I went to church with my grandmother yesterday. I must admit my attendance had far more to do with my addiction to the way bass pedal notes of an organ reverberate through a cavernous, beautiful church than my desire to hear the priest’s sermonizing.
Though it was during Fr. Ben Nelson’s sermon that my gears began turning.
He discussed, rather seriously, the way the Holy Spirit moves through us. And during this serious discussion young kids throughout the church giggled, squealed, dropped plastic toys on the stone floor, crawled under pews, and squirmed around in their parents’ laps. My first instinct was to wonder why these parents didn’t drop their kids off in the nursery or leave them at home or step outside until their children were quiet enough for everyone to easily focus on the words of the sermon.
But the more the children cooed, the more I realized that Fr. Ben actually wanted them right where they were. Every time a child made an exclamation he turned in that direction and smiled. His words kept flowing beautifully as children on either side of him rolled around or stood up on the pews. Not only was he not distracted, but it was almost as if he were speaking to, or even performing for the children in the pews.
Part of the reason I was struck by this phenomenon is because just the day before I had performed Beethoven’s Romance in F Major for the students of Deanna Badgett’s studio. It was a solo performance that she included in the midst of their end of year group concert.
I performed in front of 25 children with their parents and grandparents, and of course a few babies. The performance occurred with its fair share of crying and chattering. I remember hearing the noises while playing, and though not necessarily distracted by them they did give the concert a different feeling than that of utter silence.
Afterward, several adults approached me. They thanked me for playing and some even apologized for the “distractions” in the room.
At the time I brushed off the comment, saying it didn’t bother me either way. But I wonder if that is true.
If I analyze the question deeply, two embedded questions come to light…
- Is it true that I’m not bothered in performances by children making noises and moving around? Do I perform the same way when children are in the audience?
- Is it true that I wouldn’t be bothered if there WEREN’T children in the audience?
I have several thoughts in response to these questions…
- If children can’t listen, then what are we doing this for?
- How could my playing be forced to be more compelling, and my listeners encouraged to listen more intently? In other words, wouldn’t performing for children make me a better performer?
- We don’t perform in a vacuum, but to an audience. Shouldn’t we use the sounds of the room to bring us back to the present moment? Perhaps this is related to the presence I’ve been cultivating through Zen mediation?
With my gut responses to these questions in mind, I find it incredible that I’m not bothered when there aren’t children at concerts. We’ve normalized a state of performance in which we exclude members of our audiences who could use our music the most. Young children don’t conform to our standard audience expectations because they don’t need to, because we don’t need to have standard audience expectations.
What is wrong with exclamations– expecially if performers use them as encouragement?
What is wrong with rolling and jumping and crawling and standing– especially if it means music is seeping into our bones and energizing action?
What is wrong with chatter and squirming– especially if it means performers work harder to engage their audience?
My colleague Beth started a series of family concerts in Austin to encourage the appreciation of music at any age, but I wonder if I can’t be more radical in my approach.
Why does there ever need to be a seperation of performer and listener? Why do we actively discourage little ones from moving, breathing, singing, and passively or actively listening to any sort of music making?
The unconscious understanding of rhythm, melody, harmony, repetition and structure is perhaps fundamental to our human nature. Or could it be learned from early acclimation to the idiomatic, musical environment in which we are raised?
Is it just a human need (a right?) to be nourished by organized sound? Or was it the bravery of my parents and the progressive audacity of Fr. Ben Nelson allowing me to hang out (not quietly) under the pews that gave me the undying appreciation for all things organ?
Either way, I plan to move forward with the desire and intention for children to be involved in the music I make and the work I do. I plan to include all, to be engaging, and to perform not in spite of the children babbling in the audience, but for them.