Music All Summer Long

Sunday, April 25, 2021 by Cara Walsh Dorman | Summer Music

IS IT SUMMER? LET MUSIC FILL THE AIR!

There it is, that familiar Alaskan awakening hitting us all right now; our every fiber collectively shouting “Summer, here we come!” When the Arctic’s most dynamic and invigorating season descends, it ignites every type of creative expression and Alaska gets fully underway with ALL things art! That includes a bounty of music found at the many seasonal markets and outdoor events held during Alaska's glorious warmer months. For those of us with a musical affinity, it's this part--the music-- that we have most eagerly anticipated!

But with gathering opportunities still scaled down this summer, there need be no shortage of music! How’s that? By making your own!

As a lifelong musician, my absolute favorite place to enjoy music during the long days of summer was at my own piano. If I wanted to be outside, I'd head to my porch swing with a guitar and notebook. If I wanted to socialize and play, I'd pack up some musical odds and ends, meet up pretty much anywhere with a few friends and we'd pass around the shakers, bongos and other various noise-makers for hours of entertainment under the midnight sun.

Summers of music are a consistent theme from childhood right up through my college years and on into adulthood. A typical kid, I spent much of any given summer day playing outside, but usually found myself drawn to the family piano at some point when I needed a different type of diversion. There was a ritual to it: I’d start with whatever required the least effort to pick up and play. First, I’d run through my standard rotation of memorized songs—some from old music lesson assignments, some of my own creation. Next up, a little improv session to expand or elaborate on some unfinished bits and pieces of tunes I’d been toying with of late. At the point I finally needed a little outside inspiration from some other source, I’d eventually crack a songbook and plop it on the piano rack.

I’d commence with one of the most current pop or movie music collections I’d managed to coerce my mom into buying from the local music store. Without lessons available in summer at my small town teacher’s studio, I’d stumble through on my own as best I could, getting the basic idea here, mangling some rhythms there, but generally keeping amused. When I tired of that, I’d haul out method book repertoire. This is when I’d go into full-fledged concert mode for whoever happened to be in earshot at home. I’d play what I considered the greatest hits of each of the various-leveled books in descending order of difficulty, from most recently mastered selections down through the basic primer level ditties. If there was room in any song for embellishment, I embellished. If the song lent itself to complete reinvention, I spared no detail in making it my own reworked masterpiece. 

I would easily lose a few hours on these wide-ranging musical excursions before wandering back outside, or being hustled out the door to gymnastics, swim class, or grandma’s house on the lake. Summer was certainly busy with my family’s seasonal business and three kids’ revolving camps and sports. And in those early days of home computers and video game consoles, we were a modern family whose kids heeded the siren call to go battle each other on whichever game we were obsessing over. Still, summer was my most musically productive time, and when I felt most free to explore and create. 

Around mid-July, I would start feeling a little anxious and bored at the piano after realizing I’d only hit the half-way mark of the long 3-month wait to get more direction from my teacher. In my tiny community, music teachers typically aligned lessons with the school year and even though I did play consistently during those in-between months, I always felt like the task of getting my brain up and running again after such a long stretch away from the rigor of lessons was a monumental one that I rather dreaded. 

Years later when I’d started teaching piano, it dawned on me that many of us hold an oddly contrary notion about when we should be learning music. Though the opportunities abound in the summer months to enjoy concerts, take in impromptu performances on street corners, and (see above) BYO instruments on any and all outdoor excursions, it just doesn't square to equate music studies with school studies. Instead, what has proved out in my own experience as a student as well as a teacher, is that there are no seasonal limitations on the musical mind. Turns out, the human brain remains artistically curious and explorative no matter the time of year! 

It stands to reason that those of my students who continue actively attending lessons throughout the summer maintain their skills far better and progress steadily apace year round. An easy half-hour weekly lesson commitment with a flexible independent practice schedule is very manageable and low maintenance, but helps cultivate my students’ ability to ultimately take their places among those musicians around campfires, in back yards, and eventually performing on stages at those festive summer events! They find this much more rewarding than setting aside their instrument for a long season's nap while the skills they worked so hard to master grow rusty.

The take away? When you’re out there frolicking in the last frontier and looking for opportunities to be engaged and creative this summer, don’t overlook the obvious— pick up that instrument and let the music play on! And if you don't yet know how, there's no time like these long Alaskan summer days to kick your learning into high gear. By this time next year, you'll be that much closer to center stage!

Originally published in edited form in Echo Magazine, May 2018