Saturday, February 06, 2010

Their very own pirate crew

I've blogged before about the sense of camaraderie I found in communities of musicians, and about how, before I ever even thought of being a working musician myself, what led me toward those communities was a sense of who they were and how they lived. I've also written, at length, about the ways and means by which esprit de corps can be created, and some of the payoffs--both practical/musical and also interpersonal/philosophical--which such esprit can create.

Practically speaking, creating esprit in a musical ensemble enhances attendance, commitment, willingness to make sacrifices on behalf of the ensemble--but also the degree to which participants pay attention to one another in the act of performance: if you know, and care about, the people you're playing music with, you're far, far more inclined to pay attention to what helps them onstage.

But there are philosophical and emotional payoffs, too--payoffs that extend beyond the boundaries of the rehearsal room and the stage, and outside the contexts of preparation and performance. Sure, some of them wind up being pretty good friends with each other--rooming together, cooking together, and--inevitable when you deal with young'uns--occasionally hooking-up together (that last pretty damned challenging when, as also often happens with young'uns, the hook-up ends).

But it extends beyond that, too: not all of 'em will get along with each other at all times--some of the personalities, priorities, musical interests or aptitudes will be too different--and so as leader you have to make smart and thoughtful assignments, not only of repertoire to individuals, but also of individuals to one another in the various collaborative groups. And there's a hell of a salient lesson for young'uns there, as well. It's a merit that's even less immediate but perhaps more long-lasting, or perhaps more resonant if less direct. It's that, in turn, when you've created a collaborative group who look out for each other, (mostly) enjoy each other's company, and, most importantly, are willing to invest time, effort, concentration, or even the self-control that might be required to "control your demeanor" around somebody with whom you don't necessarily see eye-to-eye but with whom you somehow have to enact a successful musical process. All good for the kiddos participating, of course.

But even more valuable for the kiddos who see that kind of collaboration/participation; who, themselves maybe casting-around for a community they can feel part of, get a bit of a vision that is inclusive, collaborative, committed to excellence and effort, and seems to provide some emotional support and sense of home.

Dharmonia refers to it as the "duckling" reaction: from the old, bathetic children's story of the Ugly Duckling (of course, in the "happy ending" denouement, after being shunned and rejected by the ducks, is finally and gratifyingly recognized and accepted as a swan). She's used it in the past to describe this reaction, this sense of recognition, from students who may have been casting-around, a bit lost, trying to find a place in the symphonic or operatic or choral or chamber-music world and not quite finding a fit. When they see what the early music ensemble or the ragtime ensemble or the left-handed sewer flute ensemble or the Celtic ensemble are doing, and--at least as importantly--how much fun they're having doing it, and how much they seem to care about each other, and, as Dharmonia says, there's a certain "quack-quack-quack" of recognition.

When you've seen it in enough kids, you recognize it, and you value it, and you try to make sure that such kids encounter a sense of very explicit welcome. And you work hard to make sure that the kids already part of the ensemble understand that part of their role is not only to learn their parts (by ear), play their parts (from memory), keep their "heads up, eyes open, not forgetting to breath" as they interact in rehearsals and on stage, to carry their share of the gear and to inquire when/as/where they can otherwise pull their weight--but also to make those quacking "ugly" ducklings peeking in the door of the rehearsal room or coming up to try out the weirdo instruments after the encores feel that there is a place for them to enter this situation.

Part of it is simply about learning to show other young'uns that it's OK to be different, OK to feel like a bit of an ugly duckling--in short, showing others how to make friends with being an outsider. And to recognize that, in fact, there's some power to being an outsider--to resisting the panicky feeling of "needing" to fit in somewhere. To recognize instead the bedrock Buddhist truth that we are all going to be alone, at some of the most joyful and some of the most sorrowful moments of existence. And to understand that such a circumstance, though it can be lonely and sad, is a place of extraordinary opportunity: when you are standing alone, you have access to a 360-degree horizon of possibilities. And it means that, because you are not bound by expectations or norms of behavior of a received or generic community, you can *choose* your tribe: you can look around you at the realms and communities of experience that are available, and you can select your community on the basis of shared values--rather than genetics or inheritance.

In the Celtic Ensemble, those values, in addition to "community," "empathy," and "personal responsibility,"--and exemplified in the above "keep your head up" dictum and Celtic Ensemble Rule #1 "Don't Suck!"--are also about creative, constructive, imaginative, even cunning responses to limited resources. About maximizing opportunities. About traveling light. About making sure that everyone is taken care of and along for the ride.

I call it the "spit and bailing wire" ethos: the conviction "we're going to find ways to make maximal art happen out of minimal resources, ones that aren't dependent upon anybody else's budget, anybody else's permission, anybody else's venue or rubric or approval--because that's how we manage to stay free." I use it because it's the only way to respond to the nearly-non-existent resources available, but also because I want to model it for the kiddos. I want them to believe in their own ability to do the same thing. So that when we send 'em out into the world, we're sending out self-sufficient, self-confident, imaginative, constructive, creative, courageous artists.

I thought of it the other night as we were just beginning to work on the Celtic Ensemble's "big" spring program, some version of which we prepare each year, starting around this time, so as to have suitable repertoire for the run-out concerts, festival concerts, and "big" gigs that the Spring semester brings. This year it's a "sea music" program, as I've mentioned previously, which I think will work pretty well, and which will, in the context of West Texas, of course be hopelessly exotic. The kiddos are really excited about it, and I think a big part of that excitement, beyond the objective greatness of the music (and it is pretty great), is the very fact that what they're playing isn't something anybody in the School of Music does. They're learned to like that they play esoteric music, music that others haven't heard, and they like the sense of having discovered something for themselves, something they can then take out and share with others. They become very messianic about it--they come to believe in the music the way that I do, the way that the people I learned from did.

So we're walking down the hall, me and the General, from the rehearsal room where we work on their instrumental stuff to the big open hallway where the dance orchestra rehearses with the dance corps, and as they lollygag along in front of us, about 5 of them start playing "Whiskey Before Breakfast"--which they are very proud of having discovered and learned, by ear, all by themselves.

It's become their "traveling music", and part of the band/rehearsal ritual is that they have to play the tune as they're traversing from one space to the next: just part of the little social ritual/traditions that develop as the esprit goes. They know that when we get to the performance hall they help schlep chairs and PA components; they know that after the shows there's always a music party at Dr Coyote's house; they know they "can't suck"; and they know that when they walk from the rehearsal room to the dance hallway, they play "Whiskey Before Breakfast." Some of them, the more recent recruits, don't even know where these various social rituals came from--they just know they were already in place, already available, already part of joining the tribe, when they arrived.

So they're walking down the corridor ahead of us, and I chuckle quietly and say to the General, "I think they kind of like being the barbarians at the gate. Their very own pirate crew."

And he laughed, and said back, "you bet: that way they've got something nobody else has. They can do something nobody else can do."

And so, of course, they can. They've got something nobody else has. They built it.

For themselves.



SJC said...


Boy do I miss that place.

CJS said...


We miss you too! Come back for a visit some time!

sunshine said...

told ya birds were dangerous... :-)