There are No Listeners Here

by Sheelagh Chadwick    ¦   April 20 2017

When I looked it up, I found that the term omnivorous came from research attempting to establish a connection between socio-economic status and cultural habits, specifically the expansion of so-called high-brow musical preferences (classical and opera) to include such “radical” genres as rock and jazz. More recent studies demonstrate a growing recognition that deep, ongoing, informed engagement with music encourages omnivorous listening (see for example Elvers et al. who studied musicology students, or Green on popular musicians). For me this seems to hold true – the more I am doing music, the more I am listening to music and to different kinds of musics.

I recall one of my earliest listening experiences with a mixture of fondness and terror. It was grade 5, and Mrs. Stanford, our fierce Welsh music teacher, was telling us the story of Peer Gynt as preparation for hearing the suite. There was one rule in her classroom: no noise. Disciplined silence was more valued than any musical content she could impart. We listened as she told us the story in vivid detail – sunrises, apple carts and the halls of the mountain king (whoever he was). And while the stories made the music come alive – we were all so scared about making any unwanted sound, whether accidental or otherwise, that the experience was hardly a positive one. This was extreme listening. Yet somehow the respectful (fearful?) silence of that classroom was preparation for the years of classical concerts to come.

Teaching and research in community music has changed my understanding of music and how I relate to it. More specifically, listening framed through Turino’s participatory and presentational fields (2008). The strict divisions between those who play and those who listen in the presentational field are broken down in participatory music making, as barriers between performer and listener, the doer and the done for, dissolve. When it comes to participatory musics, if it doesn’t get you up off the couch and get you involved then it is not deemed a success.

I am fortunate to have lived and taught in Botswana, a place where music is assumed to be participatory. I recall with some discomfort my attempts to encourage students in my classes to listen to classical music with the goal that they should be able to distinguish Bach from Mozart, when in fact the very idea of sitting and listening was confusing and pointless to them. In fact, a word for music doesn’t exist in many African languages (except as derived from English) because music is considered inseparable from dance and movement. Therefore, listening cannot be a separate act from doing music. (I recall a teacher describing the challenges of the school listening exam, saying that her students wouldn’t sit still to write their responses because they just wanted to be moving to the music!)

In Botswana, music still infuses daily life in a way that I have not experienced anywhere else. And everyone is considered musical and can potentially be involved in making music. There are no listeners here. I could drive to the most remote school, hours away across sandy roads on the fringes of the Khalahari and there would be the students – lined up, shoes polished, uniforms straight, to sing the National Anthem around the flag pole before school began. Compare this to Canadian schools where questionable arrangements of our national anthem are broadcast through equally questionable speakers as part of morning rituals with students standing, maybe listening, but not really engaging.

Of course, popular musics from the West and the continent have emerged, involving recordings and the commercialization of music as a commodity. One song I strongly associate with that time, because I heard it everywhere music was played – in clubs, on the radio, coming from street vendors’ stalls, my students singing it on the way out of class – was Brenda Fassie’s “Vul’indlela” (1997)  – and it always got people up dancing.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERADuring my PhD I strove to maintain a connection to African music by joining the University of Illinois mbira ensemble. We struggled to learn what seemed highly complex interlocking melodies by ear from a patient grad student who had spent time learning from a master mbira player in Zimbabwe. But we were all accepted as capable of making music whether on the fringes or in a more central role. Here I listened to participate, to be part of this group music making, to feel connected to people, to the music and to somewhere far away. Listening had the purpose of immersing you in the sound and style – particularly the rhythms – and to learn how to be in the music. I doubt any two Zimbabweans would agree on a version of “Nhemamusasa” – the first song I learned – nor to listening to a recording, but this video gives a sense of the music.

My most recent forays into community music have maintained a participatory relationship to listening. Notation is not strongly featured – lyrics and chords are the norm, so participation relies on knowing how the music goes. And not knowing means not being able to contribute fully. Group members are generous with YouTube links on social media and ‘practice’ involves as much listening as it does poring over chord shapes and strumming patterns.

Guitar was always the dream, but I have attempted and been frustrated so many times by its size in relation to my small hands, the pressure required, the pain, not to mention the frustration of barre chords! Plus – I had no community, hence little motivation to learn. Enter the ukulele. My first night I learned 3 chords and could play a bunch of songs, sing and feel part of a group where age, hand size and socio-economic status were of no import. Community music in the best sense – you learn by doing and listening is part of the package.

The ukulele group’s song list is so varied it embodies the accessibility and come-one-come-all ethos of community music. It caters to those who love Chattanooga Choo Choo (1941) or ABBA (I do I do I do!!!) or the Beatles. One of our number really hates Hey Soul Sister so we play it when she isn’t there. (I personally really like this song, plus the video actually has a ukulele in it – what’s not to love?

We put together an entire Scottish set to play at the pavilions in February so every week we were swaying to Skye Boat Song, rollicking to Donald, where’s your trousers?! and adopting a patriotic swagger while standing to play O flower of Scotland as if we were all suddenly of Scottish decent.

Enjoyment of these songs comes from so many different places. The desire to take on new challenges – Smile has a tough set of chords but how satisfying when you can finally play them and sing at the same time. The experience of playing for a group of sept- and octogenarians at a local care home and feeling a whole new depth of meaning in We’ll meet again or looking up to see one of our regular audience members wailing on the harmonica and relishing every song – especially the ones where he can double as train whistle. It is the first time I have made music with such an inter-generational group with the youngest members still in high school and the oldest well into retirement – and our repertoire reflects this with music dating from the 1920s to the present day, all possible in one evening’s get together.

We have a side specialty in railway songs – one of our number owns a train whistle and really loves to interject a good blast on it wherever possible, sometimes out of the blue just to give us all a jolt! – so we like to find songs about trains so she can get her weekly dose of toot-toot and we can all have a laugh. I have learned such classics as Freight Train, Canadian Pacific, and re-acquainted myself with I’ve been working on the railroad from my childhood.

Ukulele has opened a door to new music and new bands. I heard Dirty Rotten Soul last year at the BJF played by Michael Cain’s Big Band and loved it. So I went looking for more 21 Pilots songs online – little did I know that a year later I would be singing House of Gold on stage myself (while nailing the Bm7 chord!) albeit at a more sedate local church evening.

Last week we pulled out Happy. I like this song, having done it with an elementary school group last spring and listened to it a fair amount, but I wasn’t sure how it would sound on ukulele. Not great as it turned out the first time as we tried to puzzle through it. Then someone said – “we should post Walk off the Earth’s version!”

This group are the kings and queen of the inventive cover. Did you know 6 people could play one guitar and make magic? How about using whirly tubes to create a haunting backdrop to Adele’s Hello? And their version of Happy (Ft Parachute…as well as not one, but 4 ukuleles) not only gave me hope that we could create an arrangement that would work, but it also gave me access to this world of quirky covers that I really enjoy and that I hope students in my classes will enjoy too (future Senior Years General students take note!).

We are not reverent in our listening (sorry Mrs. Stanford); this is not about admiring the polish and beauty in a perfect recording of Mahler or Mozart. We engage in a group arranging process, making suggestions for fun endings, layering through rounds, extra vocal harmonies, surprise solos, instrumentals on kazoo – we make these songs our own.

I find I am far more inspired to make music at home than I ever used to be practicing the piano – I wander through the binder playing songs I like, songs I don’t know, songs I really need to practice (someone said People get ready would be good for us?). I can traverse styles, genres, and time periods with ease and turn up every week not knowing what will be in store. Will it be songs of my youth (Skinnamarink and The Rainbow Connection); the nostalgic past (It’s only a paper moon (1933) or Tennessee Waltz (1946); the north (Log driver’s waltz); the south (Three little birds); or further south (Waltzing Matilda); Hawaii – of course (Pupu O Ewa); or  the depths of the ocean (Octopus’s Garden); the past (Smile 1936) or the present (Happy), country (Jolene) or Train.

And now I keep lists of songs we could play as well as songs we might. And websites where I can find them. I listen to music with new ears – could we play this? what would this sound like on the ukulele?

The ukulele has made of me an omnivorous listener in a way I never imagined possible. Yet, if I was only to listen to any one of these songs, they would not have the same impact or connection. I listen because I play – because we play – and in true participatory style it doesn’t matter if you can’t play it all – you just play what you can – even if it’s one chord, or you sing. It’s taking part that matters. The ukulele has become a path through music I love, music I have yet to love, and music that is waiting to be found.

Sheelagh Chadwick

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