On playing in public again…

Three years ago I found myself playing music in front of an audience for the first time in more than 20 years. This is what I wrote about the experience.

It had finally become one of those “put your money where your mouth is” moments. For years I was asked if I would bring my bass to church and play in the ensemble that provides music before and after the service, and sometimes accompanies the choir on a couple of hymns. I had repeatedly begged off, citing as reasons everything from being too busy to practice to being too rusty to play. Two Sundays ago, when I was out to lunch with the friend who is the arranger and leader of the ensemble, he asked me again. This time, for whatever reason, I wavered.

It would seem that of all the people who might step up and contribute musically if he had the ability to do so, one who writes a weekly column on the importance of the arts—not to mention constantly harangues his fellow citizens to get involved artistically in the community—should certainly do it himself. Either that or quit pestering everyone.

So I agreed and last Sunday played the bass in front of an audience for the first time in twenty years. Yes, the fingers were a little rusty, but by the end of the service I felt like I knew what I was doing. Despite the worst-case scenarios I’d imagined, none of the songs on which I played came to a crashing stop, and I kept the out-of-key notes to what to me (if not to my fellow musicians) seemed like a minimum. We’ll see next Sunday if any visitors that happened to be there last week resolved not to return because of errant bass lines.

And now I can deliver my encouragement to people to get involved in the arts without feeling like I’m not practicing what I’m preaching.

Years ago, I played in a band in Austin, making enough to pay the bills and that sort of thing. We performed regularly around town and even went on the road to Dallas, Houston, Laredo, Lubbock, and as far afield as Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Although we were playing most of our gigs in Austin, known around the country as the “live music capital of Texas,” at no point did I consciously consider myself part of any civic element. My guess is that amateur or semi-professional artists of all kinds don’t automatically think that way.

But they are. I was in Studio Gallery last week and saw paintings by two people I know. There were several pieces by Richard Skurla, a talented professional artist whose work I admire and whom I’ve known in passing almost as long as I’ve lived in Waco. There was also a striking portrait of Willie Nelson painted by a friend I know from church named Bill Austin. I had seen it in a show at Art Center Waco a year or so ago, and now it was up at Studio Gallery. I don’t know off-hand if Bill, an amateur artist, thinks of himself as part of the Waco art scene, but he clearly is as well.

Unless it’s a place like East Hampton or Santa Fe, which for years were dominated by a few huge-name painters who lived and worked in those areas, a local art scene is made up of what George Bush once called “a thousand points of light.” Artistic talent is by no means limited to a few professionals. It’s spread around far and wide. And one of the keys to a healthy arts scene is for people to get involved artistically in any way they can, and then pay closer attention to the larger arts scene of which they’re now a part.

A version of this column originally appeared on September 4, 2014 in the Waco Tribune-Herald.




Abraham Lincoln on Thomas Jefferson

“All honor to Jefferson–to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”

–Abraham Lincoln, April 6, 1859


Being influenced in the arts by a friend’s dad

When I was in high school my best friend’s dad was the drama teacher.  Neither my friend nor I took drama (we both played in the band), but lots of our friends did, and his dad was one of the more popular teachers at the school.  His classes put on plays each year, went to UIL drama contests, and every other year joined with the music program and staged a full musical.  That there were classes dedicated to learning drama struck us as no more remarkable than band or choir, or, for that matter, chemistry or typing.

I also had the good fortune to have my friend live just down the street since the time we were in kindergarten, and consequently I spent a lot of time at his house and got to know his dad pretty well.  He never was one to pontificate about the arts (and the status of the arts in schools was never really an issue in those days) but it was clear just by being around him that the arts were something very important.  Beside my parents, he was the main adult that I knew who showed that the arts were worth taking seriously.

I learned quite a bit from him that I didn’t learn at home, specifically about drama as an art form.  Just for starters, although I’d heard of it I never had a clear idea of exactly what “Broadway” meant, and I knew nothing of the Tony Awards (which is actually short for the “Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Theater”) until I learned about those things from him.  I remember being amazed to learnthat there was a nationally televised show—just like the Oscars and Emmys, which I certainly knew about—in which awards were given out for plays in New York City. I found this intriguing, but also a clear indication that some people regarded plays just as highly as I regarded movies and television shows.

It was also from him that I first learned the titles of many of the canonical works of American theater. For several yearshe had in his living room framed programs from some of the plays he’d staged like Blithe SpiritThe Man Who Came to DinnerYou Can’t Take it with You, and Noises Off.  It hit me that although I had never heard of them, these plays were something worth knowing about.

He’s also a big fan of musicals.  I encountered West Side Story for the first time in my life at my friend’s house, for instance, and I still marvel at it.  I listened to the original cast recording just today as I thought out how I was going to write this column.  Through him I came to enjoy South PacificOklahoma!The Music ManMy Fair Lady, and many others.

I’ve heard numerous people in the military express concern that as fewer Americans have any direct experience with the armed forces, the level of understanding of and support for them will wane, both in public and even in Congress.  The arts, it occurs to me, are similar.  If a young person doesn’t know anyone interested in the arts, he will grow up not understanding how important and enriching they can be, and not knowing why he should care about them.  All it really takes answer this is exposure.  This makes the atrophy of art programs in schools—and in the daily lives of more people—all the more regrettable.  My friend’s dad showed me the arts were important and worth knowing about.  We all can be something similar to someone else.

Originally published in the Waco Tribune-Herald, August 1, 2013