“I have an announcement to make,” said 80 year-old Uncle Eric, standing on a chair to make himself a little taller than his 5’2” height. “I’ll be bringing out me third album this year, and I’d like to sing yer a song from it now.” And so he did. The next hour was filled with Uncle Eric sharing songs that he knew and liked to a roomful of family and extended family at the annual Christmas bash at my sister’s house.
My Dad is a folk musician so I am completely familiar with this scenario – I spent a significant amount of my childhood in sessions in pubs and folk clubs, and our house was often full of weird and wonderful musicians making equally weird and wonderful music. As a passionate advocate of informal music making in all of its various forms, I know that socially sharing music in this way is the craft of millions of musicians from many different cultures and is how so much music is learnt.
However this was slightly different. Few people in the room would have classed themselves as ‘musical’ and would necessarily participate in any ‘organised’ music activity. Uncle Eric, despite his confidence and incredible memory for lyrics and songs, could be melodically and rhythmically challenged at times.
But none of this mattered. What mattered was that every single person in the room, ranging in age from 2 to 80, listened to him, hummed along, joined in with lyrics when they could, supported him and showed that they were all behind him. We laughed, cried, the children danced, glasses were full and everyone was happy. There is something very powerful about a roomful of people participating in music, where the actual music is the least important thing. Participation was everything, and Uncle Eric got everyone involved and engaged in music without even realising he was doing so.
I’ve been interested in Channel 4’s ‘Gogglebox’. I was mocked by my husband for watching a TV programme about people watching TV but it is pretty compelling viewing. For me, what it clearly shows is how much we like sharing experiences together as a group. It’s just that in this case the ‘participation’ aspect is commenting on TV programmes Royle Family style, rather than joining in with something directly.
Musical Futures is concerned with participation of young people in music within schools, and the work of many other superb organisations in the UK directly supports participation among young people in a wealth of relevant, engaging activities in a range of settings. But how widespread is there a culture of participation in our broader society, especially among families, beyond TV screen commentary?
I would choose the Uncle Eric experience over Gogglebox any day, and I want my children to grow up believing that getting up and singing songs, brilliantly or badly, is just a natural part of the fabric of our lives.
By the way, there is no third album. But I’m already looking forward to the next get together.