Friday, April 12, 2024

As We Have Done Before


My daughter sent this photo of my granddaughter Zadie “smoking the competition” in a recent relay race. This 12-year -old who I love beyond all reason uplifting my heart with this image of her charging into her future with such energy, such confidence, such speed and determination. The same day, I saw a Facebook memory of someone offering condolences for the passing of my mother. It was almost a week ago, on April 6th, 10 years ago, that I became an orphan. 10 years ago! 

 

All of this happened while on a break teaching in Toronto and here in my little temporary office, I found myself in tears. The kind that hold all emotions— the sorrow, the grief, the pride, the humility, the sweet and the bitter, all together at once. Off I went to teach my next class of 5-year-olds, but now a larger person with my Mom and granddaughter by my side as I went “Marching ‘Round the Circle, as we have done before.” And as I do now and as I will do yet again. The past and present and future all together in the dancing ring. 

 

Because that’s the truth. 10 years have gone by like a lightning flash in the sky, but here I am again, feeling that moment of my Mom’s passing. Zadie was 2 then and here she is, on the cusp of the teen years roaring through to young adulthood and running with the baton in her hand. A baton that my Mom handed to her, mythologically-speaking. Life indeed moves in circles at the same time that it marches forward and flashes backward and all of our many incarnations are present all at once. 

 

It feels like a Biblical passage to consider that thou shalt do as thou hath done before and now doth do and shalt forever do. And that’s the Gospel truth. 

  

Choose Wisely

 This from a friend's post on Facebook. I have nothing more to add. 



Wednesday, April 10, 2024

FUCK AI

A music colleague recently posted a defense of AI-generated artwork as unworthy of the word fake. It exists, therefore it is real. So of course, I had to chime in with my two-cents, generated from my own brain and passing through my own emotions that the topic unleashes. As follows:

 

From my point of view, to deserve the word art, something has to pass through the emotional layers of a live human being. I wouldn't use the words "fake" or "real," just "art" and "something else." 

 

And in full disclosure, I hate AI with every fiber of my being. It's just the next technological distraction that is trying to replace and displace human beings at a time when the real task is to grow more soul and celebrate the human intelligence and imagination. I just did a 90-minute class with 3rd graders based on nothing more than letters—their sound, their shape, words that start from them— and the room was alive with laughter, connection, creative imagination and sheer delight. Nothing plugged in anywhere. I would wish us to be less fascinated by the next machine and turn our whole energy back to the human beings we have not yet become.

 

The deeper truth is this: we are not morally, emotionally, politically or spiritually prepared for the kind of power AI generates. Already the news is coming in about AI generated nude images of high school girls being flashed around social media. The old “it’s just a tool that we need to learn responsibly” is bullshit because no one is preparing us to use it responsibly. As Marshall McCluhan said years ago, “the medium is the message.” Just as e-mail and texting is inclined to bring out the worst of us in human communication by removing us from face-to-face conversation and accountability for our words and the responsibility to think before speaking, so is AI a toy now for adolescent brains (of all ages) with no developed empathetic frontal lobes to do some deep damage to other people with their “harmless” vicious postings, both words and images. If we agree that developing human eloquence and intelligence is a good goal, then chatgpt is the medium that shoots us in our foot. And take another look at the film "Wag the Dog" to consider how now there is another tool available to the powerful and greedy and evil to manufacture consent and sway elections with truly fake news, images, quotes and more. 

 

It's all distraction, distraction, distraction from having to attend to the difficult work of growing our own souls and counter-evolutionary to everything we need to survive and thrive. All the hours we'll need to spend to legislate abuse and take training for responsible use, the hours spent in courts, the precious time spent talking about all this instead of the conversations we really need to be having. And for what? Do we really need any more interesting images that a person can't create? More articles written without a moral point of view because a machine is soulless? More ways to make the cab drivers, the TV writers, the actors in films increasingly obsolete? 

 

In over 4,000 posts, I don’t believe I’ve ever used a four-letter word, but I stand by my title here—Fuck AI. Let’s get down to the real work

 

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Arrested Development

 Book II of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations begins with this advice:

 

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself , I shall meet with the busybody,, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that is beautiful and of the bad that is ugly, and the nature of those who do wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood and seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.”

 

Well, that’s a mouthful! Apparently, they didn’t have editors in ancient Rome and if they did, they were perfectly fine with the run-on sentence. But regardless of the syntax, the ideas hidden there are worth considering. That surely fools abound and they often can’t help themselves because they don’t know better. But somehow, they are not wholly the other, for fools a’plenty reside (or at least have resided) in my breast as well. Perhaps the best piece of advice is not to be brought down by them and at your best, refuse to be angry with them or hate them. Standard fare for folks like Buddha and Jesus as he actually preaches. Difficult for us humans. 

 

So I know that he-whose-very-name-makes-my mouth-feel-like-garbage-if-I-write-it-or- speak-it, he who in virtually every utterance does nothing but spew garbage, is not worthy of my time or attention. And yet, here he still is, blessing the haters and threatening to bring down the democracy we all take for granted. It was a great blessing to ignore him the last three years, but now he's back in the spotlight and the newshounds are on him like dogs on meat. He’s making a bid to lead this country to the cliff’s edge and I find it extraordinary how many lemmings are still willing to follow him and leap off. (While he himself turns the other way). 

 

I know that lemmings can’t be appealed to by reason, but still I hope that someone not in the choir might read some thoughts about what’s going on and re-consider. What brought all this up is a recent report that the human brain is hardwired for empathy and forming relationships and that this capacity begins as early as 18 months of age. Scientists who analyzed 127 mother/child pairs tracked children’s response to another person’s simulated pain and found that children’s concern in reaction to another’s distress was most pronounce by the 18-month point. So that led me to conclude that you-know-who was emotionally arrested at 17 months and was never able to develop a single cell of sympathy, concern or anything approaching well-wishing, genuine friendship, appreciation or goodness knows, love. 

 

If you need evidence, I reluctantly attach his tweet on Easter, a time to renew one’s highest Christian feelings. How is it possible that his supporters are okay with this and blind to the extreme pathology and poisonous toxins constantly spewing from his mouth. On Easter, no less! I suspect that even the least developed 17-month-old still would not talk like this.

 

So sorry, Marcus Aurelius, I wish I could just let it be, but I find it nearly impossible to imagine this person as sharing the same divinity and intelligence as anybody else I know. Again, without his power to inflict evil on others, I could be more compassionate, but it is unthinkable that he could even come close to sitting in the White House again. I’ll get this rant out of my system and return to focusing on the beauty I see in each child I teach. 

 

PS Feel free to stop here and not read the below, but if you do, have some soap and mouthwash nearby to cleanse yourself however you can.  



Sunshine Songs

As promise, here I my list of “Sunshine” songs. And yours?

 

Sally Go Round the Sun— Nursery rhyme

You are My Sunshine— Folk song

Keep on the Sunnyside—made popular by the Carter Family

The Sunnyside of the Street— Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields

Good Day Sunshine—The Beatles

Here Comes the Sun—The Beatles

You Are the Sunshine of My Life—Stevie Wonder

Sunny— Bobby Hebb

Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Cryin’— Gerry & the Pacemakers

Sunshine Superman—Donovan

Sunshine of My Love—Cream 


And with a little help from my friend Google:


Ain't No Sunshine— Bill Withers

We'll Sing in the Sunshine— Gale Garnett

Sunshine on My Shoulders—  John Denver

Aquarius/ Let the Sunshine— The 5th Dimension

Sunrise Sunset—Gerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (From Fiddler on the Roof)


Some 20 other songs I didn't recognize. A popular theme!

Monday, April 8, 2024

There Goes the Sun

Well, the big event came and went. Closer to “non-event” here in Toronto as the sun teased us some 30 minutes before its appointed Total Eclipse time. It did finally get dark enough to turn on the streetlights at 3:20, but felt like a minor drama. And I couldn’t see anything with the special eclipse glasses. Oh well. 

 

The school I’m teaching at dismissed the kids early and the public schools literally cancelled school. Mostly from fear of litigation, in case kids didn’t follow instructions and looked directly at the sun while at school. Again, oh well. 

 

Meanwhile, thought of songs about sun and sunshine to teach the kids today in my morning classes and without peeking at Google, came up with a list of ten. I’ll cross-check with Google later, but meanwhile, curious what you can come up with. Not that it’s easy to share on this format, but play the game anyway and see what comes to mind. (I suspect that there are various Pop songs that fit the category written after 1973, when I pretty much stopped listening. So you might easily beat me.). I’ll post my list tomorrow, followed by Google’s. 

 

Ready? Set? Go!!!!

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Here Comes the Sun

Friday night, after another fine day teaching kids, my old friend and her family picked me up and we went downtown to hear the Toronto Symphony play Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. It was an unusual concert, as a man who does a Song Explorer podcast had the conductor play excerpts and give some background information as to what was happening. Not dissimilar to Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. Nicely done and interesting to go back into this piece by Stravinsky. At one point, I just sat in awe that one person could create a work of art like this, deciding each and every note that needed to be played and how and when and in company with whom— for 45 minutes! Notes that didn’t fall into any simple pre-ordained style, but each one carefully chosen. Extraordinary! 

 

Then all the expertise on that stage, a lifetime of practice from the 30 plus players to bring it all to life and instruments meticulously built, crafted and cared for. If we step back in moments like this and truly appreciate the exceptional gift of a human incarnation to so intelligently create, imagine, master such things using the height of our intellectually capability, our capacity to feel in 50 shades of so many colors, our physical dexterity to create technological wonders from the pencil to the super-computer, we would stop taking for granted the responsibility of having such powers. And being who I am and thinking as I think, I just can’t help but be yet again disgusted down to my bone marrow of how such capability is being wasted and trampled on by that clown and his cronies who represents the lowest low of intelligence, feeling and physical grace. And the simply unbelievable fact of so many supporting that as the model to aspire to. Aaargh!!!!

 

But those were just passing thoughts and I was left mostly with determination to renew my part in crafting the best of our human incarnation in the kids—and adults— I teach. While also renewing my vows to reach higher in myself. 

 

Meanwhile, after five grey, cloudy, cold and rainy days in Toronto, the sun made its welcome appearance and joy of all joys, I went out walking with my friend in some 50 degree (instead of 35) weather, soaking in the sun’s light and warmth. That night, a barbecue dinner with friends that included great food, jokes, magic tricks, much laughter and some musical sharing. 

 

Tomorrow is the solar eclipse. Can you guess the title for my next post? 

Friday, April 5, 2024

Kid Therapy

Old Man Mosie, sick in the head. Called for the doctor and the doctor said.

“Please step forward, turn around.Do the Hokey Pokey and 

Get out of town!”

 

My whole life I’ve wondered, “What am I here for?” Not in a general sense, but in a specific 

sense, the old Greek notion of the Fates (Morai) assigning a destiny to each human incarnation. So less “What am I here for?” and more “What am here for?”

 

The answer has shifted throughout my life. I’ve toyed around with spiritually enlightened Zen student, jazz musician, keeper of community, good parent, writer and yes, teacher. I wonder if my main job is to be an advocate for children. I just keep coming back to the delight I feel in each and every class I’ve taught with kids this past post-retirement 4 years— and most of them the 45 years before that. So perhaps the brunt of my Confession in this Blog is the simple, but radical, thought that “the kids are all right.” In fact, often so much better than us hopeless adults. 

 

Take yesterday. I introduced the song Old Man Mosie to 3rd graders by asking them if any had every been sick and gone to the doctor. Of course, they all had. Then I asked if they felt sick in their head— sad, lonely, filled with dark thoughts— who they should go to. One answered “A therapist.” 

 

“Okay,” I said, “Let’s pretend that you’re my therapist and I came to you with because I was depressed. What would you advise?” Listen to their answers.

 

ˆ”Breathe in. Breathe out.”

“ Go to your Bestie and talk it over.”

“Read, read, read.”

“Sleep.”

“Find the things you love to do and do them.”

“Rest.”

And one who simply sat cross-legged, closed her eyes and gently intoned, “Om.”

 

Ah, the wisdom of 8-year olds. We went on to the sing the song and listened to Old Man Mosie’s doctor’s advice:

 

“Please step forward.” -Initiate your own change and move toward your own healing.

“Turn around.” – Like a dog searching for the optimum comfortable posture. 

“Do the Hokey Pokey.” – For goodness sense, dance!

“Get out of town!”- Get a new point of view, see how others live, learn from them, notice how they’re going through the same things. 

 

We sang the song, played the game, played an arrangement on the Orff instruments and had a marvelous time. At the end of class, I asked, “Who feels happier than when you walked in?” The hands shot up. 

 

Kids. You gotta love ‘em.

 

  

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

House Colors

My second day of three weeks of guest teaching at Havergal College, an independent girl’s school in Toronto. It’s mission is “to prepare young women to make a difference and to take on an ever-changing world with confidence, resilience and global-mindedness.” I’m happy to report that having just taught a few classes of kindergarten through 5th grade, they are wildly succeeding!  I taught the classic kid’s game Boom Chick a Boom to three different 5th grade groups today as an introduction to the Jazz Unit I’m leading and told them that jazz wants them to show their most wacky, wild, weird expressive selves, not in an indulgent way, but inside the discipline of self-expression that requires, work, technique, knowledge and sincerity. Off we went and as they played with partners this game that asks for a different expression for each phrase of the text, I noticed that they were far beyond what I usually get in my adult workshops. Indeed, wacky, wild and weird in the best of all ways, making extravagant motions and super-expressive voices with unbridled joy and enthusiasm. I asked if anyone wanted to lead the whole group and their hands shot-up without a moment’s hesitation. And they were fantastic! Truth be told, so much better than me leading that activity! So check off “confidence” on that Mission Statement. 

 

Generally, all wear the same uniform, but today was “House Colors” day and each was dressed in their own individual and yes, somewhat wacky, style. The idea seemed to be to dress the same color as your house is painted. Really? It turns out to be a Canadian thing, perhaps coming from the British. I asked the girls how they felt different on this day and they talked about being more energetic, as if the sameness of the uniforms somehow drained their individual charisma.  Later I read online that one rational for House Colors Day is that “Colors can change moods, reduce/increase tensions, cause excitement and could give a soothing effect to exhausted minds.” So it seemed to be the perfect day to introduced Boom Chick a Boom! Though their teacher said they often have that much energy. We’ll see when we review it later this week. 

 

Meanwhile, the second day here in Toronto without the sun and today, raining all day. So yes, color and light do affect mood and I wouldn’t mind a little bit more of both in tomorrow’s weather forecast!




Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Beginning Anew

Remember all your firsts? Your first love, your first time traveling abroad, your first month or so of a new job? There is no guarantee, but chances are good that you felt the freshness, excitement and promise of starting out. The delight of not knowing anything wholly, just the delicious sense of living on the edge of discovery, each moment new and filled with the pleasure of novelty. The axons and dendrites in the brain who are meeting each other for the first time are feeling, “It’s party time! Let the new connections spark!”

 

Alfred North Whitehead talked about this long ago as the cycle of all learning. He named the first stage “Romance” and aptly so, as it has that floating feeling of being swept off your feet. You are thrown off balance from the usual knowable feelings and thoughts and routines and predictable actions and reactions and you don’t care. In fact, you love it. Like the images in the old jazz love songs, there is the euphoria of being released from the gravity of the workaday world:

 

“ All at once am I, several stories high, knowing I’m on the street where you live.”

 

 “Lately I seem to walk as though I had wings…”

 

Darn your lips and darn your eyes, they lift me high above the moonlit skies…”

 

“Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I…”

 

Sometimes we get angry that the initial promise of romantic love dulls down to the precision (Whitehead’s term) of the long haul. We feel the shine and luster fade and instead of pledging undying love, we’re arguing about the kitchen paint colors. But whether it be a romantic relationship or digging into the details of playing Balinese gamelan after the initial enchantment when we heard it for the first time, or getting serious about curriculum after the magic of just jamming with the kids in the Orff class, there is also a great pleasure in the control and understanding that Precision offers. The delight of floating in the air transforms to the gratification of coming back to earth, feeling back in control, able to steer your own car and drive to the destination you choose. Until that moment when everything feels just a bit too habitual, a trifle too familiar. When it all becomes just routine, entirely predictable, it's time to get out of town.

 

And so the conversation between novelty and familiarity goes on. If we’re lucky, they move to the third stage of Synthesis, where we return to the playful explorations and welcome unknowns but armed with precise techniques and understandings. The surprises are smaller, but still can uplift us. Instead of moving to a whole new city, we discover a new neighborhood in ours or a new details around the block that we never noticed. Here’s the moment when that oft-practiced passage in the technically-demanding Bach fugue reveals a new facet of its beauty to you. Or the oft-traveled routes our fingers take in our jazz solo suddenly moves off the trail into exciting new territory. 

 

All this prelude to my first day of teaching in Toronto. Far from unfamiliar territory, as I’ve come here most every summer since 2001 to teach. But now I’m teaching for three weeks at a school I only taught at once for two days, staying alone in a house all to myself in a new section of town that I don't know well. I set out last night to explore and there it was—that tingling of romance getting to know a new place, noting the bakery and Thai restaurant and Natural Foods store where I shopped for the meals to come, cooked on a new-fangled induction stove. A house with an electric piano that has a vibraphone setting (love these!) and the amazing possibility of playing whenever I want without worrying about the neighbors. A two-subway ride and 20-minute walk in cold, grey weather past uninviting brick houses to get to the school, but still, it’s an adventure! It’s fun! That sensation of beginning my life anew as I get familiar with these novel surroundings, of starting out yet again to taste this marvelous life, as if I’m 18 or 28 or even 52. How I love it.

 

I had the same sensation a few months back in Taipei as I got to know the ice-cream vendor, this restaurant, that walk along the canal. The same feeling I had some years back figuring out the subway system in Tokyo and wandering through parks and temples. And most powerfully of all, that first time in Salzburg when I was 52 and living a six-week life that fed every fiber of my being. Here I was in a beautiful place filled with interesting people (the students I taught) at a place that was the Mecca of my profession (the Orff Institut) doing the work I was born for. I went back every two years for the next 16 or so, but nothing quite equaled the power of that first time.

 

And then the actual work I did today with the kids. In the midst of teaching the 3rd graders, 2nd graders, kindergarteners, I felt myself smiling from head to foot and feeling what I always feel when I’m in a room with kids making music—“I am just so damn happy!” The kids are at once new and wholly familiar. My material is almost routine, but there are always little openings that appear that keep it fresh. 

 

In short, I could do this forever. And yet I know that I can’t. So nothing to do but savor every precious moment of it while it lasts. And hope the invites keep coming!

My Toronto Love Affair

It was in the summer of 1963, me soon to enter 7th grade, when I first ventured beyond the U.S. border. My father had a business trip planned and decided to make a family vacation of it. Though it was 61 years ago, I still remember driving through New York State, stopping at the Corning Glass Wares, checking into a little hotel near Niagara Falls and serendipitously, watching the movie Niagara with Joseph Cotton and Marilyn Monroe. This would have been on broadcast TV on one of the four or five channels available at the time, so it indeed was serendipitous that it happened to be showing that night. 

 

Once arriving in Toronto, it didn’t feel all that different from the U.S., but still there was the excitement of being a tourist. We visited the home of my Dad’s business acquaintance (Don McNabb, if I remember correctly) and went from his house in two cars to visit the Casa Loma. My mother was worried about us losing him while we followed and told me to remember the license plate number. It is one of the odd quirks of my eccentric mind that to this day, I still remember it. B23-882. I’ve told this story to many people over the years and wonder if this license plate number will be my “Rosebud,” muttered as I pass out of this world to the great confusion of everyone present. 

 

Another tourist attraction I remember was the Botanical Garden and this was particularly sweet because a young girl who was a neighbor came with us. Her name was Lizzie and somehow, we both were struck with our first case of puppy love. We might have even held hands while walking through the garden. I don’t think we even met again after that walk, but I do dimly remember it as my initiation into Nature’s Law of Sexual Attraction that was the portal from childhood into adulthood. A foolproof plan for the survival of the species, a purely biological instinct that the human heart has transformed into the heights of sweetness, ecstasy and joy coupled with the depths of misery, suffering and confusion. Knowing what was ahead, would we each have chosen to pass through that portal? Of course we would!

 

So that trip’s initiation from puppy to dog to human love was also the beginning of a lifetime of travel beyond the known borders of my mother culture. Next on the stop was some four years later, again crossing the Canadian Border with my Aunt Flo to go to Expo 67 in Montreal. This city, with its French speakers, was a bit more alluring and exotic. My Aunt stayed with an Uncle Ben who didn’t have enough room for us both in his apartment, so he rented a bedroom from a French couple down the hall. I was a 16-year old feeling my approaching independence as I slept alone in that room with the sounds of French television coming from another room in the apartment. 

 

On my last night, I came into the room as usual and there was the wife in my bed!!!! This could have been an unforgettable initiation into my first sexual experience from an experienced lover and at 16, my body was ready for it! But my mind not so much as I quickly ran out of the apartment and knocked on Uncle Ben’s door. 

 

Turns out that there was a miscommunication about the length of my stay, so my French Mrs. Robinson fantasy was wholly unfounded and I slept on Uncle Ben’s couch. Oh well. 

 

My next sojourn into foreign territory was six years away, a trip to Europe with my Antioch College Chorus singing Renaissance Sacred Masses in the great cathedrals of France, Italy, Belgium and Holland. But that’s a story for another time. 

 

Meanwhile, I’m back in Toronto. Should I try to look up Lizzie? 

Monday, April 1, 2024

The 1st of April

In honor of this day, I have to come up with something that would be unusual for me that people might or not believe. Some possibilities:

 

• I’m going to study Bulgarian bagpipe— really this time!

• Accordion and banjo? See above.

• I’m going to start working toward a Ph. D. Subject to be determined.

• I’m going to stay at home and only give Zoom Orff workshops from now on.

• I’m going to train for the National Cornhole Championship. 

• I’m not going to write anything today on this Blog. 

 

Happy April Fool’s Day!

  

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Courageous Conversations — All of Them

Fresh from the David Whyte poetry retreat at Asilomar, I found that his themes and some of his oft-heard stories remain the same, but his eloquence is perpetually fresh and the main points something we all need reminders of. Which essentially boils down to choosing to have the courageous conversations with ourselves that we would rather not have and are constantly turning away from. 

 

Last night, I got to sit in on an evening concert with the two Irish lads Micheal and Owen who David often brings with them to these events, these translators of poetry as music into music as poetry. Wonderful singers both with famed (in Ireland) musician parents. I accompanied Owen on Till There Was You, both of them with Moondance and then led me own activity with the audience, my rendition of the African- American Juba whereby they learn the patting pattern and then leave me to it at tempo with the text and Micheal beat-boxing, Owen keeping a step and clap beat and then me doing my little Steppin’  body percussion routine. After the beautiful legato Irish melodies, it’s a nice contrast that brings another energy into the room. 


As always, I gave some background to Juba as one of many “survival songs” of black people brutalized by the centuries-long narrative that dehumanized them and inflicted unimagined suffering, a way to bear up that eventually blossomed into so much joyful music that we all have delighted in hearing and playing. The long legacy of spirituals and gospel and jazz in its many incarnations and those grandchildren of jazz that became rock, Motown, pop, funk, hip-hop and beyond. When I talked, I noticed a palpably different kind of silence in the room from the kind that comes after a heart-opening poem. This morning, Micheal told me that my talk made him consider our responsibility as elders to pass stories like that on and noted (independent of any comments I made) a silence while I talked that felt like resistance. 

 

There it was. Because my story was followed by my whimsical “summer-camp with ice cream and mosquitos” method of teaching the Juba rhythm and the powerful energy of all the rhythms and song that followed, the audience moved from that silence into participatory jubilation. I hope that didn’t erase the seriousness of the story before, but rather open them further to the need to keep hearing it and passing it on to others.

 

Because here’s the deal. As I mentioned a few posts back, David is a virtuoso of the human psyche who has inspired thousands with his brave and eloquent work. Both as a matter of temperament and choice and his status as an Irish-English immigrant who moved here in his 20’s, he doesn’t connect courageous conversations within ourselves with courageous conversations between ourselves about our shared American collective destinies. That murky swamp we call “politics,” but is better described as “social justice” or just plain “humanitarianism.” 

 

I happen to believe we need both conversations. In fact, a hopefully-to-be-published book connecting Zen and Jazz (and Orff Schulwerk) is precisely about the way they both overlap and complement each other. Of the perhaps 200 people in the room that night, there wasn’t a single black face. And maybe five total that were Asian or Latinx. Which made it feel yet more important that I took the time to speak up as I did. And that felt sense of resistance that at least two of us imagined seems a sign that it’s important for all of us to speak so and often. Not as a political agenda and hopefully connected with the joy and power of black music and dance and poetry and more, but as a reminder that these courageous conversations are worth considering alongside our spiritual doubts and seeking. 

 

Just a thought. 

The Opening Door

It is Easter morning in one of the sacred sites I’ve known—Hidden Valley Music Seminars in Carmel Valley. This is where the miracles have happened every summer these past 12 years in our San Francisco International Orff Course as 100 people from some 20 countries worldwide gather to play, sing and dance their way into euphoria. It’s also the site where Orff Mini-Conferences have gathered every two years for the last 37 years. 

 

I was at the first such gathering in 1987, teaching a ritual version of death, resurrection and eternal life through a children’s rhyme “Sally Go Round the Sun.” My teacher Avon Gillespie was the headliner and on Easter morning, he led us through some spirited singing of his own Easter Cantata composition. Avon was a master of getting a group singing from the depths of their soul and feeling connected together in a way far more profound than most people experienced. In the barn-like theater, while we were swirling about in the spirit-lifting choral sound, he spontaneously ran to the sliding doors and pulled them open so that when we reached the final chord, the sun came streaming in with a Biblical moment of epiphany. No one who had the good fortune to be there ever forgot that moment. 

 

And so almost four decades later, Avon long gone (he died in 1989 far too young at 51 years old), here I am again. Awakening on another Easter morning in the midst of a David Whyte poetry retreat at nearby Asilomar. Here is another master of resurrection, lifting us up through poetry and opening the doors of our own resistant selves who often don’t have either the strength nor courage to pull those sliding doors about to allow ourselves to be bathed in celestial light. 


David is a virtuoso of the human soul, an expert cartographer who reveals the full topography of our often-refused possibility and names all the places and corners we hide to avoid the work of becoming ourselves. With an eloquence of a concert pianist in full control of touch and nuance and phrasing married to the spontaneity of the jazz musician who can respond precisely to the moment. Yesterday, in the midst of reciting a poem, he paused and asked, “Is that some music I hear?” concerned about the interruption. The group told him it was merely the rain and the next line of his poem was “faces upturned in the rain.” Without missing a beat, he quipped that the rain was interrupting his line about celebrating rain and laughed with us all. 

 

Off for the morning lecture to see how he will open the door yet again on this Easter morning. 

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Refuse Refuse

…is the name of a community organization my wife has done some work with as a volunteer. The clever title uses our difficult English language by pairing the verb with the accent on the second syllable with the noun on the first. Their mission is simple: “Clean up our trashy city.”

 

I still am loyal to my love of San Francisco, but whenever I come back home from Salzburg or Taiwan, I always wonder, “Why is our city so damn dirty?”


Homelessness and the wind certainly don’t help, but still. Might we hire the homeless to pick up trash and perhaps begin to earn enough money to possibly afford housing? Somehow, they have this down in the two cities mentioned above and probably hundreds more. What is our problem? And what is the solution?

 

Well, one is to do what Refuse Refuse is doing—gather volunteers to do the dirty work. Which is not so dirty when you use those nifty grabber reacher tools and a plastic glove if need be. They really are quite amazing, able to pick up something as slender as a cigarette butt. In the other hand, you have a plastic bag clipped to a ring and if you wave it in the air, it’s like a giant bubble maker as the wind gets inside. It’s lightweight and easy to grab, release into the bag and move on to the next piece of litter. Plus you get to wear these nifty orange vests.

 

How do I know this? Because inspired by Refuse Refuse, my wife single-handedly organized her own neighborhood trash pick-up and got some 25 plus people to show up! And I was one of them. 


May I testify that it was supremely satisfying? The rhythm of grab and release, the trail behind me of a super-clean sidewalk, the people who passed me by and said hello and many thanked me for my service. Not to mention the chance to meet many neighbors, some of whom I recognized from our once-a-year- Christmas caroling, but many new to me. Also happy to meet some high school kids fulfilling their school’s Community Service requirements. Not exactly volunteer, but close enough. 


It all reminded me that despite the daily onslaught of turning the camera on all the despicable people doing horrible things without an ounce of shame or remorse— you know who I'm talking about— people much prefer to do good and to see people doing good and to thank them for it. Imagine a month in which people doing all sorts of good things got as much camera time as the mean-spirited, ignorant and greedy. Can you feel how it would buoy up our hope and inspire us to aspire to our better selves? 

 

It made me think that every neighborhood should have mandatory once-a-month meetings to do caretaking like this and discuss any issues each neighborhood might have. Of course, this is America and responsibility to others can’t, God forbid, be mandated, but must be wholly volunteer. But it is to our loss. Imagine if we structured our neighborhoods so there was a certain level of commitment to the common good. Not only from an ethical place, but from the pleasure of getting to know our neighborhoods and feel our collective responsibility to our little spot on a planet. If this was New Orleans or Rio or Ghana or Bali, we would also have a neighborhood music and dance and costume sewing gathering alongside taking care of the streets, the plants and each other. 

 

Until such time, may the volunteer trash pick-ups, neighborhood sings, caroling parties and more continue. And thanks to my wife Karen for her initiative in making this happen!






Thursday, March 28, 2024

Pianos, Air Vents and Birds

Some six years ago, I was in the car with my good friends Rick and Paul and they were strongly suggesting I get a hearing aid. Or at least a hearing test. When I countered that I had thought of getting a hearing test, but was nervous about hearing the results, without missing a beat, they both shouted:

 

“You won’t!”

 

But the time has come. Finding myself saying “say it again” far too often when conversing with friends, hopeless in noisy restaurants and unable to understand what a kid with a high voice is saying to me in the middle of a class, I finally relented. As is typical for people my age, much hearing loss in the higher register and perhaps a bit more because of playing Balinese gamelan and Bulgarian bagpipe indoors. So today I was fitted and here I am with a new device—well, two— fitted to my body. 

 

My first reaction in the office was not wholly positive. My own voice sounded like I was talking through a microphone and I could hear the rush of something that turned out to be an air vent. Besides the high price (I chose not to join Costco), there was now that extra thing to keep track of, to re-charge every night, to be out $300 or $600 (deductible) if I lose it. 

 

Yet about to go to a group lecture this weekend, to teach kids for three weeks in Toronto, to visit friends there probably in restaurants, it is time to give it a try. I rode my bike back from the appointment and sat in the park and there, some 200 yards away, was someone playing the piano in the park and I could hear every note clearly. I heard snippets of conversations as I biked past people. I heard the wind rushing past my ears. 

 

But most astounding, I sat on a bench and was surrounded by bird song. High pitches, low pitches, middle pitches. Had I really missed that all these years? Perhaps that alone is worth the price of admission. And I could listen to my Audible story directly through the hearing aids. Maybe it won’t be so bad after all.

 

However, now I’m at home and the clicking of the computer keys is annoying. Much worse, I played a little piano and it sounds a bit tinny. Not good. The doctor advised me to keep them in as much during the day as I can to get the brain accustomed to it and avoid constant adjustment and re-adjustment. But I think I need to draw the line at piano playing. Or get some advice on how to re-calibrate it. 

 

So tonight my daughter is coming for dinner and let’s see what it’s like when I hear everything she and my wife have to say. Wish me luck!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More

Well, my friends, it was yet another memorable day because I spent the morning in company with children. K through 3rdgraders preparing for a show whose teacher brought me in as a kind of dramaturge. From the moment they walked into the room, the kids, those expert readers in body language, facial expression and sincerely spoken words, felt like I’m already their good friend. They performed for me, then sat down and listened attentively to my comments, which began something like this:

 

“First off, wonderful work!! I loved the singing, playing and dancing. But if you’d like to make it even better… hands up, if you would!… okay, almost everyone, that’s what I thought. If you’d like to make it even better, I have a few ideas. But instead of telling you them, I can show you.

 

When you came onto stage, your arms crossed moving up and down told me that it must be winter and cold out. Yes? I thought so. I’m going to do that motion two different ways. Which one looks more convincing that it’s really cold? I agree. Number two. And why? That’s right— because I showed in my face as well. And number three might even look better. Why? That’s right, those little shivers. Now show me with your arms, face and whole shivering body your new opening motion. Fantastic!! Who thought it looked better? Felt better?


Okay, now I’m going to sing the song a few different ways. Which looks and sounds the best? Yep! The one when I’m singing stronger from my belly up, not shouting, and really making the words clear. And here’s a little secret. Look over my head at some spot on the wall and sing to that. Yes, so much better! What we call your focus makes all the difference in the world!


And what about those shapes you made? Did you stretch to the edge of the imaginary canvas? Show me! What a difference!

 

In short, all these ideas can be summed up in one word that most teachers don’t say to you. When you come in from the outside with your energetic, exuberant, wild self, what do teachers often say? “Calm down, talk quieter, stop wiggling, be still.” And when you have a reading lesson, that makes perfect sense. The class needs less wild energy. 

 

But in music class, it’s the opposite! What I want is “MORE!” Bigger shapes, stronger, more expressive voices, more energy, more excitement. Take all your outside kid selves and put your whole self into the singing, dancing and playing! Okay, let’s go through the whole show again.”

 

That, ladies and gentleman, is how you get kids to love you 30 minutes after they meet you. To line up and give you a thumbs up or a knowing wink or a fist bump or hug or gather around you to tell you jokes or ask when you’re coming back. Simply give them permission to bring the whole of their exuberant kid selves into an activity that thrives at the edge of expression. 


And as adults, in a world where everyone demands to see less of us, to come into meetings following “the norms,” to hide the parts that ask the difficult questions or challenge the lie of “transparency” in decision-making or simply wants to everyone to “have a nice day,” it’s revolutionary to show the whole of yourself. I’m not talking about the false wild of the fake shamanic Capitol stormer or the rants of whiny children in adult bodies. I’m talking about taking the full measure of your authentic self and shape in with iron discipline to take those long 3-pointer basketball shots or wail coherently in your sax solo. To stop holding back and give us more.

 

 


Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Walking the Ambit

My daughter Kerala’s most recent writing piece is a farewell to ambition. At least as our society defines it. She tells of how she was obsessed with getting the good grades and getting into the “good schools” and moving up the ladder in the “good jobs” and worked so hard to prove herself in everything she did. And succeeded. Until in her 40’s she’s realized that the shiny gleam of the trophies—real and symbolic— have lost their luster and were all surface polish. She is now looking into the inner gold that is never tarnished by time. Indeed, the 40’s is often the time when one pauses on the ladder, notices when it is up against the wrong wall and climbs back down into the intimate and more soul-satisfying details of a live well-lived. 

 

I was witness to her perfectionism throughout her childhood, admired it, supported it and was proud of all her successes. I now feel all those same things about the turn in the road she is taking. But reading her article made me realize how my own journey was the polar opposite of hers!


As a kid, I cared little for grades and my main concern was to have fun wherever I was, even if it sent me out into the school hallways for punishment. I was sloppy in my piano practice, wanting to just get the feel for the pleasure of music rather than do the hard, detailed work that would land me on a concert stage. I was immensely happy and even proud that at Antioch College, I got credit (literal credits) for canoeing, hitchhiking, camping and wine-tasting. I had no focused college major, just barely managed to cobble together a BA in Education with a minor in Music. After graduation, I moved out to San Francisco with no concrete plan whatsoever about a career, content with the help of food stamps and San Francisco’s now unbelievable cheap rents in the early 70’s to piece together a little income accompanying modern dance classes and teaching a few piano lessons. I spent a lot of time just wandering around exploring the city with a book of poetry in my pocket. 

 

When after two years, I finally stumbled upon an actual full time job teaching music at The San Francisco School, I still had no greater aspirations than having a good time with the kids and my fellow teachers. It wasn’t until I discovered that I actually was a pretty good music teacher for both kids and adults wanting to learn the Orff approach that my ambitions rose a bit. I started teaching Orff workshops, eventually took the official Orff training, got hooked into a larger network and invited to present around the country and some 15 years later, around the world. My appetite for it all grew and my ambition enlarged and though I didn’t exactly feel driven in an obsessive kind of way, I certainly was determined to drive that car into places where it often didn’t go— jazz centers, cultures worldwide, books published, documentary film made and beyond. 


The root of ambition is “ambit”— the circuit, circumference and edge of a place, but also our capabilities. Walking the ambit is measuring one’s own size, finding the borders of our personal powers— and then sometimes stepping out of them into new territory. “Ambire” in ancient Rome meant the politician going around soliciting votes. Both definitions ring true for me. Mostly, I am so deeply happy wherever and whenever I do this work, grateful just to be in the moment of music-making with whoever is in the room. At the same time, I’m always letting the people know about the opportunities for more— here are my books, check out my film, watch my Ted talk and consider the Orff Levels training in California or Jazz Orff Course in New Orleans this summer. At 72 years old, I not only haven’t given up ambition— both in the sense of measuring my place in this work and enticing people to support my efforts to do more— but sometimes feel its insatiable appetite growing even stronger as I near the end of my ability to do it. Unlike my daughter, who began ambitious and now is talking herself down from the ledge, my life has been the opposite, moving from “whatever” to “more!!”


In the end, I think we both will—or have— arrived at the same place. We both still crave success, but both agree that it needs a new definition. Or rather an old one, as so eloquently defined by Emerson over 150 years ago:

 

“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others, to leave the world a little better, whether it be a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition, to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived here. This is to have succeeded.”


Amen to that. 

 

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

The Path to Our Better Selves

As noted in the last post, kids today are a mess. That is, all the kids except the ones that I get to work with. Because after two weeks of work with kids in Taiwan, two days in Macau, guest classes in San Francisco and Clarksville, Tennesee and soon, Toronto, Canada, I can testify to surprising news: Kids are doing great!! And I’m including 8th graders here!!! They’re all absolutely fabulous and I love them!

 

Really? Given everything I said yesterday, how can this be? 

 

Back in early February, I told the surprising story of the boy who, after a single class with me, rushed off to his locker and came back to give me a valuable Pokemon “Special Energy” card to thank me. It is my beloved “Honorary Doctorate” testimony that I value much more than any PhD degree. I’m considering putting my own initials after my name— "Doug Goodkin SEPC" to advertise that I have earned the Special Energy Pokemon Card degree bequeathed to me by that most important of people— a child. 

 

As much as I treasure it, it’s not something to frame in my office (don’t have one and never have— my “office” all those years at The SF School was the top of the piano). It’s something I now carry with me in my wallet to remind me that I must earn it anew in each class with children. Which is precisely what seems to be happening. 

 

For a few days ago, when doing a 90-minute guest class with a combination of choir and band 8th graders at Richview Middle School in Clarksville, leading them through a children’s game called Lemonade, Crunchy Ice, there was not a single moment when they weren’t happily engaged. I began in a circle with the 30 plus kids and without a word, began to teach a tricky body percussion pattern that led to a children’s clapping game with partners —“Lemonade clap-clap-clap, Crunchy Ice clap-clap-clap…” Once they learned the whole game, they then performed the body percussion pattern four times while moving freely through the space. At the end, whoever was closest was a new partner.

 

There was one moment when I saw a big boy bumping into others as they moved around. I stopped momentarily and commented, “Well, I’m not going to mention any names, both because I don’t know them and I want to give someone a chance to do better without shaming him or her in front of the group. But I did notice someone not doing the body percussion and bumping into others and that’s not happy for anyone. So let’s see if this will change." And it did. 

 

I also noticed that boys always chose boys and girls always chose girls. Surprise, surprise! So I said, “This time, the new rule is that a boy must choose a girl for a partner and a girl must chose a boy and if you’re non-binary, choose anyone.” And they did. Later, I found out that band and choir kids who often didn’t talk to each other also found themselves being partners and boom!—another victory!

 

Finally, we played the game as a staring contest. At the end, on “1-2-3-Freeze!” they had to take a shape and look their partner in the eye. The first one to move was “out” and then both sat down. When there were eight or so partner-couples left, the others could get up and without touching anyone, see if they could make them laugh. On it went until there was the winning couple. Fun!

 

Then those “winning couples” went to the instruments to figure out how to play the simple melody we had been singing. They did while the others played their “air xylophones” and when they were ready, the orchestra played while the others played the game again, this time with more space on the stage to play it better. After several times through, we switched groups. 

In both instrumental groups, I asked for volunteers to improvise with the four notes of the song and there was the chance to hear how they're thinking musically and to reveal a bit of their own way of hearing and feeling the music. 

 

At the end, with a half-hour left, they sat down and I had them read the projected lyrics of the song  “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free.” I asked them to raise their hand if they found any of them meaningful. Over half did and I commented, “Art never preaches to you and says ‘You must believe or appreciate this!’ It simply offers something for you to consider. Personally, I hope you agree with lyrics like 'I wish I could give all I’m longing to give, I wish I could live all I’m longing to live' because I happen to believe we all deserve that. That it's not okay when some people or a group of people tries to block us because of who they think we are before they even know us or what freedom they think we deserve because someone once told them only they deserved those freedoms. All the song is asking is for you to think about it. It’s your choice. But poetic words like this mean even more when they’re married to music. Let’s listen to someone named Nina Simone sing this song (here I showed a Youtube video) and then sing it ourselves.”

 

And that’s exactly what we did. They were with me every step of the way. And when I read to them from my Jazz, Joy & Justice  book about the struggles Nina Simone had, they listened with the full measure of their attention. They heard of her courage when she was about to give a concert at the age of 12 and the concert producers made her parents sit in the back row because they (and Nina) were black. How she refused to perform unless they were moved to the front row. And they were. 

 

In today’s topsy-turvy world, I would have to be very brave to teach the above in Tennessee knowing I could be fired for telling the truth. But what could they do to me? Deport me? So be it. Meanwhile, I gave those kids a glimpse of something that might be memorable for a long time to come. Both the grand fun of the Lemonade game, the soulful singing of Nina Simone, the story about the struggle for justice and work to end racism. 

 

At the end of class, I stood at the door to give each child a farewell fist bump and one boy chose instead to shake my hand and look me in the eye and say with a sincerity most teachers don’t believe they have, “Thank you. That was really something.” From then on, it was handshakes all the way down the line.

 

So my friends, 8th graders are not universally “a mess.” If you give them something worthy of their time and attention, show them you believe in their possibility and musicality and social grace and caring, lo and behold, they rise to the occasion and prove it’s true. I’m not naïve— not necessarily everyone and not necessarily in the first class and kudos to these kids’ music teachers who already established that sense of respect and decorum. But in my experience, if you’ve done the work to know how to teach well and have the courage to speak the truth and believe in their better selves and understand how to draw it out, they will fulfill your predictions. And a few will rush to their lockers to bring you a treasured Pokemon card to let you know how much they needed what you gave.

 

PS Yesterday, I went back to the school where I mentored a music teacher and worked some with his kids for two years. This was the first time in about a year that I returned and while locking my bike, I thought I heard this group chanting “Doug! Doug! Doug!” I turned around and there at the school’s entrance were some 20 boys waiting to go out who had recognized me and began chanting. They opened the door for me and one went down on his knees bowing to me. 8th grade BOYS, people! I thanked them for the warm welcome and as I walked on to the guest class I was going to teach, wondered if I should have filmed them to keep as a reminder in the dark days that I once had the power to affect kids like this. Not because I’m anyone special, but simply because I cared about them and knew how to help them care about themselves, about others, about the power of music and dance. 

 

So, my friend, this SEPC music teacher wants to report that kids are both in trouble and a reason for a hopeful future. May we all give them precisely what they deeply need and richly deserve. May we all walk together on the path to our better selves. 


PSS And let me be clear. The openness the kids in all these schools had to what I offered was possible because of the existing school culture and all their teachers who genuinely care about them and are walking their own path together with them to their better selves. In my experience, the teachers are also doing so much better than most are given credit for— at least the ones that I meet. So it's not about me, it's about the principles of how I organize class and think about kids that are shared by so many teachers nationwide. Just to be clear.