Saturday, December 21, 2013

Living and Loving Life as a Loud, Messy Family

Parenting on the stage, where all can see and critique your every move, poses some serious challenges at times, especially if you happen to be a loud living, messy family. Some people adore this aspect of our children and love to see their wild ways. Others like to sit back and reminisce about the days when children were seen and not heard.

One conversation I had tonight was a discussion about a family band who has played in that area before. I didn't recognize the name, but this family was quite large, perhaps twice the size of ours. (If you ever want to feel like 4 kids is a puny family, try hanging out with family bands.) The conversation included the behaviors of the kids, not as a critique of my children, who were strangely keeping to themselves at that moment, but simply an admiration for this other family, who were quite strict. The children got along wonderfully, they would go to festivals and be in and out of tents quietly, and no one would know they were there. Even the little one, at age three, would stand proper on stage and play his little violin. If they got out of line the parents were on top of them in a flash. They would get them up early and the children would all exercise, study, and have a very productive morning each day as well. There was no suggestion that the kids were mistreated, just kept in perfect order at all times.

So, you can imagine how awkward I felt when my daughter almost held up our show that evening when we found out, right as the show was about to start, that she had left her shoes in the van. Daddy put down his bass, ran to grab them, couldn't find a sock, so she put them on without socks. This made her feet hot, so when it was time to come back on stage, which she usually forgot to do because she was so busy playing with her Little Ponies, she had to stop to put on her shoes, laughed about it, and zipped up on stage, still laughing. The cat was out of the bag. We were not that perfect family. The audience joined in with her laughter and loved every bit of her youthful enthusiasm and childishness. She was not being naughty. She was being eight, and I love eight.

Early on in our journey as a band we would attend a GospelGrass festival where there were many family bands. Our son was about 8 at that time and if you have ever met him, you know why I must faithfully dye my hair each month or show a bright line of white to the world. His impulse control at eight could have rivaled that of any 2-year-old, and all of the parenting books in the world couldn't cure it. I was usually a disaster trying to monitor him and keep our awkward young band together on stage. Our now 8-year-old was only three back then, not fully potty-trained, and quick to wander anywhere, or simply leave with any stranger that smiled at her kindly.

The other families at the festival didn't seem to have the same issues we did with our children. They had little ones who could sit quietly for the full show, all in a cute little line, then get up on stage at just the right time to sing just as perfectly as they sat. I felt constantly like a failure, despite that fact that my son could outplay many of the other fiddle players there, even at his young age. That didn't seem to matter to me nearly as much as whether or not he could sit quietly though.

As we progressed as a band and played for more locations, a curious thing happened. I realized that most people found the crazy antics of my children quite endearing. They weren't interested in wooden children who came off the shelf to look pretty at their parents' bidding. They loved seeing the carefree, childhood behaviors.

I'm a bit slow at times, but eventually I relaxed and simply laid down laws for the things that I felt crossed a line in regards to behavior on stage or in public. My rules of conduct tend to simply focus around the idea that they need to not be annoying to other people. Really, just esteem others more than yourself. That's it. No shoes required. Don't kick the table where they're sitting, don't make obnoxious noises and interrupt their conversations, say “thank-you” if someone says something nice to you, and play great music that will make them happy.

I stopped bothering to look at how perfect the child in the other band behaved, and in the conversation tonight about this one additional perfect family band, I realized the only thing going through my mind was, “Thank you God that You don't demand we live like that.”

This isn't a judgment against families who simply take comfort in a very rigid lifestyle. Often when you have a parent or two who thrive under such situations, due to their personality, those little apples won't fall far from the tree and will have similar personalities, which will find their own sense of security and comfort in such a schedule.

However, for some I do think there is a sense of fear driving this need of perfection. Initially it was for me, and in that I had to repent because it can ruin the joy of a family. If you then happen to get a child who doesn't fit the mold, it can cause very high amounts of anxiety. Worse than this, I believe at least a few fear that their “Christian witness” will be damaged. (After all, we want people to think Christians have their act together at all times, right?)

This type of desperation for perfection reaches into all areas of family life at times. There is an extreme pressure in some Christian circles to have a perfect home to show you are being a perfect housewife, able to have a perfect dinner party for company at a moment's notice.

After a sufficient number of years beating myself up over the fact that my home flip-flopped between a complete disaster and just messy, no matter how hard I seemed to try, I sought to figure out what I could live with and what I couldn't. Yes, my husband's opinions here count as well, but he really only sees the mess at all after it hits the complete disaster stage. So, the goal is to always keep it under the maximum threshold when we can, in order to function.

Life is too short to stress out over a pile of messy dishes in the sink, socks tossed on the floor, or books all over the bench seats, toys taking over the table, or mail in a stack on top of a stack that is over in a corner by a stack. When it passes the threshold of tolerance, you give a holler ('cause you're loud, remember?) so the culprits can come clean up their messes and do the dishes. Then you let it go if they got it below the threshold, instead of inspecting to make sure they put the books alphabetical on their shelf. They got them off the bench. Good enough for now.

As for doing morning exercises. Bahahahahahahahaha! Yeah. We consider it a successful day when the teenagers roll out of bed before 10am.

This doesn't mean we've found perfection in our unperfection either. Teenage girls will still get in moods. 13-year-old boys will still do dumb things that make you want to leave the state in shame. 8-year-old girls will whine until everyone's head is about to explode. However, the times when we laugh and get the giggles so badly that we can't practice, or when we sit and spout off endless silly movie quotes that come to mind, or even get into discussions about religion, politics, and all of those other things you can only discuss with family, that is where the magic happens. There is no magic in sitting up straight in a chair and awaiting your token cute appearance on stage, or showing off your shiny counters that are free of evidence that children are present, or being able to proudly boast of your rigid schedule that ensures your children will be at the top academically, musically, and athletically. I'm willing to bet that in Heaven, none of that will be worth a hill of beans. However, the relationships will, the joy will, and most certainly, the grace shown in each of our failures will.

Oh, and we have a new rule. Shoes must be worn during the whole performance. It was understandable that taking off shoes when your feet were hot seemed logical to an 8-year-old bouncy girl, but it was a bit of a nuisance during the show. Since she won't be eight forever, it seemed good to let her know what is proper.

I informed her of the rule. She shrugged said, “Ok.” Sadly, the next audience will miss out on that fun, but there will be something else. Of that I am absolutely confident.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Change or Die, Musically Speaking

Recently we abandoned the term "bluegrass' from our band description and decided to not add many more bluegrass tunes to the music set, but instead freely indulge in the new, creative outlets that have always thrilled us as musicians, regardless of whether or not we will doom ourselves to poverty by not playing by the rules, never to play another festival. Of course, some of these creative outlets may occasionally sound a lot like bluegrass, but that is simply because bluegrass has a lot of potential for awesome, has been awesome in the past, and we do happen to like awesome. However, bluegrass is having some growing pains, and some of that is because very many want it to freeze in time, applying a lot of rules to the sound in order for this to happen. I understand why, and sympathize with their reasoning, but as a family and a band, we do not have those same goals.

Last night during our Christmas show (which is further away from bluegrass than our standard set), an older gentleman asked if we do bluegrass, because he loves bluegrass. We said we do about half bluegrass during our regular sets. He proceeded to tell us about how he's been to so many bluegrass festivals but the young artists coming up keep trying to change it and he feels like it's getting away from its roots. He doesn't like that. 

I am personally glad to see the diversity the big labels are starting to embrace, but sadly, the opinion of this gentleman appears to be the predominant opinion among a lot of small bluegrass festivals and promoters on the local level, which shuts us out, because we never had a desire to sound like Bill Monroe. He was revolutionary, but his followers have now refused to allow that same revolutionary creativity among his progeny. 

A recent festival we attended had four headline bands, consisting of all middle age men, and all with a very similar sound. I honestly could hardly tell them apart unless I was looking at them and listening near the stage. We will never manage to be a headliner in a place like that, unless we get much better at conforming. The festival promoter knew this tendency we had and wanted to be sure that we would use our time on stage to play *bluegrass*. Don't pull out a fife, a hand drum, or anything modal, or do anything prior to the 1940s, and do not do anything too far after that either, unless it follows the rules. Sigh. We mostly complied. Ok, we sneaked in the fife once and did an artistic modern arrangement of a historical tune, but it was only 450 or so years off the date and we didn't do any Irish reels!  

I do understand that one must have a sold, basic sound or the audience really doesn't know what they're getting from one song to the next. We do, actually, which is probably why we never got that old time bluegrass sound right, because our bluegrass sounds a lot like that artistic modern arrangement of the four-hundred-and-something-year-old tune. Our reels all end up molding into the sound too, so I'll expect a big snub from the die-hard Irish folks as well. We're used to it by now. 

Well, are the new kids pushing it too far and ruining bluegrass? I can't help but to think, "DUH." Why would he expect the new generations to want to get frozen in time, never allowed to grow, expand, and create, in the same way your generation was allowed? You don't have to like their stuff. Heck, I can't stand half of what I hear on the radio, and that's strictly from the sound, even minus the common immoral lyric issues to which I object. Even so, I don't ask them to fit into my old box. Who wants to keep the sound of Duran Duran and David Bowie anyway? Once was enough, thanks. Long live the 80s. 

Folk music has always been far more open. There are over 100 variations of the old folk song Barbara Allen that can be downloaded from the Smithsonian archives. New music lovers would adopt the wonderful tune and make it their own, then share what they came up with. 

I remember reading about how Bach's music was largely forgotten within a generation of his life. His own sons, two of them being quite respected composers, didn't bother playing his music. They wanted to create their own. Thank goodness they didn't, because had their generation stuck with his style we would never have had Mozart. Many tried to freeze the style popular during Mozart's life, but thankfully Beethoven ignored that and busted out on his own, leading too all kinds of mischief by many Romantic composers. Some stinkers later showed up in the 20th century, (Schoenberg anyone?), but you can't blame Bach's son for that. We're thrilled Bach lived, and we're thrilled some people still love to play Bach. I love Bach. Sean loves Bach. The rest? Not so much, but I don't really expect them to just play music like Bach. Go find your own amazing. One Bach was special. Generations of Bach is just sad.

One Bill Monroe was special. Generations of Bill Monroe is just sad. 

Some people who know we've dropped bluegrass from our band description (though not completely from our sound and set lists) ask what we play now. I say we play "American Acoustic Music". Most of our music is from the varied sounds of America, a country rich with diverse sounds, and all of our music uses acoustic instruments. Maybe someday we'll create our own specific genre though. Wouldn't it be great to be like Bill Monroe after all?