IF I HAD A FLOOR BUFFER

“It’s like this. This kid who is quadriplegic, nonverbal rolls into the room. We’ve never met him, he’s never met us. He’s never done any art. I don’t think he really ever went to school. And here he is.

We find out his signal for yes and no then tell him, in this flat serious professional tone, how the A.R.T. techniques work.

One of the staff leans in to speak, quietly suggesting, ‘I don’t believe he understands anything you’re saying.’

I was talking to my mom about this last night, so maybe now’s a good time to post something here…

One of the prominent mindsets that keeps musicians away from Community Venues™ has to do with how the audiences are perceived. It’s unspoken perhaps, but the fact is that Community Venue audiences are looked down upon. They are pitied and they are not considered artistically equal nor viable, and that explains why they are systematically ignored by contemporary musicians. They are considered “charity cases”, which is horribly exclusive.

If a musician should happen to entertain a room full of developmentally disabled children or adults, it is not for the same reason they entertain traditional audiences. They book a gig in an acoustic club because those are “their people”, their genre, the people who “get” their music; the people who tap their feet and sing along and cheer and applaud when the song is finished. They’re the people who look up, and musicians like to be looked up to.

But musicians comes to play for developmentally disabled folks out of a sense of charity; a sense of pity. They generally do not regard or approach these audiences as being artistically equal to a more traditional audience. Charity audiences are not “their people”, they don’t really “get” their music, and so many of them are incapable of tapping their feet or singing along or applauding with hand claps. And they’re most certainly not regarded as being one’s genre, or target audience. “Mainstream” (for lack of a better word) musicians play for the disabled (and the infirmed and the aging) because they pity them. They feel sorry for them. It’s condescending, honestly, because they are held in lower esteem than “normal” audiences.

It’s a truth that has had me shaking my head in disgusted wonder for 16 years now.

And what is even more mystifying to me so often is the fact that most of the staff members in so many Community Venues act precisely the same way. They do not regard those in their care as being artistically equal or viable.

I know this because I do consider these folks artistically equal. When I take music into a Community Venue I consider it every bit a sincere performance, not a charity gig for “poor them”. And when one attends a sincere musical performance, one does not carry on chatting and talking and vacuuming and buffing the goddam floor just down the hall, while the performance is underway. But it happens to my audiences all the time. We get stuck in a room where people are walking thru chattering away and laughing and carrying on, and of course there’s music going on and so they have to talk more loudly to be heard. Or we get stuck in a dining room after lunch while the staff is cleaning up and dishes are clanking away and silverware is being tossed into tubs.

Years ago, in a facility I was asked never to come back to, I arrived at the appointed time. My audience was waiting, and so was the lady with the floor buffer. She was pushing people out of her way so she could slide tables to the wall, clearly aggravated that they were here. You know, residents: the people who employ her and pay her wages; the people who are the reason that the bloody facility exists, and thus the reason she has her damn job.

This was the second time it had happened in three months. The first time I had asked the activity director to simply schedule me at a more convenient time. I understand work schedules. I wasn’t put out at all, that first time. But the activity director fumed when she heard that they were buffing the floors at 1:30 on a Wednesday, and she grabbed her little desk phone and she called housekeeping and she grumbled at whomever answered, and she slammed down the receiver and said “That won’t happen again.” And I walked out wondering why the residents and I should be caught up in a petty turf war.

So this time I said something to the buffer lady. I told her that I was here to stage a performance and that I had been told that the floor buffing would wait. And she stormed away grumbling obscenities and in a couple minutes she showed up with some supervisor type person. And this supervisor type person told me that the buffing would go on, and if I wanted to play music then I would do so in the hallway, where they would line the residents up along the wall to listen.

And I leaned towards her and hissed through my teeth, “That’s bullshit. These people pay your fucking wages. Get a clue.” And I turned my back on her and picked up my guitar and began to play, and they did not buff.

And the next day I got a call from the arts organization that sponsors me telling me that I had been asked not to come back. And this nice lady tried to make me understand that I was out of line. And I thanked her and said “That’s bullshit. Those residents pay the wages of those jackasses; those residents are the customers and they are entitled to be treated as such. I will never stand down on that point.”

Because I don’t understand. In every facility I entertain it is quite clear that the people who pay the tens and hundreds of thousands of annual dollars to be cared for are about fourth or fifth down on the organizational chart of priorities. But I believe that a resident should sign everyone’s paycheck, from the administrators on down. Residents should hand those paychecks to the staff face to face, every pay period.

This article from the fine folks at Artistic Realization Technologies, which I ran across years ago, is refreshingly supportive of my observation on staff attitudes.

“It’s like this. This kid who is quadriplegic, nonverbal rolls into the room. We’ve never met him, he’s never met us. He’s never done any art. I don’t think he really ever went to school. And here he is.

We find out his signal for yes and no then tell him, in this flat serious professional tone, how the A.R.T. techniques work. One of the staff leans in to speak, quietly suggesting, ‘I don’t believe he understands anything you’re saying.’

I think but do not say, ‘We’ll see about that.’ What good is it to presume this young guy won’t understand? How will we know until we let him show us he does?”

It was nice to find someone else who not only sees it and is mystified by it, but who also chose to speak up about it – albeit not in the moment. (Frankly I admire that the author of this piece held his tongue, which I did not. It’s arguably more professional and you end up not getting kicked out. Point well taken.)

And so this quadriplegic child paints their long-ignored heart out, and produces an impressive work of true art, and…

“The piece was far better than most of the stuff you’d see in a fancy art school. Much better. It was a real painting. Very direct, no fru-fru. It had power. It was clean.

One of the staff coming through the studio asks, ‘What is it?’ I say, ‘A painting.’ And he shakes his head the way you do to dismiss something you think is bogus, like shaking his head ‘no’. He couldn’t see the painting. There was nothing there, or at least nothing that struck him as art.

So I see the irony that the thing we figured would prove the depth of these young people’s inner lives: painting, didn’t register as true, awesome, serious, pro level high art.

The kid no one thought capable of sophisticated thought or feeling just fired out this gorgeous painting, it clearly proving the kid is more than whole inside. It proves the kid has some exceptional powers no one’s letting him tap. And this staff-person can’t see it. It doesn’t prove anything to him.”

“What it proved to him,” Solman says, “is that the abstract expressionists were a bunch of retards.”

Read the article.

This is a direct parallel to what I encounter all the time from Community Venue staff. They do not consider their charges to be worthy of a true musical performance. They do not realize that a dining hall becomes a theater when a musical performance is taking place. A TV room becomes a music hall when a concert is taking place. If you can’t see it look again. Walk a minute in their shoes… rather, sit a minute in their wheelchair.

It’s a huge lesson to be learned by the people that run and work in these facilities; it’s a huge societal paradigm that I am trying to displace. And sometimes it feels like it’s only me, which feels lonely, but I know it isn’t only me. There are those who get it, and I am so thrilled when I run across them.

My mom was taken aback last night when I began to share this insight, and she asked me if it was going to make its way into Play Something Pretty That You Like. I said that it is.

The book would not be complete without it, because the truth is that this is one huge reason why musicians who might once dare come to a Community Venue may never return, and it’s a huge opportunity for the staff and administration of these venues.

Stop treating live music as though it’s plastic bowling or bingo, for God’s sake.

Or I swear I’m going to bring my floor buffer to the listening room next time you go to an intimate music performance.

A.R.T. – Painter of the Month: Danielle Conti

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