Jul 14, 2017

The best job in the whole world

Earlier this week I performed a mini-opera I'd devised with Ruth Mariner and four classes of children at the Wigmore Hall, where one of the songs they'd written had the following lyrics:

We have the best jobs in the whole world!
We're body builders,
Fully charged,
Driving fast cars!

Now, I may not be a body-builder or have a car (fast OR slow), but I’ve just realised I have one of the best jobs in the world, because I am surrounded by the most wonderful colleagues. In normal jobs, I imagine, you are surrounded by potential jerks and the decent ones are the 1%. Not in music outreach! Nice folk make the 99%: encouraging, respectful, engaging, passionate and committed to social justice. I love ‘em.

So it was with great pleasure that yesterday I could watch the in-school performance of the Spitalfields Trainee Music Leaders who had been running workshops in a school in East London. I’d met one of the trainees, Joe Steele, a week before at a concert by the duo Percussing who were playing one of his pieces (an astonishing miniature music drama which Joe had written the scenario and words to as well).

In this East London primary school, I was really struck by the encouraging atmosphere created by Joe and his colleagues, and the enthusiasm and joy with which the young people performed songs they’d composed and musical pieces they semi-improvised. The music trainee leaders introduced themselves and summarised the processes that led to the creation of pieces with the students, and of course, they taught us some of the music so we could sing along. I still have “London, London, make your heart a home” stuck in my head. I felt privileged to observe so many young people striving together to make beautiful sounds and convey a touching story - this one about two immigrant children who arrive in the UK and integrate in their new surroundings.

And this is when I realised what a great job I have, because I am similarly striving to do those two things - make beautiful sounds and convey a touching story - and I am doing it in my own individual way, which I hope complements the way Joe and his colleagues do it. I believe we are each trying to ‘outdo’ each other in the manner that early-twentieth century educator Tsunesaburo Makiguchi espoused in his idea of “humanistic competition”, where people learn from each other and make efforts to improve their own practices so that with each day they might better serve society and create the maximum amount of value. In “humanistic competition”, everybody wins because of the positive upward spiral of activities and efforts that people make in the world.

Personally, this can be harder to perceive when attending an average ‘main stage’ performance, where I feel egos and sensitivities of artists in the audience run needlessly high. Slagging off ‘rivals’ can prove to be something of a passion, made for the sake of looking more knowledgable/capable/beautiful/valuable. Sadly, the shallow benefits of this kind of judgement blinds people to the profound impact of it, which is to normalise a culture of disrespect and the devaluation of art and, more generally, all human endeavour.

A bit melodramatic? Well, think about it.

Human beings have an expressive and creative instinct; there are things we need to say and hear, and whether in ways that are considered sophisticated or crude, so much can be gained from listening to the heart responsible for the art. By actively and openly joining in the artistic ’conversation’, we are certain to gain as much as we give.

I believe it is important that we remind ourselves that art can be a “humanistic competition”, and not take it for granted. Giving me and my fellow artist-audience members the benefit of the doubt, we all have off days where we’re feeling self-conscious or doubtful of our worth and are in need of some affirmation. Though aspiration for ‘perfection’ can motivate some great work, I feel strongly that we should all try to inject a bit more of the humanistic spirit of complementarity into our work. We stand to gain so much, namely: an artistic culture that makes people happy. As happy as someone with the best job in the whole world.