Making Music: a Magical Way to Enrich One’s Multi-cultural Life
One lazy, late-summer afternoon in this big Vancouver shopping centre, beautiful piano music is echoing through its cavernous interior as shoppers stroll back and forth. It’s coming from a baby grand piano set in the middle of a concourse—but there’s no one playing it! Black and white keys are going up and down as if by magic. No, it’s not “the invisible man” at the keyboard, but a built-in electro-mechanism that automatically plays pre-programmed tunes. But might not an imaginative two- or three-year-old think, if only for an instant, that the music is a creation of some fantastic, invisible being?
Lest people, especially fascinated kids, lay their hands on the expensive instrument, a large red placard with the stern warning in white lettering—DO NOT TOUCH THE PIANO—has been placed squarely on the seat. It obviously dispels any illusion of an invisible man and such.
Bent on some crazy mission to save that fleeting illusion, if only for naïve, dream-struck kids, yours truly must confess here and now to having resorted once or twice to the “urban-guerrilla-street-art-like” tactic of quickly and surreptitiously transferring that ugly placard from the seat to the top of the piano. Apparently someone (a security guy?) does check, because once I casually sauntered by later to look, and the placard had been put back on the seat, as if to proclaim: “We’re in charge here!”
Why so much ado about a little placard infringing on some “magical” illusion, anyway? Because it’s about one of the causes I’m most passionate about—to promote and share the almost magical “joy of making music” that can enrich one’s life so much.
As you musicians out there know full well, the joy of making music and sharing it with others is so great and “potentally productive” in a life-long context that it should be the aim of introductory music education for all kids and the “young at heart.” This is only my humble opinion, as some music teachers far more qualified just might disagree.
Think of some kind of sport activity as an analogy. You loved playing it as a kid, and found that the more you worked at it, the better you got. As you improved, you started playing with better athletes, and maybe even got invited to join good teams. Or, more realistically, you realized sooner or later that you were either not good enough or you had developed other interests, and gave up on the dream of making it as a professional.
But you still enjoy the sport so much that you keep playing with other like-minded souls whenever you can. As the years go by, you see younger athletes with more energy coming up, but you manage to hold your own with your experience and guile, but only for a while. You eventually retire as a player and maybe take up coaching as a hobby, or just continue to follow it on TV.
The stages of one’s development in music are comparable in many ways. Typically, you become familiar with an instrument or two through school music curricula. It was mainly a cheap “recorder-type” bamboo flute when I was attending primary school back in Japan. In Canada nowadays, school bands made up primarily of brass and percussive instruments seem to the introduction for most kids. Some kids are lucky enough to receive private piano or violin lessons, and of course the electric guitar is the instrument of choice for myriad teenagers chasing that illusive dream of becoming a real rock star.
Some of the youngsters, for whatever reason, will discover the joy of making music during this process. They might play in better school bands, and some will join groups outside the school like taiko groups, choirs or even full-fledged junior bands and, for aspiring rock stars, the garage band. Those diligent, motivated and talented enough might go on to tertiary institutions of music, usually classical music or jazz. Sooner or later comes the time of the critical “professional or amateur” decision. As with athletes, those who are not good enough or motivated enough to join symphony orchestras or commercially viable bands and groups, but are still hooked on the joy of making music try to keep playing as often as possible with other amateurs at private parties, community events, jam sessions at bars and such.
There is one big difference between participating in sports (excluding non-competitive, physical exercise) and playing music. In the latter, you don’t compete in terms of muscle strength, so you can keep playing with younger people as long as your fingers can move fast enough, your lung capacity is big enough or your lips are firm enough. So you can, in your 60s for instance, still play with anyone younger, from teens on up. In this respect, musicians may be luckier than athletes. (As you might have guessed, I’ve always sucked at—as kids would say—sports.)
In this column I always try to write about things based on my own experiences. Our Nikkeijin/ijusha community has been blessed by the presence of Mr Harry Aoki, a musician (bass, harmonica), musicologist and ethnologist who has dedicated well over half a century of his life to, among other things, promoting of cross-cultural communication through music. Having served, for instance, as musical director at Canada’s first Commonwealth Games in Edmonton back in 1978, Harry has definitely left his mark in North American jazz and ethnic music, and he recently celebrated his 90th birthday. Musicians and others that Harry have helped over the decades, regardless of their race or nationality, might number well over a thousand, myself included.
Some readers may remember “FFF (First Friday Forum),” an evening of music and talk that Harry used to hold at Nikkei Place every month in recent years. The FFF is still continuing, now at the Tonari Gumi premises near Broadway and Main. No longer able to run the program himself, he’s left it to younger musicians to carry on although he still comes to listen and lend his presence, occasionally interjecting with an advice or two. Those of us who enjoy performing together gather to play anything from classics and jazz to ethnic and folk music, and sharing the joy with dedicated supporters who also come every month. The members include a professional classical musician or two and enthusiastic amateurs like yours truly on the guitar. It’s not at all about who’s a better musician, but all about trying to make beautiful music.
Along with the FFF, there are choral groups and taiko groups at various levels mentioned just on the pages of this magazine. Musical education should ideally start at as young an age as possible. But even those readers, who, for example, just like to sing so much that they frequent karaoke bars, can try singing once with live guitar or piano accompaniment. There are many opportunities if you look around. It’ll make a lot of difference if you approach it with the attitude of enjoying yourself as much as possible and sharing that joy with others, rather than of competing in skills.
This is my recommendation, based on my firm belief that music can enrich one’s life in magical ways. Case in point: while writing this piece, I happened to discover one heck of a jazz pianist, a young Japanese lady named Hiromi Uehara. If you haven’t heard her yet, do so on YouTube or wherever. You’ll be astounded.