My Chicago Home

My Chicago Home
How can we best live as modern, active contemplatives where prairie meets city?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Sharing good music: an act of charity, made easy by technology

This "virtual choir" makes inspiring use of new technologies. "Lux Aurumque" means "light and gold," referring to Christ's Incarnation.
     Three Saturdays ago, I approached the breakfast table to find a teen peering from my laptop screen with quirky, bug-eyed intensity. The boy was lip-synching to a pop song, and his act had been frozen mid-syllable.
     "He's gone viral," explained my husband, handing over our town's newspaper. On the front, a nearly full-page photo displayed the same boy, a Freshman at the local high school who lip-synchs pop tunes into his computer webcam and posts them on his own Youtube channel. Going "viral," his videos have been viewed by upwards of 40 million people.
     Hometown kids sharing music on this scale? Unprecedented. Inspiring. Problematic. On the up side, new technologies allow talents to soar. Hitting headlines last week was 11-year-old Jackie Evancho, who first won acclaim on TV's America's Got Talent with Gounod's Ave Maria. Her album Dream with Me, released June 14, challenged rapper Eminem's Bad Meets Evil for #1 new album on Billboard's charts. Evancho came in second (beating Lady Gaga and Barry Manilow), with songs like A Mother's Prayer (performed with Susan Boyle), Puccini's O Mio Babbino Caro and Handel's Ombra Mai Fu, and more popular tunes like When You Wish Upon a Star.
Evancho's a prodigy but something else helped her rocket to stardom -- people shared her talents through technology. For example, I learned about her from my mom, who showed me a recorded Evancho PBS special. I returned home to Google the girl's online videos, found her fan webpage, and am now sharing her music through Facebook, Twitter and blogging.

     "Do not conform yourselves to this age," says Romans 12:2, "but be transformed by the renewal of your mind that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect." Many entertainers are renewing their minds, using technology to advantage and offering inspiring fare.

My oldest teen introduced me to Eric Whitaker's "Virtual Choir" (top of blog) and I showed her this upbeat Cajun band, L'Angelus (below).
     Innovative technologies can help us investigate new sounds, record and refine our own musical talents and spread great music exponentially. Sharing music, whether sacred or secular, classic or contemporary, can be an act of charity that brightens someone's day, uplifts their spirit, and introduces them to a new repertoire. How can we develop a wide-ranging love of music, and extend that to others -- both first-hand and effectively using technology?:

  • Stay informed about what's served up by pop culture, because it impacts friends, neighbors, and our children. A five-minute surf through Billboard hits and songs on iTunes will help you check contemporary music's pulse.   
  • Engage in a lively exchange of good music via email, Facebook, Twitter, your own Youtube channel or blog.
  • Develop "favorites" lists with loved ones on Youtube, so they can easily access good videos.
  • If new technologies seem too complicated or off-putting, ask a friend in the know to show you how to use your computer, iPod, MP3 player, etc, in a better way. 
  • Explore your heritage by doing online searches for ethnic music. My family enjoys Celtic and Cajun, which reflects our Irish and French background. Use this helpful search tip: In your address bar, type in then your search word. You'll be amazed by all the resources that appear
  • Make delving into music history with your family fun by exploring Youtube footage of stars like Caruso (who really did shatter glass with his voice), Louis Armstrong, Harry Chapin, Woody Guthrie (2012 marks his centennial celebration), and classical musicians like Isaac Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma
  • For an eye opening view of how pop music has evolved over the decades and impacted culture, delve into The Andrews Sisters, The Platters, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Tijuana Brass (My 14-year-old trumpet playing son gets a kick out of the above, rare video), Peter, Paul and Mary, Bruce Springsteen, etc...Explore Youtube footage of Eurovision Award Winners.  
  • Learn more about classical music on websites like this site.
  • From a Catholic perspective, publications like National Catholic Register feature critiques on contemporary musicians; fans, performers and media swap info on LinkedIn groups like that of the United Catholic Music and Video Association; the website of the Catholic Association of Music encourages musicians and fans to connect, and features a page of links to inspiring artists; You can download MP3s from Catholicmusicnetwork.comOther helpful links include, Hearbeat Records; Ave Maria; Catholic Music Express
  • Staying rooted in faith helps us yearn for purity and seek music that refines and expands us. 
  • Surrounding ourselves and our children with the best of a wide range of fine music and literature, we develop a discerning taste.
  • Loving music begins at home. My classically-inclined father asked that rock be confined to our bedrooms to make for a more peaceful home. My Suzuki piano teacher mother immersed her family in Beethoven, Bach and Rachmaninoff, as well as lighter fare from old movie soundtracks and Broadway. My husband plays guitar and trumpet and I love to sing, so our three children explore a wide range of music, all playing instruments and/or singing in choirs.  
  • Learning to play instruments leads us into a richer repertoire. If you played an instrument as a child but it's gathering dust in the attic, why not brush it off and start playing? Hopefully people around you will eagerly follow your progress.      To ease someone into appreciating classical music, a humorous bridge to more serious listening could be viewing Victor Borge clips.
  • Formal music instruction is great, but it's also fun to approach music as play, trying new sounds and instruments such as recorder, tin whistle, harmonica and percussion. 
  • Attending live music performances gets people excited in a range of good music. Free community and university concerts help build neighborhoods, and many university bands welcome adult musicians from their regions into their ranks.
    Sharing excellent music, whether sacred or secular, classic or contemporary, is an act of charity, made easy by technology.  
    Now, back to my friendly neighborhood Youtube hero. He's proof of the flip side, the perils of online surfing. Seeing his videos launched me into this blog topic. Why? He was performing Billboard hits with lyrics so lewd I deleted them from my blog. The morning news team from Chicago's WGN television network visited this boy's bedroom to lip-synch with him and record labels are competing for this same privilege. Interviewed by journalists, flown to L.A. to appear on late night television shows and even toured abroad, this boy has parents who sound loving and supportive, and who say he can continue his celebrity gig as long as he gets his homework done.
         This scenario seemed so surreal, it made me realize how out of touch I had become with pop rock. What is the average teen listening to these days? I streamed Billboard hits with lyrics on Youtube and it was like jumping into a salty pool of piranas. Three out of five top hits were rap songs with perverse and abusive sexual content and foul language. See this article by Mary Hassan for a graphic analysis of today's pop music scene: Music Messages: Destroying a Generation. At least 60% of parents don't realize their children have easy access to porn, says Catholic rock group Critical Mass out of Canada. See the above video for more interesting statistics.

     It's no news flash that a huge disconnect can exist between parents and teens regarding technology and pop culture. When kids are plugged into ear buds, it's tough to gauge their musical tastes. And while parents work long hours to make the world go 'round, teens have privacy and freedom to easily delve into murky waters, accessing music and images that are far darker than what was once accepted as mainstream.
     What seems new is the meteoric heights and influence quickly reached by digital music stars. One high school dropout recently rocketed onto Billboard charts and into the Guinness Book of World Records. Her concert last week in Tampa, Florida, drew a crowd of more than 12,000, from the ages of fourth grade through mid-40's, according to a Tampa paper. The first line in the article describing the event was "Sex still sells." The concert featured 15 costume changes and looked like a burlesque show. It's astonishing that parents take kids to see these shows.
     As for the mainstreaming of lewd lyrics, "People who'd never do things mentioned in songs think it's ok to sing the words if they're set to catchy music," one of my teens mused. But the words we speak do reflect the state of our soul.
     It's often said America's culture today was partly shaped by the musical groups of the 1960's. So what does the nature of pop groups today predict about America's moral landscape in the next 30 years?

 We can all have a say in how this scenario unfolds.

Some kids disappear hours on end to have parties of one before computer webcams. Of course, even adults struggle with addictive computer behavior.  Photo by E. Bartholomew

     Pope Benedict XVI loves to play the piano, and in 2009 spoke about beautiful music as "a spiritual and therefore universal language." It's a way to bring "understanding and union between individuals and peoples. Music...accompanies all human experiences, from suffering to pleasure, from hatred to love, from sadness to joy, from death to life...It coincidence that all civilisations have given importance and value to music in its various forms and expressions... great music almost naturally invites us to raise our minds and hearts to God in all situations of human existence, the joyful and the sad. Music can become prayer."  
Serving inner city Brooklyn youth, Father Stan Fortuna turns rap into prayer.
Of course, some musicians are more about earning six-digit royalties than making music prayer, so we have to use caution in the blogosphere. Here are a few reminders to help us be good gatekeepers regarding what floods into our homes:
  • Keep computers in public places within homes and enriched with protective software to help filter out the bad.
  • Devise reasonable guidelines for internet use and hours of access in your home. Kids (and adults!) easily become internet addicts, losing sleep and active lifestyles over solitary browsing. Those hours online slip away too easily. If either a child or spouse is spending too much computer time, tactfully address that issue.
  • Humbly point out rotten lyrics when we hear loved ones sing them. Print out lyrics and have people read them apart from the music if they insist messages really "aren't that bad."
  • Encourage kids to unplug from earbuds when we're in their presence. When children are on palm pilots or iPods while moms or dads are chatting on cell phones, seldom the twain do meet. 
  • Avoid hypocrisy. Not all old or "classic" music is moral. Not all contemporary music is evil. The content of some operatic story lines and librettos would make the average person's hair stand on end. "It's all about informed consent," reflects my oldest teen. People need to be consciously aware of lyrics they're singing and consider whether they should be singing them, no matter the genre. It's really informed consumption, an intelligent approach.
  •  Charitably insist that schools, dance studios, etc, keep music decent. A local dance teacher found new music for a recital number when a parent printed out and showed her the inappropriate lyrics of one piece.
     Keeping updated on new technologies and using them wisely can be an adventure. How else might you connect with a Kenyan choir...(Notice how even this remote community wasn't put off by using technology!)...

... or, a fledgling composer from another state who began his own popular Youtube channel...

     We just have to keep it all in balance and remember -- first-person contact trumps technology any day. Have suggestions as to how we can better use technology in our quest to spread excellent music? Let me know by leaving a comment. In the meanwhile, I'll sign off with another virtual choir video entitled "Sleep:" Good night and happy listening!