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The Community of Music

When I was growing up, my father, a violist, often had informal gatherings at the house of his friends and colleagues to play chamber music, primarily string quartets. He was a hard working musician who so loved music that he created as many opportunities to play as he possibly could. Music was not just a job for him, it was his passion, his religion. And he did everything he could to share the wonder he felt through many activities including teaching, conducting and mentoring. For many years he traveled from our home in Chicago to towns in Wisconsin and Michigan to direct community orchestras. While he tirelessly promoted himself and his activities, he was at the same time completely egoless. He once referred to his life as "serving the muse" and this was an apt description. His life was one of service to that which he loved.

The experience of making music is often transformative. Those who know the joy of musical interaction with others of like mind will tell you there is nothing else like it. If there were words to describe it, it wouldn't be music. (As Frank Zappa once said, "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.") I am fortunate to have participated in many amateur and semi-professional music groups, from my rock and roll youth, to joining and leading drum circles, to impromptu jam sessions with friends, to many years of performing early music with some of the finest musicians and sweetest humans there ever were.

Cellist David Darling understands the transformative power of communal music making. He leads Music for People workshops all over the world for anyone who wants to learn to make music together, regardless of training or skill level. He puts professional musicians together with people who could barely carry a tune and shows them how to suspend judgment in order to open themselves to the experience itself. By breaking down the barriers of fear and ego, he allows the inner musician to shine through, often with amazing results.

In the tradition of town bands, community orchestras, and amateur chamber music groups, early music ensembles have become entryways into community music making. The variety of music available to play ranges from the very simple to the virtuosic. The instruments, especially the recorder, can be relatively simple to play and yet can also support great artistry and a lifetime of learning. The contrapuntal nature of early music allows every part to be melodic and important to the whole sound and is therefore fun to play.

Twenty years ago a colleague of mine in musicology at the University taught a community recorder class. When the course was over the class wanted to keep playing together, but he had no interest in continuing to lead it. A couple of members took it upon themselves to find spaces and locate music for the group to play. I was asked to come by and provide some minimal coaching and moral support. This became a regular Thursday night gathering and, as word spread, attracted anywhere from a few to up to twenty recorder players on any given night for a few years. Since the group tended to be over weighted on the treble end, I usually provided bottom support on the bass gamba.

After a while the gatherings became more social than musical. There was a natural evolution from the focused experience of music making to the more amorphous experience of friendship. The Thursday night tradition lasted for thirteen years and is still revived on occasion for music making, poetry reading or some other creative activity.

The experience of communal music making speaks to something primal in our being. In West Africa, the drummers are responsible for the physical and emotional health and healing of the village. There is an understanding that sound and rhythm somehow stimulate the core being, whether that is the limbic system, the chakras, chi energy, or the prenatal memory of mother's heartbeat in syncopation with our own. Playing wind instruments is especially powerful, as breath training is core to many physical, mental and spiritual practices. Yoga training, t'ai chi, sufi prayer and even the singing of hymns all include an element of deep breathing that is almost universally hailed as essential for good health and emotional centering.

Making music together is not just fun, it is near the core of our reason for being. It nourishes our bodies and our spirits, it gives us comfort in times of difficulty, and it brings us together in an intimate, safe and peaceful sharing.

Dwight Newton
March 11, 2002