Brooklyn Music Factory: Playing By Heart

If you are a regular on this blog site then you’ve read about my two oldest friends, Neil and Danny, before (Now That I Think About It). As we’ve aged, our day to day existences have pulled us apart geographically, and so we end up talking about each other’s lives more than actually taking part in them. That being the case it should have been less of a surprise to me that although I have heard about the band that they are in for years now, last June was the first time I actually got to see them perform. Danny had played a recording of one of their shows for me but trying to see and hear them via a smart phone was less than optimal, to put it mildly. Listening to them live was, as it turned out, a real treat in many ways.

Danny had first started playing with the band (Misspent Youth) through the adult program at Brooklyn Music Factory (BMF), a musical education center located in the Gowanus section of the borough. Eventually he brought Neil in. When they related the set up to me I first thought of it as a rock and roll version of those baseball fantasy camps where everybody comes in with a dream and leaves with an emergency room bracelet. True as far as it went, but more than that in other ways. I’ll elaborate on that in just a bit. The night that I was able to make it to their performance was essentially their spring concert. The different groups that comprise the adult band program at BMF play out at a venue in Manhattan twice a year. They each rehearse four to six songs and go on stage one band at a time over the course of a few hours. There is a wide range of experience on display. By the time the evening was over I saw groups that clearly had members who had music making careers that could most likely have been measured in months. I also heard a few people who were, as Roger Kahn so eloquently put it when referring to the single A Utica Blue Sox, good enough to dream. If you took the half dozen most accomplished musicians from the school, and gave them five weeks to work up a set list they’d definitely be capable of making some money passing the hat at a bar. If that last description sounds demeaning then you have no idea of how difficult it is to get some stranger to fork over a dollar of their hard earned money.

While the performance quality varied the esprit de corps was unanimously positive. I’m referring to the other musicians, not just the crowd. On a night like that everybody brings their own rooting section with them, so the festive atmosphere is to be expected. What really caught my attention was a feeling of community that was as easy as it was ubiquitous. Whether their approach was league night/book club or full on rock star day dream everyone there was definitely part of something bigger. It was that sense of shared good time that made the evening into more than just a chance to catch up with old friends. I wanted to write about it right away but I happened upon the story just as the program went on summer hiatus. When things got going again in the fall Danny was kind enough to make some introductions for me and arranged for me to speak with one of the founders of the school, and to sit in on a rehearsal with the band.

When Nate Shaw, along with co-founder Peira Moinester, started things six years ago he had a very clear vision in mind. His first goal was to inspire all the musicians involved in the program to keep coming back every week and play. Walking around the building you can see how easy they make it for kids to feel welcome there. Musical games, songwriting programs, easy access to instruments and the space needed to throw themselves into learning facilitate a setting where they commit to music without having to think about it. For adults the approach is a little different as most of them show up with a real hunger. So many of them are finally getting a chance to live out a dream that has been delayed for years, if not decades in some cases. For most of them dedication is not an issue, but, as Nate related to me, there are other barriers to entry (his perfect phrase) that need to be overcome. Working through everybody’s moments of miscommunication and ego can take a little time when the process begins. But it happens. They eventually reach a place where everyone is on the same page, and as I later discovered, they end up directing their time there, with a staff member sitting in for the first half of practice, serving as an objective set of ears. Nate’s second priority was to create a place where all the students could develop a sense of belonging. Considering what it was that captivated me so thoroughly in the first place I’d have to say it’s a job well done. Thinking of what a risk it must be for many of them to be playing, and in particular singing, in public I can’t imagine most of the musicians being able to follow through without the safety that the place and program provide.

After I finished speaking with Nate I was lucky enough to be able to observe the band as they worked through the pieces they are preparing for performance in December. They were generous enough to allow me in and answer a few questions I had in regard to their experiences. Jen (bass and keyboards, vocals) originally wanted to start playing the piano again and find a little release from the pressures of her very responsible adult life as an attorney for an insurance company. She feels that being in the band gives her a chance to step outside of herself a bit and relive her high school theater days. Joe (lead guitar, vocals) works with Danny and was introduced to the group by him. Having played in bands throughout high school he wanted to plug back into that scene. Joe never put the instrument down and really enjoys having a place to put his talent and skills to use. He wanted something more than just practicing in his basement. For Neil (guitar, harmonica, vocals) being in a band is way of looking forward and living out a fantasy at the same time. When we were single he and I spent a lot of nights at Arthur’s Tavern, a live music bar in the Village, listening to Cold Sweat, the house band. Those guys could flat out play. Projecting himself into that role allows him to revisit an easier period in our lives. Young and stupid can be a nice place to visit. At the same time he wants to continue to improve as a musician; to be able to contribute more. Danny (drums, vocals) had been a musical kid, playing several instruments but had always dreamed of being in a band. Finding this group both satiated and then amplified his desires. He too wants to grow as a musician, both in performance and songwriting. Every time I see him sit down behind a drum kit I’m amazed at what he’s accomplished on his own. Listening to them run through their repertoire, what impacted me most strongly was an atmosphere of people connected not only by common interest, but a shared language too. Working with the verbal shorthand developed by hours and hours of practice they were truly rapt in their attention to each other, and by extension the part of themselves that is all too often buried under family and work. For two hours a week, that building, and everything in it, is a chance to put all they have into something that’s just for them.

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6 thoughts on “Brooklyn Music Factory: Playing By Heart

  1. Marty your description of what we have at BMF is right on the money. The only thing missing is you. When are you joining the band. Having you in that rehearsal room was such a treat. It was easy for me to picture you showing up each week and being part of this little thing that has been cultivated.


  2. Marty, you really summed it up.
    Having a class like this with people you really like and truly making it into a learning experience along with acting out a real fantasy is a dream come true and I’m sure the other students and band members agree. If I can’t act in one of your movies I’m glad I can act out on stage with an instrument I truly love.
    And like Danny states, it would be a extra treat if you were with us, especially with your musical knowledge. Love ya Martin, keep blogging and keep being a true friend!!!!!


  3. Dear Marty, are you as surprised as I am with how beautifully Neil was able to express himself? Do you think he needed to lie down after writing?


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