Time was that professional musicians could deal with audience members, fans, armchair critics and others from outside the world of professional music in the same manner that the military handled civilians. Social media now allows everyone to interact, directly and regularly, even when someone can’t even define “enharmonic.”
I can only speak as a dilettante looking to learn more about music from musicians, but hopefully the following suggestions for musicians can foster pleasant, even constructive exchanges between those who have devoted their lives to music and those looking to understand la cosa musica…
Avoid Beginning Sentences With “It’s Just A…”
Imagine someone meeting your mother for the first time. You have introduced the two of them, they had some pleasant conversation and inevitably your mother mentions some childhood accomplishment near and dear to her heart to this other person. She does not claim you were the best spelling bee contestant or Pee Wee linebacker in history; she merely expresses that you are her special scholar/athlete.
To which your companion replies, “Millions of kids do spelling bees!” or “(S)he played football? B…F…D!” That’s the equivalent of telling someone that their favorite piece of music is “just a II-V-I” or “just a bunch of pentatonic runs.”
Chances are that if someone is describing a particular song, movement or solo, it animates something inside of them so powerfully that they want to share it with another human being (hopefully without gushing over it as some moms do). They may even be looking for a trained musician to offer some unique insight, without making them feel foolish because they didn’t know that even a first-year composition major can voice a triad in root position.
Most listeners, even the ones who might play an instrument, don’t encounter music for a fraction of the amount of time that formally trained, working musicians do. It’s why we get so excited over aspects of the music that professionals have probably heard ad nauseam. That excitement occasionally spills over into some odd or even rude behavior (can I assume that musicians don’t like people thronging them for autographs the moment they put down their horn?) Yet that excitement also makes what musicians do, even the simplest things they do, seem like magic. So the next time someone praises an inane pop song as though it were Starry Night or claps like a madman at that same riff you phone in every week at your wedding gig, try to remember your mother.
Along similar lines…
Keep In Mind That “Obvious” Is A Subjective Term
After reading an interview with Lee Konitz discussing intonation and specifically Jackie McLean playing sharp, I tweeted the following:
Two incredibly musically experienced, frighteningly well-listened musicians offered the following replies:
I have been listening to McLean for several years now but not nearly as long or as intently as these folks (one of whom has honesty been something of a role model for me, albeit in the same way that Joan Sutherland was probably a role model for Anna Russell). Present-day Andrew didn’t feel offended or condescended to just because they pointed out something that he already knew. Sixteen-year old Andrew on the other hand might have felt downright silly.
Band directors, clarinet teachers, critics and writers he would read for hours on end as well as other revered musical authorities had drummed into sixteen-year old Andrew’s head that musicians are supposed to play in tune (“…god damn it!” per his jazz band teacher). Sixteen-year old Andrew was just beginning to listen to Jackie McLean, whose name he pronounced “Mick-Leen and whose music didn’t yet explain why Mr. McLean was doing something that Andrew had been told was “wrong.” He simply had not learned what to listen for or how to listen. Present-day Andrew still has a lot to learn, but for young Andrew, there was nothing “obvious” about the music.
Those who can hang certainly don’t have to tailor their comments for amateurs or the uninitiated who come in all ages. Yet in light of conversations about “elitism” and “museumification” of all the music that doesn’t get into Billboard’s Top 1000, occasionally doing so may be more than a matter of avoiding bruised egos. Want to grow an audience? Describe the art form as an exciting learning opportunity, not a party at some club that only admits people who know the password.
Speaking of outreach…
Consider That While Words Might Not Be The Best Tools To Describe Music, Sometimes They’re All We’ve Got
“There are no words.”
“It really cannot be spoken of.”
“I won’t discuss the music because it’s all there in the notes.”
Something about dancing architects or the like.
These and similar phrases have been used to explain why musicians will not, should not or even cannot describe the music they play, the music they enjoy, the music that influences them or music, period. Yet the same musicians often describe music as a “language,” which is a much less confusing and far more stimulating idea.
Musicians have mastered communicating with one another through pitches, rhythms and other aspects of organized sound while the rest of the world more often uses words. We can debate whether that is a good or a bad thing (though Aristotle, Milton, a few Hindu priests and The Notorious B.I.G. might want to weigh in), but the fact is that most of us are “stuck” with words. If a music listener is trying to discuss what a music player does using words, or even asking that player for words about it, that’s not because the listener is insensitive to what the player does; it’s because they are trying to communicate too.
Yet if musicians are still unconvinced, to be safe they should avoid creating press releases about their next album, sharing positive reviews about their last show or doing interviews of any kind. Further to the slippery notion of talking about music…
Remember That People Other Than Barack Obama Discuss Politics
The statement “Unless you’re a musician, you’ll never understand” has explained so many aspects of music to an unmusical type like me that its occasional overreaches stick out like a sharp second alto.
There is no teacher like experience, but people still manage to make intelligent, objective, sincere statements about things they never went to school for and don’t do on a paid basis. It’s why musicians who never served as Congressional interns can offer penetrating political analyses, or why a nation not exclusively populated by lawyers or trained philosophers can still determine how its citizens should treat one another. Commentary from outside of a discipline isn’t always helpful, but that’s just a reason to encourage sharper discourse, not close off discussion, right?
Julius Caesar noted that “experience is the teacher of all things,” but experience also has a pretty tight schedule and not everyone is fortunate enough to learn from it. Julius Caesar also famously said, “Hey Brutus, what’s that in your hand?” Which leads me to my final and most personal suggestion:
Have A $@#!ing Sense of Humor…
…so that when some pseudo-intellectual internut who needs to transpose Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto to B-flat just to sputter and die before they even reach the first movement’s development section gives you advice, take it where it comes from. Louis Armstrong always had a sense of humor, and he did alright for himself. He even replied to his fan letters and talked about politics.
This is a remarkably sane and reasonable guideline to discourse among those with varyinig degrees of musical training. Congratulations.
Which that means you and maybe other five people will care about it.
All kidding aside, thank you for reading and for these very kind words. I am glad you enjoyed it!