I had an interesting musical experience today that I just can’t stop thinking about… thus my need to share! As many of you know, I teach a music class to homeless women once a week. The class is best described as some sort of mixture between a choir and a music appreciation class. We sing (hymns, spirituals, Moon River, etc), we listen to a lot of music, we learn about a composer/genre of music each month, and we’re slowly – and I mean SLOWLY – trying to learn how to read music. We even have a name! – Bethany’s Women of Praise. We, collectively, aren’t great, but that’s not the point. Some of these ladies have never really done much music in their past, and some have played instruments or sung in choirs all their lives! One of my ladies was even a backup singer for Isaac Hayes! But ALL of these women are finding some sort of strength and renewal through music.
So as I mentioned, each month, we’ve been talking about a different composer or style of music. I’ve kept it simple, and I’ve taken a Western approach (…possibilities here for discussion on music as institutional racism…)…I’ve basically followed a chronology for composers I’ve learned about. We started with Bach, then Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, the blues, and finally last month, jazz. As you can imagine, jazz was a big hit! Many of these women recognize jazz much more than classical music (as it was more publicly attainable to lower classes), and I was always impressed at their ability to name drop! (I told them when I started our blues/jazz series that they probably know more than me, and I looked forward to learning from them!) So, when the month of May came to a close, it was tricky to think of how to follow our upbeat classes of scatting and listening to Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Ella! I wanted to challenge them…break the lovely picture they had drawn of what music is.
It only seemed like the right thing to do. Now here’s a 20th century American composer growing up during the jazz era that really challenged people’s thoughts on what music IS, and what it ISN’T! I think I even sort of chuckled to myself as though I had some sort of musical trick up my sleeve…these women would not see this coming, and they certainly wouldn’t know how to handle it. I told my dad I wanted to teach BWOP about John Cage, and he said, “Oh, Amanda!” in a sort of way that seemed to imply that perhaps my ladies weren’t well-educated enough to appreciate a musician with such profound philosophies of music. But, as my housemates pointed out to me tonight, John Cage’s musical philosophies – while perplexing to the educated mind – are really anything but profound! He dug at the root of music by recognizing that there is no such thing as silence…that even when we are silent, there are still sounds all around us…and the SOUNDS are music! Cage wrote a lot of chance and improvisatory music, letting a factor other than himself control the outcome of his pieces. I held my breath, and decided to go along with my gut…
I wrapped up the jazz unit by reading some interesting articles from the 1920s by people who were against the idea of jazz…who thought that jazz was inhumane, led to scandalous dancing, and should not be considered music. The ladies laughed with disbelief – how could anyone dislike such a wonderful art form?? I explained to them that there have been arguments since the beginning of time about what counts as “music.” And when I asked them for their definition of music, I began to notice that this class may go differently than I had planned. Whereas most college-folk might respond with technical terms about sound and rhythm, my ladies responded that music is joy and soul. One woman even asked me to write “healing” on the board. Music runs much deeper for these strong women than it does for your average music major.
After making our HUGE list on the board – everyone had to get in their two cents – I said “okay, okay… but what if I told you I was going to play you a piano piece, and I just banged on the keys of the piano, like this…” I banged away, almost Henry Cowell style, waiting for someone to boo me off the stage! At this point, most musicians would throw up their hands and explain that this might be where they draw the line. The response from the ladies blew me away: “That’s music! It sounds angry…but it represents how you must be feeling, and that’s okay! It’s okay to be angry! That’s definitely music!!”
Such strong women, coming from so many different places. Some are recovering addicts, some are mentally ill, some are illiterate or uneducated, some were abused… some have college and post-college degrees, some were born into unfortunate situations, some have been lawyers, teachers, government workers… most are broken, but all are strong. And all of these women have learned so much about acceptance – accepting one another, accepting themselves… I really saw it come out through their perception of music today. Whatever I chose to play would’ve been okay by them because it was ME being represented through the music, and they accept ME. I was blown away by this simple and yet so complex theory, and I can’t help but wonder what John Cage would’ve said to their response. “Let sounds be sounds,” Cage says. Bethany’s Women of Praise agree… sounds can be sounds can be sounds… and whatever you produce, we will listen.