Tiny Desk World (or “What’s That on Tamara Keith’s Bookshelf?”)

I am quite fond of something called “Tiny Desk Concerts,” online videos created by Bob Boilen of National Public Radio starting in 2008. The NPR website describes that first concert:

In a perfect world, there’d be no crowded bar shows or super-sized arena concerts. Musicians would come to your home for a private performance, or they’d show up at your office and play at your desk, easing you through the workday.

That’s what All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen and NPR Music producer Stephen Thompson were thinking after they tried to catch a Laura Gibson show earlier this year in Austin, Texas. Gibson, a folksinger from Portland, Ore., has a really quiet voice — her gentle guitar strumming isn’t much louder — so it was nearly impossible to hear her over the blathering bar crowd. 

And so begins what we hope will be a recurring series at NPR Music: “Tiny Desk Concerts.”

An office is an unlikely stage for a live concert, but Gibson was a good sport when we asked her to play a few songs at Bob’s desk. She drew a cozy group of curious NPR employees as she worked through a handful of tenderhearted songs: two of them unreleased and two of them from her full-length debut, If You Come to Greet Me.

That was 2008. Today Tiny Desk Concerts is a thing. From classical to jazz, Americana to Hip Hop, Tiny Desk Concerts are the place to be. Though I have not listened to/watched all that many, every one I have seen has been a great pleasure to me. While initially the Tiny Desk performers might have been relative unknowns, these concerts have attracted a huge variety of performers to play and sing in this small corner at the Washington, D.C. NPR headquarters. Yo Yo Ma, Taylor Swift, Lizzo, Adele, Jason Isbell, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Brandi Carlile and Coldplay are just a few I noted as I browsed through the archives of this series. Lena and I even visited this spot on our last trip to Washington, D.C. There is now a yearly national contest of folks who want to become Tiny Desk stars.

Our visit to the Tiny Desk in 2018

Though you might think otherwise, I am not writing this simply to promote this wonderful resource. What I have observed is that is seems like we now live in a “Tiny Desk World.” It appears the everyone now comes to us from their desk. (Or maybe their bedroom, dining room, backyard, or kitchen.) And I kinda like it. I find myself wanting to know more about people when I see them not in a concert hall, or a newsroom, in a street interview or at a place of employment. I’ve seen Mary Chapin Carpenter in her kitchen with her dog, Angus. I’ve seen some wonderful art behind Pastor Linda when she preaches from her house. I have wondered what is on the table in Lisa Desjardins’ (PBS Newshour Congressional Correspondent) home office. Through the screen of my iPad I’ve seen a cat crawl on top of a member of my small group, wondered about what kind of mics are being used by our church musicians at home, and (today) watched the original cast of Hamilton sing the title song from their individual private spaces to a little girl named Aubrey. There is something about being in someone’s home.

When I served as a pastor, I spent a lot of time in people’s homes. I saw the family photos on their shelves, perused the books on the coffee table, noticed the colors of the walls, walked through backyard gardens, and just noticed what gave people comfort and joy. I don’t get to do that as much any more. But this “Tiny Desk World” is opening people up to me in new ways. Sometimes I’m seeing people who are famous and I will never know personally, but more often the digital world opens me to those with whom I just want to stay connected. 

Maybe you have learned something in these days about someone you might otherwise not have known. The music they listen to. The art they like. What it says on their favorite coffee cup. How they look when they just get out of bed in the morning. All of those things are small elements of knowing another person. People are now giving all this to us as gift. And for that, I am grateful.

Spiritual Practice: Pay Attention to Individuals

When I travel, I find there is always a danger of visiting a place “in general.” You know what I mean. Go the Eiffel Tower but never talk to a French person. Take a safari in Kenya but never break bread with anyone but your travel mates. Tour the fjords in Norway but never make a friend. Watch a ball game at Wrigley Field but never spend time in a residential Chicago neighborhood.

Spanish families dining in León

There is one simple (though difficult) practice to remedy this. Pay attention to individuals. Remember, that man is not just a postcard seller near the pyramids at Giza, but someone named Abubakar. That person serving you at a café in Berlin is a woman called Sofia. At the counter is not just a pharmacist from Madrid, but someone named Mónica. Behind all these names are people with lives and stories.

It takes some work, but when we travel, whether around the world or down the block, it is possible to get to know people as individuals. Ask a person’s name. Invite them to share a meal. Learn about their work or family. You’d be surprised about how tender and open people will be if they are paid attention and know that they are seen. 

4 thoughts on “Tiny Desk World (or “What’s That on Tamara Keith’s Bookshelf?”)

  1. Yes, I do the same thing with Tamara Keith, Amy Walters , and others. I have even considered taking a magnifying glass to the bookcase of John D. Rockefeller’s study in his house now a museum in Williamsburg! It does reveal what engages a person. What does my bookcase say?
    Oh, engaging as you have suggested, Jim, applies at home too…grocery clerks, waitresses…especially now. Blessings!


    1. It really does inspire curiosity about people. Photos, books, furniture, colors, etc. We are all people with many facets!


  2. Jim, thanks for these reflections.. I love the way you mentioned engaging people along the way – breaking bread with them. What a huge gift that is – in both directions. Thanks for the reminder.


    1. Mary Lynn, thanks! When I write these I am writing mostly to myself. I wish I was better at noticing people along the way, but I am certain that is where the treasures lie. It is really the gift of travel (and life).


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