the things I tell my students

||: everything takes time :||

||: what’s really important? :||

||: everything will be okay :||

||: you are exactly where you need to be :||

||: this is not “hard”; this is your process of growth. that is all and that is everything :||

||: relax :||

||: everything takes time :||

So, these are the things I practice telling myself

( ||: is the music symbol for “repeat”)


some of you

don’t like cats nor jazz

you can’t control them

they know the rules

and bend them anyway

(or break them altogether)

you can’t stand things that

don’t fit into neatconsistent predicTable

order lee

so don’t like jazz nor cats

nor cool cats, bebop cats

who go where they want

wander, tricky, sneaky

get a notion, get curious, experiment

jump on a whim, turn on a dime

out of control

digging those scratchy sharp-nine’s

pawing at major-minors and augmented fourths

dragging notes around as if they don’t belong

anywhere sometimes

making your head swim and

sometimes making us feel, well,

sexy and smart and sophisticated

Monk Parker Baker, them cats

out at night

always landing on their feet

on the edge of polite society

cats sunning themselves in the window, saying:

yeah? eh?

i’m too sexy for your couch

too sexy for your flat

what you think about that

so go ahead

scratch your head

makes no difference because

they’re cool

very, very cool and they know it

All the Things We Are

I was once a king. I would stand out on the portico of my palace and honor the morning sun as it rose above the horizon. In the evening, my official duties dispatched and my enemies vanquished, I would stand at the opposite end and honor the sun as it went to sleep.

I was once a scourge to the country in which I lived. In search of survival I stole from villages, plundered wayfarers, cheated merchants, raped women and lied to children.

I was once a mason who traveled the realm to build cathedrals and temples. I was alone on the road and met many people along the way. A young man became my apprentice, but he did not last because he was impatient. I had no home but my home was everywhere I went, and I was paid well for my work.

I was once a philosopher and statesman. I lectured within the columns of the great hall and argued with those from different schools and different points of view.

I was once a farmer with a wife and family. An indigent fellow came to us asking for work. All we could afford to give him was a bed and a place at our table. But we were happy and we had enough. The hired man, he felt he had no right to sit with us, but I kept assuring him all was well. And this I felt was my greatest work.

Morning Stroll

it’s of no consequence

the bare black trees in winter’s drab stasis,

vertical snags frozen in tableau like gnarled crones

all black-souled and twisted

but no consequence to me,

nor the solitary heron still standing, still

stolid sentry in a field’s dead center under grey sky

watching from the corner of his eye that sliver of blue

drifting this way if it will alter his view

or mine,

for my wife thinks dead wood is beautiful

and maybe she’s right

but my mind is on gnarled twisted humans

in their extremity frozen alone

in fields of their own

scanning to see what slivers of blue

might alter their fortune too.

they, I think,

they are beautiful.

therefore, none of us has it easy.

Time Warp

I understand neither Einstein nor notions of a magical universe where every coincidence is none. But an amazing thing happened the other night.

I decided to return to the local Choral Society for winter term. When I arrived on the first night of rehearsal I found that a woman I’d done community theater with two years earlier was present as well. It was a fun re-connect.

On the same night I found that a student I’d worked with in Rock Camp last summer was also there with her mother. Also a fun re-connect, but with the added pleasure of seeing the rare high school student singing in a group who’s average age is somewhere around my own.

When I arrived on the second night I said hello to the community theater acquaintance again, but did not see the high school student, nor her mother. (Everyone is allowed three absences before being dismissed for that term’s concert.)

The two-hour rehearsal concluded, everyone was packing up and heading out. I was helping to stack chairs. A woman called my name. “Mike.” It wasn’t one of those explosive shouts you sometimes hear unexpectedly (which is why there is no exclamation point), but also wasn’t exactly a question (which is why there is no question mark). It was somewhere in between: on the line between “I know that name,” and “I’m not sure what I’m seeing right now.”

I turned around and didn’t recognize the woman standing there. Then she said her name: Ellie MacDonald. Right away it sounded like it should ring a bell. But it took several more seconds of standing there staring at her like a man in a fugue state before I realized I was looking at someone I hadn’t seen in over 40 years.

Ellie MacDonald (I’ve changed her name to protect her innocence) and I were both members of the elite vocal jazz group at our high school from 1977-1980. It was an audition-only choir. I had wanted to be a part of it since middle school, when the choir, known as “Shivesen,” had given a concert there.

I had auditioned as a freshman, but hadn’t made the cut. In the fall of 1977 I auditioned again and was selected. So was Ellie.

The next three years gave me some of the brightest memories of my early musical career. The choral director and I became close during that time, and he was a mentor for me as a developing pianist and writer. Friends and I collaborated on helping to arrange “charts” (songs) for the group to experiment with. One of these charts, an arrangement of an old jazz number called “Cloudburst,” had captured our imagination and the director agreed to help us arrange it for the group’s repertoire in the spring of 1980 for annual festival and competition.

At competition, I was allowed to play piano in the rhythm section. Mendoza sang the solo. When everything was tallied, we were announced the winners of the festival. That moment is still one of the greatest of my life. I can still see Jeff, Pat, Susie, Rick, Sherie, Kelly, Greg, Ellie, and the rest as we floated into the air and laughed and cried all the way home.

It was our last festival together. When we graduated, we moved on, as kids do.

As we stood there the other night, beholding one another (literally beholding), 40 years disappeared in a flash. I was actually stunned, particularly as I had long ago lost touch with anyone from high school. I finally threw my arms open and we held each other as if we were long-lost friends. Which, I guess we were. She actually wept (probably over the shock of me not having any hair on my head).

I said, “But how did you recognize me?”

She said, “I didn’t.” She reached out and tugged at my name tag.

What are the chances that two high school choir mates, having bonded over a unique and exceptional experience 40 years ago, would find each other at a choir rehearsal 40 years later? I can’t imagine this kind of thing happens very often.

Now we will see each other every week. And we’ll sing.

Forward-Going: a dream theme

More than once – maybe many times, I haven’t counted – I dream of trying to navigate a difficult path through a massive road reconstruction project. It is always something that is so huge in scope that it is taking years to complete, and tests the patience and endurance of anyone who is forced to travel through it in order to get anywhere.

I’m not navigating a path though, really, because there simply is no path. Just a small mountain range of rocks, boulders, gravel, mud, and sometimes a chaotic and random assortment of earthen and manufactured materials (i’ve seen piping, metal railings, temporary wire grid platforms, steam works, etc), all without function or apparent purpose.

It’s supposed to be a work in progress, but seldom resembles one. It appears to be more of an apparently impossible task that will be finished “some day” and which is always held up by complications and errors and forces beyond anyone’s control, such as weather or geography.

I never see the people who are supposedly working on it. It is always just me, alone, struggling but determined to climb, shuffle, totter, fall, slip and trip my way through. It’s frustrating and hard but I have to do it. There is no alternative. And I never have the impression that there is a specific destination I’m moving toward.

These dreams are always of the rough forward motion of a continuously rough path for which I have to fight every step…and do.

Not a moment too soon

Photo by Alexander Grey on

this diminutive pre-pubescent lad

(one-of-a-kind and everyboy too)

possessed already of that sense of humor that

pops out unexpectedly here and there

midstream when you won’t expect it

makes us laugh every time

singular short pre-man with long stringy hair

terminating in dips of experimental purple

as random-seeming as the words

that pop out of his brain

look close and you’ll make out

the troubled itches of his mind

furtive insecurities scanning his environment

evaluating, secretly navigating

and so when we sit beside him for a second

to see how he’s getting on in his project

(his project is his life)

the unmistakable stench rising up from his seat

makes us want to back the fuck up

but we can’t out him

and we won’t let on

because he knows

and he wonders if we know

and he probably knows that we do

and we wouldn’t for the world

so we mouth-breathe

(management skill in acute care settings)

and hang as long as necessary because

we’d rather give him something we didn’t get

than take the focus off

the man he’s going to be

i like this kid in me

“Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.”

–Pema Chodron

Welcome to the Piano

Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas on

Are you ready to start learning to play the piano? Are you ready to start learning what makes music music? are you ready to begin one of the most enriching activities your brain will ever enjoy?

Let me say a few things, then.

Research shows that playing an instrument engages multiple areas of the brain at one time: the visual, auditory, executive, motor function and creative pathways are engaged at the same time. Few activities create more pathways in the brain than playing a music instrument. It enhances the brain’s ability to learn almost anything else.

You’re going to be building a relationship with the piano. Like any other relationship, this involves a positive, healthy approach and good communication. Your posture and bearing at the piano are not just about good technique and care of the body; they are about the kind of input you give to the instrument and the kind of response you receive.

You’ll be practicing a calm, focused and disciplined approach. You’ll learn to breathe, if you haven’t already. You’ll be unlearning self-judgment, perfectionism, and impatience.

You’ll also be learning some Italian words. The Western development of music included the adoption of this language for the classic terms. Piano actually means “soft,” and is an abbreviation for “piano-e-forte,” meaning “soft and loud,” and was the way Bartolomeo Cristofori redesigned the clavichord in 1700. (People love to abbreviate things.) So, the piano is just a percussive harp: instead of plucking the strings, you’re triggering hammers to strike them. Give a soft touch, the piano will answer with a soft, gentle voice. Give it more weight and pressure, it will answer with a more robust voice. Piano and forte.

Your fingers are numbered 1 through 5 – 1 being the thumbs and 5 being the pinkies. Whenever you sit at the piano from now on, these will be the names of your digits.

You must understand that the piano was made for the human hand, not the other way around. See those five black keys that repeat over and over? Fingers 2, 3 and 4 are the longest, so they will naturally be the ones to spend the most time on the blacks, set back from the front edge of the keyboard.

Your adventure in piano starts, I would say, with those five black keys. Using one finger for each black key, you could play them up and down, over and over and it would sound beautiful. It’s a five-tone (pentatonic) scale of notes, the basis of many songs and instrumental pieces throughout history.

Now you’ve begun. You must sit at the piano every single day, if only for ten minutes, to develop this relationship: to strenthen the muscle memory of your hands, to train your ears…in short, to begin one of the most romantic, satisfying, and healing experiences the world has ever known.

So, let’s begin.

flow river flow

It’s now softly blowing and now and then softly raining

not even very cold; but a winter breeze carries its own frosty edge.

It’s walking weather

Here it doesn’t surprise you at all

isn’t unusual for the wind to accelerate into gales, gusts

for the rain to fall swiftly, urgently

It’s walking weather all the same

albeit with an edge

the element of discomfort

a challenge to accept and enfold into the walk

allowing the energy of atmosphere to infuse itself into you

until it becomes yours

you matching the wind and rain

you acknowledging and answering

gusto for gusto, pluck for pluck

respectful determination to claim your place

I live here, too.

Do you wish you were the horse standing in the corral

somehow patiently ceding the wind, enduring it

your back turned toward the wind with your head to the lee?

Do you wish you were the straying dog

glad of freedom, always looking for a post to pee on

oblivious to rain, even of the coat you wear for protection?

Do you wish you were the songbird now huddled in the hold of a pine bough

waiting out the earth’s fervent lecturing

glad of a brief reprieve from scavenging and watching for every sign to fly again?

Well, smile at them and let them go

It’s you that notices after all

who walks here, who breathes your way through;

you all the way home.

The Closest I Ever Came

It’s a fine summer day. The bands are rotating and the music is good. The energy is electric and the crowd is resonating. Children are playing. Laughter rises up like bright flares of light from this table and that. The entire scene is that glorious gradient of sun and shadow from under and around our parasols.

But now there is a distraction. Faces are turned toward the sidewalk behind us and we follow them. Oh, no. It’s him, that peripatetic character whose labors we’ve seen on sidewalks all over town; him and his white chalk describing invective and hardcore dogma of pseudo-christian entrenched battle positions from which no prisoners are taken. He’s hard at work. He might be a little off in the head.

There’s a shadow over there against the wall where a trio of women are standing by, stunned witnesses they; mouths agape, casting mute judgment and scorn on the pukings from mr. chalk’s head. That pretentious vandal, daring to mar a fine day like this with his first amendment rights devoid of music or wisdom.

The half dozen of us are looking and looking, our heads on 360-degree swivels and our eyes like the owl’s as well. Finally we are just looking at each other. The looks on our faces are these: we can’t watch anymore. We can’t just sit here anymore. We must dance. There is good music and little children are dancing. We can’t dance in our seats.

So we rise up and walk over to that little battleground. We begin quietly, keeping one eye on him to see what he’ll do about us, and one eye on the trio standing against the brick to see what they do about us.

Look, you guys! They like it! Haha! they’re nodding, smiling, clapping. Approval.

Photo by Kampus Production on

So, seconded and motion passed and adopted, we turn it up. As we dance, we twist and turn like vandals, our feet grinding up white chalk words as if we didn’t have a clue. We’re acting like naughty, egotistical children.

What is this, exactly? I mean, what would you call it? Point and counterpoint? A song for a song? Is it a demonstration?

I’ve never joined a demonstration. I guess this is the closest I’ve ever come. We’re just dancing to beat all hell. We won’t have it.

Now look what we’ve done: a dozen more have hopped right onto the sidewalk, dancing. We made a party. And where is mr. chalk? Nowhere to be seen.

There is cheering from the sidelines. We’re laughing. It’s a fine summer day.