Saturday, January 31, 2009

Taking the Stage

The other day I wrote about how we need to take back music as a natural human activity, and how we need non-competitive, inclusive spaces like song circles and jam sessions where people can share the joy of making music in a group, no matter what their skill level. I wrote that piece in the context of a conversation (on the Canadian folk music listserv Maplepost) about open stages, and whether it's okay to criticize performers who, shall we say, need a little work on their performing skills. Here is how my post on Maplepost continued:
There is a huge difference between swapping songs at a song circle or a jam session and getting on stage to perform for an audience. Once you decide to step on a stage, you are asking for an audience's undivided attention. Their attention is a privilege, and your space on that stage is not owed to you, it is earned. And once you step onto that stage you cross over a line into an arena where criticism is fair game. If you believe you are ready to step on that stage, than you should also be ready for the feedback you may receive. If you are not ready for feedback, then you may not be ready for the stage.

(On reflection, that was probably worded a little too strongly. I want to qualify it a little bit to say that it's okay to be nervous, it's okay to be inexperienced, and it's okay to make mistakes. That's how you improve. Open stages can be a great place to try out what it feels like to get on a stage and sing in front of people. And surprise! You will probably learn that performing on a stage takes a whole new set of skills that you need to learn, just like you needed to learn to play or sing or write songs.)

Here's how I continued:
Obviously, there are different kinds of stages and different levels of responsibility and feedback that are appropriate depending on context. In my mind, open stages occupy some kind of grey area between a song circle/jam situation and a full-fledged stage. Open stages are a training ground, a place to learn what it means to be on a stage.

But however experienced or inexperienced a musician we are talking about, I think the most effective feedback, if it's called for, is kind, direct, and constructive criticism. If you are in a mentoring or teaching role with a budding musician-- if you have been ASKED for feedback-- I think it is your responsibility find a way to be honest AND supportive. I have come to realize, through my teaching experiences, that when you are asked for feedback, you don't do anyone a favour by avoiding criticism. The trick is to find a way to offer criticism that is non-judgemental and direct without being cruel.

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Friday, January 30, 2009

Music and the Brain Documentary

CTV is showing a new documentary tomorrow night called "The Musical Brain" that sounds fascinating.

Scientists are only just beginning to understand the complex processes that go into making and listening to music, and there's been a lot of recent attention to the topic, thanks to Daniel Levitin's books "This is Your Brain on Music" and "The World in Six Songs," as well as Oliver Sack's "Musicophilia."

I've read all three of those books, so I am disappointed that I'll be missing the broadcast. I'll be on stage in Kitchener with my fellow Girls with Glasses, all neurons firing. Maybe someone will tape it for me.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Music is a Natural Human Activity

Since my idea for a slogan for Toronto went over like a lead balloon, maybe I'll return to writing about something I know. Recently, over on the Maplepost (the Canadian Folk Music listserv) there was a discussion about open stages, "good" and "bad" music, and whether it's okay to judge or evaluate someone else's music. I posted a response, which I'm dividing into two blog entries, because I want to elaborate on the second part a bit more. But here's the first part of what I posted:

Once upon a time, in almost every society in which you can trace cultural history, music was a collective activity that was part of the life of a community -- pretty much everyone sang and danced, and there were special songs and dances for life events like birth, reaching adulthood, celebrating the harvest, the turn of the seasons, marriage, and death. Music and dance was an important part of the fabric of communities because it brought people together, passed on information, helped create a feeling of cohesion and social unity, and so on. Sociologists and anthropologists who have studied these things have noted that one of the things that marked this kind of activity in a community is the lack of separation between the singer/dancer and an "audience." In other words, there was no audience, it was a participatory activity that everyone did. The idea of whether you are "good" or "bad" at it didn't even make sense. There are some parts of the world where this is still true.

Today, we in North America live in a very different society. Music is generally not something that is woven into the fabric of most people's lives anymore-- it's something that we purchase, listen to, watch, but it's not something that everyone is expected to participate in on a regular basis. There is a clear separation between performer and audience. And we grow up with the idea that if we aren't brilliant singers (or dancers or players or writers or...), then we should keep our mouths shut. And many of us do. We get the message that singing is a talent, some people have it, and some don't, and if you don't have it, you are out of luck. I think this is a tragedy. It means many people are alienated from their own musicality and creativity, they never get the chance to try out their voices, or have the transcendent experience of being part of a large group making music together. There are fewer and fewer opportunities for people to participate meaningfully in music and other creative pursuits without being judged in some way.

In that context, I think it's critical that we create places and spaces where people can make music together without the expectation of perfection, places where people can sing or play purely for the joy of it, rather than for applause or adulation. Places where it doesn't matter what your skill level is. Where, even if the singer needs some work on their musical skills, their contribution to the spirit of the event will be recognized and appreciated. This might be a song circle, a jam session, an open stage, or some other kind of friendly musical exchange. We need these kinds of spaces because we need to bring back music-making as a natural human activity.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Modern Day Collectors

When I think about folk music collectors, I usually think of early musicologists tramping through the Appalachians to document traditional ballad singers in the 19th century. Or maybe John and Alan Lomax, carrying an acetate disk recorder in the back of a station wagon to rural parts of North America.

But even today, there are dedicated musicians who are tracking down older musicians and recording their songs, stories, and tunes. Here's a link to an NPR piece about one group of modern day collectors. Good to know that there are people out there preserving some of our rich musical heritage.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

How Does This Sound?

Okay, maybe I'm fixated on this nickname thing.

Today there was another article in the Star about Toronto's nickname dilemma. In principle, I agree with Vinay Menon's point that there are probably far more important things to spend our valuable time and money on in this city.

But on the other hand, I love nicknames! And I thought of one for Toronto that I think is not bad. So here goes:

"Toronto: Home to The World."

Whaddaya think?

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

I'm Not The Only One...

A while ago I wrote about the fact that I've never had a nickname. It seems I'm not the only one.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Morris Dancers: Endangered Species or the New Hipsters?

Recently there was a spate of news articles declaring that Morris dancing, that ancient British past-time in which grown men and women strap bells to their feet, grab hankies or sticks, and prance around, is in danger of dying out. Since most of you probably don't keep up to date on the latest in the Morris dance scene, let me be the first to inform you that other Morris dance diehards disagree completely.

And yesterday, via the Dirty Linen blog, came a report that there might be hope in the form of this movie, which claims to be the "Spinal Tap of Morris dance." Maybe Morris dancing will become the new hip-retro-cool activity du jour. Why not? It happened to swing dance, bluegrass and old-time music, shape note singing, why not Morris dance?

No word yet on when "Morris: A Life With Bells On" is due to be screened in North America. I'm holding my breath in anticipation.


Friday, January 2, 2009

And, In Watermelon News...

I wish I had heard about this earlier, or I might have changed my New Year's plans. It seems Vincennes, Indiana decided to create a new local tradition for ringing in 2009. They created a 500-pound watermelon (yes, you read that right!), which they hoisted 100 feet into the air at 11:59 pm on December 31st. At the stroke of midnight, they dropped nine real watermelons to mark the beginning of 2009 (nine watermelons for 2009, get it?). This is the kind of tradition I could get into.

Most of the coverage of this that I found on the internet was actually pre-watermelon drop (as in this piece here), but there was one local piece today that heralded the event as a complete success, despite a rope-pulling malfunction. And there was this picture for posterity. I'm waiting for the videos to be posted.

Signing off,

Your watermelon correspondent.

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