Having had the opportunity to work with young musicians for a few decades, or more, I have noticed that they are becoming more technical and less artistic. Although many vocalists do a noble job at emulating their favorite pop singers complete with scoops and runs, they lack the passion, life experience and awareness of the emotive qualities which created those artistic expressions in the first place. If someone has never experienced pain and loss, how could they effectively sing about, and with those emotions thereby touching their audience who have experienced those feelings?
I accompanied a singer who sang the song “Here I am, Lord.” I asked the singer if he knew who and what the song was about and what the circumstances of the song were and he said that he didn’t. Again, although he performed a nice rendition, it lacked meaning and substance. When we came to the refrain, I tried to force a ritard and a change in timbre but he wasn’t even listening to me and emotionlessly crashed through the transition. Though, he had nicely placed runs and scoops.
That particular song is about Isaiah, being whisked up to heaven in a dream and witnessing a massive choir of angels singing praise and adoration to God. Isaiah knows he is a lowly sinner and not worthy to be there but the overwhelming glory and majesty of the scene causes Isaiah to have a metanoia moment. God was seeking a helper and it just so happens that He made His plea right there in front of Isaiah immediately after Isaiah was offered forgiveness for his sins. While God’s righteousness and forgiveness were still fresh on Isaiah’s mind, God says, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” Isaiah then bravely musters the courage and says “Here I am, I will go.”
How many parents who give birth to their newborn child have had that same moment where they were holding this tiny new miracle in their arms, having a metanoia moment and made the decision to dedicate their life to that child and give them everything? How many children have lost a parent to a disease and then dedicate their life to promoting awareness and fighting that disease? How many children lost a basketball game and immediately go home and begin practicing to improve for the next one? And, how many singers sing this song, devoid of understanding and and its attendant emotion, and how many of their listeners tune them out because they know the singer is not trying to impart a message but is merely a carbon copy performer?
There are several reasons why our youth are uninspired and are simply copycat technicians. One of the reasons I’d like to address is that they don’t have the performance outlets we used to. The Beatles claim their success was due to being able to perform from 1960 to 1962, seven nights a week while in Germany. It was the opportunity to perform night after night where they honed their performance skills, song writing skills and musicianship.
Many a jazz musician such as Art Tatum and Fats Waller used to play a gig from seven to midnight, then go to another club to play for a few hours more, then hit yet another club around three a.m. and sit in with other musicians until five a.m. Their life was consumed by music and other musicians and nothing stood in their way to live a life abundant with music and people and experiences. They sought to live a life of music and not to seek what music could give to them. They didn’t make music because they were happy, they were happy because they made music.
When I was a teen, I was lucky to live near four bars and restaurants whose owners gave me the opportunity to go in and play whenever I wanted. I was usually paid in free food and wine. Nobody enforced the alcohol laws in those days. I wasn’t a drinker as my childhood friends could attest for when they stole liquor from their parents liquor cabinets, I rarely partook. In the bars however, I did drink whatever the customers bought me out of gratitude and respect.
Being able to play out in a club in front of a live audience was important. For an improvisatory musician, if you can get a lick out during a live performance, it was yours forever. One performance was worth ten rehearsals. Performing coupled with real people in the audience and the interaction between other musicians make a huge difference, too. While in the bar, if I played “Tiny Bubbles” when Walt entered the establishment, that would yield free pizza or ten bucks in my tip cup. If I played “If He Walked Into My Life,” the bartender would get weepy as it was his mother’s favorite song and I’d get a glass of wine or a Mudslide out of that number. More importantly, when these people two died, those songs held a greater meaning for me and today I play them with great reverence and a sense of loss. It is those nascent connections which define where artists come from. It is those emotions coupled with technique and the struggle to overcome emotional roadblocks during performance which give meaning, struggle and purpose to those scoops and runs. Others copy them from CD’s and sing them devoid of root or purpose. They become mere ornamentation for young copycat singers.
Kids today don’t have performance outlets anymore. Because of DWI laws, smoking laws and a poor economy, they no longer have these places to cut their teeth and woodshed. Instead, young musicians imitate those before them who did have those outlets but, the struggle and pain of growth, and paying their dues is gone and they remain mere imitators rather than originators.
There still are a few coffee houses and cafe’s where young musicians can go to sit in or perform but they are far and few between. If the public were to frequent and support these small clubs, it would give young musicians an opportunity for growth and experimentation. It is also better for the listener. Sure you can buy a CD and listen to its perfection in the comfort of your own home but if you attend a live performance, you will be present in the current moment while resonating with the excitement of the performance, you will be fully alive in an aesthetic experience where your senses are operating at their peak, there will be surprises, there are less distractions than at home, you are supporting art and a business, you will be surrounded by other people feeding off the performers kinetic reaction and energy of the performance, the performer will feed off of and respond to your approval and presence. It will be a win/win/win. Or, like many of our children, you can be home taking your Ritalin.