It IS All About the Bass — Reflections of a Baby Elder

Sometime during the last year, young friends began asking me if we could get together and “talk.” Not just talk. “Talk.” They came to me with big questions. They asked me for stories about my experience. It slowly began to dawn on me that they were coming to me for….wisdom. Holy cow.

My immediate response was to send them along to someone wiser and more mature than me. Even so, the very act of their asking held up a mirror to a new and astonishing truth: I am becoming a baby elder.

One of my friends and wise teachers, Angeles Arrien, talked about how long it takes to become a true elder. In one of her last interviews before her death in 2014, she told the interviewer she wasn’t “old enough” to write her memoirs in her 70’s. In many of the indigenous cultures she studied over her long career as a cultural anthropologist, people didn’t really mature into elderhood until they were at least 90.

I’m only in my mid-fifties now, so I’ve got a few decades before I consider myself fully cooked as an elder. Even so, I feel called to show up for these young adults who come to me with their questions, stories, doubts, and dreams.

Mostly I listen to these young ones and ask good questions. I offer some stories about what I’ve learned from being alive. Sometimes I talk about singing jazz as a great metaphor for – as linguist and author Mary Catherine Bateson so beautifully put it – “Composing a Life.”

When I first starting singing solo in public, I did so as a jazz singer. My first piano player gave me strict instructions not to listen to what he was doing. He told me to listen to the bass. That way I’d always know where I was in the song. During that time I also learned how to improvise – how to make stuff up within the structure of a song. Those experiences provided the core metaphor for how I have lived my life ever since.

The “bass line” of our lives is made up of recurring and deep themes – the things that keep catching our attention over and over again, the values that are unshakable. A good life is made up of listening for that bass line and then just taking a breath and improvising over it. The cardinal rules for improvising work well for living as well:

Get to know the underlying structure of the song.
Keep moving.
If you screw up, just keep going until your find your way to the other side.
No do-overs.
Listen to the whole ensemble.
Be generous with your band mates…make them look good.
Trust your instincts.
Be brave.
Keep your sense of humor.

I tell my young friends that you don’t have to know exactly what you’re doing as you do it. Just keep listening, breathing, and experimenting. And even in the middle of the uncertainty, do all you can to make something beautiful.




About Barbara McAfee

Barbara is a voice coach, singer/songwriter, keynote speaker, and author who merges lessons from 12 years in organization development with the transformational power of sound. Her book, Full Voice: The Art & Practice of Vocal Presence (Berrett-Koehler Publishers) was a #1 Amazon bestseller in Business Communication. The book is based on her 25 years as a voice coach, supporting people from many professions in learning how to access the full power and expression of the voice in service to their work and relationships. Barbara’s musical keynotes blend practical content, sophisticated humor, and thought-provoking questions on topics including voice, leadership, and engagement. She was “the band” for Margaret Wheatley’s Women’s Leadership Revival Tour, which visited 15 North American cities. She also appears with authors Parker Palmer and Peter Block. Barbara has produced seven CD's of mostly original music and is founder of the Morning Star Singers, a volunteer hospice choir in the Twin Cities. She lives across the street from the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
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3 Responses to It IS All About the Bass — Reflections of a Baby Elder

  1. vnarula says:


    I am starting to sing…kirtan! Maybe I should get some voice lessons from you in 2016? Whats your schedule?

    Happy New Year Wise Soul!

    Sent from my iPhone


    • Hi Friend! I’d so love to work with you and your lovely voice! Come on down! Lots of choices in the coming weeks…..
      Best to connect via email from here on out.

  2. Love the idea of a Baby Elder.

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