For a culture so obsessed with music, we sure don’t play much of it.
This appears to be largely a Western thing, and possibly overwhelmingly an American thing. We are surrounded by a near-continuous stream of music, from the radios in our cars to the canned music at the grocery store, gas station and coffee shop. We listen to music at work if at all possible, and have our earbuds in at the gym. Music spews at us out of our television sets with astonishing regularity.
We’ll sing in the shower. We’ll sing “Happy Birthday” to somebody in a room full of people, but never alone. Never one-on-one. We’ll sing a lullaby to our babies, but not once they have grown up a bit. We sing in the car. With the windows up. As long as we’re on a pretty quiet road with nobody in front or behind us.
Maybe a handful of us sing in a church choir. An even smaller number go to karaoke night at the local bar, and almost nobody actually goes up to sing without a drink or two first.
Maybe we were in choir, band or orchestra in school, maybe even into college. But how many of us bring it home? How many of us actually keep playing music, keep singing, into adulthood? Damn few.
I did some research a few years ago for a project I was working on, and discovered a really weird statistic; about 1% of the population of any area goes to live music events. I’m not talking about the big concert arenas with the latest big deal or old guy touring band. I’m talking about local music in the coffeehouses and bars. So if you live in a community of 200,000 people, about that’s 2000 people who might conceivably be lured out to hear a local band.
Now, cut that 2000-person pie into slices, because most of those people are going to stay home to watch television, or have to play chauffeur for their kids. Of those who can go out, some will want to hear old time rock’n’roll, and some are going to want to hear old time country, and some will want to hear that fucking new country shite (though I cannot comprehend why anyone would willingly subject themselves to that garbage), and of course several of them will want to hear some kind of metal, about 6 will want to hear jazz, and 2.4 are into folk music.
You think I’m kidding?
So for a population steeped in canned music, some would even say addicted to music, only a fraction have an interest in hearing live music, and a tiny fraction of that fraction actually participates in making any of the music at all.
My friend from The Congo shakes his head over this. Music is their life in his country; everybody sings, most everybody is a drummer, lots of people play guitars or other instruments – it’s normal to play music. It’s vital to their communities to sing together, so everyone is harmonized for the good of the whole. Nobody says, “Oh, no, I can’t sing.” Can’t sing isn’t really a thing for them. They don’t understand it. Even people who are profoundly deaf can drum and dance, so if you have a face with all the usual stuff in, and at least one working ear, you should be fully capable of singing. Whether you can carry a tune is . . . well, less important. You can open your mouth and sound will come out, and given enough exposure and time and regular practice with a bunch of other people who are all singing together, you will entrain and be in tune whether you know it or not.
Scientific fact, observed truth, take your pick.
When a group of people make music together, something amazing happens. First of all, they’re breathing together, especially if they are singing, and that causes their brain waves to sync up. Second, their heartbeats may synchronize in time with the music, establishing an even deeper connection between group members. Third, they have to listen to each other, because if they aren’t listening whatever they are doing becomes a dog’s breakfast, so they start communicating wordlessly, thinking the same thoughts, even anticipating each-other’s next musical moves. Do it often enough and a very strong and highly elastic bond gets created. It is, yes, very much like very good sex between bonded partners, except way less sticky.
Playing music with other people is all that and a sammich, and it’s probably essential to our humanity. Let’s face it, music evolved along with us, and has continued to grow in complexity as our capacity for complexity has increased. Nature doesn’t waste energy, so it is clear that we have this capacity for a reason.
We are wasting Nature’s energy by not making music together in community.
I’m not just saying this because I’m a music instructor and soundworker. I’m saying it because I’m a human who is dedicated above all to saving the human race from itself. Music heals and bonds people together. Singing together brings us together. We see politics and religion as the bullshit they are. We feel warmth and affection for those around us. Total strangers become friends. I’ve had some incredible jam sessions with people I didn’t even share a spoken language with. Music unites.
Music is a verb and we need to do it more.
So why don’t we? What holds us back from expressing ourselves musically?
Part of the problem is the pressure we put on ourselves to excel. Television shows like America’s Got Talent set up unrealistic expectations. Ordinary people not welcome. If you are not astoundingly good, you will be humiliated, rejected, laughed at, or booed off the stage. We witness people being made fun of every week. Sometimes the insults make the rounds on Twitter and Facebook, too, and thousands of people join the mocking. So not only do people fear being made fun of, they get the idea that they actually have to have exceptional skills in order to not be made fun of, and have almost supernatural talent to be worthy. And that’s total bullshit.
If you have ever made fun of someone for being a bad singer or a bad musician, forgive yourself, move forward, and don’t do it again. If you have done it, your fear of it is probably even worse, for understandable magical/karmic balance reasons. It’s okay, don’t be upset, don’t feel bad. You did it, but now you feel it in a different way and next time you’ll have the insight to make a different choice. We have to stop making fun of people for expressing themselves in any creative way, not just music. Constructive and kind criticism are always welcome, just no “gawd you suck, how stupid are you to think anybody would want to hear your shit?” That’s really the first step. Be an example to those around you of how to be kind. You don’t have to lie or sugar-coat anything. Honesty can be gentle and still be honest. It’s an act of bravery to sing in front of an audience; credit them for that. Sometimes people just want to be part of something exciting. They’re not wrong for wanting that experience, and being a bad singer doesn’t make them a bad person.
Seek out opportunities to be in a place where people are making music together. Jam sessions. Drum circles. Community singing. If you don’t want to participate at first, just listen and watch–but watch everybody, not just the super-stars. Watch the kid who is learning. Watch the older fella who hangs back and strums a few chords.
Watch the inexpert, not to notice their mistakes, but to notice what the process is doing for them, and how glad they are to be doing it.
There’s your inspiration. You don’t have to be superlative. You don’t have to know what you’re doing. Go to any traditional music jam session on planet Earth and say you want to learn to play the banjo/fiddle/mando/guitar or whatever, and somebody is going to be thrilled to sit down and show you which end of it to blow into. Seriously. Musicians love to talk about music, love to teach music, and love to play music with other people. My friend John Hartford (may he rest in peace) used to jam with absolutely anybody, because he believed everybody had something to teach him. Nobody is going to make fun of you for being a beginner there–they’re going to feed you pie and teach you songs and invite you to the next jam at George and Mavis’ house. I know this, these are my people.
And when you see that it’s not terrifying, maybe you will feel safe enough to join in and become part of the Holy Global Choir, and have one of those crazy, “Wow, I really wanted to hear just those three notes and you just played them without me even knowing how to ask for them!” experiences. Welcome to the human race.
The thing is, we shouldn’t be worshiping musicians, or athletes, or even brainiacs. We should respect them because to get really, really good at something you have to work your ass off, but they don’t need to be put on any pedestals or separated from the rest of us. Because we’re taught to treat them as super-human and worship them they aren’t safe around us, so they have to live their lives apart. That’s incredibly sad for everybody. But in order to sell lots and lots of records, the record companies want you and me to be in awe of these gods, so they use every trick in their power to keep that worship going. It’s stupid and unhealthy and it needs to stop. The reason ordinary people feel like they can’t sing or play music is because the recording industry wants them to feel that way. Mission accomplished.
So fuck those fuckers. Music is in our DNA. It’s our birthright. It’s what makes us human.
And we need to be expressing the most beautiful parts of our humanity more and more, now more than perhaps ever in human history. Hatred and anger divide us, but music hath charms to soothe the savage beast. If you have ever wanted to play a musical instrument, we need you playing it now. If you have ever wanted to sing or dance or drum, we need you doing it now. Not everybody is going to spend 10,000 hours practicing in order to become an expert. Most people aren’t even going to get close to that in their lifetime, so really, you’re in good company. Please, just play. Just do it. Become the most human you can possibly be in the best possible way. Your music will be wonderful because it will be yours uniquely. Don’t think about it, just take a breath and do it.