Making Music Together. The value of Social Music.

by AlanRowoth on November 9, 2018

The first music was social music. Scientists have found musical instruments dating back 40,000 years or more, but anthropologists feel music is much older, maybe as much as half a million years, predating any recorded history, perhaps even language itself. There is something very elemental about making and sharing music.

My earliest musical experiences were my grandmother singing me to sleep. Soon, I was singing with her, it was a cornerstone of our bond. Not long afterward, I was singing in the congregation and later the choir at church. I got up in front of my 3rd grade class and sang a Beatle Song (If I Fell) acapella. I sang in the school bus on my way to day camp. (0n top of Spaghetti, Great Green Gobs, and other classics). Chorus in school, pep rallies, and much more. By the time I was in 8th grade, I was in my first rock band.

i became a professional musician, but most kids don’t. Pretty much everybody loves to sing, or try to. Social music remains a great way to excite and engage human beings in group activities. Whether you are singing protest songs at a political rally, singing your grandchildren to sleep, or singing “You’ve Got a Friend” with James Taylor on the lawn of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, making music in a group brings us closer together. Everyone can sing, not always well, but the important thing is the act of singing itself.

My rock bands sometimes took great pains to break the fourth wall. We would set up a performance that drew them in as spectators, but someplace in the course if the evening, we would break down the invisible barrier between audience and performer  sometimes it was a simple as jumping into the audience or trolling across the bar with a wireless guitar rig.  Other times we might thrust the vocal mic into the face of a fan who had clearly been singing along. In my prime, I spontaneously kissed a number of women in the audience. (Long before #MeToo was a worry) That moment of realization when the audience understood they were now a part of the performance could be very powerful

In my continuing work in music, I use social music in many ways, from encouraging audiences sing alongs to hosting open circles. Under the Big Orange Tarp, I used to bring a box of percussion instruments to festivals. Egg shakers, tambourines, bongo drums, claves, maracas, you name it. I drifted away from that because untrained musicians can be such poor time keepers. I like to attend drum circles with my pal Chadd Ferron. They are so fun, but they can be obtrusive late nights at your music festival or in urban settings. They may or may not be right for your constituency.

Singing songs together can be fantastic. From folk songs, protest songs, inspirational hymns to Late night Beatles jams in Gene Shay’s room at NERFA.  These always generate smiles and cameraderie.  At Falcon Ridge this summer, Dan Navarro kicked off our loving tribute to David Glaser, Maggie Marshall, and Jimmy LaFave with a New Orleans style, second line processional from one side of the camp ground to the other, ending up at the Big Orange Tarp to kick off the tribute. The crowd was “All in” before our formal feature even began. Audience engagement and participation was fantastic.

Some venues have group sings after their shows  these can be particularly powerful in small house concert situations. Ireland is all about the pub sings, where people haul their chairs over into a corner and play together.  Orchestrated jam sessions provide a place where wannabe professionals can noodle around quietly, testing their musical ideas to see what works and what doesn’t. When I was starting out, I always played along with records, but I can tell you first hand, that’s not as exciting as playing along with people.

Many Americans are shy, socially inhibited, uncomfortable in their own skins  it has been reported that many Of them fear public speaking more than they fear death. To stand in front of a group and speak extemporaneously is unthinkable for some, but to sing some Simon and Garfunkel or Phil Ochs, sharing that eloquence is far easier.  So many people feel isolated and alone, unseen and unheard. They may not even realize it, but most people light up when they realize they are a part of something. It is natural to yearn for connection In a purely practical sense, you want customers coming back to consume your music, but trust me, that’s feels great when you discover your events are serving people in a deeper and more meaningful way.

in my opinion, Folk Dance is making music with your body. our dance stage at Falcon Ridge has one of the most engaged and enthusiastic audiences that I know of. As a long time music listener, I can get mesmerized by a fantastic performance that I view only as a spectator, but the physical act of dancing is a full body, aerobic experience with a much broader emotional payload.

If you really want to see some fireworks, try workshopping some of the theatre games from Viola Spolin’s classic book “Improvisation for the theater”. Considered the Bible of Improvisational Comedy groups like the Second City or the Groundlings. It has been used with great success by musicians as well as actors and comics. It gets people laughing and thinking outside of the box.

Improvisation for the Theater: A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques (Drama and Performance Studies)

However you decide to incorporate social music into your programming, the big win is in audience engagement and customer loyalty. Just as volunteerism brings people back in the doors, so does getting them to be music makers, not simply spectators.





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