The Collaborative Magic of Playing in a Band

Music expresses that which cannot be said and
on which it is impossible to be silent.
                             -Victor Hugo

I was a small boy living in New York when my mother began to teach me how to sing. Her instruction was not about mastering my voice or becoming a prodigy. I realize now she wasn’t teaching me about music as much as she was introducing me to joy.

She would have me sit with her at the piano. I was mesmerized by how her fingers moved, how keys pressed down and then released all because of her, because of some ability she had that I could not fathom.

I know we did a few duets at the church, but my memory is feint. But I recall clearly to this day how my mother’s head rose up and how her face shone as her lilting voice filled the air with song. And I remember how good it felt to see that. But also to feel it. Just feel it.

My mother taught me how music can send chills up your spine and how that feeling is nearly  always about people, especially about the people you love.

Yep, that’s me playing for my daughter. She looks rather mesmerized, but not from the music I fear:)

I exposed my children to music early in life, too. Both my son and my daughter love music and I like to think their exposure to  my music and my incredible band mates has something to do with their own journey and the richness of their imaginations. My daughter is a singer song writer now (she goes by Sarah Lillian, and all prejudice aside, she writes some pretty awesome tunes.

Fast forward.

Over the years I have taught myself several instruments, all of them a bit out of the ordinary: a mandola shaped
4-string instrument called a dulcitar. I have two, an alto and a tenor, handmade for me by a craftsman in Ottawa.

I have several mountain dulcimers, all of them made by craftsman in love with music.  I have two autoharps, too. It is a simple instrument to learn but you can do quite a bit with 36 strings.  One the edgy blues tunes I wrote (Hard Life) features an electric autoharp.  And to round it off I play the recorder – yes that “flute” many of you had to squeak through in grade school. Turns out it’s a versatile, beautiful flute, which I feature on “Travelling for a Long Time.”

A friend of mine, an ex biker, used to ask me to play some of that "angel music." He loved the autoharp.
A friend of mine, an ex biker, used to ask me to play some of that “angel music.” He loved the autoharp.

I mention the hand crafted instruments for a reason. There are people in the world capable of amazing things. The ones who built my instruments didn’t make a lot of money doing so. I know each one created instruments because they loved the art.  One told me that the thought of people playing his instruments all around the world made him feel like he was touching people, helping them connect with one another. All through the music played on his instruments.

There was a time I played around town quite a bit. My band was called Mark Holmgren and Early Warning. I almost called my band  The Cafeterians. Not sure why, but I am glad I went with Early Warning. It fits my disposition, I think.

We played my original songs, nearly all of them about my experiences working in the Inner City. I wrote a lot of songs like that and we were fortunate to do a concert featuring them at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival.

I mention my band because we exemplified true collaboration and achieved such synergy that sometimes it felt like we had a spiritual connection on stage. It was as if together we created something bigger than ourselves. My guitar player, Randy Reichardt and bass player, John Towill, were stellar arrangers. I remember the three of us working on songs, different people taking the lead when it made sense; we helped each other with our ideas; we tried things before rejecting them.

One of the finest and simplest songs we arranged together was “As If.” It merges a melody I had with a guitar riff Randy had been playing for years but never could find a “home” for. He did in this song. That is a testimony to Randy’s perseverance. He didn’t give up on that riff.

About a year ago I wrote a song to open the Tamarack Institute gathering in Edmonton.  I had never written a song for an event and it had been too long since I performed in front of live audience. The creative process I experienced was a lot like the processes we all experience when trying to figure out how to effect a change or increase impact. We all have an audience we must perform before. Performing takes know-how and practice.

Each of us is music. We may express it differently or hear it uniquely, and yes, just like everything else, some are better at it than others. But sharing our creativity and passion is not about sharing only what is better than what others can do. If we lived by that rule, there would be no sharing. Most, if not all, the songs I wrote were far better when performed with Randy and John joining me as arrangers, not just musicians. I think my songs were good. Our songs were far better than I could have done on my own.

As collaborative as playing together in a band is, it is also true that the group relied on the individual abilities of one another.  If any of us missed a mark, slipped on a transition, or forgot a lyric, we would lose the magic of our potential filling the air. Each of us made a commitment to learn our part of each song and when one of us had a solo, the rest of us laid down the foundation for what was to come., glad fully yielding to, and supporting, our colleague’s individual effort and creativity.

Sometimes we achieved such connectedness it gave us chills. I remember performing at one of the Folk Fest workshops and in the middle of a song I wrote about a man who beats his wife, I had this idea of how to change the upcoming transition in the song. As we got closer to it, I decided I was going to do it. Just before we hit it, I turned and nodded at Randy. I don’t know how he did it, but he just went with me to a new place we had never discussed much less practiced. It was beautiful.

Working together, whether in a band or on community work, calls us to be innovative and to learn new skills. I will end with a story about my bass player, John. He told me one day that my song, “Water was a Thin Man,“ needed a didgeridoo. I think I gave him a small bit of encouragement, but to be honest, I didn’t really think about it much. John was so committed to adding this instrument to the song that he bought one and set out to learn it. Not only did he learn it, but he taught himself circular breathing, so that the undertone drone this instrument produces could be constantly present.

The first time he played the didgeridoo with the song, he did so while playing his bass. He had taught himself to play the didgeridoo while playing his fretless bass. He rigged up a stand for the long instrument so that he do that.  Talk about innovation. But here’s the thing. Being innovative is a good thing, but what is best is when the innovation is put to action and produces a better result. Let me tell you, John was right. The song was lifted up by the addition of his innovative idea.

I was blessed to have music so early in life. But music is here, always. It’s a part of life and there is no wrong time to embrace it and to fill up your spirit with its fuel and inspiration.

Without music, life would be a mistake.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

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