THE LONG HAUL: How to Play Music with Your Partner
Rachel Baiman and George Jackson onstage together (photo courtesy of Rachel Baiman)
Since the time we started dating, I’ve taken great pains to make sure that I didn’t accidentally start a band with my now husband, George Jackson. Despite constant questioning about it from promoters and fans, and egging on from our respective parents, I’ve held fast to my belief that for me, combining work and love would make both significantly less fun and rewarding.
As we all know, relationships are a compromise. They take constant care and attention and the ability to share physical and mental space. Over the years, through a variety of different dating/band situations, I’ve found that my professional space is just not something I want to share that closely.
I generally get along well with bandmates, whether I’m playing frontwoman or hired gun, but there’s something about sharing that space with a romantic partner that just makes it all go to shit. One minute you’re discussing if you played the first song too fast, and the next minute you’re screaming about how last week they didn’t take the trash out like they said they would. Or, god forbid, you have some illusion of a weekend cabin getaway combined with some super low-key (read: low-paying) gig and your partner takes a wrong turn and makes you two hours late for your soundcheck. The promoter doesn’t offer you any food, and you are filled with rage because your partner wouldn’t just pull up Google Maps when you told them to, and you only took this terrible gig because it seemed like it would be a fun vacation.
So, over these past few years, George and I have gone about our respective careers and played cheerleader for one another. It has meant spending a lot of time apart on the road, which has taken its toll. But there is something wonderful about having someone to call who will always be on your side when you complain about your terrible gig or your bandmates, and has no emotional investment in your job. It’s meant that we’ve worked hard to create a physical home together, taken actual vacations, with no gigs or rehearsals, and if one of us doesn’t like what the other person is working on musically or how they’re going about it, who cares? Not my project, not my problem!
But of course, life happens, and apparently so do global pandemics. Overnight, George and I went from having our own regular 3-4-piece bands to being one another’s only option for a band. And immediately, requests started coming in for us to play together on livestreamed festival and fundraising events. Slowly, we have tiptoed into the world of the partnered duet, and it has not been without tears, fights, and setbacks. However, we have come to genuinely enjoy playing together, and we are sounding more cohesive and comfortable with every gig. Although I hope that this isn’t a long-term solution, and that we can soon be back on the road with our bands, I thought I would offer some tips for romantic partners who are trying, whether by choice or by pandemic, to play together more.
Be patient: It seems obvious, but the truth is we exercise a lot less patience with our partners than we would with casual friends or bandmates. When you are dating someone, those regular barriers of politeness come down, and as a result, you can easily end up saying or doing hurtful things. Try to get in the mindset of treating the other person as you would a bandmate. Ask yourself, would I make this comment, request, or criticism of someone I was working with for the first time? If not, then try to find a kinder way to communicate. And at all costs, avoid any passive aggression. If you want to say something, say it and say it kindly.
Remember to reassure: When playing with your romantic partner it’s easy to assume that they know you appreciate their music. But really we are all just bundles of insecurity, looking for any reason to believe that other people think we are total imposters. Complimenting your partner, and reminding them how much you love playing music with them, can go a long way. In my experience, insecurity and fear of not measuring up have been a huge motivation for conflict.
Act professional: When working with those with whom we are most comfortable, it can be easy to bring our worst selves to the table. Try to maintain a mindset of professionalism, and practice and prepare for gigs as you would with anyone else. This will help everything go smoothly and make your partner feel that you respect them as a musician.
Don’t micromanage: When we are watching someone we love work toward a goal, it can be tempting to offer every piece of advice that pops into our minds because we truly think that we can help. But this can make the other person feel controlled and condescended to. Try to remove yourself emotionally from the way that your partner chooses to work on their music, and offer only solution-based advice for challenges that you know your partner is also concerned with. Often you will see things as a huge deal simply because you’re hyperfocused on the other person, and the audience won’t even notice.
Don’t be exclusive: While you might have an exclusive romantic relationship, when it comes to playing music, it’s always beneficial to “see other people.” Giving one another the freedom to hire other people in your place, or play for another band or group, can bring up feelings of jealousy, which is totally normal. But it can also be a great source of inspiration and growth for both of you. If either of you feel constrained or controlled, it will eventually impact both your music and your romantic relationship negatively.
Playing music with your partner is hard. And until recently I’d largely chosen to ignore it as an option in order to avoid dealing with these difficult situations. But for many couples it is an extremely rewarding choice that allows them to spend more time together and ultimately strengthen their relationship. Whatever you decide, just remember to be compassionate and put your personal relationship first, even if that means firing one or the other from the band.