About a month ago the choir I sing with had the chance to be accompanied by a jazz quartet. We sang one of the choir’s standards, William Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices, but instead of our usual a cappella version, the quartet improvised beneath us as we sang our usual parts. It was late Renaissance/early Baroque meets 20th Century jazz. Although it seems strange, it sounded absolutely glorious!
What really struck me, in addition to the jazz players’ fabulous musicianship, was how much fun they seemed to have. The sax player especially put everything into his music, and enjoyment was written all over his face even when he wasn’t playing. He was an excellent musician, but surely it wasn’t just his level of competence that gave him the freedom to show his enjoyment. Maybe it’s the type of music we sing, but I’m sure I don’t look like I’m having as much fun as he was. Classical mass settings or other works that call for precision and concentration aren’t exactly conducive to swaying and big grins. We have to read all those little notes, focus on pitch, try to blend, remember to breath in the right places, and of course watch the director. I’m new to the choir and still learning the repertoire, so although I love it, I probably look pretty serious when I’m singing because I’m concentrating so hard and often sight-reading. However, watching the jazz musicians really got me thinking — how often do I really convey the joy I feel when I’m doing something I love, be it singing, teaching, or child-rearing? How often do I become so focused on the details that I forget I’m having fun?
Some of the best teaching evaluations I ever received were ones where students commented that I was enthusiastic and seemed to enjoy teaching. One year a student thanked me for making 8:30 AM lecture fun. These were compliments I tried to carry with me into subsequent years. Interestingly, some of those years I was teaching material I was relatively unfamiliar with or teaching a class for the first time. It was easy to become bogged down in trying to have a perfect, polished lecture (my way of dealing with insecurity is to be over-prepared). But I had to remind myself to relax and remember that I stuck with teaching because I enjoy it. With possible teaching opportunities on the horizon in the coming year or two, I’m once again reminding myself that though I’m nervous about getting back into it, the work can be fun.
I also think about how often I express my joy as a parent. If one were to look at a slice out of my day, particularly during the kids’ summer vacation from school (just whose vacation is it anyway?), I’d probably seem irritable and stressed out. Schedules have all gone haywire and although we’re now relaxing at home after our travels, I still feel the need to plan activities to get us out of the house. Do I look like I’m having a good time? I really am, and I love being with my kids, but I probably don’t show it enough. (I was that grouchy, flustered woman crabbing at her kids on the hot bus yesterday.) So I’m trying to take a few pointers from the jazz guys (and gal — an awesome bass player). They joked with us choristers that there are no mistakes in jazz — it’s what you do after the “mistake” that counts. One must just go with it, embellish, and smile. I’m definitely improvising some days, but I need to remember to show the joy too. When we all get too grumpy, we just have to repeat a memorable line from my father-in-law: one lovely day when he was fed up with his whining kids who wouldn’t leave the house, he finally yelled out in frustration “We’re going to go out and joy this day nice!”