Author: Daniel, Bert

The Musician

My wife has a sarcastic nickname for me: The Musician. More correctly it's: "The Musician", because when she calls me that, you can actually hear the quotation marks. She doesn't even have to say "quote; unquote". Such is the degree of derision. I live up to my incongruous moniker by practicing diligently on my instrument every night. I call it strumming a few tunes. She calls it torture.

On the other hand, there's absolutely no problem if one of our kids needs to practice an instrument. Violin, guitar, piano, even blaring brass band instruments don't raise an eyebrow. Only me; I'm like Rodney Dangerfield. No respect at all.

The other night after Juliet and Ethan finished playing guitar and fiddle, Joyce suggested that the kids work up a couple of Beatles tunes so they could do some busking for the well-heeled baby boomers who frequent our town square every summer. I had been patiently waiting for my own chance to practice and as I began to take my instrument out of its case my daughter sensed my feeling of being unappreciated. "Hey Daddy, maybe you could play your mandolin and make some extra money too."
Joyce was quick to respond: "Oh, Daddy could make a lot more than even you cute kids could."


"Yeah, they'd be lining up to pay him good money to put his mandolin back in the case and stop playing!"
(Have to admit, I saw that one coming).

I've been trying to learn to play my instrument for about six years now. I've been really diligent about it from the start, but I have to admit my wife is right when she says there are a lot of other things I could do with my time that would be a lot more useful. Fact is, I like to play music so I do. Who cares if I'm never any good?

Well, I care. Even though I've been at it long enough to be way better than I am, and my wife says it's theoretically impossible for me to ever become an expert (since I didn't start as a youngster), I have yet to give up on the notion that I might someday be able to at least hold my own at any hot Grass Valley jam session. I have too much appreciation for the music I love to quit now. My wife would argue that I SHOULD have enough respect for the music to do exactly that, quit!

A few weeks ago Bruce Campbell wrote a nice welcome column called Tap Into the Mystic. In it, he described the feeling one gets when one is in a musical groove and playing to one's full potential. I've played with Bruce. He's a good musician, without the quotes. Tapping into the mystic means that, when really good music is being made, something intangible is flowing through each musician. They know how to just relax, put their playing on autopilot, and get the most out of the song or tune they are playing. Easy to appreciate but hard to do. I can only envy that experience and hope I can achieve some measure of it eventually.

Consider this: almost all of us learn to sing before we learn to play a fretted instrument. And if we simply play around with our voices a bit we can sometimes surprise ourselves with the musicality of our efforts. Singing is pretty intuitive for most people. We know where we want to go with a phrase and even though we haven't the slightest idea of what note or meter we are singing, the plan that we have in our head can come out sounding pretty nice sometimes. I suppose a really good instrumentalist draws on some of that skill to play an instrument more spontaneously and with more feeling than the average person.

We beginning and intermediate players do have our moments! Moments when we can FEEL the mystic, even if we can't tap into it just yet. Some days we hit a wall and don't sound very good. Other days we seem to play on a higher level and everything seems easier. Maybe it's biorhythms. Who knows? I know I'll keep on practicing, just to make those more pleasurable efforts more frequent.

Well, after hours and hours of practice, I've finally reached the level where I'm at least comfortable playing with most people in a jam situation. It took me many months before I had the courage to take my instrument to one of the local CBA jams but now I go to it fairly frequently. We convene every Saturday at a cafe in Sebastopol called Coffee Catz.

On one fine day a few weeks ago, Gus Garelick happened to show up. Gus is a first rate fiddle player. He plays in a couple of bands, The Hot Frittatas and the Wild Catahoulas, and he hosts a fiddle show on one of the local radio stations. With Gus there to drive the music we sounded a lot better than we usually do, and one of the patrons actually got up and laid a five dollar bill on the piano in appreciation.

We smiled and kept on playing. This happened pretty early in the jam session so, by the end of a couple of hours of jamming, everybody had pretty much forgotten about the fiver. Gus had left without taking his fair share (that is to say just about all of it). My friend Dave Carlson was the first to speak: "Hey. what should we do with this five bucks?"

"You take it." was the response of most, but Dave insisted we divvy up the tidy sum evenly, so he made change and gave everybody a dollar.

"It's only fair." Dave said.

"Yeah, you actually think we'd actually do this for free?"

And that's how I finally got my first paying gig. I figure, when you subtract the cost of gasoline and vehicle depreciation, I probably made about negative two dollars per hour, more than I'm worth. And I can't wait to make it to the next jam and work for even less.

Now when Joyce calls me "The Musician", I can correct her. "You mean The PROFESSIONAL Musician."
Posted:  5/30/2013

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