I just read this amazing piece on the importance of music by Katie Jones. Katie does a wonderful job of putting into words how music touches people. I love it. She has done it in ways I wish I could. Thank you Katie.
CELESTIAL SYMPHONY BY KATIE A. JONES (Backbeat Chicago)
From the time I was a baby, I heard a kind of freeform music in nature and the civilization around me and thought everyone else did, too. (More about that later.) This was sensed not as a symphony or melody in the traditional sense, but rather like a vast collection of building blocks emblazoned with colorful notes here, harmonies there, and rhythm everywhere. The first time I heard Gregorian chant as a small child, I thought, “That’s what the velvety starry night sounds like!” Fascination with the concept that human music gives structure to the natural sounds and rhythms of the universe, Earth and our own bodies launched a lifelong love of music in many forms. I cannot separate music from my being; it flows within as naturally as my heart beats and blood flows. Sure, it compels my body to dance, but I also perceive it as a deeply a spiritual force emerging from within in an ever-renewing quest to find meaningful connection with other beings, the Earth, the universe and its creative spark. I believe that music naturally flows in each of us in the same way, but know it can get lost in the discordant noise of the modern world that constantly competes for our attention. Odd perhaps in retrospect, I didn’t become a musician, but not through lack of desire. I burned to make music. But, my Catholic school did not have a music program and there was no money for lessons. By the time I entered public school in fourth grade, the other kids were so far ahead, even in playing the simple Tonette flutes, that I was embarrassed in not reading music and being able to play in the group. I was too shy to insist I had a voice uniquely my own. I felt like I couldn’t speak the native language and was crushed.
Then I discovered records and especially rock’n’roll as a way to express and share my inner being with others. In the 50’s and early 60s, that discovery was happening to a lot of us. Records opened whole new worlds, and I was hooked. The first two records my parents bought me were Doris Day’s “Que Sera Sera” and Perry Como’s “Catch A Falling Star.” From those mysterious grooves spinning on our little 45 record changer (Terri, just like your Bozo phonograph but brown plastic, no Bozo!), pure magic flowed out, my mother singing to me with the records. I wasn’t yet allowed the “corrupting influence” of rock’n’roll records, but I secretly found “American Bandstand” on TV! WOW—What a delightful shock THAT was!!! Discovery of the century, I was sure, but then my dear public school music teacher (class twice per week) and my dear parents (mostly fans of the classics) informed me that “Rock’n’roll isn’t really music!” Well, I was baffled, as even then I instinctively understood all music not as isolated styles but a continuum that wove a complex tapestry through all cultures.
It was a difficult self-guided journey back then, as access to musical diversity was still highly segregated by style and culture, frustratingly buttressed by institutional oppression. Our schools, libraries and broadcast media let us hear what they wanted us to hear. It was still a world dominated by conservative white middle-class men striving to maintain a rigid status-quo. Radio stations (AM, mono only!) served primarily niche music markets. It was classical OR pop OR blues OR country OR jazz OR R&B… Even Gospel music was then, literally, black OR white. If we were outside the range of regional radio signals, we never heard – or even heard of – such domestic delights as Zydeco and Cajun, let alone what we later regarded as “World Music.” There was then even less variety on television, where even Nat King Cole was branded “too controversial,” his show falling to lack of paying sponsorship. (If this segregation sounds far-fetched today, I encourage a look at what happened when 50’s folk group The Weavers took a socially conscious music into the mainstream, leading ultra-conservative McCarthyism to brand them as “Commies,” resulting in blacklisting that tried to strangle their musical and performance options. Thankfully The Weavers and their messages prevailed, opening many doors.)
For my generation, what spurred a radical shift in the perception of music, and accessibility to it, was without doubt The Beatles. They opened many doors that allowed passage through stubborn barriers between generations, races, nations, cultures and even languages, smashing the wall between “serious” and “popular” music. I think they mattered (and continue to matter to young new fans) because they incorporated so many styles into an accessible whole that spurred many of us to be intensely interested in the history and diversity of music and cultures very different from our own. They inspired millions of kids around the world to pick up simple instruments and communicate our humanity across the globe. Even the shyest among us blossomed as we shared the new music and contemplated the world around us, with a global consciousness. (Historical Reality Check: The Beatles were considered so subversive behind the 1960s Iron Curtain that their records were banned and functionally illegal in the Soviet Union. The ban didn’t work. At McCartney’s 2003 concert in Red Square, in the shadow of The Kremlin, thousands of Russians danced and sang his songs back to him in English, with tears in their eyes, as many across the globe do the same.) Previously conservative music teachers and many parents began thinking of music in more universal terms, and teaching it as the continuum that it is. Among myriad other changes, The Beatles also shifted the focus of popular music from isolated singles to homogeneous albums, which blossomed with the advent of FM stations that started mixing vastly different styles of music into their freeform playlists that broke previous broadcasting time restraints…stereo radio for the first time no less! We actually started to hear that celestial symphony.
Music gives expression to humanity’s most profound perceptions, emotions, longings and dreams, often with transformative power. The soundtrack of our individual lives imprints itself so powerfully that it almost seems like a time machine where memory of a tune may conjure the atmosphere and emotion of long-distant experiences in laser-sharp clarity, with holographic depth. It would be few among us who cannot name the song(s) to which we have fallen in love. I confess a few of those, but The Beatles’ “In My Life” expressed the longing and wistfulness of my first love, and to this day upon hearing it, I am instantly swept back to 1965, to the sights, sounds, smells and internal fire that song represents. (Funny…Conversely the only “breakup” song I can recall is “Total Eclipse Of The Heart.” My Bright Eyes never turned around again, but my heart did.)
In the course of human history, does my personal musical journey matter? Not profoundly. But collectively, music matters because it connects us unlike any other art form, across superficial boundaries of nations, languages, races, classes, religions and even time itself. Music matters, I believe, because it is the human organism’s response not only to one another, but the eternal vibrations and rhythms of the Earth, cosmos, and if you so believe, to the creative spark behind it all. It is an ancient dialog central to our each of our beings, a primordial urge to find form and harmony. It proclaims that we are alive, expressing who we are and even when and where we are in the universe. Even if we as individuals have no direct musical impact, even if we just sing in the shower, our passage is nonetheless felt through the collective musical tapestry…our universal symphony.
My own journey certainly has affected my concept of music education, especially in schools, from pre-school forwards. I didn’t have many childhood musical options. I believe that we need to honor and support music and art in our homes and educational system as essential building blocks of our global civilization. When school cuts are made, music and art programs often suffer. Obviously we must maintain a basic socially functional curriculum. But sometimes I wonder where our priorities are in selecting “optional” programs. I have heard many rationalizations about why sports programs trump music and art programs in impact and need for funding. I enjoy sports, but overall it seems a lesson in oppositional humanity with cooperation between individuals merely a stepping stone to the goal of winning, of being better than everyone else. Music and art are essential, equalizing components of civilization that CONNECT us all, erasing our differences and celebrating our diversity, even across time. The ancient urge for self-expression is central to our unique sense of being in the universe. Does it matter? You bet.
— Katie Jones, Aurora, IL (BackbeatChicago ( AT ) gmail.com)
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