I can’t sneeze in a roomful of my friends without hitting a number of talented singer-songwriters who’d love to make a living through music. (Yes, a metaphorical sneeze.) Yet nearly every gifted artist any of us know has to ignore his or her gifts in order to make a living.
What cultural transformation might we see if those drawn to poetry, sculpting, composing, painting or other mediums of expression had some hope of living by their art?
Well here’s some hope.
A homeschooled guy who chose to help out with a worthwhile project now appears with John Mayer, Sheryl Crow and the Dave Matthews Band. His songs are heard on House and Ugly Betty. And more importantly, he sings about what matters to him.
See if the questions posed by this deceptively beautiful piece, “Ain’t No Reason,” resound long after the music is over.
Brett Dennen grew up in rural California, homeschooled along with his brother and sister. In an interview with Frank Goodman for Puremusic.com Dennen describes his mother’s homeschooling approach as “experiential.” He says, “…so she rarely had a lesson plan or anything like that. She would give us books, and we would read the books. And we did a lot of gardening, and we did a lot of science education through being outside. We took camping trips with other kids who were homeschooled. And when we were out camping, we learned about rivers and forests and mountains and geology. We’d take books out camping with us, and we’d read about it, and we’d look for what we’d read about. Experiential education basically means instead of being in a classroom and being taught or told something, to actually go out and see it, and see how it works and learn through experiencing it instead of learning through being taught or told it. And that was really valuable to me.”
Dennen took the same approach when learning music. As he says in the same interview, “Because of the way I was homeschooled, I got into the idea of trying to learn how to do things my own way. And so when I started playing guitar, I taught myself. I took lessons for a while, but I lost interest in them because I think I just didn’t like going to my lessons, I didn’t like my teacher, I didn’t like what I was learning. So then I quit. And after I quit, then I really started to learn.”
He went to college planning to become a teacher. While a student, Dennen met Lara Mendel at a wilderness-safety class and the two of them wrote a humorous song about backwoods diarrhea for a class assignment. Mendel happened to be developing a powerful hands-on program for children, one that tackles intolerance and violence head on. She named it The Mosaic Project. Dennen wrote songs to reinforce the activities. Now his music and her project teach hundreds of California children about acceptance, friendship and peace in each session of The Mosaic Project.
The creative and independent spirit of Dennen’s homeschooling background hasn’t left him. Goodman’s interview opens with these comments. “He’s like a new kind of human being to me, this Brett Dennen. After spending time with him this week, I feel that way even stronger than after the positively confounding impression that his new CD, There’s So Much More, left on me. If he’d said that he was an alien, I could have swallowed that; it would even have made sense to me. Because I’m simply not accustomed to meeting and spending time with people that appear to be so incorruptible, so odd and yet so self-assured; so, uh, enlightened and inner-directed, if I might venture all that.”
I don’t know if Dennen’s life up to this point says more about homeschooling or about doing the work of one’s heart. I do know there’s no separating the two.