Keep on Playing, No Matter What

markautoharpI can’t recall when I first noticed the auto-harp. I think it was seeing Bryan Bowers at some club many moons ago that sparked my interest. But it was years later when I finally bought one, and then another, then an electric auto-harp. I was auto-harp crazy there for a while.

The auto-harp has 36 strings and it may look complicated but it’s not. You just press a button to get an F or a G or a Gm and so on. If you can press a button and strum strings you can play this instrument. Perhaps not performance quality but hey, music is good for you, period.

I have written many songs on the auto-harp and have performed with it at least a dozen times in front of real live people, and it worked. It worked well with all of the other instruments. Some of best songs were written on my old Oscar Schmidt.

Of course this simple instrument tempts one’s fingers to pick and choose among its 36 strings.   Finger picking and strumming are a contrast, to say the least.

Truth be told, one hand (my left) presses buttons; the other (my right) has a rather complex relationship with the strings, individually and collectively. Simple and complex concurrently present. The music is not about one over the other. The melody and its quality are about the synergy of two hands being asked to act and, in a sense, think differently.

Being a musician reminds me that rules and and chaos can be companions. Within the structure there can be freedom. What is possible is made up of what is here, not just what is coming.

Listening to music on ear buds is a distant second to being in the same space as musicians. You have to see it, not just hear it. Experience it to fully understand its offering.

It’s the same for the musicians on stage. Whenever my band played a concert, part of our warm up was determining where we would each stand or sit in order to ensure we could see each other. Being able to see subtle cues – the small nod, a glance – was vital to us. Being well-rehearsed was not just about ensuring we all play our parts well; it also meant knowing each other so that we could react to one another, go with the flow if making a change was necessary.

These memories. These lessons taught to me by music. They are about my work as well. Our work.

We have to work with the simple and the complex and hold both in our minds simultaneously, and avoid our impulse to separate things into easier to understand (and manageable) parts of the whole.

Yes, we need structure, but structures should be liberating, not confining or unbending.  Of course we need rules, but imagine how uninspiring music would be if it were only rules-based. Understanding music does not mean you cannot or should not rebel against it from time to time, disrupt the pattern, change up the timing. Isn’t it the same in our work? The big changes we want in communities can’t be limited to rules and our habits of good intentions.

And in this day of cell phones and texting and tweeting and all the other ways we cocoon ourselves, let’s remember we need to see one another. See where we are standing or sitting. Be able to sense one another so that when one of us deviates from the plan unexpectedly we are able to adjust, adapt, and carry on.

As a musician I have learned that when I make a mistake, when I miss a note or vibrate a string unduly, the best strategy has always been to keep on playing. It’s the same when a band mate screws up. We just keep going and in no time we are back in the groove making beautiful music. No cares much about that time in the past when things weren’t clicking as well as they are now.

Sure, we might talk about that time and try to understand it. And sure, we might become better musicians by analyzing those moments we disconnected. But we don’t dwell on it. Figuring out whose fault it was seems unnecessary.

Keep playing, no matter what. And I swear you will feel the chills run down your spine like I did on stage one night singing an unplanned harmony with a band mate.

We nailed it.

Some of my auto-harp songs:
Walter was a thin man
Hard Life
The Occasional Traveler

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