A couple weeks ago, I was asked to do a gig improvising melody and providing background music to accompany a multimedia presentation for a large off-campus group. For some of the tunes, I had a melodic line, but for others I was only provided a lead sheet (lyrics and chord changes) and given the direction: "Make the entire experience better for the audience!" Wow.
Well then. No pressure or anything!
At first I was hesitant to do accept the invitation, as improvisation is a skill on the fringe of my comfort zone. I also like planning in advance, and the set list was only determined the day before the gig; even after being decided, it was more of a general idea of, "Well, let's see how the audience feels at that point and we can go in one of several directions." There was no chance to prepare or design what I'd play or how I'd handle a particular piece beforehand. Oh, and I was asked to sing and harmonize too. And all of this for the grand fee of $50! Let's just say the gig definitely was a "gut check" type of service. So why agree to play? It’s simple, really: I wanted an opportunity to stretch my ear, bring live music to a group of non-musicians, and expose these people to the trumpet in a way they’d likely never experienced. Last reason: the group is run by a non-musician friend.
So on the Tuesday night of the service, I showed up with much trepidation with my C trumpet, a silent mute to warm up with, a music stand, a pencil, a quiet and loud straight mute, a cup mute, a harmon mute, bucket mute, plunger and a pixie mute in tow. You know, the normal stuff you bring to every gig. And you know what? It went really well. 10 years of education have paid off! (Not to mention the thousands of hours spent practicing, the hundreds of concerts, and the too-many-to-name influential instructors and colleagues.) I played the service in a manner that supported the focus of the presentation and gently facilitated mood changes between pieces. Despite the singing, improvisation and secondary instrument uses, I became part of the ambiance when necessary and the head of attention when it was called for. It was fun. The audience enjoyed it, and I enjoyed helping further their experience. I grew as a musician, despite the nerves. Perhaps more importantly, doing this service furthered a relationship with a person who now thinks quite highly of my playing. Don’t ever forget: sometimes, small things like these on random Tuesday nights are the building blocks for a variable and lasting career.
So what is the moral of the story? In order to grow you have to take risks. True, they should be calculated risks: if you've never played above a high C in your life, it's probably not the best idea to take a gig playing lead on a traveling West Side Story show with 8 services a week. However, assuming you've developed your skills to a reasonably similar level to what's being asked, you absolutely should take the gig. Prepare yourself to not be comfortable all the time when performing, because even when you are eminently over-prepared, something often does happen to throw a wrench into any carefully laid plan. (Notice I didn't say not confident - you should set yourself up for success and be confident of achieving it - but that's for another post!) Some of the best performances I've been privileged with have had some really "nervy" moments.
The nerves reminded me of a story about Maria Callas as told by one of my favorite music history professors. "It wasn't that she was the best. She was excellent, of course, but she was never the most technically proficient singer. No, it was the fight. The questioning. Can she pull it off again or is Wagner finally going to one over her this time? The wondering made the eventual victory so much more sweet."
Stretch yourself. You'll be glad you did.