It was a refreshing surprise to hear someone practicing piano as I walked the dogs last night. The budding pianist was struggling with a scale-wise passage from some undetermined pop tune. Maybe they were really trying. Maybe just doing their required time before being released to video game time. It was certainly not high art, but it got me thinking about how rare it is these days to experience the spontaneous sharing of music.
I grew up during a time of Hi-Fi systems, boom boxes and car stereos that took the entire trunk space. People shared music all the time, even when you didn’t want to hear it. It was often an imposition, but at least you saw the expression of the person through music. In this way, I was exposed to Haydn, Mussorgsky, Ligeti, Copland, Pink Floyd and Yes. I listened to my mother’s Big Band favorites; my father’s Strauss Waltzes; my sister’s White Snake album. And Charles Ives had nothing on our house with 3 stereo systems playing at the same time!
In a way it is the same imposition that I unwittingly made on our neighbors as a young violist. We had no air conditioning, so windows were always open in the summer. My struggles with Stamitz, triumphs with Telemann, and wrestling with Wohlfahrt were all heard by the neighbors. I didn’t know it, but I was busking with Bach. And someone noticed.
One day, when I was about 13, the neighbor lady from over the back fence asked me what I was thinking about doing when I grew up. I remember saying I might like to be a fighter pilot. I was startled when she asked “But what about your music? You have such a gift!” I had never considered that anyone but my family had noticed. I was stunned by the realization that I had made an impression on her. I had unwittingly serenaded her while she weeded her garden. While it was still several years before I decided for certain that I would study music in college, her words undoubtedly influenced my decision.
The IPod generation changed this sharing, though. We quickly became a society that could plug in and tune out. We downloaded what we wanted and only shared by letting someone else listen through our personal earbuds (ew, no further comment). And we can easily tune out that aspiring neighbor musician kid (in the unlikely event that the A/C was broken and the windows were open).
I don’t think I’m just waxing for some lost auditory nostalgia. I really don’t expect us to all sit around the piano and sing Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. (Although if the ghost of Judy Garland rang the bell dressed in her Meet Me in St. Louis garb, I’d definitely let her in and escort her to the piano, regardless of the season).
There is hope on the horizon, though. Consider the effectiveness and viral nature of musical flashmobs. Why do people cry and express intense joy when confronted with spontaneous or unexpected music making? And why do we smile, cry, or sing along when watching them online? Perhaps it is because we have remembered something important. Something vital. Something identifiably human.
I am also excited about the new emergence of Spotify and similar services. At first, I was suspicious when Face Book started announcing everything I, and my “friends,” were listening to. But wait. What was that? Craig was listening to Mozart. Cindy was listening to Gotye. Paul was listening to John Williams. In a way we were sharing music. All I had to do was click to hear the tunes. This respected my privacy to choose while allowing someone to say, here dude, listen to THIS!
So, here’s the new rule for our upcoming family vacation. No headphones in the car. If someone wants to hear something, we plug it into the system and share it with everyone. So yes, I will be exposed to more of my daughter’s Katy Perry and my son’s Airbourne. Conversely, they may get to hear R. Carlos Nakai, Giuseppe Verdi, or the Stick Men. I wonder what my wife will choose? Perhaps some nice Judy Garland.
Copyright, 2012 Robert Baldwin