Democracy Dies in Darkness

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Music is way too fun to leave to the pros, a new book says

July 26, 2018 at 8:05 AM

Members of the Adult Music Student Forum, Carol Henry and John Hoffsommer, perform a piano duet. (Larry Bamford/)

Maybe some music teacher told you that you were tone-deaf, and you never sang in public again. Perhaps you were such a great musician in your youth that your inner perfectionist shudders at the thought of the sounds you might make today. Or maybe you’ve always wanted to learn an instrument but fear it’s too late.

The Washington International Chorus welcomes all singers, no audition necessary.

To all the adults out there who are not making music on the regular, you are missing out on one of life’s great pleasures, says Amy Nathan, author of “Making Time for Making Music.” For many adult musicians, playing music is like a mini-vacation, she says.

“Once you start playing, a calmness comes over you. You’re not writing the shopping list, or thinking about the problem at the office. It’s a totally engrossing experience,” Nathan says. “You can’t worry about other things when you’re doing music.”

Nathan would know. In the course of writing her book, which came out in May, she interviewed more than 350 amateur adult musicians, from occasional choristers to seriously dedicated violinists, and they pretty much all said that playing music is a deeply meaningful and rewarding part of their lives.

At Flashband events, musicians form temporary bands and play one rad gig. (Donnie Riggs/)

“People get so many different things out of it — a sense of community, professional contacts — but most of all, they just enjoy the experience,” she says.

If that hasn’t convinced you to play music, do it for your brain: Research shows that musicians — including adults who just started playing — score better than non-musicians on tests of executive function, an all-purpose cognitive ability that includes problem-solving and planning. Plus, emerging research suggest that playing music could actually delay the onset of dementia, Nathan notes.

So what stops people from playing music? In her book, Nathan covers every possible hang-up and logistical problem. Worried about bothering the neighbors? Try no-noise instruments or gadgets, like a trumpet mute that connects to headphones. Concerned about the cost of lessons? Teach yourself through YouTube videos or consider low-cost group lessons with other adults.

D.C.’s Different Drummers offers a variety of musical ensembles for LGBT musicians.

Ahead of her book talk at Politics and Prose on Sunday, Nathan tipped us off to one more secret: Amateurs may not be the best musicians around, but they’re having the most fun.

“You can play whatever you want, entirely on your own terms,” she says. You can practice a lot or a little. Explore whatever genre appeals to you or invent your own. Get together with a group or play by yourself.

The world of music is big enough for everyone, including those who think they’re tone-deaf and those who never want to see a stage door, Nathan says. That stealthy group of musicians actually includes Nathan herself, as she will only play piano for an audience of one: her husband.

The amateur musicians at the Friday Morning Music Club’s Avanti Orchestra plays regular gigs at the Kennedy Center.

“He’s very appreciative,” she says. “The good news is, for adults, recitals are completely optional.”

Where to toot your flute

The D.C. area abounds with opportunities for amateur musicians, no matter the instrument or skill level

Levine Jazz and Blues Jam Sessions
Commitment-phobic jazzmen and blues players will love the fact that you don’t have to RSVP for Levine Music’s free monthly jam sessions, which are expertly led by the music education center’s teachers.

Flashband
Go to a party, meet other musicians and form a temporary band. Then, over the course of a month, write a song or learn a cover, and ultimately perform it at a showcase starring other Flashbands. If this sounds like fun, sign up for the next Flashband event that features a genre you like.

The Meridian Hill Park Jam
Bring any instrument, even the homemade kind, to this free-form, cross-genre jam held in Meridian Hill Park (aka Malcolm X Park) at 16th Street and W Street NW on summer Sundays at 2:30 p.m. (Note: This jam is separate from the regular drum circle and takes place in a different part of the park.)

Adult Student Music Forum
This group provides performance opportunities and workshops for classical musicians of all levels in the D.C. area. Get started doing intimate, student-only recitals and work your way up to big concert halls — or just stick to the living rooms.

The DC Area Folk SOJO
(Sing Out Jam Out)
Musicians and singers of all levels are welcome at this twice-monthly singalong at the Iglesia de San Jose, 911 N. Oakland St., Arlington, on selected Sundays at 2 p.m. If you own a copy of “Rise Up Singing” or “Rise Again,” bring it along, because this group often draws from those songbooks’ repertoire.

D.C.’s Different Drummers
This umbrella organization includes lots of musical groups for LGBT brass, wind and percussion players, including a symphonic band, a jazz band, a marching band and a swing band. If you’ve got rhythm but no music, join the color guard.

Encore Chorales
If you’re lucky enough to be 55 or older, check out one of these singing groups. In the D.C. area, 15 Encore Chorales perform mostly classical music and show tunes, while six Encore ROCKS groups stick to classic rock. They’re all novice-friendly and they get together for an annual gig at the Kennedy Center.

Friday Morning Music Club
This group of amateur classical musicians and singers actually performs every day of the week. You can join the full orchestra, a small chamber group or a chorale, bringing music to stages all over the D.C. area.

Washington International Chorus
This audition-free chorus performs music from all over the world in recognition of the D.C. area’s diversity. Rehearsals are held on Tuesdays from 7 to 9 p.m. at Universalist National Memorial Church at 1810 16th St. NW.

Gypsy Jazz Meetup
Fans of the moody dance music pioneered by Jean “Django” Reinhardt jam every Monday evening in Bethesda or Takoma Park, Md. BYO fiddle, guitar, banjo, accordion or other genre-appropriate instrument.


I'm the "Staycationer," author of a biweekly column reviewing tourist hotspots in the Washington, D.C. area. I also preview upcoming performances and write quirky and fun feature stories.

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