Those NPR stories. They always get to me! A few weeks ago as I was driving to work I fell victim to the oft-repeated "pull to the side of the road until the NPR story is finished" scenario only to find myself propelled into a month long soul-searching expedition which has led me to this particular blog post. That would explain the month-long absence. I'm not quite sure what is to follow but everything that has happened in my mind and heart these past few weeks deserves some sort of mention. So here goes.
It all started before I heard the story on the radio. All the news about orchestra strikes, possible funding cuts for the arts and the talk of artists needing to step into the world of the marketplace, the increase of music school students that don't have any exposure to classical music prior to coming to college, my own daughter declaring her dislike of the genre, our current struggle to support ourselves working solely as freelance musicians - I quickly found myself thinking that what I do for a living doesn't serve much of a purpose to the world as a whole anymore and that it might be better for me to rejoin the "real" world in order to do my part, whatever that might be. The prospect of having a steady, predictable income, of having our benefits taken care of, was turning into a mighty large, juicy, carrot that I was so tempted to grab and run.
Enter the NPR story.
Local poet and professor at Virginia Tech, Nikki Giovanni, along with illustrator Chris Raschka, worked together on a children's book called The Grasshopper's Song back in 2008. It's a retelling of Aesop's fable about the grasshopper that sat back and played music rather than being industrious like the ants who were busily and responsibly preparing for the winter. Nikki Giovanni didn't like Aesop's moral to the story and felt that perhaps there was a different side of the story. In this children's book she set out to tell the grasshopper's point of view and in the process to make an appeal about the value of the arts in society. As Giovanni explains...
"I’m sick of the way the grasshopper is treated as if he had no purpose, as if he were useless, you know, and the ants are using what he’s given because the grasshoppers [are] making music and I’m sick of people acting like the fact you’re an artist, somehow you don’t work, you haven’t done anything. So I said if I had my way the grasshopper would sue the ants because, you know, that’s the American way."
That got my attention.
Next I heard Giovanni quote a bit from the story. In this scene Jimmy Grasshopper has brought a court case against Nestor and Abigail Ant for not giving him the respect he deserves as a musician. After being accused of being a clown and a slacker by the defense the grasshopper takes to the stand. Laurie Wren, the prosecuting attorney, questions him about why he feels he deserves anything from the ants.
"Jimmie sat even taller. 'Am I not worthy of my bread? Does not the work of my heart and soul earn respect? I’m an artist. Is there no place for beauty, no solace for the ear, no hope for the heart? Must everything be in the marketplace? Doesn't the marketplace itself need and deserve beautification?... Without art, life would be a big mistake.'"
I was moved and shocked hearing these words, especially considering where I was at that exact moment. When I got to work I sat down in a bit of a stupor, pulled out the music to Gerald Finzi's "Eclogue," my current almost-as-good-as-chocolate piece of choice, and just played. As predictable as a soap opera, I ended up with tears streaming down my face. I was singing my own grasshopper's song.
In the weeks that followed I went through a lot of processing and re-reading of Giovanni's story. I've even kept my distance from twitter in an effort to quiet my mind long enough to hear my own voice again. For those of you who know my twitter tendencies, that's saying something! After many ups and downs here is what I've concluded for myself about whether or not I should choose the path of the grasshopper or that of the ants:
- I could quit music in search of a "real" job in order to be more "productive" in the eyes of many and to gain the benefits that such a job comes with but I'm having a hard time thinking of one that would give me a sense of doing something good and beneficial for society as a whole. Maybe I could get a job at a coffee place but do I really want to be making fatty, sugary, expensive coffee drinks for people? I could work at a retail store but do I really want to be encouraging folks to spend money? Don't get me wrong - there's nothing wrong with those jobs - I just don't think I'd find a lot of purpose in them and for someone like me, who seeks meaning in just about everything I do, I think it would be too great a stretch for me.
- Classical music might be a bit of a waning genre but it is something that gives me great joy and always has. I also firmly believe that most people can enjoy or at least tolerate classical music when it's presented in a non-threatening, eclectic, personal way. Just think of all those flash-mobs that have been so popular on the the internet. Very rarely do you see someone glowering when they're in the center of a spirited musical performance like that - when music meets everyday life.
- With my teaching and coaching there is much more that I can teach that goes beyond the music. Music teaches about problem solving, planning, leadership, collaboration, cooperation, self expression, determination to follow through and to do one's best, discipline, and the joy and pride that is the culmination of it all.
- I may not be able to be successful as a musician when it comes to money but I believe I can be successful in a much more personally fulfilling way - one that can be absorbed by those around me and by my family.
I've waited for a while to write this post so that I could write it when my thoughts had stabilized and I do believe I'm there now. I realize I'm bound to have some ups and downs as I proceed down the musical path on which I currently find myself but until something changes I am determined to pick up my fiddle and to keep on playing and singing Jimmy Grasshopper's song. If I am accused of being clown or an irresponsible member of society, so be it.
At least I'll be happy.
Quick note: If you are interested in purchasing the book but are discouraged by the reviews of the book on Amazon, pay them little heed. It is actually quite interesting to read the comments since they reflect a common attitude we have in this country about the value (or lack of value) of the arts. And is this book a "childrens'" book? Well, as with most books in this genre, I imagine it can be enjoyed by children and adults of all ages but especially by adults. Our daughter, who is now 7, loved it!