Making music

It's that time of year again when people spread out a blanket at the park, unfold a few beach chairs, and make themselves comfortable in anticipation of the weekly musical event sponsored by their local city.Summer concerts in the park are a treasured tradition across this country for many reasons. The music is live and we share the experience as a community - with family and friends. As I look over Downey's list of scheduled performances, which includes one by the city's own symphony orchestra, I find myself reflecting on music in general. I am passionate about music, and while I do not play any instrument well, I consider myself an educated listener, one who is open-minded and familiar with music of different styles and cultures. As the years go by, I wish I had listened when my mother told me to practice the piano every day. My playing is barely adequate for even a children's sign-along, but I marvel that my students enjoy it nonetheless. I am now trying to make up for lost time, and I persevere on the keyboard in homage to all those who have given so much pleasure to the rest of us. As I put more effort into making music myself, I have come to realize how primal music is to the nature of human beings. Music is like language - it is genetic, instinctual, and one of the strongest forms of social bonding. Different cultures and societies develop their own unique musical traditions, but all mothers sing to their babies in the universally recognizable form of a lullaby. Music is a social activity, and it reveals a human's urge to communicate and share with others. We experience music in groups to mark special occasions, such as weddings and birthdays, and we use music to define our group. (Sometimes young people like to create music that will serve to exclude older listeners from their group.) When people join together to make music, they are communicating in a way that only humans can do. Given the defining role of music in our lives, it is not surprising that music drives a significant portion of our modern economy. Enormous personal fortunes are amassed by those connected with the music industry - everyone from rock stars to concert promoters, broadcasting executives, and developers of digital technology. The profitable and award-winning movies about Ray Charles and Johnny Cash underscore how much we revere these iconic performers. What surprises me are the ambivalent feelings that most of us reveal about music. While it is hard for us to imagine how we ever got through the day without being able to customize the playlist on our iPod, many of us are shy and inhibited about making music ourselves, whether by singing with others or playing an instrument. Except for the brave souls in the karaoke bar, many of us have allowed ourselves to be convinced that making music is something only "experts" can do. We participate in music as highly engaged listeners, secretly wishing that we knew how to play more than just the air guitar. When was the last time you even sang with your children on a road trip or around a campfire? Given the economic impact of the music industry throughout the world, the ultimate, and inexplicable, contradiction in American society is that the public schools treat music classes as a "frill." You would think that music would rank right up there with reading and math, and that more parents would be trying to raise the next Eric Clapton. Why are moms driving their kids to soccer practice instead of to a music teacher who can help them master licks on the guitar? I am being facetious of course, and I know better than most people how supportive parents are when there are performances at school. The PTA at my school raises money every year to support a 12-week African dance and drumming program for all fifth graders. This is their 13th year. Parents know these kinds of activities are important, they just don't know how to help the schools get more of them. Americans are losing out if we can not teach our children how to make music in some way. Making music with others is good for the soul. It is part of our humanity. I realize this is not a convincing economic argument. I just know that life is better when we make music. I do think schools need to find a way to have regular, and frequent, musical instruction and activity. This instruction should be for everyone, and not reserved for only those students who are the most talented. We do not limit reading instruction to only the best readers. It is also important is that music instruction include more than just learning to read the notes. Children need to learn to make music together - whether singing, or drumming, or playing simple instruments. No matter what your age, it is thrilling when you find yourself in harmony and synchrony with others. And finally, we need to share with children the wonderful secret behind our popular music - most songs that we like to sing have a basic chord structure that can accommodate and encourage improvisation. This chord structure also means it's okay if you don't hit all the notes! What a revelation! When I learned the role of the chords, I found that people could recognize a song and sing along even if I didn't play that much of the melody. It was all good. I was a valued contributor, and I lost some of my shyness. I was excited to learn about a relatively young academic discipline called music cognition. Scholars in this field have grown into an international community over the past two decades, and their focus is to learn more about how the human mind perceives and makes sense of music. Technical innovation with computers, digital imaging and brain scanning have given researchers new tools for concrete exploration of the brain engaged with music. Researchers have found that there is no single music center in the brain. Rather, there is distributed "parallel" processing of music among different neural regions. Even more intriguing are results that show some locations of the brain being used to process both language and musical structures. The evidence offers the suggestion that music might be a fundamental component in our development as thinking human beings. I am grateful that our city supports the summer concerts in the park. The genres presented during the summer concerts show how sophisticated we have become as listeners. Americans embrace a variety of musical styles, and the park performances range from country to symphony, from mariachi to soul. I am also grateful to the members of the Downey Symphony Guild who have worked so selflessly to see that Downey students can attend a live performance of the city orchestra each year. Every city should be so lucky as to have its own symphony orchestra. In addition to being fun, the pop performances seem to have an aspect of folk music, with some melodies and lyrics becoming cross-generational favorites. Now and then a young band will release a cover of an old tune, and grandparents and grandchildren are pleasantly surprised to discover that they know the lyrics to the same song, but for a different reason. So enjoy the concerts. Tap your foot and sing along when you can. And every day try to make a little music. Carol Kearns is a member of Writers' Workshop West in Downey.

********** Published: July 22, 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 14