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Friday, July 30, 2004
The Arts in Utah Valley: A Microcosm

I paid little attention to the rest of the Utah County Fair, but I spent Wednesday evening at the county 4-H talent show at The Barn at Thanksgiving Point. This year it was combined with the 4-H fashion show, which neither lengthened the show unduly or interested me very much, since I know next to nothing of fashion. (I have trouble sewing on a button or picking matching socks, let alone coordinating colors.)

Some of the talent was quite impressive. The quality overall was quite uneven, of course, but that's expected - and it's okay. The show gives children a chance to learn to perform. This, in turn, gives parents a welcome opportunity to see what, if any, good those music- and dance-lesson dollars are doing.

What most interested me, besides my own children's performances, was that the evening provided an interesting cross-sectional view of the amateur arts in Utah County. It is a world of stark contrasts and incongruities, where excellence rubs elbows with absolute, unwitting mediocrity, and details carefully thought out in advance mix with details that obviously weren't thought of at all.

Let's start with the performers:

One of the best things about the 4-H show is that the art of storytelling is alive and well there. Some of it was excellent. Some of it . . . well, we'll never know, because either (a) no one has taught the child to use a microphone properly, (b) the child is scared of his or her own voice, or (c) the person in the sound booth either wasn't in the booth just then, or was otherwise occupied.

On one hand, we had two Bach-playing brothers, both of whom show great promise. On the other . . . what's up with the LDS hymns and Primary songs? There were actually fewer such songs in this year's contest than in the past, but there were still enough of them to make me wonder, too, if the only place these children encounter music is at church. At least there wasn't any lip-synching this year.

Now, to the stage and the lovely and gracious mistresses of ceremonies:

A stage crew diligently moved the piano, microphones, and other things around, without calling attention to the themselves. And there was always a line of the next several participants waiting just off-stage, which probably cut the length of the event by at least half an hour. Good thinking! But the podium the Utah County Fair royalty used when announcing each participant stood out on the stage, near the front, where it partially blocked the view of audience members sitting left of center. Not thinking! The podium could have been located all the way to the side and lit with a spotlight when in use, or the announcers could have used a microphone but no podium. Then I could have seen the piano keyboard, among other things. Small things, properly attended to, could greatly improve the experience.

Speaking of royalty, does it strike anyone else odd that here, in the world's greatest democracy (I know, I know, it's a democratic republic), we seem to go out of our way to create royalty? The only thing more prevalent in our recent Steel Days parade than so-called royalty was cheerleaders, including a lot from grades so low that there are no interscholastic sports teams to cheer for.

That said, the three young ladies did a nice job emcee-ing the event, and they displayed their own considerable musical talents during intermissions. I hope they didn't fret at all over those little numeric incidents; I myself would probably have had similar difficulties keeping three-digit numbers in order after a couple of hours. But if we're really supposed to believe that the pageants which crown this royalty are "scholarship contests," not beauty contests, the winners should probably not say in public, acting in their official capacity, things like "We're not very smart up here." I know the local culture equates self-deprecation with humility, but let's not encourage the masses, okay? And the dramatic pause while we figure out how to pronounce "Beethoven" needs to go.

Now to manners:

On one hand, the 4-H officials in charge did a nice job of squeezing about 140 participants into three hours. Two-thirds of these were fashion-related and passed very quickly. The talent show would have been long even without them. Nice work! But the same 4-H officials were frequently seen walking across the hall just in front of the stage, during performances, showing a negligent disregard for both the performers and the audience. To put it mildly, they were not the best example.

Of course, the audience was full of the usual contrasts, too. Some parents worked diligently to teach their small children concert manners and to keep them seated and quiet during performances. Other parents turned their children loose and then spent the evening conversing among themselves - again showing great disregard for the performers, not to mention for the more conscientious parents who were trying to teach concert manners.

In the back of the hall were terraced rows of 4-H exhibits; between those and the audience was a wide pedestrian thoroughfare. It seems reasonable to me that people should be looking at the exhibits, walking through the hall, and coming and going to and from the show itself; it's a county fair, after all. But perhaps signs could be posted at the entrances urging quiet, out of respect for the performers. Perhaps they could even urge that screaming babies be removed from the hall altogether. Then again, these things should be self-evident; I'm not sure reminders would help.

A couple of official-looking ushers could have gracefully encouraged reasonable quiet. They could have started by squelching the Utah State Extension Service representative, whose table was located about five feet from the back row of the audience. She spent most of the evening asking passers-by (in a voice much louder than a whisper), "Have you heard about our free water check?" Yes, thank you, I have - about fifty times, while I was trying to hear children sing and play and tell stories. Next to that, I didn't mind so much the occasional fair-goer who walked up to her, while a child was performing on the stage, and asked in full voice, "When does the bingo start?"

Somewhere it ought to be written that people at a concert (even a talent show) who don't know or practice good concert manners have an unalienable right to be taught them and encouraged to practice them.

Now to the sound crew and the judges:

Putting an actual body in the sound booth was good thinking. Conveying the point that the purpose of the sound system is to make the performers clearly heard would have added somewhat to the experience. By contrast, I have only praise for the judging - the talent judging, that is. As I said, I know nothing of fashion, so I cannot evaluate the fashion judges' efforts.

Finally, if you're still reading, and you happen to be wondering why I present my evening at the 4-H Talent Show as a microcosm of the amateur arts in Utah County (except on good days at BYU), here it is in a nutshell. Virtually every public, amateur artistic event I have attended in Utah County (except at BYU, where the standard is usually much nearer to professionalism) has had these odd juxtapositions of excellence and mediocrity, suggesting that we either cannot tell or do not value the difference. A lot of things seem to be thought more than halfway through, but not all the way, so that a few small changes (or a little extra conscientiousness) would add up to a tremendous improvement.

But it's only important if we can tell the difference, and if we value that difference. I have serious doubts on both counts.

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