Saturday, October 28, 2023

To Be of Use

The wood floor is cold to the touch when I get barefoot out of bed and I can see my breath when I step out on the back deck. I grab a musty sweater from the tucked-away pile on the closet shelf. On the cusp of November, the season is changing. Pack away the shorts and short-sleeved shirts, the Teva sandals, get out the candles to light the 7pm dinner table. The year is drawing nearer to its close, as it has dependably done over thousands and thousands of human lifetimes.


Meanwhile, it has not been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon and happily so. My days are like a farmer’s, spread out with varied chores that call for attention. But instead of feeding the actual chickens, stacking the hay and milking the cow, I get to just sing about it. In schools with children on the rug before me. Yesterday at a school where one of the kids in our neighborhood sing goes, the day before at the school where a SF School colleague’s grandson and SF alum’s son (the same child) goes. The topic, of course, was Halloween songs, topped off by a Halloween story that had both classes so mesmerized that their teachers were astounded that they were capable of that quality of attention. But give kids (or adults) what their souls hunger for and all behavior management techniques become instantly unnecessary. 


Twice this past week, I went to two new wings of the Jewish Home and played piano and sang for the Russian residents there. From the awakening vitality of the Maple Leaf Rag to the swingin’ Tea for Two to the lilting Strauss waltzes and energizing Sousa marches, from the quiet tenderness of a slow movement in a Mozart concerto to the mesmerizing rhythms of La Paloma, every piece was punctuated by Spaciba!! at the end, alongside the sincere and exuberant testimony of one man who kept shouting out “You make us so happy!”


I’m a second-rate pianist with a tenth-rate singing voice, but somehow I can communicate the power and beauty of so many musical styles to kids, elders and everyone in-between. But it is those at the beginning of life, fresh, eager and curious, and those at the end, filled with life’s triumphs and travails, joys and sorrows, that most need and best understand the language of music and its ability to speak so far beyond words what we need to hear, know and remember. I could happily spend the rest of my life seeking out schools and old-age homes to sing and play with both groups. 


But meanwhile, I also rehearsed twice with the SF School 8th graders preparing to perform at the upcoming Orff Conference in Albuquerque, so happy with their superb musical expertise playing a challenging Venezuelan piece and a hot Oye Como Va. What a pleasure that was, especially since these were my 4th grade students from my last year of teaching, immortalized in various scenes in the movie The Secret Song.


 Speaking of which, I saw it at a local SF movie theater for the 8th time in the past year and though I have much of the narration memorized by now, I still like the feeling of the audience reaction to it. People really get immersed in the journey of the story and each time, applaud at the end as if we’ve just lived through something significant together. 


The day before, I was Zoom interviewed on something called Spotlight TV to talk about my new Jazz, Joy & Justice  book. (Links below, if anyone is interested.) Day before that, I was hired as a one-time rehearsal pianist for an upcoming musical. Who could have imagined how my piano lessons, school music and English classes, typing lessons, would bear so much fruit? Certainly not me!


So as the days grow shorter, my opportunities to be of use grow larger and this wandering minstrel is happy that this is so. Onward!


PS The following premiere on Oct. 31 at 8:00 pm EST

SUBSCRIBE to the Spotlight Network on YouTube:




Vimeo Download




The Spotlight Network


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