A Lesson from the 1992 Presidential Campaign
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Thu, 6 Jun 96 13:56:35 -0700
Subject: A Lesson from the 1992 Presidential Campaign
Forwarded-by: Rick Oberle <firstname.lastname@example.org>
COME BLOW YOUR OWN HORN
By William Hargrove
Published in Newsweek: 12-14-92
As the dust from the election settles, I hope the nation will take the time
to reflect on the wrongs done to some innocent bystanders during the
political melee. I'm talking about saxophonists and other musicians. When
Bill Clinton Played his tenor sax on "The Arsenio Hall Show", the subsequent
uproar revealed something sad: the depths to which musicianship has fallen
in Americans' esteem.
Cartoonists portrayed Clinton as a sax-tooting hipster of dubious family
values. Conservative pundits sniggered. Even many supporters expressed
dismay at the performance. The message rang clear. All too many Americans
see musicians as either ne'er do wells or nerds. I propose that we rethink
this destructive attitude. If we could make playing music as pervasive as
jogging, we might soon find music improving our spiritual health as jogging
improved our physical health.
By now, it's a cliche that modern Americans are spectators, not players.
We get our sports watching television. We go to the movies to find
adventure. For music, we slip on the headphones. That bothers me. I want
people to play basketball at the local gym. I want them to go to Asia or
Chicago for adventure. I want them to experience music playing in a garage
band or a string ensemble, to know the joy that comes when two or more
people use musical instruments to express their innermost feelings in a song
Don't laugh. It is possible. I'm 43 years old and started playing the
tenor sax last year. Now I get together each week with three or four
friends to play blues in our rhythm guitarist's garage. We aren't great
musicians, but we know when we hear the world's best music. It's on those
occasions that one of our tunes starts to cook. Why is it so great?
Because it's not Memorex, It's live and it's us--friends communicating in
a strange and wonderful language.
All of us, by the way, stand firmly rooted in the middle class. One is a
firefighter. One runs a bike shop. Another and his wife own a jewelry
company. I'm a bureaucrat. We don't want to be professional musicians.
We're glad we play in a garage band. We just wish more people did.
Somehow, our entire society has gone wrong where the care and feeding of
music and musicians is concerned. The decline began with the advent of the
electronic age. Despite continual advances in our technical ability to
reproduce music through recordings and broadcasts, America's musical
sophistication maxed out in the 1940s and has plummeted since.
There was a day when the masses looked upon playing music as a skill to be
nurtured at home and in the community. Our grandparents gathered around
the piano in the parlor, played in town bands, sang in the local church
choir and danced to music laid down by friends at the Grange hall or
The rise of radio and recordings began destroying that personal relationship
with music in the early part of the century. Consumers found themselves
faced with a choice between live local amateurs and professional musicians
reproduced mechanically. They chose the latter.
The nation's appreciation for subtlety in music peaked toward the end of
the swing era when millions listened to the sweet but musically complex
tunes of Benny Goodman and his peers on the radio. As a refugee from the
60's, I hate to admit that the rock revolution pushed mass American culture
one step back toward the Neanderthal, but it did.
ROLE MODELS: We tumbled the rest of the way down the mountain in the 80's.
Today we live in a nation whose children spend gazillions of dollars on rap
and heavy-metal recordings made up primarily of a pounding rhythm slammed
out on drums and electric bass. With role models like 2 Live Crew and
AC/DC, it's no wonder we don't value musicians. It's no wonder we have
trouble recruiting kids for the school band. Or that the mass media raise
their eyebrows when a presidential candidate blows a saxophone.
The primary ingredients in learning to play a musical instrument are
discipline and enthusiasm. Aren't they just what America needs right now?
Not everyone has the talent of Branford Marsalis but then you don't have to
be Michael Jordan to shoot hoops in the driveway. A pickup softball game
in the park may not have much in common with the World Series, but the right
combination of sunshine, people, and beer can make that game just as
Playing music with friends is similar. What a would-be musician needs most
are the mere good sense to understand that live music performed by live
people is a wondrous phenomenon in which we all should be eager to
participate. If you want to play music, you can and should. Buy an
instrument, recruit a good teacher and get started. You'll find plenty of
starving musicians eager to help you learn.
The young man who gives me sax lessons is a phenomenal player and teacher
with a degree from a prestigious music school. At 27, after 17 years of
study, he owns skills and knowledge roughly equivalent to those of a young
surgeon or microelectronics engineer. Yet his gigs and lessons earn him
less each month than some Middle Americans spend on their car payment.
He and his colleagues have something precious to share, but we lack the good
sense to buy it. Why not close the circle? If asked, my friend and
musicians like him could instruct us. We might learn to appreciate their
music as we play our own; they'd make a living, and we'd grow richer in
So forsake your CDs, throw off your headphones and take back the stage.
Start playing music for yourselves and your friends. You have nothing to
lose but whatever ails you. Who knows, you might even change the country.
© 1996 Peter Langston