Hello everybody. And welcome to another episode of art works for teachers. I’m your host, Susan Riley. And today I’m really excited to share with you an interview that I just did with my good friend Merril Goldberg. Now, if you are not familiar with Merril, she has. A wonderful professional bio that I could read for you, but here’s the cliff notes version.
she is an arts integration specialist and professor with the California state university of San Marcos. She specializes in arts integration over there. She’s written literally the book on arts integration, which is in its. Sixth edition right now. She is also a professional musician in and of her own, right.
And still plays professionally today. So in today’s episode, you are gonna hear from Merrill about both arts integration and the idea of creativity and the impact of the arts and this phenomen. Story about how she used her musical skills and her creativity to have a direct impact on getting people out of the old Soviet union during the cold war.
It’s an inspirational story. I can’t wait for you to hear it. And so let’s dig in. Okay. Hello, Merrill. Hey, Susan, it’s so great to be with you. I’m excited for today’s conversation. If in case you don’t know, I am like, I am in love with Meryl. I think that, that your career and just who you’re as a person.
I, I gotta tell you, like, I talk about you all the time because the, what you bring to our field of arts integration is, is powerful. And I think everybody should hear about it, but also I just talk about you as a human all the time. So like, I’m best friends with my mom. And I talk about you and I’m like, you would love Meryl.
She’s just fantastic. So I’m excited that you’re here with us today. You are so sweet. Thank you so much. And, and just, I wanna say what you do for the field is amazing. I have so much admiration for you, so. I appreciate that. So, well, for those of, of those who are joining us and don’t know you, can you give us just a brief introduction about who you are and your background that would be.
Yeah. Sure. So let’s see. I’m I’m a professor out at Cal state university, Sam Marcos, which is in Southern California. And I got here quite unexpectedly. I was on the road for 13 years as a performer. I play saxophone. I play music called. I played lots of classical. I studied classical saxophone at new England conservatory of music.
And after about 13 years on the road full time, which was very exciting and exhilarating, but kind of tiring. I decided I really liked working with people a little bit more than performing for people. And so I made a decision at that time to go back to graduate school. I loved education. I’ve always loved kids.
You know, I was a camp counselor. School teacher, you know part-time music teacher anyways, and went back and got a doctorate in education and ultimately ended up taking this job in Southern California, where I’ve been for 30 years now. I never expected to stay here. I expected to go back to Boston.
You know, I’m a big red Sox fan. My family’s from Boston . But I fell in love with Southern California and the people here and the community. And I love being on the border with Mexico. There’s just so much going on here and my students are absolutely lovely. Most of them are first in their family to go to college and they just embrace learning in a way that’s so fundamental.
That’s a little bit about who I am. plus I’m a mom. yes. Being a mom is important. Absolutely. So I love what you said just a second ago, about the difference between performing four people and working with people. And, and I think that resonates, especially for anybody who has performed. Right. Because I know that for me, my background’s in music as well.
And, and I had the opportunity to perform and actually go to Italy and like expand and be an opera singer. And I just, it was not that performance aspect. Wasn’t for me. How did you make that shift? Like what, what caused that realization to happen for you? It’s so funny. I woke up one morning. I was at a very high level of performing and I woke up one morning and I went, oh, and I said a, a bad word.
I have to go to Europe again. And then I went, I, I said to myself, wait, what you just said. Oh, huh? I have to go to Europe again. What does it matter with you? and that was the first clue that, you know, perhaps the the performing career wasn’t for me, for the rest of my career. So I should say I love performing.
And I think in fact, my dissertation was on the differences between playing music and performing. And if music is the core of what we do, why would you perform? Right? And there are so many wonderful reasons to perform and I still perform my, my performance partner right now is 93 years old, Phyllis Irwin.
And she. An amazing pianist. She was a music professor also in the Cal state system. And we practice every week religiously, but the performing part gives us Time to think about preparation. It gives us purpose in practicing. The act of performing can make you play better, which is really nice.
And being able to share music with folks can be so fulfilling. So yeah, there there’s well, anyways, that gets you a little bit more on. No, but so here’s, what’s, here’s the counter to that. So working with people, right. And especially in education. I always felt when I was in the classroom, like I was performing, not that I was inauthentic or I was disingenuous with my students, but that it, I felt like I was on.
Right. And so do you ever feel like that. That is so interesting. Yes. So, you know, I think that I’ve tried to make my teaching career be not like performing. Although I am a performer, I mean, there’s no question that I’m comfortable in front OFS. Students and in front of other people, because of the skills I gain as a performer.
But yeah, I think that when I’m with my students, I try way more to be like engaged with them in a musical ensemble. Like I’m one of them or kind of the person who knows maybe, you know, has practiced a little bit more and gets to bring them into hear better music or, you know this or that, but yeah, that, I really haven’t thought about it in that way, but mm-hmm, it’s yeah, I think of teaching and learning as kind of ensemble work versus being a conductor.
Yeah. Oh, I totally agree. And it’s but I was just thinking with the, the skill set that you gain from that performance, it’s just, it becomes this almost natural transition sometimes, but I, I love this idea that we’re a part of the ensemble, like the choir rather than a soloist, right. As an educator. So sticking back with the, the.
Time period, where you were a performer. I wanna kinda dig into this crazy story that I read about you in wired magazine, in regards to using music to secrets, to the KGB. I mean, like I talking to like, are you even allowed to tell me?
Yeah, people have identified me as a spy, but I’m not a . I was not a spy. In the, in the real sense of the word, right? So the year was 1985. I was 26 years old. It was at the height of the cold war and there were a lot hundreds of thousands of people in the Soviet union who wanted to get. Out, they simply wanted to get out.
They wanted freedom. They wanted religious freedom, Jewish people, Catholic people. At the same time, there were Heiny monitors, people who were trying to ensure that the Soviet union was following rules of protocol around people having their freedom. And there were many, many dissonance who wanted to you know, have the Soviet union.
Be not a, you know, be a more democratic society, so to speak and. In any case at that time, there was a group of musicians into BLI, which is in the, the now country of Georgia which is south of Moscow. If you look on a map and this group there, a group had formed, they call themselves the Phantom orchestra and their.
Their goal was to play music together in order to emphasize and get the word out to the west about their plight, that they all had been detained or arrested or put down for their just because they wanted to be free. And they wanted to be you know, they wanted to be able to. Talk freely to, to leave to, you know, they were human rights, activists mm-hmm so what was unique was that they did this, they decided to play music together and form this band.
So folks in the west started hearing about this, the first person who’s who wrote about it was Martin Walker in the guardian. And as the, this notion got out, we We were informed by a group in Boston called action for Soviet jewelry who worked with amnesty international, that there was this, you know, group into BLI.
Do you think maybe we could send in some musicians to go in and meet with them and find out what they’re all about and support them? One of the most important things at that time in 1985 was sending people into Soviet union because if people in the west knew about you. So people who were called refuse next, meaning that they had asked to leave, but were refused.
The most important next step was that the west could know about you, because then if, if people knew about you, you had a chance to get out, right. So if, if people don’t know about you. You don’t have a right. It’s, it’s really as simple as that. And so groups like amnesty and action for Soviet jewelry started sending people in this was a regular thing.
People would go in, they would visit with refused Nixon and dissidents and, you know support them, get some information in, get some information out no state secrets or anything like that. But in order to get in you couldn’t just write down a refuse, Nick or a dissidents name on a piece of paper, because it would identify them.
It would identify you, you wouldn’t get in. So you had to create codes or you had to memorize things or do this or that. So I’m thinking to myself, I, I went in with three other musicians. What would be like hidden in plain sight for us. Mm-hmm , you know, like how could we code something that no one would ever think about?
And so I thought music, we do this in music. So this is my, I just I’m, I’m writing a book a month sabbatical and I’m writing a book about this whole experience. So I have everything on my desk, but so this is the actual manuscript book that I brought in with me to the Soviet union in 1985. This, unfortunately it’s starting to fall apart, but here is actual coded music.
Oh my gosh. Yeah. So you can see it and I’ll show you. Let’s see. You can, I mean, no one would ever know that it was, you know, something other than music. Because let’s see like, like take a look at this, right? So it looks like here’s a piece by Sherm. You know, a very famous composer and you can sing my music compared my music, which looks like piano music, although it’s not piano music.
It looks like, like a Sesame street,
you know, of like real music. Right. But yeah, what I did is I just assigned. Well, you know, the, the, you’ve got ABC D E FG in music, but you’ve got a whole scale. Like you can start below the staff and go above and, and, you know, there’s way more spaces visually on music than there are, you know actual notes.
So I just corresponded, you know, a was. A B is a sharp or, you know, you just like, I just figured it all out. And created a, a code. And once you figure out a code and you practice it, it’s, it’s pretty easy to do. So I coded names. I coded addresses. I coded directions. I coded information about people phone numbers.
I just memorized because when I was a student at new England conservatory of music, one of our profe, one of our teachers had us practice sight singing by going through a phone. And just singing phone numbers. So like every night I would sing a page of the phone book anyways. Right. So I just memorize people’s numbers, you know, phone numbers by, you know, something that was familiar to me already.
And then when we were in the Soviet union, There was certain information that we wanted to bring out. Mm-hmm so people who wanted to get invited who wanted to leave needed to get an invitation in order to get an invitation, you had to have a relative in the west, know all this information about you.
Your date of birth, where you were born, where you were living, you know, all this information. So many times people in the west didn’t have all that information. And so people like me would bring it out. Now we also brought out and coded people’s stories. What had happened to them when they had been beaten or.
Arrested or, or just their philosophy of why they wanted to, you know, have their freedom. So we coded a lot of that and brought those stories out as well. It was with not, it was not without its risks. We were interrogated many times. Our passports were taken away a couple of times. We were put in cars and driven.
Being told where they were taking us. We were locked up in the end, ultimately forwarded to Sweden. We weren’t planning to go to Sweden. And but we made it back obviously. And they’re here to tell the tale There are some interesting connections. So we really worked on behalf of the people we met when we got back, we called ourselves Phantom west.
So there’s the Phantom orchestra to Lucy and my colleagues, Jeff war hour, Rosalie, Garrett and Hank Naski. And I. Formed a group called Phantom west. And we, we went to Washington. We met with many senators and representatives who all worked on our behalf and in fact it was Ted Kennedy. Who ended up that’s me with Ted Kennedy and that’s Jeff who ended up actually speaking directly to GOVI off and got some of the people that we had met out, got them, you know their.
So it it’s a crazy, wonderful story. Another person who was involved, this is a crazy story. Josh Shapiro, who is running for the governor of Pennsylvania. Yeah. And Hopefully he will, will win. Josh was a pen pal with a 11 year old boy, Avi Goldstein into BLI and Josh’s clearance had gone to, to BLI a month before we left.
And they had met with the Phantom orchestra. And when we went, we brought things from Josh, for Avi, including a baseball, MIT and baseball A ball bubble gum, all sorts of fun things. And Josh and Avi had been writing to each other for years. And. Ultimately they were let out right before Josh’s bar mitzvah and Avi was able to be at the bar mitzvah as was I, and and it’s interesting because Josh now has, has done a couple of interviews where he credits his early work with his mom.
Well, his parents specifically his mom in helping people, you. With human rights as his first understanding of the importance of being political and then being an activist. Yeah. And so, yeah, you know, it’s it, I, the arts for me, you know, the music, I think it was really something in bonding people and bringing them together in letting the west know and.
I can honestly say when we went to the Soviet union and we performed with the Phantom orchestra. So, you know, I brought in a saxophone, which ultimately I gave to a, a young boy in Armenia who we knew was studying saxophone, but didn’t have one. The playing of music was such a feeling of freedom.
So one of the things I think like during the civil rights era here in the United States, you hear people talk about when people were put into Patty wagons, you know, at black activists or, or, you know, anybody, they. Often would break out in song. Why? Because it felt bonding because it took up that space.
It says you can’t take this space away from me. And when you feel free in your brain, that is an amazing feeling. It’s like, no one, no one, no one on earth can take that away from you. And so that was something that we really experienced in playing with the Phantom orchestra. We played with him a couple of nights, just in an apartment.
Some neighbors came the KGB did come in at some point basically, you know, shut us down. But the resiliency of everybody, like after they left, you know, vodka came out and, you know, I was like, okay, you can’t break our spirit. go ahead. Yeah. Oh my God. So. I, and I love this on a multitude of levels and I think it speaks to the power of what the arts do for us as humans.
Right. That that it’ll does give us that freedom. And also the ability to connect with others, which is just this natural human. Right. You know? But I’m curious, what gave you the courage to pursue that kind of act of justice on behalf of these other people? Yeah. You know, it’s so interesting. I’ve been thinking so much about that because what gives anybody the moral courage to do what they do and mm-hmm and to stand up for something.
Yeah. And, and remind me, I wanna get back to this notion of relationships, because I’ve been thinking a lot about that as well. So the relationships, you know, just in meeting these people, but also how it applies to teaching and learning and to the arts. Yeah, but what I think brought me to the point of being able to do what I did was a multitude of factors.
So one, my parents. Were activists. You know, I I’m a kid of the sixties and my parents were active against the war in Vietnam. My grandparents were all immigrants. And so I grew up kind of knowing antisemitism from the point of view of like old country, new country. I mean, since my grandparents had to leave because of antisemitism leave Europe and thank God they all made it out.
There was, I grew up with this, you know, notion that, that things needed to be different and an awareness mm-hmm my mom started the chapter of league of women voters just north of Austin where I grew up. And so. When you start putting these things together, right. It’s kind of, I think the foundation for being an activist myself was, was absolutely there.
And I was part of, you know, some youth groups that were, you know, talking about either Vietnam or what was going on in the middle east or, you know, so I was actively engaged in the understanding of the, the world. Politically and socially and, you know, and from a human rights aspect. So when Hank, who is the person who was approached first approached me I, I, I thought about, I was like, oh man, that is so cool.
I’m totally, gonna do. Yeah. Well, and I. Particularly now, like if we put it in context to what’s happening in the Ukraine right now. Yes. And many of us, you know, we say we stand with Ukraine, but we’re, we struggle with, what could we do that would actually make a difference for these people who are seeking freedom?
You know, just being able to look at. Where you are and what your capacity is. And so maybe, you know, we’re not able to leave right now because we have family or whatever, but is there some other way that we could get involved or be an activist that would have a direct impact? And I think you proved right there that you can, no matter what you do or who you are, you have the ability, which I think is.
And, you know, I’ll, I’ll bring it back to what you were saying with the relationship. So, you know, what was amazing to me at the time and, and I think is still true is we can form intense relationships with people, even in a very short amount of time. So, you know, it, it, you know, you don’t have to build, you know, forever to.
You know, consider yourself in, in some kind of relationship and that, you know, that one on one that one of the, the, when we were leaving like the last night when we were playing with the Phantom orchestra, it was raining and I was sharing a raincoat with a woman named Lana. Like she had her arm in one sleeve.
I had my arm in the other and you know, this is after like the KGB had come in and, but super intense and music making is super intense. And I remember just running to the subway together, jumping in puddles. Singing in the rain, you know, which is, you know, crazy. And she knew that. And, but the intensity and the, the, I, I would say even love in that minute, you know, in that moment for someone was.
You know, like it touches your heart in a way that’s really remarkable and true and poignant, and those relationships are so important. And I think in the arts, we end up having those relationships maybe more than other people, right. Because when we are in a classroom and we see kids doing really cool things, it’s like this moment of relationship that we get to.
You know, be with them and it’s something special that, you know, I, I don’t know if it can be replicated in other settings, maybe in sports. But it also occurred to me. I was thinking about when we take lessons you know, we form a relationship with our teacher, right? So music lessons or art lessons or dance lessons, and that relationship is, is something that really has an impact on a child.
And I, I think this is true of teaching and learning as well. And the nuance that we learn by. In this relationship with a teacher who, you know, you, you learn something, you play it for ’em or you draw it for them. And the teacher says, wow, you know that that’s really cool. You know, have you thought about this?
Have you thought about that? Have you practiced this way or, you know, interpretation, like, have you done this, that relationship that teaching artists and a student have together? Really teaches them about understanding about nuance, about interpretation, about taking feedback, you know mm-hmm so I think the whole notion of relationships is becoming really something important for me to think about and, and how it really relates to the arts is like, you know, it’s just amplified in a way that.
I think we’re really special. oh my gosh. Yeah. Well, and when you think about the whole act of creating art is a vulnerable act in and of itself, right? And you don’t, it’s, it’s risky to share what you are creating with another person. So the bond that you create that relationship is, is different than other relationships that you have because you’ve exposed yourself.
Right. You’ve exposed the vulnerability. Is inside what you’re thinking. You’re, you know, the, the fear of failure, all of it that we work on so hard. And that’s why, you know, you and I talk about this a lot with arts integration and the, the whole process of bringing the arts into what we’re teaching is.
It’s beyond just trying to increase test scores. Right? It’s the connection, it’s the connection. And particularly after the pandemic, I mean, how , how much do we need connection, you know, at this point speaking of vulnerability, before I let you go, I wanna just, I I’m in love with the videos that you’re doing on social media.
With your daughter and your mom. So I found these like, are they reals or are they like, they’re small little segments of video that you and your daughter and your mom are putting together. I’m like, yes, this is what I wanna do. when my daughter gets to be your daughter’s age, I want this, this three generational component.
I love these as a creative expression. So like what’s the string that holds the three generations together for you? Well, okay. So my daughter is 23 and she. She’s quite a character she’s autistic. She has special skills and then of her skills happens to be social media. And visual sense is crazy.
Ever since, you know, she was teeny, teeny tiny, it was clear her like visual understanding of the world. Like about a thousand times more than like anybody else. I know. Yeah. And so, anyways, she’s really good at that. My mom is 86 and she was living with us, but I Anyways, she, it became up to a point where she really needed a little bit more support.
So she’s in in independent living with supports in a you know, in a wonderful community called secret, just down the street from us. And so we’ve been thinking, what can we, you know, It’s so much fun to, to be on camera and do fun things. And so we come up with Lee, my daughter will come up with like things from TikTok that people are doing dances already, and then she’ll have us choreograph it and we’ll do that together.
Or. We, you know, like I, I brought over pompoms one week and we decided to do like a cheerleading thing, which was so funny, but I think the real fun part is like, mostly it’s all movement, right. We’re dancing and we’re moving and, and it just, it’s fun to do, and we have a blast doing it, and I think people really enjoy watching it.
I actually enjoy watching it. You’re making it. So it’s very enjoying to my life. Every time I see one I’m like, this is what I needed today. So thank you for that. But also it’s just the joy that, that you guys experience as a family, you know that it doesn’t have to be something that’s so rigid or uptight.
It could just be for fun. You know, I love watching that. So thank you. Thank you for all. You’re entirely welcome. . And let your daughter know she’s brilliant at it. She should keep going with it. Absolutely. I’ll let her know for sure. For sure. It really is. Well, it is. It is. Well, thank you so much for your time today.
Me. I really appreciate it. And I’m looking forward to reading the, the book. Do you know, like you’re putting that together in sabbatical? Do you, are you getting it published? I have a couple of people that are, are already expressed some interest. So I really hope it will get published. I hope to have a rough draft of it by, you know, in probably two months or so.
So I I’m up to chapter four and wow. It’s remarkable is I, I, I am such a pack rack, a pack rat. That I kept reports that I wrote at the time and articles and, you know, so I have so much material that was written back then and, you know, re rereading it and writing it is really a blast. And it’s such an interesting revisit.
So Anyways. Yes. I hope as soon as it’s out, maybe we can hopefully it will get published and yes, I would, even if it doesn’t get published, I’d still love to read it cuz I’m, I’m just fascinated by the whole thing. So you got it. Thank you so much for sharing with us today. Merril, you are the best and, and you do such great work into all of the teachers and teaching artists out there.
You’re doing a great job hanging out with this one. I hope that like, maybe I should go this way just in case you’re on that side of me. We’re better together. Both of us either way. Right. Thank you so much. You’re the best is a Merril. Phenomenal. I told you this was gonna be an inspirational interview, and I hope that you walk away being inspired yourself to do something, even if it’s small for the greater good of those around us.
As your worksheet for today, remember that every episode comes with a downloadable. If you go over to arts integration.com/artworks today’s downloadable is a worksheet that you can. Students for musically coding their own catch phrases. So they were, are given a a set of musical notes, just like Merrill had, and then they can practice with breaking a couple of codes using musical notes.
And then they can write their own. So you can download that worksheet and share it with your own students and maybe even share this inspirational story from Merryl herself. This has been an episode of the artworks for teachers podcast. I’m your host, Susan Riley. And if you have found this to be just something that you’d love to share, I would be really honored if you would let somebody else know about this, whether it’s a colleague, a friend, a relat.
Somebody who could use some inspiration for creativity in the future. Thank you so much. And I look forward to seeing you on our next episode of artworks for teachers.