This month I’d like you to think of someone who really makes a difference at a shared music event. It could be someone who works mostly behind the scenes making the gathering possible, or someone who always finds a way to support and encourage fellow musicians. Or it could be that person with the sense of humour you can always count on to crack everyone up. Here is your chance to celebrate someone without whom your song circle or open stage would just not be what it is.
One of the things that intrigues me about these open musical spaces I have been exploring is how people are drawn to come out and share personal music. There is a wide range of talent and training represented, as well as very different feelings about performing. Some people have finished a draining workday and are bursting to share a song they just wrote while others are using all their courage to take their compositions out of the living room and into a public forum. And there they are – waiting to be a part of the music.
Over the summer I read a couple of books that touch on how we are connected to the creative instinct that draws amateur musicians out of the closet.
In her book, “If You Want to Write”, Brenda Ueland puts forward the idea that everyone has the potential to write, whether poetry, stories, songs; it is a natural impulse present in children that is winnowed out of us as we mature and become more self conscious and preoccupied with the practicalities of day to day living. She urges us to give expression to our imaginations, let the ideas flow without critiquing and censoring ourselves, for the simple joy of knowing ourselves better and participating in the creative process. My favourite chapter is entitled: “Why women who do too much housework should neglect it for their writing”; I wonder how contentious a statement this would have been in 1938 when the book was published? It would be a stretch to claim that I do too much housework but I really love the sentiment.
Brian Levitin (“This is Your Brain on Music”) describes how our brains are hardwired to derive pleasure from music, that we have an inherent ability to understand musical patterns which is then shaped by our cultural milieu. Another interesting point he makes is that it is a recent human development (last 500 yrs) that music has become the realm of the expert: the performer, the rock star, the prodigy. It is likely that music is among the oldest human activities as evidenced by instruments found in ancient archeological sites; in existing societies around the world participatory music and dance are integral parts of celebration, mourning, rites of passage, and story telling. The expectation is that everyone sings, everyone dances to the extent that people speak and people move.
Let’s revive – from our childhood, from our ancestors – this social and expressive activity and make it part of our present.
When I first started this blog, my instinct was to avoid the Toronto open stage scene. This was out of pragmatism – the sheer number of events and venues might overwhelm and overshadow all the unique venues to be explored in smaller communities – and intimidation – surely I would find myself out of my depth in a pool of talent that size.
At the end of October, co-conspirator, Trish, and I decided to test that boundary at an open stage in Kensington Market. The first shock was the number of musicians who turn out to play. This week there were close to 40 people signing up for their turn on stage. Hosts Steve York and Tony Rabalao (aka Leh-lo) say that there are 30-50 performers every week. People in the know show up to add their name to the list between 4:30 and 5:00 pm. At 7:00 pm participants are called up in the order they signed in to choose a performance time and the music starts at 8:00. This is triple or quadruple the number I am used to seeing at an open stage! Since we unknowingly showed up late in the game it looked like we were facing a 1 am performance time slot. We pleaded out of town status and they managed to work us in a little earlier.
Brendan Albert & Leh-lo
I won’t lie – initially the ambiance was intimidating. The number of musicians, the downtown feel to the club all led to a “we’re not in Kansas anymore” feel. But once the music started, I felt at home again. It helped that I had a table full of family support in the corner of the room. Like other open stages, there was a wide variety of styles and a range of proficiency but the calibre of music was generally quite high. Some of the highlights were: duo Tom & Martha (great lyrics and beautiful harmonies), songwriter Brendan Albert, and rap artist 4 by 4. Great experience! Definitely hope to come back sometime.
Although it has only been running since 2007, Free F’all Sundays has quite a following. You can watch a 10 minute documentary about the hosts and the people who come out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zOHfEvLm8M8
[Free F’All Sundays at The Supermarket, 268 Augusta Ave, Toronto, every Sunday 8 pm until late, sign up between 5 & 7 pm]
Since the last couple of posts have been about sing alongs, allow me to circle back to the spring of this year when I had the opportunity to experience a unique kind of sing along on a trip to New York. We arrived at Marie’s Crisis (a bar in “West Village”) early evening and the place was nearly empty. My first impression was that it was pretty unremarkable and I was wondering why my cousin (host of the finest kind) would have singled it out as a place to visit on our very short stay. Then at 6:00 a pianist arrived and a gaggle of people gathered around. A small light shone on pages of sheet music in the otherwise dim bar and our very proficient accompanist led patrons in singing one show tune after another with flair and enthusiasm. It was plain very early on that this wasn’t your average group of drunken singers letting loose. The voices were strong and rich and blending harmonies as if it were a choir rehearsal. I learned that many professionals frequent Marie’s Crisis and if it sounded as though the person beside me wouldn’t have been out of place in a Broadway musical, it was probably true.
As someone who has no trouble suspending disbelief when an actor breaks off their conversation to burst into song and who thinks that musicals are expressions of joy and exuberance, I was in my element. Belting out songs from A Chorus Line or West Side Story is immensely therapeutic – and the singers at Marie’s Crisis were not holding back. So – if you are in the Big Apple and want an authentic New York experience I highly recommend this venue.
[Marie’s Crisis, 59 Grove St Avenue S, between 7th Ave & Bleeker, New York, NY]