Why you are all musicians (whether you believe it or not)

Last year, a soundbite traveled around the Lawrence campus during some of the bleak winter-to-spring months. It achieved moderate notoriety, such that one social circle may find it indisputably ubiquitous while to another it may be completely foreign. This now famous, or perhaps infamous depending upon who you ask, few-second audio clip consists of Brian Pertl, Dean of the Conservatory, introducing himself and proclaiming to you, “yes, you,” that “you are all musicians.”  

Most Lawrentians who recognize this soundbite may vaguely possess both an intense familiarity with it and an even deeper inability to assign its words to any specific event or experience they’ve had or seen — at least that’s what I’ve come to feel about it. It’s much like the snow in Wisconsin in that way: troublesome when it’s everywhere and charming when it’s suddenly inserted into your life again in its due season.  

I’ve often wondered to whom Dean Pertl is speaking in this short audio clip; who is the “you” he so assuredly addresses? Is it an audience of many, of few or of a Zoom screen? Does this little blurb preface a speech, an interview or a greeting to a group of students at Lawrence? Why the little “yes, you?” Does he expect his audience to be surprised they’re being called musicians? Does he suspect them to be surprised they’re being addressed directly at all?  

You (as in the reader of this article) might think that the “you” to whom Dean Pertl is referring is anyone but yourself. In fact, you may even be certain of that, as you might feel that the only music you make comes from haphazardly tapping a pencil on your desk, singing alone in the shower or humming off-key to your Spotify playlist. I’d like to challenge these notions. You, no matter who you are, are most definitely part of Dean Pertl’s “you.” 

Why do I know this? To answer that, I have to confess that I haven’t been entirely forthcoming with you so far. While I’ve indeed often pondered the question of to whom Dean Pertl is speaking in this bemusing little audio clip, that pondering got a little tiresome and led me to a quick internet search. That internet search then led me to a little YouTube channel with a modest 33 million subscribers called TEDx Talks and to a hidden gem of a video from 2013 entitled “Music education, improvisational play and dancing between disciplines: Brian Pertl at TEDxLawrenceU.”  

In this 15-minute presentation, Dean Pertl spends a lot of time outlining some genuinely radical proposals for innovations in K-12 music education and for rethinking the role of the liberal arts. It’s a genuine spectacle of sorts; he speaks over a backing band comprised of jazz faculty members Dane Richeson, Matt Turner and Mark Urness, and he ends his talk with a fiery digeridoo improvisation. There’s a true wealth of material to be unpacked from his speech, but what most struck me is that Dean Pertl directly outlines who he’s talking to: the Lawrence community, itself a varied audience of self-identifying musicians and non-musicians. 

Despite the nature of this group, Dean Pertl insists that all people are innately musical. I second his claim; I hear a lot of music on the Lawrence campus, and I’m not just referring to what comes from our rehearsal halls or practice rooms. Renowned avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse famously defined music as “organized sound.” There’s a lot to dissect in that short definition, and I’m sure musicologists have done so extensively over decades. Still, let’s consider that, by Varèse’s definition, every single one of us hears and creates music every day; this music is embedded in each conversation in the Café, in each gathering in Hiett Hall’s lounges and in every single classroom on the Lawrence campus. By this definition, even the very rate of our breathing is a display of organized sound, therefore, it is musical by nature.  

Next time you find yourself humming along to your favorite song in the car, singing your heart out in the shower or crafting a new beat with the tip of your pencil, I encourage you to give yourself a well-deserved reminder that you really are making music. Therefore, you really are a musician, and that begs a great secondary reminder that’s perhaps even more important: your musical voice, whatever it may be, adds value to the world around you.