Ale, the kid’s real English teacher, asked me last week to teach the kids the alphabet song. It might not be obvious that learning how to spell in a foreign language is important but I can tell you from my own personal experience it is critical. A few years ago I tried to tell an guy I was hiring off of Craig’s List how to find our job site. This guy spoke only Spanish. I could speak Spanish to him but getting a street address and a town name across two languages can be hard. I tried to say the name slowly. Then I had the bright idea that I would spell the name. Oh, snap! I couldn’t spell easily. I kept saying e instead of a and i instead of e and after a few laughter filled minutes I realized I couldn’t even figure out how to say k….I texted the guy and he found us just fine.
I have since learned to spell pretty well but I still get hung up on k, g, and x. Most recently I’ve learned to ask the kids how to spell their names since I can’t understand what they try to tell me. They are world champion mumblers and most of the names are quite unusual to my ears. Try: Marely, Mireya, Onahomi, Yeraska, Frixia, Janexi, Zania, Evely…in Spanish. I enter their spelled names into my phone and practice after class. I still confuse the names Marely and Mireya but at least I see them in different places.
So today we sang the ABCs. Remember how it goes? It’s set to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. We did that too. There is a Spanish language version of the same song. The kids’ faces lit up when they realized their ABCs and their Brillante Estrella were the same tune, too. Nobody had pointed it out to them before. Add that to my list of things to learn.
Boys prefer red. I guess. I hate to generalize but there they are wearing red. Maybe it’s their parents? This week I gave away note pads as prizes for each kid that sang the Hello song solo. Everyone of them did it and did it well. Wheels on the Bus was revealed as a massive group effort of lipsyncing. All kids got the open and shut and round and round and back and forth but that was it. The connecting phrases evaporated into thin air if I didn’t lead the song. Five Little Monkeys had some gaps at this phrase: One fell off and hit his head. I’ve been demonstrating the hit head so many times I have a stiff neck so I was surprised to hear a lot of mumbling when the group sang it without me. More repetition. Less action on the head.
On the up side these phrases are solid:
1. Hello, how are you?
2. I am fine, thank you.
3. I like…insert a favorite color or food.
4. I am…insert age.
This is because Alejandra is working them hard and we review it in singing class. I can take credit for up, down, in and out, round and round, and do the Hokey Pokey.
The kids in music class are getting their right hand strumming under control so this week I let them hold the instruments by themselves and had them try to play a chord. Obviously nobody is going to learn how to play music this way. The idea is to open minds to things they might do in the future. Many of the kids have guitar players in their families. Here they can develop an interest that might lead to a desire or a drive or an inkling. Who knows? Maybe one day they’ll ask to play papa’s guitar. There aren’t many (any?) local female instrumentalists that I know about. Once again we’re modeling ideas. Giving the girls something to think about.
This week we also did an improvisational dance number where I hilariously yelled out to dance like a spider when I meant to say frog. Araña is spider. Rana is frog. I said araña instead of rana as I proceeded to hop about like a frog of a certain advanced age might. The kids figured it out. This magical moment is available in video on Facebook thanks to class mom April.
I’ve been doing some Portal Irish Music Week bookkeeping. While I sat at my computer sending off annoying emails reminding people to pay their deposits this scorpion caught my eye. It was hard to miss as it made a move towards my foot. Happily I was shod in real shoes and saw it before it sought shelter in my pant leg. My yell for Burt had an unmistakable element of intensity. Burt thought I was either under attack or had won the lottery. And the truth is I was very excited in a happy way and also terrified. The thing is these big scorpions look bad but have a fairly mild sting. But they really look bad. We relocated this to an open field across the street.
Critical time and mass are being achieved in our sweet music class. Day one was full of shy smiling kids. Most were too timid to ‘abre la boca.’ I begged them to open their mouths and let out some noise. Hardly a proverbial peep. Five weeks later they are singing strong and we’ve moved off the strictly kids songs into some more serious material. Once again I am reminded about the concept of ‘just showing up’ as a tenet of a successful life. Some one once asked me how I got my black belt in karate and I responded, without thinking, I just showed up. Meaning most success is derived from being present and participating, not from super powers or talent. So here are my singing kids. I am very proud of them. They are requesting songs and selecting dances and pounding on their instruments. And they are still smiling.
Of course this isn’t just about singing. The ability to overcome shyness and take the stage translates into success all through life. My goal is to inspire confidence and build bridges between the two cultures. I want these girls to know how to speak up for themselves and not fear big, strange gringos. We’ll keep showing up for them.
It was standing room only at the Pescadero music class yesterday. There are no chairs unless we bring them so it’s always standing room only. We actually have no room or bathroom, either. Despite our lack of facilities we have a great time. The wall makes it easy for me to trap the kids. Eleven chamacos showed up to stretch their vocal chords yesterday. They range in age from 3 to 13. Mostly girls. My rough Spanish and general hugeness (physical and metaphysical) seems to keep them all slightly intimidated and that’s a good thing.
To give you an example of what we’re up against culturally here are the kids names:
There are no typos. How am I supposed to remember these names? I have them in my phone and I study them every day but it’s like learning latin names for plants. It will not stick. I can’t remember people’s names when they are names I’m familiar with. I might not win this particular battle. Meanwhile Burt and I are somewhat famous. Our names are on posters around town advertising the kid’s music classes. One kid called me by name from across the way yesterday. It’s shocking to hear my own name yelled out. The caller was Elvier, student numero uno. He was the first kid to show up at the very first class. I can remember him because he’s one of the rare boys and I remember Elvis-notElvis-Elvier.
Every class I try to sneak in little lessons on self esteem and working together. My motto is if you can’t use your voice you can’t succeed. So we make funny noises and dance around and get loud and not so musical. Confidence, cooperation…Fun. The Hokey Pokey is what it is all about.
The other day we were sitting on the back porch of our friends Richard and Rose Ann house. It was mid-afternoon and their porch is a sanctuary from the sun and wind that time of day. We had just installed a new hanging feeder to replace one torn down by a bear last winter. Rose Ann was chatting with us about, what else, birds. Richard was sitting nearby working on a computer with the windows open to the porch. Rose Ann mentioned she had just read a NY Times article about interspecies communication between birds. I had just read the same article and the day before and had discussed it with Burt. You can read the article HERE.
Scientists in Missoula, MT had recently discovered precise interspecies communication between birds. If you spend enough time outside and pay attention it is no surprise that birds talk amongst themselves and that they talk across species lines. What the new research revealed is not that the birds eavesdropped and heard warnings from other birds. What was surprising was that the studied birds were actually saying very specific things. Instead of saying, for example,”Hey, look out!” the birds were saying, “Look out there’s a goshawk.” The species threatened by a goshawk took note and made evasive action. If you were a bird too small for a goshawk to bother you could ignore the warning. The scientists were able to do this by computer analysis of the warning calls. So what sounds pretty much the same to human ears sounds distinctly different to bird ears. In fact, some birds of prey might not even be able to hear the warning calls. The other surprising fact was that the calls travel by way of relay (neighborhood dogs barking) at speeds up to 100 mph. That’s amazing. So the three of us were discussing this. My conclusion: Only the slow, stupid or deaf are being eaten.
So there we were three merry nature lovers marveling at some new facts. In the midst of our discourse the Mexican Jays caused a ruckus across the creek. They started squaking and screaming. We could not see them but laughed and wondered what had them riled up. Then I heard the most annoyed cat sound come from between the bird screams. A kind of halfhearted roar. It sounded annoyed. I said, “Listen. It’s a mountain lion.” A moment of disbelief from my partners was followed by consternation that there was a mountain lion grumbling a few yards away and the birds were in fact harassing it while we spoke of bird communication. A few more roars ensued. They grew faint as the jays gave chase. All the commotion moved downstream. I swear I heard the lion say, “All right already, I’m leaving.” The jays responded, “Good riddance to bad trash.” Jays are not polite birds.
Meanwhile today the Gypsy Carpenters partook of some itra-species and inter-species communication. We played music for the 3rd annual Friends of Cave Creek Canyon (FoCCC) garden party. Our friend Buzz sat in with us. Buzz is a deeply religious man and we don’t share similar views on everything but we adore (or our side of the equation, anyway) each other. We love music, hunting, roaming the west, homegrown eggs, self-reliance, food, Montana….I bring this up because I think it’s important to share the world with lots of different people and be open to having positive experience with everyone. Buzz has tried to bring me to Jesus a couple of times and I don’t mind. He has only love in his heart. I hope he remains patient with my un-believing self. Some many of you have and I appreciate the respect. It goes both ways for me. I told Buzz today I appreciate all his prayers on my behalf.
Below is a picture in black and white by (I think) Jackie Lewis. Buzz is in the background playing his spoons. In the foreground are Bob and Gloria. Bob is 96 and Gloria is 92. Bob nearly danced himself off the porch today. I’d hate to have been responsible for life threatening injury. Gloria always asks me to sing Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows. She is one hip chick. All of us are having a wonderful time sitting on a porch.
The Bridge to English 2014 Inaugural Concert has come and gone. After two months of weekly singing classes a performance for the ages was presented to friends and family of our music students. The Gypsy Carpenters learned a lot when they participated in the 3 hour holiday extravaganza of kindergarteners back in December. What they learned is 25 minutes is all you need to blow your audience away. If it’s a flop, it’s over quick and if it’s a success, there is nothing wrong with leaving the crowd hungry. We had snacks for the past show party.
Last week’s post-traumatic stress brought on by tough guy teens that failed to sing a single syllable of any songs brought divine inspiration. As directress of this revue I was wondering how best to present the material. I wanted to do a group vocal exercise with all our students and staff and family and friends but then what. Being a ploddingly predictable engineer at times, I was stuck on the idea of putting the kidlets up first and building in age until we had the oldest and most jaded amongst us taking the stage last. If the teens failed to produce we’d just fizzle out and have to skulk home. My other idea was to end it all with a grand Hokey Pokey. Hundreds in concentric circles wagging and shaking and twisting and turning on my command, but how to inspire a grand Hokey Pokey after the silent lip syncing of surly teens? There was my answer! I’d put the teens on first and get them out of their misery and not allow them to stew or conspire while the tweens and niños slayed their parents.
I told Serena my idea and she agreed it was brilliant and she added, merciful. The teens could get up and out and like a terrific vaccination it would be over before they knew what had happened. And that is exactly what happened. Serena introduced us and the Bridge to English program and then we called up the teenagers to do their bit. They never saw it coming. While Serena finished with the business of things I gave them a pep talk. You can see by the crossed arms and grim demeanors that most of them didn’t believe a word I said. Too bad for them. I was right. They were all stars. By going first the audience was warm and kind and gave them big cheers for their whispered renditions of Three Little Birds, There’s a Bad Moon Arising, and Stand By Me. They were wonderful. Wigged out by the twin goloms of peer pressure and an audience they stood up and did their best. It’s hard to breath and make much noise if you don’t want to be seen in public making a mistake. Kudos for the kids that stepped up and tried. A special shout out to Burt that gave them not a beat to rest between songs. He made it move so fast they never had to take their eyes of the lyric sheets and see who was watching.
The tweens and younger set killed us with their smiles and spot on rhythm. On Top of Spaghetti elicited some delirious moans of recognition from gringo parents. Nick Nack Paddy Whack left me gasping for breath. I’ll need to up my aerobic training for next year. Our teapots all poured hot water onto each other since I had never bothered to try and get everyone pouring in the same direction. Choreographer I am not. I could hardly keep my own handle and spout organized. And then it was time. Time for the show stopping Hokey Pokey. I called for body parts. I got eyes, shoulders, feet, legs, hair, fingers….and…cadera. Um…Cadera? We’re practicing English. English, please, and there it was, in a surreptitious, almost naughty tone from the depths of the legion of children surrounding me, Our Holy Grail of the Hokey Pokey…bottom. BOTTOM did you say? Bottom.
And so it was. I did all the parts and repeated (I know not why. Perhaps, menopause?) thee times feet. I kept searching for the missing part (leg) and said feet over and over. Ah well. Repetition is how you learn. The whole show took 25 minutes. Perfect. Snacks awaited.
How lucky are we two to have been part of this? Another facet of our musical life building community wherever we are. Thanks to Burt, Bequia, Tom, Magi and Cathie and all the Bridge to English teachers for helping me out. We couldn’t have done it without you.
Sometimes I feel like the lame old elk facing a pack of wolves when I teach kids. They can sniff your weakness. They have the killer instinct. Yesterday was our last class of music with the Bridge to English program at the Palapa Society. News that next week would be a joint show for family and friends was met with a range of enthusiastic jumping and disgusted eye rolling. The younger kids were predictably excited and ready to sing loud and show off their new skills picking out body parts for the Hokey Pokey, lamenting lost meatballs and playing the claves and tambourine. Teenagers wanted us to go away and sealed their mouths up tight as if they had never sung a line of Three Little Birds in their lives. Stupid Little Birds was the theme. I cajoled, I threatened the Hokey Pokey, I ignored them. Then I remembered I was bigger, older, smarter and a trained martial artist. So I laughed back and plowed on ahead with the program. Damn the eye rolls! Even if 2/3 of the group weren’t singing, 1/3 was and that’s who we were there for.
After 6 weeks Burt and I have learned this: each class is unpredictable from week to week and song to song. The kids you thought adored Bad Moon Arising’ won’t open their mouths if that other kid shows up and makes a face at them. One week nobody will make eye contact and the next week they are asking for hugs and the next week they scowl. I think the kids might be in the ‘change of life’, too. The only constant is the younger kids all want to shake their booty (or watch me shake mine) in the Hokey Pokey and the older kids do not want to do the Hokey Pokey, ever.
If you are in the neighborhood, come on down to the Palapa Society Thursday, 4/3/14, 4:30 for the show. Participation encouraged.
I (we) survived another 3 hours of the Hokey Pokey, I’m A Little Teapot, This Old Man, yada yada yada. The Palapa Society Bridge to English Concert is drawing near. Every week with the kids we never know what to expect. Some classes are divine and others must be a circle in Dante’s Hell. The mix of mood and personalities and weather makes for unpredictable results. I ponder every week if it is worth the effort and this week was no different but among the baleful looks and sealed lips I scored two unasked for hugs from little boys, a pair of girls vying to stand by my side and one little gem of a kid that told me he wanted to be a music teacher when he grew up. How crazy is that? I have no idea what I am doing and I can barely get by with my misshapen Spanish and this kid thinks he’d like to grow up and be just like me. Something must be going right. So I guess I’ll enjoy the post teaching exhaustion and hope the kid isn’t ruined by a career in music. I’d suggest electrician, carpenter or plumber.
There’s a restaurant hidden in the dust and cacti on the road to Cerritos Beach. This year’s sign is bigger, brighter and more easily seen than last year’s advertisement. Last year there was a tiny arrow with the word ‘desayuno’ pointing into the thorns. We never went. The better sign got people curious and word finally reached us that the food was cheap, tasty and plentiful so we went in for a meal about a week ago. It was a work day and Burt and I were hungry. We plowed through our huge plates so rapidly the waitress made a comment about our appetites. I told her we were working people. When she recovered from the shock that not all gringos are carefree layabouts she asked what we did. She nearly keeled over when I told her we were carpenters. Normally Burt and I don’t tell strangers we work. We do not have work permits and so it is illegal to work. We rarely work but on this day we did and so there you have it, I blurted it out on the one day this winter we worked. After my intemperate confession an excited conversation ensued between the two women running the restaurant. They showed us a table they hated. It was the ubiquitous in Mexico plastic bar table. White, ugly, flimsy. They wobble and spill drinks according to the women. How much for a wooden table? A stout, custom made wooden table? Burt hemmed and did a little carpet dancing. Wood alone can cost $100 around here. All wood comes from the mainland or the US or Canada. It’s very expensive. What to do, what to do? Burt told her he’d price some wood and get back to her with a figure. We fled. Visions of La Migra deporting us ensued.
Trusting to kindness and wanting to help people Burt got some wood and made a sturdy log-legged table in no time. We delivered it today. Burt charged ten meals. The clients were besides themselves with how fast he did the job and how little it cost. Don’t tell anyone. Music teacher and giver away of custom made furniture: these are not ways to make a living but a life.
Here’s what I posted on Facebook last night: Found a Peanut is starting to look like a viable escape from On Top of my Spaghetti….And those Three Little Birds are too damn stupid to see the reality of life if you ask me. Three hours of music classes are taking its toll. Teachers deserve more pay.
I guess I was a little worn out from eight 20 minute classes. I’m a Little Teapot and the Hokey Pokey’d right out. This teaching stuff is hard work. The hardest part for me isn’t standing there looking silly trying to speak in Spanish. It’s not hard making funny noises and dancing like a dork. What is hard is keeping track of where I am in the ‘curriculum.’ We have 3 classes to get to in one hour. That leaves us a theoretical twenty minutes to teach. With moving from room to room and getting attention and forming a circle….Maybe we have fifteen minutes a class. I start every group out the same way. We go through a variety a patently ridiculous breathing and vocalization exercises designed to get their brains and bodies engaged and to make them do silly stuff to overcome inhibitions. I do this 8 times in three hours. I think it sets the stage for my disorientation. Did I do the left elbow or the right foot or the hip in the 7th version of the Hokey Pokey? Was it last week or last class that I discussed the inner meaning of a Bad Moon Risin’? How do you explain moss (see On Top of Spaghetti lyrics) to a group of desert dwellers? Did I just ask a group of rolly eyed, slouchy adolescents if they liked a song? Never ask a group of teenagers if they like ANYTHING. Teenagers do not admit to adults that they like anything. The dangers of traversing from 6 year old to teenaged students in such a short span of time.
Yesterday I did one cool thing that worked very well with all the age groups. Tom Moran had joined in on mandolin and I asked Tom to play us short riffs that we could sing back to him. This kind of exercise develops listening skills and reinforces the concept that you need to listen to learn. Tom chose the back and forth call and response opening sequence of dueling banjos. What a brilliant selection. It was easy for me and it was unusual for the kids. Imagine a group of Mexican kids lilting out the theme song of that 70s classic movie Deliverance. Now imagine it eight times. Anybody got a canoe?