Wednesday, 12 December 2018

It's not about you

How many singers are really worth listening to? I haven't watched talent shows much in recent years, but to me they're of a piece, whether it's Britain's Got Talent or The Young Musician of the Year, they're all barking up the wrong tree. Artistic expression shouldnt be about competition. The problem is not that the X factor and other talent shows are promoting distorted values. Of course they are. The problem is that they are partly right. I dont want to listen to most people sing, given a choice between that and, say, watching Fargo. This isn't to disparage or discourage, its just my own selfish perspective. Engaging random strangers with your music, building a following, developing as a public artist, these are hard things to do, and most people can't do it. There are a limited number of people who I'll go out of my way to listen to.

The X factor is right. There are only a few singers I really want to listen to. This is ok. They're promoting the concept of 'stardom', which is elitist by definition. An irony of the show is that they're not actually trying to find singers with the 'X factor', which to me, might be those people with marked individuality (Bob Dylan, Billy Holiday, Nick Drake, Stevie Wonder, Bowie), people who don't sound like anyone else, who are idiosyncratic. Maybe a show which really looked for this quality would be more interesting, but this would have to ignore the real aim, which is to make a fast buck out of the winner while their notoriety lasts. Really interesting singers need time to develop their voice and persona.

Where does this leave me as a music therapist? Do I sit there feeling angry with clients because they aren't geniuses? Of course not. The transaction is hopefully more honest. A performer is selling you something, an idea that they might be special, that of all the people in this big room full of people, they might be the one most worth listening to. The exasperation comes from the wrongness of this presumption. A music therapy session begins from a different place. I'm making a commitment to be interested in the client's music, no matter what it might be. Often, it comes from the client's place of self deprecation or doubt. I'm trying to encourage them to explore what they might be able to express if they give it a try, with no expectation. Maybe they will find themselves worth listening to. Maybe I can show them that I find them worth listening to.

Some of my favourite performers are able to retain this feeling of vulnerability even in front of an audience, as if they are playing or singing to themselves, not assuming their own greatness, but finding the greatness in the music itself - Miles, Bill Evans, Coltrane, Andras Schiff, Abbey Lincoln, Martha Arberich, Laura Veirs. 'It's not about you' might be something they understood on a deeper level some time ago.

The honesty of the musical transactions that can happen in music therapy can result in more satisfying musical experiences than in many performer/audience relationships. In music therapy, it is 'about you', the client, and it's about you and me. As Andy Lale said in his 'Music Therapy Conversations' interview, the fantasies of stardom might be a good starting point, but only as a stepping stone towards something more real and honest. Neither of us is 'gonna be a star', but who cares? We might get to be something more interesting: a person.