I am a musician. I do not pay the bills making music, but I am a musician. That is how I feel. (Additionally, I am a father, maker, tech-geek, and traveller)
It is as corny as it is true for me: Music really was my first love. As long as I can remember I have enjoyed making music. Nowadays, I mostly play saxophone, but it all started with an organ that my parents had in our living room. When I was four or five years old, I took lessons before my short legs could even touch the pedals below. At age six I started on the saxophone and until I was about 20 I took lessons on saxophone. My whole family makes music and my parents have always supported that and took me and my brother everywhere to play, learn and perform. Becoming better at it, learning to read sheet music, form a beautiful tone and improve the speed with which my fingers could create the different notes.
Most of my music making took place in orchestra's or ensembles that derived from musicians from those orchestra's. From there I branched into the occasional band performance or other endeavors. But, life happened and music took a bit of a backseat for a few years. Especially when working abroad at an internet startup or as an expat, the saxophone was quietly gathering dust in the corner of my room as I worked crazy hours and enjoyed travelling in my spare time. But about two years ago, I joined an orchestra again for the first time in 7 years or so. And with that, the fire within lit up again. Big time! But why? I have been thinking about why I make music a lot lately. And I think I found the answer!
June 5, 2014: It is a nice early summer day and we are in the middle of our open-air concert during a festival in the town of Meppel, in Holland. I am about to perform a solo piece on stage, the orchestra ready to provide the foundation on which I will play a melody. I have never done anything like this, as this piece does not involve any sheet music at all. All I have are the chord progression the piano and the orchestra will play and it is up to me to come up with a nice melody on top of it. I literally need to improvise. Of course, we have practised this a few times before, but still: that trusty piece of sheet music is nowhere to be found. It does not exist for what I am about to play. In the audience I see my parents, several friends and acquaintances. In the corner of my eye, I see my wife, also a saxophone player in the same orchestra. She is proud as a peacock. I am excited. I know I can do this, because I have practised it several times. The piece is based on a well known dutch song. The lyrics are sung by a woman who tells about her fair share of bad luck in love. She still has a lot of hope that one day, she will find her romance. Everybody in the audience knows the song, which means they expect something along the lines of that melody, those lyrics and emotions. I really have to trust that my ears will let my brains know what they are hearing. And that my brain comes up with a right way to move the muscles in my hands, throat and mouth so that something useful comes out, preferrably beautiful.
The orchestra starts with the intro. Calm, almost timid. Two bars, slowly followed by a brief silence before the piano lays down the first chord on which I will play my part. Very aware of my breathing, my tone, the notes and my surroundings, I try to focus on the melody. The first 16 bars I play the original melody. All goes well. Then, the next 16, now the improvisation starts. The first few notes are exactly the same as before, an indication to the audience that they know what is coming next. And from that moment on, it all becomes a bit of a blur. I notice that am playing music, but something else in me has taken over control and seems to do its thing autonomously. The "listening part of me" listens to the "performing part of me" and feels many emotions. Those emotions somehow seem to feed back into the performance. I am completely zoned out. I do hear the orchestra though and it feels like their performance lifts mine, an amazing feeling! The melody seems to spill over the musical landscape they provide. About three minutes later, the last chords approach, I seem to get back to planet earth again, open my eyes to watch the director guide us all into the final chord. We're done, it went well. The audience applaudes, I bow uncomfortably, but proudly. As I walk back to my seat I see my teary eyed parents, then my friends; big thumbs up and a dropped jaw. Finally my beautiful wife; big smile, slightly moist eyes. Afterwards, several people from the audience came to tell me they thought it was beautiful, brought them to tears. Some gave a standing ovation. Did we do that? Did I do that? Something happened there, that I had not experienced before. That trance-like state meant there was no doubt, no conscious thinking, no nervousness or fear, unaware of my surroundings apart from a rock solid trust in the musicians in the orchestra. The rest all just happened. An amazing experience!
It changed me. My confidence in myself as a musician went up. And several pieces of a puzzle fell into place. All those years of practising scales, forming tone, etc had paid off. The fact that while zoned out, that music came out, was not because I practised that exact melody so often I could dream it. It was because I had developed the necessary tools to use in this situation. For days, I was high as a kite.
Since that performance I have played it a few more times with the same orchestra and I zone out everytime. The reactions have been similar every time too. Even musicians from the orchestra, who have heard it many times and the rehearsals where things went wrong, still get goose pumps. The proces is repeatable, but only when we all put in the effort again. That provides the symbiosis that gives me the feeling I can let it all happen.
Now, I realize why it made me feel so good. Sure, the fact that it all went so well, was reason enough to be happy and proud, but the fact that together with other musicians, we were able to reach people on such an emotional level, is what made it really amazing. That is why I make music. Lesson learned.
And the best thing, I get to do it again next week!