Over the past six weeks, I’ve been working diligently on a new musical project. It’s actually part of an ongoing endeavor, one that involves working with area middle and high school musicians in a professional, non-school environment.
One of the kids in this band is my son, Declan, who is 12, and has been playing a variety of musical instruments – piano, cello, guitar – from the age of 5. During the past year, Declan has shifted his attentions to the electric bass. It has been a source of great joy to me, watching him flourish on the instrument, emulating his heroes and growing, through a combination of imagination and discipline. He’s becoming what musicians commonly refer to as a “lifer” – someone for whom music will always be a significant part of their life, if not the primary focus of that life.
This Father’s Day will be a different one for me. (And for “different,” read “awesome.”) This musical project involving my son, as well as a neighborhood high school keyboard prodigy, and a pair of high school-age singers, will be taking place at noon Sunday in the Buffalo Blues & Brews festival at the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village (formerly the Amherst Museum, 3755 Tonawanda Creek Road, Amherst). The band will be taking on some challenging tunes – one of which is an interpretation of a song by one of Declan’s heroes, the late jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius – in a high-profile, professional environment. Over the past six weeks, I’ve watched them approach this material with confidence, respect and dedication. It has been an inspirational experience for me.
Is it a cliché to suggest that we learn as much from our children as they do from us? If it is, that’s probably because it’s true.
I can’t claim a lack of bias in my assessment of my own son’s abilities as a musician. What parent could? Our kids are always a miracle to us. This can lead to an annoying tendency to brag about them. Facebook has, of course, made this a more prevalent problem. I’ve always tried to keep this sort of activity to a minimum, but sometimes I can’t help it. Pride in our kids gets the better of all of us once in a while.
The interesting thing about playing music with your kid, however, is that parental pride can’t cover up deficiencies or inadequacies. Music plays by its own rules. When you are a professional musician, it’s obvious when you’re playing with someone else whether they are cutting it, or they aren’t. Putting on blinders and insisting your kid can cut the mustard when they can’t, does a disservice to the music and an even greater one to the kid. They should realize that it’s difficult, that they aren’t getting the gig just because they are young and less is expected of them.
Youth sports provide a suitable metaphor. When the kids start out playing T-ball, for example, it’s cute, and we’re thrilled just to see them participating. As they grow older, things become more serious even if it’s still mostly about fun, being a member of a team, giving everyone an equal opportunity. By the time the kids are approaching high school age, differences in ability become apparent. There comes a point when it becomes unfair to stick kids in positions that they aren’t up to handling. Similarly, throwing a young musician into a musical situation where they don’t understand the language and can’t “hang” with the other players does not do them any favors.
Working with young musicians has taught me that kids don’t need to be condescended to, nor do they want to be. They respond well to an appropriate musical challenge, but they shouldn’t be thrown in over their heads just because we, as parents, are blinded to the reality of the situation by our love for them. It’s tricky terrain to navigate, but Western New York is full of music teachers and educators who do so on a day-to-day basis. I’ve said it before in these pages, and will continue to say it – these people need to be honored and valued as significant members of our cultural community. They are helping to form the future of our culture.
On a personal level, all of this has gone by in a blur, and in the process, the space-time continuum begins to feel protean. I remember like it was yesterday playing acoustic guitar and singing (badly) Beatles tunes to Declan when he was in his crib. Now, I’m playing music with him and, despite the fact that I’ve been a musician for 30 years, I can see the point rapidly approaching when it will be me trying to keep up with him. The experience leaves me feeling mildly dazed, but incredibly fulfilled.
I took Declan to see jazz bassist Marcus Miller and his band last week, and after the show we spent some time with Miller and guitarist Adam Agati, both of whom were kind and generous with their time. Declan and Agati hit it off in a big way. Agati shared stories of rooming with Esperanza Spalding at Berklee, spoke of how important studying theory seriously was to a professional musician and how equally important playing from the heart is. He expressed amazement at Declan’s enthusiasm for everyone from Geddy Lee to Miles Davis to Frank Zappa to the Beatles.
After 15 minutes or so of discussion with my son, Agati looked at me, looked back at Declan, and said “You’re lucky, man – your old man raised you right.”
That’s about the best thing a father can ever hope to hear.
The Buffalo Blues & Brews Festival features blues guitar giant Walter Trout, San Francisco psychedelic soul-funk outfit Monophonics and a host of other bands. A full schedule of performers, as well as ticket information, is available through buffalobluesfest.com.