Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

Today is my 28th birthday. And as often happens as one approaches this age, I’ve found myself inexorably turning into an Adult. Adults, it turns out, lead rather boring lives. Instead of whooping and hollering at concerts and happenings, we stand around at conferences and talk about solutions and best practices. Instead of snuggling together with friends on the bus, we shake hands and keep our distance. We get married. We have kids. We get wrapped up in our own concerns. Gone are the days when I would stay up all night to see an entire new music marathon (despite not one, but two opportunities to do so this spring) or spend five intense weeks with the same group of 60 people singing and making music with them across an entire continent.

So when I found myself here in Denver on Wednesday morning, I felt like I was at work. I was ostensibly present as a composer, but I knew that my other life as a business school student and an aspiring professional in arts philanthropy would dictate much of my activity for the week. I was ready to roll up my sleeves and confront the hard issues facing the performing arts in the United States. But be inspired? Not so much.

During AMC’s joint opening meeting with the American Composers Forum and Meet The Composer for the composers at the conference that morning, the microphone was opened up for questions and comments from the floor. Several attendees obliged and offered feedback and advice for the crowd. But one participant had a different kind of contribution to make. Noting the large conglomeration of musicians in the room, in a moment of spontaneity she stood up and offered to sing for those assembled.

There was an awkward pause. I have to admit that my skepticism was winning out. Sing for us? At a question and answer session? Are you kidding me? Who does that? Well. It turns out that she was going to improvise over a drone, but there were no instruments in the room. That is, except for our voices. So she asked for an F# and someone gave it to her, and for the next several minutes we hummed in static octaves while she wove a rapturous melody around our ears.

This sounds a bit trite in the re-telling, perhaps, but I can assure you that at the time it was not. Singing is a huge part of my life. I’ve sung in choruses since my senior year of high school, and in the shower for a long time before that. Singing is pretty much the reason I’m a musician at all. Singing that one note, breathing in and singing again, over and over, turned that morning’s session from work into play.

I’ve felt for a while that the greatest beneficiaries of the arts are not necessarily the audience members, but the participants. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard to make the case for supporting the arts to people who are not themselves artists. Sure, you can talk about the arts as a driver for urban and regional economic development or their effect on kids’ math and science scores, but it’s impossible to communicate to someone who hasn’t experienced it the feeling that one gets from participating in genuine artistic creation. It’s a feeling that you’re alive again somehow, and a feeling of connection with the people around you on an almost physical dimension. It’s something rather foreign to Adult life.

I once had a conversation with a family member (also in business school) in which I really pushed the economic arguments for arts support mentioned above. I was throwing land values, crime reduction, tourism, the whole kitchen sink at him. Just as he was starting to get interested, I said, “but that’s a reason that the arts should be funded. I would never say that it’s the reason.” “So what’s the reason?” he asked. “Because they’re great,” I answered. Blank stare.

I did not come to Denver to be a member of Nirmala Rajasekar’s backing band, but I’m glad that’s the way things worked out. We all have to remind ourselves, each in our own way, what brought us here in the first place.