parents, but also teachers and yes, even video game makers. And, as Gerard Jones repeatedly states, part of that teaching may be in offering some fantasies without morals attached. But part of it also may be to recognize the dangers of fully releasing fantasies from a moral container.


Pop culture is an indisputable fact and force in children's lives. There are ample cases where a pop icon, whether Mighty Mouse or the Iron Butterfly (my own childhood and teenage heroes), seizes the imagination of a young person and helps him or her move through an important phase of life. Jones is most eloquent when he speaks for the children's needs to have these kinds of experiences. But I believe he doesn't serve children well when he ignores developmental levels (Emily working out her female issues by obsessing on Brittney Spears—in second grade!),when he downplays the need for rigorous parental guidance and gives parents easy validation for letting their kids alone with their machines in the other room ("Young people love new media and they love media that bring entertainment to them easily and without adult screening. Making such media their own, separating it from our control, is part of how they plunge into the future and master it."  (5) and when he excuses the industry's increasing excesses and shameless preying on children's love of sensation. 

Killing Monsters: Part 2

(Continuing the article above)

I began by suggesting that the switch to electronic media is not a mere change of venue, but a profound change in the way our brains and hearts are shaped. Yet there is another change that calls for awareness and that is the increased presence of popular culture in children's lives. As I confessed in my article “TV—Then and Now” (6), my generation growing up in the 50's and 60's was the first to ingest so much television. As I read Jones' book, I chuckled remembering how my mother forbad comic books convinced that I wouldn't want to read real books. I bought them anyway, hid them in the basement and also read real books voraciously—and still do. The Beatles appeared just when I needed them at age 12, but that didn't stop me from playing Bach on the organ and listening to Beethoven. I had a brief period of existential teenage angst when I retreated to my room and became addicted to reruns of McHales Navyand Gilligan's Island. I also memorized all the words to Bob Dylan's “Desolation Row.” Yet at the same time I watched the Professor and Mary Ann of Gilligan’s Island, I also read Waldenand The Autobiography of Malcolm X.


Pop culture is healthy in small doses, but a disaster when it becomes virtually all children know. The proliferation of available medias, their heightened power and marketability, and their increased presence in children's lives at younger and younger ages is something new under the sun. Pre-pubescent children at rock concerts, two year olds playing video games and a constant diet of instant entertainment are taking their toll. It's as if dessert has become the main course of the culture. When a ten year old asked Wynton Marsalis what he felt about rap, Marsalis replied:


The fact that somebody ten years old listens to Ja Rule, Jay Z and all that—that's one of the greatest aberrations in the history of humanity. …The fact that an adult would let that be something that kids listen to is a testament to how far our civilization has fallen.  And it's a blot on us, the older people, not on y'all. Whatever we give y'all, you take. The fact that we give that to kids exposes us as one of the stupidest most backward civilizations ever. Never have so many people been given so much and given their children so little. (7)


Here Marsalis is neither speaking for Puritan repression nor unbridled indulgent expression. He speaks from an illustrious tradition of transformation, of facing our darkest and most brutal experiences and lifting them up into something beautiful. Eminem had an abusive childhood and we are asked to understand him and celebrate him for saying who he is. He grew up in darkness and is expressing that darkness. Beethoven, Dickens, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday also had brutal childhoods, but learned how to transform their darkness into a light that shines on in their art. I would feel more at ease with children enjoying Buffy the Vampire Slayer if they also knew who Mother Jones, Martha Graham, Eleanor Roosevelt and Billie Holiday were. If young people feel like they need to see "any chick in cool clothes who kicks ass!" (8), I believe they also need to see[US1]what Mother Teresa and Melba Beals and Helen Caldicott have done. If Jones' concern is the health of children and their development into caring adults, I believe it would have been worthwhile to emphasize the need to keep pop culture and its values from overwhelming the minds and hearts of our children. 


Finally, Jones begins the book critiquing the simplistic notion that mediated violence causes violent behavior and then virtually swings over to the equally simplistic notion that mediated violence alleviatesviolent behavior. However, it is in the internal conversation between permission and restraint, fantasy escape and disciplined work, personal dreams and community responsibility, that the real work lies. Jones' voice is certainly worth a hearing, but alone his views fail to give parents and children the tools they need to conduct that conversation. He says, "Mostly I just acknowledge what they're saying. It's like clutching your chest and falling down when you're shot, or just looking at a child and smiling." (9)  That's fine as far as it goes. But how far does it go? I suggest children need something more from adults— and they need something more from themselves. Let's get to work.


PS Interesting that I mention both Mortal Kombat and Eminen above, as both were directly involved in an explosive meltdown my 11-year-old granddaughter had with us grandparents after playing the former one time and listening to the latter another time. When we were out hiking in the woods or out singing in the neighborhood caroling party, she was sweet and loving and happy. I can testify first-hand that what we put in front of children matters.


Friday, January 27, 2023

Why Are We Here?: Part 2

(The conclusion of my Keynote Speech addressed to Canadian music educators)

Why are we here? A student in a recent workshop I taught wrote the following to me:

“In all my years of taking piano lessons, and playing the recorder in college and beyond, NO ONE pointed out that music was there for expression.   I think I understood that it was about beauty, but not that that had anything to do with me personally.”


In evaluations written by my Conservatory students, several have made comments like; 

“Before taking this class, I never knew that music could be fun.”


These are sad testimonies to some of music education as it exists today. I’m sure we all have our own stories of music classes that were sheer torture or left us feeling dispirited, incompetent or confused. Perhaps we are here because we are determined to do it better.


Why are we here? Always a good idea to ask the students themselves. Here is what two grade 7 students in my school wrote:


"Music is very important to me. Why? Because it can fill in your blanks. It's flexible the way you are. You can always find music that fits your mood. You know that saying "misery loves company?" Well, music is a perfect proof of that. When you're sad, you can play sad music. It makes you feel like you have company—you know there is someone else out there who feels the same way you do. Music can share your pain and build your spirits. Music fills those bare silences. Music is like colorful emotion that spreads over the room whenever it is played.


Being able to play music is amazing. You fill yourself with color and emotion. You get that exciting, amazing feeling when you play it correctly, when you hit the right note.


Everyone should be allowed or able to feel that color, that emotion as it flows through them. "                  — Morgan Cundiff


“Music isn’t just notes written on paper or different frequencies you hear music, music isn’t a “thing” to me. Music is a way of life, you can live through music. You can feed on it, you can find relief in it. I use music as a passage and the passage can go wherever I want it to. Jazz, classical, rock ‘n’ roll, the different passageways of music. Music brings you to a new dimension. Perhaps it’s an Ab major dimension or a Techno dimension, whatever that dimension is, it’s the one you want.” —Jackson Vanfleet-Brown


The one you want—and the one you need. The larger your experience is of music, the more possibilities you have of finding just what you need at the moment. A jazz ballad to soothe you, a salsa piece to pump you up, a Chopin nocturne to slow you down, a spiritual to help you bear your grief, Beethoven’s 9th to sing your joy. Music is one of the most powerful of human creations because, as we noted earlier, it works directly on your nervous system—it can change your breathing, change your musculature, change your brain waves, literally transform you so that at the end of listening to or playing music, you are a different person then you were before. And if the music has done its job well, you feel more connected—to your body, to your heart, to your mind, to your fellow human beings. 

At least until the next piece of music. Sadly, these changes aren’t permanent. Anyone who has worked in a music group knows that music does NOT solve our constant difficulties with ourselves and with each other. But it does give us at least some moments where everything makes sense, where we blend into a whole greater than ourselves and feel elevated, exalted, inspired. And I suggest that a daily habit of good music-making is not a bad way to develop closer to that mystery we all hope to be—a whole human being. 


It helps to speak these things out loud. But words will just be empty air if not backed up by the experiences that indeed awaken the slumbering soul. We cannot tell children that music is important and beautiful if we teach in a way that only cares about winning the competition or passing the AP test. We cannot shout at them to feel joyful or yell at them to take a risk. We cannot have them scrape away at scales mechanically and hope that it will magically transform to expressive music. We cannot let them simply decipher black dots on paper without hearing or understanding profoundly what they are doing. We cannot leave them with the idea that being musical means playing a particular instrument. (My friend from Ghana says he is always confused when he tells people he’s a musician and they immediately ask, “What instrument do you play?” He repeats, “I’m a musician. That means I can figure out how to play any instrument.”) We cannot convince them that music is for everyone if we treat it as a rarified subject reserved for the talented. 


In short, we cannot teach music unmusically, simply talking at kids, shouting at kids, rehearsing in disconnected fragments, just moving our fingers over keys without being able to sing or dance what we play. We have to revision the teaching of music as a musical practice in itself, where there is a constant flow, a development between all the themes, a sense of an inviting beginning to the class, a connected middle and a satisfying ending. There needs to be room for our students to contribute, whether it’s an improvised solo, an idea of how to develop a piece, a chance for them to lead an echo rhythm exercise or a chance for them to reflect and discuss what we did and what worked and what didn’t. 


Why are we here? I hope you will find many of your good practices affirmed in the workshops you attend here, but I also hope that you find some bad practices challenged and that you’ll leave re-considering how you have done things. You don’t need to add a layer of guilt or shame, because many of us are simply continuing to teach as we have been taught and sometimes that means poorly. Now’s the time to break the cycle of harm.


Why are we here? In your conference book is a letter I wrote to the wonderful grade 8 class I had last year. Knowing that my time up here was short, I leave you to read it at your leisure. It is one model of how I talk to kids about this. 


Why are we here? We can say over and over that art is important, but how do we bring that down into the gut? Well, I know one way. I just spent six months saying goodbye to an 88- year old man at the other end of life. He was my father. After triple bypass surgery, he struggled to recover until finally giving up. For the last ten weeks of his life, he never left his bed and didn’t eat a bite of food, subsisting on diet Pepsi and water. 


And how did we pass those ten weeks together? Did we sit admiring the watch his company gave him when he retired? Reading his old report cards? Doing math sheets? When the great matter of life and death came down to the bare essentials, what was important? I think you can guess. We sat listening to music—all of Beethoven’s symphonies, Schubert’s Unfinished, the tape I made of his own piano compositions. I sang songs to him, played accordion and watched him drift into that place of pure peace and contentment, those moments when “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world”—as long as the music is playing. He recited the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner to me that he had learned in school some 75 years earlier and almost had it perfectly. He talked to me about the paintings he had made and which were his favorites and why. We even watched some of the old classic movies—Grand Hotel. Some Like It Hot. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. In short, suddenly art in all its myriad faces was revealed as the essential thing it is in the face of the wonder and terror of human life and death. And I was here teaching in Toronto, Canada, when he finally passed away and there are people in this audience who helped me so much in my grief simply by singing the songs we were going to sing anyway, but now amplified with greater meaning and beauty. 


And I couldn’t help but wonder: what will today’s children turn to on their death beds in the years to come? Will they be comforted by the Brittney Spears song or the 50 Cent rap? Will they ask to play just once more the Mortal Kombat video game they spent their childhood mastering? Will they request a laptop so they can re-enter their favorite chat-room? What music will comfort them? What poetry will give them courage? What art will sustain them in the face of their mortality?


I’d like to think that they will sing or listen to or play the beautiful music that they learned from a very important person in their life— you. Think about that when you choose what to teach and how to teach it and remind yourself that you can be the most powerful person in that child’s life in ways that you simply can’t imagine now. 


And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why we are here. 


Why Are We Here? Part 1

Today I stumbled on an opening address I gave at the Ontario Music Educator's Association in 2007. It was hosted at Deerhurst, a town outside of Toronto (hence the Canadian reference below) and once again, surprised to see that some of the stories and ideas presented from over 15 years ago are the same as I recently shared in Australia. I keep imagining I'm discovering new things, but a look back often reveals the same old things given an occasional fresh change of clothes. But they're worthy things. They hold up. And so I share that talk here, in two parts.

(Begin with Funga Alafia welcome song.) It feels appropriate to begin the proceedings with a song, this one from the Hausa people of Nigeria extending a welcome. Words of welcome are, of course, conventional and expected, but taken on a different power when lifted into song. This is the great beauty of our chosen field— sending the message directly to the nervous system, the blood, the muscles, no interpreters necessary. To sing together is to welcome each other and feel welcomed and create a sense of shared belonging. Secondly, we welcome each other through the meaning of the text—‘Lafia is a casual greeting amongst the Hausa, Ashay, a deeper more spiritual greeting also found among the Yoruba people and people who practice capoeira in Brazil. Thirdly, the meaning is amplified by the gestures— I indeed welcome you with my thoughts, which now must be carried in my words and spoken with the language of the heart. And there is nothing up my sleeve here in terms of trying to convert you or sell you something, not even my own point of view. I simply want to say a few things that can open important conversations, conversations within each of us and between each of us. And so we begin.


Meanwhile, let me say that it is a pleasure to be back in the land of good health care, regulations on assault weapons, schools that still prefer education over testing and great-hearted, intelligent and good-looking people. I hope that you all will consider giving aid to one of the developing countries most in need—like that big one just south of the border. 


Of course, we are all developing countries, developing cultures, developing people. One of my favorite quotes comes from the Zen Master Suzuki-Roshi: “You are perfect as you are—but we all could stand a little improvement.” And I imagine that’s why most of us are here— to find the next answer that leads to the next question that keeps us developing as teachers, as musicians, as human beings. 


I come to you in my 33rd year of teaching music to children from 3 years old through grade 8, all at the same school. Many people marvel at the statistic, never thinking that the reason might be that I can’t get a job anywhere else. And I can happily report that I’m as delighted to be working with children now as I was when I first began—in truth, much more so, since now I know a little bit more about what I’m doing and not faking it as drastically as I used to. 

One of the things I imagine a lot of you love about working with children as much as I do is those pearls of wisdom that drop from their mouths. One of my favorites comes from my colleague, James Harding. In his first year of teaching music to children, he went to meet the three-year-olds down at their classroom. He led them down the long hall down to the music room, entered the room, brought them into a circle and sat them down. Just as he was poised to begin the first activity, one of these tender young souls looked up at him with great dismay and a few tears and said in his plaintive voice, “Why are we here?!!” James was speechless, struck by the profundity of the question. Why, indeed, are we here? 


At the beginning of any venture, this is always a good question to ask. What drew us here? What do we hope for? Will we leave a slightly different person than when we came— and by different I mean one inch more clear about our purpose, one inch more of understanding in our field, one inch more connected to our colleagues. So turn to your neighbor and give the shortest explanation you can muster about why you are here, what you hope to learn. (Pause) Let’s hear five answers.


What I suspected were many layers. At the top layer would be things like:

• My school district requires it.

• I needed time off from the kids or family or everyday workaday world.

• It’s a beautiful place and there’s a great restaurant on the way.


No comments need be made about these.


In the next layer.


• To reconnect with our colleagues.

Music teaching is one of the loneliest and most isolated jobs in the schools. Classroom teachers can gather in the teacher’s room and share their excitement about the books their kids are reading or the science experiments they just did, but music teachers tend to be alone in their work. We are hungry for colleagues who understand what we are doing and conferences like these are essential to remind us that we are not alone.


• To improve our musicianship.

A tax accountant may arrive at the end of his or her field, but a musician, from your 6-year-old student to Yo Yo Ma, Bobby McFerrin and Wynton Marsalis never reaches the end of musical mastery. 


• To get new material.

This is the bread and butter of the profession, keeping on the alert for the next new arrangement for choir, band, orchestra or Orff ensemble. Many of us, especially general music teachers, have to create our own repertoire and curriculum and gathering new material is essential to our craft.


• To get new ideas.

Rehearsal techniques, strategies for student involvement, a detailed process for teaching a lesson— most of us realize that it is not enough to know our discipline and choose the repertoire, but we also must know how to communicate, motivate, engage and develop our student’s promise. This is true of all aspects of music teaching and is one great contribution the so-called alternative approaches to music education—Orff, Kodaly, Dalcroze—have to offer; attention to the process of developing a musical idea or lesson with the children. How you teach is as important—and indeed, possibly more important—than what you teach. 


• To stretch beyond our own discipline. 

This is one that probably didn’t make your list and I invite you all to consider it. Perhaps some of you may have been worried that I am called an Orff teacher and would use this time to convert you to our way. Nothing could be further from my mind! I do think that at some point, we all have to choose where to pitch our tent in this vast world of music and music education. I’m in the Orff field because I happen to like the view and the particular wildflowers that grow there. But I take many day hikes to other camps and always return refreshed. I thank Orff and his colleagues for leading me to this spot on the mountain, but I know full well (and so did he) that no one spot has the whole view. We are long overdue to go beyond the polarizing and debilitating effects of “I’m a choral teacher, I’m a band teacher, I’m an early childhood teacher, I’m a Kodaly teacher.” Those are but the places we lay our heads at night, but during the day, we better get up and walk around if we want to be what we truly should be—a music teacher. And not just a music teacher, but a teacher. And not just a teacher, but a human being who is part teacher, part student, part mentor, part friend, always fallible and always growing with others to the impossible goal of being more fully human, on the way together to cherish every minute of this life. So spend some time in this conference talking to someone outside of your discipline and ask them how they do what they do and see what that might mean for you.


• To get refreshed and renew our vows.

 Why are we here? Not only why did we come to this conference, but why were we called to music and why did we choose to teach it? In our day-to day life, we are constantly walking amongst the trees and it is a rare moment when we telescope out to see the whole forest. We can argue for hours about whether phonetics works better than whole language methods, whether 6/8 should be introduced before 3/4 or whether zone defense is better than man-to-man (or person-to-person) and forget the purpose behind it all. It is the rare teacher that constantly reminds students why they are spending their precious hours wrestling with numbers, words, shapes, notes or moves on the basketball court. 


My hope is that all your reasons for attending are met by your experiences here, but what would serve us all the most—and more importantly, what would serve the children we teach— is to pause and climb up to a lookout and think about what we have been doing and how we can do it better. And return to the workaday world with renewed vigor and vision.