II. Getting to Work
III. The Job Itself
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 NWBeing 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 . . .
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  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.