First published in Victory Review, December 2001.
Last year at this time, I traveled with Reggie Garrett and Will Dowd to the Quad-Cities area of Illinois and Iowa for a two-week visiting artist residency, giving numerous presentations and performances. Three times each day, we visited a different location, including public and private schools, colleges, and community centers. We played on the shop floor of a metal forging plant for workers on their lunch break, we played for thousands of dancing and squealing children in countless gymnasiums, we played for well-heeled arts patrons at a country club, and we played for the whole community in a large final concert at an old movie palace. In all, we played for over 8,000 people.
In our educational presentations, we talked about Reggie's music and the unique sound that we create together as a group (Reggie Garrett and the SnakeOil Peddlers), we talked about our personal musical backgrounds and our instruments, and we played our music. Everywhere we went, people were interested, open, and curious — especially the kids — asking us all kinds of questions, from "Does that hurt your hands?" and "How long have you been playing?" to "Are you married?" and "How much did that guitar cost?" We answered them all, we let them play our instruments, and we taught them to sing along with our songs.
One of the strongest impressions that stays with me from the whole trip is just how important it is for artists to "pass it on," to give the gift not only of our music, but of our knowledge and our selves. People are hungry for new experiences, for reminders that they, too, are artists. Those of us who work at mastery of our craft as musicians and songwriters need to reach out and give of what we've learned to the people who are starting out, to the "next generation."
In this ultra-commercialized society, artists are often seen as somehow different from "ordinary" folks. On our trip, we even got a bit of the "star" treatment ourselves, with kids asking us for our autographs after many of our appearances. But our presence with them, our willingness to let them horse around with our instruments and visit with us informally helped to collapse the usual wall between artist and audience. We talked about when we were their age, when we first learned to play music, the troubles we had in school, and how we make our livings as independent musicians. We continually encouraged them to make music of their own, to think of themselves as musical, artistic people.
I teach music privately, and as I help my students master the basic skills, I'm constantly reminded of the struggles I went through when I was learning to play. There are so many simple things that are easy to take for granted, but for the beginner, each of these simple things is like a mountain to be climbed.
If you are a musician, think about how you might "pass it on" to someone you know. Think of the things you know, the skills you've learned, the experiences you've had. Perhaps there are people around you who can learn from what you know, even if you've only been playing a short time, even if you don't consider yourself a Teacher with a capital "T." What little you know may be a gold mine to someone else who's just starting out.
Perhaps the most important "lesson" you have to offer is just the joy and satisfaction you get from making music. Those who are having trouble making the leap themselves may be inspired and instructed by your example. Many people long to play but their busy lives and their insecurities get in the way. If you're not a professional musician, the fact that you still make time in your life for it may help others to do the same. You can help show them that making music is not necessarily an all-or-nothing proposition.
So how can you pass it on? Playing music in the home is a great place to start: singing with your partner, singing with your kids, singing with your friends. Get out that old guitar and strum those few chords you remember. Sit around the piano and bang through some old, familiar songs that everyone knows. Anything from "Amazing Grace" to the theme from "Gilligan's Island." It doesn't need to be brilliant and amazing, or even all that "good." It doesn't need to lead to anything more polished or "serious." It just needs to be fun.
If you know other friends who like to play, find some time to jam together, swap songs, show each other chords and techniques. If you know someone who's just starting out, share your knowledge with them. You'll be surprised by how much you really know. In the process, some folks discover they have a knack for and love of teaching, and decide to hang out their shingle as a private instructor.
If you feel inspired to work with kids, you might think about volunteering to offer musical activities at a nearby school. At a time when school arts funding has all but dried up, and national standards threaten to turn the school year into one long test preparation marathon, volunteers can help ensure that music remains a part of the classroom experience. Make music with the kids, sing with them, bang on percussion instruments with them, write songs with them. You could even give (or organize) a concert of local folks so the kids can hear and meet some of the musicians in their own community. You could organize and lead similar projects at nursing homes and retirement centers, and other places where music is probably sorely needed.
If teaching lessons or leading sing-alongs in schools isn't your style, that's fine. Just try to be open to any opportunities, no matter how small, to make music with other people, and to share what you know and love about music in your own way. As I said before, all that may be necessary to inspire others to take a chance and make room for music in their lives is to let them see and hear you doing it. They might be your friends, your co-workers, your neighbors, or your own kids.
It's imperative that we not underestimate the power of music to open people's hearts and minds and spirits. Not just listening to it, but making it ourselves. It's an essential part of being human. And you never know how music might help someone. When I was a teenager, music became an important lifeline during an emotionally difficult time, and probably saved my life. During the residency program last year, I saw kids who struck me as being in a similar situation, and I hope they found their musical lifeline, too. Maybe our being there helped them recognize and reach for it. There may be someone in your life for whom music — and your time and attention — might be such a lifeline.
But, again, it doesn't have to be any big deal. It can be a small, simple thing. Just know that, as a musician, you have something to offer to your community. You have your knowledge and skills, you have the music you make, and more importantly, you have a certain understanding that is becoming all too rare: you understand that making music makes life better. Spread that bit of wisdom where you can. Be another link in the chain. Pass it on.
© Copyright 2001 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.
Richard Middleton is a musician, songwriter, producer, educator, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Rhythm Guitar Secrets" (Countersine), and his music writing has also appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Victory Review, and SingOut! magazine.
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