It’s always interesting to hear what people assume motivates me to make music the primary work of my life.
Some assume I’m in this game because I naively believe I’m destined to be famous. The glamour! The superiority I’d finally be able to lord over others! Or they figure I just want to do what’s the most fun for me rather than getting a “real” job.
As a somewhat baby-faced individual frequently mistaken for an early 20-something (I’m 34), I often wonder if these conversations go the same way for musicians who look (and act?) their age. Is there still this condescending tinge? This assumption that we’ve chosen this career path as an ungrounded attempt to escape a boring reality? This implication that we’ll come around to a more pragmatic strategy eventually?
Others emphasize how “lucky” I am to be “able to do what I love,” or to have been graced with musical talent that has delivered me into a profession as easily as though I slid down a laundry chute.
I know this second category of comments are intended as compliments. I try to respond accordingly and graciously in the moment. And today also isn’t the day I feel like delivering my rant about “talent” vs. hard work. Or the one about folks’ assumptions about what I love. Or that the things we love, by definition, lack utilitarian value.
I’ll save those rants for later. Or maybe never. It feels a bit ridiculous to be offended when someone compliments me, or celebrates my great fortune to get to do something interesting and rewarding for a living.
But here’s what really motivates me: connection.
I mean this both in terms of one-on-one connection, and on the community level. I find connection through music to be both a philosophy and a practical strategy.
Practically speaking: as an introvert, meeting new people can be stressful and exhausting. The superficiality of small talk bums me out, and cutting straight to personal topics often feels invasive.
For that reason, I really value social activities that provide everyone an opportunity to collaborate and focus on the same thing, and get to know each other in the process. Board games do this really well. So do team sports, for a lot of people.
For me, music is where it’s at. It’s a container in which we can choose how much to reveal ourselves to one another, and where vulnerability is relatively safe (even if it feels scary). It engages us mentally, physically, and emotionally. It gives us a safe way to attune to one another’s energy, exploring one another’s character without exposing too much information about ourselves right away.
And here’s the big one: it teaches us how to listen to one another.
As music listeners, we get to be delighted over and over again by the sounds and heart that come out of people we least expect. We are disarmed by a child’s precocious skill, an elderly person’s ability to rock out, an overweight person’s sexy stage moves. Or a woman’s technical accomplishment on a stereotypically masculine instrument. Or a person of color knocking it out of the park in a genre we’ve been taught to assume only interests white people.
Songwriters of all backgrounds sail messages like paper airplanes directly into our hearts–messages we might never emotionally connect to, without the vehicle of the melody and chords.
We are reminded over and over about the ways we misjudge people, every day. And here’s the best part: we find joy in being reminded.
As players, we get to go deeper and deeper in developing the skill of really absorbing what others are offering. We continually discover new ways to reflect and build on those ideas. To be flexible in our concept of what we’re co-creating, even as we continue to put our own ideas forward with increasing confidence.
As we advance, we discover that–however far we evolve our technical ability and conceptual brilliance–they don’t get much done, if our ears are closed to what others are bringing to the project.
When I think about the most fun stuff I’ve gotten to do this year, it’s all because of the people I got to connect with while doing it:
- Substitute teaching the multicultural and multigenerational students at Wilson School of Strings in Cedar Park, Texas (alongside new friend Olivia Brownlee, whose Music as a Second Language process is highly relevant to this conversation as well)
- Lip syncing “In a Week Or Two” sidestage with Larry the Cable Guy while Diamond Rio performed it at LRS Fest in Paulina, Oregon (after opening the show with Jessica Lynne & the Cousins)
- All the live shows and recording sessions I’ve gotten to do with SO many wonderful musician friends old and new (too many to list! I need to start writing more frequent updates!)
- All the audiences at summer concert series and other venues–of course!–but especially the audience members and support staff I got to have personal conversations with. (When I wasn’t too busy recovering in an introvert hole backstage, that is!)
- Jamming, performing, and cowriting with the other attendees and staff at California Coast Music Camp
- Most recently, making new friends in the pit orchestra at Seattle Musical Theatre, and reconnecting generally with the theater world and with the orchestral roots I’d let slip away over the past decade. (My Fair Lady runs through October 1st.)
I’m so grateful for the chance to connect with all of you! And if you’re not implicitly mentioned above, but you’re reading this, that’s yet another connection I’m grateful for.
Zooming out, I start to notice how many of my favorite life experiences centered around using music to bring people together across differences.
- Enrolling at Western Washington University’s Fairhaven College midway through my degree, so I could design a second major to balance my music major. I was enjoying the technical and analytical skills the music department was helping build, but I wanted to dig into why music is important enough to humans that it’s a cultural universal. This led to a second major in Culture, Gender & Sexuality Studies, with an emphasis on cross-cultural comparisons of how music is used to bond and support societies and political movements.
- Cofounding Bellingham’s Downtown Alliance for Music and Nightlife, which worked to organize musicians and venue owners of all stripes, and build rapport with law enforcement and legislators. We lobbied successfully for a more music-friendly city noise ordinance, and challenged enforcement policies that disproportionately affected musicians in certain genres and of certain ages. (B’DAMN no longer exists, but Make.Shift grew out of its ashes. They’re continuing to do amazing work providing resources and elevating the status of live music in Bellingham.)
- Organizing and leading a 17-piece swing band, composed of musicians whose home genres ranged from jazz to metal to spoken word poetry, for a benefit at the American Museum of Radio and Electricity. (I will never forget glancing over and seeing a jazz guitarist in his 80s intensely engaged in questioning an early-30s math rocker about finger tapping techniques, ten minutes after meeting him.)
- Teaching a class on indie rock repertoire for acoustic musicians to an intergenerational group at Puget Sound Guitar Workshop. We talked about how to recognize great songwriting from a genre that’s not your usual. (Many of the older folks initially had trouble connecting with the material.) We also discussed how to adapt songs from outside the folk canon into a jam-friendly format, so that they’d be easier to share with musicians who didn’t already know them. (This commonly stumps younger people entering the folk world, if they aren’t drawn to bluegrass or other specific folk genres). It was one of the most rewarding workshops I’ve ever gotten to lead.
I’m not sharing these experiences to convince you I’m so great (although sure, I’m proud of them). My point is that these things were fun. Connecting with people, and facilitating connections between others, is fun.
I wasn’t doing these things as part of some master plan. I was just connecting naturally with the people around me, and doing what seemed fun and/or useful in the moment. But reflecting back, the pattern makes sense to me. And it provides a lot of insight into my lifelong question about why (or whether) music matters:
Music is sublime in itself, but it’s also deeply relevant in its ability to open conversations and teach people to collaborate across differences.
I’m not saying music by itself can save the world. That would be naive. What I am saying is that it brings us together. And together is where we need to be.
I’m also saying that each and every one of us has personal work to do on letting in new thoughts and experiences from other people. You do, I do, we all do. And music is a wonderful tool for doing some of that work.
So yes, it matters.
Here are some simple ways to challenge yourself to use music to connect across differences:
- Go to a show or other event related to a kind of music outside your usual. (Hip hop would be a great choice for a lot of you in my circles. Personally, I’m irrationally annoyed by reggae–that might be my next area to explore.) Listen with your heart for what you can understand and appreciate. You don’t have to fall in love with the music. Just rest in an open curiosity about the hearts of the people making it.
- Read a book about a musician or musical community you don’t know much about. (The more aversion you feel toward the genre, or the less drawn you are toward the community it comes from, the better.) If you have the attention span for a more academically-oriented book, look for something put out by an academic publisher. These will be more likely to give context to readers who don’t already understand or care about the genre. They’ll also be more likely to position the music in a broader sociohistorical context, which really helps when trying to understand music that doesn’t personally grab your heart… usually that’s because it’s made by and for people who have different experiences than you do!
- Go to a jam if that’s not something you normally do. Are you “too beginner,” “too professional,” “too busy?” Do you “live too far away?” Dig into your favorite reason for not connecting with other musicians in a social, casual way. What’s underneath? Just be curious; seeing the pattern is enough for now.
- Or, if you are already a jammer, go to a different jam than your usual one(s). Is there one you’ve never tried, because it doesn’t sound like the people there would be the type you like to hang out with? (I am super guilty of this habit!) What evidence do you have that you would be uncomfortable there, if you’ve never been? Does that discomfort give more information about the people at the jam, or about you?
- Invite someone of a different generation over to share recordings you each love and talk about why you love them. (Hat tip to the wonderful Richard Scholtz for leading by example with this strategy.)
- Please share your own suggestions in the comments!
P.S. — Music also matters because it is fun.
Please remember, in this time of widespread fearmongering, how vitally important fun is. Whomever or whatever you consider to be “the enemy,” if you stop having fun, “they” win. We’re all depending on you to spread joy.
Hi friends! Just a heads-up for those of you in the Bellingham, Washington area: I’ll be sailing through next weekend (March 3rd & 4th) with a concert and a workshop.
Concert: Kat Bula & friends
Honey Moon Mead & Cider (1053 N. State St. Alley–behind the Pepper Sisters restaurant)
Friday, March 3rd, 8:30pm – 10:30pm
Workshop: Chords on the Fiddle
Bellingham Folk School (1208 Cornwall Ave)
Saturday, March 4th, 2pm – 5pm
$35 – pre-register by emailing me (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This is what to play when you don’t know what to play in a jam! Learn how to accompany other musicians with chords. We’ll cover movable finger shapes, so you can play in any key. We’ll also touch on rhythm patterns (aka “chops”). Violas and cellos welcome to join us!