Phoenix Project - Long Road Back
Updated: May 18
This is Monday morning and I had a hard time sleeping last night. I had a very difficult but necessary weekend in my effort to rebuild.
I have blogged about this before, but if you're reading this and haven't seen my other posts, I'll do a super fast recap. I was laid up last summer and the possibility that I would never play again was lurking in my thoughts. Thankfully that has turned out to be not true, but that did add an element of discouragement that I had (have) to fight against.
Now, to this weekend...
I had two gigs. THAT was thrilling. However, Saturday morning I had to say goodbye to my beloved dog. He was a great companion and I'm grateful to have had him there and I still sense his spirit even though he wasn't there to great me when I got home. I suspect not many readers will particularly care about this, but it goes to shedding light on other events of the weekend.
I see my road to recovery as a Phoenix rising from the ashes (sorry for mixing metaphors). At this point I will say with confidence that my PLAYING - chops, fingering, etc. - is at 90%. My GIGING RADAR is at about 50% (if that), however. There is a BIG difference. I learned a LOT his weekend and as a result, I have developed some new strategies for improving that gigging part.
There is another part. I am, by nature, a very sensitive person, and I make no apologies for that. However, right now, I am an emotional tinderbox, and the slightest thing will set me off - crying at a moments notice. I can't seem to control it, yet, but I am aware of the problem.
OK, where to begin?
On Saturday night I was booked on a concert for a band leader who has become a very close friend. He has been EXTREMELY supportive and has helped me keep the faith. On that job, as with every job, I asked to be put on the 4th chair. I only played one solo, which didn't go very well, but the gig as a whole, went fine. There was ONE warning sign that popped up that I missed. That emotional sensitivity popped up. It didn't help that I lost my canine companion earlier that day, but I DID find myself breaking into tears at the drop of a hat. I thought it was just due to the loss, but, that's what I missed. In any case, FOR ME, the gig was uneventful and another good stepping stone to getting back.
Sunday (yesterday) was another matter...
The band leader was very kind to put me on the gig even though I am potential liability, right now. I told him repeatedly I wanted to play at the bottom of the section. He kept laughing it off saying, "you guys can fight over the parts."
He wasn't on the gig. When I showed up I went in fully expecting to just play the bottom chair. However, when I walked in to set up, the lead player told me to play second. I most decidedly did NOT WANT to play second, particularly because all the solos were in that book. I thought it was a show of faith in my effort to rebuild on the part of the lead player that prompted this, but I was very much mistaken. It was a tough approach akin to throwing a child in the deep end of a swimming pool a to teach him/her to swim with the instructions "don't drown." It wasn't an act of camaraderie at all. It was just business. That was another thing I missed.
Now we come to the meat of the learning situation.
The gig started uneventfully, but I found myself feeling VERY distracted and downright AFRAID at being exposed too soon. I thought I would be OK as many of the band mates were old friends who understood what I was going through. I also thought it was a relatively innocuous gig - a little ballroom dance gig with a relatively easy book. All of that proved to be a mistake.
I'll outline the problems as they arose.
I've changed the way I play in an effort to play more relaxed and use less air. My adjustment works GREAT, but I am still a bit unpredictable, and I am well aware of that. I found myself cracking many more notes than I would like (not that I like cracking ANY notes). That proved to be an irritation to some.
I was miscounting a lot and misreading. I found my focus to be really scattered. I'd be fixated on something and miss something else coming at me from somewhere else. It was like Gary Larsen's (The Far Side) orchestral percussionist chanting "I will not mess up! I will not mess up!" while holding only one cymbal, the caption reading something like, "Tom messes up!"
An example of this was that, at one point, I blundered a grand pause at the end of a chart. In my defense, I DID see the railroad tracks, but I COULDN'T see the band leader. In fact I am still not sure who was throwing cues. In any case, I jumped the gun. Damage done, but the audience was a ballroom dance crowd, and it wasn't a problem for them.
In any case, that event triggered another incident that really upset me. Yes, I knew I messed up. I'm a grown man and, yes, a professional. Well, one of the band mates yelled at me, in front of everyone, "didn't you see the railroad tracks?" and proceeded to chew me out like I was an errant oblivious student. It was exceedingly embarrassing and devastating. Did I deserve to get chewed out? Professionally speaking, of course. Did I NEED to be chewed out? No. I knew I messed up. In any case, this proved to be a trigger for me. Remember that part about being emotionally sensitive? Well, boom! There it was.
I found myself apologizing to everyone in the band - literally - and getting overly emotional with every instance. I made a bit of a spectacle of myself - very embarrassing, in retrospect.
I am not someone who hides from his mistakes. I ALWAYS own up. However, the emotional thing felt downright uncontrollable - very strange. It was like I was outside of myself watching me melt down. Getting heat from some of the musicians just made it worse. Remember, i did not want to get exposed like that, yet. However, it might end up being for the better. I'll get to that.
There was a jazz big band aficionado there who is a good friend. He went through exactly the same problem I did. He saw what was happening and assured me that this over emotional thing is very normal and that this will pass. Right now, however, it feels pretty lousy. I'm OK, now, but really pissed at myself and the circumstances. I should have INSISTED on playing the bottom book.
He also told me something else. It took him three years to come through the tunnel. I've been at it for 11 months. When I told him that, he was stunned that I was even there. In an earlier blog I commented that I was back to recording at 6 months, so that along with my friend's reaction heartens me that I am ahead of the curve.
My solos were a roller coaster. The first solo I played was an unexpected minefield. I was apprehensive about what would come out, so I closed my eyes and just started playing. The first chorus was 'ok' the the next couple of choruses were a train wreck. As I was playing I could hear that things were amiss, but I could't get my ears to get me back on track. When I opened my eyes and looked at the music I found I had missed TWO key changes. So, a ballroom dance gig went totally avant garde for a moment. I was frustrated at myself for not sorting it out by ear, but that is now on the work list. I had the last solo of the day and on the last tune. At this point, I was pretty beat up, spiritually speaking, but also getting REALLY pissed off, so I really buckled down to get a grip on my focus. I thought that solo went quite well and almost started feeling like me, again.
Since I felt I was a liability to the gig, at the end of the day I tried to give my pay to the other two trumpeters, since they had to work extra hard with my being there, but they refused. I felt that was a nice gesture on their part.
So what are the strategies I developed from this dubious weekend? I'll list them here.
Until I feel ready, and particularly if the band is peopled by folks I don't work with very often, I will continue to INSIST that I play the bottom chair.
I mentioned that playing is at 90% but my gig chops is barely at 50%. Part of this is due to the fact that when I practice, I can stop and start and fix things as I go along, but I CAN"T do that on a gig. So, I am going to incorporate sight reading parts into my playing and working with a metronome and or a backing track to get my wits back.
I'm going to spend more time picking off notes and doing intervals to improve my accuracy that seemed to suffer in the heat of battle. Again, practice is different from the real world, so I have to make practice FEEL like the real world.
I need to shed more ballads. I think that will help with the accuracy.
I need to find a way to practice dealing with my distractibility. While I am sure it will pass, just like the overemotional thing, I need to WORK at fixing that. Im not quite sure how to work that out, yet.
I'm going to incorporate some ear training into my practice. That is not back up to snuff, yet.
Now gigging has a HUGE social component, as well, and I definitely need to sort that out.
Not every gig will have band mates who are universally in my corner with effort to recover completely. So, I need to be careful, for now, about how I get exposed. While I am eager to just play out again, I need to be VERY mindful about who I am around and make the judgment call about how much I should play or even take the gig!
Not everyone will understand or even care about the challenge I have been facing, so if I sense an emotional outburst coming, I've got to keep my mouth shut and walk away.
I don't want to make excuses forever, but I am ALWAYS doing the best I can. I am hard wired that way. So, I DO need to stand up for myself. So when I get smacked down by someone unnecessarily, I will gently, but firmly push back.
I need to be VERY wary of abusive relationships. That is all I have to say about that.
I still need to humble and honest, but NOT obsequious.
I will NEVER EVER project my problems onto anyone else.
Part of me wishes I could erase everything about this weekend, but part of me is grateful for the challenge. I definitely learned a LOT about what I need to do to fix things and I definitely learned a lot about who I can trust to help me do that.
One last thing...
On both of these jobs many OTHER people made some mistakes. Some folks skipped repeats and even started playing the wrong chart. I could argue that those things did far more damage than my faux pas, but what's the point. I did find myself thinking, " see?? Nobody's perfect!" Well, I am embarrassed at the notion that I would EVER secretly relish anyone else's flaws, so any tendency towards that ends right now. So, to add to my gigging list...
7. I will always try to focus my "vibe" on ALWAYS supporting the musicians (or anyone for that matter) EVEN if they don't support me!
I write this blog, in part, as a cathartic effort to come through the tunnel. It helps me "get my mind right" to borrow from Cool Hand Luke. However, I also want to offer tacit support to other musicians facing similar struggles. I hope all of this stuff help YOU feel better about where YOU are.
My jazz aficionado friend who has faced down the exact same problem (pardon the bad grammar) has assured me that "this, too, shall pass." I know it and I want those facing similar challenges to know it, too.
"Never give up! Never surrender!" (Galaxie Quest)