Stardom isn’t for everyone, music is
For years, my conductor-friend Angelo hung a large banner in the university classroom where he once led a community orchestra (and I once played second violin). It said: “Music … Not for a Living, but for a LIFETIME.”
I’ve been thinking of Angelo’s banner lately — every time I sit down to watch American Idol on a Wednesday night, and then again when some poor, weepy soul gets booted off on Thursday. Last week we had to watch Karen Rodriguez plead with the judges for a last-minute reprieve from the TV dustbin.
My heart goes out to these folks, but every time someone vows to keep chasing that elusive goal of pop-music superstardom, I cringe. I admire their ambition and stick-to-itiveness. I do. And some of them (say, Stefano and Scotty) have a halfway decent chance of landing a contract.
But what I’d like them to know – what I wish one of the judges would say out loud – is that a professional music career isn’t everything. The reigning Idol winner, Lee DeWyze, came close on elimination night when he turned to this year’s contestants and said: “You still love music, and you’re still gonna keep doin’ it – no matter what happens.”
Why stop there? What needs to be said is this: “Look, if this pop-apotheosis thing doesn’t pan out for you, don’t quit singing. Join a choir. Challenge yourself. Take lessons. Form a jam band. Whatever you wind up doing for a living – whether you’re a teacher or a plumber or a movie critic – just don’t stop. You won’t make money, but a life spent as an amateur musician is a joyous life indeed.”
Of course, the judges never say this. Instead, Randy and Steven fidget uncomfortably while J-Lo chokes back tears. It’s enough to make the church-choir lady in me want to grab the mike and say it myself. Like millions of happy amateurs across the country, I make music on a regular basis, sometimes in public. I screw up on a regular basis, sometimes in public. But it feeds me. It’s important to me in ways I can barely describe. If I go a couple of weeks without it, I turn restless and tetchy, prompting my husband to shove me out the door to rehearsals.
Work and parental duties have a way of interfering. But as best I can and as often as I can, I make a joyful noise with friends: as an alto in church; as a violinist in an orchestra that visits nursing homes; and as a fiddler in a neighborhood hootenanny, an ever-expanding group that gamely cranks through folk tunes, Neil Young and Psycho Killer.
The thrill of making music isn’t simply the thrill of performing, which is alternately fun (if you’re prepared for it) and terrifying (if you’re not). The real thrill is the intense and revelatory focus that music requires, the sense of burrowing deep into a thing of beauty and miraculously becoming a part of it.
Hearing a performance of Handel’s Messiah or Amazing Grace can transport and transform you. But playing it or singing it yourself? That’s a special kind of bliss.
Star power has little to do with it. Neither do vocal gymnastics. Idol and its ilk emphasize the glitz, the melismas, the Me, Me, Me, but music is as much about listening to others – and paying extremely close attention – as it is about making sound. Unless you’re Yo-Yo Ma doing a Bach solo work at Carnegie Hall, playing music generally involves playing with someone else.
It builds community. It binds us together in a shared artistic task. You sing melody, we’ll sing harmony, the folks over there will play guitar.
The older I get, the more I appreciate the chance to lose myself in the dots on the page and the tones they produce.
It wasn’t always so. I joined a choir again after 25 years of singing from the pews, and I had to re-learn how to breathe, how to sight-sing the alto line and pull a low note from a chord on the piano. And my mother may have been a concert violinist, but I was still one of those kids who quit playing in middle school. In my 20s I realized I missed the violin; paying for lessons myself, I actually practiced.
Four or five years later I was merrily plowing through string quartets and playing in Angelo’s orchestra, where I scratched out my flawed contributions to Prokofiev, Schubert, Liszt.
In those days Angelo had another saying, one he never hung on the wall. He sometimes spoke of music as “a little piece of God,” and though he wasn’t – isn’t – a religious man, he was referring to that indefinable creative force that connects us with something bigger, something that unites and empowers and fortifies us. I might not get paid for it, but it fortifies me.
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