Making our Sandbox Safe

Sonic Sandbox re-imagines the playgrounds of our childhood. For many, these playgrounds were places where we played without thought, just for fun. For some, they were places where they could be ostracized or bullied. The Sonic Sandbox is dedicated to creating a safe place for playing together without feeling judged or made wrong. The rules are simple:
  1. Listen. Find something interesting in every sound.
  2. Support others by copying them.
  3. Take turns riffing off what others are doing
  4. Make sure everyone gets a chance to develop their solo voice.
  5. Guard everyone else in the group.

The Sonic Sandbox is a place to practice acceptance. There are plenty of opportunities to beat ourselves up in the rest of the world. It is easy to feel criticized and then take that further: to join in and criticize yourself. This is what stops people from playing.

When I was in third grade, someone from the instrument rental store came in to demonstrate all the instruments. When he played the trumpet, I knew instantly that that was my instrument. My parents rented a cornet for me (because it was easier for a kid to hold) and I started taking lessons with a high school student.

Later on, I took lessons from adults, eventually studying with Walter Chestnut, the trumpet professor at the University of Massachusetts. I loved the trumpet, and Mr. Chestnut was a very jovial teacher, who rarely made me feel that bad when I hadn’t practiced.

I was studying classical music, which was the only thing I really knew about in those days. My parents listened to classical music at home. I knew little about jazz or even popular music, except that when I heard “Never on Sunday,” Herb Albert became one of my favorite trumpet players. I still own several of his albums — on vinyl.

I loved playing my horn, and I joined the junior high and high school bands, and was in the local youth symphony. It was great, except for two things: soloing and competition. It was (and still is) the practice for most students of classical music to have to perform in recitals as a part of our training. Another problematic custom for me was having to challenge others in the band for the first chair — the one who always played the melody line and who, on occasion, also took the solos.

I think that all my life I have had a love-hate relationship with wanting to be a star and hating the pressure of trying to be a star. I wanted to take the solos and be first chair because it carried some prestige and because we got to play the most interesting parts. I hated playing in recitals or taking solos in band concerts because if I screwed up, everyone would hear it and know who had made the mistake.

In classical music, most listeners are pretty familiar with the music, and so they know when performers make mistakes. When I was growing up, it became a kind of game to catch people out — especially the more famous people. I guess it might have made them seem more human and approachable. Unfortunately, when it was time to play the solos or the recitals, I imagined the audience and my fellow musicians (especially my teacher) were only listening for my mistakes.

There is a long, complicated, and amazingly common psychology behind this. I’ll simply say that in my family, making mistakes was a really bad thing that would get you a lot of scorn. Classical music just built on the neuroses I learned in my family. The culture of star worship in the United States also reinforced this message, and thus, every solo, for me, became a period of terror, as I knew I would have ample opportunity to make a glaring mistake (or more than one) that everyone would know about.

As a result, I couldn’t really enjoy the music. I was too concerned with not screwing up to enjoy myself.

I’ll tell the story of how I learned to get over this fear another time, but the main thing I learned that has lead me to try to create the Sonic Sandbox is that I need a place where there are no mistakes. A place where people will not be looking for mistakes. That means, I learned in David Darling’s Music for People workshops, that I need to learn a different way of listening.

If we listen for what there is to enjoy in music instead of listening for mistakes, both musicians and listeners will get a lot more enjoyment from it.

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