Where I contemplate life as a musician
I still remember my thought process in college. At the start of my freshman year, I was eager to get my degree in music education. Sure, my salary might not be quite as much as it could be, otherwise, but I’d be able to moonlight with private lessons and gigs of some sort or other — I’d get to do what I wanted to do, having fun along the way.
What do you call a musician? Someone who will put a $5000 instrument in a $1000 car to drive 100 miles for $50.
Then my first credit card bill came in during the same week that I heard from a band on campus that they were going to go with another bassist – it’s the first time I wanted to join a group and didn’t (except for that time I auditioned to be in the middle school musical and forgot the audition song halfway through the audition — and, even then, I played in the pit of the musical, and that was far more “me,” in the end). Heck, even the first time I auditioned for regional symphony, having barely looked at the audition piece, while high on codeine, I made the orchestra.
I don’t want to say that I was an entitled kid, but I was, at least musically. What I wanted, I did 1. And, suddenly, well, “moonlighting for the New York Philharmonic” wasn’t a certainty. I had a bit of a crisis and, by the middle of the semester, I had changed my major from music education to computer engineering, which I stuck with until graduation. And I’ve done quite well for myself, employment-wise, since making this decision.
But, after graduation . . . well, it was months before I even set up a cheap keyboard in my apartment, and it wasn’t until I moved to central PA that I touched Lynnette. I tried to remove the “musical aspirations” from my life. I was a good web developer, I was on a good career curve.
But those passions in life, well, they never really leave you.
When we finally moved our furniture into the house2, my wife had a piano that came from her mother’s house. I had a church organ that had been with me since high school. I had Lynnette back. I had music all around me, and I started playing when I could. And, as this was before kids (heck, this was before I even started running), so I had some decent downtime, so I played a fair bit.
Then I was asked to play with a pit band for a theatre fundraiser. A college friend of mine found that I was in the area and had me join the community symphony. The theatre fundraiser gig turned into my playing piano with a musical production, which turned into my playing with the classic rock band. I was married in a Greek Orthodox church, and the previous organist died in a car crash, during my wedding rehearsal (I had hired a local musician from outside of the church to be my own organist). I didn’t know this — but, ahead of my wedding, I played the organ just to blow off some steam . . . choir members heard, and I was approached about becoming the organist there. I’m still the organist there, 11 years later.
Anyway, I don’t believe I’m a great musician3, but I do believe I’m a competent, reliable, & easy-to-get-along-with musician. And, well, that makes for opportunities – and I’ve had several. And with opportunities come random thoughts!
- As mentioned above, I’m the organist at the local Greek Orthodox Cathedral . . . and, well, the powers-that-be in the church would far rather there be no organ used in the ceremony. Every now & then, the choir director gets a gleam in her eye about having me, simply, provide an opening pitch and then having the choir sing a capella — maybe, for the more-difficult passages, I’d just mirror the soprano part. Every time this happens, I just smile & nod, knowing full-well that, if this were to become common practice, I’d walk away from the job. Yes, the job would become exponentially easier . . . but all challenge would be removed. You’d be able to teach a monkey to provide pitches, and I wouldn’t feel that I was “making music,” and that just wouldn’t be worth it to me. Though losing the paycheck would be a shame.
- My classic rock band has had a real problem finding a lead guitarist. The lead guitarist that was there when I joined the band quit because we weren’t gigging enough (though, well, he wasn’t exactly going a lot to bring in performance opportunities). We found a new guy & were having a lot of fun coming “up to speed” with him, but he walked . . . a big part of the reason? We played some songs that, while the typical “bar crowd” loved to hear, he didn’t like to play. Those who have seen me play know I am…expressive. Heck, with the symphony, I may be expressive to the point of distraction — I can’t dance worth a lick, but I move to the music I make and, in so doing, am providing a single focus of all of my energies. If I’m not moving, it means that I’m either bored or I’m still learning the music (meaning that there’s little going on outside of my seeing the music, interpreting the music, and relaying things to my hands — I’m “playing notes” and not “making music”). Heck, most of what I play, I consider not-challenging and, mostly, it’s not fun to play. But I smile, and I do as good a job as I can in playing it, even if it’s the ten-millionth time I’ve played “Stars and Stripes Forever” (
just a slightexaggeration). When I play, whether or not I truly enjoy the music I’m playing, those watching see a musician who is actively seeking to make the best of the performance. And that makes even playing a boring piece well-worth the time & effort into performing it.
- Regarding the previous, I’ve been told, a time or two, that I’d be wasted as a studio musician. I can’t say that I disagree — performing for a recording is great & everything, but it pales in comparison to playing in front of a receptive crowd.
- I truly get a kick out of my most common “audience of two” (you can’t see Leila doing her ballet moves here, but I promise she was). Again, nothing beats a receptive audience. Even if said audience is small (in both quantity and stature).
- I have made little progress on my musical . . . but I have not given up hopes of writing it. Some day. It just hasn’t been a priority.
With all that said, I believe myself to be an elite accompanist. I listen incredibly well, and am always aware of what I’m playing and how it’s interacting with everything else going on during a performance. I have a strong grasp of musical theory and can help a featured musician work out of a mistake by changing up a chord progression. I have enough experience to make incredibly educated guesses as to where someone may change things. In short, when I play with others, I believe I make those others better.