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Where I contemplate life as a musician

by John on March 9th, 2015

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 slight exaggeration). 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.

  • 1 I was cut and/or rode the bench for my share of sports teams . . . it was only with musical groups that I seemed to be writing my own ticket.
    2 When we moved, we originally rented the house in which we currently live back to the sellers for a month or two, and then moved only what we absolutely needed, with the bulk of “our stuff” held in my mother’s garage as we did some hardcore renovations of the house – notably floors and walls, which are a whole lot easier to do when you don’t need to re-configure furniture. Then I broke my elbow and we just had movers move everything in.
    3 This isn’t false modesty on my part (though I’m aware that some who may have heard me would disagree, perhaps vehemently). What I learn to play, I play well. To a certain level, I can play most anything — and, if I put in the time/effort, I can learn to play anything. I don’t typically have the time to sit down and teach myself the truly elite passages, and I, generally, learn to play only what I need to play, to get by – and, if I did have the time to “become a great musician,” I fear that I’d find other things to do — there’s always something that needs attention . . . memorizing Rhapsody in Blue isn’t one of those things.

    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.

  1. I totally get this. I mean, I have an art degree. Not graphic art or design – good old fashioned drawing and painting. And I am damn good at it, but I was never passionate about it enough to make a career of it. I also can’t really converse well about art and meaning and all that jazz. I could be a good enough artist, but I would never be a great one. I made a modest go at it after college while working full time, but once the kids came along, I had to box all that stuff up. I miss doing it for me though.

    • There are times that I get mad at myself for the amount of time that music takes up — but, if I got rid of it, I fear, I’d get far more mad at myself. That said, doing it for me, these days, wouldn’t work — I’ve been in a death-spiral of efficiency — everything I do, I need to be able to see the end-result. And that means that I don’t do much “for me” these days….which may actually be a big part of whatever the heck is going wrong with my head, lately.

      There is a very real part of me that wants to take a week of vacation, finish up some of my songs, maybe finalize my musical — create something truly unique and John and MINE ALL MINE. But, in so doing, I’d owe it to myself to sell my work — and I just don’t know if I trust myself to do that. Does that make sense?

  2. I fell in love with the music degree courses and left my English (probably creative writing) degree track for the performing arts center… Not my smartest move, as now I find myself all these years later doing exactly what walked away from.

    Of course, I probably should have been a computer engineer. As you say, much better career path kind of degree…

    • I certainly do ok, with the paychecks . . . but the frustration I deal with, on a daily basis . . . I’m not so sure it’s worth the trade-off, sometimes.

      Then again, I think back to the early days of bachelorhood, where I had no idea where the rent might come from . . . so yeah, my stresses are a bit different right now.

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