By Scott Rieker
Choir Director, Emerson Choir
Recently at a concert, I watched a young family commit the unforgivable sin of walking into a concert while a performance was occurring (rather than waiting for applause). It was apparent from merely observing the two parents and five children that they were not the “usual concert crowd,” but were there to enthusiastically support their child/sibling. They gamely stayed for the remainder of the concert despite the glares and eye-rolls directed at them by the more “cultured” members of the audience, but fled as soon as it was over, presumably to meet their singer somewhere else.
It seems that humans like to hedge everything around with rules, presumably of decorum, that govern participation in any activity. My club in fourth grade had a hand sign and a secret chant. Football games have acceptable behaviors, as do movie theaters…even the urinal. (Just don’t talk.) However, these rules often serve, primarily, to establish boundaries separating the initiated from the rabble. They are a way to make a subset of people feel superior because they possess special knowledge. From the ancient Gnostics to its myriad of contemporary incarnations, humans seem wired to establish if we are “one of us” or “one of them.”
Music can appear like a secret society to the uninitiated as well: Only enter during applause. Don’t clap between movements of the same work. Don’t clap between songs if they are being treated as a set. Don’t clap for a solo unless it’s jazz or show choir, and then you need to clap, unless it’s a ballad… It’s called “intermission,” not “halftime.” There is a difference between coloratura and lyric and spinto and contralto and mezzo-soprano and bass and baritone. Because of this “insider” status, music becomes a spectator sport for the majority of people. “Leave music to the talented; to the professionals; to the specialists.”
Can you imagine if we treated football like this? Sure, the NFL is for the pros, but collegiate football involves well-trained amateurs. High school football has varsity, junior varsity, and intra-mural teams. My 50-year-old friend in Boston plays in a gay football league that meets on Saturdays. There are camps for kids who are interested in football. There are camps for kids whose parents think they should be interested in football. There is fantasy football, football video games, online football fan groups… There is a place for everyone who has any desire for even a tangential relationship to football.
Can we have choir ball? What opportunities are there for the dedicated amateur? The not-so-dedicated amateur? There has to be an intermediate step between the shower and Walt Disney Concert Hall. The secret is providing a safe space where we can make mistakes without embarrassment; a safe space where we can learn things without shame that we don’t already know them; a safe space where skills can be honed with the necessary repetition and no judgment that repetition is needed. This is the core of my philosophy of “musicking.” It is why I believe Emerson is such a great place for music. Music for everyone and we will find a way to make it happen, together.