A view on community music, from Hawaii, December 1st 2016

10. December 2016

I would like to dedicate this post to some of my heroes: Music teachers in the outskirts of the world.
Examplified by some musicians I know in the Big Island of Hawaii: My sister-in-law, Lisa Lilja Wells, and a more recent aquintance, pianist Wendell Ing. The two in their roles as music community leaders, have to be versatile.

Lisa, a bassoon/misc woodwinds player, who also knows her way around voice, piano and ukulele to name a few, teaches at the Hawaii Academy of Arts & Science Charter School- as well as being a part time freelance musician. Currently she is in the process of starting a concert band at the school, which means she has to work very independantly from her own vision and doing the fundraising/collect instruments on her own. You can read about the project here .

Lisa put out the word that John and I were visiting and wanted to play with people, so her friend Wendell Ing invited us to give a workshop to his students in the music program at Hilo High School on December 1st 2016.

You can see a clip here:

Wendell, an accomplished jazz pianist and organist, is one of only two teachers in this program. He conducts a choir, teaches jazz band and music theory, and much more. He is also a freelance musician who for instance leads a weekly jam session in Hilo Town Tavern, where John and I got to play with him.

Another interesting Hawaiian musician/composer I learnt about is Herb Mahelona who writes Hawaiian operas that are performed by youths at the Kamehameha High Schools. These operas have their base in Hawaiian mythology and I think they are very interesting.

Hawaii is part of the US, actually one of the more art-friendly places in the US, for instance the same concept of public school concerts like we have in Norway, they have it here in Hawaii. But being an island in the middle of the huge Pacific Ocean, Hawaii is also one of the more isolated places in the world. Hawaii is also sort of ”second world”, somewhere between first world and third world, because it is a strange mix of poor and rich, western and colonial. In my four visits to Big Island of Hawaii, meeting an artistic part of the population here, I think I have yet to meet any musician or other type of performing artist who can support themselves solely from performing. A few musicians like my friends, have caught the few steady jobs as K-12 music teachers (public and charter schools), others are instrument teachers who try to live from teaching privately out of their own homes, or retired musicians from the mainland. But most musicians have other types of jobs. It is hard and lonely to be a 100 % performing musician in Hawaii, nobody really is, unless you are talking about playing cruise ships or tourist resorts (which I am not really talking about, since I am talking about the freelance concert market for musicians like I am used to from Norway, symphony orchestras, jazz ensembles, theatre, state-supported free groups).

As a Norwegian with grant money in my pocket and a high-flown art project in my head, coming to a place like this is like coming to another planet. Can’t talk of Norway as outskirts in this meaning of the word, it is not, because of the public funding. Sad to say, I’ve met talented people from all over the US recently, who are finding less and less time for music in their lives. It is not how it used to be in the 60s and 70s. Not that this goes for any of my Hawaiian colleagues, but if one need to be working three jobs to keep one’s head above water, one doesn’t really have much time to make music, not as a job, and not as a hobby either. The deadly fire in the Oakland warehouse in California where so many artists lived and worked, also happened while we were in the US, and one of the musicians we met in Berkeley knows victims from the fire. This made a strong impression in regards to how little money the US puts towards the creative workspaces of artists.

So how can one contribute, playing improvised music, in a place like Hawaii? The quick answer is: you contribute to the world through your real job, period. Or, ”community music” is a term to discuss – meaning quote ”musicians working outside formal settings like the concert-hall, in, for example, schools, prisons or hospitals; it covers the development of music in under-resourced areas and with disadvantaged people, and it covers the development of creative partnerships between people of different skills and cultures”.

Seen from Hawaii, this thing we do back home – talk about who is a ”real musician” and who is not – seems literally far away. When the question “what do you do for a living?” pops up – I have to admit that I am one of the heavily state-sponsored artists from a musician-friendly city in Norway, one of the world’s richest and most artist-friendly countries, situated in Europe, one of the richest areas of the world. When my grants stop, I am free to go back to my state-sponsored part time steady job as a public trumpet teacher that I share with a load of adored collegues here).) I have done a lot of community music in Norway. Seeing it from Hawaii makes it all the more clear that I think making community music is really important. It is a job that should make you proud!


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