Rally ‘Round the Piano!

It’s one of those indelible old-timey images. There’s the family in the parlor, or the hall, or in the living room, gathered around the family upright piano. One of them, usually the mother, is sitting and playing. One of the family members might have a fiddle playing along. And everyone else is singing along, smiling broadly.

Granted it may be an exaggeration of the “good old days”, but in the time before TV and radio and even phonographs there was a tendency for at least one family member to be an amateur musician. If they were wealthy, they might have a grand piano and all the children would be required to take lessons. As the social status dropped, the instruments would become more compact and cheaper; violins, guitars, banjos, ukuleles. If the group were large enough, you may get some brass players and woodwind players. And of course, everyone could sing, frequently in harmony, at least a little bit; even if it were just songs from the church hymnal.

In the days before mp3 players, and CD players, and cassette players, and on and on, if a family wanted music in their house they typically had to supply it themselves. The wealthy paid for their children to be taught music. The poor would sit their kids down and teach them what they knew. But come what may, music was part of everyone’s life even if it wasn’t being pumped straight down their ear canals with a pair of iPod earbuds.

It’s tempting to go into rant-mode on topics like this, and ascribe the decline of musicianship among the masses to laziness. I don’t know that that is a fair assessment. First there’s the immense amount of things that a person or family can do with their free time now. Options were limited back then. Secondly, due to improved communication, we all have much wider tastes now than they did. Too many choices sometimes mean no choice at all. And finally, maybe the reason we don’t do this as much today comes down to the simple fact that we don’t have to. Music reproduction equipment is ubiquitous; almost everyone has several items.

So how does this affect us? It would be foolish to insist that making music is the only creative endeavor in which people may partake. Indeed, today we have the luxury of being nearly overloaded with creative outlets, from the color we paint our bedrooms to what outfit we put on in the morning to deciding what to say in the 140 characters we get on Twitter.

Ironically, the part that is missing is not the freedom of creativity but rather the slavery of discipline. It takes a lot of training and practice to become even a passable musician, just as it does for other efforts that we routinely lump together under the term “art”. The difference between an “artist” and a “non-artist” is not in the amount of creativity, but rather in the willingness to work at it.

The trouble is that it’s all too easy today. It’s simpler to listen to a recording of someone else making music than it is to make it yourself. A case could be made that this carries through to all parts of society. There’s an old saying: “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” It seems many people take the inverse to be just as true: “Anything that you cannot do well isn’t worth doing at all.” Or perhaps, “If I don’t do something well, then it must not have been worth doing in the first place.”

It may be that this is one of the best arguments in favor of learning music or some other art. First, it teaches that few great things are accomplished without the application of effort and training. Even prodigies need some training. There are things that must be learned that no amount of instinct can teach you.

Secondly, and most importantly, is the one lesson that I haven’t mentioned. It’s the one that everyone who has done it knows, and that anyone who hasn’t done it cannot understand. It’s all worth it; every moment, every frustrating misstep and every ego-crushing failure. When it works, it is a feeling unlike anything in the world. For some, it comes from positive reviews or enthusiastic audience reaction. For others, they just know and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.

Pride and success are addicting. Once achieved, the craving for the next hit starts almost immediately. For artists, they learn that the process of training and practicing are part of the journey to the next success. They may even come to enjoy it. Even if they do not become professionals in their given art form, it still becomes a metaphor for life. They become incapable of being satisfied with mediocrity, whether it is in learning how to play “Shall We Gather at the River” on the family piano or completing that major project at the workplace.

The next time you meet someone who is a stickler for doing a job well ask them if they’re involved in the arts at all. The anal-retentive businessman who is solely focused on his job is a creature of myth. The ones who seriously pursue perfection learned it from somewhere. The assumption is usually it’s from being a high school athlete of some sort or from the military, but personally I’d bet money that most of them get it from training in the arts.