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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