I spent many years working as a professional musician. Like a lot of folks, I played several instruments. Piano was mostly a private endeavor, primarily for composing and arranging, but ever so occasionally I’d do a solo engagement. Or play at church.
I also played the trumpet in pep band. But that was mostly because hanging out at games was so boring and the music so basic that I would have gone mad otherwise. After I found a used trumpet cheap at a yard sale, picking up a new instrument was the best way to make this forced captivity feel fun (symphonic band was a class, and if I didn’t play at the games and just did the concerts, I’d have failed the course). Sure, it messed with my embouchure for a hot second, but it definitely made things interesting.
Most of the time, however, I played woodwinds. Eventually, I’d be known as quite a capable saxophonist in my neck of the woods (primarily alto and soprano, but occasionally bari and tenor, too).
But I hadn’t set out thinking I’d ever play saxophone. Instead, I began my musical career literally playing an instrument that nobody else wanted. The household leftover. A flute my sister May had set aside after she became a star athlete (a triple threat — gifted in softball, basketball, and field hockey) and didn’t have the time to play anymore.
I Was Not Very Good at Music At First
Flute was not love at first sight. Instead, it was an exercise in frustration. Unlike most other instruments, it takes a great deal of finesse and trial and error to get any sound at all out of a flute. Normally beginner musicians can honk a horn. Pound on piano keys. Easily do something that makes noise, if not music. The flute isn’t like this. It does absolutely nothing unless you approach it exactly the right way, at a specific angle.
While other children sounded as though they were torturing ducks while they practiced, my flute and I had silent sessions where I tried to play it and basically nothing happened. It sounded a bit like the wind was blowing off somewhere in the distance… maybe? Or was that actually the wind and not attempted flute playing at all? Anyway, it was far from impressive.
I began to think I’d never be able to make a sound. That my participation in concert band would be akin to a short modeling career. I’d smile, lift the flute up, and go through all the motions, mutely miming each performance. No sound ever coming out.
I’ll never get this, I thought. I gave up over and over, dejected by my lack of progress.
But one day I sat down to practice, and a curious thing happened. I blew air across the mouthpiece at just the correct angle, and it worked. Once I had the angle right, it was easy, effortless. I could make noise no problem. And once I started making noise, playing the flute seemed a lot cooler. I was quickly hooked. Began to practice for hours every day.
I wasn’t very good at first. I can remember my fourth grade band director pulling me aside after one practice and telling me, “Maybe you should look into playing another instrument.”
The problem, she said, was that my fingers weren’t long enough. I had tiny hands. She didn’t see how I’d ever really have the reach and dexterity that I’d need to be a good flutist.
I thanked her and ran off to find somewhere private to cry (my usual MO for dealing with criticism that hits me too hard, then and now; some things never change).
When I got home, I told my mother what the director had said. “Well, you’re not getting another instrument, so forget it,” my mother said. “Your fingers are too short? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
I was the third kid in the family to take up a musical instrument and the second flutist (although to be fair, my older sisters were both taller and, yes, had larger hands and feet), so my mother had a better frame of reference than I did at the time, a set of norms that my teacher was now violating with her criticism.
“Just keep practicing,” my mother said. “Prove her wrong. Because she is.”
Proving Her Wrong, Turning It Around
And so I did. I practiced obsessively. By the end of the year, I was first chair, little fingers be damned. And in another year, I was so good that I’d begun to play with the Bangor Symphony Youth Orchestra, a large honor for such a young student (10-1/2) in a group that took mostly strings and very few woodwinds. Plus, my peers in the winds section were all in high school. Sitting beside them at rehearsals and concerts made me feel so incredibly cool.
My parents were thrilled by this development and encouraged me to think ahead, to what I would play in jazz groups. Jazz band would be starting the next year in sixth grade. And as my older sister Alice (the one who wasn’t an athlete) was already an accomplished jazz pianist, I needed to take on a new instrument in order to play. Since flutes weren’t a regular instrument in the ensemble and my family didn’t want me competing with Alice even in spirit, even though we were far enough apart in age that we wouldn’t ever be up for the same spot.
I’m not sure if saxophone was my idea or my parents’, but it’s what we settled on. It did help that the used instrument market was flooded with them. The line of people who wanted to play saxophone in fourth grade had been amazing, but the vast majority of them had dropped out after realizing that playing music well was harder than it looked. This mass exodus left cheap alto saxes easy to find as I was finishing up fifth grade.
I coasted on flute for a bit as I spent time aggressively practicing saxophone to catch up with people who had been playing for a few years already. I took money I’d earned from selling old toys at yard sales and bought saxophone method books that I worked my way through.
It did help that most of the key combinations were similar — though not identical — to flute.
I started to listen to jazz albums, transcribe solos. Read about music theory. And experimented with improvisation.
At first, I was pretty awful at soloing. What would come out when I’d improvise were mostly bastardizations of the blues scale, where I leaned on the tritone well past the point of good taste. But somewhere along the way, something clicked.
I walked into middle school jazz ensemble auditions that fall and landed first chair. And was repeatedly featured as a soloist, in spite of the fact that I was one of the youngest members of the group and had only been playing saxophone for about six months
Like a Dog That Played Piano
By the end of the year, I was working my first paid gigs. Playing in all kinds of odd venues with adult musicians — coffee houses, the mall, the grocery store, and even bars — for extra money and the sheer love of it. Looking back, I believe that the adults enjoyed my being there because the novelty of it drew people in. This young chick who could play like she was so much older. A curiosity, like a dog that played piano. It brought in warm bodies, money, and repeat business. Novelty or not, I held my own. And by the time I became a teenager, I had a lot of “work friends” who were 10, 20, or even 30 years older than me.
It was a head trip. I was in school and playing in age-appropriate bands. But musicians my own age knew what I was up to on the weekends. And while some of them thought it was really cool and were supportive of me, others were envious and more than a little backstabbing.
I was well prepared musically for the journey I was about to go on. But psychologically and socially? I had no clue. And no one guiding me who really saw the danger I was in.
Making Enemies Everywhere I Went
I was thrust out into the limelight. And once I realized I didn’t want to be there, it was already too late.
Saxophone in particular tended to attract very competitive, attention-hungry musicians. And even with the number of folks who had been early quitters, there were always more saxophones kicking around than the situation called for. Seats were always in limited supply. Someone was always cut. And that someone was often a great deal older than me.
I showed up to middle school and high school after auditions already having an enemy who was two, three, or even four years older than me. The eighth grader or (later) twelfth grader who “should” have been in the jazz ensemble but had been bumped out by me. It didn’t help that my older sister Alice (who has inexplicably always disliked me, no matter how much I tried to gain her approval as a little kid) spread rumors about me, poisoning the well before I got there. She told everyone that I was cocky, full of it. Thought I was hot shit.
I walked into bands where on day one, I was young, outnumbered, had angered older members by gaining a spot they thought I didn’t deserve, and already had a bad reputation.
And in this volatile environment, band directors would immediately position me as a soloist, identifying me as someone who could help them win state and national competitions. This was important because the school board was much more likely to fund our programs if we won titles. Band booster money only went so far.
So when I’d ask a director, “Actually, why don’t you let XYZ have a solo for a change?” they’d shake their head no.
“You should do it,” they’d say.
Because they wanted to win. And so I was thrust into these highly competitive scenarios. I did my best, despite being a person who’s always hated competition.
My Young Life Was Completely Centered Around Gigging
My weekend and evening gigs were a sublime escape. At school I was constantly having to collaborate with people who hated, envied, and resented me. But I loved music and tried to focus on that and ignore the way that my school band members would often mutter under their breath as they walked away from me. Or rolled their eyes as I was granted yet another solo opportunity.
And over the years, I stumbled upon kids (a few at my school but mostly at others) who were like me, who loved music but hated the politics of their school bands. Who were into it for the music and not the attention. And who could play their faces (or fingers or arms, etc) off. We started extracurricular combos and guested in one another’s. I continued to play with adult groups, too.
I totally phoned in school, doing most of my homework and reading for school in the 20-minute period before the first bell rung. Practically all of my free time was taken up between practicing, driving to gigs, and gigging. But it didn’t matter. My grades weren’t perfect but they were good enough to get into most colleges. My teachers always noticed that I wasn’t applying myself, and I would sit politely through any performance improvement lectures, nodding my head and promising to do better, before sprinting off for a practice room.
This became especially pronounced when I started living at friends’ houses because things had gotten bad in my own house, my own family. Because then music wasn’t just a form of artistic self-expression to me; it became my job. How I supported myself, my food and gas money. I intellectually knew school was important, since it tied into something nebulous everyone kept calling my “future.” But it wasn’t my job right now, not in the moment. Playing music was.
And I focused the most not on my school groups but the gigs I played during my free time. The ones that paid me well. And the environment in which I had some control over whom I worked with and I was generally well regarded and liked by those I played with.
Gigging Culture Was Upside Down From School Groups
In a lot of ways, gigging culture was upside down from the school groups. In school groups, soloists got all the glory. Saxophonists, sure, but also vocalists who came in as guests to perform with the band.
But out in the gigging world, playing a rhythm instrument was where it was at. That’s because even the smallest groups needed them: A good drummer, a bass player, and a pianist. Perhaps a guitarist, but while nice, that wasn’t strictly necessary in jazz combos.
If you had those three musicians (drums, bass, piano), you could do gigs no problem. Maybe you’d spice it up with a horn or two, but it didn’t particularly matter what kind of horns were used. Typically one was some kind of woodwind since they were easier to keep under control volume-wise at dinner gigs, the bulk of the work available on weeknights (y’know, playing jazz waltzes while the Zonta Club had their award dinner), but you could just as easily opt for a trumpet player if they popped in a mute or switched out to flugelhorn for dinner gigs.
But each person you added to the group was another person you had to pay a cut of the job, so you kept things as small as possible.
I actually did pretty well, especially well for a horn player. I played regularly in five groups at the height of my gigging career (and frequently guested in a few others). Part of why I was able to get so much work was that I was versatile. I could easily bring several instruments with me and switch out depending on the particular tune. That and being reliable, I think, were the big things I did right. Well, and one of the groups I’d actually formed myself. I arranged the music and found and booked the gigs, negotiated our rates. Ran the show.
But it wasn’t easy, building up a book of business like that. I’d had to scramble like hell to get that much business and had faced a lot of rejection along the way. No one had offered me those jobs. I’d had to go out and get them (or make them myself), especially as I was aging out of the place where I was a novelty for being such a young musician. Saxophonists were in huge supply and low demand.
It was a completely different situation for bass players. In our area in particular, they were always in short supply and every group needed one (we did get by for a while with a pianist who played bass lines in one group, but it completely compromised her ability to do other things, so we hired a bass player when we had the chance). Folks who played bass were hounded. Even self-professed mediocre ones that wanted to hide from everyone were regularly asked to join groups. And I personally taught a few the theory behind walking lines based on changes myself, bringing one up to speed so they could gig off lead sheets. Because we needed someone, and supply was way too short to snag someone who already had that knowledge.
Saxophonists and vocalists might have gotten a lot of audience applause — but bass players were really the ones everyone needed. At the end of the day, it wasn’t about flash or showmanship but that reliable, steady driving beat.
I have a hunch that this wasn’t limited to my neck of the woods. I’d imagine people scramble for bass players everywhere. They don’t get much glory. The audience rarely knows their names (unless they’re someone like, oh, Victor Fucking Wooten) but they’re indispensable.
Hot Shot Soloists May Get a Lot of Attention, But Everything’s a Mess Without a Strong Base
I think it’s the same way in relationships. It’s easy to get caught up thinking that being a phenomenal partner means always operating at extremes. That in order to be loved and cherished, we need to be super attractive, funny, and charming. The best! That we need to be a soloist who has superhuman chops and can shred like a monster, or otherwise we’ll be alone. (An idea reinforced by a lot of companies who want to sell us things to fix our “imperfections.”)
And I think some people really do go looking for that when they’re trying to select partners. They go on the hunt for someone they think is a STAR. Someone who they think is a person with obvious qualities that will command positive attention from others and will bring them glory by proxy. Essentially, they want to be close to that soloist who gets a ton of applause.
But I’ve found that often doesn’t do them any favors. And what they should probably be looking for is not a soloist but a good bass player. Someone who shows up and keeps everything cohesive. This doesn’t mean that this bassist doesn’t or can’t shred in their own right (I’ve known some bassists who were phenomenal soloists, put me right to shame).
But most of us could benefit from having someone beside us who really has mastered laying down a stable bass line — a stable base for the rest of the relationship to play over.
It can take some time to recognize that kind of value in other people since it’s less obvious at first glance, but once you have people like that in your life, there’s absolutely nothing like it. Nothing even comes close.
It’s also been a source of comfort for me, in times when I’ve felt insecure: I’m really damn reliable and consistent. And I know firsthand how rare of a quality that is. Maybe I’m not the best out there. Maybe there are other soloists who could put my own skills to shame — but you can set your clock by me. You can trust me to keep things going.
And while any given person might not recognize the value in that when they first meet me, to the right people, there’s simply nothing better. And to the right people, it’s not something easily given up. Because they know how rare that is and how valuable.