In Praise of Community Music

Some years ago I attended a composers’ panel at a new music festival. The panelists included several composers, including one with an international career and a long legacy of large, well-received works. The following exchange was heard:

It’s so hard being famous. The pressure of high-profile commissions is unreal. I wish I could write pieces for smaller groups.
How about writing for this awesome community orchestra in Oakland? I know the director, they’d love to premiere a piece of yours.
Not that small!
What Very Famous Composer didn’t know or had forgotten in his long, storied career, is that sometimes the very best thing you can do as an artist is to enable other people to make music. Last year I had the pleasure of being involved in two community music projects. The first was a last-minute commission for the Community Women’s Orchestra in Oakland, led by conductor-composer-flutist Martha Stoddard. Because the piece was for a concert on International Women’s Day that included a tribute to Ethiopia by Florence Price and a tribute to the Amazon by Germaine Tailleferre, I wanted to write a tribute to Oakland, where the orchestra rehearses and performs. Being a long-time Oakland resident, naturally I wanted to include some sounds that I associate with Oakland. While I was walking around Lake Merritt and thinking about this piece, which would eventually become Letter to Oakland, I heard a motorcyclist playing mariachi on the radio very loudly while idling at a stoplight. On a whim I included these sounds in my piece, and to my everlasting delight, one of the players told me the story of how she came back to playing music after a 20-year hiatus. Her friend and neighbor, a mariachi instructor, insisted that she could still play trumpet and that she owed it to herself to try. So, he gave her lessons, and she got back into playing music. She was touched by the inclusion of mariachi music, an unintended honor to her friend, an outcome I couldn’t have ever predicted or hoped for. Sue, if you’re reading this, you did your friend proud!

Marty coming to kick my ass during rehearsal, as indicated in the score.

The last part of Letter to Oakland involves a simulated basketball game, with most of the players doing body percussion and shouting. To bring visual focus to the performance, Marty and I decided to bounce around the basketball in front of the podium during this section. Despite my total lack of coordination, I kept all my teeth and the orchestra members were inspired to improvise both trash-talking and words of encouragement during the dramatic finale, which involved Marty winning the game by sinking several free-throws into a basket made of my arms. Is there anything better than inciting a bunch of women to rib their conductor lovingly in jest? I feel sorry for Very Famous Composer for turning down an experience like this. To pedants objecting that Oakland doesn’t have a WNBA team - they are coming in 2025!

The second community music project I was lucky to be a part of was last fall, when Derek Sup invited me to play for Free Key Choir, a 100 person choir made up mostly of young queer people in Oakland. This group is, well, nothing short of astounding. The music they sing comes from themselves. Many group members are singer-songwriters. Some of them don’t read music. Derek Sup does a phenomenal job of arranging these songs, written by themselves about themselves, for the entire choir. Last fall’s set included a song about a grandfather caring for a grandmother with Alzheimers, love in a background of poverty and depression, burnout and alienation. One of them originated in a voice memo to Derek! All beautiful, all the more so for having a true connection with members of the choir. In many ways, this group is much closer to classical musicians of yore, than our “superstars” today.

The great thing about a 100 member amateur group made of locals is that when they invite their friends and family, their friends and family show up. It was a powerful thing to witness and be a part of the production, which ran 3 nights to a sold out house. Any professional group would be lucky to achieve the same scale and sense of community-building and warmth.
View from the piano. Everyone loves Derek!

So, for all the people out there whose conception of concerts is mostly standard repertoire played by professionals, don’t sleep on the community music scene! You might find something interesting, if you only look.


Popular Posts