July 28, 2005

Music as a Metaphor for Life

Filed under: Art and About Music — admin @ 3:02 pm

A funny thing happened on the way to Christmas last year. I became a children’s choir director. My son’s choir director left rather suddenly in November and at a regrouping meeting of the parents, I raised my hand and said I would be willing to help keep the choir going. Next thing I knew, I was in front of the congregation guiding eight kids through “Away in a Manger” at the Christmas concert.

Although I never expected, hoped or sought to be a choir director, the choir and I made it through the rest of season and now I am coming back for more in the Fall. Choir has been a vital part of my life since I was four, the same age my son is now. Whether or not he chooses to pursue choir singing, my husband and I felt strongly that he should be introduced to the activity early. There are a lot of choir geeks on both sides of the family, so he could come by it very naturally.

We are involved in the music program at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church primarily because they have choirs for the youngest choristers. I have spent the summer learning about choir directing and selecting a repertoire for the upcoming season. In the process of communicating with the Our Savior’s Director of Worship, Music and the Arts, Martin Morley, I happened to include a phrase in an email stating “I think of music as a metaphor for life.” Martin emailed me back “I want to hear more from you about ‘music as a metaphor for life’ when you’ve got time!”

Oh-oh. I didn’t think I was going to have to back up a quick email ditty with actual thought. I hadn’t intended to say anything trite, but I was speaking more from a visceral level than something I can actually articulate. Now Martin, unknowingly, was challenging me to substantiate it.

Initially, I thought of the “music as a soundtrack for life” idea in which we all can recall musical pieces from certain eras of our lives or from specific events that happened personally, nationally or internationally. When we hear these songs, we are immediately taken back to a time and place, whether we want to revisit it or not. We either seek out the appropriate music or the music seeks us out to compile the soundtrack of our lives.

Brides and grooms pick a “theme song” for their first dance at their wedding. This song has meaning for them and is a musical expression of their relationship. Brides and grooms who don’t normally dance will even take dance lessons in order to properly celebrate this song. That is how important this specific musical symbol is in their lives.

We all know people, and maybe you’re one of them, who can quote a song lyric when it is apropos to a conversation we are involved in. Some people sing these lyrics. Some people find that annoying. I wonder how many song lyrics pop into people’s brains at the time of conversation but aren’t shared. It’s as if our brains are constantly Googling lyrical search words and sometimes, we get a direct hit and feel compelled to share it.

Music is constantly with us, whether we seek it or not. We sing to celebrate a birthday. We sing to mourn the passing of a life. Music underscores war, revolution, hardship, discovery, triumph and tradition. Music is a common language between humankind. It would seem music and life are inseparable partners, and I suddenly have to appreciate the profoundness of the sage bumper sticker that reads, “Life without music would be a mistake.”

Coincidentally, it was something Martin himself wrote about the arts in general that helped me come to my final conclusion that music is the audible representation of the spirit of life. He wrote, “Artistic expression through music, visual arts and dance gives us avenues of connection with our Higher Power: the creative and re-creative force which made us, lifts us up, and inspires us to live with both passion and compassion.”

“Inspiration” and “spirit” come from the Latin word “spiritus” meaning “breath.” For me, music is a metaphor for life because music is the breath of life.

July 18, 2005

Falling Off the Pop Culture Bandwagon

Filed under: Art and About Me — admin @ 4:42 pm

The parent of one of my son’s friends recently moved here from out-of-state. Upon learning that I was a Bay Area native, she asked me, “How do listen to new music around here? All of your radio stations play oldies.”

I opened my mouth simultaneously planning to get defensive and offer her the call letters of a station or two that would meet her needs. But I ended up saying nothing. The truth was, I didn’t know a radio station to recommend and I didn’t have enough evidence to be defensive. There could very well be someone playing new music but they are not programmed in to my memory buttons on the car radio. For the most part, I am out of touch with current popular music.

This realization took me by surprise. I know I have young children and “Sesame Street’s Greatest Hits” is the Top 40 play list in my house. But those few moments I’m in the car by myself, I thought I was listening to enough different stations to keep up with the music scene. My true realization was that although the stations I listen to sprinkle in a new song every once and a while, I usually turn the channel to see if one of the other stations is playing a song that I know. I have become my mother.

Flashback: Fourth Grade. I am just beginning to key into popular music. Within the past year I have bought my first record albums, an eclectic mix of Dolly Parton, Styx, Rick Springfield, Blondie and Danny Kaye sings Hans Christian Andersen. My mom listens to the radio while she sews in another room. She is listening to music from “her era.” It does not appeal to me. I analyze why she does not listen to contemporary popular music and run my theory by her. I hypothesize that she used to be hip and happenin’ and then for some reason, at some point in her life, she turned off the radio for an extended length of time. When she turned it back on one day, she didn’t like what she heard. Mom agrees that this theory was probably valid. I vow never to let that happen to me.

And now it has. As I think about it, music is the least worrisome indicator for me of how my radar for the popular arts scene has been shut off. Other artistic outlets for me, which I used to find very important no longer, exist in my daily life.

I don’t watch any broadcast television. I do read the newspaper, so I know about hugely successful shows like “Desperate Housewives” or “The Sopranos,” but I have never seen them. I don’t even have a desire to see them.

I don’t read any bestsellers, save for “Harry Potter.”

I rarely go to movies because there is hardly anything that compels me to go to the trouble of setting up a babysitter and saying goodbye to my hard-earned money in order to see a movie that has more than a 50% chance of wasting my time. I used to be selective in my movie viewing, but also very experimental and willing to take risks. Now I go for the sure-bet only.

I have continued to keep in touch with the theater world, but even there I have switched focus. I used to have a cursory knowledge of what American theater was up to but I put energy into keeping up with what was happening in the British theater which I found more exciting. I had a chance last week to look at a London theater guide and discovered that my global interest in theater has yielded to domestic offerings.

I guess this is the artistic manifestation of the maturation process. I know I can tell you a lot more about the Contra Costa and San Francisco visual and performing arts scenes than I could 15 years ago. I have read some darn good books, even if there is no I can talk to about them because no one else has read them. My bent toward edutainment on television is more than satisfied by the myriad cable channels producing informative and captivating programming. Quite frankly, I don’t miss the movies. If I see only one movie a year, and it is a movie like the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, then that one movie can hold me for months. Especially with the advent of DVDs.

People tell me I’ll get back to pop culture once my kids stop watching Barney and start keying into what their peers do. I’ll be curious to see what happens to me then. I don’t want to be clueless about the pop culture they find nurturing, but I have to realize that keeping up with the times may be more of an intellectual exercise for my brain while my heart seeks more compelling avenues. This could get very interesting.

July 5, 2005

Embrace your inner artist

Filed under: Art and About Creativity — admin @ 2:37 pm

Quick! Answer this question. Don’t think about it. Don’t hesitate before you answer. Answer immediately based on your gut reaction.

Are you an artist?

If you answered “yes,” you need to read no further. You already understand the answer to life, the universe and everything.

If you answered “no,” or if you hesitated, then read on.

Here’s another question for you. How do you define the term “artist?” Name some people whom you consider to be artists.

Are you done? Did you define “artist” as anyone who expresses his or her creative self through painting, dancing, music, design, gardening, cooking, writing, fashion, teaching, computer programming, house cleaning, managing a gas station, parenting, healing or administrating? Then you can stop reading now and go appreciate a world full of artistic beings.

Or does your definition of “artist” have something to do with someone who expresses themselves via the visual arts? Did you name Michelangelo, your high school art teacher or your best friend who draws really well as people you consider artists? Then I have a story to tell you.

I saw a television commercial for one of those paint-your-own-pottery places. The tagline was “(This Pottery Place) isn’t just for artists. It’s for people who want to have fun.”

I gasped. My head started spinning, and I almost lost consciousness. Did I just hear them correctly? A business that provides the means for ANYONE to paint pottery is making a differentiation between “artists” and “people who want to have fun?” A business that, to be profitable, depends on every single person who enters to bring their inner artist with them is making a distinction between “artists” and the rest of us? Could the end of the world be far behind?

I took a few deeps breaths, sat down and sighed. I had to accept that the advertisers for This Pottery Place were just playing into the societal belief that some people are artists and some are not. They are in a business with the power to change this way of thinking and instead, they let inertia overwhelm them. The tagline could easily have been “Fun for the artist in all of us” or “Anyone can be an artist at This Pottery Place.” Or, for the bold approach, “You are an artist at This Pottery Place.”

I admit, I do not consider myself particularly gifted in drawing or painting. But I have done pottery painting at this kind of place and I was pleasantly surprised with what I was able to achieve. It seems like in a 30 second promo, there must be a way to capture the essence of pottery painting empowerment. Painting pottery is so much more than just fun — it is artistically invigorating.

The term “artist” is overloaded with preconceptions, misinterpretations, and for many of us, doubt. At some point in our lives, someone needs to sit many of us down and make us repeat, “I am an artist” until we believe it. That someone sitting you down may need to be yourself. And I admit, I am guilty of self-conscious hesitation when using the term about myself.

Only six months ago my sister-in-law asked me if I considered myself an artist. I gulped and weakly answered “yes.” It was an intellectual answer but my gut still wasn’t comfortable with the term. I was relieved when my sister-in-law said, “Good, because I think you’re an artist.” It was nice validation, although sheepishly I wondered what she based it on, since I don’t really paint or draw.

Expanding the definition of artist is hard work. I don’t really know why. All children love to draw and paint, even if their paintbrush is their finger and all they have to draw on is a dusty roadside. So we all are born artists, even in the most limited sense of the definition. Maybe the definition gets even more limited when, somewhere along the line, we notice that some kids in the class draw extremely representational pictures at an early age when the rest of us require people to guess whether the green blob on the paper is a frog or a portrait of our mother. As adults, we should know that the green blob is just as valid a form of artistic expression as a scale drawing of the Golden Gate Bridge. But we have internalized the limitations and the damage is done.

If you want to take a step toward fixing that damage, go try painting some pottery. You’ll be surprised by how quickly you move yourself from the category of “people who want to have fun” into the echelon of the artists. Then step back, and think about all the artistic ways you live your life, even if your creative approach to mending the garden hose doesn’t have museums knocking on your door inviting you to have a solo exhibit.