Lessons Learned

On Friday I joined Jessica Lurie and Arne Livingston in opening for and sitting in with Victor Wooten, Dennis Chambers, and Bob Franceschini, musicians I’ve been listening to and admiring for half of my life. Here’s what happened and what I learned:

They walked in and sat down to watch just as we started going over tunes at soundcheck. I was nervous to the point of almost shaking but thankfully my body took over and made the music happen. Living Daylights’ repertoire is full of twists and turns and, this being my first time playing their music, I’m glad I studied and had a strong foundation of practice to fall back on. Preparation and time on your instrument always pays off. I give full credit to mega-bassist Damian Erskine for being a shining example of how a pro gets ready for the stage. He plays through the music on his own, marks up charts so they’re extra readable, and makes his own charts when necessary. Whenever I’m prepping for a gig, I always ask myself “What would Damian do?”

After soundcheck I escaped to the green room to pull myself together. When I came out 10 minutes later Dennis was walking back and met me in the hallway. He smiled big, threw his hands in the air, and said he was looking for me to ask about sitting in. I was stunned and the nerves came rushing back, but he was so kind and funny and personable that within minutes I was fully relaxed, hanging and shooting the breeze with one of my idols. By the time we took the stage an hour later I was completely comfortable and just happy to be playing, free from fear of being judged by the incredible musicians I looked up to, and that’s the key. My nerves were an extension of an irrational fear, and getting comfortable with the source of that fear allowed me to get out of my head and enjoy myself. Our set went great. 

It’s also true that these guys had every reason to stay in the bus until they played and avoid the risk of letting strangers join their set. Instead, they chose to check us out, talk, share the stage, and create an atmosphere of fellowship that made the night feel like a communal effort. Meanwhile, there have been nights I‘ve barely spoken to my own band members before and after a show, let alone to another band on the bill or audience members. I like it their way better.

As I watched them play, I started to think about how free they were from any physical obstacles or emotional baggage. I saw Victor in a Q&A with Michael League at GroundUp Fest earlier this year, and the thing I remember most was his talking about being completely free to explore the bass as a child without being told by his older brothers how to do it “the right way.” To watch him play is to see absolute mastery of an instrument born of 50 years of unrestricted exploration. He does things nobody else does because he was free to follow every path he could imagine without being pushed in another direction, and only he has his imagination. There’s so much joy in his playing that seems to be rooted in it being such a direct expression of his good-natured, playful spirit. He’s not playing bass, he’s playing Victor Wooten. I’m lucky in that I’ve always been strongly guided by my inner compass and skeptical of teachers telling me what I should and shouldn’t be learning, but not every student is as obnoxious as I am. I need to be better as a teacher about avoiding “don’ts,” encouraging my students to follow their own instincts, and helping them shape the sounds they’re looking to create.

At that same festival, Jojo Mayer spoke about his approach to overcoming limitations in execution (GroundUp was an amazing festival, you should go. Michael League, thank you). When presented with something he couldn’t do, he worked to identify the obstacle within three dimensions: physical, conceptual, and emotional. Had he not yet built the muscles or muscle memory necessary to execute? Was there a way he could mentally reframe the movement to relate it to something he could already do? Or was he anxious or afraid or angry or holding some other emotion that created a barrier between his intention and his body? This is the aspect that I think separates Jojo, Victor, and all the other greats from people who may spend equal time on their instrument but fail to reach that level.

At some point in your musical development, you’ve acquired so much physical and conceptual skill that your primary obstacle becomes emotional. Your fear of failure or lack of confidence in the music or anger at the sound person or beef with some member of the band hinder your ability to execute what your body could if your mind were free of all that weight. I think the masters are people who have shed themselves of that weight completely and, combined with the extraordinary physical and conceptual knowledge they’ve accumulated, are free to react instantaneously to the musical moment. It makes sense that the music I love most is made by bands that love, respect, and trust each other. There’s zero baggage, lots of encouragement, and a feeling that it’s safe to take risks. I remember seeing Christian McBride, Benny Green, and Lewis Nash get so in this zone that they started laughing at moments of synchrony, somehow surprised by the music they were creating. It’s as though they had surrendered themselves to the music and each other, were no longer making conscious choices, and had become an audience to the music flowing through them. I can’t remember the last time I played when I didn’t have 50 extraneous thoughts clouding my brain, and I won’t play to my potential until that’s addressed.

That I sat down at Dennis Chambers’ drum kit with he and Victor five feet away from me without immediately shitting myself is a testament to how contagious their comfort and kindness were, and I’ll never forget that. I have a lot of work ahead of me to get where they are, but I hope to someday pay that feeling forward.

We played Footprints and it was awesome.