My friend was shredding a little John Mayer on a public piano in Churchill Square last weekend. Well, he was attempting to shred, when a pair of young women crept up behind him and asked if they could give it a go.
“I play a little,” one of them said, as she slyly pulled down her brown and black fedora over provocative eyes. She whispered a word of thanks and slid easily into the blue metal chair. In the honey-tinted light I glimpsed her willowy, dextrous fingers and, for a moment, they were poised motionless above the black and white keys. Suddenly, cars stopped rattling by and I became aware of a cosmic stillness, punctured by nothing but a murmuring breeze, then a breath, then – she played.
A sweet, intricate melody began to echo off the stone steps of the square, ricocheting down Rice Howard Way and stretching outwards to City Hall and the Winspear. Colourful notes fell about like raindrops in 4/4 and, as they arranged themselves into the song’s first bars, I realized that she was playing a song that all men hold close to their hearts – “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton.
Meanwhile, the stranger’s companion stood silhouetted in an amber streetlight. The tails of her blood-red trench coat fluttered softly as she smiled knowingly at our surprise – she had seen such speechless appreciation before. She turned away while the final notes of the pianist’s lead cascaded into the streets and then – she sang.
And the cars rattled by one more – a movable tribute to the dissonance of the singer’s tone. She crooned in a nonexistent key, her voice personifying the flatness of the great Saskatchewan prairies. Her meter was accurate and Carlton’s lyrics came out as written but the chorus was composed of nails – my ears, the chalkboard.
Still, whether aware of the uniqueness of her rendition or not, she was rocking out. It reminded me of something I read in a book – This Is Your Brain On Music – about how modern Western society has split the musical experience into that of the trained and devoted expert and pretty much everyone else. There are those that sit on the stage and those in the bleachers. The author goes on to explain how important music was to the daily lives of ancient cultures for recreation, spirituality, ceremony and health. Darwin even theorized that, before the advent of more expressive language, the human species’ ancestors used primitive forms of music to court potential sexual partners. Yet, today nobody would be caught dead rattling two sticks against a cave wall and claiming virtuosity.
True, some of the drunkest of sailors still cringe at the thought of stepping up to the mic on karaoke night for fear of sounding too much like William Hung. They should know that for millennia, in many cultures it was considered taboo if you didn’t sing. It’s been proven to elevate endorphins, especially when done with a group and, if Darwin was correct, it had a profound impact on the very evolution of our species.
So I say, grip that mic and bring the house down the next time you’re at karaoke (there’s a night at the Nest every month). Serenade your windshield on the way to school, Freddie Mercury; belt one out in the pouring rain, Gene Kelly. The next time your favourite tune meanders its way into your head, warm up those vocal cords and bellow out like the Michael Buble you were born to be.