Tuesday, April 29, 2014

RIP Glenn Jaquith: Endless Song

I did not grow up singing.

That may surprise you, knowing I am a music teacher, and that I come from a musical family, but it's true: ours was not a singing household. My mother, though she did at times add choir directing to her organist duties, did not encourage her sons to become singers. We all studied piano with her, the prerequisite for taking up a band instrument, which we all did upon entering sixth grade (though in the case of Ocean, it was the cello); and most of us also learned the guitar. Some did come to sing, but it was on our own.

Understanding this, perhaps you can see why I didn't start singing until the summer before my junior year of high school; and when I did, it was because of Glenn Jaquith.

That was the summer I first attended a church camp. The camp my parents sent me too was called MADD, for Music, Art, Drama, and Dance. It was a camp for arts nerds like myself. It had been founded a few years earlier by several arts-oriented Methodists, chief among them Glenn Jaquith. Glenn was a public school choir director in Corvallis, as well as directing choirs at the Corvallis United Methodist Church, and he believed that singing was a fundamental act for any performing artist.

So it didn't matter whether you came to MADD camp to act, to play in the band, to paint pictures, or to dance: everyone, campers, counselors, program staff, sang in the choir.

I was nervous about this. I began reading music at the age of five, and had always played instruments, but except for elementary school singalongs (in Idaho, there was no general music), I'd never sung. Glenn changed that. He coaxed music out of every throat at Camp Magruder. What's more, he planted a seed in me that would, in the next two years, be nurtured by a band director I had not yet met: the desire to conduct. There are conductors who are little more than fleshly metronomes, beating time, dishing out an occasional cue, trusting that whatever feelings need to be injected into the music will come from the players and singers they are directing. Glenn was not one of these. He embodied the music, dancing it before our eyes, so that it was impossible not to feel what he did as it channeled through him to us, then back from us through him and ultimately to the audience who attended our performance on the last night of camp. It was magical, beautiful, real, and I wanted to do it.

Glenn's rehearsal technique was flawless and sophisticated. Of all the conductors I've sung for, he was the only one who really understand and used vowel modification to shape the tone of our singing with precision. He also conveyed to us how much he cared not just about the music, but about its effect upon us, how deeply he believed this music could change our own lives for the better.

On top of everything else, or perhaps breathing through it, Glenn was a devout United Methodist. I've said a lot of harsh things about Methodism in this blog. The church has not treated me, my family, or my children well, and I've known many whose faith was damaged by the corruption of church leaders, the mindless insistence on homophobic legislation, the constant moving of pastors from one appointment to another, the cowardly episcopal practice of hiding behind church law rather than standing on principle--I could go on, but I already have. For all that I've said, I've also known many United Methodists who really did walk the talk, who lived out the warmhearted, socially conscious, intellectually consistent faith modeled by John Wesley. Some of these Methodists were pastors, but most were laypeople like Glenn--though in Glenn's case, that changed.

Glenn was a Methodist through and through, a man who believed in making a difference with the youth and adults he worked with every day. Toward the end of his teaching career, he became an elementary music teacher. I'm not sure what philosophy he worked from, but he with his whole-body approach to music-making, he would've been at home in the Orff world. As long as he did it, teaching--and I believe his church and youth choir directing was an extension of that teaching--was his ministry. He changed so many lives, led so many young people to musical careers, whether in the schools or the church, and did it all by simply being such a wonderful musician and human being.

In the 1990s, Glenn retired from teaching and pursued church music full time, becoming a Deacon: an ordained Methodist practicing a specialized ministry. In Glenn's case, that ministry was music, and he continued to practice it with passion.

I only sang for Glenn on a handful of occasions: three times at MADD camp, two or three times in Annual Conference choirs. At my last MADD camp, the summer of 1985 (right before I went to seminary), I was on the MADD staff as a music specialist, arranging music I had composed for the choir and band and also directing the band. Eleven years later, out of seminary for five years and now an elder, I had a phone call from Glenn. There was a piece he remembered from that MADD camp production, and he wondered if I'd done anything with it. I said I had, in fact, revised and improved it while at seminary. How would I feel about the Corvallis folk choir singing it, he wanted to know? I'd be thrilled, of course; so I dusted it off, created an even better version of it on my computer, printed it out, and drove it down to Corvallis.

Glenn was delighted to see me. He showed off his recumbant bicycle, one of the first I'd ever seen. He talked of the birth of his granddaughter, a Downs syndrome baby, and teared up briefly as he considered the challenges his daughter faced. I shared with him my own difficulties with my divorce and the birth trauma my son had suffered four years earlier, though I was not yet aware of his epilepsy. But Glenn knew about Sean; it had been news all over the conference, and he'd been one of many praying for that baby boy. He talked, too, of his teaching career, which was winding down, and of his thoughts about becoming a deacon. And then I laid the music in front of him, and played it on the piano.

He loved it, though the piano part made him nervous. "Could you make a recording of that?" he asked. He wasn't sure his accompanist could pull off all the flourishes that tended to be part of my playing. I played for his tape recorder, got a good clean track laid down, thanked him effusively for getting my music in front of a choir, and after a warm embrace, was on my way home.

That was the last time I saw him.

Last week, I saw on Laura Jaquith Bartlett's Facebook feed that her father was suffering from pneumonia, and that things did not look good for him. The next day, there was word of his passing, and also of the memorial service to be held Saturday afternoon. I knew I had to attend. After eighteen years, I needed to say a real goodbye to this wonderful man who, in just a few contacts, had so shaped my life.

The service was marvelous, full of music, love, laughter, and misty eyes. No one broke down--we are all, after all, Methodists, not one of the more demonstrative varieties of Protestants--but there were still a good number of tears. It was a fitting send-off for a man who had brought music into so many lives. I saw many people I haven't seen in decades, and while they've all changed--as have I, of course--they're all who I remember them to be. In some ways, it was like one of the crazy MADD camp reunions we used to have each winter to keep us going until June, when the next edition of the camp would meet at Magruder; except instead of teenagers, all the attendees of this reunion were middle aged. Our hair was gray, thinning, gone; our physiques for the most part far less toned.

We were gathered for the sort of event that people our age have to attend all too often: the death of a mentor. This is my fourth funeral in less than a year. The generation that shaped me, inspired me, and sent me out into the world is passing away. My generation is taking its place. It is left to us now to shape the young lives around us, to inspire children and teenagers to become musicians, teachers, writers, dancers, actors, counselors, social workers and, yes, pastors. And in a few decades, those of us who are left will be coming together once more, this time to attend each other's funerals.

What unites us all? In the words of one of Glenn's favorite hymns (it's one of mine, too):
My life flows on in endless song; Above earth’s lamentation                       
 I hear the sweet though far off hymn That hails a new creation:
Through all the tumult and the strife I hear the music ringing; 
It finds an echo in my soul—How can I keep from singing?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Parallel Universes

Blow this image up, zoom in on the far center of it, and you'll see a man with very little hair, wearing a purple shirt. That man is Doug Goodkin. I Googled him in hopes of finding an image of him working with children, but came up dry. Even though teaching elementary music at The San Francisco School is Doug's day job, our modern anxiety over posting pictures of children seems to have limited images of Doug to his weekend and summer job, teaching adults how to teach music to children, something he does all over the world.

There's no need to blow this image of a different man who, like Doug, has little hair to conceal his busy head:
I'm talking about the tall man in a red jersey (sorry, Andrew). His name is Patrick Short, and he is the founder and co-owner of ComedySportZ Portland, an improv troupe that performs fast-paced shows every Friday and Saturday evening, as well as teaching improv classes to children, teenagers, and adults. Like Doug, Pat travels extensively to run workshops. There are many other similarities between the two: both are ardent believers in the philosophies they teach. Both will jump up on their soapboxes to promote the ways in which those philosophies can save the world. Both have similar ideas about what's wrong with modern culture. And both are teaching pedagogies that lean heavily on improvisation, but using that improvisation to inform many other fields of study.

Last Saturday in Portland, Pat led an improv workshop for Orff music teachers, bringing these two philosophies into one space. Yesterday I wrote about what these two philosophies, and their cross-pollination, have meant to me personally. Today I'm going to get theoretical. My text will be Pat's "Seven Habits of Effective Improvisors," principles I believe he also sometimes refers to as the "Seven Pillars of Improvisation." I'll discuss each in the context of the Orff classroom, then wrap things up with a pretty bow.

• Yes, And... When two improvisors step on a stage, they start with nothing more than a one- or two-word suggestion. One of them starts the scene by saying something to the other, endowing the other with a name, a gender, a personality quirk or occupation. The other responds to the first with a complimentary set of endowments. Each of these statements is loaded with "offers," building blocks for the scene that is to follow. If allowed to develop organically, these scene will quickly become both concrete and fantastic, as a whole world grows from the creative energy between these two performers. It seems like magic to the audience--if it's done acceptingly. If, on the other hand, the second improvisor to speak denies the offers, and goes off in his or her own direction, the resulting scene will be chaotic, argumentative, unreal. The magic of improv boils down to a two-word creed: "Yes, and..."

"Yes, and..." means accepting whatever a situation offers and building from there. That "Yes" is not necessarily literal: sometimes the natural thing for a character to say when asked a question is "no." The "no" we're avoiding here is rejecting the situation entirely, creating a separate reality that does not work with the one offered by the scene start.

In the classroom, I am daily confronted with situations that were not part of my lesson plan. Over the years, I've been teaching myself not to get hung up on all the things I want to happen. I keep a general outline in my mind, but sometimes what the kids tell me is "We can't go there today. We need to go somewhere else." This means that my lesson has to say "yes, and..." to a rejection on the part of my scene partners, who are, say, a class of fourth graders: "We're too messed up by our sugar crash from all that Easter candy yesterday to be able to focus on a recorder lesson." All right, then, we'll set aside the recorders on focus on learning a playground song--from which we'll eventually develop an Orff orchestration, a percussion accompaniment, and, in a day or two, a recorder part. The result may very well be far more amazing than whatever I was going to try to teach on the recorder on this particular day. If I stuck to my guns and insisted we learn the recorder lesson I had planned, we'd both wind up frustrated, hating today's music class.

"Yes, and..." can be a life saver.

• Be Flexible: This may seem at first glance like another way of saying "Yes, and..." but in fact, it can also mean holding onto your plan for a scene (or lesson) because you do know where it needs to go. A ComedySportZ scene is supposed to last about three minutes. It's more satisfying to the audience if it has some sense of movement, a beginning, middle and, if possible, end. With practice, seasoned players can adjust offers and their responses to them in ways that both honor them and maintain the flow of the scene toward a point of closure. They don't always get there--often the scene will be edited, and sometimes concluded, by another player or referee who just decides it needs to stop because it's gotten to a highpoint, or because it's not going anywhere fast--but the overarching structure remains intact.

Similarly, even if I do have to make major adjustments to my lesson plan due to squirrely kids, accidents, technological issues, or something that would never occur to me when I'm making that plan, it's important that I keep the concept I'm teaching at the center of the lesson. I can both honor the random offers that come my way and stay true to what I'm teaching. This is a skill that is learned through practice, both on stage and in the classroom; the more I get, the more flexible I become, and the easier it is to keep myself sane in a setting where all sorts of things can happen without warning.

• Be Present: Of all the things I've learned from both Orff and improv, this has the deepest connotations for my life. When I'm teaching music, whether it's in a classroom, a gym, or someone's living room (where most of my private lessons take place), the world outside of the teacher/student zone ceases to exist for me. If my phone vibrates during that time, I ignore it; sometimes I'm not even aware it happened. Similarly, when I'm playing for a CSz show, every bit of me is focused on my on stage partners, tailoring the music to fit what they're doing: adjusting my volume, altering tempo so no one notices they're rushing or dragging or missed a chord change, vamping as needed until someone gets on board, changing modes to match the lyrics they're improvising, thinking ahead just enough to know that someone else is about to make an entrance and (if it's opera we're playing) will need a suitably dramatic diminished seventh chord to announce the arrival of this new character. That's how I perform all the time now. It's the Tao of both performing and teaching: being utterly in the moment, with just enough of me invested in what comes next that I've got that under control, too. The holistic result is a sense of being more in tune with myself and freer to just be in whatever moment I'm in. It's the spiritual practice of presence, and it's immensely rewarding.

It should, but unfortunately doesn't, go without saying that devices can disrupt this practice. That's why when I'm teaching at school I leave my phone in my office; and when I'm teaching lessons, it only comes out afterward to schedule the next session.

• Experiment: Trying new things is what keeps any kind of teaching from becoming drudgery. The same is true in performing. Yesterday I listened to an interview with Brian Henson and was delighted to learn that, faced with a growing staleness in muppet performance, he started requiring his puppeteers to get improv training, and began having wholly improvised shows open to the public. It's easy to fall back on warhorses, pieces and lessons that have proved themselves over the years; and I do roll out "The Freedom Bird" every time I change schools. I've got other bits I do frequently, and some of them work every time; but if I chain myself to them, or don't allow myself to do new things with them, eventually my own enthusiasm for them is likely to flag, and that in turn will erode the quality of my teaching. When I'm playing for an improvised musical or opera, it's tempting to fall back on chord progressions I know will work--the four-chord turnarounds of "We're In the Money" and "With or Without You" have served me especially well--but that allows both me and the players to become lazy and sink into a rut. So I experiment. I try new ideas. I teach songs I've never taught before, play games I've picked up at workshops, send up trial balloons to see what flies. Not everything does, and that's okay. (See the seventh pillar about this.) The worse that can happen is failure and the decision to either tinker with it or just scrap the whole damn thing.

• Use Your Intuition: Thinking too hard about what's happening when I teach or perform is a surefire way to get bogged down in my head and have everything come crashing down around me. The less I think my way through a lesson or song, the less my head rules my actions, the more creative I can be. Sometimes in the middle of a lesson an inspiration will come to me, and I'll find myself knowing exactly what to do differently, what adjustment needs to be made, and everything will just fall into place. This is not something I was born with. It has come with experience, as, year after year, I train my heart and my body to do this thing without thinking about it. It's another side of being present: the side that really makes stuff up, that knows exactly what has to happen next.

• Make Others Look Good: Often our most successful games at CSz involve volunteers. They may not be games that call for a heavy dose of skill: silly games like Oracle or Spelling Bee can be huge crowd pleasers, and the offers that come with Moving Bodies or Audience Sound Effects can be startling in their originality, even though not that much is demanded of the volunteer. Whatever it is that we plug a volunteer into, the goal of all the players is to make that person a star. Some of our most ardent players started their improv lives by volunteering for a game during a show, and loved it so much they signed up for CSz 101 and worked their way up through the ranks to the Pro Team. Whatever we do, we don't want that volunteer to walk away thinking "Well, that sucked," or "I feel like such a fool."

This is even more true in the classroom. On Saturday, Pat talked about people who've grown up believing they can't sing because someone told them this when they were children. Who would do such a thing? Tragically, unforgivably, it may have been a music teacher. I never criticize a singer's native ability, and as a choir director, I've erred on the side of inclusiveness, permitting singers in my volunteer choirs who really were tone deaf. I'd rather have someone making a confident, joyful off-key noise than hiding his or her enthusiasm under a bushel. Sure, the performance won't win any critical raves, but it's more important to me that everyone have a part. As an accompanist, I can even work to make these people sound better, adjusting my playing to help them out. As an Orff teacher, I can adjust my arrangements, simplifying at times, adding or subtracting parts, until the result is something my students can be proud of. It's far more important to me that my students believe they're rock stars than that their parents think of me as a rock star--though it certainly is sweet to have my students treat me as one when they see me in the hall!

• Dare to Fail: Pat Short and Doug Goodkin share a common disdain for the culture of perfection that has taken over this country. Always having to be the best, competing to be the next American Idol, feeling crushed to be number two, and in our schools, testing, testing, always testing, striving for higher and higher performance on standardized tests at the expense of health and arts education, are turning the United States into a nation of anxious Type As who never have fun at anything.

This trend is counter to the principles of both Orff and improv. In our Orff classrooms, we set up students to try new things and, while they may not always be successful, to know that the world doesn't end with a bungled final chord or a too-fast tempo. We try new things. We ask our students to suggest new ways of playing or singing musical games, to improvise accompaniments and melodies, to move freely with props and scarves, to be always experimenting. Not everything works, and that's okay. Sometimes something works spectacularly, and our world is transformed by it, but we'd never know it if we hadn't made it clear from the beginning that it's okay to fail.

If an improv game crashes and burns, nobody is hurt. Maybe the laughs aren't that good. Maybe we get some harsh notes on the forum. So what? It's not the end of anything. We'll play again, and next time, we'll listen better, embrace that offer more fully, be less talky; or maybe we'll be more daring, try something out of left field. The worst that can happen is the scene flops, and we move on to the next game.

In the classroom, we are charged with making sure nobody gets hurt, but part of that--the biggest part, I would argue--is assuring our students that failure is a natural part of life, and that only by trying something and failing can we learn to make it better. Being obsessed with perfection means never trying anything new, because there is no way to learn a new skill without occasionally, even frequently, failing at one's attempts to do it.

I've had plenty of classroom failures. This year has seen more than I've liked, largely because I'm teaching in spaces that were never meant to house a music class. As the year has progressed, I've learned from those failures, and if I have to teach in a gym next year, I'll be much better prepared, will be able to intuit what activities are most likely to succeed, what behaviors I need to teach from the first day, and so on. Had I not embraced the offer of teaching here, I would not know these things. When I finally get back to a proper music room, I expect to be much stronger as a classroom manager for having had to manage music in a gym. That's the gift of hardship, of failing again and again, but getting up every time, making an adjustment, and trying once more: we get stronger, smarter, better.

The final lesson I have to offer on the link between improv and Orff doesn't come from Pat's seven pillars. It's something I figured out for myself: my students are my scene partners. Every time I step into the gym with my students, we create something new. They make offers all the time. Some are laden with promise. Others are just obnoxious. Finding ways to affirm them and work them into the lesson is what makes teaching Orff different from anything Silver-Burdett or MacMillan can put in a colorful book, a CD, or an interactive app. My students and I create eight different pieces a day. Most are moderately successful. Some stink. A few rise to the level of brilliance. Doing this work with them, being utterly present, drawing them out, listening to what they have to offer, honoring it in the ways I adjust the lesson, creating something magical toward the end of our half hour, is what keeps me loving this work, day after day, year after year.

Embrace your scene partners, my fellow teachers. And while you're at it, go see some improv. Take a class. And maybe, one of these days, I'll see you on stage making some improv magic.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

My Worlds Collide


I could not have been happier.

Saturday I saw two of my favorite philosophies come together. These are approaches that have changed my life in spectacular ways, freeing me up from decades-old hangups to be funnier, more creative, more relaxed, and a far better teacher, father, partner, and human being.

Some background: my career as a music teacher officially started in 1984, when I took my first full-time teaching job. That job lasted for eleven weeks. I spent the rest of the school year subbing, and by the time summer had arrived, had made the ridiculous (but far from unprecedented, given my age of 24) decision based on that one year that it was never going to get better, so I should become a minister instead. I spent the next fifteen years living with the consequences of that decision, finally leaving ministry behind in 2000 and returning to classrooms in 2002, first as a sub, then, in 2003, as an elementary music specialist. For two years, I did my best to figure out how to do this work, drawing mostly on the canned curricula already in place in the two schools I worked at. Then, in 2005, I had my first exposure to the Orff philosophy, and never looked back.

For four years, I learned to teach the Orff way through workshops, summer training, and just plain doing it. This is the Orff genius: learning through the body by singing, playing, dancing, feeling. By the time I was laid off from Banks Elementary School, I had internalized the approach.

That lay-off lasted for four years, counting the two I worked as a half-time band/choir director. I received levels II and III of my Orff certification during that time, but what made a far greater impact on my teaching was number two of the philosophies I mentioned above: improv.

Losing my teaching job coincided with the first stages of my relationship with Amy Milshtein, who was, at that time, a member of the ComedySportz Portland "Farm Team." I had an inkling of what it was all about thanks to the venerable TV show "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" which I first saw in its original, British, incarnation while I was living in England from 1988-90. I loved this stuff, even used some of the games I saw in the show as the basis for a party I hosted in 1990, but I had no idea how to make it part of my life. It festered within me for almost twenty years, occasionally fed by watching the American "Whose Line," but never to any kind of fulfillment. But then came Amy, and my first experience of a Farm Team show, followed soon after by a half-day Orff workshop led by Eugene teacher David Adee about how to integrate improv games into the Orff classroom. That fall (2009), I began playing keyboards for the Farm Team, and then in January 2010, was invited to play for the Pro Team. I've been doing it ever since.

Those summer Orff Level trainings gave me a clear sense of how naturally Orff and improv could and should work together. As a half-time high school music teacher, I began plugging improv games into my choir's warm-up time. And then, a year ago, as the Portland Orff Schulwerk Association began planning for the coming year's workshops, I suggested having Patrick Short, founder and co-owner of Portland ComedySportz and a brilliant musical improviser, lead our spring 2014 workshop. It took some convincing, but finally, I won the board over, and on Saturday, we had our workshop with Pat.

Pat Short is the tall guy in this picture.

There are many similarities between Orff workshops and improv workshops. The emphasis is on creativity in a group setting, on activities that free up participants from their hang-ups and help them make something together. Both Orff and improv must be learned by doing. Yes, the theory and principles can be acquired from text, but one can only teach and act this way by teaching and acting this way. The more one does it, the better one gets at it.

The Orff teachers gobbled up the first half of the day, which was all about moving around, messing with brains, loosening up the body, interacting in creative ways, and learning how to say "Yes" to unanticipated moments. Ironically, it was the music games, which came after lunch, that found the participants most inhibited. As I explained it to Pat afterward, Orff teachers are all about improvising melodies--and they did that, beautifully, in an opening warm-up mixer activity--but when it comes to putting words together, we find ourselves at a loss. In fact, the most effective Orff teaching is done wordlessly, except for teaching lyrics. My best lessons are those in which I speak only a handful of words, using my body at first, then gradually adding other instrumental sounds, to create a rhythmic and melodic texture that conveys all the concepts I want to teach.

By the end of the day, I found myself delightfully affirmed by what had transpired. I believe more deeply than ever that improv training and experience can make any teacher more flexible and relaxed, able to handle whatever arises in the classroom; but that, much more than that, Orff and improv can and should work hand-in-hand. Saying "Yes, and..." to a student's idea can transform a piece, personalizing it for the class, motivating every child to be more creative, and often making the piece itself far more memorable to the audience. Letting go of outcomes, accepting that where a lesson is going may bear little resemblance to whatever result I have in mind, but that the journey itself is what matters, continues to be the secret to turning a day of frustration into a day of magic. I'll continue to work to integrate Orff and improv as long as I'm a teacher.

There was one more personal note that surprised me about Saturday's workshop: David Adee was up from Eugene. During lunch, he reminisced with me and some other teachers about how improv led him to become an Orff teacher; how his very first improv workshop was taught, in 1995, by Patrick Short. Considering it was David's workshop in 2009 that turned me on to the possibilities of using improv in my own classrooms, and inspired me to dig deeper into what Amy was doing with ComedySportz, and that ComedySportz has been glue for our relationship, I have reached the conclusion that Pat Short is partly responsible for me being with Amy.

Thanks, Pat. You didn't just give us a great day of improv that will change the way many of us teach. You helped give me this life that I love, and the woman I share it with. Not bad for a guy who makes up stuff for a living.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Approval

This is a story about becoming.

Many little boys want to grow up to be their fathers. When my son, Sean, was four, he went through a period of saying, "I want to be you, Daddy!" This was charming, moving, and affirming, all things that were important to me because I was in the midst of reforming my own identity: recovering from a failed marriage; embarking on a second, also unsuccessful, marriage; and coming to realize that the career I had chosen for myself, the career that was my own last attempt at being just like Daddy, was the wrong place for me to be. There was almost nothing in my world that made me feel good about myself, except for this little boy's admiration.

The second marriage and the career ended within six months of each other, but the love of the child goes on.

A couple of years ago, I began listening to a podcast by Marc Maron, a comedian two years younger than me who posts semiweekly long-from interviews with other performers that almost always dig into the demons haunting them. Driving that depth is Maron's own haunted history, a life marked by explosive relationships, substance abuse, and two toxic parents. Maron is currently estranged from his father, who rejected his son for publicly airing (in both a memoir and a semi-autobiographical television show) the difficulties in their relationship. He brings it up often in the monologues that introduce his podcasts, and even as he speaks about how hard it is to relate to this man, I sense the longing for connection, and with it, approval.

I share that longing. Like my own son, I grew up idolizing my father, completely unaware of the challenges he faced. Like me, my father came to ministry after a fumbled attempt at avoiding his father's profession. Like me, he was cursed with a Nordic disposition, a personality that struck many of his parishioners as distant, not expressive of the warmth they sought in their pastor. Just before my birth, and again three years later, he was unceremoniously fired by the Baptist churches he led. This motivated him to leave California and take his young family across the United States to my mother's home state of New Hampshire. There he began work on a doctorate while student pastoring a rural Methodist congregation, then becoming full-time pastor of a larger church in the town of Salem, New Hampshire. His studies frequently took him away from his family, now grown to three small children, for weeks at a time. I remember wishing he would come home, missing him terribly, knowing, too, that he might bring a present when he came back from Boston; but mostly just wanting to be with him.

Those were mostly happy times for me. I remember seeing my father do things that made me swell with pride: leading services in the Salem church's sanctuary and, even more impressive, leading songs with his accordion at church dinners. I remember him opening up his shop for craft projects during vacation church school, projects that put to shame anything I was to see in the glossy packaged curricula I encountered during my own years of ministry. He was virile, assertive, wise, capable, and dedicated both to his work and his family. How could I not want to be just like him?

Unbeknownst to me, there was a darkness under all this: my father was failing his doctoral program. One component of the program was the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), an intensive chaplaincy internship at a major hospital. CPE students are required to participate in intense group work with other students, work that tears down all the facades adults erect to maintain their civilized veneer even as the world turns on them. This approach clashed with my father's Swedish/German upbringing, and in the end, he left the program. We also left New Hampshire, traveling from the deep civilization of New England to the coarse frontier of Idaho.

There was still a connection between my father and me, but as the years passed first in Idaho, then in Oregon, a gap began to grow. I'm sure much of it was my dawning adolescence. But also, the Swedish reserve that made it hard for my father to ever really connect with a congregation in the way they wanted him to connect made it hard for me to perceive his approval of my own efforts. I'm sure part of it was that my father did not believe in cheap grace; that he wanted me to aspire to greater accomplishments, better performances, than I could lazily attain with my communicative gifts. At his insistence, I practiced speeches for him in the church sanctuary, working at projecting my voice and taking my time with texts, even though I found it awkward and uncomfortable to speak to an audience of one. I think he was also disappointed that I was not becoming an outdoorsman, that my approach to Scouting was more cerebral, less muscular, than his had been. He was not one to heap empty praise on me, not a believer in self-esteem as an end in itself. If he was going to praise me, it was going to be because I deserved it.

I don't know for a fact that this is what transpired between us. It's really just what I perceived. It's an approach that I, deep down, believe in, too. With my students, I'm always careful to find something real to praise, even if I have to look hard for it. I know how important it is to express approval to them, how motivational it is to tell them what they are doing is good, but I'm powerfully conditioned against doing that if there's nothing that really works. Even so, I've had many groups I worked with praise me for how positive I am with them, probably because, even though I will drill a passage until I see improvement, I'm careful with how I express my dissatisfaction with how they're singing or playing it.

But back to my father: when I left music education in 1985 to go to seminary, I really hoped this would bring us together, that he would approve of my decision to follow in his footsteps. I think what really happened instead was that he saw me making the same mistakes he had made, saw me struggling in the same ways he had, and feared that I, like him, would feel trapped by an unfulfilling, unforgiving profession. I didn't know any of this, though, until the day I traveled to McMinnville to tell my parents I was being pushed out of ministry, and my mother recalled her reaction, fifteen years earlier, to my decision to attend seminary being, "Why would you ever want to do that?" (I don't remember that at all, by the way.) What I had not ever understood, even as the signs were all around me in Philomath, Harrisburg, Monroe, and finally Halsey, was how unhappy my father was with his work, how little affirmation he received from his congregations, and yet how little choice he felt he had. When he retired, he spoke before the Annual Conference about one highlight of his career: a river baptism. That was it. I know how hard he worked at ecumenical relations in every town where he served, how much care he put into planning every service, how he would work late into the night on Saturday putting a final polish on his sermon; but there was just this one experience he could look back on after a four decade career.

My father retired 24 years ago. Since then, he has seemed relieved from the burdens of staying in the wrong profession. He's hard to talk to: he's had many health challenges, hears poorly, and is often confused. Mostly, he seems happy not to be working, to be able to focus on his never-ending quest to know more about the world through books and documentaries. And strangely, now that I am 53 and working in a profession that does not lend itself to pride-inducing public performances, I have a growing sense, for the first time in my life, that I have accomplished exactly what my father always really wanted for me: the same thing he wanted for himself.

It was never about accomplishment. My father never appeared to aspire for that kind of recognition, never seemed to want to pastor a large church, be a superintendent. I know he enjoyed teaching, and even as a teenager, I much preferred Sunday School when he took over the class. He loved making music, too, whether it was with his accordion, at the piano, or with his voice. He was always diligent about visiting elderly parishioners (a task I never cottoned to), and I think he probably connected well with them one-on-one, but while that is probably the most important work of ministry, it's never going to get a pastor promoted to a city church. No, what my father wanted most was to be happy, to be able to do the things he loved and, if possible, to earn an income from it. Unfortunately, he had to wait for retirement for that to happen.

And that's where I think I sensed the disapproval coming from, though he never voiced it: he could tell I wasn't happy, either in my work or in my relationships, but he couldn't tell me to do what he'd never been able to do with his own unhappiness: walk away from it. He was too responsible for that, had to keep providing a home and an income for his family, couldn't take the time to go back to school, get a teaching degree, and start building a new profession. For me to be happy, he sensed, I needed to be doing something else.

Now I am doing that something else, and it does make me happy. I find more joy in a day working with difficult students than I did in three years with the most affirming church I served. I'm also in the best relationship I've ever had, one that, after more than five years, continues to grow from strength to strength. When I visit my parents these days, I believe I exude contentment, enabling me to be more present to their needs and concerns. I am, finally, happy, and that is all they ever wanted for me.

It's all I want for my own children, too. They're in their 20s now, and there's no sense from either of them that they want to be me. They're finding their way, and as challenging as that has been for me to watch from my 700-mile remove, I've kept my opinions to myself. I know I can't tell them how to be happy, that they have to figure this out for themselves. I tell them I love them, that I'm proud of them for taking the steps they have, and that I am always just a phone call or text away. I do hope that, someday, they can be me, but only in this sense: that they can earn a living doing something they enjoy, and be happy both at work and at home. Accomplish that, and they will forever have my approval. Come up short of it, and they'll still have my love, along with my hope that they can somehow make their lives happier, whatever that means for them.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Wild and Crazy God




It begins Sunday for Christians, Monday at sunset for Jews. For both faiths, it is the holiest time of the year, the time that defines them as a people chosen by God to witness to the world. Both holy weeks revolve around the life of a reluctant savior, a man empowered by God to deliver others from misery and death. One was a prince who abandoned his royal inheritance to become a shepherd, until God spoke to him in the wilderness and directed him to liberate all his people. The other was a common laborer who, after a pilgrimage in the wilderness, became a shepherd to a small sect of his people, but who, after his death, was exalted by a growing body of followers who called him Prince of Peace. The one died of old age, gazing from a distance at the Promised Land he would never enter; the other died young, executed by an occupying power for his dangerous ideas, which included the teaching that all the earth could become a Promised Land.

There I will end my listing of parallels between Passover and Easter, without even mentioning the Paschal Lamb, because there is a fundamental distinction between these holy days. Passover is about an active God, a God who is powerful, temperamental, and intimately involved in the lives of his people, even though he seems to have been absent for enough generations that the nation that made them honored guests has been able to enslave them. Easter's God is passive, permitting his only son to die horribly, abandoning him on a cross.

And yet, both these understandings of God are compatible in a way that makes modern believers extremely uncomfortable. The God they describe is wild, crazy, unpredictable; hardly the tame, faithful God we've all come to know and ignore.

Consider the story of the Exodus. Pharaoh has enslaved the Hebrews, and has subjected them to increasingly harsh living conditions, slaughtering their male children. Moses, a Hebrew raised as an Egyptian prince, returns from his long exile to demand that Pharaoh release the Hebrews. Pharaoh refuses. To change Pharaoh's mind, God unleashes a series of plagues upon Egypt. After each, Pharaoh hems and haws, promising release but then changing his mind, until finally, God launches the ultimate plague, one which gives the Egyptians a taste of what they did to the Hebrews: all their first born children die. Pharaoh finally relents, and the Hebrews flee, only to find themselves caught between the Red Sea and Egypt's advancing army, for Pharaoh has, for the last time, changed his mind. God leads the Hebrews through a parted sea, then drowns the army. The Hebrews wander forty years in the wilderness, where God alternately cares for them and punishes them, sometimes with mass execution, for their disobedience of one rule or another that they are now expected to follow, until finally they cross the Jordan into the Promised Land.

This is not a God to mess with. Try it, and this God will mess you up.

Now consider the story of Jesus in Jerusalem. On Palm Sunday, Jesus enters the holy city riding on a donkey, an animal of peace rather than war. In the city, Jesus offends temple officials by knocking over the tables of money-changers, then moves about preaching his seditious gospel, drawing the attention of Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator. In the end, he is betrayed by one of his followers, put on trial, and executed. Through it all, God is apparently silent, refusing to answer Jesus' prayer to be delivered from his fate and, most appallingly, allowing him to die as a common criminal. Where is the God who was so intimately involved in first liberating and then leading the Hebrews out of Egypt? Where is the God whose power could send locusts, frogs, flies, diseases, death to the Egyptians, who led by pillars of fire and cloud, and who parted the sea? Silent, absent, and, apparently, powerless, not to be counted on in the most desperate of situations.

This is a God who can be messed up. Do whatever you want to this God, and walk away unscathed. This God is more crazy than wild.

In either case, we are not dealing with a tame God here. God is dangerously present in the Exodus, and dangerously absent from Holy Week. Passover is a time of celebrating God's activity; Holy Week a time of wondering about God's passivity. Only on Easter morning is there a promise of some kind of quiet, mysterious victory, a Resurrection that is hushed, secret, revealed only to a few, hard to pin down as any kind of concrete reality.

Personally, I'd rather have the latter, but it scares me, too. I am afraid of the busy, capricious God of the Exodus, whose power can so quickly move from redemption to destruction; but I'm also afraid of a God who might not be there when I need him most, who might very well abandon me in the same way he left Jesus to die. When I call for God, I don't want the line to be busy. Granted, I might get far more than I was asking for--would I really want Biblical plagues visited on my tormentors?--but at least it would be good to know some kind of help was on the way, even if it was of the plague variety.

The latter God is, however, far more compatible with an enlightened mindset. It's been a very long time since anyone experienced God in the ways the Torah describes. In fact, all the really big miracles in the Bible happen in those first five books. Once the Promised Land is reached, what miracles remain are on a far smaller scale: healings, feedings, writing on a wall, visions on mountains. The New Testament continues in the muted miracle mode, primarily focusing on healing and feeding. Jesus calming a storm and walking on water are exceptions that come across primarily as Jesus showing off in order to test the faith of the disciples, but most of his miracles are interpreted by him as eminently doable by any ordinary Christian with a mustard seed's worth of faith.

And that's the biggest rub of believing in the God of Jesus: the responsibility for doing something in the world devolves on the believers, rather than the believed-in. The God of Genesis and Exodus appears to have retired to a celestial beach house, leaving the management and production of the cosmic factory in the hands of the workers. "If it's to be, it's up to me" is the cliche that comes to mind.

Meanwhile, for Jews, the God of Passover has suspended operations for the duration. The great works of the Exodus mark the effective end of divine intervention in the world. Everything after that is salvation history, God struggling with the supremely flawed instrument of humankind to eventually accomplish the perfection of Creation. Again, it's up to us.

Passover looks back on a God who was frighteningly involved in the world, catastrophically disrupting natural law to save a group of people so that they might, eventually, bring about the redemption of Creation. Over time, this people came to realize the days of intervention were long past, and settled into a faith of patiently waiting for that redemption to take place. Easter, in turn, ascribes a few latter-day miracles to that same God, but then sits its own believers in the same boat, placing their faith in a God who will at some unforeseeable time make the broken world whole. In the meantime, both Jews and Christians find themselves sharing their lifeboat with agnostics and even atheists, living the most moral lives they can despite--perhaps even because of--the absence of a wild, crazy, interventionist God.

Friday, April 11, 2014

I Believe I'll Have Another Beer

Everybody's got to believe in something. I believe I'll have another beer.
W.C. Fields

It's that time of year again: the time when the thoughts of pious folk turn to the objects of their piety, and they engage in cultic rituals to observe that it is, indeed, that time of year.

I'm speaking, of course, of baseball season.

No, seriously, this is about Easter, and a little about Passover: religious festivals that happen to coincide with the beginning of spring (and baseball season, but that's really not relevant to this topic).

A year ago, I started this blog with some of my long-festering objections to Easter. At the time, I muted my criticism in acknowledgment of my part-time employment as a church musician. Since then, I have left that position to concentrate my attention on full-time music teaching. I love my work, find it challenging and rewarding, and feel no desire to return to a church setting, despite having spent, prior to last November, almost every Sunday of my life in church.

Of all the holidays celebrated by the church, I have come to find Easter the most odious, steeped as it is in sentimentality, bad theology, and blatant anti-Judaism. At Easter, churches are crammed with grotesque lilies, crosses are turned into planters, children hunt for fertility symbols, and preachers crow about Jesus' victory in a struggle to which most of the once-a-year congregants are utterly oblivious. It's as if one only tuned into the marathon medal ceremony.

In African-American preaching, at least, there is the aphorism "no cross, no crown" to correct this error. But that does nothing to address the common practice of treating religious texts as historical records in their polemic against Jesus' own people. For those Christians who take Easter seriously enough to attend Holy Week observances leading up to the celebration, there is no escaping the fiction that Jews killed Jesus. It's a rare preacher who even acknowledges that it had to be Romans committing the act, and even they are as likely as anyone to fall into the trap of assuming the thousand-year-old faith that gave birth to Christianity was a simplistic system of buying off God with sacrifices and obsessive-compulsive Torah observance. On Palm Sunday, in particular, the only sermons I've ever heard that didn't talk about how Jesus, the Prince of Peace, was the true Messiah, as opposed to the military leader the Jews were allegedly hoping for, were those I delivered myself.

Lest I go back down the bunny hole, I'm going to wrench myself away from a topic I've dealt with in much more detail here, and turn back to Easter: I can't help feeling a bit nostalgic about it. As long as I worked in churches--which is to say, for most of my life--Easter was a day to impress the visitors, a day for trumpets, anthems, a sermon that had to knock it out of the park, a day I was always simultaneously glad and sad to see over. I preached and played my best on Easter. I loved being up for the sunrise service, even though it usually meant my trumpet and/or guitar was horribly out of tune. I enjoyed seeing how much nicer my congregations dressed, from babies through great-grandparents.

More than anything else, though, I loved that spring had finally sprung. That's what Easter really meant to me, and why, in my mind, Christianity had modified a pagan celebration and grafted it onto Passover. Christmas/Chanukah may be about the return of light to the world, but there's still plenty of winter to come. Easter/Pesach is about being delivered from death. It's about not just light, but life returning, just as it does every spring.

For many Christians, especially the once-a-year variety, Easter is a time of grabbing onto the one belief that is most important to their faith: the resurrection of the body. Like most humans, Christians are afraid of death having the final word, so the story of Jesus triumphing over death is their faith's most attractive doctrine. And yet, as I preached every Easter, we don't have to put all our faith in a story to know that death never has the final word. Look out the window right now, and if you live in Portland, you'll see a flowering tree. The crocuses came up weeks ago, the daffodils are up now, rhododendrons will be with us soon, and then it'll be time for roses. The birds gathering around the feeders in our patio are as brightly colored as they will be. The air is fresh and laden with pollen (achoo!), the non-flowering trees are beginning to leaf, lawns are being mowed once more: life is everywhere triumphant.

Of course, it is new life we're seeing all around us, because as much as we may want it to be, life is not eternal. Everything dies to make way for everything else. The birds mating on the patio were babies last summer. The flowers will die. The leaves will fall. Eventually, the trees, too, will die.

As for me: spring was, for two decades, a time when I thought especially about running. I loved being out in the fresh air, dashing along trails and streets, delighting in the sights and smells of new life. I loved it enough that, eventually, I became a marathoner, and completed seven of those races, the last and fastest of them at the age of 40. I wish I could be training for one right now. But I am 53 now, and my feet and legs will no longer sustain anything approaching the miles I once ran. My body is a living testimony to the passage every human takes from birth to death. I'm somewhere just past the middle, but very much aware I no longer have the physical potential I once had.

And here's where I come, finally, to belief. I don't believe in literal resurrection of the body or the life everlasting. I do believe in new life, in starting fresh after defeat, failure, bereavement, and in this sense, I've experienced many resurrections; but resurrection as the Gospels describe it, and as most Christians cling to it, is no longer a part of my own personal Credo.

We have one life and, as Ecclesiastes tells us, we ought spend that life well, living it and appreciating it as fully as we can. For me, living fully means being with and caring for others. It means drinking in the beauty of the world around us. It means being outside, exerting ourselves to attain summits as long as we're able; and eventually, relaxing in parks and on porches to enjoy what we can behold once our bodies can no longer handle trails. It means making and appreciating art. It means holding the ones we love in our arms and in our hearts. And it means, in the end, releasing them to go on living without us as we pass from their lives. That's the good life I believe in.

And yes, I also believe I'll have another beer.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

What Defrock?

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I waited ten years to become an elder, and fought hard to obtain that status. To an extent, it cost me my first marriage. Four and a half years later, I stepped down from my appointment, going on what has become a permanent leave of absence. Ultimately, ordination in the United Methodist Church just didn't work out for me. Increasingly, my former colleagues, particularly those in the Western and Northeastern Jurisdictions, have found the strictures of ordination an uncomfortable fit for them. Some of them have voluntarily surrendered their orders rather than continue to submit to church discipline with regard to the full inclusion of sexual minorities in the ministry and mission of the church. Many others have found themselves put on trial for disobeying that discipline, performing weddings for same-sex couples or openly acknowledging that they are, themselves, self-avowed and practicing gay men or lesbians. Meanwhile, I am still an elder, honorably located (translation: happily performing a secular job, and no longer part of the itinerant ministry), my certificate of ordination tucked away in a box, my alb, cincture, stoles, and clergy shirts hanging in the closet.

Why am I still ordained? Why do I hang onto this piece of paper that no longer means anything to me, even as pastors I respect, to whom it means much more, give theirs up in grief and disgust at the institutionally close-minded church?

One could just as easily ask me why my Eagle badge still resides in the treasure box atop my dresser. Twelve years ago, I wrote a furious letter to the Boy Scout leadership magazine about the phenomenon of Eagles sending their badges in to protest the BSA's homophobic policies. A version of that letter was published in The Oregonian. I remember holding the badge in my hand, contemplating what it would mean to put it in an envelope and send it off to national headquarters, there to be, I imagine, discarded and ignored.

The BSA ultimately opened Scouting up to gay youth, but continues to bar gay adults from leadership positions. Recently a Seattle Scoutmaster was removed from his position for being gay, over the objection of the troop's sponsoring organization--a United Methodist congregation.

And then there's World Vision, a mission organization supported by both mainline and evangelical protestant churches, which made a public statement of inclusiveness in hiring, then pulled back just a day later in the face of conservative apoplexy.

Church, charitable organization, affinity group, sports team, political party--voluntary associations across the United States have engaged with disappointing consistency in the practice of removing discarding both members and leaders whose orientation differs from the norm. The rejection is not always a literal defrocking--the word really only applies to clergy--but the pain of having one's license, certificate, diploma canceled is nearly identical. Nine and a half years transpired between the day I entered Scouting and the day my Eagle badge was pinned to my pocket by my mother. It took my four years to qualify for my first teaching license, six to earn my Master of Divinity, ten to become an elder. Along the way  to each of these accomplishments I spent countless hours studying, practicing, honing my skills, planning projects, fretting over deadlines, driving back and forth across the United States, living in England for two years, defending myself before boards and professors, standing up to church officials who did not think me worthy of ordination. Eagle Scout, licensed teacher, Elder--I earned these distinctions. Those scraps of paper, that bit of ribbon and metal, represent decades of my life. To have any of them taken from me for acting on my beliefs is inconceivable. To give any of them up voluntarily would represent an enormous expression of anger toward the issuing organization, and the decision that the certificate or badge in question no longer symbolized what it did when I earned it.

But that is what is being done to--and in some cases, voluntarily by--a growing number of clergy within United Methodism. The awareness has finally set in that the church is not going to change without a huge reorientation of its leadership. Until Bishops find themselves unable to fill appointments because so many excellent pastors are no longer qualified, whether due to removal by church trial or by voluntarily leaving the denomination, the Episcopacy will not find the courage to pay more than lip service to the principle of full inclusion. And in Scouting, it will take a far stronger cry of outrage than has yet been voiced to counter the much larger numbers of conservative sponsors promoting the still exclusive leadership requirements. World Vision caved to church leaders willing to sacrifice starving Third World children to their single-minded quest to demonize gay people: the mainline churches simply can't make up the difference.

A reckoning is coming. American culture is experiencing a phase shift. Discriminating against gay employees will soon be illegal, and it's just a matter of years, perhaps months, before marriage equality is the law of the land. When that happens, the conservative church voices in every denomination will find themselves as completely in the wrong as did pro-slavery churches in the Civil War. Scouting will have to either open its collective mind or lose half its units.

The alternative is a counter-reformation, a concerted effort by conservatives to fight back against the phase shift. In the Renaissance, the wars that resulted from the first counter-reformation took thousands, perhaps millions, of lives. There's no telling what havoc could be wrought in the Disunited States of America by conservative retrenchment, particularly in the South. United Methodism may choose sides at that point, as may the Boy Scouts of America. If either organization chooses the side of ignorance and bigotry, that will finally be what it takes for me to tear up my ordination and send it to the Bishop, and to put my Eagle in an envelope and ship it off to Irving, Texas. I will grieve these decisions, but much more I will grieve what these two institutions that once meant so much to me have become.

Face Plant



Some disclaimers:
1. We did not see this sign. This sign is in Vermont. We have never been skiing in Vermont. Yesterday we skied at Mt. Bachelor, though we were not on Mt. Bachelor. Mt. Bachelor is a downhill ski Mecca, and we are not downhill skiers. We do enjoy Nordic skiing, however, and at the foot of Mt. Bachelor is a network of Nordic trails extending for many miles.
2. We are not highly skilled Nordic skiers. I've been doing it since 2000, but only sporadically. The difficulty of getting to trails through quality powder (Mt. Hood's trails are usually either sloppy or icy, and Bachelor is a 3+ hour drive from Portland) means that by the time I find my skiing legs, the season's usually over. Amy has only been doing this for two years now, so she's even less experienced.
3. This was only our third time on skis this season--and also our last. We had a snow day in February, during which we were able to ski in our own neighborhood, and spent one day at Teacup Lake, our favorite Nordic area on Mt. Hood. It had been around two months since our last time on skis.

With all that said, here's what happened: we arrived at our condo (previously rented for MLK weekend, but abandoned after when night when I wound up with a horrendous cold) on Friday night. We were at Mt. Bachelor and on our skis by 11:30, sliding down the Common Corridor to Century Drive. There we arrived at a decision point: continue on the snowmobile-corrupted road to Todd Lake (lumpy chunks of half-frozen snow, no fun to ski on) or set off through the woods on a trail marked "Easy," taking what we assumed, based on the signage, was a 2 mile loop to Dutchman Flat and back. We chose the latter.

Apparently, we misinterpreted that sign, because it took us five hours to get back to the Nordic Center.

The trail took us up over a long hillside of rolling terrain, with many of the dips steeper than we cared for. We both took multiple falls, and found that, with the air temperature in the mid-30s, that even with fresh snow falling for most of the day, the surface was so slippery that any steepness at all led to sliding backward. I caught myself slipping far too many times, and quickly began developing some tendinitis in my right elbow. On top of that, while I have over the years mastered an effective technique for getting up from a fall without shedding my skis, Amy has not, and once she did manage to struggle back up, her bindings proved extremely uncooperative for clipping back in. By the time we finally came out of the woods, we were both tired and frustrated, and eager to have an easy trip back to the Nordic Center through a flat meadow.

That's when we discovered we had almost as far to go returning as what we had just labored through.

Now we started wondering if we'd bitten off much more than we could chew, if, in fact, we were going to wind up like the victims implied by the sign from Vermont I pasted to the top of this page: stuck in the forest, sleeping in a snow cave, having to be helicoptered out the next day, if we were ever found.

And then two snowmobiled pulled up, checked a map, and roared on down the trail.

We opted at this point to follow that same trail, though in the other direction, after consulting the same map the snowmobilers had looked at. We started off skiing down a long, winding, slippery snowmobile trail, and quickly changed our minds, opting instead for walking. This finally got us to Todd Lake. At this point we opted to return to a trail through the woods which started with an easy, short descent to a meadow, a little steeper than Amy was comfortable with but, I was certain, easy enough for both of us. I took it first to prove how easy it would be...

...and did my first face plant ever. Spitting snow, I rolled over and started getting up, shouting that I was okay. Amy, to my surprise, decided to ski down the hill, just as I had done. Her face was planted within a foot or two of where I had gone down. She also twisted her knee painfully, and four days later is still limping.

We dusted ourselves off, hit the trail, and had a fairly uneventful climb back to the Nordic Center, arriving back at the car not quite five hours after we had started our adventure. We were both in pain, Amy from her leg, me from my elbow, and I nearly flung the skis into the trunk, happy to say goodbye to this sport for another year.

Lessons learned:
1. Take a map. Check progress against that map frequently.
2. Don't believe signs unless you can verify what they're telling you on the map you brought.
3. Don't count on any downhill being as easy as it looks.
4. Get more short workouts in before attempting something that takes as long as a marathon (though to be fair, we were expecting the trail to be two miles of easy, not however many miles it was of challenging--but see lesson 1 for why that's no excuse).

And why would we ever want to do this again? Why am I already wishing I could find another weekend before the snow turns completely to slush?

Because there in the woods, with skis gliding easily along a well-marked trail, I found a peace that transcends anything I've ever had in a church or shrine. Because for all the calories we burned and muscles we worked, I didn't feel sore (except for my inflamed elbow) until two days after we'd done this (contrast that with marathons, after which every step is agony). And because, as Amy and I like to tell each other anytime the going gets much rougher than we bargained for, what we love most about our life together is "Adventure!"

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Where Kids Can Be a Kid

The slogan always made my skin crawl.

When I first heard it, the place was called "Show Biz Pizza." Eventually the name was changed to "Chuck E Cheese's," with ads featuring the eponymous mouse in both costume and animatronic incarnations interacting with children, and usually concluding with a child falling, in slow motion, into a ball pit. I never actually visited one of these establishments until I had children of my own, but I knew from the moment I set foot in the place that there was far more evil at work here than just a grammatically abominable jingle. Eventually that slogan was cleaned up so the subject and predicate could be in agreement--"where kids can be kids"--but in my mind the name should be changed to "Migraine Manor," "Ulcer Alley," or possible "Tantrum Town." Walk through the door and one is instantly besieged by the clamor of video games, background music, and shouting, screaming, wailing children. It's hard to know if it's fun for them at all--and yet told they're going there for a party, they erupt into shrieks of delight. Finally, blessedly, they outgrow it, and the parent makes a blood oath to never darken the door of that holiday hell again--until dragged there by grandchildren, of course.

All that aside, the original slogan has inspired me to write about Outcome Based Education and why it's problematic in the general music classroom.

My first Orff workshop was led by Doug Goodkin, who eventually became my guru. Doug is a master educator who can, in seconds, hold a room full of human beings of any age or musical ability in the palm of his hand, leading them through a learning activity that seamlessly transitions from running around in a circle to pattycake to an African dance and song accompanied by complicated polyrythmic percussion performances without ever speaking a word of instruction. As brilliant as these experiences are, Doug is also an articulate idealist and a passionate advocate for the arts and their role in creating a just world. That first workshop, in October, 2005, was ostensibly on the topic of assessment in the music room. Doug touched on that, toward the end, but mostly he just led us through a delightful collage of musical experiences, teaching by showing rather than telling. The message at the end: our job is not to grade students. We have too many of them to do it properly, and even if we had the time and resources to do it, why would we even want to? Immerse them in a culture of musical play, and they will become musicians. Make them take tests, and music becomes like any other class, outcomes dictating activities.

OBE--Outcome Based Education--was big in the 1980s and 1990s. Like most trends in public education, it never really went away; the same ideas just get rebranded (not unlike Showbiz/Chuck E Cheese). The idea is to gear the classroom toward a goal, rather than an activity. Lessons are backward-engineered to be sure that all the necessary skills are taught, with mastery being the ultimate aim. When I was in college, the keyword was "behavioral objective"; most recently, I've been hearing about "learning targets," but really it's all the same stuff.

As long as there have been general music teachers, there have been school administrators trying to impose the same assessment criteria on them that are used on classroom teachers. We're expected to have objectives, outcomes, learning targets for every lesson we teach. We're supposed to assess our students according to these outcomes, and assess ourselves by how successful they are in attaining them.

And really, if we're teaching private lessons or directing a band or choir, or even a more academic course in music theory of literature, that makes perfect sense. When one of my piano students plays a scale, I can easily assess him or her on how well that task was performed.

But that's not where I spend most of my teaching time. Things have to be different in the general music classroom, particularly the Orff classroom.

Orff starts with the experience, not the outcome. The one outcome desired of every Orff lesson is having an enjoyable musical experience. Yes, we're teaching concepts, and from time to time we will pause to put a label on those concepts; but that's not why we're doing this. We're taking the musical impulse that is in every child's heart and nurturing it, encouraging it, inspiring it through play, through experiences that make the child want to go deeper, to be more fully immersed in the joy and wonder that is music. This is completely natural for them: children sing, skip, march, dance, clap, without any of the self-consciousness that keeps adults from freely doing these things.

Or at least, they do all these things until someone comes along and grades them, and if their performance is found wanting--as most child performances will be according to adult criteria--some of the joy will leak out of that experience. Enough negative evaluations, and the child will grow up convinced, as so many adults I have met are, that he or she just isn't musical. And this is why I rarely issue any grade but "passing" to an elementary music student. Just being there, having the experience, is learning enough for my gradebook--and, I imagine, for the gradebook of any general music teacher with 600 students to assess.

Of course, as musicians, we do want our students to perform well, to create something that is beautiful, and we do rehearse them, help them improve. Our goal as we work with a piece of music is always to make it better. But here's the difference: I know my recorder class is never going to sound like a serious consort. Their plastic flutes will be off-key, many of them will overblow or leak air through their awkward fingers leading to shrill squeaks, and I'm never going to get all of them to put their left hands on top. However, if I can get them to start together, play a song recognizably and, most important, stop together, they'll feel how much better that is than just noodling around without regard to anyone else in the room.

And they can feel it. I see it on their faces when everyone cuts off together, and the sound is left hanging in the air: yes, that was so much cooler than when most of us stopped, but Ryan and Lisa kept playing. When a whole class of third graders can hear the magic of two different mallet parts working together, and nail the landing on the final chord, they feel it, too. When all the first graders are performing a clapping game together, and come out of the partner activity into the chorus without a break, they know it's better.

What's happening is they're assessing themselves, and finding the outcome of a quality performance really is preferable to the outcome of musical chaos. Ultimately, that's when OBE works best: when it is the student, rather than the school, imposing their own standards. It's best if the outcomes are embraced by the student, rather than imposed by the teacher, but getting there is tricky.

Which brings me back to kids being kids--or kids being a kid. The goal of OBE is identical to that of No Child Left Behind and the Common Core Curriculum: holding every child in America to the same set of standards so their performances can be compared to each other, so the diploma awarded at the end will mean the same thing in every case: mastery of essential concepts. In the end, OBE wants every student to conform to this model of the ideal student, to know all the same things, be able to perform all the same tasks. We want our kids to be A Kid, The Kid, the child who meets all the criteria for adulthood.

In my classroom, though, whatever outcomes I may have in mind for a lesson have to take a backseat to the kids I have before me at this moment. They come in with a host of expectations. Some didn't get enough sleep last night, some are worried about a parent who's sick or in jail, some are experiencing a divorce. Some are having birthdays, and expect the entire class to revolve around them. Some really want to learn, and are frustrated by the others who just want to pound that stick into the floor until it splinters, or blast that recorder in someone's ear regardless of the number of times the teacher as told them not to do it. My task is to guide these children into a set of experiences that will channel their energy musically, that will help them express their feelings through movement and song, that will be playful enough to get their minds off how much they'd rather be outside, but structured enough that the result will not be a clamor of Chuck E Cheesian proportions. Most days, I accomplish this with most of my classes. For those I don't, I'm always worrying away at what didn't work, trying to take the no-fun lecture out and inject the happy collaboration back in. But I never get there by working backward from the outcome. For my kids to be kids--as opposed to being a kid--I have to create experiences for them that give them enough freedom to find the music in themselves and discover, on their own, how joyous it can be.

As experiential as this is, I do still care about an outcome. I know I've taught a successful lesson when, on the way out the door, children smile and thank me for making music fun. The job doesn't get any better than that.