The Unconservatory  

Music and Soccer

by Kirk Whipple

I love northern California and this country as a whole. Now, having stated this, the following stream of consciousness comes not so much from my frustration of what's wrong with our country and culture as much as my desire to say and do things that will (hopefully) improve a place in which I have a vested personal interest.

First, for your consideration, is the story so far regarding the proposed symphony hall in downtown Santa Rosa. Many supporters of the Santa Rosa Symphony have long complained of the acoustics in the Luther Burbank Center (where the symphony currently performs). I would have to concur. In fact, I enjoyed the acoustics of the symphony performances much more when the concerts were held years ago in the Santa Rosa High School auditorium. Many symphony supporters have also felt strongly that our local orchestra should have its own permanent location without having to compromise acoustics to fill seats.

Support for building the hall include arguments such as accessibility, the opportunity to create better acoustics than at the Luther Burbank Center, and the strengthening of the businesses in downtown Santa Rosa. Those against building the hall have argued that the Luther Burbank Center is the main established performing arts center in Santa Rosa and would have problems operating if the Santa Rosa Symphony pulled out. (Being a local concert presenter I can greatly sympathize here!) Opponents of this proposed project also say that any new symphony hall should be privately funded, and that parking (which is not a problem at the Luther Burbank Center) might create headaches in the downtown area.

After following this story for a couple of weeks with keen interest I spotted a comment in the local paper that captured my attention. The following letter was my response.

Dear (Santa Rosa Press Democrat) Editor:

I heartily applaud the discussion regarding the proposed (downtown Santa Rosa) symphony hall. I am encouraged to see matters of great cultural interest on the front page of the local paper.

This letter is in response to council member Janet Condron's comments quoted in your paper on Saturday, June 7. "If (the city is) looking for funding for (the proposed downtown symphony hall) I am going to have trouble with it. In terms of funding from the city, there is a long list of priorities and for me at the top of that list is youth and youth activities."

The leaders of our community must not even suggest in passing that something as essential as our rich tradition of acoustic music is not "a youth activity." The youth of our community would be well served to become more involved with a cultural organization such as their local symphony. Concert attendance, ushering and other related volunteer activities, the educational and inspirational opportunities that surround a successful community musical organization are indispensable to the life of a vibrant community. People from all ages and walks of life must be encouraged and have the opportunity to participate.

When we talk about the youth of this community and their activities let's not forget about their cultural experience. Let's keep the discussion going!

Kirk Whipple, pianist, composer and educator

Santa Rosa

Since I was limited to 250 words in my letter to the Press Democrat, here are more of my personal concerns regarding the state of the culture in northern California, and, by the way, the proposed downtown Santa Rosa Symphony hall.

As a musician growing up in Sonoma County I found myself increasingly in two kinds of company: older people and myself. As my interest in music became all-consuming I did not really consider this to be a strange lifestyle. In training young musicians I find myself spending not an inconsiderable amount of time helping them to come to grips with the personal aspects of growing into an art that seems to be less understood by our general culture every decade.

Let me tell you about Robert (not his real name). Robert has studied with me for about seven years. During this time I have watched him grow from a beginning student into an artist with exceptional promise. Robert’s performances of the Chopin G minor ballade and John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” (not the actual pieces, but close!) have thrilled local audiences.

Those who have been fortunate enough to catch Robert in both “concert settings” and “gigs” cannot get over how fluidly he handles the demands of both classical and jazz styles. What they don’t know about Robert is that, during his career at Comstock Junior High School (not his real school), he hid his musical gifts from all but a handful of music teachers, kids and parents because "they might think it's weird!”

This is not a child who grudgingly came to class, murdered his scales, talked about Star Trek and took six months to learn “Twinkle, Twinkle;” Robert has been serious about his piano studies (well maybe not every lesson, but definitely most of them). What does this say about the rest of the crowd that are coming to private lessons “just for fun,” or the ones who sing in chorus at school “because all my friends do?” How about those with no musical outlet except what's on the T.V. or radio?

Everyone is screaming about "our kids not having enough places to play." Me too! Only, I am talking about recital halls, and it seems that everyone else is talking about soccer (feel free to substitute another sport here) fields. Well, wake up sports fans! Your children will enjoy composing, singing or playing a musical instrument (feel free to substitute another art form here) long after they get tired of being beaten by younger athletes.

The joy and inspiration of understanding the goings-on in a symphony or an improvisational jazz concert will continue to deepen and enrich the spirit well into the golden years. Organized sports will continue to produce winners. Of course, the winners I am speaking of are the overpaid athletes and the companies they are paid to endorse. Everyone who becomes sports enthusiasts or participants or professional athletes will inevitably become full time sports spectators.

I am not saying that we should forego active lifestyles that include a healthy level of participation in physical activities (competitive and otherwise). I enjoy my runs in Annadel State Park as much as the next jock. I am, however, strongly denouncing this culture's preoccupation with athletics and the mindset that places sports and competition at the top of our collective consciousness.

Steve Young may be good at what he does, but in the six years that he will collect the $45,000,000.00 (that’s right, 45 million) that the San Francisco Forty-Niners will pay him, one hundred world class violinists, pianists, singers, dancers, sculptors, (feel free to insert your favorite artistic profession here) could each be offered $50,000.00 per year to quit their day jobs (most would!) and do what they were trained to do. Mr. Young would still pocket a modest $15,000,000.00 for his efforts. Everybody wins! Steve, if you ever read this, my helmet’s off to you! Take the money and run, and please fund an arts group as you pass.

While I very much enjoy the quality of material life afforded to us in this country, I am also strongly suggesting that the quality of our cultural life is seriously in need of examination. We should not be hesitating to build a first rate symphony hall in every town. If we just asked the military to give back the screws and toilet seats that cost more than $1,000.00 each we might just feed our homeless and provide them with season tickets.

As a society we must recognize that our children need not only factual and physical education. We must give them inspiration and the tools with which to realize their dreams. Sorry, soccer moms, but I learned a lot more in band and choir - that had nothing to do with music - than I ever learned from kicking a ball across the lawn.

Until we have the guts to place our cultural heritage and legacy as a national priority we will continue to be the home of the freeway and the land of the malls. Our greatest resources are being squandered by the few and the greedy to enslave our great people in a web of financial and temporal debt. And what do we have to show for it?

The great cathedrals of Europe took decades to build. What can we say about our greatest architectural undertakings. The World Trade Center? - A couple of giant glass cracker boxes. The golden Gate Bridge? - Doesn’t count! Good for us, but this is now, that was then, and we have not produced a structure like that before or since. How about the Great Wall of China? The pyramids? Stonehenge? Yes these are incomparable structures. Guess what? Unless we make some major changes we are not going to come close to these feats. O.K., the Mars thing was pretty good, but shouldn’t we be a little busier in our cosmic back yard after all those trips to the moon? What are we as a society building together today that will inspire us for dozens, scores or perhaps hundreds of years?

Do you want to see a kinder, gentler, cleaner America? Less crime and pollution? More prosperity? I sure do! Let’s challenge our leaders - not just in Washington - but right here in downtown wherever-you’re-reading-this to turn off there televisions and create a place that feels like a good place to live.

Let’s not only demand that high school seniors spell their addresses correctly on job applications; let’s ask them to sing in tune - and let’s do it with them. While I’m at it, let’s ask our church choirs to sing in tune too! (Some do. My personal local favorite at the moment is the Community Baptist Church on Sonoma Ave.) When our elected officials give us a song and dance about the latest round of budget cuts they should have to do it in Iambic pentameter! And, excuse me, but I am not impressed every six months or so when CNN airs a segment about some traffic cop in Atlanta who boogies to the beat of an unseen drummer. This skill should be required on the job application!

Let’s not just learn how to be the best damn cog in the machine. Let’s learn the history of the machine, how to build a better machine, and when to throw away the old machine and start from scratch.

I am tired of the mediocre being elevated to the sacred. I am tired of being excited when a stranger in the line at Safeway whistles a tune by an American composer who does not have a video on MTV. I am tired of seeing and hearing the art in our lives legislated out of existence with the stroke of a corporate pen. (Newt, if you’re reading this, you can kiss the part of me that is closest to the piano bench.) If this sounds like a rant, you're right. The state of the arts in America is sorry and getting worse. The good news is that each one of us can do something about it.

In just over three decades I will reach what this country considers to be retirement age (what most musicians hope to be the age of breaking even). I do not wish to retire in a culture that sacrifices beauty for the buck. Until then I will be creating, teaching, performing and recording music, writing articles, demanding that my students attend live concerts (that do not require earplugs), imploring parents to take every opportunity to turn off their televisions, asking children and adults alike to listen to the sounds in their environment and respond. Yes, I may even attend a soccer match or a football game, but only if I can’t get to the concert.

Editor’s note: The comment in the above article referring to Newt Gingrich in no way takes any stand that may jeopardize The Unconservatory’s apolitical artistic perspective. However, the U-RAVE staff personally feels that, survival of the arts and humanties in this plane of existence, at least in part, depends upon finding Mr. Gingrich a more suitable occupation. We suggest that he try his hand at street art. It appears to us that the street is where he is seeking to place our country's artistic resources.

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Updated: January 25, 2001 (KB)

Copyright 2001 The Unconservatory, All Rights Reserved.