24 November 2010

Thanksgiving Break

I. Winter in the NW
II. Getting to Work
III. The Job Itself
IV. Workshops
V. Withdrawing Spirit from Yesterday's Bank

Schools being closed again, today is a gift. So I've resolved to circumnavigate distractions and responsibilities just enough to generate a newsletter. We're heading to Orcas Is for Thanksgiving, where I'll be bartering for half off our accommodations by performing at Doe Bay Cafe. December 19-24 I'll be in Gloucester. All in all, much to be grateful for.

I. Winter in the NW

Being accustomed to winters out east, it's fascinating to Monica and I that, around here, people simply wait for snow and ice to melt by natural means; if the roads aren't safe, you just hole up and wait till they are -- which can take a while if the thermometer remains in the 20s. At least that's how it appears to be in many suburban school districts. Somehow Tacoma has managed to deal with this last storm -- which only brought a couple inches of snow, albeit with a layer of frozen rain underneath. We see the tracks of a phantom vehicle [a plow? a retrofitted street cleaner?] that leaves parallel groves about 10" apart. But up in Lynnwood -- where I teach -- life appears to be at a standstill. Driving back from there yesterday morning, I was amazed that I-5 [the main drag N/S] still had a treacherous covering of ice and slush. This in sunshine, hours after any precipitation! Us easterners could not imagine I-95 in that condition!

II. Getting to Work

The first thing people in Lynnwood say, when I tell them where I live, is "Tacoma?!!"; and the first thing people in Tacoma say, when I tell them where I work, is "Lynnwood!!?" It's a drive of more than an hour when traffic is moving along -- which is rare -- passing through Seattle. We have, however, worked out a routine that, for the moment, feels sane: I drive up Monday mornings, leave the car at the "Park and Ride" [free] after school and take two buses home [total of $3]. Monica picks me up in Tacoma at 6:15 PM and drops me off the next morning around 7. [Though it would be possible to await a third bus that stops a block from home]. I retrieve my car and drive to school. Tuesday nights, I swim at the Y up there and sleep at the home of the Eddys. She leads teen masses at the parish and he is a bus driver. They have lots of room in their empty-nested home and have made me very comfortable at no charge. I catch the buses home again on Wednesdays and stay with the Eddys again on Thursdays. It is not till Friday, then, that I bring the car back down I-5. Such a scenario is made workable by the efficient Puget Sound bus system and the gracious hospitality of this parish couple. The greatest inconvenience to me, apart from dodging slow traffic Monday morning and Friday afternoon, is waiting in Seattle for the connecting bus. Some weeks, though, I have to drive it more than once -- to accommodate appointments, school events, etc.

III. The Job Itself

It's interesting that I didn't actually apply for this job. Many of us aren't nearly at good finding work as in having work find us. I had an application registered at the Archdiocese of Seattle, but had used it to apply to parochial schools around Tacoma; I wasn't considering working so far north. It was only after getting turned down from a few public school jobs [the districts I had subbed in last year posted about one job each], that I got a call from the Principal at St Thomas More -- where they had not yet found someone they found suitable -- amd drove up to interview. While I was waiting to hear back from them, I got a call from the Fine Arts Director in Bethel SD saying he was recommending me to a principal in Clover Park [less than half hour away from home]. Then I did get offered the job at St Thomas More, but thought I was on the verge of getting the closer job. I also got a job offer from another Catholic school -- but it was half time rather than full. For a while it felt like it could be the tomb scene in Romeo & Juliet -- one of us taking poison before the other wakes up. But in the end, all the back and forth probably helped settle in our minds that we -- St Thomas More School (via the Principal) and I -- were meant for each other. I do think it is a better situation than I would have found in the public schools. Everyone on staff is a willing and warm collaborator.

I teach 8th grade down through preschool -- one class at each level of General Music meeting twice per week. Then there are student-led liturgies about once a month for which I prepare the grade assigned [who become the choir] and the Mass Band -- which currently comprises three guitar players [one of whom I have switched to bass and another of whom is the 7th grade teacher and who also assists me], three piano players [one of whom also plays flute and the other two of whom are best friends and divide up the keyboard between them] and one drummer [a real natural]. I do whatever I can to maximize their participation, even if it means sacrificing perfection. They meet Mondays after school. I also have three after-school choir rehearsals each week. The younger group, mostly 3-4 graders, sees me twice. This was implemented in past years to accommodate their attendance being made inconsistent by sports and other commitments. But I find that the girls miss few rehearsals, and are therefore getting a lot of attention and training from me to prepare them for more advanced work. The advanced choir [traditionally known as Bella Voce] has turned out to be 5-8 grade. Two girls [one 5th, one 6th] are in both groups, meaning they sing with me three hours a week in addition to General Music. They are both quite talented and a joy to teach. There are also two boys in Bella [voices still high]. It is my last event on Fridays, and always an uplifting way to end the week. The 7-8 gr girls emerge from the self-conscious state the General Music class puts them in and pick up on the energy and focus of the 5-6 graders.

There not being a strong tradition of older boys singing, I had them all meet with me one at a time, during my first week, to introduce myself and check their singing range. I then asked seven of them, whose voices had dropped down and who could match pitch, to meet with me twice a week for 15'; I dubbed them The Baritones. Their singing has been steadily improving in this context -- though some of them are still self-conscious about singing in class when the girls are present. One day, I asked the vice-principal if she could supervise the 8th gr girls for 15' [and later do the same for the 7th gr] to give the young men a chance to work with me alone. Later that day, three more 8th grade boys asked if their voices had changed enough to join the baritones. I wasn't even trying to recruit them; I imagine they saw how the other guys had been enjoying their rehearsals with me and looked to this as a rite of passage. They are not matching pitch all that well yet, but I have a sense that it will come with regular singing with their peers. We are memorizing "Christmas in the Trenches" for the Christmas concert -- which speaks to the heart of what it means to be a Christian man more than any other song I can think of. Perhaps you know this John McCutcheon song about British and German troops celebrating together on the battlefield in the midst of WWI. In an effort to get students playing recorders past gr 4, when it has been introduced here, I'm starting a "consort" to do "Good King Wenceslas" [recorders, xylophones, boomwhackers] on the Christmas concert. Someday a guitar program . . .

IV. Workshops

After getting my Orff Level I certification at the beginning of the Summer -- which required me to spend two weeks down at U of OR -- I was gung-ho to put this approach into practice. I find, however, that expectations accompanying this position limit what I can initiate -- with performances and masses scheduled far in advance. But my classroom is outfitted with [7] mallet instruments, boomwhackers, handbells and percussion; I work these in, along with movement, wherever it makes sense to do so. My principal suggests that after I've seen the year through, I'll be able to work my curricular goals in and around the events that parents and students have come to expect. But I've reserved the local Orff chapter's instruments for the month of Feb; and I hope to get something special together to showcase them. I attended the National Orff Conference earlier this month in Spokane [a happy coincidence that I didn't have to go out of state for my first one, though it's a big state to traverse]. My school covered my registration and substitute teacher. I bought teaching materials and instruments [including a plastic bass recorder for $115! Now I've got a tool rack on the classroom wall that holds bass through sopranino recorders]. I also got to know Paul Winter, who gave workshops and performed there. He's as mellow as his recordings would suggest. . . and such pathos in his sax playing! Then the Seattle Archdiocese sponsored a workshop with choral guru Alice Parker [which my principal mandated I attend!]. It was great meeting Alice, who's from Western MA, and reminiscing with her about Arnie and Ruth Black. Monica was able to come to that too.

V. Withdrawing Spirit from Yesterday's Bank

You may recall that a while back I put a lot of effort into updating my past listening library to today's technology. I am particularly grateful that I had the time to do that before moving west, because I need a lot of music to accompany me driving [or riding the bus] in my present life. I think back to my first quarter-century, when I was making an exciting series of discoveries (with the same eagerness many of my students show today): the British invasion, psychedelia, Beethoven, Josquin, Berlioz, Mahler, Berg, the jazz masters and, or course, classical guitar technique. Once reaching a saturation point for musical complexity, I sought a wider range of folk and international styles. Nowadays, it sometimes feels like there is nothing new in music. After all, in spite of what a wonderfully crafted song "Come Together" is, I've been hearing it regularly for 40 years now! I wouldn't want to figure out the total number of listenings. I do get excited, however, about new ways to excite my students about music -- whatever the style; and I sensed that excitement from the other Orff conference participants. We're being re-born into the simple while becoming newly fired up by its pedagogical possibilities. The Orff-Schulwerk offers ways to make good on my experience as composer and dancer -- I got to do a lot of creative movement at the conference -- which helps me feel more at peace with the circuitous path of my life.

I'm trying to put my finger on what this spirit is about. Remember when top 40 radio was playing "I am the Walrus" or "Strawberry Fields"? Didn't it feel like anything was possible? Or was that simply an illusion -- when the music industry was behind something creative because it happened to sell at that point. Likewise with the selling of Barack O. We hoped change could be generated from the top floor. I pray that now -- with the U.S. political scene having degenerated beyond the point of students gone wild on the substitute teacher, in the belief they won't be held accountable -- some real change might be generated from the street. In the meantime, wherever I get that spirit from -- the umpteenth time hearing Hendrix do "All Along the Watchtower" or the culmination of themes in the slow movement of Mahler's 6th -- it is incumbent on me to pass it on to my students. They're going to need it to take the country back.

Peace, Jeffry

21 July 2010

Changing Winds - Summer 2010

I've just returned from a two-week visit back to Folly Cove (in Gloucester, MA, which is itself a part of Cape Ann), where my mother still lives. It was great seeing old friends & family (L to R, my sister, my niece and their dog, my mom and brother). . .
swimming in the ocean (the cove being just beyond the backyard). . .
relaxing, attending Rockport Chamber Music Festival concerts, playing music (I made a fresh transcription of Bach's Gm violin fugue). . .
and further activities to be described below. I was pleased at how many of my old friends still felt like current friends -- that moving away a year ago did not have to be an ending to, but rather a redefining of, these connections. When some of them remarked they had not gotten a newsletter from me for a while, I began writing this. Though I had been uploading multi-paragraph updates as facebook 'notes' until about 6 months ago, many of my facebook 'friends' (myself included) go long periods without logging on. This time around, I'll see to it that you all receive at least a link to this newsletter in your email inbox. Not having a chance to finish it in Gloucester, I've changed the dateline to Tacoma. After writing down all my random thoughts, I then looked for the pieces that lend themselves to semi-coherent prose -- like sorting laundry. Added to that are some personal news items.


Those of us who have lived on both sides of the country are ever seeking to articulate what distinguishes one side from the other. Some things are clearly done differently. In the NE, having been settled earlier, there is more doing what's always been done. Easterners may not strive for efficiency, feeling somewhat powerless over outdated systems and infrastructure too embedded to be redesigned -- such as Boston's street plan of 'paved-over cowpaths'. A Tacoma neighbor recently commented that the NE more resembles Europe. Houses tend to be older and situated on, what Northwesterners would find to be, oddly shaped lots. They can be more difficult to maintain. Daily transactions seem less technologically based than out west, where Orwellian traffic cameras issue moving violations. It's much easier to get lost driving -- which I did once again in Boston (for old times' sake). But, now that I'm back, I do miss having the ocean to swim in, right there, no less. Puget Sound is never warm enough and the nearest lake is a 40-minute drive. I don't mind having left the heat and humidity back east, however.

Returning this time to my birth-town as a visitor, I mulled over a question that ran something like: Does the place ensoul its people, or is it the people who ensoul the place? My mother and I attended the opening reception for an exhibit featuring local artists of the 1930s, some of whom established themselves internationally -- part of a crowd my parents fell in with upon moving here in 1946. Those years -- perhaps up through the dissolution of the Folly Cove Designers in the late 60s -- are sometimes spoken of as Cape Ann's "Golden Age". There was a lot of smoking and drinking that went with the territory. (I recall as a small child sculptor George Demetrios kissing me with a cigar in his mouth). They've almost all passed away by now. But Cape Ann is no less vibrant: new people move in, new families are begun, and new community endeavors replace those that have faded away. An old friend took me to a round-robin song-sharing jam two coves over. Of the 15 or so people there, I knew four. There was a high level of skill: vocally, guitar-picking and songwriting -- along with an unspoken rule that no individual would dominate (or consume too much alcohol). No one smoked. I played some Bach for variety, and George T and I sang "Clear Away" (by the other Bok, Gordon) for the first time since we had performed it a dozen years ago in the dance-drama of the same name -- which also has the significance of being the last performance attended by my father before he died.

One might assume that our regional accent defines our primary home base; in my case that would be Michigan, where I spent my school years. But in the 30 years since my parents returned east from there, I have only made one visit -- when I drove across country last Summer. I walked the Cranbrook grounds with a classmate who now teaches there, bid her goodbye and started for Indiana. But then, along Lone Pine Rd, I saw the opportunity to pull over and walk alone into the quadrangle of the boys' school. My eyes were flooded with tears as all the years of growth, triumphs, discoveries and disappointments hit me like a Mahler tutti -- as though all those I interacted with, and each year's manifestation of myself, were existing simultaneously in that moment.

I'm trying to take stock of what I have in fact acquired with age. It seemed that when I was younger, my rate of assimilation was faster; but then, there was so much new to assimilate. It took only a year for my favorite album to go from being Led Zeppelin's debut to Josquin's Missa Pange Lingua. Areas of emotional and spiritual growth appear to have progressed less rapidly, but then most of us don't receive the methodic training available to students of music.

Right from day one, we are probably looking around and deciding who we want to be like. In 1968, the ones who struck me as happiest -- or at least most interesting -- took drugs; 20 years down the road, the most contented people I could name didn't even touch alcohol. One by one, I endeavored to become conscious of the activities and thought-forms that were keeping me stuck or isolated. Each summit in our climb offers a vantage point to simultaneously view where we've been as well as the way to the next summit. In our hometown it can be more challenging to continue this climb, to shed what does not serve us, surrounded as we are by the environment of our less mature years. We may need to reinvent ourselves, but cannot push outside of what we have been. And so while I share history with the granite shores and crusty character passed down through Gloucester's generations, I also identify with a risk-all pioneering spirit -- and willingness to change -- that I observe in many fellow Northwesterners.

With each passing year, we build our archive of experiences and relationships which, like compost, can break down to form a rich soil. I retain the nutrients from countless interactions -- like New Testament parables, though all the more memorable for having been witnessed firsthand. We may have to pass this life in one body -- our hardware, so to speak -- but are capable of unlimited software upgrades.


I got to spend the last third of the school year at one long-term assignment, Woodland Elementary in Puyallup. I had a fun time, building connections with students and staff and honing my General Music chops. Long having been curious about the Orff-Schulwerk method of school music instruction, I finally got my Level I certification some weeks ago at the U of Oregon. The approach covers more territory than I had imagined, much of it not dependent on having recorders or mallet instruments on hand -- methodically addressing issues we music teachers often have with students that just don't seem to 'get it'. The campus was lush and the teachers very effective, organized and personable -- more than justifying the hassles of getting to and from (two weeks, Mo-Fr, I returned to Tacoma by bus in between) and being uprooted. In fact, it was kind of neat being a college student again, without all those longings that went with my undergraduate years on the Hampshire campus. I wrote this in my final reflection:
The Orff-Schulwerk process offers not only a wealth of children’s repertoire, but a set of insights that maximize each child’s success in learning it. While I’ve long incorporated elements of movement, drama, folklore, instruments, composing, social studies and literacy into music classes — typically with an emphasis on singing -- I now see that I was not sufficiently aware of how these elements can work together in sequential fashion to build students’ confidence and musicianship over the long term.

It is difficult to say how I will apply this approach in my teaching next year because I don’t know if I will have a position or be substitute teaching. But the experience offers valuable ideas either way: if I have a position I can take the time to build a foundation under each student; if I’m in a school only for a day, I have a bag of activities that can ‘break the ice’ as well as give some children a new or enhanced concept of themselves as makers of music.

Seeing the collaborative process so alive between my colleagues renewed my faith in what adults can accomplish together; we have much more in common that did first appear. It is exciting to imagine the thousands of children who will benefit from the vigor, caring and newly informed methods of these teachers — each of their successes bringing us closer to Peace on Earth.

A few of the specific insights I can apply next time I walk into any classroom:

• use of speech patterns to learn rhythms, rather than begin with notation on the board
• use of body percussion and step patterns, rather than resorting to number counts that some never assimilate (which could also lend itself to song writing)
• working on vocal and rhythmic independence through complementary ostinati
• leading activities where expression — movement, singing, playing — is an end in itself, rather than students having to learn a set melody, choreography, etc.
The experience also renewed my interest in the recorder and inspired me to deal with the two tenors and a bass I had left at my mom's (which had belonged to a local musician who passed away) whose hardware would need repair for the bottom notes to become accessible. When I dropped Monica off at a Boston wharf for a cruise with her sisters, I took the recorders to the Von Heune Workshop -- New England's recorder capital. At their suggestion, however, I donated them to a Waldorf school -- where having wooden recorders may be important enough to make repair worthwhile -- and purchased a Yamaha plastic tenor for myself.

One of the many books I rediscovered in my mother's house had blessed both her childhood and ours, The Poppy Seed Cakes by Margery Clark. With a mind to Orff treatments, as well as preserving the 80-year-old tome, I scanned the first half -- which I can now easily present on...


My newsletters sometimes explore technical matters and the device of the year for me is my iPod Touch. Whether of not you have one of these -- or the iPhone, whose operating system it shares -- I hope you will find of interest how I have utilized it thus far. I bought a refurbished 8GB one from Apple for $150 after the hard drive failed on my used 'clickwheel' iPod. It can't hold all of my iTunes library; but hey, how many days of music do you need with you at any one time? It does the internet over wi-fi, making it ideal for reading the NY Times over breakfast. For $30 I bought a cable that allows me to project video on a TV or LCD projector -- though this only works via the Photo, Video and YouTube apps [short for 'applications'; better get used to it]. I was able to save song lyrics [at times adding images, notation] as iPhoto 'albums' [on my laptop] that are presented from the iPod as 'slideshows' -- very handy for a classroom music teacher. Audio can be played at the same time, but you have to return to the music app to cue it and can only synchronize manually. A song presentation can also be converted -- on your computer -- to a Quicktime movie (though it takes up more storage) should you want audio and lyrics/images to play themselves in sync while you tend to other matters. I can plug in a $6 mic and record my students -- in four tracks even (a $4 app). [Through another adapter I can also record with a battery-powered condenser mic, but the cheap mics do pretty well]. In my long-term sub assignments last year, I uploaded these recordings to my webspace for students to hear online. I can process live audio [guitar, voice] through multiple effect modules (99¢). I have simple FM and analog synthesizers that can be triggered by a pattern sequencer (a $5 splurge). I have downloaded free public domain books [Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dickenson, et al] that display clearly -- pages 'turning' at the touch of the screen. Hard copies of all the stuff on this diminutive device would fill the back of a pickup. Enough of that for now, lest you begin to suspect that I'm more interested in figuring out everything possible I can get my iPod to do as opposed to accomplishing anything of substance.


Back in Folly Cove I put many hours into cleaning the family homestead, trying to dust things like a broken cuckoo clock, fragile Chinese miniatures and programs from the 1948-9 season of Boston Civic Orchestra. I suppose even this iPod will one day share dust with these historic items. The house (which my parents bought when I was four) was already full of books, recordings, antiques and furniture when Monica and I added more last Summer, to prepare our Lanesville barn-home (a mile up the road) for rental. Earlier migrations had been my grandmother's belongings, the monastic furniture of her un-married sister, stuff we had in Michigan, and many travel souvenirs. My mother has shown a lot of tolerance at each influx. But what is a healthy balance between letting go and honoring what has been? How do we keep from putting more effort into maintaining objects than maintaining relationships? All I can say is that I am grateful for how I've been blessed with both, and hope that you have been as well.

Peace, Jeffry

guitarist, composer, educator

04 March 2010

Birthday poem for my wife

No matter what we say or do,
The years since 1952
Continue to accumulate
With accelerated interest rate.
But this birthday's different from the rest:
The first one spent in the Northwest!
With new friends, new work, new terrain
And lots and lots and lots of rain.
However, we must not forget:
It's still God's Country when it's wet.
And where else can one so delight
At the appearance of direct sunlight?
But in all of this there's none so dear
As the woman who brought us here;
And no sun rays quite match the grace
Brought each of us in your smiling face.

17 February 2010

Tacoma at 6 months

Decided not to wait till my next life to play piano; always loved Brahms' Op 118 Intermezzo in A; tried arranging it for guitar duet 30 years ago (David Leisner read through it with me then); but now I am actually playing it (still under tempo) on our grand! This instrument (on loan from St Leo's, Tacoma) is nowhere near as nice as the Estonia we left behind (on loan to St Paul's, Gloucester), so I look forward to a reunion with the latter someday. While there will always be music written for keyboard that finds a new life on guitar, I will henceforth explore the option of learning first to play on piano pieces I would be tempted to transcribe. Now I remember my German grandmother [Brahms being her favorite] trying to instruct me, when I was about 12; but it being her idea, and me not yet having developed a taste for classical music, I resisted. Apparently, doing it "my way" meant putting off piano till mid-life, with the added impetus of needing keyboard skills to vie for choral director jobs. Even my first guitar teacher, Jack, encouraged me to learn piano. I also had to overcome taking on something that my wife [both first and second] would always do better than I.

My last two recitals went well. When I attended a recital at the Antique Sandwich Co. before, only those of us seated near the stage were giving our full attention. But when I played there two weeks back, I was pleased to be the focus of a full house. The Wright Park Conservatory, last Sunday, only seats a few; but a lot of flowers heard me [see photos at my profile page]. The Mandolin Cafe (where I played 12/22) did not turn out to be a good place for classical guitar, but a couple who heard me there returned for the subsequent programs.

Have had some long-term substitute teaching jobs [8 days in Puyallup, 5 in University Place] that allowed me to build rapport with students [most classes met daily] and a relationship with their music teacher (even if just by phone). Although the work is unpredictable, I appreciate the freedom substitute work affords. I can show up, leave my mark, but not be responsible for the ongoing upkeep of each program. Two sisters (5 & 6) just showed me -- at the conclusion of an Ash Wednesday service -- the "To Stop the Train" round with all the moves, as learned from their older sister who learned it from me in school [kind of like the spread of a virus!] One day I'm a choral director, another day orchestra, band or general music for primary grades. I usually give all students a classical guitar demo at the end of class -- which may yield some private students, but I mostly do it to increase the audience for my instrument. I can't take it personally when I don't hear again from some music teachers, as they may simply have used up their sick days. And it's probably for the best I am not working full-time every week, so I have time to clean house, practice and write this.

All it feels like I've done for Haiti, so far, is to re-write the last verse of Harriet Tubman in the arrangement I taught to choirs at Stahl Jr High. I know the coming years will bring many opportunities to assist Haitians, though. One of a number of powerful stories I've heard since the earthquake concerned a former St Leo's parishioner (a recent college graduate) who successfully evacuated all the children from the orphanage where she worked, but did not make it out herself. The social justice coordinator at St Leo's is going to be selling my CDs as a fundraiser for church ministries and he's also arranged for me to play to guests at the soup kitchen.

I don't see how one can call it Winter here. We stayed at the National Parks Inn on Christmas Night for a White Christmas, but down here around Puget Sound the grass has remained green. The sun appears rarely enough that you can't help but smile when it does; and while that may not be as severe as the snow and freezing temps you have out East, I suppose the reappearance of the sun is what we most look forward to about Spring in the NW. We have a spectacular old-growth [500-year-old trees in many cases] forest in Point Defiance Park (a mile from our house), highlighted with luminescent lichens. As Toby and I were exploring a stream in a ravine there yesterday, I kept asking myself how could there possibly be no mosquitoes. What you don't see, however, is the lead and arsenic contamination of the soil, the legacy of the infamous smelter that locals speak of.

Had two rainy get-aways in the past month. Monica and I drove to Port Townsend, staying at a cozy B&B in this self-conscious National Register of Historic Places town -- the closest we've felt to Cape Ann in a while. Then I went to an RC Men's Workshop on Vashon Island (which we view from our home). It's great to be back in touch with the Re-evaluation Counseling community, even if none of the faces are familiar -- my first overnight workshop in over a decade.

Nat (who turns 21 this month) has been enjoying being a student at Tacoma Community College, which has lifted his spirits considerably. He has also been hitting the pavement to find a job. Noah (17) has still been missing much school due to illness; we haven't been so far able to figure why his immune system functions so poorly. Please keep them both in your prayers.

That's it for now. Thanks for sticking with me this long. With each passing month in the NW, I seek to make myself a more versatile musician (music educator) and a more loving person . . . with a good ways yet to go.

Peace be with you, Jeffry