A couple weeks ago I was in the Caribbean on a cruise. I love that part of the world for many reasons, not the least of which is the music I hear there. Music is joyous and vibrant there and is a big part of the everyday lives of the people. I heard a steel pan band (sometimes referred to as steel drums) that was absolutely fantastic, a five-piece band that included lead, tenor and bass pans plus a drummer and a percussionist. Their t-shirts proclaimed them winners of a recent contest on their home island of Antigua and they exhibited an infectious confidence that made it impossible to keep from dancing as they played covers of calypso, reggae and popular tunes. It again made me reflect on the differences in cultures and how that relates to not just the love of music, but the need to play.
Unfortunately – and I’ve stated this before in this space – I think that the playing of music is not celebrated nearly as much as it should be in our modern American culture. Put simply, if music is part of a person’s every day life, as it is in the Caribbean, the propensity to play music is strong. There is often a pretty large disconnect between listening to music and the actual, personal experience of playing music in our society. Sure, we hear music regularly on television and perhaps even in our schools if we have children of that age. But is it something that is related to on a personal level? That is – when we hear a pop star sing a tune can we imagine playing that song ourselves?
Here’s what I mean. In our culture we celebrate sports, perhaps to an absurd degree. But in spite of that, most of us have thrown a baseball or tried to put a basketball through a hoop. In some small way we feel a bond to the professional players by doing this even if we’re not consciously aware of it. The swish of a basketball going though the net is a rare occurrence for most of us but it is very satisfying and when we see the great Ray Allen of the Celtics put in yet another three-pointer we can relate to the actual experience. Can many of this say this about watching and hearing our favorite performer play a guitar and sing a song? Why is this?
My theory is that still, even in these modern times of (I hope!) acceptance of various interests and lifestyles we still do not put enough emphasis on our children learning to produce music. Even if a kid learns enough about a flute or a saxophone to play in a school band, do parents give the proper amount of positive reinforcement? How many dads and moms secretly or not so secretly dream of their kids becoming sports stars? And how many dream of their kids becoming musicians? Sports is macho, manly, aggressive and supposedly teaches life lessons. Music is wimpy, weak and the province of those kids who don’t have the physical skills to succeed in sports. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit but I’ll bet you’ve been confronted with this attitude at some point in your life. Hopefully, not from a parent.
I’m not trying to be disparaging to youth sports – really, I’m not. For many kids it has great value. My point is that many of the same values can be taught with music, with one very important difference. Music is a life-long pursuit and regardless of our ability level it can bring huge satisfaction at any age. Can we truly say this about competitive sports?
Perhaps I’m totally off base on this, if you’ll forgive a sports analogy (!). But I don’t think so. In the many decades of teaching guitar I’ve noticed a direct correlation between exposure and celebration of music at an early age to the success a student finds. Many, many times I’ve asked students who have been struggling with basic musical concepts such as basic rhythm if they were exposed to music or they or their relatives played music growing up and many more times than not they say no, music was not something that was a part of their early lives. I absolutely believe the struggles they have are directly related to this. And the inverse is true too. I’ve heard from students of all ages who learn at a fast rate that music was a big part of their formative years.
That steel pan band on Antigua had an interesting make-up. The lead player was a man who appeared to be in his mid to late twenties; the tenor pan player was a girl who appeared to be in her mid teens; the bass pan player was a woman in her thirties or forties, as was the percussionist who played congas. The drummer was the senior member – he appeared to be in at least his sixties and maybe older and his playing was filled with drive and passion. They all played with small smiles on their faces as they rocked to the music. Their joy was infectious. My guess is that every one of them learned their instruments at an early age and their friends, families and everyone who hears them play is in awe of their abilities. And I’ll bet they pass on their love to playing too.
Peace & good music,