I took a road trip today, a ride to the western side of the state – over to Kalamazoo, to be exact, or K-Zoo as the natives call it. My friend P.’s granddaughter was performing in her last elementary school program…she’ll be “graduating” and moving up to middle school next year. And so P., excited and proud of this wildly intelligent little girl – a 10 year old who can deliver campaign speeches for Barack Obama and gay rights the way most 5th graders would recite the lyrics of Miley Cyrus or Jonas Brothers songs – was eager to show off her accomplishments.
Because it’s a long drive for just one afternoon, P. asked me to ride along and keep her company. One part of me balked a little – I always have a long “to do list” for my days off. But I like Kalamazoo – it’s a great town with some beautiful, old homes – and I also like P.’s granddaughter, so I decided to tag along despite the nagging voice in my head saying “you really shouldn’t.”
The Woodward School for Science and Technological Research is a magnet program which operates on a huge grant from the government. It’s housed in an historic, two story brick building, with large white pillars fronting the entrance. The school grounds are surrounded by iron gates, and behind the large playscape is a beautiful kitchen garden the children planted, as part of their year long study of sustainable living.
But this is no effete educational program – this is very much a city public school, and the children come from every race, creed, and background imagainable. Many of them are being raised by single parents, grandparents, or even older siblings. Most of them come from families where college was only a distant dream.
But the auditorium was completely packed for this afternoon concert. Somehow parents had made it a priority to get away from work and spend 30 minutes supporting their kids in this musical homage to “The Wide World.” It was literally standing room only as 100 kids, ranging in age from 8-12, took their various places on stage, on choral risers, behind xylophones, electric keyboards, guitars, and African drums. There was drumming, and dancing, some rap and hip hop while the orchestra played “We Will Rock You.” Through it all, parents broke out in spontaneous cheers and applause when their kids took the stage or stepped forward for a solo. There were tears aplenty at the amazing lyric vocals of young Prescott, and delighted smiles and laughter at Ahwatta, performing his original rap dressed quite nattily in blue suit, white shirt and tie. Their teacher, a young woman who spent a year living in Guinea, had absorbed the spirit and rhythm of African music, which she has enthusiastically passed on to these young musicians.
Naturally I was struck by the differences between this program and the elementary school programs I’ve done in the past few weeks, programs with talented children and dedicated teachers, but programs which definitely lacked the spark of enthusiasm so evident today, the obvious joy and pride in performance which filled these children (and their families).
My suburban friends would likely find fault with teaching music this way. They might say the children weren’t learning enough about the fundamentals of music, or practicing good vocal tone or breathing. They might criticize the keyboard players for playing by rote, or the string players for faulty intonation.
But who could argue with the natural, totally uncoerced smiles and sparkle on all of those faces? Who can find fault with the pure, unadultered joy oozing from those little musicians and their audience? Isn’t that what music is really all about, especially when you’re 8 years old? Or 18? Or even 80?
Today’s concert reminded me that, as a musician, that’s the feeling I should be striving to achieve every time I sit down to play. I came home with a renewed spirit and sense of purpose about the power of music, making this road trip a very valuable one indeed.