Born to Groove: Up from Mud and Back to Our Roots

by Bill Benzon

I don’t remember exactly what I was saying – this conversation took place over a half century ago – but perhaps I was explaining why I choose to become a scholar rather than a musician. What I remember is Gren’s reply: You ARE a musician. After awhile he convinced me.

That is, we had to talk about it. I thought of a musician as someone who made a living performing music. I didn’t do that. To be sure, I made some money playing around town in a rock band and I’d spent years learning the trumpet. I’d marched in parades and at football games; I’d played concerts with various groups. But I wasn’t a full-time, you know, a professional musician, a real musician. Gren insisted that I was a musician because I played music, a lot, and was committed to it. That’s all that’s necessary.

He was right of course. I was a musician then and I’m one know. Three decades after that conversation I published a book, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture, in which I argued that music is what transformed groups of very clever apes into human beings. In THAT sense we’re all musicians. It’s our heritage.

Alas, too many of us have been robbed of that heritage and have been bamboozled into thinking that only special talented people should be making music. Nope. It’s time to flip the script. We’re born to groove.

Follow the children, follow the music

Let’s look and listen to music in action. Here we have some guy playing guitar – looks like he may have a GoPro affixed to the end of his guitar beyond the head. Look in the background on the left.

What do you see? If you see what I see, you see a little girl – maybe three years old – dancing along with the music and having a ball. She’s not just hopping up and down, side to side. She’s done this before and has a variety of moves – spins, foot stomps, high leg kicks, hops, and twists. She moves her arms too.

I’d bet she’s been dancing since the womb. Mommy dances and she’d kick her legs. Later, once she’s out and about, mommy and daddy hold her while they’re dancing, strapped to their backs, chests, on shoulders, maybe toss her into the air – what fun! ­– and catch her (safe!).

The video’s title: “Cutest little girl goes crazy dancing to ZZ Top – Why can’t we all be like this when we hear music?” Answer: Shy? inhibited? it’s not done. No GOOD reason. That’s just not how we roll in our culture.

Now it’s family time. The world locks down during the pandemic and you’re at home with three kids. What are you doing to do? Make music.

That’s what Colt Clark decided to do. That’s Colt (dad) with the beard, on guitar and vocals. Cash is at the right on bass; I believe he’s eleven. Beckett at left on drums, nine. Six-year old Bellamy is fronting the band with dance moves, air guitar, and cowbell. Aubree (mom) is behind the camera videotaping the performance.

I have no idea whether or not any of them were born on the bayou. I doubt it. But they’re sure having fun singing about it.

They started doing this at the beginning of the pandemic. Colt’s a professional musician. When the lock-down hit, all his gigs were gone. What to do? At first Colt and Aubree just shared the videos privately with family and friends. Some of them asked, in turn, to share them around. Word go out and they decided to go public. Ever since then they’ve been doing a video every other day or so.

Back in the ancient days when those apes discovered themselves to be human, back then it was ALL family and friends. In small scale societies it still is pretty much that. Moreover, before the 20th century all music was live music.

How about we get back to it?

These Japanese kids certainly got back to it. They’re from Nakagurose Elementary School.

I don’t know when I first saw this video, five, six, eight years ago, I don’t remember. It’s from 2009. I keep coming back to it every few months or so. It brings tears to my eyes. It inspires me.

These children are 10, 11, or 12 years old or so. Look at them as they perform, the grace, the sureness. Above all, the sense of ceremony. They are wrapped/rapt in the music. They are no longer children. They have become the music. It is the world. We are the world.

Prodigies R’ Us

Ours is a competitive civilization. We’re created a very competitive musical culture. Everyone takes competitive auditions to get into performing groups. Then we have the competitions, local, regional, national, international, for individuals and ensembles. Prizes you wouldn’t believe. And losers litter the field. Most of us, alas, become losers at some point.

Into this mix we toss the prodigies, the children who pick up an instrument and two or three years later are playing better than most adults, two more years and even full-time professionals are envious. They’ve worked hard for 10, 15, or more years and some 10-year old kid can outplay them without blinking an eye.

Music prodigies drive us to ambivalence. We respect and admire them for the music they make, and for their ability. We fear and resent them for their ability, ability that we don’t have. In the face of their excellence we feel bad about ourselves and regard them as unnatural freaks. How did we come to this?

Let’s set that aside for a moment and listen to Nandi Bushell, a young drummer:

She’s got showmanship, twirling her drumsticks. She’s just one of I don’t know how many excellent child drummers on YouTube.

Here’s a six-year old girl who goes by the name of Miumiu Guitargirl. Primarily a guitar player, she also plays drums, bass, and sings too. (I suspect that someone else has done the production on this video.)

Mozart couldn’t have done that, the technology didn’t exist.

But he could have performed this. He wrote it. Mysin Elisei plays Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 3:

How good is the performance? I don’t really know. I’m not familiar with the piece. But I suspect that someone more attuned to classical piano could tell that the performer is not a seasoned professional. That matters, but I’m not sure just how. Set it aside. The child is a remarkable musician.

Even if I didn’t see this next performer (no name is given) I could tell that this is not an adult. Her voice sounds strained at times, and thin. Moreover I know this aria well enough to know that she misses some slurred triplet figures about two-thirds of the way through (about 2:01).

But she’s committed. As you may recognize, she’s singing “Der Hölle Rache” from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), a notoriously difficult piece which goes unusually high, even for an operatic soprano. The Queen of the Night sings this while she’s urging her daughter to kill the high priest, Sarastro, hence the girl’s dramatic gestures. Play acting? Sure, it’s opera.

Now…now we will listen to some violin prodigies. They’re presented by TwoSetViolin, a pair of professional violinists, Brett Yang and Eddie Chen, who have been on YouTube since 2013. What they do is difficult to describe, but they present classical music, with a particular emphasis on violin. They’re comic and have invented a mythical super-violinist named Ling Ling, who practices 40 hours a day. In some episodes they mock televised talent contests, with particular mockery reserved for violinists who claim to play the fastest version of “Flight of the Bumblebee.” In other episodes they’ll watch actors playing violinists in this or that drama and remark on how authentic their performances are.

And they often feature violin prodigies. In these videos they act out our ambivalence about prodigies, which after all, has become a well-worn cultural trope. One moment they’re appreciative, even astounded, and the next moment despairing of their own musicianship. It seems quite possible that, at this point in their careers, Brett and Eddie are at peace with their limitations. Their YouTube channel is a success and they’ve got fans around the world. Sure, some doubts remain, but for the most part their negativity is for the audience.

In this episode they listen to five prodigies, aged 10, 12, 7, 13, and 10, respectively (totaling 52). Brett and Eddie listen to the performances without seeing them. They then guess the musicians’ ages. When they’ve heard all five they add up their scores. The one whose total comes closest to the correct total is declared the winner in this mock contest – a parody of those competitions pervading the milieu of classical music. The winner gets to pick a piece that the looser must attempt to perform. The piece must be one of those performed by the prodigies.

Here they go:

Pay attention to their reactions to the playing. It’s a complex juggling act in which our ambivalence about excellence is put through its paces. But that’s not all they do. They also make technical comments about the performances, things you might not notice unless you were a violinist. Thus they treat performance as a technical skill, and not as a test of personal worthiness. Brett and Eddie naturalize the prodigies while reclaiming their own musicianship. More importantly, they allow their fans to be more comfortable in their playing.

There are no prodigies in this next TwoSet video. Rather, Brett and Eddie perform Paganini’s well-known Caprice 24, which I first heard as Rachmaninoff had transformed it into Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. It is a set of variations, each 16 bars long. Brett and Eddie split the first eight bars of each variation, and then Hillary Hahn plays the last eight. Hahn, of course, is an internationally renowned soloist who was once a prodigy.

There’s a catch. They perform while spinning hula hoops. Brett explains, looking at Eddie: “What’s gonna happen is I’ll play the first part, you repeat it, and Hilary can get the hard parts.” Brett: “Sounds good to me.” They chat a bit, Hillary gets her hoop spinning, the guys catch up, and then Eddie starts. A split second after Hillary starts playing Eddie’s jaw drops and the audience yells their appreciation. She finishes, stops, there’s laughter and applause, she repeats her part. The skill difference obvious. Which is only part of the point; remember, they’re all spinning hula hoops.

The performance goes on. They generally pause just a bit after each variation. Eddie almost drops his hoop at one point (c. 2:59). Hillary does drop hers (c. 4:27) – while Brett had moved on to the next variation. They soldier on – if that’s the phrase, perhaps “clown on through” – and finish to much laughter and applause. They’re not deliberately clowning. They work the performance as well as they can. But the conjunction of virtuoso fiddling with hula hooping is so endearingly demanding that comedy is inevitable.

And what of childhood and prodigies? Try to imagine that last performance where, instead of Hillary Hahn, we have any of the violin prodigies from the previous video. It wouldn’t work very well, perhaps not at all. Hillary Hahn can give herself to the performance as an adult in a way that none of the children could, not even the oldest. Hahn has a place in the world and is secure in it, as are Brett and Eddie. Her participation allows us all to affirm that we are in this together. The prodigies are still growing. In that performance context their childhood still sets them apart, it may even exaggerate the distance.

That is the danger of prodigious ability at an early age. It can be off-putting and isolating. When Brett and Eddie react to the prodigies in the first video they are reacting to performances. There is no interaction between them and the performances. In the second video, the three perform together, in the same space, before the same audience and ultimately to the same applause. Yes, the audiences reacts to Hahn differently then they react to Brett and Eddie; no one is surprised about that. Think of that surprise and laughter as a gift, from her to them in some sense, but really, from them to us all.

Charlie Keil’s 12/8 Path, with a Sage City Coda

In his youth Charlie Keil would have lunch with Malcolm X and write about the urban blues of Muddy Waters, Bobby Blue Bland, and B.B. King. Somewhat later he became an aficionado of polka happiness. These days he dreams that children in every community will have their own music grooves, their own dances, their own rhythms and tunes. He’s worked hard and long to this end.

He also favors a musical format he calls the 12/8 Path Band (click on the footprints). “12/8” is a term of art that refers to a fundamental mode of musical time geared toward putting glide in your stride. A 12/8 band is one that walks, strolls, dances, maybe peripatates (if I may), but doesn’t march, unless it be a Blakey style blues march. You’ve got horns – saxophones, trumpets, trombones, tuba, and anything else that’s portable – and percussion, snares, bells of all kinds, shakers, and claves. Ideally the horns should come in pairs. But one or three works too.

What makes the form work is that it easily and naturally accepts and supports musicians of all levels of ability, and all ages. It’s nice to have a virtuoso horn soloist or two, but not really necessary. As long as you can make a sound and keep in rhythm, you’re in the groove. And surely anyone can hit a cowbell or a bang a pair of claves together. Well, it does take a knack, a touch, but that’s easily acquired. Here’s a taste:

One year Charlie rented some studio time and a bunch of us went crazy, but with style:

That’s Charlie on tuba. I’m one of the trumpets, but I don’t know which one (I also took the photos and edited the video). Does it make a difference?

Finally, let’s stray off the Path – sorry, Charlie – and take a trip to Vermont, not to Charlie’s place, but to Bennington, home of the Sage City Symphony. I have no idea why it’s called that, but that’s what it is. It’s a community symphony loosely affiliated with Bennington College. It rehearses and performs on college property, and students, faculty, and staff from the college perform in it. But anyone, of any age, is welcome, without trial of audition. Show up, practice your part, play the gig. The mission statement explicitly says it is “to provide an opportunity for musicians of various skill levels to play orchestral music.”

I played with Sage City for two or three years half a life-time ago. The cello section had some first-rank professional players while the second violin section seemed to be filled out by kids who’d only been playing for a year or three. And every skill level in-between. No one condescended to the kids, no one kowtowed to the pros. It was a nice mix.

Of course, we performed the standard repertoire. I specifically remember Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (I can hear Charlie yelling, “his name is Beetfield, he’s a peasant poseur”), Schubert’s Unfinished, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and, just a tad off the standard repertoire, the Schuman orchestration of Ives’s Theme and Variations on America. The last was a hoot and a half, in part because there’s a passage near the end where the trumpet has the melody and I could bear down and drive the orchestra like a lead trumpeter driving a big band. The string section didn’t know quite what to make of it, but the director had no problem. What fun. We must have played some Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Bach, and Tchaikovsky too, but I don’t remember specific pieces.

And then there was Carl Ruggles, Sun-Treader. Not the standard repertoire, not at all (this is not us):

I remember patches of black ink splattered across the page. Somehow we were expected to translate them into things we could do with our instruments. Don’t know how we managed to play it.

But we did. You wouldn’t mistake us for the Boston Symphony, but then we weren’t trying for that. We just wanted to make music. Good music. Together. And that we did.

Once again we rose from the mud and became human.