". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

"Music's Music" - Or is it?

Recently my friend Susan wrote a blog post called "Real Music" in which she highlighted one of the things that sets live music apart from recorded music: with live music you can hear the sounds of the music being made--things like the singer's breaths or the depressing of the organ or piano pedals or the guitarist's fingers sliding up and down the strings. She wrote of these things not as distractions but as things she is happy to hear because they are representative of real music being made by real people.

As someone who is increasingly distressed at the ways recorded music is replacing live music in our world I greatly appreciated her post. Many people don't see a difference between a recording and a living, breathing performance. A few days ago I saw a pastor friend on Facebook touting a product called "The Virtual Organist." His post began, "No organist? No problem." As someone who thinks it is quite possible to have reverent, beautiful worship without any organ or even without a musician, part of me responds positively to that sentence. At the same time, I bristle at the claim that a human musician can be replaced by a digital one with nothing lost. I think in fact that much is lost. And I think it is a huge problem that it is getting harder and harder to find musicians of a certain skill level. It reflects a troubling trend in our society, one that more and more views music as something not that people do but as something that they merely receive.

This morning I saw this comic strip in my blog reader:

(Original link here.)

The issue is different, but I think it demonstrates a similar lack of appreciation of many for what goes into--and comes out of--live music. Music is music, right? So there is no difference between a real, live organist and a recorded one. Hey, that recording will probably be more accurate and rhythmically clean than an imperfect, human musician. Yet I would far and away rather attend a service accompanied by my friend of limited ability who is working hard to fill in the gap created at her church by an organist's failing health than to attend a service accompanied by "The Virtual Organist." The latter might be clean and neat, but the former is authentic. Real. Honest. Alive.

I am currently playing in a pit orchestra for a local junior high's production of Bye, Bye, Birdie. I have immense respect for this school and its music and administrative staff for appreciating the difference between a live pit orchestra and a recording and for being willing to pay for the former. We will not be as clean as the recording will be. But each performance will be unique, something that is a reflection of a particular combination of musicians, performers, and listeners at a specific point in time. The pit will be able to adjust to the performance in a way that a track cannot. And the young people in the production will get something that more accurately reflects the give and take that happens in a real musical/theatrical event. It is something that can't be bottled, with a worth that can't be measured.

I also have great respect for schools in my area that annually hire live accompanists (like me) for music contests. A friend and colleague of mine recently shared the experience of adjudicating a school contest in another district. All of the students were accompanied by "Smart Music" tracks. My friend was told to go easy on his judging of the students because, after all, they had never had the benefit of playing with a live accompanist. As with virtual organ programs, I can appreciate some of the practical applications of recorded music. But I grieve what is being lost when people begin to look to it as a replacement for live music. "No accompanist? No problem." I'm sorry, but it is a problem. The students are missing out on the enormous benefits of working with an experienced accompanist, getting additional musical coaching, and collaborating to achieve a harmonious and unified ensemble. That cannot be replaced by an accompaniment track.

But again, most people don't seem to get this. Except for the American idols who command millions of fans and dollars, musicians seem to be getting less and less respect. I recently heard a pastor argue for compensating organists hourly along the lines of secretaries. So if one plays for a service, and the service is an hour long, one should get paid about the same as a secretary would get paid for an hour of his or her time. I don't mean to disrespect secretaries, but the time and study that goes into developing the musical skills necessary to accompany a worship service, not to mention the time that goes into practicing for that specific service, is beyond that required to learn to be a secretary. One can decide as an adult to be a secretary and can realistically set about acquiring the skills in a reasonable period of time. It is much harder in adulthood to take up music if you have never, ever studied it before. But I can see how someone who thinks "music's music" might not get that.


mz said...

I agree. My piano skills are lamentably rusty, though I took lessons for 10 years. I regret not studying music in college, or at least keeping in shape so that I could help out at church in a pinch.

Becky S. said...

We just visited a church that had to use a cd because the organist was unable to play. It was very difficult. Aside from the various problems with the sound system, it just wasn't the same. From someone with little to no music ability, I appreciate the hard work, time and talent it takes to do the job well.
Our church musicians are a gift from God!!