I've told people this before, but my family joining Newton Family Singers was motivated by a conversation I had with a friend. "How do I get better at playing guitar?" I asked him. His answer: Play with other people.
I suspect a lot of people are bedroom guitarists, like I was. That is, happy to sit at home strumming away to myself. But, emboldened by my friend's advice, I struck up a conversation at the local elementary school with a guy who played bass. We got together to play a couple of times, and I instantly understood what my friend meant. To play with other people requires you to focus, to pay more attention to tempo and pitch and just be more in the moment.
A month or so later when I heard there was a musical group forming at the Waban Library, I convinced my wife to join and bring the kids.
I've played with a lot of people in the NFS band since then, and I've gotten a lot better on my instrument. (Still room for improvement!)
Another way to say that is that I've learned a lot with everyone who's been in the band, especially Andy Rogovin (a natural and patient teacher) and Neil Johnson (now playing around Boston in his band Beyond the Blur). And I want to salute all the musicians who come in for a song or two each concert, like Joseph Rothschild among others. And of course, Quinn Eastburn is his own force of nature.
However, I wanted to take this moment to just heap some praise on the current, core NFS band, which has remained essentially the same since 2015.
Bernie Bernstein is the bassist I met at the elementary school years ago. Bass players are often quiet personalities who anchor a band without being flashy or showing off. Bernie is a quintessential bass player -- he is always playing exactly what the music needs. I suspect a lot of people don't actively listen to what Bernie is playing but can nonetheless sense when he's there, holding us all together. He's got a terrific ear for melody and rhythm and it's amazing how quickly he can learn a part for a small group, five minutes after being asked to join them.
Mike Klein is a super solid drummer. Let's be frank, keeping time for our group can be ... tough. In a rock band, they set the tempo and go from beginning to end. With NFS, we're conducted with a lot of skill and musicality by Chris Eastburn so the tempos may shift or suspend here and there to accommodate singers and convey emotional intentions. Mike is essentially keeping a shifting tempo -- which is an oxymoron. On top of that, he plays with a lot of color and emotion. I don't tend to think of drumming as emotional, but I find myself moved by subtle dynamic changes or fills that Mike adds to our songs.
Our lead guitarist Chip Highfield is the hardest working member of NFS. Seriously. I know you all practice at home (right?) and maybe you put in a few extra hours in a week singing to the cd or picking notes out at a piano. Chip and I get together regularly (always at his insistence) throughout a session, with Bernie and Mike if they have time. And while it's impressive when Chris suddenly asks Chip to play 16 bars extemporaneously, it's equally amazing that Chip learns guitar solos from the bands we're covering. He learns John Fogerty's part on "Proud Mary," he can play all the Jen Turner fills on "Wonder." Think about how much work goes into learning a vocal part in one song -- a part that someone has written out for you. Now imagine learning the part yourself and essentially being a soloist on every song! That's not just instinct; that's hours and hours of listening, and then even more hours of playing along. I get emails from Chip about what might seem like minutiae -- he's just been listening to a live version of some song and the chord change they use is a bit different from what we've been playing: should we try it? Sometimes we do and sometimes we don't, but I'm always just astounded at the amount of research that goes into everything Chip plays. And of course, once he starts going, he plays fluidly; Chip never sounds like he's playing an etude, he's always playing an aria. .
I feel very lucky to be standing among these players and hearing Mike add a happy reggae fill to a song, or hear Bernie jump up a couple octaves to play a wind instrument part, or Chip play a weird little note that I once noticed on the recording.
There are a few people in NFS that I know can sing their own part while listening to everything the band is doing. (In contrast, I have no idea what people are singing when I'm just trying to play along to some songs.) I know who they are because they look over and smile and make eye contact when someone plays something new and pleasing. Chris Eastburn occasionally makes comments like, "Chip, you added a 6th on the second to last measure, that was kind of cool."
More likely, you're one of the majority of people who isn't sure exactly what the band members are doing, just that they sound pretty great.
I agree, whole-heartedly.