This Labor Day, to cap off a busy summer, I invited all my musician friends to an old-fashioned kitchen party on the East Coast.
We were in the living room, to be exact, and sometimes on the porch, or in the garden, but the goal was the same: to pass instruments, sing songs together and annoy the neighbors with out-of-tune songs. .
My friends arrived a little after noon with a nice selection of instruments: guitar, banjo, mandolin, ukulele as well as a large assortment of percussion instruments. With a piano, bass, and paired drum kit already set up in my living room, there was barely enough room for people.
Joseph Wilson struggled to get his children to enjoy learning music.
Ten musicians in total, more or less as many children.
Most people didn’t know each other. They were friends from everywhere: high school, university, work or the neighborhood. The only thing they had in common was the shared musical language, a collective knowledge of chords and melodies intertwined with their own personal stories.
I asked everyone to bring chord charts for the songs they wanted to sing. We ended up writing the chords on my daughter’s board for everyone to see. Someone counted and we played our first song, The Fisherman’s Blues by the Waterboys, a simple four-chord tune. Those who knew the words sang together; those who didn’t sing as well, often inventing harmonies on the spot.
A little something for everyone
The selection was eclectic, including well-known songs from Bob Dylan and Neil Young, with left-field songs thrown in by Jimmy Buffet and REM. A Mitski song was circulating somewhere at dusk. A friend who recently returned from Newfoundland sang the traditional sea song fly away.
Being immersed in this hodgepodge of songs is a valuable experience for children. It reminds them that music is not just something that magically appears from an enchanted place called Spotify, but something that is made, with fingers, instruments and voices.
At any time during the party, the children could participate by choosing something from the common laundry basket: a ukulele, a shaker, a tambourine, a hand drum – even if they didn’t really know how to play it.
“It reminds them that music isn’t just something that magically appears from some enchanted place called Spotify.”
As such, there was a constant rotation of children joining the group.
Giulia played a djembe bigger than she was; Farrah played the piano sitting on her father’s lap; Ava played castanets for all the ballads; and Liam kept time, banging the tambourine on the twos and fours all afternoon.
A friend’s daughter, currently enrolled in the musical theater program at Etobicoke School of the Arts, sang some favorite songs.
children can play
The kids also heard us make mistakes. Many of them.
They saw us taking risks with instruments we didn’t really know how to play, or with songs we didn’t really know, or with tricky chords we were still trying to figure out.
They saw us struggle, but they saw us do it with smiles on our faces and with encouraging nods from others.
Some children spent the whole afternoon with us making music. Some ran out to the backyard with their fingers in their ears to play Jenga.
This father not only shares music with his children, it is also opera. And when it comes to opera, her kids love it.
But they were all part of a common music-centric experience.
At one point, I looked out the bay window and saw a few neighbors sitting on our front porch, listening to the music. It’s the little details that make the experience so rich.
Music, as something created and not consumed, builds community one song at a time. The strangers who met at my house on Labor Day now know each other a little better, connected by the power of song.
And kids know what a decent kitchen party looks like and how to gracefully make mistakes under the guise of a good melody.