A few months ago, my wife and I ventured to the other side of Indy to attend a concert by a community orchestra and choir. Since we knew two of the performers (one was the [amazing] soprano solo for the Bach cantata), it was a great chance to see friends. But the whole experience–the 1/3-full auditorium, packed stage, white-haired and red-faced tenors, and a slew of current music teachers in the orchestra–was inspiring and got me thinking.

Recorded music is everywhere. For most of us, it’s how the vast majority of music in our lifetime has reached our ears. As technology pervades our society more and more, I’ve heard an increasing number of people voice their concerns about this. John Philip Sousa was concerned a hundred years ago (possibly reactionary; definitely prophetic), and I’m sure Neil Postman has written more thoughtfully than I on this somewhere. But here are my humble thoughts…

  1. Folks (Americans at least) don’t actually make music very often. Can you imagine gathering a handful of teenagers around a piano and announcing “Let’s sing something”? I predict blank looks… maybe laughs. Mass media has tremendous potential, but one of the dangers is that pressing a button is easier than practicing and creating.
  2. We’ve created an aristocracy of talent. Seems there’s a false distinction between performers (i.e.,  recording artists) and normal people. Perfect musicians who have the talent record albums, and those who listen to them usually say “Oh, I don’t sing” or “I can’t sing” or “Seriously, you don’t want to hear me!” This makes the choir teacher in me want to bang my head somewhere. For all of known history, singing has been part of what it means to be human–what happened to that?!
  3. We expect absolute perfection from musical performers. On a recording, it’s assumed that you’ll put down tracks until you get them just right, and granted, that’s a good thing. But if we think only sterile perfection constitutes worthy performance, and nitpick, and lament that the soprano in the community choir doesn’t sing like Renee Fleming (and she probably doesn’t), aren’t we missing something? I’m all about technical accuracy, but being critical does nothing to raise the bar. […And with some types of music, the amount of “touch up” is significant–I wonder what the makers of Dove soap would say].

So here’s to the return of the fireside sing-along, the “gather around the piano” Christmas, the clarinet-playing accountant, and the support of community musicians. My wife and I are planning to join our community’s chorus on Monday for their first spring rehearsal. You’re welcome to come hear us sing the Missa Solemnis. Then again, Robert Shaw’s recording is probably better.