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). . .
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.
WHERE IS HOME?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 Easterners may not strive for efficiency, feeling somewhat powerless over outdated systems and infrastructure too embedded to be redesigned -- such as Boston's street plan of 'paved-over cowpaths'.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.
MUSIC TEACHINGI 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.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.
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.
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 I-PODMy 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.
THE CURSE OF THE MIDDLE CLASS?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.
JEFFRY HAMILTON STEELE
guitarist, composer, educator