Playing in a Band

For the past 7 years, I’ve been playing guitar and other instruments in the band for the Newton Family Singers. How did I join a band in my forties?!

If the timing of this seems crazily off, it’s because the contents of this post (and more!) first appeared in my monthly email newsletter months ago. If you subscribe, you can get more writings like this delivered straight to your inbox and not miss a thing. Sign up here.

First, I have to credit my friend Tom for showing me how to play a few guitar chords in college. For a couple of decades after, I strummed along to songs, by myself. Eventually I asked my friend Sheldon, an elementary school music teacher, how to get better. He told me to play with other people.

When I heard that the Newton Family Singers (NFS) was forming in my town and that they were looking for musicians as well as singers, I convinced my family to join. And since NFS is about amateurs making music together, they let me in the band. This was a bit scary at first because playing with other people meant playing for an audience (of at least one other person). But Sheldon was right: Playing with other people forces you to keep the tempo, to listen to the whole song, and encourages more practicing so you don’t let other people down.

So, I’m in the Newton Family Singers band. Depending on what the song needs, I’ve played guitar, mandolin, ukulele, bass, accordion or keyboards. (You can see me playing in some videos on this page.) All that sounds impressive but the fun thing about playing in a band is that you don’t have to do everything and sometimes you just need to play three notes.

Or less than three notes: For Neil Young’s Old Man, I played one hook: the electric slide guitar in the chorus from A to D and people were impressed with my “solo.” It helps that there were three other guys filling in the rest of the sound. Anyway, the point is, it’s fun to play music with other people. It’s also both easier and harder than playing by yourself. When I had piano lessons as a kid, or when I was alone playing guitar in my bedroom, I was responsible for treble and bass, melody and harmony, pitch and rhythm. In a band, I have other people to coordinate with, but I only have to master my one part; as long as everyone does their part, we literally make beautiful music together.

It took me forty years to learn this lesson, but that’s a pretty good formula for creating a community of friends. Actually, it’s a pretty good formula for society: figure out how your part fits in with everyone else’s and do it to the best of your ability.

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