As if no one is watching

So I was greeted online today by a video posted by the fabulous Amy Owens, showing her real-time reactions to another video.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Shooby Taylor.

I can no longer remember when my pals David Hanlon and Joseph Li first bonded with me over this singular artist. Shooby first crossed my radar as part of the Songs in the Key of Z project. I got interested in “outsider music” when I lived in New York. That terms refers to music that is, well, outside normal boundaries. Over-the-edge music.

The quintessential example of this, in my opinion? The Shaggs.

Listen to this clip if you dare. This band is objectively terrible – or are they? They’re objectively incomprehensible for sure. The many trained musicians I know could never play like the Shaggs. Their ideas of melody, phrasing, rhythm – they’re not like anything most of us have learned, or would ever even come up with. You can simply dismiss their music, or you can marvel at it, and at the fact that they play it.

Shooby is like that. So totally weird – and so totally committed. Listen to him, just going for it as he does that crazy scat singing of his on the least likely syllables (“schraw”?). Laugh if you want, and you may well want – but ask yourself, could you sing like this?

We wear t-shirts and buy gift cards that say “Dance as if no one is watching.” We like to think that we ascribe to that sentiment. But we don’t. How many of us dance, or sing, or play, or do anything at all, as if no one is watching us? judging us?

When David and I were commissioned by Wolf Trap to write a children’s opera, we came up with the idea of writing about the childhood experience of learning to listen. We talked a lot about how, in classical music, listening is approached as behavior rather than action. It’s about being quiet and respectful rather than about what to do. (I know some of my colleagues might protest at that statement, but How To Act is still a major barrier for so many people outside the classical music tradition. Most of my family members still worry about how to dress for one of my concerts. I think this is tragic, and our community keeps choosing not to address it).

As we dreamed up Wilhelmina, our little wombat who has trouble listening, I found myself noticing so many little kids who just SING in public places. A little girl in my neighborhood café who had a whole aria about her hot chocolate a few months ago. A little boy in the supermarket today singing to his bear while waiting in a shopping cart. Kids do this all the time, truly singing as if no one is listening. I once was sent out of my kindergarten class for “moving too much” while we sang Christmas songs. I still remember sitting among everyone’s coats and wet boots in the hallway, trying to understand what I had done, and how it was different from everyone else.

Those of us who are weird – so, all of us – never have much of an understanding of how or why that’s so. And this made me think of Shooby. His spirit is in Wilhelmina’s music.

But mostly, her music is all David’s. I can’t wait for you to hear it.

Tonight, I’m thinking of David and Joseph at Wolf Trap, getting our opera ready for its premiere.

Just a few days away from my own opening night here in Columbus, I’m thinking (always) too of Carmen. She dances as if no one is watching. And so of course everyone does.

Wilhelmina does learn to listen, by the way, after plenty of death-defying improvisation. What gets her to set aside the joy of her own vocalization and open her ears?

The songs of her friends.

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