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  • Writer's pictureCraig Birchfield

The Good Stuff – Part 1: The Joy of Live Music 4/1/2014

I may have mentioned at one point that we have only had recorded music on a flat disk record since 1899 (Edison wax cylinders were available about twenty years earlier). The first commercial radio station went on the air in 1920. That is not really very long ago. For the vast,vast majority of human history if you wanted to hear great music you had to experience it live. No musician handy, no music. The explosion of recorded music is both good and bad, both a blessing and a curse. The blessing part is obviously that we now have such a rich experience of music available literally at the tips of our fingers. I am in awe of Pandora. If you have been out of the loop on this one Pandora is one of several streaming music services/apps that are available for your smartphone or computer. The genius of Pandora is that you can create one or several personal radio stations and by you input – both by suggesting songs or artists and by giving a thumbs up or down to songs as they play on your device – you can actually teach the service your preferences. It works for any genre of music. The system is smart enough that through its algorithms it can get the gist of what types of music you like. It actually works amazingly well in practice. I guarantee that the stations you create will sound better to you than any broadcast or even online station you’ve ever heard. On YouTube and other video sites we can view and listen to any music video and a huge array of concert experiences on demand. It is an exciting time to be alive.

There are several cautions to all of this freedom. Performing musicians and even recording musicians have been negatively impacted. With so much great music available on demand (and on the cheap or free) there are fewer paying gigs and performance opportunities for musicians. File sharing and music streaming has traumatized the recording industry. People ask, “Why buy a CD or even a paid download on iTunes when you can listen to all of the songs from the album online for free?” Also, with so much incredible music played by virtuoso musicians available the bar has been set incredibly high for performance. People learning to play an instrument can become intimidated because all they hear are nearly perfect musicians playing through their speakers and ear-buds. The aspiring musician needs to know that, ultimately, we are the only ones who have the right to judge the quality of our music (unless you are going for a scholarship or high level gig and then you better have some serious chops). Remember musicians play, teachers teach and critics can’t do much of anything except criticize so you alone should be the judge. And even if you only play for yourself, you can still get great enjoyment out of the act of playing. The joy of playing music is, after all, a personal and subjective experience.

From the perspective of the music lover, we and our children need to experience great music LIVE. Listening to recorded music, no matter how wonderful, cannot compare to hearing it live in a good sounding room and watching great musicians perform it. Live music is a truly visceral experience whether it is baroque or bossa nova, blues or bluegrass, be bop or Beethoven. I am rather eclectic in my tastes and so I can hear a symphony, a jazz combo or a bluegrass string band and have an equally enjoyable listening experience. In Portland we are blessed to have a fabulous resource of excellent music. We have the Oregon Symphony, one of the finest symphonies on the west coast. We also have other fine symphonies (the Columbia Symphony comes to mind), a bounty of great ensembles (3 Leg Torso, Pink Martini, The Portland Cello Project, Chamber Music Northwest) and too many great musicians to mention. There is also an excellent jazz scene here. There are a number of great local Jazz festivals with the annual Vancouver Jazz and Wine Festival being my favorite (I am not much of a wine Oenophile but I do like the music there). Live music is also a collective experience. There is something electric about hearing a great performance with others of similar musical tastes. I was at the Oregon Symphony a few weeks back and heard Cohen play Rachmaninov and people were so excited after the performance that you would have thought the stage was filled with rock stars. They actually did an encore.

If we are parents we can foster an appreciation of great music in our children. I guarantee that their lives will be richer for the experience. In my shop I’ve spoken with a number of parents that have said that a trip to the symphony was the catalyst that made their child aspire to learn the violin or cello. With so many school district cutting back or eliminating musical programs it falls on the parent to develop an appreciation of good music and rich culture in our children. On the other side of the coin I believe that we need to be aware of what our children are listening to in the privacy of their ear-buds, earphones or friends homes but we will leave that for part two.

Keep practicing


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