He showed up for his first music lesson with the master, with his saxophone case in hand.
As they chatted for the first time, he told the teacher “I think I am one of the best sax players in town.”
The teacher answered “It would be nice if someone else thought that as well.”
That’s a true story that one of my teachers, Mike Longo told me. It just goes to show, that when we are in our own little world, we think we’re pretty good.
Of course we do – we set the parameters, we avoid the critique of others, and no one is there showing us how far others have taken the same craft!
That same teacher gave me an assignment one week.
“There’s a jam session in Harlem. There is something there for you to learn. Don’t come back here until you’ve gone there. That’s your homework.”
That led to my first night age 20 playing at a Harlem jam session. I was playing pretty good bebop jazz guitar at the time, I could outline changes well, and had played many gigs.
I was a “talented little boy” but nothing more – yet.
I had no idea that this experience was going to be life changing.
Playing in Harlem in 1990 meant there were no “music teachers” in the audience, and the musicians on the bandstand were old school guys.
The audience and musicians did not care if you knew your scales. They wanted you to GIVE whether that meant groove, blues melody – essentially it meant ENERGY.
People were hanging after a hard day at work, and wanted their souls soothed somehow, they were not there to “give you a grade in class.”
The house band called a jazz standard – “I Get a Kick Out of You”, and I soloed for a few choruses. I was nervous, but hitting all the changes perfectly, according to me.
I played and played only to look up and see…
BORED faces in the audience. OH NO!
Something welled up inside and I knew I needed to give more. It was like a quarterback looking at the moon and trying to throw the football that far.
I started sweating, and my heart started pounding. Next thing I knew, I was bending strings, playing Wes type octaves, turning my stomach inside out, just to give up a piece of myself.
This was not the plan!
My attitude shifted from “I hope they like little old me….” to
“I WILL BLOW THE ROOF OFF THIS MOTHER F—– WITH MY GUITAR – RIGHT NOW, SO WATCH OUT!!!!”
When this shift in me occurred – the audiences’ faces LIT UP.
They started screaming “Go Ahead!!!!” On the set break I was hugged, embraced and encouraged by everyone. Smiles, joy and a feeling of togetherness like I’d never felt was in the room. The connection was made!
The irony is – if it wasn’t for them and their bored faces – I’d never have made the shift in attitude and in music.
This was the wisdom of my teachers lesson when he said “there’s something there for you to learn.”
By the time it was over, I felt like I ran a marathon, I was drenched with sweat and gasping for breath with adrenaline pumping through my body.
When I realized that this was the new level of what’s expected of me I had 2 choices – to stand up to the challenge and rock the house every time I played, or quit.
Music schools “sugar coat” because they want student’s money – so that’s not reality. Reality happens when you leave school OR hit the bandstand – whatever comes first.
Social media can’t really give you the immediate person to person experience. It’s a great testing ground, and wonderful for connections – but “belly to belly” – meaning people in front of other people is special – and will never be replaced – even with holographs & 3d technology.
Pressure can be VERY uncomfortable – but in some cases, I think it’s needed, at least for performing musicians.
Whatever your pressure zone is, embrace it, dive in – and run into the battle like a warrior – and be amazed at how you can exceed your own expectations.
You’ll redefine what you thought of as “humanly possible” for yourself.