Responding to a writing prompt by philosopher of education Maxine Greene: "I argue for aware engagements [through the arts] less likely to coincide forever with what they are."
I take “aware engagements” to mean a relationship to art that is not passive. For music, I imagine a continuum of engagement, from the most passive to the most engaged, that might look something like this: Muzak, movie soundtracks, subway headphones to garage band block party, ballroom dancing, singing in a church choir to professional musicians playing a concert, jazz improvisation, street band spectacles.
The first three of these are wholly passive consumption: we take the music as is, and in a context that asks nothing of us except to hear it, and to evoke more or less its creators' and mediators' intended mood, emotion or attitude.
The middle three involve some kind of active participation by more than just “musicians” — and all are “live” lived music, unmediated by commercial and technological intervention. All also imply at least some kinetic and mental, mind-and-body movement and energy.
The final three are examples of what I would consider quintessential “aware engagements.” And each, I would argue, fulfills the ultimate, universal human yearning to play. Stuart Brown has written about the essence (and vital importance) of play to people’s lives. He suggests a short list of the unique and powerful properties of play: purposelessness (done for its own sake), voluntary inherent attraction, freedom from time, diminished consciousness of self, improvisational potential, continuous desire.
Any musician is nodding her head. This describes (for me, at least) the heights of personal transcendence that mark my lifelong passion for music and music making. Moments on stage (and more often than not in the streets as well) where, sometimes in solo improvisation, but other times as well, I was connecting with other musicians, with the audience, and with a person in me I was meeting for the very first time. It's the most “aware engagement” I can imagine, aesthetically, but also socially, and spiritually.
These are the active engagements with music-as-art that are the least “likely to coincide forever with what they are.” They are active, contemporary reinterpretations of art, precisely to ensure art "classics" avoid the isolation from lived experience that John Dewey cautions against. We can aspire to Greene's aware engagements whether playing or listening intently to a piece of Classical or other music, but (I think) also by performing, e.g, a most heartfelt, if also caricatured reinterpretation of another classic. In all such cases, these moments don’t just invite active engagements — they compel everyone to express (and rediscover) themselves in the bold, beautiful face of the art around them.
The tragedy is that most people in our modern culture rarely ever experience that self- and other-affirmation through play, with music-making at least, and perhaps not in most other ways that really matter either, and certainly not on a regular basis. And not only tragic for individuals, it's a fundamental crisis for our world. As a species, we were playing together, and playing music together, long before we uttered our first words, built our first walls, or contemplated planetary suicide. In the olden days, we came together to dance and wail and beat our chests and drums, to express ourselves, but also always in harmony with each other. We did this all the time, part ritual, but also part spontaneous reinterpretation of that ritual, and bit built both trust and mutual understanding among the tribe. It’s perhaps the most important antidote to the fact that it is otherwise, much of the rest of the time, hard to always love thy neighbor.
It is this notion of music-making as PLAY for FUN—a non-competitive, wholly inclusive, self- and other-regarding awareness and action—that is literally at the heart of my School of HONK. “We are here to have fun” is uttered at the beginning of every Sunday meeting. And by fun, we mean we want to be playful with our instruments, our repertoire, and our performance, we don’t worry too much about wrong notes, and we never know exactly what’s going to happen.
Making that creative play possible is the work of our School of HONK mentors. We take great efforts, in our repertoire, our pedagogy and our demeanor to put everyone at ease and encourage everyone to be themselves and take risks. That can often mean working against acquired fears many of us have to express ourselves musically (young kids don't have this fear, btw, they learn it!). But the main point is—as so much research and commentary has confirmed over and over again—play is also the secret to real, lasting, lifelong learning. Kids, just like adults, find it easy to learn when they are having fun, and—in the case of music at least—the two don't ever have to be mutually exclusive.
Final note: at the very end of the "aware engagements" spectrum might be a street band action, with what Stephen Duncombe calls “progressive ethical spectacle.” These bands have the potential to reinvigorate citizen participation in community and political life, through a public action (rally, protest, march, etc.) that is “directly democratic, breaks down hierarchies, fosters community, allows for diversity, and engages with reality while asking what new realities might be possible.” That was the idea behind the HONK! Festival I started with friends ten years ago, and it remains the best way I've ever encountered for reawakening people's hope for a better future.
--Kevin Leppman, founder, School of HONK
Sharing student project documentation and, more recently, my own.