Community, Context, and State Conventions

January 31, 2012

“There is nothing deader or of more questionable value than facts in isolation.” — Wendell Berry (2004) 

I recently attended the Missouri Music Educators Association (MMEA) state conference in Tan-Tar-A, Missouri. My mission was to help spread the word about Mizzou’s community programs, get a sense of the event’s scope, and to become acquainted with Missouri’s network of educators who convene there every year. But what I came away with was a reminder of how community illustrates a broader picture of the value in making music.

Community is important, not just for the sake of coalescing an audience, but because it creates the context for all of our art-making. It thus holds an integral component of the equation: music without community is the equivalent of facts in isolation. It is meaningless.

We know that making music in groups is important, and there are few better places to see this than at a state convention. Student ensembles from throughout state gathered at MMEA to perform for packed houses of family, friends, and teachers. It was great fun to sit in on these events, even though I was a newbie and didn’t know most of these young people. Part of that is probably nostalgia; these concerts brought back many memories of my times at summer camp and other music festivals. Those experiences were my first opportunities to meet peers who were also passionate about music. It was in that context I built my identity as a musician.

But these thoughts are not purely personal. I spent much of my time at Mizzou’s booth surrounded by representatives from music vendors, Universities, community groups, music distributors, and other organizations related to the field. We met dozens of Missourians who were excited enough to share their common experiences with us to come up and say hi. Most of these, naturally, were stories related to music — some of the most popular were reminiscences on marching band, choir, or a particular mentor from their time studying music. By far our most common request was for a Mizzou stickers. Yes, pride of place extends to the music world, too.

While it’s true that some people who do attend our concerts might not be musically literate enough to get on stage and perform with us, who is to say which (if any) of them is or isn’t capable of fully synthesizing the music being made? We must remember that absorbing and interpreting art is also a form of participation. Perhaps, if we cultivate an environment where that music is made, observed, and engaged by a community, our audiences will be more willing to get involved.

Sure, these events involve marketing, and there are many smart people writing about the importance of cultivating community to build businesses. But we weren’t really selling anything, except a free chance to get to know Mizzou a little better. By the time we were packing up, people were already discussing the next gathering, of when we could connect to this group again. In that sense, MMEA sold the importance of connecting with community more than any particular product.

These initial thoughts beg many more questions. How can we navigate our community to create art that matters to them? What is valuable in a given community? How does that translate? I hope in the pursuit of these questions we’ll find answers that inspire music-making that is relevant, inspiring, and ultimately stays with us to become a lens through which we view our own personal histories.

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