Do you have a soul?
I just had a conversation this morning about whether souls are real. There really is some debate about this, because so far it is difficult to scientifically state what a “soul” is. The conversation came about because on Saturday, my husband and I participated in an overnight stay at a Buddhist monastery in Suzhou, called Faluo Temple. The event was organized by “Album of Suzhou”, a wonderful group that is designed to help foreign guests learn more about local culture. We visit gardens and museums and even the homes of some artists. When this event came up, I have to admit I was skeptical. All I could do was pepper my husband with questions about it like would there be sheets for us on the beds, what will we do there, what would it be like? In the end, I just decided to be open to the experience and give it a try to get to know this culture better.
I know, you’re probably asking what this even has to do with saving school orchestra; I will explain the connection soon!
The weather here has become somewhere between very warm like a sauna and unbearably warm if you were to stand out in the sun. Luckily here the rainy season is prolonged, so whenever we get the steamy, muggy uncomfortableness of the summer, a storm rolls in to cool things down. I guess my biggest fear about going to stay in a monastery was that there would be no air conditioning. Well, luckily these are modern monks, and at least some of the rooms were climate-enhanced with air-con.
The first hour or so was just relaxing in a cool common room akin to a tea house, with mats and natural colors all around, very appealing to this Virgo girl! We met some friends we had seen before at these events and several new ones too. The location is next to Tianpingshan in the western area of Suzhou, which we absolutely love anyway and go there to hike when the weather cooperates.
Patrick Qu, the Album of Suzhou organizer, took us on a short hike in back of the temple down a very forested (and slippery) road. There we heard lovely birds in the bamboo forest and saw some moths and butterflies while walking along a clear stream among fragrant hills. There are many beautiful yellowish colored rocks that China is famous for. Some rocks have poems written by Emperor Qianlong about the area are inscribed on them. Apparently he visited this very site six times, so the road leading up to the temple is a royal road.
Next was the dinner, which consisted of simply stir-fried vegetables with a little salt, plain rice and spinach soup. We thought it tasted quite nice, actually. Everyone faces the center of the room, in the direction of the Buddha statue. After the meal we were told to leave the dishes on the table.
Pain reminds us that we are still alive
Then we went to the main room again and practiced meditation for ten minutes, sitting cross legged on the floor. I’ve never been able to sit this way very well, even as a child, so I did my best although I found the position to be hard to bear. Another problem was my stomach. Too many vegetables maybe, or whatever; it was giving me some pains. And pain just reminds us that we are still alive, so I was even grateful for that. (Okay, pain also tells us that something is wrong with our bodies, so we still sometimes have to pay attention to its message. 😉 ) Nevertheless, I kept bringing my attention back to my breathing because that usually helps me to empty my mind. I found it really difficult to do in this environment, personally. People’s phone alarms kept going off, was another annoyance. Why couldn’t people put their devices on flight mode for ten minutes? But it was cool to wear the black robes.
After the ten minutes, the head monk asked for people to talk about their experiences, because really this was just meant to be an introduction to the practice of meditation and Buddhism. Someone asked if he could express in a sentence what Buddhism is. The man kindly stated that it is essentially becoming better, improving oneself, and kindness (which I hope you will continue to the end of this entire blog, because I ask for your help later). Although I am not Buddhist and do not plan on ever becoming one formally, I’ve always gravitated toward these very concepts and strive to live according to these principals. Maybe this is part of why I feel ordinarily so much more at home in China than just about anywhere (although home to me is wherever I am). After some other questions and thoughts, a beautiful musician shared a piece with us.
Another monk came in after this with Tibetan prayer bowls. It was a new experience for me to actually take part in a ceremony, which was really thrilling! This time we laid ourselves on the floor on mats and just received the sounds of the different bowls and their frequencies. One had water in it so he could create a kind of wobbly effect in the sound. Another had a frequency that was supposed to resonate with around the same frequency as our brains. After that, he let people come up and used the bowls on their bodies. (We tried it – we enjoyed it very much!) He even put the brain bowl over some of our heads.
It was said that this activity would help us sleep very well. In truth, Bernd and I did not sleep well at all, but we think it was because we are not used to hard beds. A monk came by at about 4:43 a.m. with giant rhythm sticks to wake us up for a morning ceremony that took place shortly after 5:00 a.m. It was funny to hear him grumbling about how no one was getting up and turning on lights yet and worrying that we didn’t know what we were supposed to do.
During this ceremony there was a lot of singing by the monks, which was amplified and accompanied by a lot of bell ringing and drum beating. We also placed small pieces of wood into a small bowl of smoldering ash, twice, which later caught on fire (on purpose) and burned. We followed the head monk for when to bow and stand and where and when to walk. I enjoyed the motions of the bowing onto prayer pillows. I had always wondered what that really felt like. To me it felt like surrendering all my burdens and thoughts. I wasn’t praying to Buddha, I was praying like I always pray, to the universe, which I consider as a loving intergalactic fabric connecting everything everywhere.
After the ceremony we filed into the canteen for a very simple breakfast of rice gruel, some peanuts and soybeans, dried salty vegetables and baozi (a steamed bun filled in this case with either vegetables or a sweet red-bean paste).
Next was some time in the main room when we meditated for twenty minutes. Again I struggled. The leader this time played some recorded music. I feel certain this was intended to help people to focus but for me it was distracting. I couldn’t move my mind away from it. I brought my thoughts back to focus on my breathing again and again but just could not get away from the repetitive motifs, which I found somehow unpleasant, artificial and loud. (I’m sure that if I were in this environment several times I would get used to it but to be quite honest, I’m glad I have my own practice with either ambient sound from the neighborhood where I live or else a guided visualization that I’ve created or I use one made by someone whose message I love.) A lot of people just fell asleep.
Afterward, the leader talked about the history of Faluo Temple, apparently originally established over 400 years ago as a natural garden, which was attractive to people and still is! We then walked up to the top area of the temple to a huge statue of Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy. Again it was a pleasant reminder that we love to hike in these hills and plan to come again when weather permits.
Soon, we had lunch, again some stir-fried vegetables, rice and spinach and mushroom soup. This time I was seated next to one of the monks, who showed me the ritual of placing the empty bowl and chopsticks in a particular way at the edge of the table at the end of the meal. Afterward we had a rest, and I really fell asleep for an hour or so.
In the afternoon, our friend whose studio we visited on the last Album of Suzhou event, Guo Ai Min, came to the temple to show people how to do a beautiful fan painting. Actually, none of us felt we were to the level of being able to create such a fan, but we all tried to write the words of the poem in calligraphy as practice. It was my first time ever to try calligraphy – wonderful!
Later, at home, we really felt exhausted. We spent some time on the couch being couch potatoes and even ordered dinner in, since it seemed as if it would storm again at any moment. In the morning, the question came out again, what about the soul?
I believe we have souls, or perhaps pieces of a collective soul; I am not sure. My mind tells me that the soul is ever present in us yet is poorly understood. My soul tells me that indeed, it is very real but science is not yet able to measure it, at least not by traditional means. My own soul tells me that music is a connection to souls everywhere—probably this is why it is used in every culture and religion. I say this with a grain of salt, as I haven’t studied every culture and every religion, and I am certainly aware that there are great differences in how different religions use music and make specific regulations regarding its use.
It just drove the point home to me, that music really is powerful, by taking part in this Buddhist ceremony. I really do not mean to criticize this particular ceremony, because truly it was a wonderful moment, but from my personal experience, what the amplification of the chanting did, was to dull the power of the natural overtones. And yet the overtones were still coming out.
We are called to help humanity
What I came away with, and I do not say this lightly, was the reconfirmation (in my life, because I am writing from my own personal perspective, though I hope that at least one person reading this shares this) that we are called to help heal humanity, one ear at a time, starting with our own.
This single statement forms the basis of my life. It isn’t only about making great music, though that is part of it. It isn’t only about teaching students how to play an instrument, though this can be and is also certainly a part of it. It isn’t only teaching teachers how to teach more effectively, though this also makes up an important part of our work. It isn’t only teaching students to understand that music is spiritual, and it definitely is spiritual! As you already understand, there are many reasons why we are string teachers, many of which go against the status quo, yet reasons that give enduring character to our communities and our lives.
Collectively supporting one another in this field is of the utmost importance
But one of the things I think a few of us miss, is the fact that collectively supporting one another in this field is of the utmost importance, especially right now. Studio teachers, I am talking to you in particular (I am one, too). If you are a studio teacher in the USA right now, I am asking for your help. Parents, you can help too.
Orchestra teachers across the country are facing a serious crisis, not only because of COVID-19 but because of the reactions of school districts and decisions that districts have made to either cut programs or threaten students with attending orchestra in person or nothing. A lot of districts put college-track courses at the same time as orchestra class, which places many families in an uncomfortable and unfair bind. I know many principals and superintendents do not know what exactly to do going forward, and the plan that they have is what they think is best (although we know that cutting orchestra is not in anyone’s best interest) that they have come up with, not intentionally leaving people behind.
But every school orchestra teacher who has to recruit is also facing a crisis. Numbers are a fraction of what they ordinarily would be and this is no joke. Recruitment in the best of times is still a significant, often unpaid or underpaid additional responsibility on teachers’ shoulders. Orchestra teachers are just hoping to have their programs survive this coming school year. If there is an occupation which we can give some love to, right now, it is our orchestra teachers.
So what I am asking you, private teacher in the USA, parents, or anyone with connections to families in schools, is to have a conversation. Ask parents, “What is the situation for your school string program this fall?” Ask parents to go to their school board and collectively express that they want to have orchestra in their schools. Yes, I am very seriously asking you to ask them and to help facilitate this. Because if we don’t, who is going to? Help parents save their orchestra programs because I know very well from my own experience that when parents talk, districts listen. It was one of the most important lessons I learned as a school orchestra director in a rural district which by itself would have done away with strings years ago.
If you haven’t built up a relationship with the parents of your students, start now. Also, here is a template you can use or parents can use to fit their school to reach out to their school boards with. Petition to save our orchestra
Another thing I want to ask you for your help with is to reach out to the school orchestra teacher in your district. I want you to tell them you are here for them and support them (even if it has never crossed your mind before to do so). We need them very much! You might not think you like them, you might see them as competition, you might disagree with what they have to do to run their classes, you might have a lot of reasons why you might not want to do this.
We need orchestra teachers to be supported
But we need thriving string orchestra classes in order to give many young people a chance to experience music, both now and in the future, and not only the ones in our studios. And to have programs that even survive, we need all the voices available and willing to come forward to take a stand on this. We need orchestra teachers to be supported to help them through this dark night of pandemic.
We all know that not all kids who become great musicians (or even just competent ones) do not come from rich enough backgrounds to be able to afford private lessons. The least we can do is have compassion for the string teachers who have devoted themselves to the public service of teaching school orchestra. These people have my utmost respect and I hope they have yours too, for what they provide society overall and the impact on their communities.
We can work together, and we need to work together on this, private teachers. I know many of us have had a boon in enrollment due to people being stuck at home. It is time now to see beyond our own studio walls and support the bigger picture, extending our love, support, charity and hive mind to the future of our public-school music students and their teachers. Reach out, if only because my big-picture enhancing soul implores you to do so.
Exclusive content only available here alert! Wouldn’t you like to read a Museletter? A Museletter is a quarterly email publication specifically for string teachers, ad free, fee-free and made to uplift you, a public service of SuperStrings Studio, because I want to make the world a more inviting place for our profession. Let’s light up the world with string music together! Subscribe here >> a Museletter