But in the last week or so I witnessed two very different but equally joyful displays of music-making. One was by a local band who have a very nice following and play lots of up-tempo well-known songs by people like the Eagles, Van Morrison, Tom Petty, Jimmy Buffett and the like. They only play out on an occasional basis but a couple of the members play in other, smaller groups that are also popular in the area. Are they slick and professional? Hell, no. They are all good players but they hardly ever rehearse so things like counted-off intros and tight outros are hardly ever a major concern. No set lists are in sight; they just kind of move from tune to tune at the whim of whoever happens to think of another song when they finish one. They also have no hesitation in throwing down a few beers while they are performing and probably a few before they start.
The result? The room was packed and EVERYONE was having a great time. The enthusiasm that was coming from the band was a big, big part of this. In a nutshell, they just love to play and that love and yes, joy, transcended any slight glitches in the music. I had a great time (a few margaritas may have had something to do with this of course), the band had a great time, the people listening had a great time. Mission accomplished!
At the other end of the musical spectrum in terms of pure chops were the group I heard Sunday afternoon at a house concert in Wood Hole. The group was comprised of pianist Gordon Webster, a stand-up bass player, rhythm guitarist, clarinet player who doubled on alto sax and a woman singer named Tatiana Eva-Marie. They played straight-ahead traditional jazz, swing and a bit of gypsy jazz. To say they were fantastic would be an understatement, especially Webster on piano (who served as the leader and introduced most of the tunes) and Tatiana Eva-Marie. Now, you would think as I described the type of music they played that they would be older musicians, well versed in this type of jazz that was popular in the 1930s and 40s. But no – the oldest was Webster, who may have been all of 50 but I doubt it. All the rest of the players were in their 20s and 30s! How could they be so great at this seemingly archaic form of jazz?
Love of the music. And joy. From the first note, the smiles never left their faces (well, OK, maybe not the clarinet guy, which would be tough to play with a smile on one’s face!). High energy and watching the musicians watch each other, smiling in appreciation of what was being played. Loving the experience and grateful for the opportunity to convey their love and joy.
But it came to me on the way home: that joy from hearing and playing at such an advanced level was really no different than the joy I saw on the face of the guy in that local band, “pilgrim” hat perched on his head as belted out “Take Me Home, Country Road” with a big grin on his face – and the whole bar sang along.
Over the years I’ve known a few musicians who were great players but sadly had lost the capacity to play with joy. This is usually an ego-based problem and it comes out pretty quickly that those players viewed playing music as some sort of competitive exercise. Unless you are auditioning for a major symphony orchestra or to take over for a musician in a famous band, viewing music making as a competition is a bad road to follow. Don’t even get me going on The Voice, American Idol and their ilk, which I despise. When a younger player reaches a point that may lead to playing professionally or “seriously” whatever that may mean, it is pretty easy to begin stacking his own playing against others. Ego and value judgements can begin to take over and inevitably the pure joy of playing often diminishes in direct proportion. In a few very sad cases I’ve even known players who quit playing altogether because they could no longer find the joy.
As the years have gone by I’ve found that I get great satisfaction, even joy in smaller musical accomplishments. The big picture in terms of my playing has become less important compared to how I looked at things years ago. That’s not to say I’ve gotten slack about how well I can and SHOULD be playing. I still want to play as well as I possibly can every time I pick up the guitar. It’s just that my standards for attaining some level of joy have changed.
So if you happen to hear me playing out somewhere and you notice a smile on my face it’s likely it’s there because I happen to like the way the chords fit together in that song, or a turn of a phrase in the lyrics touches me, or perhaps I’m reminded of something that happened long ago related to that song. And as long as those kinds of things keep happening when I pick up my guitar I’ll keep playing. Always with joy, I hope.
Peace & good music,