There’s no denying the Alaskan awakening is hitting us all right now, our every fiber collectively shouting, “Summer, here we come!”
As the Arctic’s most dynamic and invigorating season descends, it begs for celebration and inspires creative expression. As summer gets underway, Alaska’s artistic inhabitants are eager to oblige. Alaska positively teems with ALL things art, but for those of us with a musical affinity, it’s the bounty of music found front and center at the many outdoor markets, city events, and seasonal festivals that we’ve most eagerly anticipated.
With a spontaneous plan of moving to Alaska just in time to enroll at UAA in the fall (UAF actually, but I never made it that far), I first arrived here in late summer at Alaska’s height of beauty and splendor. Little did I know it would happen to coincide with a seasonal profusion of music! The charm of such unexpected musical abundance offered up from a talented variety of ages and cultures, coupled with the stunning grandeur of the scenery were an enchanting mix to this native Minnesotan.
My first outdoor excursions into Alaska’s majestic landscape were spent in total awe and wonder and led almost invariably to some sort of gathering for music-making either around a campfire under the endless twilight or at someone’s home where there were enough instruments to go around. If I happened to make it back into town for the evening, there were rock and reggae bands to check out, and small acoustic ensembles happy to entertain summer revelers.
Among the many folk festivals, open mics, and nightly performances at local pubs, there were musical experiences to indulge in all summer long.
As fun as it was being a spectator grooving out to the various styles and rhythms showcased on different stages, my absolute favorite place to enjoy music during the long days of summer was at my own piano, or on my porch swing with guitar or bongos in hand.
It’s a consistent theme from childhood that continued into my music student years, and on into adulthood. A typical kid, I spent much of any given summer day playing outside, but usually found myself drawn to the family piano at some point when I needed a different type of diversion. There was a regular ritual to it. I would start with what required the least amount of effort. First, I would run through my standard rotation of memorized songs—some from old lesson assignments, some of my own creation. Next up, a little improv session to expand or elaborate on some unfinished bits and pieces of tunes I had been toying with of late. At the point I finally needed a little outside inspiration from some other source, I’d eventually crack a book.
I’d commence with one of the most current pop or movie music collections I had managed to coerce my mom into buying for me.
Since I rarely got help on this type of music from any of my piano teachers (they each were fairly old-school), I’d stumble through on my own the best I could, getting the basic idea here, mangling some rhythms there, but generally keeping amused. When I tired of that, I’d haul out lesson book repertoire. This is when I’d go into full-fledged concert mode for whoever happened to be in earshot at home. I’d play what I considered the greatest hits of each of the various-leveled books in descending order of difficulty, from most recently mastered selections down through the basic primer book ditties. If there was room in any song for embellishment, I embellished. If the song lent itself to complete reinvention, I spared no detail in making it my own reworked masterpiece.
I would easily lose an hour or more on these broad-ranging musical excursions before wandering back outside, or being hustled out the door to gymnastics, swim class or grandma’s house on the lake. Summer was certainly busy with my family’s seasonal business and three kids’ revolving camps and sports. These were the early days of home computers and video game consoles; we were a modern family whose kids responded to the siren call to go battle each other on one game or another. Still, summer was my most musically productive time, and when I felt most free to explore and create.
Around mid-July, I’ll admit I did start feeling a little anxious and bored at the piano after realizing I’d only hit the half-way mark of the long 3-month wait to get more direction from my teacher.
In my tiny community, there was no availability of music lessons outside the school year, and even though I did play consistently during those in-between months, I always felt like the task of getting my brain up and running again after such a long stretch was a monumental one that I rather dreaded.
Years later when I’d started teaching piano, it dawned on me that many of us hold an oddly contrary notion about when we should be learning music and improving skills. Though the inclination to play or to enjoy others’ music during the more relaxed summer months seems totally normal to most people, it still does not square with their equating music studies with school studies. However, what has proved out in my own experience with learning and teaching music is that there are no seasonal limitations on the musical mind. It turns out the human brain remains artistically curious and explorative no matter the time of year, so it stands to reason that those of my students who continue actively attending lessons throughout the summer will maintain their skills and progress steadily throughout the year. An easy half-hour weekly lesson commitment with a flexible, independent practice schedule is very manageable and low maintenance, but helps cultivate my students’ ability to ultimately take their places among those musicians around campfires, in backyards, and on stages!
Cara Walsh Dorman teaches piano with an emphasis in creative exploration balanced with solid musicianship. Cara and her husband, Eddie Dorman, opened Muse School of Music 12 years ago to offer the community a fresh, spirited, and modern approach to music education. To reach Cara, email: firstname.lastname@example.org