I’m with the band
When you’re a musical kid, people give you music tchotchkes at every possible opportunity, and it can make you feel like a cliché. I’ve had music mugs and pads of paper with “NOTES written on them (the 8th notes are usually written backwards). I had a bag covered in a Bach score that said “Music is My Bag” (at the time I didn’t even know what that sentence meant). I had violin bracelets and earrings that mostly stayed in their boxes, posters of small sad children toting giant violins. These things and others like them were markers of music nerds everywhere. They propped up my burgeoning identity as a musician, even as I wasn’t sure that I’d earned it or that I wanted to be limited by it. After a while you start to think they belong to you and that they are inevitable.
I don’t have any of these things anymore, save the chipped mug with an 8th note for a handle that I bought with my own money on a field trip to Boston when I was in middle school. The glaze is completely worn off, but it still holds my morning coffee. I knew by high school that as much as I loved music and relied on it as a way of understanding and commenting on the world around me, that it was not the only thing I wanted to do. But I kept doing it, sometimes out of habit, sometimes out of compulsion, sometimes out of a sense of retreat, a need to pull back from new things and remember who I was by going back to the last place that I knew for sure. Sometimes out of love.
My career has taken me many places, almost all of them musical in one way or another and this has never ceased to surprise me, even as everyone around me says it looks like I’m doing what I’m born to do. These other jobs, which I love, are about other things to me. They are about music; they are not music. Playing is something else altogether. Despite the physical evidence to the contrary, music-making has never really been about identity to me. It’s about communication. It’s about making meaning out of chaos. It’s about sitting down with people to do something together. And these things have only become more valuable to me as I get older. I couldn’t quite articulate them earlier in my life. It maybe took a nearly decade-long hiatus while I was living in exurban Chicago to figure it out.
Today’s physical evidence is different. It’s a pocket full of Gibson guitar picks (medium), a T-shirt from my kid’s last band concert, the remnants of frayed strings along the side of my bed where they seem to gather like autumn leaves against a stoop. It’s the grooves worn in my fingers and the mark on my neck. It’s the white stripes of rosin decorating the black shirt I wore last night, currently balled somewhere in the bottom of my closet because I got home too late from my gig to turn on the lights to find the hamper. It’s the small metal plate reading “Gibson” from my guitar’s old case that I will keep forever. These things aren’t props. They are evidence. The real thing.
In the last few months I’ve discovered that I’m in a band. It happened slowly and I’m still a sort of apprentice member, but I can’t tell you how much I love it. It’s entirely different from the symphonic playing I grew up with and even from the Irish seisiun playing I used to do in Chicago. There is no fear. I am not so focused on memorizing and creating perfect paths to accurate performances, on impressing anyone. Accuracy matters on some songs more than others – sometimes it’s about a good improv, which is all about communicating with the other band members on stage, the moment of performance. The people in the band are a huge part of what I love about it. We are all nerds with kids and interesting and creative jobs in other fields. Our music is quirky, a mix of unusual arrangements of well-known songs, covers of more obscure songs, and some gorgeous originals. We repeat our rep a lot, which makes it easy to hop in and out of gigs without a lot of work, but we change things up just enough to keep things interesting. I want to play more, so I’m working on arranging. But I’m also enjoying not being the one in charge. I do what I’m asked. I suggest things occasionally, and I do a lot of sitting and listening. Also laughing really hard. My ribs sometimes hurt when I come home from rehearsal.
Back when I had a stack of music stationery in my desk drawer, given to me by assorted aunts and uncles, when I spent a lot of time running between orchestra rehearsals and violin lessons, I used to imagine being in a rock band, standing in front of the mirror on my closet door, my violin held sideways under my arm. Now I actually get the chance to try it. Our rock credentials are sketchy – we play a lot of acoustic instruments. We’re kind of old for this business – we’re more likely to wear clog boots than stilettos. We play tiny rooms in the backs of bars. But our musicianship skills are solid, our repertoire knowledge is large, and those tiny rooms? We pack them and the audience hangs around after the show. Most of all, though, we have fun. There’s a reason they call what we do “playing.”
After a gig a few months ago, I was taking a very late subway back home after a gig that started at 10 p.m., my mandolin under one arm and my fiddle and tote bag of mics and cables slung over my shoulder. Two people walked by me to wait on the other end of the platform. “You were in the band that just played at Superfine, weren’t you? You guys were great.” I thanked them and we waited a few more minutes on the platform before getting in adjacent cars and disappearing into the night. For a few minutes I felt like a rock star. It was nice, but it pales by comparison to walking into a rehearsal and knowing you’re going to make some good music with great people.
The band’s on hiatus for a few months because we have lives and there are things happening – imminent babies, solo albums to record, apartments to move and theses to write. I’ll be using some of that time to work on some arrangements and maybe a song or two. I haven’t written a song – well, not a rock/folk/pop song anyway — since I was of the age to stand in front of the mirror with a violin-guitar. I’m not sure I know what to do, nor have I done many arrangements. But the kind of playing we do puts ideas in your head and I want to see if I can make them happen.
Part of the process of figuring out how to do this has involved listening – really listening – to lots of songs and trying to figure out what makes them tick. I’ve been thinking about melodies and lyrics and instrumentation, trying to consider what the band does best but also what sounds good to me. And I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a good song in an effort to create some rules for myself to tame the terror of the long minutes at the beginning where you’re moving from noodling on your guitar to staring at a blank page of black lines. I’m hoping that writing about this will help me sort through some of what I’m doing. I think this is likely to be more memoir than how-to, but I’m hoping that maybe a little of the latter will shine through and may possibly be useful to someone. But part of the project is definitely going to be about the role this band has/is playing in my life and the things I’m learning from it. I’m aiming for writing at least once a week – more often doesn’t seem to be too realistic at the present moment, at least not on a regular basis. I hope you’ll join me for the ride.