Service as a musician

I believe that students need to learn their value as musicians from the very beginning of study. I refer to all of my students as musicians. Mostly without their knowing it, as soon as they first start playing their instrument, they have already assumed this important societal role. It may seem a lot to put on a child but I feel it is important early on for them to appreciate the critical role musicians play in the world. Music is more than entertainment. As an example, in times of great sorrow and loss, people turn to musicians for comfort and a way to make sense of their feelings. Music has the ability to express emotions that may be too complex and painful for words alone. 

Back in 2001, I was living in Boston as a free lance musician and violin teacher. After September 11th, a parent of one of my students told me that she felt musicians in her words “were getting us all through this.” That October, the Boston Lyric Opera opened with its first production of the season. It’s pretty common for orchestras to play the “Star Spangled Banner” at the beginning of a new season with audience members standing, right hand over heart. But this show was like no other. The audience, made up of opera lovers and amateur vocalists, sang the national anthem unlike any I had ever heard. It felt like a choir of singers who normally sing opera only in the shower, who needed to sing out from their hearts the overwhelming emotions they had felt over the past month. It was hard holding back tears. It was amazing!

Never underestimate the power of music. Yes, we have a lot of fun with it and are entertained by it but its real magic is the way it holds the powerful feelings and memories of the most significant times in our lives. As a college student, I witnessed Alzheimer’s Disease for the first time with my paternal grandmother, Dorothy Carpenter Beers. For a while, Grammy lived in a nursing home in the Washington D.C. area. At Christmas one year, my father and I played carols for her. She had not spoken coherently to us in months. All of a sudden we heard her say “Well Hank (my father’s nickname), you haven’t done that for a while.” We were all caught off guard and shocked. I intuitively knew that the music had accessed something in her mind that brought her back to reality if only for a moment. It was a treasured moment indeed.

Lately there has been much research about the positive impact of music on the brain including its impact on mood, behavior and even memory. I included this card in my deck, Inspiration for Violinists, because at the very least, everyone appreciates having something special done for them. It’s particularly special when the performer is a child. Any imperfections or awkward behavior is easily forgiven and forgotten. I find it is best to talk to students ahead of time so they are prepared to play for the unique audience of people with physical and/or psychological disabilities. Students should be prepared for an audience that may not react to their music in the usual way. There may be sounds and smells that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable. I tell students that it will be like playing for their grandparents or great grandparents. 

The service of performing can be healing for both the performer and listener. The performer learns that their music is more than just notes and entertaining. Imperfections don’t matter. What does matter is the effort that goes into showing up and sharing a piece of yourself, sharing your heart, sharing your soul. For the listener, it is a break from the woes of their current life. It is transcendence that comforts, increases positive feelings, and revives long forgotten memories.

There are many people who need to hear your music besides the elderly and veterans. Now more than ever, we all need to hear your music. Here are some ideas in which social distancing should still be possible:

Neighborhood cul de sac impromptu concerts with lawn chairs

Healthcare workers outdoors at lunchtime when weather permits

Apartment complexes

Senior centers

VFW centers

Zoom concerts for friends and family

Facebook live concerts

Pop up concerts organized with local businesses

Assisted living facilities

Nursing homes

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