How to improvise with others when you're not super confident yet

One of my closest friends and mentor is a great story teller. It doesn’t matter how many times he’s tell a story, I’m engrossed every single time. When he talks about the interesting things that he has done with his life and all the famous people that he’s played with, I’m both mesmerized and a little intimidated. We work together a lot and I worried that my story and how I tell it won’t be as interesting.

 

What I eventually realized, with a little help from a couple of close friends, was that everyone has a story, and it’s what makes each of us unique and special. There’s no competition, no one is going to win. Just as important as embracing our story, is sharing it. As musicians, we often connect with people on a more abstract level - these notes will hopefully make you feel something.

 

Sharing our stories on stage and in writing help to keep us connected. We realize that we’re not alone in our struggles and that we can help inspire with our successes.

 

I decided that I wanted to be a jazz musician around age 24. That’s really “late.” Up until that point I had intended to bring the saxophone (specifically the tenor saxophone) into the classical orchestra world. But by age 24, I had walked away from a full ride academic scholarship to the University half way through finishing a music performance degree, moved cities, became estranged from my parents (which lasted about a decade), and found myself playing in a big band at a community college while working as a file clerk at a law firm.

 

I had always played in jazz band as a kid, but was often too scared to really put myself out there, fearing that I’d make a fool of myself improvising, and everyone would find out that I was a fraud who’d been faking it this whole time. But I also loved the music and loved making things up and that kept me going.

 

After a year in a half, I decided I wanted to go back to school and finish my degree. That experience is for another post, but the next three years were full of ups and downs. I met my mentor, who changed my life and continues to influence it today. I fell in love. I got my heart broken, a couple of times. I took up the flute and ended up getting my degree using that instrument instead of saxophone.

 

I learned a lot.

But I also had some naysayers.

 

My jazz saxophone instructor told me that I should quit playing altogether. After my first jury as a flute major, the department chair called me into his office and told me that the university “might not be the right place for me” and maybe I should leave. But I was determined by that point and I’m pretty stubborn. Plus nothing motivates me more than someone telling me that it can’t be done. I was the first person in my immediate family to come close to finishing a degree, and I knew I wanted it. And frankly, I didn’t really care what anyone else thought.

 

I finished that degree.

Ten years later I went back to school and got my Masters.

 

By that time I had done just about everything you could do related to music: I taught private lessons, taught in a classroom, played in over 40 musicals, started two bands, worked in two different music stores, played for touring musicians, freelanced with rocks bands, presented at state and national conferences, played weddings and corporate events, played in a extremely creative world orchestra, got a couple of grants, organized a week worth of events with a guest artist, recorded half a CD, started a blog, became a clinician, judged festivals, taught college, created websites, and wrote a book.

 

I’ve also been fired (or not called back) for more things that I can count. Some of those people who fired me, hired me again years later, forgetting they had fired me. (Time is such an interesting filter).

 

I often get asked how I “made it”, which is such a silly term. Despite doing this for many years, I still feel like I’ve just begun. That I still have to prove myself. That I still have far to go.

 

I always answer the question with a response that sounds a little dismissive, but it’s not meant to be: I never gave up. No matter the obstacle, I tackled it head on and found the best solution. Nothing has set me back for long.

 

Truthfully, I like the challenge. I like solving problems. I like finding solutions. But even more important that all that - I love the music and I love being a musician. My parents wanted me to be a lawyer. But I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else but being a musician.

 

Recommended inspiration: check out the book Getting There: A Book of Mentors by Gillian Zoe Segal, which shares the stories of some of the most successful people of our generation, and their struggles in defining their stories.


Now what’s YOUR story? Share an example where you bravely overcame a challenge in the comments.