A couple of weeks ago, I heard a piece on NPR that focused on a new documentary that is out called The Mighty Uke: The Amazing Comeback of a Musical Underdog. The documentary focuses on the resurgence of the ukulele as a serious instrument, driven by such popular artists as George Harrison and Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's late 90's hit "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". The story brought back memories for me as well because the baritone ukulele was the first instrument I learned to play. It was fun and it was the beginning of a lifetime of pleasure I have derived from playing the guitar and banjo.
But the thing that caught my ear that relates to this blog had to do with the effect of the record player on home musicians. Tony Coleman, the documentary film maker, put it this way:
For centuries, music was an integral part of our lives. All of us played music or knew someone who did," Coleman says. "Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, the record player came along and all of a sudden we weren't good enough. We were encouraged to listen, to be passive listeners. And I think that we lost something very fundamental to our souls: making music together.
I wonder how often technology intimidates the amateur? Before sound recordings, it was easier to enjoy amateur performances without criticism because there were no professional standards with which to compare. People could still find satisfaction in creating a passable version of either classical or popular music. Once the recorded professional emerged, people quietly put their instruments back in the case.
The same is probably true for amateur theater. People used to gather in living rooms to read plays as a form of recreation. Motion pictures, radio, and television raised the bar on what was considered an acceptable performance. I would bet that even computer software has seen the ranks of the amateur thinned as the level of professional results goes up.
Unfortunately, we are built to compare our results with those of others. In many cases, the reference point is set way too high because we have access to see and hear such professional skills. How many people have forgone the joy of creation because they think their own abilities are so flawed? Technology can both give and it can take. This is one of those places where the creation process is at least as important as the artistic product.
Now I have to go tune up my ukulele.