Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Onward to February!

Another “thinking on my feet” class with 5-year-olds and beanbags and yet another deciding the form of the four pieces with the jazz band. Then the good sense to walk along the canal in the warm air and end up in a park, where I took out my little notebook and wrote this:


Here's the January summer I had hoped for. Seated in shorts and Tivas on a park bench in Taipei with a twisted banyan tree in front of me. A couple plays badminton, some kids jump on a trampoline embedded in the grass, a man pushes a woman in a wheelchair. The sun has set, the air is warm and I feel mosquitoes on my bare legs. 


As much as I love the master music teacher I have become (and today’s thinking-on-my-feet classes certainly qualify me for that adjective without undue pride), still I love and need this other fellow who wanders aimlessly in strange cities. Observes the flow of the water in the canal, listens to the distant barking dog, savors the daily ice cream cone he treats himself to (today is toasted coconut). This true man of no titles happily alone and thus joined with all things. Over 6,000 miles from home and yet home right here, right now. 


The trees in this park care nothing for the turn of calendar pages, but we time-driven humans are aware that tomorrow is February. A month of significant birthdays—my wife’s, my old friend Ralf’s, my colleagues Sofia and James—and James’ 60th!! (This young man who I met when he was 24 suddenly connected to this large number. How can it be?!) February is also the return of the plum blossoms in San Francisco and the first buds on the crab apples and cherries. 


I’ll start the month with a bang, as tomorrow is the rehearsal for the big show with 5th grade and the jazz band, a book signing of my Jazz, Joy & Justice book and the showing of my film to whichever parents and teachers are interested. Possibly followed by me going to a jam session at a jazz club! I’ll move to another hotel on Friday night and teach another two-day course to the Taiwan Orff Association, then fly out Sunday night to Macao for three more days of teaching kids and adults. More to come when I return on the 8th, but you’ll read about it soon enough. 

Meanwhile, deep gratitude for my return to fully-functioning health, my undiminished joy in teaching and my occasional good sense to roam about in parks where no one knows who I am—including me. Happy February to all and do make good use of the extra day!


Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Thinking on Your Feet

Putting a hundred 5th graders who I’ve never met on stage with a high school jazz band I’ve never met to perform four jazz pieces I’ve arranged, all with two 45-minute classes to teach each from scratch and with one half-hour combined jazz band/rehearsal on stage before Friday’s performance, could be a sure recipe for disaster. Or at least great deal of stress and anxiety. The truth? I love it! And I’m totally relaxed. 


I was concerned that while one 5th grade group was playing my Cookie Jar arrangement on Orff instruments, I really didn’t have a clear plan for the other 20-kid 5th grade group. Yet. But a clearly defined problem is a springboard for the creative faculties to kick into gear. 

Today for the second class with both groups, they were combined. I had one little body percussion idea for the “what to do?” group and we started there. By the end, we had three sub-groups do a different pattern, create a little dance, sing a new part of the song, choreograph the three lines switching places and end with a dramatic revelation that it was Lucas that indeed stole the cookies from the cookie jar. All of this happened in about 35 minutes with the entire group of 40 kids and the instrumentalists also learning a quick new riff. Talk about thinking on your feet!


Not boasting here–well, maybe a little. But more to acknowledge the way I like to work, in the heat of the moment, with ideas emerging in the midst of experimentation. By the end, the kids also had the wheels turning and several came up and suggested, “I have an idea! How about if we…?”


Now I’m about to come into a group playing Dvorak’s Going Home and try to figure out how to add some improvisation ideas. Which I’ve never done and forgot that I was supposed to do this (it was suggested to me yesterday afternoon). But if we have faith in music’s ability to reveal itself, anything can happen.


I’ll let you know.  

PS Just did it. It went great. 

Monday, January 29, 2024

A Bow in Every Hand

Taipei American School continues to impress with its commitment to the arts. The sheer number of kids enrolled in its extraordinary depth of arts offering— Orff Schulwerk, strings, band, choir, dance, drama, visual arts— is education as it should be, but so rarely is. 


Yesterday I attended the first of three strings concerts, today I will lead folk dancing with 120 kids who volunteered to dance with their parents (!). On Thursday, they’re holding a book signing for my Jazz, Joy & Justice book and then show my movie The Secret Song. On Friday, the nine 5th grade groups and high school jazz band I’ve worked with (over 200 kids!) will mount the stage to perform four jazz pieces I’ve arranged. All of this from a school that is not an arts school, but has simply folded it in alongside the usual math and language and history and athletics because they recognize its central role in cultivating whole human beings.


It was watching the 40 or so cello players on stage when it struck me that a child—or adult— with a bow in their hand can’t harm other people or other living things. Oh, I suppose they could use the bow to poke someone or swat an annoying dog or hold hateful thoughts about others while playing Bach, but really, why would they? The act of drawing the bow across the strings to evoke beautiful sounds in company with others, that delicious sense of being one part of a larger glorious sound, of organizing the chaos of the world with a structured composition, of sharing it with a listening audience refreshed by their disciplined efforts, is a profound act of healing. 


Now I’m not na├»ve enough to claim the music solves the world’s maddening injustices and deep suffering, but at least while that bow is in their hands, it mostly does. So the thought struck that if the NRA wants to do better and still make money, they could stop manufacturing guns and go into the cello bow business. That every time a person feels anger that overtakes them and wants to hurt others, that they immediately be equipped with a cello and a bow. That if schools are to continue foisting so much stress and anxiety on innocent children with the same old tired grading and shaming and blaming, they could at least alleviate some of it with mandatory cello bows in hand for at least an hour or so each day. 


Of course, it could be a violin bow or a drumstick or a paintbrush or a pen that writes poetry or a scarf to dance with or, of course, two xylophone mallets. A basketball would be fifty times better than a weapon or a keyboard that leads to Tik-tok and social media flaming (and indeed. that basketball seems to be a powerful tool for my 12-year-old granddaughter reclaiming her sense of power and contribution), but I still believe that the arts carry that something extra that evokes beauty and nuanced emotion and a teamwork not trying to beat another team. 


Schools, are you listening?  

The Mouths of Babes

As mentioned earlier, I often begin class spontaneously with whatever occurs to me, knowing it will lead to something I actually have planned. So today when the 1st graders walked in, I sang a spontaneous blues:


“Well, the sun finally came out, so I bought myself a lemonade (2x)

Then I had to come inside ‘cause it’s time to teach first grade.


It was so hot out, I decided to add some ice (2x)

Then got myself some lunch, a salad and brown rice.


The salad bar had some fresh ripe red tomatoes (2x)

I put ‘em on the greens and then got me some potatoes."


And that was the segue into the planned game, One Potato. Off we went and some 30 minutes later ,had learned all three sections of my version, with its many variations. The kids sat down at the end and we had a few minutes for questions. 


“Where are you from?”


“San Francisco.”


“How old are you?”




“How did you get so old?”


“I was born and some time went by and then I was one and some more time went by and then I was two. And it kept going for 70 more years.”


“Do you like being old?”


“Actually, I like a lot about it! But what I mostly like is that if I wasn’t this old, it means I’d be dead.”


“ But then you’d be in heaven.”


“ Well, maybe yes or maybe no. But I can tell you that I don’t have to wait to find out. When I’m playing and singing with kids like you, I’m already in heaven. Any more questions?”


One girl’s hand was straining to the sky, so anxious to ask me one more thing. When I called on her, she asked:


“Did they have pencil sharpeners when you were a kid?”


Kids. You gotta love 'em.  

Sunday, January 28, 2024


Wherever I am, when a group of children walks into a school classroom, I’m so happy to see them. I never know exactly what I’m going to say to them first, but it often is casual, friendly, even silly. Things like: 


• “Are you the extraordinary 2nd graders I read about in the newspaper?”


• “I heard you’re some of the best musicians on the planet. Is that true? Okay, well, today you get to show me.”


• Hello you lovely people! Would you be so kind as to sit right where you are and then show me on your fingers what grade you’re in. Now show me how old you are. On a scale of one to ten, with ten the highest, how happy are you today? Show me with your fingers.”


Things like that grab their attention so much more effectively than, “Today our learning objective is blah, blah, blah, blah blah…”  Another strategy I often use is simply to begin clapping a pattern or singing a song. “Here’s the refreshing waters of music— shall we dive right in?” Indeed, I rarely introduce myself or tell them my name, so if I’m a visiting teacher at a school and ask at the end of class if they have any questions, I sometimes get this one:


“Who are you?!!”


Today—and for the first time— I asked those questions above that they answered by showing me the numbers on their fingers. When some showed me 4 or 6 or 8 when it came to their happiness quotient, I did tell them the class objective: 


“I hope that by the end of class, you’ll all be tens!”


On these third graders went to do one of my favorite classes—Stations. (See my Intery Mintery book if you’re curious). It was as fabulous as it always is and at the end when I asked them to show me how happy they were now, it was 10’s across the board. While the number assessors would have been looking for clear understanding of the stated objectives and measurable mastery of the activity, the kids’ spread fingers said it all.


It was a GREAT class!!

My Dutch Wife

When I first traveled to Indonesia a lifetime ago in 1979, I noticed that the beds all had a long body-length oblong pillow. I asked someone why, they told me they were called “Dutch wives.” The idea was that by hugging it, it somehow kept you cooler in the hot Indonesian nights. 


While it was England, Spain, France and Portugal that did the lion’s share of horrific colonization in the glamorized “Age of Exploration,” the Netherlands joined in and invaded Indonesia, particularly in Java. They were every bit as brutal as their other West European counterparts, enslaving people to increase the spice trade that motivated them in the first place (always “follow the money”). But unlike the British in Ghana, for example, there are very few traces of the Dutch presence in modern-day Java save a few colonial buildings. Very few speak Dutch, there are few (or no) Dutch schools that I’m aware of and though there are many Indonesian restaurants in Amsterdam, there are few (or no) Dutch restaurants in Jakarta. Perhaps their most last legacy was the Dutch wives pillows.


At any rate, I have one on my bed here in Taiwan and though it’s far from hot here, I can report my sleep has been better hugging my fluffy surrogate wife. Certainly not an ounce of sexual energy here, just the grand pleasure of embracing something soft and cozy with no expectations of small talk or long-term commitment. 


Sometimes all it takes for happiness is hugging a pillow. 


Saturday, January 27, 2024

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

The thing I remember best about successful people I've met all through the years is their obvious delight in what they're doing, and it seems to have very little to do with worldly success. They just love what they're doing, and they love it in front of others.”  – Fred Rogers


Read this this morning in my “Inspiring Quotes” e-mails and it well describes my joyful day yesterday working with some 25 International School teachers. Teaching a 6-hour Saturday workshop (and 2 hours on Friday night) after five days of working with kids doesn’t sound from the outside like a good plan, but Mr. Rogers got it right. I love what I do and I love doing it in front of (and side-by-side with) others. 

So at the end of the day, I was yet more energized and happy than I was at the beginning. My worldly success is modest, but just right to allow me do keep doing more of it. Some part of me has waited my whole life for my ship to come in and imagined it as a big luxury cruiser. But it’s time to accept that it’s a kayak or canoe or rowboat and that this not only is enough, but probably preferable. Intimate, slow, keeping me exercised as I paddle myself and allowing me sometimes to just drift and put my hands in the cool, refreshing water.


Now it’s Sunday and I have an unexpected day all to myself. (I actually thought my weekend workshop was going to be two days, so a nice surprise!). Time to get out into the Taipei neighborhood and wander aimlessly as I love to do. Besides one walk up and down 3,000 stairs and another ramble along a canal path, my cultural immersion in Taipei has been limited to a three block walk to and from the school, where I’m doing work in English that I could be doing anywhere. 


If any armchair traveler was hoping for some vicarious refreshment being in another place through my descriptions, I understand your disappointment. I can extoll an amazing health care system that gave me an appointment with no wait, diagnosed my Meniere’s syndrome attack, gave me medicine and the whole package (medicine included) costs about $33.00! (And seems to have worked, as I finally feel wholly myself—no jet lag, no dizziness or lightheadedness, no back pain. Such a relief!) The workshop folks and I had a wonderful dinner Lazy Susan style with excellent Chinese dishes circulating around. I’m on my own for dinner each night and have tried a few Taiwanese restaurants, but also confess that I’ve gone twice to a Middle Eastern restaurant with falafel, tabouli, Greek salad, chicken shwarma and more. There is a Starbucks one block away, but I have not entered its doors. I’m finding myself missing IPA beer. 


The city itself isn’t aesthetically pleasing by my standards, doesn’t lift me up with well-laid out streets and intriguing neighborhoods, lovely parks and beautiful buildings and storefronts. Everything feels a bit helter-skelter, at least where I am. However, it is impeccably clean and haven’t seen a single homeless person—pay attention, San Francisco! I’m surprised how many signs are only in Chinese without English translations. And as mentioned, the weather has been unseasonably cold and overcast and rainy. Literally have not seen the sun in my eight days here, though I’ve heard promises that it’s on its way. Today I hope to be a full-blooded tourist and take the Metro to the Chiang Kai-shek center. 


Whether or not the sun decides to make an appearance, this happy traveler agrees with Mr. Rogers— it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood. 


Friday, January 26, 2024

Conclusion: Epilogue

CONCLUSION: A final story to consider how this all can come together to bring us home. In 2015, my colleagues James, Sofia and I brought a large group of The San Francisco School Middle School students to the Orff National Conference in San Diego to perform in front of a thousand-plus music teachers. With a theme of music and dance of the Latin diaspora, they performed both independently and with vibrant adult Orff teachers and musicians—Jackie Rago from Venezuela, Estevao Marquez from Brazil, Sandra Salcedo from Colombia, SK Kakraba Lobi from Ghana, my Pentatonics Jazz Band members Joshi Marshall, Sam Heminger and Micah McClain. 


Miki Walsh, a former student of mine from The SF School who I taught back in the 1980’s, happened to come to the concert. I hadn’t seen her in some 30 years. A few weeks after the concert, I received this eloquent letter where she touches on virtually all the bases covered in this book— the healing power of jazz, the “complete control” lying-down meditations I often ended class with, the humor, freedom and purpose those classes offered her as a child that echoed into her adulthood, her testimony to the discipline that allowed the current SF School performers to play so expertly and at the end of it all, that sense of coming home after a long-suffering exile. Her words affirm that what I could only dream of when I began walking these three pathless paths was now simple fact. They work.


Doug, I write to you from Mexico under a sky the color of faded bedsheets.  At some point the stars will come out shivering, and the waning moon in all of her steadiness, will rise. I will be sitting here, watching the fire I built in my chimenea, listening to music: Herbie Mann, At the Village Gate, playing "Comin' Home Baby.' It's a piece I can listen to over and over again, and never quite in the same way, which I guess - just like with a good poem - is one of the most beautiful things about music. 


You know, for some time - maybe years - I have been wanting to write you. In part, to share moments where I've been so deeply moved by a piece of music...those moments like when I heard Beethoven's violin concertos for the first time in an old bookstore, and had to sit down because it was too much for me...or when I first heard Ben Webster and the visceral, almost choking moan of the sax...or how driving home one night and hearing a stream of Stefan Grappelli on the radio I realized he must have died - and so I stayed up into the early morning, drinking tea, listening to that violin across the airwaves playing tribute, and to Django with his distorted hand moving sound. 


Doug, I want to thank you. I want to thank you for body music, for having to be barefoot, for the wooden floors of the music room, for samba, for the surprise I felt first listening to the bellow of the conga, for song...for songs that Jasmine and I, when I see her, still sing together. I want to thank you for that moment at the end of music class of "complete control," where we lay on our backs, eyes closed, chests pulsing from the heat of dance, catching our breaths. I want to thank you for that anticipated moment of release to recess, figured in the touch of a toe. As this year ends, the most devastating year of my life, I play "Comin' Home Baby" for a few reasons. I play it for the slow build...not so dissimilar from another of my favorites, but my Charles Mingus - Better Git it in Your Soul. I play it for the throb of bass, for the playfulness of the flute.


 But I also play it to remember my father, who died a few years ago, and who deepened my appreciation of music to the extent that when he adopted me I didn't take his last name, but added one to my own - Django. I play this piece for my mom, who came to visit me in California this May to celebrate my birthday. She had moved to Mexico, which is where her family is from. I remember her asking me where I considered home...Mexico? San Francisco? Iowa? I've lived so many places, in different countries in between. I remember telling her that I didn't know....that I guess it was where she is. Home, not being fixed to place. During her visit, my mom died. And for a moment there, I had no notion anymore of home... 


I write to you tonight, Doug, to share this. When I heard students from the SF school in San Diego playing songs that I once played, I felt a wonderful curiosity, joy, rhythm, and a deep connection transmitted through sound, and energy, and love. It was for me, an utterly poignant moment of reconnection to a past self, to a present and future self. It was  a re/connection that transcended space, and place, and time in this exquisitely beautiful moment, where I felt like I was coming home. Where I felt - if only for a moment - that I was home. 


May it be so for all of us, each and every one.

Community: Epilogue

ORALITY: Orality seems an odd attribute to heal the world’s woes, yet has a part to play. Restoring elders as potential founts of wisdom, for starters. An odd idea in an electronic culture that discards and disdains them and creates “olders” rather than elders, those who simply grow old without a lifetime of the kind of reflection that actual leads to wisdom. Yet those who have done the work of carrying poetry and music and meditative practice in their very bodies and voices, who have lived and considered their lives simultaneously, who have seen the patterns of culture and history rise and fall and circle back around again, indeed have something invaluable to teach us. When the occasion calls for it, they speak the words that need to be spoken without consulting Google, they see the things that can only be seen with long experience, they offer a sagacious counsel that mere peers can’t access. 


In my own field of Orff Schulwerk, I am blessed (though every day feeling closer to the edge) with a vibrant healthy 72-year-old body that can still do some sizzling body percussion and teach the Lindy Hop. Yet the true power of my workshops is the stories I tell from almost a half-century of teaching, stories that hit the precise point needed to be made after this or that activity, often infused with poetry or mythological references or psychological/sociological/ cultural references. No young teacher I’ve encountered, no matter how talented, seems to be able to offer the same. 


We need such elders in every field of endeavor and we need to grant them the audience they deserve. Even if, at the end of the day, when we look to them to solve our seemingly unsolvable problems, they quote Robert Frost: 


In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: It goes on.


Sometimes we need that simple but profound reminder as we wake up to the next day.


DEMOCRACY: The happier future—and present—I’m trying to imagine here carries both a collective assurance of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and an individual responsibility to use given freedoms for our common life, our promised freedoms and the happiness of all sentient beings. A tall order of the kind that elevates us to our higher possibilities. As noted, Zen, Jazz and Orff all offer democratic ideals and practices workable in small groups but are not transferrable to larger systems of government. Yet once we experience the best these democratic principles have to offer, we have the possibility of defending them, extending them, sustaining them.


It is a matter of grave concern that dictatorships still exist on the planet. The old monarchies and the ongoing dictatorships reduce human beings to obedient goose-stepping foot soldiers granting excessive wealth and power to a few often mentally-deranged individuals. This is not who we were born to be.


Equally grave is the number of democracies where citizens refuse or abuse their duty to be informed, to discuss issues over personalities, to insist on truth over boldface lies, to hold high-ranking politicians to the same standard of law and order as the rest of us. Democracy alone doesn’t make us free in the deeper spiritual sense explored in Chapter 2 but goes a long way to creating the conditions that permit us to pursue our own liberation. Without some voice in the issues that affect us all, we feel unseen, unheard, unvalued. Who would consciously choose to live in that kind of world? 


And so functional, inclusive and working forms of democracy are necessarily part of the blueprint for a happier future. If anyone needs a reminder of why this is important, observe how Zen Centers organize their collective life, watch how the jazz band works together on the stage, notice how the Orff teacher includes the voice of the children in both aesthetic and procedural decisions. 


SERVICE: Service is another facet of the jewel of living more for the happiness of all than one’s own selfish satisfaction. In my own upbringing as an American male, it feels like a quality no one prepared me for, starting in its simplest form of being a good host offering snacks or coffee or wine or fresh towels to guests. I have been served so graciously in so many homes around the world, but still feel awkward and uncomfortable wondering if I’m doing the right thing when I’m the host. Likewise as a guest, it simply is not my default setting to ask “How can I be of help?” or better yet, simply jump up and clear the plates and start washing the dishes without asking. As noted, I’m quite comfortable playing piano for others or offering workshops and absolutely love to give San Francisco tours to any out-of- town guests, so all is not lost. Yet still it persists in our culture at large, so that if I ask my grandchildren “Were you useful today?” they look at me a bit cross-eyed. 


If we can re-align culture to value service and train ourselves accordingly, from the simple acts of hospitality to the greater dedication to be of use to all of humanity, we will have taken the first steps toward a kinder world. To learn how to be good hosts and gracious guests.  To telescope that out further to the realization that we are all just temporal guests on this beautiful fragile planet. 


PATH WITH NO END: Finally, the spiritual teacher Ram Das once said “At the end of the day, we are all walking each other home” and I would add “on a path with no end.” Home is not at the end of the rainbow, but in each step taken consciously, with attention, care and love.


And isn’t that the beginning and end of this whole venture? To return from our self-imposed exile from that sure sense of home, a home that is a constantly shifting location unfindable by any GPS, but instantly recognizable when we find ourselves graced to arrive there. Though I chose the title “Blueprint for a Happier Future,” it is only a half-true metaphor. “Blueprint” is defined as an architectural plan to build your home, but your true home eludes your carefully laid plan. It is helpful to have an intentional design and the 12 qualities above offer an exquisite blueprint for your secret and sacred desires. But following the steps above like lists guaranteed to get you from here to there will not work. All we can hope for is that they lead you to the place where you finally let go of the plan and open yourself to grace. 

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Universal Truth: Epilogue

EXPERIENCE: Our hunger to be part of something larger than ourselves and our equal hunger for social belonging lead us through the doors of the church, temple, mosque or synagogue. It turns out that all of them can be dangerous places to be. Religion, a word derived from the Latin religare, “to bind,” can mean to join together like binding separate sheaves of wheat that will be ground into flour to make a spiritual bread that nourishes our deep soul hunger. Yet far too often it binds us to a dogma or ideology that sets us against each other, that yokes us to deeply flawed human beings who trample our spirit and insist on blind obedience that leads to endless war and strife. It seems our species’ grand tragic flaw that the very urges that began as ways to ennoble and enlarge us make us small, mean and cruel. Just open any history book or newspaper. 


“Religion—together we can find a cure” says the whimsical T-Shirt I once saw and it’s no exaggeration to say that each of the world’s major religions has a cancerous history that needs curing. Yet each also has experiential sects that live closer to the founder’s original epiphanies— the Islamic Sufis, the Jewish Kabbalists, the Hindu Yogis, the Christian mystics and the Buddhist Zen Buddhists. The seeds for genuine spiritual awakening are all there, awaiting only our tender care and watering.


Zen, Jazz and Orff all serve as models and reminders to refuse blind belief, to greet second-hand knowledge with a healthy distrust, to dedicate oneself to first-hand experience of the sublime, be it through spiritual awakening, wisdom or artistic expression. Having reached some solid ground of what feels unquestionably authentic and true, then to share it. Not as missionaries demanding conversion, but as fellow seekers helping each other find our own solid truths. 


Less harmful, but still too narrow, is an education, music and otherwise, that asks us only to replicate previous information and shuts down our urge to discover and express things in our own way, our own voice. When we learn to deepen our direct experience, to trust it, nourish it, cultivate it, shape it, we become less vulnerable to the manipulations of those who wish us and the world harm. We refuse to pass on the inherited toxins from our culture’s ignorances. That is how healing can begin.  

TRANSMISSION: Just as discipline can serve as a thread to connect the days and help us feel part of something meaningful, so does the sense of lineage help us understand that we are connected with something larger than ourselves. We stand at the threshold between the ancestors and the descendants, carrying through the best of human achievement from the past and bringing it forward into the future. We become a link in a grand chain of transmission. As such, it’s our responsibility to consider how to forge something durable as we educate the next generation. 


This sense of belonging gives a meaning and weight to the present moment that is far more vibrant then simply being in that moment only. We become like a living pond fed by the fresh flowing spring of the past and feeding out to the river that flows to the ocean. Without that movement, we become muddied and stagnant and swamp-like. 


Since healing must begin inside of us, such experiences help contribute to a life lived with meaning that can then imagine and celebrate all lives lived with meaning. It can help us resolve to nurture and protect. 


HUMOR: Hope and fear are impossible roommates. So when George R.R. Martin notes that “Laughter is poison to fear.”, he’s suggesting a tried-and-true method for evicting the undesirable one. Humor can be the release valve for all the understandable stress and anxiety we feel about the state of the world, a stress and anxiety that blocks us from any possibility of offering true medicine to an ailing world. 


Yet sometimes humor can be cruel and divisive, laughing at someone or at their expense. A fun release for the laugher, but no fun for the laughed-at. The kind of humor that we find in spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu (well-chronicled in Joy,  the movie about their friendship), in the infectious delight of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, in the bubbling laughter of five-year-olds in a playful Orff class, is, in the words of Anne Lammott, “carbonated holiness.”


It’s not about making jokes at someone’s expense. It’s more the overflow of an authentical joyful heart able to find the comic element inside of the tragic, the playful inside of the serious, the mischievous inside of moral rectitude. We need humor by our side as we take on the serious work of creating a sustainable planet


ORALITY: Orality seems an odd attribute to heal the world’s woes, yet has a part to play. Restoring elders as potential founts of wisdom, for starters. An odd idea in an electronic culture that discards and disdains them and creates “olders” rather than elders, those who simply grow old without a lifetime of the kind of reflection that actual leads to wisdom. Yet those who have done the work of carrying poetry and music and meditative practice in their very bodies and voices, who have lived and considered their lives simultaneously, who have seen the patterns of culture and history rise and fall and circle back around again, indeed have something invaluable to teach us. When the occasion calls for it, they speak the words that need to be spoken without consulting Google, they see the things that can only be seen with long experience, they offer a sagacious counsel that mere peers can’t access. 


In my own field of Orff Schulwerk, I am blessed (though every day feeling closer to the edge) with a vibrant healthy 72-year-old body that can still do some sizzling body percussion and teach the Lindy Hop. Yet the true power of my workshops is the stories I tell from almost a half-century of teaching, stories that hit the precise point needed to be made after this or that activity, often infused with poetry or mythological references or psychological/sociological/ cultural references. No young teacher I’ve encountered, no matter how talented, seems to be able to offer the same. 


We need such elders in every field of endeavor and we need to grant them the audience they deserve. Even if, at the end of the day, when we look to them to solve our seemingly unsolvable problems, they quote Robert Frost: 


In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: It goes on.

Sometimes we need that simple but profound reminder as we wake up to the next day.


Individual Liberation: Epilogue

 SUFFERING: We will all lose what we love. Our family, friends, our very lives. Our shared experience of this suffering invites us to put aside our self-created conflicts with “the other” and join together in recognition of our common sorrow.. When we become large enough to hold our suffering, expressive enough to sing it out, compassionate enough to help children, we come closer to the sense of shared humanity that gives hope for a future worthy of our better selves. 


FREEDOM: Despite all the back-pedaling, the arc of the universe indeed seems to bend toward that most profound of human longings—freedom. Though there’s constant negotiation at the political bargaining table and those with power and privilege seem to have the loudest voices, the people’s deep hunger and thirst for the freedom to define themselves, to be themselves, to live the lives they were born to live, will be satiated, one way or another. 


Yet the outer freedoms don’t automatically grant us the more difficult inner freedoms. These only come through our own deliberate and tireless efforts to unshackle ourselves from our own narrow notions and crippling habits, to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of our own egos, to move beyond our limited identities into the larger world of expanded consciousness, unified with all sentient beings. Zen, Jazz and Orff, each in their own style, offer some of the available tools that help dismantle the machinery of our confinement. 


DISCIPLINE: There are few finer feelings than the sense of progress made by our own efforts doing something we care aboutIt gives us the exhilarating sense of being in charge of our own accomplishments. No longer a piece of flotsam being battered about by chance experience, we take charge of our own growth, our own life. The very word for various fields of endeavor, including our by-now familiar family of three, is a discipline. It should be no surprise that to master a discipline requires discipline. In addition to the welcome feeling of self-empowerment, engaging in an ongoing discipline provides a connecting thread between the days. Whether we look forward to it or dread it ( Muhammed Ali confessed that I hated every minute of training but I said, 'Don't quit, suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.”  it bears fruit that we  eventually savor. Each day becomes an opportunity to both refresh oneself by doing what one loves and at the same time, to improve and to note one’s progress.


Music, athletics, meditation are all obvious examples of the need for focused and relentless practice, but the ideas and ideals can apply to all fields of study, including some that have no obvious program of technical exercises. I’m thinking of Thoreau’s quote, “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”


PURPOSE: Purpose is the glue that holds it altogether and as noted earlier, a purpose larger than one’s own personal profit, power, privilege or indeed, happiness, is the only one that counts. Outside of the Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala is a sign that says:


“All the happiness one finds in the world comes from wishing happiness for others. 

All the suffering one finds in the world comes from wishing happiness for oneself.  


So much of the pain and suffering in this world, the breaking of our spirit that requires our healing attention and intentions, comes from following a false purpose. The one obsessed with hoarding more than our fair share of wealth, of creating an identity based on a false sense of superiority, of listening only to the ego’s “I’m number one!” voice instead of our true nature’s “We are all one” voice.


So the Zen student takes the Bodhisattva vows to re-direct intention. The jazz musician puts in the long hours of practice to refresh the world with life-affirming music. The Orff teacher works far beyond the job description to make a daily vote for the future through loving work with children. Would that all walks of life create the vows that recalibrate the purpose of every profession to include the health and well-being of all people—and natural systems— everywhere.


Crossing Lanes: Epilogue

It has been a blessing to have had the opportunity to keep working on my new book. A constant thread that connects the days no matter where I am. And fruitful! I'm about to finish the second draft of the book about Zen, Jazz and Orff that explores their common ground and what they might offer to a “blueprint for a happier future” (a possible subtitle). I’m hoping to send it off soon to a potential publisher. Looking at their submission form, the hardest question is to name the category. Since the book takes place at the crossroads of various disciplines, it’s hard to pigeonhole it into one category. Not exactly Spirituality or Healing or Music or Education or Culture, but elements of all of these and more. 


At any rate, why not share a few excerpts here to test the waters. Not that this Blog is set up for comments and conversation (though anyone is welcome to send thoughts to me at, but just to put it out into the world and see if it might find its proper place. These next posts are from the last chapter, an Epilogue summarizing the main themes of the book. (The words in bold are actually chapter titles.) I’ll present them in reverse order (ie, the ending of the chapter will be in the most recent blog once I begin). Hopefully, they’ll accomplish what I hope in any of my writing— some affirmation, some challenge, some new perspective, some inspired writing. Again, feel free to let me know, but I won’t be waiting at the e-mail box. Just see if there’s anything here that “speaks to your condition.” Enjoy!


“Stay in your lane” seems to be the accepted wisdom for success in a career, the efficient running of an organization and safe driving on the freeway. I don’t consider myself a reckless driver, but I seem to have had trouble staying in one lane. Not only switching back and forth on the freeway but getting off it altogether and exploring all the intriguing back roads and side roads. This whole book is my slide show sharing the wonders of not only traveling diverse highways and byways but also noting the fascinating intersections where they cross and re-cross. But beyond a few hopefully interesting snapshots of life at the crossroads, how can any of this—or all of this— be of use?


For starters, though it’s clear that an increased interest in Zen, Jazz or Orff is not going to heal the world, each and all do have the power to transform an individual life. Each might prove to be the ideal partner you have secretly been longing to meet, but didn’t know it until suddenly you do. Your undeveloped spirituality or musicality or educational vision serendipitously now finds its voice and calls you into a lifetime transformational practice. Indeed, there is ample testimony from those engaged in these practices that they came to them as a voice calling unexpectedly like the trout in Yeat’s poem:


“When I had laid it on the floor and went to blow the fire aflame,

Something rustled on the floor and someone called me by my name.

It had become a glimmering girl, with apple blossoms in her hair,

Who called me by my name and ran, and faded through the brightening air…”


Perhaps a sentence in this book had your name in it and you’re inspired to follow the one who called you until you eventually “walk among long dappled grass” together. 


Yet as noted at the beginning, the greater hope here is to look at the qualities of practice these three disciplines share in common and consider how they resonate in your own life, your own field of interest. And then consider again how they might contribute to the greater common need to collectively heal a broken world. 


The Magic of Four

It was 1994 when I first came to Taiwan to teach for the Taiwanese Orff Society. This was also the year when I first met Stephen Abernathy, music teacher extraordinaire at the TAS, the Taipei American School. 30 years later, here I am again, thanks to Stephen’s third such invite.


Stephen figured out that the first time I came to TAS was 2004 and the next was 2014. And the next is now, in 2024. 1994, 2004, 2014, 2024—there’s clearly a pattern here. I told Stephen we should book now for 2034. 


It was funny and sobering at the same time. At 82 years old, could I still do body percussion and teach the Lindy Hop? Could I sit on the floor with kids? Would I even be here on the planet? Who knows? It does give a different slant to planning for the future. While I’m far from the moment when I wonder if I should buy green bananas, that endless road of the future suddenly isn’t as endless as it used to be. I can almost see the sign up ahead— “No Through Traffic.”


So be it. I think of Carl Jung’s quote:


“The life that I could still live, I should live, and the thoughts that I could still think, I should think.


Sage advice. I’d add, “The classes that I could still teach, the music that I could still make, the words that I could still write…” And so I’ll wake up tomorrow to kindergarten students, 5th graders, cello and violin players and some 25 International School Teachers coming for a two-day workshop awaiting my arrival. I believe we'll have a marvelous time. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Straight Talk—with a Song

Need I report that I had another marvelous day of classes with children? This really doesn’t count as news anymore— it’s the expected norm. But one class with 1st graders was particularly memorable. I started with a favorite little game I made up where I say something and they have to fill in the opposite and if I say four things in a row, they all have to rhyme. As in:


“I say high and you say low, I say stop and you say go,

I say yes and you say no, I say fast and you say slow.”


This can go on for some 10 or more groupings, mostly improvised. 


“I say square and you say round, I say lost and you say found,

I say sky and you say ground, I say sight and you say sound.”


I was preparing them for a song by Reggie and Kim Harris called One Little Step Toward Freedom. The title line is sung three times and concludes with “And we’re marching the rest of the way!” Then comes the next section and here’s where they rhymes come in handy: 


“Freedom all night and freedom all day. 

Freedom when you work and freedom when you play.

Freedom all day and freedom all night.

Freedom if you’re black and freedom if you’re white.”


To make the song come fully alive, they have to take two strong shapes as they sing “Free-dom!” and then act out the rhymed opposites above in movement. But besides the musical, kinisthetic and linguistic skills, I always want to give a greater context to the song. So I talked to them a bit about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. How he tried to talk to the leaders to remind them to give all people the rights that the Consitution promised, but the leaders wouldn’t listen. So he had to gather people out in the streets to protest against this unfair treatment by walking peacefully and holding signs and singing songs. How one day, the children decided to leave school to join the protests and were harassed and hurt by the police, the very people who were paid to protect them. And then we returned to the song, standing up to sing it and dance it.


These first graders sang well and did the activity okay, but after about five minutes, their little 1st-grade minds were churning and burning with questions and they kept raising their hands. They were working me hard to come up with on-the-spot answers! (In italics)


“What happened to the kids? Did they lose the battle?”


Some did get hurt and some put in jail, but when the TV cameras showed the whole country what was happening, it helped change things. So in the long run, they kind of won the battle. But not all the way. We’re still having to fight for those rights!!


“ Did any of the police try to protect them?”


I might be wrong, but I don’t think a single one did. It would take a great courage to go against what all the other police were doing and even though they should have known it was wrong, they all grew up with terrible stories that told them it was all right to do what they did.”


“Did Martin Luther King become the President?”


I wish! He actually was going to run for President (true story! With Dr. Spock as his running mate) but something happened and he couldn’t. (I didn’t tell them what.)


“How come America always helps out people in other countries but doesn’t help the people in their own country?”


How old are you?!! That is such an amazing question! If you find out the answer, let me know!”


They were on fire with curiosity and indignation! If I had another class with them, I might have shown a few of these photos and if they were a bit older, shared this link from the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. (worth your time to check out “children’s crusade” at: )

In another class, I sang the song John Henry to 5-year-olds and they got so quiet, as they always do, when I sang the phrase “he laid down his hammer and he died.” I then told them how he won the contest against the machine trying to get his job. How he beat the boss who was trying to replace him with something that wouldn’t complain or take lunch breaks or question the boss’s decision and would make him more money. But in another way, John Henry also lost, because “he drove so hard that he broke his heart.” But then again, he also won because we are remembering him in this song and people who are remembered are kept alive. No one is singing a song honoring that stupid steam drill. 


One of the observing teachers noted that many schools had discouraged her from singing to the children about death and insisted on only happy, positive songs. Part of this false modern idea that children need to be protected from life’s harsh realities, be it a protest or Aunt Rhody’s goose dying. What they really need to be protected from, and what we fail so miserably at, is the NRA’s assault rifles, the hateful speech of ex-Presidents, the Wall Street moguls who purposefully addict them to fast food and sensational violent video games, the boldface lies of Presidential candidates who claim that “American never was a racist country.” All of that is okay, but God forbid they hear about John Henry or Aunt Rhody.


I think kids need to know about life’s joys and sorrows and of course, they already do and certainly will continue to do so. They don’t need to feel that discussing these things is some weird forbidden fruit. What they actually need is the sense the adults understand how to bear up under life’s travails and can give them some tools to do the same. They need to be gifted with the container of art to hold all their strong feelings, be they happy or sad. So that when their pet hamster dies, they know how to give it a ritual farewell with poetry, artwork, songs, and heartfelt speech. When politicians fail to uphold the promises of Democracy, the children need to know how to speak out against it and even take to the streets, armed with powerful protest songs. 


My two takeaways from today:


• Kids are so capable of a beautiful outrage.


• They’re so starved for some real talk. 


It’s time to tell them the truth. Gently and with force. And with a song at our side.