For the past several days, Memphis has been abuzz with activities in celebration of the life of a musician: Elvis Presley. Like many cynics in the area, I poke fun at the fans who are crying their eyes out because of his death and the crazy costumes seen along the streets and at the candle-light vigil. Still, I must admit that there is something intriguing about the man who forever shaped American music. What lessons can we as musicians learn from his life and memory?
I have never been an Elvis fan, but have encountered many friends who would sooner have their teeth pulled than miss an opportunity to extol the virtues of the King of Rock and Roll. These individuals are not lunatics by any stretch of the imagination, but they continue to talk of Elvis' influence as though he is still alive. (Now THAT'S an entirely different source of contention among the Graceland faithful! I'm sorry, folks, but ELVIS HAS TRULY LEFT THE BUILDING!) Since my friends are not totally crazy, I decided to think about the life of this man and see what I can learn.
Elvis was aware of his environment. He knew what trends were on the rise and which were on the way out. He was not afraid of trying something new and welcomed the opportunity to re-interpret standards of the past. What a lesson we can learn! Classical music is largely about looking to the music of the past. In order to maintain a level of relevancy, generate interest from a new generation, and influence modern society with our music, it is essential that musicians be aware of society's trends and look for opportunities to link them to our own performances. This obviously involves looking to the works of contemporary composers -- those who are currently writing -- and performing their works alongside those of the establishment. Additionally, I think it is important to consider the possibilities technology makes available to our craft. Should we explore combining sight and sound into a single concert experience? Do we use social media to connect with our audience in informal settings such as house concerts? Thinking outside of the box made Elvis the center of attention and will do the same for any other musician who executes their unique plans effectively.
Elvis was not afraid of scrutiny. While many laughed and jeered as he introduced new sounds, Elvis continued with his plan with confidence. As any musician begins to depart from the status quo, there will certainly be nay-sayers who proclaim the certain failure to come. Having the fortitude to stand for personal convictions in the midst of criticism is quite possibly one of the most important -- and most difficult -- traits a successful performer must have. You may not agree with my choices or my execution, but please respect the choice I have made and allow me to pursue my plans; honest support and good wishes will generally result in the same being returned to you.
Finally, Elvis influenced his audiences. There was simply something about him that drew crowds to him. Never taking this for granted, Elvis kept his audiences as the central focus of each performance. We may not attract massive crowds to hear our performances, but the fact remains the same: every time we walk on stage, we have the opportunity to influence people with our music. It is not a responsibility to be taken lightly. Regardless of WHAT we are performing, the goal of music is to speak to the soul of the listener. To speak deeply to the inner being of another person requires great preparation on my part and a certainty of the message that I hope to convey. Music is language and language is powerful.
Even though I am not a fan of the music of the King, I admire his influence and acknowledge his continuing legacy. I hope someday that those who hear me play might express some of the same qualities about me as I see in the life of Elvis Presley.