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Music and the Arts: Striking a Chord and a Balance

April 24, 2008

NGOs, particularly smaller groups in urban areas, are faced with challenges when asked to provide musical performances, drama, poetry and the arts to enhance programs. Guidelines that encourage striving for excellence confront pragmatic realities of inadequate acoustics, insufficient funding and myriads of divergent tastes in the arts along with strong differences of opinion as to how to measure quality in terms of aesthetics.

What is excruciatingly painful to one sensitive person might be “music to the ears” of another.

Professional trained artists aware of image-management might refuse to participate in any program where there are non-professionals, beginners, amateurs or others whose works are derivative, mechanical, unpolished, etc. Professional artists may also be constrained by unions or union-like restrictions that insist on fair compensation for performances. Professional artists are often uncomfortable performing for audiences lacking any aesthetic or cultural awareness in their particular art form, audiences that are unfamiliar with codes of courtesy that are common knowledge in their field or audiences just so intent on socializing they respond to embodied skilled artists as they would a mechanical reproduction.

How many artists whose work has embellished special community events suddenly choose artistic non-production? Do we understand why such decisions were made? Has the behaviour of audiences and/or organizational task forces unwittingly been part of the reason for artists to abandon their art form or to continue practicing it but alone without audiences?

How many artists have been offended or hurt by well-meaning but under-informed communities of which they are apart? Many artists by nature are “sensitive” and even “difficult” since the very act of “becoming” in the arts involves constantly improving by raising one’s own standards higher and higher and working harder towards self-imposed goals that are not necessarily easy to explain or evaluate according to some objective external standard of aesthetics or skill-acquisition. Indeed there are countless artists who abandon their art form at least publicly once they realize they will never attain a level of excellence to which they once aspired (or once they realize that the audiences to which they have access will never attain the level of excellence in audience-behaviour that they feel is sufficient for them to warrant presenting their performances. This is often to the chagrin of those around them who sincerely enjoyed their contributions. But for some individuals it is their way of being truly authentic to themselves.

And how can NGO event organizers, particularly those organizations devoted to promoting unity in diversity, decide what standards of excellence are appropriate for the community they serve?

In a recent conversation, a film studies student passionate about her work, acknowledged that the production standards acceptable to NGOs combined with the desire by NGOs to use artists on a last-minute, no-cost, volunteer basis meant that she would have to choose between producing something she would be ashamed to share with her film study peers or decline invitations to assist in the work of producing multimedia clips that are needed to enhance events.

Will we become dependent on enthusiastic and/or passionate amateurs and self-proclaimed artists (who may or may not be talented) but who are capable of producing non-professional work with barely adequate technical tools and competencies?

Do we need to only use professionally-produced CDs if the pool of performers dries up and the performers available at the last minute fall below standard? Who decides and when what is below-standard?

How do we build, nurture and maintain a pool of willing and able artists that reflects cultural and age diversity? How do we find and keep those who are dependable and sufficiently competent to enhance events in tune with the spirit of each occasion? We will never be able to satisfy the tastes of all members in our highly diverse community. What compromises are we willing to make?

What are best practices? What is being done already? What works? What doesn’t.

One of the recurring questions that is debated by many religious communities that have music as part of their devotionals is whether or not applause is appropriate. Choral Net opened an online debate on applause after musical presentations in spiritual gatherings in 1999 and comments were still coming in in 2007! It seems that an almost equal number of comments argued for and against. Many also argued that there should be no policy and individuals should be allowed to respond as they feel by applauding or not. The most challenging for most people was applause for childrens’ choirs and performances.

The robust conversation on the kind and quality of music appropriate for spiritual gatherings was widely discussed following the Pope’s mass in Washington, DC (2008). This potentially contentious issue is not unique to any large and diverse community.

See also:

Prepare a Quality Program with Superior Musicians, Readers and Speakers

Consultation: Thought Collisions.”

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