Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Thoughts on Bands

My son the composer is part of a brand-new band. I was invited to watch one of their recent rehearsals. At first, the prospect of observing the raw creative process gave me pause, as my own instinct is to hide myself away whenever I do anything remotely creative. (For example, these simple blog entries are hammered out in the isolation of an upstairs bedroom.) I worried that I might feel like an intruder, like someone invited to a maternity ward to observe a strange woman giving birth. But once the music started, I put aside these qualms and enjoyed the musical commotion immensely.

In some ways, watching the rehearsal was like watching a new star as it coalesces from the hydrogen soup and begins to glow. And in other ways it was like watching a frantic pit crew, where the crew isn't sure whether they're at the Indy 500 or the demolition derby at the county fairgrounds. The band's musical experimentation was a fascinating mix of artsy falderal, retro French cabaret stylings, and garage band (or, to be exact, basement band) thunder.

The way that the band members worked together seemed analogous to how a small engineering team conducts a brainstorming session. Therefore, I can make use of the same categories that I used in the previous blog entry to characterize how a successful band works.


The heart of the band is expressed by how each member listens to the others and reacts to their music ideas. My son's band was excellent at this. Through a tumultuous exchange of suggestions, arguments, counter-arguments, revelations, and occasional buffoonery, the band started with a newly hatched song, a mere musical nubbin, and in short order turned it into a full-fledged opus ready for the concert stage.

I was impressed by how gracefully the band used good-natured conflict about aesthetic opinions to spur experimentation and problem solving. Creative people can often be touchy. As Carol Eikleberry notes in her book, The Career Guide for Creative and Unconventional People:

"Creative people often focus on what is wrong, what is missing, what needs to be changed to make something better. In fact, many creative people look like chronic malcontents to outsiders, because they are always searching for what can be improved."

The band was successful in balancing creative tension with a spirit of camaraderie.


The soul of the band is expressed in the band's adherence to a consistent music path. (I am defining a successful band as a band that has artistic integrity. I know that there are plenty of bands with no soul making money in music. But I am not considering hacks with big bank balances as successful bands.) Even if the band is in the earliest stages of groping to find their own sound, the band members must have the sense that they can invent or discover a path that will work for them, without having to copy someone else's approach.

Therefore, I was encouraged to hear some of the members of my son's new band wrestling with questions about the musical choices they were making and where the choices would lead them. A healthy question for a new band to ask is "What kind of band are we?"


The strength of the band is expressed in how dedicated the band members are in pursuing their music goals. This involves doing the hard work to make things right, to discover the right aesthetic solution, to work through the creative tension to a new and satisfying resolution.

At one point in the rehearsal, the band's singer noticed that my son had been experimenting with new guitar chords for the song's chorus. The singer asked if he were doing it for fun. He responded, "I never do anything for fun." In the sense that my son meant this, he was perfectly truthful. My son could have said, with equal truth: "I take my fun very seriously."