From the outside, the Harvest Festival concert must have looked like the carefree family event was intended to be.
But if you had looked backstage just before the musical performance was supposed to start, you would have seen me and my musical therapy classmates right on the edge of a group breakdown.
We were just minutes away from performing, and it was a total mess. Were we going to play the songs in this order or that order? What about the articulations? Would that one person remember the dynamics? Would the other hit the tempo changes right? What if we made a mistake?
Finally, the classmate who was supposed to be conducting lost it. She threw up her hands and hissed, “Look, if this is how you’re going to play, I won’t conduct you!”
Thankfully, our teacher intervened in the best possible way. Instead of telling us to get it together, she asked instead, “Wait a minute. Can this be called music too? Who are you playing for, anyway?”
We were all immediately relieved. By taking the element of the “perfect” performance out of it, she opened the door for us to play from the heart instead. That moment has stayed with me ever since. Because truly, what is music?
Does music have to meet certain performance criteria to count as “real music”; do you have to fall within a range of acceptability to be considered a “real singer”?
It’s not black and white, it’s a moving, colorful rainbow. And it doesn’t matter where you are on the rainbow at any given time, as long as you’re moving in the direction you want to move.
This lesson was brought home to me in a totally different context last month.
This time I was singing in a group of improvisers in Copenhagen. A friend and I started joking about how there were “alpha” singers and “beta” singers — those that had really strong ideas about how a piece of music should go and those that just followed along. Many of the alpha singers got caught up in the moment, and while they did create amazing music, and made the people around them sound better for tagging along on their vocal coattails, something still felt a little off.
Then I got the chance to sing with Laurel.
She’s an accomplished singer, a total alpha, but with one key difference: when you sang with Laurel, you felt like an alpha singer too. The power dynamic just melted away the second you got on stage with her, and I had to know why.
When I asked her about it afterwards, she seemed a little bit surprised. She said that as far as she was concerned, the main point of singing was to enjoy yourself, and the only thing she looked for when she got on stage was to have a good time singing with whoever she was singing with.
In that moment, I realized why singing with her had felt oddly familiar; it was because my hero Bobby McFerrin has exactly the same approach. He has a good time with anyone, whether it’s an 8-year-old who wants to sing Don’t Worry, be Happy, or whether he’s with one of his long time improv buddies.
Both Laurel and Bobby know that the secret to the perfect musical performance isn’t in the tempo, key, flourishes, or tone. It’s in the enjoyment shared between the people involved, singers and audience alike.
It’s a lesson I’m still learning to put into action — but one I’m enjoying every second of. And one I’d love to explore with you!
At Sing Portland! we have exactly one rule: everyone’s welcome. We’d love to sing with you, so click here to see how and when you can join us!