Learning about classical music starts early. I danced to recordings of the L’Arlésienne Suite in my living room strategically chosen by musical parents. But small people yesterday got to see and hear music performed live in an up close and personal way.
I’ve been attending Toronto Summer Music Festival daily since July 15, 2018. It features world renowned professionals, including those who live in our own city and it is a joy for its quality and its reasonable concert ticket prices – as well as its many free events. The professionals work with and inspire emerging professionals in its instrumental and vocal training programs, who perform frequently during the day in concerts and master classes.
I have volunteered previously along with many other locals and have continued to do so for three free concerts targeted to a young audience. Yesterday’s concert was an example of how to engage very young participants by showing them how to distinguish between different instruments and the sounds they make.
There were four instruments to learn about – oboe, french horn, violin and piano. The lively mistress of ceremonies encouraged each one to play a short selection. Artistic director Jonathan Crowe took his turn.
After all had shown the basic sound of their instruments, we witnessed a competition – starting with a challenge for each musician to make a sound that would make us laugh:
Soon we moved on to a sound that would make us feel. It was remarkable how well very young children listened. We then had a vote and on the basis of the volume, the winner was – the piano! The pianist was still bragging – “I won, I won” – at at an informal concert later in the afternoon.
But the most surprising event was what could be done musically with a less familiar instrument – the saw. David Hetherington traded his cello in a later ensemble for this quite amazing rendition of Brahm’s lullaby. He noted that while this could be termed a Stradivarius saw, it could be purchased at Home Depot.
The conductor Benjamin Zander noted in his famous TED talk that the world simply hasn’t discovered yet who wonderful classical music is – and he demonstrated it admirably. The children in this audience have a head start. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more children had a similar one.
At this stage of my life, funerals of various kinds are a regular event in contrast to weddings – though I did attend one on Saturday where the bride and groom made their way to a small church on Toronto Island from the mainland by canoe.
Walter Pitman OC Oont would have approved. Doing things a different way was something he excelled at. He lived a full 89 years with many careers and achievements – secondary school teacher, first elected member of the New Democratic Party to the federal government, member of the provincial parliamentant so much more. Electoral losses later never slowed him down. He subsequently became Dean of Arts at Trent University, President of Ryerson Techological Institute, head of the Ontario Arts Council, head of the Ontario Instutute for Studies in Education – and in retirement the biographer of five outstanding Canadian musicians. He and his wife Ida were inveterate arts attenders and I first met them as delegates of a major choral conference where they joined a massed choir for each of my eight years on the job. Incredibly modest about his own abilities, Walter always said to me, “You’re doing great work!”.
It was good to be cut down to size at his service of celebration. We heard from a theatre director that he always said the same thing to him. And we even heard in a moving tribute by his daughter that he said the same thing to his children. But perhaps the best tribute of all came when she said of her parents, “Any time any of us came into the room – children, grandchildren and now the 10 great grandchildren – their eyes would light up. A lovely memory of a man whose enthusiasm and support lit up so many of our eyes that evening.
Toronto has a wonderful summer music festival going on and I take in the concerts almost every evening for three weeks. Today was the first of three kids concerts, where I volunteer, and this morning something quite wonderful happened.
The performers were a change from the often classical fare. The group was the Kinan Azmeh CityBand visiting from New York and the lead on clarinet, Kinan Azmeh is originally from Syria. A good marketer reached out to ensure that some young recent arrivals from Syria were in the audience. Imagine their pleasure when Kinan introduced the group and invited questions in both languages – and all the kids responded. They clapped and cheered for music that combined familiar music blended with that of their new world. It’s a good day to be a Canadian.
Kiran was back in the evening for an additional concert as part of Toronto Summer Music Fesival program. The volume was set lower and one could hear that the arrangements were beautifully nuanced to incorporate the two worlds of New York and Syria. We visited his childhood village – now reduced to rubble. He commented on the travails of going through customs with a Syrian passport – nearly every time in returning to New York he was asked to step aside and join a line called “Other”, and then placed in a room with other nationalities of various ethnic backgrounds and colours and compelled to be silent for hours. In response to the inevitable, he learned to use the time to compose – and he said he wanted to dedicate the next composition to all the “Others” throughout the world caught in those same waiting rooms and never knowing the final outcome. Poignant moments.
The author Ursula LaGuin died in 2018 at age 88 after a long career as a distinguished novelist, poet and essayist. I picked up a book of her essays, No Time to Spare, Thinking About What Matters and very much enjoyed the opening one, “In Your Spare Time”. She reflected on the survey she had received from Harvard about asking how she used her own spare time, with a checklist of 27 items. The first was “golf” and she didn’t put a check mark there. I wouldn’t either. But as she went on to say, this is a strange question to ask people in their eighties. I agree. All our time is spare time.
LeGuin observes that normally we think of spare time as free time left over from a job or working hours. There were other things to check on the Harvard list that she didn’t tick off and I wouldn’t either. Racquet sports? – No. Bridge? – definitely, No. When my husband was alive he always chose to play against me. When he won he was happy and when he lost he was amazed. Shopping? – “if necessary would have been better than -Yes. TV? – we would be lying if we said No – and last but not least, “Creative Activities” – specified further as Paint. Write, Photograph etc.
Like LeGuin, I don’t regard “Write” as a spare time activity. I’ve written all my life as I am doing right now. Most of my writing would be regarded as non-fiction whether paid or otherwise. It includes reports, newsletters, articles, grant proposals, a book. journals, letters, minutes, agendas, websites, blogging (since 1995) and more recently posts and tweets – plus a few poems. Writing is a continuum. It’s not about spare time. It also suggests the Harvard survey writer didn’t have a clue what it might be like to live for eight decades. I find myself thinking that way about a lot of other people too.
It came up when I read about my university’s alumni celebration dinner – to be honest I wasn’t reading at all but watching a video – containing a frame picturing a large collection of golden spoons. Those who graduated fifty years ago were to be recipients, as I was nine years ago. “That’s lovely”, I thought – “but has anybody asked whether that’s what we really need from the university after fifty years?” Were any alternatives considered? A massage certificate? A discount for upgraded reading glasses or hearing-aid batteries? Boots with better treads?
But LeGuin, bless her, has come up with the proper use for the golden spoon. Maybe between our fixation on probiotic yogurt and fibre-filled cereals, we have forgotten about the frequent menu item of our childhoods – the soft boiled egg. In her chapter, “Without Egg”, she even gives instructions on how to cook one for the benefit of recent feminist grads who wouldn’t be caught dead in the kitchen. And to go with it, she spends a bit of time on the egg cup. Apparently American homes no longer have them – and I am tempted to put a picture of one on Facebook in the “Share if you know what this is” category. Of course I still have one – three in fact. I also still have the Corning ware with the blue flowers on it which was a popular shower present for weddings in 1959.
After some discussion as to whether the egg should be placed in the cup with the larger or smaller side up, LeGuin moves on to the search for the proper spoon. Before that, she notes that a knife must be made of steel and the spoon must be untarnishable. “I’ve never seen a gold egg spoon but I’m sure one would do” she says. VOILA! I rushed to buffet drawer filled with odd bits of silver and there sat the spoon unopened in its little plastic gift box. Now it becomes a neessity and like Leguin, I start the day with a boiled egg and an English muffin – and browse another of her essays. My favourite to date is entitled, “Would You Please F*cking Stop! You’ll have to read it yourself to find out what it’s about.
Be careful how you interpret the world. It is like that.
My laptop is back. I had noticed it was behaving strangely and taking forever to boot up in the morning, but last week it failed. I headed off for GeekSquad which had sold me the unit two years ago. Because I maintain a couple of websites, I stressed the urgency of a repair and went home to wait. I had saved all my documents on USB sticks and the updates were recent.
If you have any doubts about your addictions, take away your devices for a few days. “Left to my own devices” had a whole new meaning and made me ponder my interpretation of the world and what was currently in it. Here was some of it – readings for a couple of discussion groups, daily piano practice (I’m back doing this after resuming lessons), exercises to remedy a problem with the sciatic nerve, finishing reading a novel, cleaning the apartment, needing to do the laundry, grocery shopping. These might be seen as a reasonable workload for an 82 year old.
But they weren’t. I was obsessed with the absence of the laptop. Where was the more sombre view of what was happening in the US as documented in the New York Times online? What did I owe the accountant for my taxes – since the invoice now came electronically? What were they saying on Washington Week? This might seem obsessively American. I live in Canada. I had access to mail on a tablet and a phone. But I felt as though someone had removed part of my brain and it was in the shop. Where were the 20 or 30 newsletters that came through Unroll,me?
Thus, I was ready for of all things – theology. A book, Life Abundant, was buried on a shelf but I hadn’t looked at it for years. I met the author at a west coast retreat centre some years ago and told her I had just bought her book. “Which one?” she asked, and on hearing the title, she responded, “I’m so glad. I’ve been writing the same book 14 times so far and this is the best version yet”. Amazon tells me that there are later ones, but this one is more than sufficient.
The book’s subtitle is Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril. Sallie McFague taught at Vanderbilt Theology School for more than 30 years and is now based at Vancouver School of Theology where she is still teaching and conducting research. She starts this book by explaining that she has spent many years teaching religious autobiography, but when challenged, realized that she had never written her own. It’s a reminder that we all have one – whether we are part of a denomination, or agnostic or atheist. The last thing we generally have time for thought as to what it is.
During re-reading, I was giving myself brownie points that reflection was the most frequent tag on my blog posts, but theology is more than that. I’m generally optimistic and see life more as a comedy than a tragedy. These days it’s more like a farce with a reality show leader keeping us all glued for the latest episode where we couldn’t make this stuff up. We are amused and appalled. But what does it say about us? I’m so busy being a spectator of this soap opera that I don’t need to reflect on my own life – and the fact that I’ve got to be further along on the downward slope than I want to be.
The laptop is back. The hard drive has been replaced and so has a new version of MS Office with an amazing number of new distractions. I have been surprised at how quickly I am up and running. Press a button on the modem – and we’re back on line. Bring back the mail services. Check. Bookmark all the frequently visited sites. Check. Bring back all the saved files. Check. Anything missing? Personal photos weren’t among the saved files. I’ve just obliterated a major part of two decades. Still I later found many of them on a stick. But the lack of care about what really matters has hit home.
So what is this theology stuff? McFague says it is “words about God” but refreshingly she reminds us that it is about an interpretation of the world as we see it. Any theology is going to involve three C’s – context, content and criteria. That’s going to keep us busy for a bit.
Context reminds us that the documents of any faith are written in a particular time in history. These reflect the interpretation of the writers based on their own understanding of the universe in which they dwell. The reflections will be of necessity partial and relative to the context. For this reason. McFague says that any theology needs an adjective in front of it to clarify the group espousing it. The adjective in front of “Christian” for example, might be “liberation, feminist, fundamentalist, progressive – or a name of hundreds of denominations with different emphases and views. The speaker matters.
Content depends on experience – but again McFague notes that experience is the channel and the means that it comes through – not the content itself. Something comes into our life as a revelation or an insight that concerns the relationship of a god or creator that is of such importance that it affects our orientation to the world and our behavior. It’s not religious experience so much as ordinary experience.
The big question then becomes – who is our neighbour. I asked this question in a discussion group in my parish church last week. The answers were what I expected – the person who lived down the block or in the apartment next door – whose name we might not know. But as I look out my window from a high floor, I can observe a barrier around a tree that is going to be removed to accommodate reconstruction of a water reservoir. I live in a large metropolitan North American city. Are my neighbours people of colour? People who live in the third world? People of other faiths? Other creatures? Oceans? A tree?
Our world contains questions that are more than we can ask or imagine. We have to explore further. The criteria will have to wait for a later post.
I am preparing for a long meeting of an organization where I am an active volunteer and reading preparation materials in advance. Because we work with children and vulnerable adults we undergo something described as Sexual Misconduct Training.
That title here is a good example of a misnomer – and it also reflects an error in thinking. Rather than making something that we don’t want go away, we need to focus on the desired result – a safe and caring place for everyone demonstrated by behaviour that is defined, understood and practised. As it stands, the title sounds like training in the exact thing that we don’t want.
Rather than fixing problems, focusing on a desired outcome is a good plan for both training descriptions and strategy formation.