Sunday, August 15, 2010

Charms to Soothe the Savage Breast

Well, I seem to be able to at least make an average of one entry weekly, a fact of which I am somewhat proud.  This is certainly the longest any New Year's resolution has lasted in a good long while.

In one of those cases of coincidental synergy that occasionally come into our lives, I spent this past week in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.  The highlights of the trip for me were all musical:  a violinist playing period music in the Wythe House; two older gentlemen playing an ebony flute and a viola de gamba in the Mary Sith House, and all three getting together for a concert at the Raleigh Tavern.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the three performances, particularly the pieces by Handel and some other 18th Century composers who were new to me, what I mainly took away from the experience was how music was perceived back then.  People did not enjoy Handel because they knew he was destined for greatness throughout the ages.  They enjoyed his music because they were able to play it at home.  Because they could dance to it.  In the 18th Century, one would rarely be able to attend a concert performance -- but one would always have music in the home or the tavern.  The music that mattered most was the music that one was able to enjoy, either by performing it with friends or by dancing to it with others.  It had a more essential role in the enjoyment of every day life, and the importance of the hands-on element of it cannot be stressed strongly enough.  Picking up one's violin is not the same as picking up one's iPod, although the enjoyment of the music produced by either is probably much the same.

I have also been enjoying a program (or perhaps I should write "programme") on BBC America called "The Choir," which details the experiences of choir director Gareth Malone as he attempts to form choirs in regions of Britain which have never had formal (or informal) music before.  Mr. Malone is choir director of the London Symphony Choir and is quite charming.  In his first attempt, he goes to a working-class secondary school to try to form a choir of 25 youth and whip them into good enough shape to be accepted entrants in the Beijing World Choir Olympics.  I enjoyed the program, but was not really moved emotionally until the kids' performance in China.  Malone himself is moved to tears when he tries to relate how, for the first time, the kids "got" what it means to be in a choir.  The relationships one forms in a choir, he says, are different and more personal than any other social relationship.  When you get out there, try your best, and experience having it all come together with the likewise efforts of others, it is a beautiful experience.  One unlike any other.

It moved me to tears, as well.

I belong to a choir.  I am one of the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg's "Unisingers," the self-styled "musical ambassadors" of our church.  We are a bunch of anywhere from 18 to 50 souls at any given time.  We meet for a few hours once each week to put together music for our church's services  Sometimes we also perform for services or festivals elsewhere.  We have done some pretty unusual stuff, everything from the usual church fare to Green Day and P.D.Q. Bach.  I also belong to a trio we jokingly call "The 4-H Club" because even though there are three of us, we have four surnames between us (one of us is hyphenated, the poor bastard) that begin with the letter "H."  We perform a number once a year at the church music scholarship benefit concert.  I realized that I get the most satisfaction from singing with these groups when I am performing music that I enjoy.  No matter how silly 4-H may get, the audience always seems to come along for the joke, because, I think, they find infectious the fun we ourselves are having.  At least I hope they do.  And the performances with the Unisingers are difficult to describe, apart from saying that there is nothing quite like the satisfaction we feel when we "nail" a particular piece.  It's the work together that is the reward, not the audience response.  And most importantly, the relationships I have with the Unisingers are like no other friendships in my life.  They are closer to family than mere friends.

And that is the synergy between "The Choir" and my choir -- I think I might have a sense of how those 18th Century colonists enjoyed their music.  The joy of music is in the making of it and in the participation as much as in the listening.

I wish I could better describe it, because it can be a glorious feeling.  All I can tell you is that even if you think you have no talent at all, you can probably make some kind of music.  And the making of music is one of the most human things we can do.

No comments:

Post a Comment