Making Music: Play, Spirit, Community

Opening words: David Junno

Plato said: “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”

Elvis Presely said, “I don't know anything about music. In my line you don't have to.”

These words speak to my relationship with music, I don't know a lot about it but I have had a lot of fun doing it. Today David Beauvais, who does know a lot about music, and I will be exploring what it means to make music, sharing our music and journeys as music makers. We invite you to join us in this experience. We have also been graciously joined by some members of the AEIOUke's, (of which you only seeing about a quarter of our full membership) and our other guest musician Richard Murphy who participates in the UU Jazz Jam. 

Reflection:

Why do we play music? Why do so many people learn to play an instrument or take up singing? And why am I having so much fun doing this? These are questions I have asked myself. I think positive psychology has some answers to this question. Martin Seligman, one of the leading figures in positive psychology has looked at what makes the good life, using Aristotle's concept of Eudaimonia, which refers to the idea that humans are in the pursuit of realizing their potential. This suggests that the root of well being is the exercise of our capacities. Eudaimonia can also be translated as “flourishing.” Seligman has proposed that there are a number of components of Flourishing which he spells out in his PERMA model. P is positive affect, E is engagement, R is relationship, M is meaning and purpose and A is accomplishment. When all these components are active the result is to Flourish. I believe making music meets each of these criteria.

Positive Affect: When we make music we tap in to something elemental to our being. The first sound we hear in utero is the beating of our mother's heart. The indigenous people of the Turtle islands talk about  their drumming as the “heartbeat of the earth.”Music expresses more then words.  Daniel Seigal a psychiatrist who has studied the brain says, “music is the purest expression of emotion that exists,” many years earlier Leo Tolstoy put it more succinctly when he said, “Music is the shorthand of emotion.”

We also “play” music.  Playing is participating in an activity with no particular aim in mind other then enjoyment. We enjoy the activity for itself. Play helps us explore, experiment, and engage with the world. Through play we build resources- new skills, social connections, which enhance our sense of well-being. Play broadens and build our lives and I believe is necessary for children and adults alike. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing.” This primal relationship, this expression of our purest feelings and this opportunity to play all contribute to positive affect.

Relationship: Playing with others expands our social connections, and provides social confirmation. We typically experience stress being with strangers, and this effects our ability to empathize and connect with them. However, as one study has shown, 15 minutes of playing Rock Band, a musical video game, with another person increases our empathy for them. There is a study looking at a group of women in their 70's in Finland who where learning how to play electronic rock music. None of these women had played electronic instruments before and some had not even heard rock music growing up. The women found the experience of learning to play electronic rock and roll empowering and meaningful to them. Illustrating the effects of this experience on their social bonds one woman summed it up, “We don't have to put up with each other, but we want to stay as a band so we try to put up with each other.”

Playing music with others increases a sense of community and connection. One of the things we try to do when playing music is to be in harmony, we try to be “in tune” with each other- we do this by being on the same page, contributing our effort and listening to and aligning with what others are doing. These are important lessons for any type of relationship and contribute to the positive effects making music has on our lives.

We can also have a personal relationship with music. Popular singer Taylor Swift said, “People haven't always been there for me but music always has.” The songs throughout the ages connect us the hearts and minds of those who have gone before us, and with people who are currently experiencing life's joys and pleasures as well as life's pain and heartache. Music and songs provide a delivery system for  sharing and understanding the full range of human experience. It can help us share our thoughts, feelings, goals and aspirations with each other.

Engagement: Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described the ultimate feeling of engagement as “flow.” Flow is when we get totally lost in an experience. With flow there is often a sense of timelessness, we are intrinsically motivated to do the things that bring about flow. Flow comes from taking on an activities that challenge our ability, and which we can handle. Taking on activities that are too challenging and  we don't have the abilities for, creates stress, taking on activities that are too easy leads to apathy and boredom. The key is finding that sweet spot between too easy and too hard. I recently came across a quote by Duke Ellington, who said: “The wise musicians are those who play what they can master.” I began my music making journey as a child singing with my family, and later picking up the clarinet. With the clarinet, as I progressed into my teenage years,  playing  light classical and marching music wasn't very interesting to me so I switched to the harmonica, and singing songs of the sixties with my friends. Years later, as an adult, I decided I wanted to learn jazz and took lessons and played with our very own Jazz jam here at the society. David Beauvais who has run this group for years and the other players were  very welcoming. However I realized that to play how I wanted to play would require a level of time, practice and knowledge that I didn't have-  As I struggled with this I was confronting the fears many of us have played who have tried to play music, “Will anyone like this,” “Will I make a mistake.” I worried about the judgment of others, and the embarrassment of presenting myself as less then perfect. I was experiencing stress trying to do what I had set out to do for enjoyment. So I stopped, to the relief of my family and neighbor who had to listen to my practicing.

Then one day, years later, my wife Carmen brought a Ukulele home and started playing it. I picked it up and fooled around with it and the next thing I knew a Ukulele appeared for me! Before I knew it I was playing constantly and a member of a weekly ukulele strum group. We now have four ukulele's spread out in our house, and one I keep in my office. At any time of the day or evening I pick one of them up and before I know it an hour has passed, I found that sweet spot- that state of flow. Now I try to bring a ukulele where ever I go and have met and played with fellow players from the woods of Maine to the beaches of St. John's in the Caribbean.

Meaning and purpose: I recently read  a study looking at the how participating in community music effects well-being of older people. They compared a group of older adults who played music, to a group of older adults who participated in a variety of other groups- language classes, arts and craft, yoga, book groups, or social support groups. The group making music had higher levels of well-being then the other groups, they felt an increased sense of autonomy and control in their lives, they had a more positive outlook on life, better social relations and a greater sense of purpose, then those who participated in other activities. Learning and practicing music provides a physical activity, and is intellectually stimulating, it engages our focus and concentration, it challenges us to learn new skills- improving our sense of mastery and control. It also connects us with each other and the world around us.

As I mentioned earlier music captures our purest feelings, it brings us in contact with thoughts, feelings and experiences that reverberate through the ages. It also helps express our hopes and wishes, it can address wrongs and inspire us to action- “We Shall Overcome,” “I'm going to lay down my sword and shield,” “All we need is love,” “Give Peace a chance.” Eyerman Jamison said,”the music of social movement transcends boundaries of the self and binds the individual to the collective consciousness.” Music can inspire inclusiveness, interdependence and equal participation. In making music we can be saying who we are and who we want to be.

Accomplishment: As Plato said, “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” If we can find the music that speaks to us, and find a way of sharing that music that we can do, then what better gift is there to give ourselves and the world, what greater accomplishment!

Nietzsche said, “Without music, life would be a mistake.” So I say don't make that mistake! Play! Sing! Make a joyful noise!

The following statement from the Ukulelestrummers.com website provides excellent guidance if you want to make your own music

“Play what you want to play, sing what you want to sing, strum how you want to strum, pick what you want to pick. Never be afraid to play in front of people and never say you're sorry for mistakes you play along the way. Have fun with it, or put it away. It's all about making someone happy with your music, whether it's you, (hopefully), or someone else. Just have fun making beautiful music. In the big picture, that's really what it's all about, right?”

David Beauvais:

When David Junno asked me to join him in doing this service together I happily agreed. I’m completely in tune with what he described in his talk about the fun of playing music and the benefits of social connection which go with it. Music-making is an essential ingredient in my connection with the Unitarian Society. It is not what brought me here, but I would say it keeps me here.

Throughout my life I have been an instrumentalist, playing a variety of horns in different settings. I was never a singer until joining the UU choir in 1998. I had sung in a one-time intergenerational service and was pleased when invited to add my voice to the adult choir bass section. At that time, my father, in his mid-eighties was living in my house for several months in a transition to assisted living. Joining the choir was in synch with my closeness with my dad. If my father had any fame it was as the top paid bass soloist in the churches of Springfield: first at Christ Church Cathedral and later at Trinity Methodist, the beautiful gothic design church on Sumner Ave. I could watch him practice at the piano in our living room and then hear the church services on the radio. My dad’s day job as a company accountant seemed a closed world, but seeing and hearing him sing was exciting. He and I are both introverts (probably like most musicians). My dad was particularly reserved emotionally and could seem quite remote, but watching him sing I could see his feelings and pleasure shine. He and I were also able to enjoy listening to the stereo together. It could be big band or Bach sacred music and we could sit in the dark feeling joined in appreciating the sound. I cherished the intimacy of it.

It was no accident that I picked trombone when given the chance in 7th grade. My dad loved Tommy Dorsey and so did I. When it was clear I had a love of it and some talent, he gave me a brand new top model horn for Christmas. After college the trombone was left behind as I went to live in NYC, but I had taught myself the recorder and with it an appreciation of early music, much of it religious. I got serious about music for a while and studied flute thinking music school was a possibility. My social life was almost entirely ensemble sessions or classes. Most performances were in churches. One, at St. George’s Episcopal near Grammercy Park involved the most intense stage fright I have ever had. It was a tough trio sonata playing the baroque flute. I survived, but seemed to have resolved that I would pursue clinical social work as my day job and career. It was hard for me to imagine music as work, having to perform what was demanded and be subject to critical authority. So, I have always played. A few years after that scary performance experience, I was asked by one of my past ensemble teachers to perform the same sonata again as a guest in his master class recital. I did it and was able to relax, telling myself that it would be good enough and enjoyable. It was a success from a lesson learned.

When I moved to Northampton in 1981, the demands of family and a 2 yr old kept me at home playing flute alone and sometimes jamming with my brother playing his blues guitar. In 1989 I inherited an alto sax left behind by my godfather. Then I embarked on trying to play jazz and improvise. By the time I first came to this congregation in 1996, I had been a regular part of some jazz jam sessions. It didn’t take very long, after doing some ad hoc entertainments here with Ed Olmstead, Rob Zucker, and Jeanie Borfitz, I was able to start the UU Jazz Jam which happens on occasional Friday nights right here. This room is a wonderful place to play in. After as many as 16 or 17 years the jam remains friendly, non-competitive and open to all. Folks come and feel free to take risks. Everybody is good enough and everybody plays. So, I am most grateful to feel so at home here; to be in the choir learning to sing and making my contribution to our worship with my voice. And this is also my play space to make jazz and feel blessed in the process.

I want to add that music-making keeps one young. An example from outside these walls: eight years ago I happened to be riding my bike through Look Park and came upon an afternoon concert by the Florence Community Band playing for the Relay for Life. I stopped and listened. I knew a few of the musicians and enjoyed the concert. A few weeks later, with some extra time while on vacation, I went to the Gerry’s Music store and picked up a trombone after a 45 year break. Within a week I was attending rehearsals with the community band. I suddenly felt 45 years younger. We are always learning and exercising our brains when we make music. And my wife thinks it’s great that I am doing all of this breathing.

And, of course, I need to mention one more band of which I am an active member: The Expandable Brass Band. Now in our 7th year, we appear in our yellow and black colors and contribute our brassy sometimes funky energy to many community events many of which are promoting a social good or change. There is no audition and enthusiasm is the criteria for membership. A number of our members have picked up their instruments after many years to join us and be playing again.

If any of you here this morning have an instrument in your attic or a voice you haven’t been using as a chorister, I encourage you to just pick it up and do it. Or, keep playing the kazoo and then add a ukulele to accompany yourself. It’s fun.

So it goes with me, and I believe it goes for all of us. Music has the singular ability to awaken and fill our interior, the space inside. The sound resonates, vibrates and moves us from within, but also connects and harmonizes us with others. Like Amira Baraka’s poem 1 + 1 = 1; or simply chanting the syllable “Om” to feel in tune and at one with humanity and the universe.