Honoring our Humility

Trying to be your best is difficult to say the least.  The world is filled to the brim with success stories and anecdotes about how to do better, but I find there is a complete lack of humiliating stories out there that serve a greater purpose.  Like a shadow, lurking in the past ready to undress us in front of whom we’d most like to impress, our shame hangs on.  But unlike our greatest triumphs that we are so eager to share, our humility can act as our greatest source of strength.

I knew that I wasn’t supposed to be here.  Like many things when you’re a gigging musician, you end up playing for money instead of the art, the atmosphere, or the crowd.  None of these elements were aligned.  It was strictly for a measly $250 that was split between 4 people with my former band, It’s Over, in the summer of 2007.  Never have my nerves been so alert and my inner voice so loud to get the hell out of this place.  And I failed hard in unnatural, chaotic ways.  My memory left me hanging and I became detached.  At one point our drummer at the time Michael Judge was screaming at me, “Relative minor!,” so that I could find the right chord.  But it was no use because I couldn’t think.  After the 2 sets were over, I could barely look people in the eye because the embarrassment was so overwhelming.  I felt like I had let everybody down. 

I took awhile to look at all of this: My reasons for performing, anxiety, where I wanted my career to go, and how to adjust my practice for better memory retention.  Every professional musician has either  played with other musicians who just phone it in and most have been guilty of it themselves.  A Sunday morning church service, background music at a restaurant, or a gig full of songs that you don’t enjoy.  Even our practice can become monotonous or lost just noodling around.  We get in the grind of teaching, playing weddings and hustling and before we know it years have passed and we are nowhere closer to where we truly want to be in our profession because we are too busy casting a net for the next $50 we can hustle. 

Everyone’s career path is slightly different because our skill sets and interests are different so I’m not going to go into that.  What I will say though is trying to tame the lying beast of self-doubt along with being intentional about what you want to say musically and being able to pull it off live or in the studio is extremely important.  With all eyes on you … people you want to impress … you’ve got to be able to perform.  And there are a million different sources with longer, more in-depth explanations of pedagogy that works, but I will say this:

1) Use a metronome.  Go slow & then speed it up. 

2) Practice intensely for 45 min. and then take your break. 

3) Be intentional in what you practice.  Sing everything. 

4) Focus on the actual sonorous quality you’re producing. 

5) Change the location/view of where you practice. 

6) Get to a point where you can take critique without flinching.

7) And don’t forget to breathe.

Years later, I was called for an opportunity to play guitar in a live recording for the musical “Eating Raoul,” and was very excited.  I met Daniel Doss, the music director, in a church parking lot to receive the 100-page book of charts and a CD.  He informed me that I had 4 days to go through the book before recording.  I nearly choked, but I stayed calm and began to hit it that night for 6 hours.  Two days later there was a rehearsal with a drummer and the bandleader.  These guys were old pros!  This drummer was blowing my mind reading his charts.  Most people don’t understand the level of expertise needed to do the theatre gig, but it is inspiring to see the level of technique they had dedicated their lives to attain.  I knew they would find me out. 

I’m going to clue everyone in on the guitarists dirty little secret, and I apologize if people take offense or I’m giving too much away.  Notoriously, guitar players are some of the worst sight-readers of all instruments … next to drummers.  So here before me was 100 pages of some crazy jazz chords I had never seen at the time, and I’m supposed to learn a ton of lead lines.  Surprisingly, I didn’t blow the rehearsal, but a day later, I was informed that instead of live-tracking this thing we were going to multi-track it.  Which, to the layman … multi-tracking is like looking at your performance through a microscope.  The day came to start tracking and I was nervous to say the least. 

Right off the bat was a difficult intro that they wanted me to transpose into a different key.  On top of that, my right arm was covered in poison ivy and gauze, so I looked like a leper.  No offense to any lepers out there.  It wasn’t long before I told Daniel that he should find somebody else before I wasted any more of the studio time.  Of course it made my feel completely destroyed, but that experience also pushed me to return to school in an effort to read charts better and to achieve proficiency on my instrument.  It wasn’t long before I had landed a regular gig that put new charts in front of me every week that demanded quick access to memory and sight-reading with very little rehearsal time.   

A couple years down the line, I was playing a gospel church gig at Faith City.  It was a great opportunity to play with some of the most amazing Kansas City musicians that dominate the genre.  Some absolutely incredible drummers and organists I’ve been able to play with through that residency.  And there was certainly a learning curve that is much different than any ensemble playing I had ever been a part of before then.  But I kept hacking my way through and shedding a ton to keep up with Andrew Pickens the music director and organist. 

For whatever reason, I wish I could recall why, I was just having a bad day and had made some dumb mistakes.  Recently Justus West, who was 13 at the time, was playing bass and is just a beast!  He also plays the hell out of a guitar, his primary instrument.  So, there I am, feeling dejected.  Looking at this young kid, who was raised on this style of playing.  I confronted Andrew, “Why don’t you get Justus to play the guitar?”  He was speechless that I had said something that could possibly jeopardize my position, but I couldn’t ignore this fact and giving credit where it is due is vital to my conscience.  But nothing happened.  I went on to play several more months there until I decided that I needed to move on. 

We’ve all fallen hard on our face.  There’s just no getting around it.  I’ve seen in myself the tendency to feel burned so deep by shame that I’ve retreated from understanding the origins of it.  Was I not prepared?  Was I not being genuine?  Did I value the opinion of the audience over the opinion of myself?  Running doesn’t help.  And when I look back, some of my most shameful moments, my greatest fails, unlocked some brilliant gems of wisdom that gave me what the old folks call “backbone.”  The greatest shame is that we often lack the faith in ourselves to understand our errors and are forced to repeat them or worse, give up and lose our path to a greater understanding of our craft and sense of self.