East Bay Community Music Project

Music Is Community!

EBCMP Stories: Ryk Groetchen

on December 2, 2019

What was your musical experience before you started EBCMP? 

Music has always been part of my experience. My mother used to sing me lullabies on her guitar. My grandmother used to sing me this one lullaby, “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day,” and I used to ask that she sing it to me over and over. And now it’s my son’s most requested lullaby. My grandfather played guitar and sang, and my dad sang in the shower, and there were a lot of parties when I was a kid and there was always music playing: Beatles, Cat Stevens and the popular music of the day. That was always really important to me. I listened to Top 40 radio, religiously, and I would try to guess what would be the top song and what would be the order of the songs.

EBCMP Director Ryk Groetchen with his son, Harlan

There was a short time in my childhood when we sang in church. Church didn’t make a big impression on me except for the standing up and singing part. I remember the moment we were singing along; an adult was holding the hymnal, and I was following along the words. All of a sudden, I could tell the little dots were moving up or down and showing the melody! I couldn’t read music at that moment but I could tell if the melody would go up or down. That was a big revelation!

When I was a kid there was actually music in school that was pretty comprehensive up until fifth grade. We either had a singing class or we had instrumental music. And I always thought of myself as a musician. I always wanted to be a better musician than I was at any given time. But I always thought of myself as a musician. 

I’ve played and sung throughout my whole life. Usually in a self-directed way; I would make my own courses of study. Playing in bands, rock bands, experimental ensembles and choirs and just always having new musical experiences…

I was never a virtuoso as a musician, like the people that I saw around me who were making their living as musicians. 

So I went back to school for music. My thinking was that I would work as a high school band teacher or something like that. But in the course of my studies I became aware of early childhood music. And when I pursued that, for me it was a perfect fit. I felt like I was at home; I could express my musicality, the things I had to share were relevant to that particular teaching method, and to that community of parents and children together.  That became the thrust of my work in music — early childhood music education. 

What inspired you to found EBCMP?

In my work in early childhood music, most of the kids tend to stop coming to the program sometime between the ages of 3 and 5. I had families in my classes come to me and ask me if there was another program similar to what we were doing, but for older kids. I did some research, and I didn’t find a whole lot.

So I decided to try to start something that was on a morning when everyone could be there, and to create a structure that allowed everyone to participate. Something that was available to all ages, not just children, but anybody!  And to create a structure that facilitated people being able to come together and make music with one another for an hour or an hour and a half, to leave with a good feeling. I wanted to see if that activity and good feeling was enough to make people help each other in other contexts in their lives, like I’ve seen in other cultures around the world. That was the reason for the founding of EBCMP.  

This took the shape of our Sunday Gatherings, which continue to this day. When Sunday Gatherings first started I was really gratified by all the people who showed up. It was a big experiment. I thought: maybe nobody will show up! But people have come consistently. And at almost every event we have, there’s at least one person or family that is coming for the first time. So that’s been wonderful!

I continue with it because I continue to want to explore this boundary or this relationship between music making and what we call community. Community exists, especially in an urban setting, on many levels: we have our work communities, our school communities, our parenting communities and our neighborhood communities. I continue to want to explore the kind of community that comes up around doing an activity like music where everybody is fully engaged for the time that they are doing that activity. 

What impact has EBCMP had on your life?

EBCMP has allowed me to hone my skills as a leader. I’ve learned to work with people of different ages and from different walks of life. It has helped my communication skills, my songleading skills, and my musicianship immensely!

The music making that we do has been a big creative outlet for me, in the sense that I get to create arrangements for non-standard ensembles. I get to watch kids and adults who bring instruments in and I can put together something that helps those people play together in a way that’s not super formal but allows them to feel a sense of satisfaction with their musicianship. Facilitating that is really satisfying for me. More satisfying than when I’ve participated in classical ensembles, or when I’ve participated in various types of performance where you have a big audience. That’s another reason why I continue to do it. It’s very satisfying musically. 

It’s also allowed me to pass some of those skills to other people. I’ve been able to mentor people who want to lead songs both at EBCMP gatherings and who want to do different types of music events in different parts of their community.

Also, It would be easy for me to feel social isolation because I don’t have a lot of family in this area. I feel like I would have a lot more stress in my life if I didn’t have people with whom I could communicate when I have a question about parenting, or about how to get something logistically done within the community. I just feel so grateful to have this connection with people that I see all the time, that I sing with, that I see just smiling back at me, who I know I can turn to if I need anything. That has been a huge thing!

Also my son, Harlan, has grown up in this community. He has this incredible community of non-parental adults. You get a lot from your parents, and it has also been shown that a big part of growing into a successful adult is having access to non-parental adults with whom you feel respect and with whom you feel safe and that you can turn to in times of stress or in times of need. I can see that my son has that, and I am so grateful!

So EBCMP has connected me to an amazing community of teachers and professional people and home-makers and parents and children that has made me feel connected to the area that I live in in a way that really supports my life. 

What is your vision for EBCMP for five years from now?

I want to continue building on what we have. I feel like I have models from around the world of how people work together to support one another’s lives. My vision is that we continue to build on the musical and community skills that we’re already developing. 

The greater more abstract vision is that: We’re living in times right now where people are very unsatisfied with our various institutions, our educational institutions, our medical institutions, with the way that our government is handling or not handling the environment, and things like that.

I think we may be moving into a time where people start relying on one another, on close networks of people, rather than the established institutions. So I hope to have some tiny part in creating a space where people feel comfortable enough with one another that they can ask each other the important questions, like: How do we support each other and make our lives, our kids lives and our planet’s life more livable?

Comments are closed.