The Four J's
Music-Making with senior citizens
is a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
It builds friendships, contributes to the wellness of all involved,
and helps bring about a small taste of heaven on earth.
contact information: firstname.lastname@example.org
Who are the Four J's?
We are a group of musicians in Conway, Arkansas, and part of the Fat Soul Musical Network in central Arkansas. We started out as a group of four who played at senior citizen centers and have since expanded to five. Our name comes from the fact that all of us have J's in our names: Joe Lombardi, John (Mike) Manion, Jeff Clanton, Jay McDaniel, and David Allen. (Well, most of us.) We believe music-making with senior citizens is enjoyable in its own right and that, in the process, many a soul can grow wider and more alive, no matter what the stage of life. An ethnomusicologist, Christopher Small, calls it musicking. The Four J's are into musicking across the ages. It's fun and it serves the broader aims of that Abba in whose heart all lives unfold, whose very aim is the well-being of life.
Why Make Music in Senior Citizen centers?
Because it Facilitates Movement, Activates Memories,
Improves Language Function, Makes People Feel More Alive,
Is Good for the World, and a Whole lot of Fun
"As we grow older, did you know that interacting with music does more than just engage our emotions? It also facilitates movement, activates our memories, and improves language function. In this fascinating interactive presentation, neuroscience is used to explain how the mind and body respond to the act of creating music—above and beyond the notion of simply listening to it! We’ll also talk through creative strategies for how audience members in the golden years of their lives can become more active music-makers themselves by joining a singing group, taking up an instrument or dance, or a myriad of other activities!
-- Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, 6/4/2017
The Four J Worldview
Process Theology and the larger Context
Personal Reflection by Jay McDaniel
Every Sunday I join a group of friends and sing at local senior-citizen centers: Brookdale, Southridge, and College Square. For simplicity's sake I will speak of them all as Brookdale. We call ourselves the Four J's because when we got started there were four of us and each had a "J" in his name. We are a member of a larger consortium of musicians interested in a better world called the Fat Soul Consortium. Fat Soul Philosophy is the idea that human souls can grow larger through time (fatter, in a metaphorical sense) by widening out into loving relationships with people, animals, and the earth. There’s even a Fat Soul Manifesto if you’re interested in learning more. Music-making is an excellent form of fat soul making.
At Brookdale the Four J's perform songs our senior friends know and love: old hymns, old love songs, and old pop songs from the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. We sing the songs and then, at the end of every song on the final verse, put our instruments down and everyone sings along. Boundaries break down between performers and audience; the Four J's become a collective choir singing “You are My Sunshine” at the top of our lungs. Our older friends consider it a form of exercise. “It expands our lungs and our hearts,” says Selma, age 96. We say the same.
We’ve been doing this for two years now, so we’ve gotten to know a whole lot of songs they love. The whole process has given us new eyes for nostalgia. Sometimes nostalgia gets a bad name, as if the only real music is new music that emerges contemporarily. But something new is certainly happening as we sing at the senior citizens center. As we sing along we are building relationships with one another, we are re-loving some old songs in new ways and settings; and, most importantly, we are encouraging our senior friends to re-loving themselves, somehow finding possibilities for hope and joy to make it another day. We are helping create twilight justice. This is what nostalgia can do at its best. It opens up possibilities for hope.
Musicking as Participating in a Musical Performance
I think of the Four J's when I read Lauren Lauren Michelle Levesque's essay in Advancing Nonviolence and Social Transformation. For one thing, Levesque introduces me to the idea of musicking, which she borrows from the musicologist Christopher Small and defines, along with Small, as participating in a musical performance in any way. The folks at Brookdale are participating in a musical performance and so is the band. We are musicking, and something is being co-created as we sing along. That something is the meaning of the music itself.
Someone might think that the meaning of music lies in the musical notation on the page or in the intentions of the composer or players, but in truth the meaning of the music lies in the performance of the music as experienced by each participant. This means that “You are My Sunshine” will have different meanings relative to each participant and also a shared meaning as they enjoy the collective act of performing it.
Seven Dimensions of Musicking
As I read Levesque, and as I partake of musicking with the Four J Band, I realize that seven things are happening in musicking. In the activity people are:
1. Creating the “meaning” of music in the act of participating in its performance.
2. Building relationships with others who are also participating.
3. Uncovering possibilities for how to live in the world, imaginatively if not also in actuality.
4. Uncovering worldviews: that is, ways of imagining the world as it has been, is, and can be.
5. Improvising with others amid the participation, making things up as you go.
6. Co-creating with others amid the participation, exercising cooperative agency.
7. Claiming your own capacities for subjective agency.
8. Experiencing touches of transcendence -- moments of feeling fully awake, aware, and alive - in the act of listening to and performing the music.
In short, musicking is an activity, a verb, a process, and it has at least seven dimensions in the moment that it occurs. It creates the meaning of the music; it builds relationships; it inspires the imagination; it uncovers worldviews; it requires improvisation, it experiments in co-creativity; and it helps a person compose his or her life.
All of this makes very good sense from the perspective I bring to Levesque’s essay: namely that of process theology as influenced by the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. We process theologians believe that, at every moment of our lives, we are responding to influences from our own pasts and the world in conscious and unconscious ways, improvising responses, and in so doing creating ourselves in relation to the rest of the world, adding our influence to the future. Our lives unfold in moments, so we believe, and every moment is an act of concrescence or, so we might say, musicking. Deeper than even musical musicking is existential musicking, and it is occurring all the time, with or without the addition of music.
The worldview of process theology has often been called a musical worldview, because it imagines the world on the analogy of fluid events, like melodies or rhythms or vibrations, rather than solid substances. But it might also be called a musicking worldview. From a process perspective, the whole universe is always musicking one way or another. People, of course, but also plants and animals, hills and rivers, trees and stars. Even God is musicking. The actual universe is a web of inter-becoming enfolded within the deeper Becoming of God’s life. We ourselves are verbs within the Verb.
Composing a Life
A worldview is a way of looking at the world. For the senior citizens, their worldviews are contained in the memories they have of the past: memories of being in love, of singing along with others, of dancing, of enjoying life and surviving its disasters. These worldviews are how the world felt in their earlier years, or how they would like to think they were felt, because often the past is happier as remembered than lived. But this doesn’t really matter, and what is important is that, as these worldviews are excavated, they show how the world can feel, even now. You may not be able to fall in love again, but you can enjoy the experience of falling in love through the music, and that’s a good thing. To re-love an old song is to remember a worldview, claim it for a moment, and compose your life in the process.
Who can benefit from this kind of activity? For her part, Levesque is especially interested in how musicking can play a role in the lives of people who are poor, powerless, marginalized, and traumatized – and who want to be engaged in actions that resist the darker sides of modern life: economic inequality, military violence, corporate greed, racial hatreds. I am very sympathetic to these concerns and so are many of my friends. But I don’t want to leave twilight justice out of this picture. In truth, the folks at Brookdale are traumatized, too: traumatized by illness, by chronic pain, by their own forgetfulness, by the deaths of friends and family, by the immanence of their own death, and by the feeling of being marginal in a youth-dominated society. In singing along with the Four J's, they feel some possibilities for their lives they might not otherwise feel, at least in the moment. Musicking is for the old as well as the young, and for so many in-between.
Musicking as Energy (non-violent, creative, and relational)
I have said that musicking has seven dimensions, noted above. To this I must add an eighth: it adds a certain kind of felt energy to a space. Certainly this is true at Brookdale when we sing. There’s a lot of energy among all of us, and Levesque helps me find a name for it. Following the work of peace activist and theoretician Michael Nagler, she calls it non-violent energy. In the language of process theology, it is persuasive but not coercive, like that of a teacher or friend who offers possibilities for thinking, acting, and feeling, but leaves room for the imagination and personal decision. The energy of non-violence is an alternative to another kind of energy too often felt in retirement communities and nursing homes: the felt presence of a suffocating sadness which can permeate a room, leaving people feeling ignored, irrelevant, listless, and hopeless. This suffocating sadness is a kind of violence, too – a violence on the soul.
As a process theologian I would add still another name for this energy; it is creative and relational energy. It is creative because it empowers people in a mutually enhancing way; and it is relational because in the empowerment people feel connected with one another. Indeed process theologians propose that creative and relational energy is one way that people experience God, quite apart from whether they do or do not believe in God. God is the embodied mind of the universe and the universe is God’s body. This embodied mind is filled with creative and relational energy, and music is one way that we can experience it and partake of it. For us, then, God is in energy of musicking – that is, when it is constructive and life-enhancing.
Life-enriching and life-destroying Musicking
Let’s be honest: musicking is not always constructive and life-enhancing. As Levesque puts it, musicking “is not innately nonviolent.” Yes, people can grow in love and courage through musicking. But they can be incited to violence (militaristic and misogynistic music); they can form music communities that accentuate unhealthy we/they dichotomies at the expense of inclusive love (patriotic and hyper-nationalist music); and they can be anaesthetized to life’s real problems, including their own, by escaping into music when they might better claim their agency.
We best draw a heuristic distinction between life-enriching musicking and life-destroying musicking, recognizing that they are often entangled. Open and relational (process) theologies offer a simple way of discerning the difference. Life-enriching musicking brings a sense of empowerment and fulfillment to individuals in the moment at hand, and helps bring about communities that are creative, compassionate, participatory, multicultural, multi-religious, humane to animals, ecologically wise, and spiritually satisfying – with no one left behind. Life-destroying musicking inhibits or destroys such communities.
At its best musicking is both an end and a means. It is an end in itself insofar, in the moment of its occurrence, it is inherently enjoyable, adding energy for life. And it is a means to an end in that, in combination with other factors, it helps bring about humane, sustainable communities that include many factors besides music: political, economic, educational, cultural, and spiritual.
Improvisation, Reflection, and Listening
How might musicking lean toward life-enhancement? The answer partly depends on the content of the music itself. If we singalong to songs with lyrics that encourage hatred of women, part of the problem lies in the songs themselves. But musicking is by no means dependent on the music alone. It is an act of participating in a musical performance, and the nature of this participation depends on the people participating, the historical circumstances of their lives, and their relationships to one another. It also depends on the space in which they are participating: whether the lobby of a retirement community, a bar and grill, a sanctuary, or a killing field. Levesque focuses on the importance that marginalized people have “safe spaces” in which to musicalize, where they are protected from the violence that surrounds them.
Briefly defined, safe space can be understood as a location in which those present feel physically and emotionally protected, where they feel they can experiment and take risks, and where they feel a sense of solidarity with fellow participants.(289)
Levesque’s example is that of a community-based peacemaking venture among youth in Northern Ireland or at a Clash concert, and I would add that, perhaps surprisingly, the lobby of the Brookdale retirement community also qualifies.
In addition to space there is still another factor which plays a role in constructive musicking: namely time. Levesque points out that musicking cannot work its magic in a single sitting; it needs to occur again and again and be subjected to reflection on the part of its participants, if it is truly to take hold. Here, too, my own experience at Brookdale speaks to this. Had the Four J Band gone to Brookdale one time only, very little would have happened that had any kind of lasting effect. But the fact that we go weekly, and that the people at Brookdale can look forward to it, means that we are musicking quite often and thinking about the joy it brings (the creative, relational, non-violent energy) to all of us. Life looks just a little brighter all the way around. A little more Twilight Justice has been realized.
To be sure, this small example from a community in Conway, Arkansas, cannot transform the world. At the very least, it can add a bit of light to one very small corner of it. Levesque’s larger hope, and mine as well, is that something like the Brookdale experience can occur in many settings, enriching the lives of young and old, and serving as an antidote to the violence of our world. We process theologians speak of this larger hope as the hope for “ecological civilizations” in which communities emerge that are creative, compassionate, participatory, diverse, inclusive, ecologically wise, and spiritually satisfying – with no one left behind. They are the kinds of communities that Thomas Berry envisions when he speaks of a hoped-for Ecozoic Era.
There are many obstacles to these civilizations, many things that get in the way of their realization: political, economic, intellectual, and spiritual. A leading advocate of Ecological Civilization speaks of six transitions we need to undergo, individually and collectively, for these kinds of communities to emerge:
A shift from hyper-individualism to person-in-community.
Is it possible that musicking in some small way, community by community, listener by listener, musicking might play a role in such transitions? After all, it helps accomplish at least two of the tasks, if only for a moment. It helps people grow beyond hyper-individualism and it helps them grow into a sense of person-in-community and also takes them into that unique and beautiful way of knowing we call "musical knowing."
- A shift from we/they thinking to world loyalty
- A shift from anthropocentrism to biophilia
- A shift from conventional morality to counter-cultural morality, in which we resist the powers of violence
- A shift from thinking of the world as a collection of objects to thinking of it as a communion of subjects
- A shift from sense-bound empiricism to a radical empiricism that includes many ways of knowing, including awe and wonder.
Only if it is combined with an emphasis on all ages and committed to helping create an all-age-friendly world. I cannot pretend that musicking alone can encourage these shifts. But I do suspect that, in combination with other practices, it can itself be a constructive practice that may be especially helpful in what can otherwise be humorless and joyless efforts at social transformation, all too rooted in the head but lacking sustenance for the long haul. And it is possible that musicking can be a special practice for musicians themselves, who seek some way of sharing their pleasures and talents in a constructive way.