Back Up To Speed

Day 203 Week 29 Q3 Sunday, July 23, 2023

When you are a musician and get an unexpected request to possibly perform on an instrument you generally do not play for an undefined style of music, what do you do? And why not make it more complicated by also playing an instrument you have never played before which is bigger, heavier, has more strings., has different controls and capabilities and is therefore far more physically demanding? 

What you say, why on earth would anyone agree to play and then make things more complicated by playing unknown music, with people you do not know, on an instrument you are not up to speed on?  Because I like a challenge, especially a musical one, and hey even though your musical presence was requested, it was not a definite performance but a possibility.

Okay so I Amy be slightly crazy, but I have gotten to a point in life where I worry less, grow more, and feel confident I can handle the situations I get myself into. Actually, I have always felt this way even when it was not true, but this is part of the involuntary innovator creative outlier guy inside of me. 

And why am I sharing this story? Well in part because this happened today and in part because it provides a window into a very different kind of psyche than that of a normal decision-maker. And I did leave out two things. One I invested an hour of energy yesterday and another one or two today to derrick the situation by getting up to speed on the new instrument where I discovered some delightful things. And secondly, as it turned out I never did get to perform but the very act of coming up to speed so that I could was so worth doing that I did not even care if I was going to perform or not.

How did I de-risk the situation? Well, I used the same strategy as when I was nineteen and flirted with dropping out of college which was equally crazy. You see, I had already changed my major six times in eight semesters because I thought every course I took was super fascinating and could not see any reason to specialize until forced to by a dean who said I needed to focus on a single subject to graduate.  

My solution, which horrified the dean and my parents, was to change my major to physics, thinking it was such a hard subject that if I could graduate with a degree in it I would never have to worry for the rest of my life if was smart and disciplined enough to do anything I wanted to.  It worked, although had to take thirteen physical courses in three semesters, which was considered slightly insane. I fell in love with physics and got 12 A’s and a B, became the president of the University’s Physics Society of the college and graduated.  It was perhaps a crazy idea, but it worked, and I have never wondered again for a single day if I was intellectually capable of doing anything at all. 

So back to this Sunday musical situation. What to do besides finding an appropriate case to bring this five-string bass with black nylon tape over metal core strings to the party on my back? And charging a battery, powered very high-performance professional amplifier so it would be ready to go and I would not need to find a power outlet or terminal stop or extension cord at the party being held at a house I had never gone to. And yes, I also needed some cables and a tuner as well.

But the more important issue was neither attitude nor equipment but actually being ready by coming up to speed on this instrument so I devised another test exercise combination like getting a BS degree in physic in three semesters to prove a point to myself.

What I did was to fire up a CD player. Yes, they still exist, although I had to buy one recently because I did not have one, and I put on a CD I found in my basement yesterday when I was not looking for CDs, but I was looking for plumbing wrenches, and in the spirit of doing something much harder than what was needed, I decided to attempt to play along with two world-class jazz musicians Chick Corea and Bobby McFerrin two musical heroes of mine.

The strategy was simple if I could, without a score, play pieces I had not rehearsed by ear, simply listening and keeping up, then, whatever was going to happen at the party this afternoon would be a total piece of cake. And to be honest, I played the instrument yesterday for an hour, not along with anybody, just getting my fingers working and trying to get some muscle memory action just in case today I felt like going for it.

So, the first half of the CD was a train wreck not only could I not recognize what they were doing, but I could not at all keep up trying to play by ear in real-time. But the second half included two songs I sort had familiarity with, although not on the bass but on the piano and on the guitar. And, of course, world-class jazz musicians are not known for playing things in the standard way. They change key signatures, tempo, time signatures, and arrangements, and all of these things are time-varying, making this task even more of an aside test than I had bargained for. 

But during one of the two songs I recognized, I caught a break. They played it in the key it was written in, and that I knew. What I had not counted on is they played it at a tempo of between 240 and 250 beats per second which is blazingly fast as it was a slow boos nova ballad normally played at tempos one-third that speed.

So just as I was thinking I might be able to do this, it was incredibly hard to even keep up because I did not think I could play bass that quickly on a long-necked 34” string scale with a two-and-a-half-inch wide neck. But after trying to play along three times, each time a little better, I finally found myself screaming along, playing Blue Bossa at 250 beats per minute with two of the best musicians in the world who were of course, improvising by changing literally everything except thankfully the key signature. And by the way, this piece of music does change keys in the middle, directed by the composer without the jazz guys having to change it. 

The bottom line was after about ninety minutes, I was so ready that I felt I could handle anything these musicians at the party could throw at me because they were not even jazz musicians so they would be far more likely to stick to a form and a key and a tempo.

I was so thrilled to be able to mostly keep up with Chick and Bobby that I did not even care about the party anymore, in the same way, after three semesters completing thirteen physics courses made me feel oh-so ready for whatever the world was going to throw at me.

I even put on my Bass pLayer T-shirt for the occasion, and the way things turned out, there was never an appropriate time to play with the musicians before my wife, and I were tired of even being at the party and left.

But was I feeling bad about this? No way. I hit a new level of professionalism in my preparation to get ready which was beyond what I had done before, so not only did I come up to speed but exceeded it and, along the way not only discovered I could play on a very high level but that this new instrument I had acquired and stashed was truly fantastic and I have gotten nowhere near mastering it or even understanding how to use all of the controls to the level I feel called climb to. 

None of this matters because now I know with enough preparation, I can play with the big boys and that is so gratifying even though three days ago, I was not even thinking about this instrument or this party but focused on something else.

The post is getting ready and coming up to speed changes either who you are in the world or changes who you think you are, and this is the most exciting part of all.

Sometimes just coming back up to speed can feel like you have entered a new life!