I’m With the Band

“I’m with the band,” I tell the woman at the front desk. “I’m a musician,” I whisper, unsure of myself. She doesn’t question me, just smiles and buzzes me in. I guess the guitar case in my hand is all the proof she needs, but I’m not completely convinced.

At what point does one earn the right to call themselves a musician? I ponder, as I make my way down the long corridor. I play guitar daily, I play with other people, and I am here I to perform here in front of an audience. Is that enough to earn the title?Part of me feels like a fraud, like a little girl playing make believe. A fifty-something little girl, that is.

Considering the scale of my entire life, I am very new at playing music. I picked up the guitar two-and-a-half years ago, right before my fiftieth birthday. It didn’t feel like a mid-life crisis. I merely picked up an acoustic guitar belonging to my ten-year-old son that was collecting dust in the corner. I intended to tune it for him, maybe show him the three chords I thought I could remember from one semester of guitar class thirty years prior.

I went on to YouTube and searched “How to tune a guitar” and fell into a musical vortex from which I’ve never wished to escape. In addition to tuning, I found videos hailing, “Play ten songs with just three chords,” and countless other beginner lessons. I was mesmerized. My son didn’t share my interest, but within a week I was sitting on my porch steps with that guitar in hand, convinced I was “Sittin’ on the Dock of a Bay.”

Learning a to play an instrument is literally and figuratively painful. The sore fingertips didn’t bother me as much as the awareness that I “played” the same thing over and over again, very badly. I apologized to my roommate, a music lover who generously said, “I don’t mind at all. I love to hear musicians practicing their craft.” She was the first person to ever call me a musician, but she gave me an even greater gift. I truly believe there are few ideas more empowering than convincing a person it is okay to be a beginner. At anything.

About this time, a seemingly unrelated event occurred that proved to further propel me into this musical vortex. I went to hear some bluegrass music. I’ve always been a fan of bluegrass and actively search it out, so when I saw on the internet that there was a “bluegrass meet up” at a park in Fountain Valley, I decided to go check it out.

It was not what I expected.

I thought I would sit on the grass and listen to the pros, but instead I found a group of about ten people under a tree, sitting in a circle in folding chairs, playing songs out of a book. There was no audience, just a group that included mostly senior citizens and one teenager. There were several guitars, a fiddle, a mandolin, two banjos, and a bass guitar. They asked if I played an instrument. “Barely,” didn’t seem to deter them.

The group invited me to join in and sing along, since I didn’t have my guitar with me. Some of the songs were familiar, all of them catchy. I hadn’t sung with a group since glee club in school and was surprised how enjoyable it was. In fact, it was a blast. The bluegrass “jammers” were so warm and friendly that I had no problem accepting their invitation to come back with my guitar the following week.

And so it began. Two-and-a-half hours each Saturday with a whole group of people who collectively said, “It’s okay to be a beginner.” Some of them were beginners themselves, some had decades of experience. I learned from them all.

Week after week I became more familiar with the songs and more proficient at changing chords. I even learned scales so I could “take a break” (lead) on a few songs, which never came out like I practiced at home. But no one ever criticized, they just encouraged me and I did the same for them. Gradually, I became bolder in this setting, singing solo for the first time in my life, but finding I actually prefer to sing harmonies in the bluegrass style.

Many people in the bluegrass community are brought up around this type of music, but I didn’t grow up in a musical family. My earliest memories of bluegrass came from our very memorable trips to the farm. I’m talking about Knott’s Berry Farm, of course. My older brother would take us younger siblings to Knott’s every time he got leave from the army. I associate the sound of bluegrass and the smell of boysenberries with my best childhood memories.

Perhaps my Scottish/Irish genes could explain why this genre pulls me in, since bluegrass evolved from tunes brought over by the immigrants of these countries. My own family didn’t settle in Appalachia, but in the Ozarks, before moving to Southern California. Yes, there could be an ancient visceral memory, but for whatever reason, the sound of a banjo and fiddle just makes me giddy.

In spite of my passion, I still suffered this nagging voice in my head, “You don’t get to start playing an instrument at the age of fifty! You should have started at twelve! Why are you wasting so much time?”

Obviously I am not trying to be a pop star. I don’t have aspirations to play open mics or gain notoriety at coffee clubs. So why am I doing this? When I asked myself this questions, the answer came as clear as a bell; I want to be good enough to play old-timey music for old people. People in convalescent homes who can’t get out to hear music. I want to bring a smile to someone’s face and remind them of happier times. Yee-haw! Sprinkle in a little altruism and I suddenly feel justified and validated in my obsession.

Two-and-a-half years into this journey, I walk down the hallway of a hospital, meeting up with my “bandmates”, friends I’ve made through months of jamming in the park. Our audience is only about twice the size of our nine-person ensemble. I tune up my guitar and look around, not intimidated by this crowd, instead feeling warm and grateful for the opportunity to share the music I love.

We play songs that are older than anyone in the room, some too old to be credited to any particular songwriter. “Bluegrass standards” is what they are referred to, songs about bank robbers, broken hearts, murder and death, with a few gospel tunes mixed in. There is a slight concern that the death songs might be inappropriate, but played at warp speed, they actually sound peppy.

I make a few mistakes and hope they go unnoticed, but in spite of all my self-doubt, I know I have been given a fantastic gift. I’m not talking about my music ability. With awareness of how far I’ve come, I also clearly see that I have an even longer way to go. But even as I do, “practice my craft”, I get to share music along the way. With my bandmates, with other people in the park, at bluegrass jams and festivals all over Orange County and Southern California. And now, for this current audience, a group of people recovering from surgery or trauma at the New Orange Hills Recovery Center.

The audience is receptive. It’s mostly patients and their families, with a few hospital employees meandering by and popping in for a tune or two. A gal in the front row seems to be our most enthusiastic fan. She only has one leg and no foot at all, but she uses her stump to vigorously tap along with our rendition of “New River Train.” She’s disappointed to learn it is our last song.

“Don’t worry, we’ll be back soon.”

I laugh to myself. So, I’ve “made it.”! am now a musician on the ‘convalescent circuit.’ And I don’t think most people would consider me a fraud. A beginner, maybe. Perhaps even an emerging intermediate, but I truly am a musician.

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