Piano Bar Theology

One of the great things about studying theology, which I have been doing for the past three years, is learning new narratives. I have read new story lines, new plot arcs which I’d never read before. It also has encouraged me to think of my own plot arcs in different ways. I am learning how to tease-out different strands of thought which previously seemed one. This is helping me re-define my self-understanding as a musician.

I have recently reading about theology of the multitude – theology of the 99% instead of theology of the 1%. In doing so it has occurred to me that when I used to wrestle with what music is “good” or “worth while” or “worth my time” I was really combining two very different priorities and sets of arguments. The first set of arguments is about musical complexity and technical difficulty. I used to wrack my brain to try to find different ways of understanding the music I loved (rock music) such that it could be raised up alongside classical music and jazz music, two very developed forms in terms of complexity and difficulty. I used to have arguments with my mother about this, trying to “win” this side of the argument. (Warning: if you’re arguing with your mother about art, recognize that the argument is probably not about what you think it is about.) I was trying to justify my love for one kind of music using the analysis tools of an entirely different genre and agenda.

The second set of arguments are social arguments. The arguments here are around what music can “make a difference,” and what the purpose of music is in general. When I was a freshman in college the president of the conservatory I attended said something to the effect of “we’re saving this music for when the public realizes they need it.” Even then such an argument struck me as arrogant, but I didn’t know how to engage it in conversation. I longed to be playing music which made people happy, which brought them into the moment, which made a connection between me and the listeners. The answer was always “be a better pianist.”

I see now that my motivation was about the second set of arguments – making music which makes connections, but I was desperate to use the first set of arguments to prove my point. It may be that in one hundred years the criticism of music will have evolved so that we find new complexities in seemingly “simple” music. But the reality for me is that Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis are much more complex in our Western understanding of music than the music of Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Def Leppard, and the Spin Doctors. But that was never my motivation, even if I wasn’t reflective enough to understand that. My motivation was connecting with people, not proving myself as a pianist. My motivation was joy, not brilliance. Yes, I am invested in being a talented pianist. But I’m invested more in playing music which people connect with in spaces they can connect with me and one another.

This is why I think I was always attracted to the piano bar, or to be a solo bar performer. Those are intimate settings, where intimate connections between musician and listener are possible. As a person I’ve always been highly aware of what other people think, their emotional state, and how to interact with people depending on where they are in their emotional life at the moment. At its best this is a way to connect with people; at its worst, it can be borderline manipulative. But the point is that the repertoire I like, the styles of music I am drawn to, and the way I connect with the listener as a musician are much more aligned with popular music than the ‘high art’ music of the academy. Music of the multitude, if you will.

So, now I wrestle with how to get myself back into playing, perhaps getting some gigs, which will allow me to do just that.

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