Composerly Thoughts

Showing Up / Singing Out

Showing Up / Singing Out

When my husband and I get into an argument, the worst thing we can accuse each other of is “not showing up.”  During our worst moments, we can be quite adamant with these accusations:  One of us will say, “you’re not showing up in this conversation.”  “Me?” the other will reply. “I’m not not showing up – you’re the one who’s not showing up.”

This is a good thing. If you’ve got to argue about something — and married couples do — “showing up” is a pretty good thing to argue about. Listening, considering, responding, speaking, acting. What a wonderful thing to value, in our relationships and our lives and our art.

Showing up is a very personal action. It is courageous, risky, and utterly subjective. There is no set of instructions for how to do it. It looks different to different people, and in different cultures. It is also impossible to measure and quantify, as my hopelessly futile “showing up arguments” have amply demonstrated.

And yet it is, essentially, what we are put on this earth to do.

Big or small, audacious or subtle, it happens all the time. You don’t have to stand in front of a tank to show up — although you must admit that’s pretty amazing. You might just show up with a casserole, or insist on holding your child’s hand when crossing the street. Gerald Rich, who wrote the lyrics to “A Palette To Paint Us As We Are,” didn’t just write poetry; he showed up every morning for 37 years as a high school English teacher.

For me, as a composer, showing up means putting myself out there, no matter what people think. Critics and conductors have called A Palette To Paint Us As We Are “inspiring,” “powerful,” “innovative,” “amazing,” “moving,” and “overly sentimental.” A music professor told me her theoretical analysis of the piece revealed that I had a subconscious cultural bias towards lighter skin. And a couple of months ago a local reviewer wrote that the piece was “astringent.” I’m not sure I’m in a position to judge which of these assessments is correct, but I do know that people sure do have opinions about this song!

It’s not a problem for people to have such different responses to my music. In fact, it means they’re showing up! Although it can be a bit crazy-making to be on the receiving end of such wildly divergent viewpoints, what keeps me grounded is the knowledge that I showed up myself when I was composing the song. The whole time I was listening and imagining, trying out new ideas, responding to the text, and struggling to get every aspect of the music just right.

Of course we don’t just show up as individuals. We have to show up together to accomplish some things, like changing an unjust law, shoring up a levee, building a house, or raising a child. And it takes dozens of hard-working people to make a choir…in this evening’s case, 17 dozen people!

Take a look at these 17 dozen people. They showed up for rehearsals week after week, and practiced their “mah-may-mee-mo-moos” every single time. Working toward a common goal, they have agreed to sing quietly when the music calls for it, keep their eyes on the conductor, and not yawn too obviously during my talk. They have promised not to breathe in the middle of important phrases. Together, they are faithful to each other, and to the music, and to the audience.

And you. You showed up at this concert. You didn’t have to come. I’m sure there’s something on television tonight. Your witnessing of this music is vital to its fulfillment. Really. You can ask any musician up here and they’ll tell you the same thing: the more engagement you bring into this concert hall, the more passion they can bring to the music.

Choral directors get this “showing up thing,” big time. No matter how exacting their standards of excellence, they never chastise a individual singer for coming in early, belting out that high F a good four beats before everybody else. This is not because they aren’t irritated when this happens, because sometimes they are! But there’s something precious about that passionate, premature leap into sound that everyone in the room respects. The singer who comes in early is showing up in a big way, and although you won’t find it in any written code of ethics, choral directors take a solemn vow to nurture that courage.

I’d like to end my talk with a confession. The sad truth is that sometimes my husband is right when he says I’m not showing up. Sometimes I disappear into my office when there are dishes to wash, or I stop listening when he’s talking about the stresses of his day. Sometimes I play another game of computer solitaire instead of trying to fix a gnarly compositional problem. Showing up can be exhausting, and no one can do it all the time.

That’s why it’s so valuable. Individually and collectively, that’s what we’re here to do. No matter how little “showing up energy” you’ve got today and tomorrow and this coming Monday morning, value whatever you’ve got like it’s the only water in the world. Show up and sing out as often as you can, whether you end up looking wildly successful or publically foolish.

And pass it on. Take your hats off to the folks who show up. This evening, I give my most sincere appreciation to every choir member up here who has ever plunged into one of those impromptu choral solos — although if you’re planning on doing that this evening, maybe don’t do it during my piece.

Adapted from remarks at WomanVoice Consortium Choral Concert, Ted Mann Hall, University of Minnesota – April 4, 2008

Take care, and keep believing impossible things —