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!









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 na├»ve— 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.



Monday, March 25, 2024

The Sticky Ball of Blame

Ask any teacher. Kids today are a mess. They’re rude and disrespectful to adults, mean and bullying to peers and either too full of themselves or too self-deprecating. They have no resilience, think the world revolves around them and are surprised that they’re expected to actually work hard in school. They want every lesson tailored precisely to their learning style or else they’ll complain and get their teachers fired. They don’t have an iota of knowledge about anything but what’s current on Tik-tok, no sense of or interest in history, no curiosity about things of high culture like jazz, literature, art, poetry. And these are the “good kids.”


More alarming are the growing statistics of childhood drug addiction, sexual abuse, depression, violence and suicide. Truly an epidemic that mostly passes without comment in the daily news. The innocence we used to associate with childhood has been replaced by a grown-up-too-fast  ongoing collective trauma and it ain’t pretty. As I said, kids are a mess.


I believe the statistics and am aware of the general change in the tone of kid’s culture, but I never, ever blame the kids. They are reflecting back exactly what we have given them and that’s what ain’t pretty. At the extreme end, we adults have failed to protect our children from gun violence in schools, quietly allowed the video-game makers and fast-food-franchises and vaping industry and electronic device corporations and more to willfully and knowingly addict our children to things that we know are harmful to their physical, emotional, social and mental health. And then slap a label of dysfunction on them and treat it with yet more dangerous drugs. In short, it's not the kids' fault. That sticky ball of blame rests wholly in the hands of us adults.

We are raising children so that they don't feel responsible for their own behavior, have no concept of helping out in the family with chores and such, believe that the world owes them everything without effort. We are short-circuiting the boredom that leads to creative breakthroughs by plugging them mindlessly into their personal devices so we adults get some rest and desperate to be their friend, are affirming that everything pop culture throws at them is cool and we think so too. No need to pull up your pants or stop spending oodles of money on designer sneakers or call attention to yourself by dying your hair pink instead of cultivating your actual character. We won’t let you sing “Oh Susannah” or “Jingle Bells” in school because we are oh, so woke, but sure, go ahead and enjoy the misogyny and hatred and violence rampant in so much (but not all) current music. 


So yes, the kids are a mess, but equally (if not more so), so are the adults raising them. But the child is the greater victim in this scenario. As described by Gabor Mate in his excellent book The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture  (p. 436-7):

“When a young person’s universe is in turmoil…there are two working theories the child could adopt. One is that her little world is terribly awry and misshapen, her parents incapable or unwilling to love and care. In other words, she is unsafe.

The other, which wins out virtually every time, is that she—the child—is flawed…Acknowledging that those on whom one depends are incapable of meeting your needs would be a devastating blow to a young person. Thus self-blame, like guilt, is an unflagging protector. Believing that the deficiency is ours gives us at least a modicum of agency and hope; maybe, if we just work hard enough, we can earn the love and care we need.”

Can you feel what a terrible burden that is to place on the fragile shoulders of a child? The bargain we adults make with the children we bring into the world is that we do our best to care for them, love them and protect them. If we fail at our job, the consequences are enormous and they rebound back to us in the behavior of children that we find baffling, disturbing and unhealthy. 


So one step towards healing is to step up to become an actual adult. One who gives children not what they think they want—the cool sneakers, new Nintendo game, dinner out at McDonalds and their own personal device to take into their room with the door closed— but what they actually need. The sense that we will not only speak up and stand up when they are threatened, but will also offer them the things that have always and will always bring happiness and healing— time out in nature, read-alouds from great literature at all development levels, the tools to express oneself eloquently with musical sounds, dance gestures, poetic words, vibrant images on a canvas and more, exposure to great artists from all cultures and walks of life, work at school worthy of their time, attention and effort. When you make the commitment and do the hard work to provide all of that and more for children, how do they respond?


Stay tuned for the next blogpost.


Lay Your Comfort Down

Ten days ago, I took the "Last Train to Clarksville (Tennessee)" to teach a most unusual 7-day Jazz Course that we finished on Saturday. What made it different?

• It began with an all-day Saturday and Sunday afternoon, followed by two hours every night of the week (except for Wednesday) and finishing with an all-day Saturday.


• It was combination of University students, working music teachers and a few jazz musicians. 


• It was free to all because of a grant, including a free Now’s the Time book (my opus magnus on combining Jazz and Orff).


• Both because people had busy schedules and the commitment was more causal because no one had their own money invested in it, people came and went. Sometimes there were ten people, once there were 25, new people were still showing up Friday night and Saturday and there were only two people who attended every single session.


• The course is built on a sequence that builds on itself, revealing the next needed piece of knowledge and material that draws from the former. At the same time, each activity can stand on its own and people just have to jump in and start swimming with us. And they did. 

• Tennessee is one of far too many states threatening to fire some teachers if they tell the truth about American history. Nevertheless, I persisted and no one in the course objected (though tragic that some can’t carry that information to their students). 


• It was in a building shared by the University ROTC students. One day while we were putting out xylophones and mallets on the floor and putting them to the use of making beautiful music, they were in another room taking apart guns and rifles to prepare for killing if ordered to do so. I was tempted to invite them in for a session— and actually think they would have enjoyed it.


We ended, as I sometimes do, with one of the children’s games from the glorious black musical tradition, Johnny Brown. One by one, each goes into the middle of the circle and lays down a scarf while we sing “Little Johnny Brown, lay your comfort down…”. One the scarf is laid out, the verse changes to “Show us your motion, Johnny Brown…”, then, “we can do your motion, Johnny Brown…” and finally “Take it to your friend now, Johnny Brown…”  and the next person goes in the middle. It’s a most beautiful invitation to show us who you are, how you feel, make visible some of your unique character and an equally beautiful affirmation from the group as they copy the motion and mirror each person’s beauty back to them. It’s a wholly democratic process where no one person gets to be the center of attention longer than anyone else, a lovely conversation between standing out in the middle and blending in back in the circle singing and clapping. It captures the essence of jazz’s way to both solo and play in ensemble working together, listening and responding, bringing soul and spirit out into the open.


Finally, the “comfort” is the comforter that keeps us warm and like Linus’ security blanket, makes us feel secure and at home. The invitation to “lay it down” is to show that your true home is not in a piece of fabric, but in the dancing circle there to celebrate you and hold you up. That we are each other’s comfort if only we take the time to consider it, to show it, to live it. To create and sustain a music education in schools that teaches the games, songs and practices to take this thought out of mere conjecture and give it legs, muscle, breath. To make it available to each and every student. 


One of the teachers who came both Saturdays was a former student of mine at school and both participating in the activities yet again and watching the videos I showed of the kids at my school, he was transported back to the comfort of that magical time. The cellular memory of it all was like smelling grandma’s pies cooking. As it is for me each time I teach the things I have taught kids for over 50 years, no matter where I am or who is in the circle.

Today’s inspiring quote that came over e-mail is simply another way to describe those seven marvelous days, with its great music, new understandings, solemn moments to face up to our history, joyful moments to carry a better story forward, much laughter, the invisible presence of jazz ancestors we know by name, all those musicians in the fields or churches or jook joints whose names we don’t know, the children we all have taught, teach or will teach. It was a time for us to learn, directly in our hearts, minds and bodies, how to "be human together."  

Thursday, March 21, 2024

The Readiness Is All

It was in my college years that I was first introduced to:


• Zen Buddhism


• Backpacking and camping


• Foreign travel


• Political protest on the streets


• Teaching in alternative schools


• Jazz piano


• Choral singing


• World music


• Poetry


• Folk Dance


• Orff Schulwerk

All of the above— and more—resonated far beyond college, echoing down through the next 50 years. Between 18 and 22, I left the direct orbit of my childhood home and my parent’s daily presence, met some people who I would stay in touch with for decades, had some sexual awakening, felt my frontal lobes developing and more. I was ripe for influence and was influenced indeed by each and every one of the above. 


In that next half-century, I taught kids in preschool, elementary and middle school, did a little work with babies, with seniors from 70 to 103, with teachers between 25 and 60 years old, with occasional high school groups. But the one missing piece in the long span of a human life was college kids. 

Again, I did do various guest classes with this age both live and online over the years and did teach one semester each of five years at The SF Conservatory. But I missed the opportunity to work with college kids on a regular basis and the possibility of influencing them the way that I had been influenced. 


These thoughts arising after teaching a 90-minute guest class to 15 Elementary Music Education students at Austin Peay University in Clarksville, Tennessee. A sheer delight, leaving me with the satisfaction of having been able to do it and the frustration of not having ongoing classes with this age group. In anything we study, the readiness is all and these young adults were indeed ready for everything I had to offer. 

If I ever wanted to work part-time or full-time at a University, they would have to accept my Special Energy Pokemon Card credential (see January posts). Otherwise, I’m not qualified. But if any Music Ed professors out there are reading this, I am indeed most happy to teach a guest class. Or a semester while you’re on sabbatical. 


Give me a ring. 



Wednesday, March 20, 2024

The Smear and the Smudge

                    Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

                    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

                And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell…


    Wanderer by day, music teacher by night— an unusual schedule here in Clarksville, Tennessee (where the “last train” is nowhere to be found) teaching my Jazz Course at Austin Peay University. Staying with two fun Orff colleagues who are off to work each day, leaving me free to explore. The newly-built sub-development neighborhood where they live doesn’t have sidewalks or any paths into the surrounding woods, but I did discover there is a park nearby with an inviting walk along a river. But to get there, I had to walk a half-mile down a four-lane busy road with a narrow shoulder and a steady stream of big SUV cars and trucks streaming by. Not fun.


     Besides the roar of their engines and the worry about them hitting me, there on the side of the road was all the detritus of our human consumption. Beer cans, cigarette butts, plastic bags, Styrofoam cups, wrappers— not a square foot left unlittered. As well as a deer carcass that had been hit by a car. 

    So Gerard Manly Hopkins poem (excerpt above) sprang to mind. The smudge and smell of our industrial civilization everywhere, the natural world bleared and smeared by our endless toil to produce stuff, some of which we need, much of which we don’t. But Hopkins continues and exhorts us to remember that “nature is never spent; there lives the dearest freshness deep down things” and when I finally arrived at

    the park and walked along the river, I could begin to feel Hopkins’ first line of his poem: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Not the God of the churches I passed who seem intent on feeding our folly, our ignorance, our self-complacency in accepting the evil we (helped by the churches) have created. Instead, the God that is a convenient shorthand for the divine presence within and behind and animating all things bright and beautiful—the river, the trees, the plants, the animals, the human beings who wisely choose to inhabit their own divine presence, authentically, compassionately, free from dogma. 


     I breathed in the flowering cherries, the bare-branched trees preparing to bud into Spring, the distant call of the mockingbird. And then had to take the return   trip down the highway. Back to the smear and smudge. 


Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Alto-rhythmic Fame

Someone asked me how the release of The Secret Song movie about my last year at school and the music program my colleagues Sofia and James taught together changed my life. “Well, I’m not wearing sunglasses in public yet,” was my reply. Though the film is now streaming on PBS (check it out if you haven’t yet!), no one has come up to me in a restaurant and exclaimed, “Hey, you’re that guy!” So be it.


But I got two things on Facebook recently that showed that if people on the street are not paying attention, the algo-rhythms are. One appeared as an ad and another as a Facebook memory, a photo that I must have taken somewhere, but can’t remember where or when. At any rate, these make me feel so special. 



Monday, March 18, 2024

Pay Attention

A friend recently took me to the Museum of Modern Art and invited me to try a new approach to viewing paintings. The idea was simple, but turned out to be profound. As the best simple ideas often are. The whole thing was based on two words and one simple act that human beings have rarely down throughout the ages, but now is virtually an extinct species in our biosphere of constant distraction: “Pay attention.”


The instructions were to stand in front of a painting for ten minutes and discover what you notice. Ten minutes of undivided attention. No peeking at your phone or other paintings or other people. Just you and the painting alone together in your ten-minute universe. Don’t read the little museum blurb until the end.  


My friend chose the painting. A figurative work by Elmer Bischoff titled Orange Sweater, with its subject reading a book in the library. (Again, I didn’t know this until the end.) So I set to work noticing what I could. I divided the painting into 4 vertical quadrants and tried to identify objects in each quadrant— some distant mountains, the green leaves of a plant, a person, a desk, a book, two other background people, the walls, the windows and so on. Then I noticed the blend of earthy colors, lots of greys and browns, the curious splotch of red in the subject’s hair and then the textures of the brush strokes. I found myself wondering why the artist brushed vertically here and horizontally there and how he chose the colors and how we decided when each area of the painting felt finished. 


After a while, I stepped back one step at a time until I was some twenty feet back and noticed that the desk was more of a wrap-around counter. The painting had a different feeling looking at it all at once from a distance. Then I got close again and put on my glasses and noticed yet more details— like a series of thin x’s that could have been made with a razor blade. Was this the canvas cracking or an intentional choice? 


My friend announced the ten minutes were up and it didn’t feel too soon, but I could have spent another five minutes without feeling restless. He then took me to another part of the museum with more abstract works and set me in front of a large canvas that mostly was a wash of again, greys, blues, browns and other earthy tones, but this time without a single representational figure or recognizable object. The painting divided itself into four vertical quadrants set apart from three thin streaks of white going from top to bottom. This painting was to be more of a challenge.


But I repeated my strategies of taking it one quadrant at a time, viewing it from different distances and different angles. I observed it with one eye shut and then the other and then squinting. After staring intensely for a while, I sometimes got the impression that the colors were swirling a bit, not unlike fog. Sometimes there seemed to be a little pulsing or vibrating. I hung in there, but I confess it was not connecting either to my mind or heart or sensual pleasure. 


Afterwards, I found out that the painting, titled Scarface and painted by David Diao, was an attempt to go further than the Abstract Expressionist movement and painted using sponges and squeegees. The three vertical lines were actual the wood behind the canvas used to stretch is showing through in the front. 

My friend then showed me the two paintings he had looked at and we sat and shared our experiences. Though neither painting I looked at genuinely moved me or enticed me to bid for them at an auction, the simple experience of spending ten minutes with each was a radical awakening to the fact that I never do this in museums. Nor do most people. We walk through noticing this one or that one and maybe occasionally linger a bit longer at some. But mostly a trip to the museum is like passing a roomful of people at a party and greeting them with a short hello or at most, a few minutes of small talk, without ever sitting down to have a genuine in-depth conversation. Very similar to the way we skirt by all the background music in our life without really listening.


So my takeaway was to remind myself to do this more often. To sit in the park and look at a tree for ten minutes. To listen to a piece of music with no distractions, like I used to when I was younger, lying down between two speakers. To pick three paintings next time I go to a museum and do my own five or ten minute immersion in them. 


To simply pay attention.