The other day I played a show in the round with four other songwriters. Each artist would stand up and play a song, then cede the stage to the next one. As is often the case when I play these things, I was the lone accordionist in a sea of guitarists. As is also often the case, I got a fair amount of attention when I took my accordion out of its case. One of the performers approached me and said, “Accordion! That’s great. Do you do session work? I’ve been looking for an accordionist to record with for a while.” I immediately turned to him and said, “Maybe you should hear me play first.”
I kind of went numb at that point. I was in shock that I had said something so negative and self-deprecating about myself. So much of the success one has in the entertainment industry stems from the belief in one’s abilities and the product you’re presenting. Certainly we all have inner doubts (ok, the non-psychopaths anyway), but the face that we present to the world needs to have faith that what we’re offering is at the least worthwhile, and more likely is pretty awesome. So here I was, dismissing myself and my own abilities before I had played a single note.
One of the things I was taught early on in my music career is that when someone asks you if you can do something, you always say “yes.” As an accomplished and diverse musician, you should either have the skills needed to perform, or be able to cobble them together quickly. I had done this for years, and always gotten away with it. I have surprised myself with my own ingenuity and creativity in accomplishing tasks I hadn’t even considered until then. In fact, I’d say with the always-say-yes technique, I have about a 99% success rate. But wow, do those 1%’s hurt.
The pivotal one for me was deciding to teach music in a public school in Brooklyn about 10 years ago. I have a degree in Music Education, and a lot was happening for me musically in New York City at the time. At the advice of a friend, I went to a teaching fair and convinced a principal that I was the right match to be the general music teacher at her school. I planned a series of lessons, took advice from several of my friends who worked in urban schools, and moved all my teaching gear up to NYC. Then after one day of teaching, I felt an overwhelming sensation that I had made the wrong decision and that I needed to get out of there. So the next morning, I had an excruciating conversation with the principal I had just begged to hire me, packed up my gear, and came back to Philadelphia.
I recognize that a lot of factors went into my not wanting to be there, and that if I were put in a similar position today I would probably be much more successful. The terror of making that commitment and failing to deliver still haunts me when I am asked to step outside of my comfort zone. In an early post, I discussed the concept of being set up to fail. I’d call this a fear of setting yourself up to fail, and it can be paralyzing.
Despite these slip-ups in self-confidence, I have managed to move forward in a lot of arenas. I find myself constantly challenged by the different types of music I am asked to play. I continue to expand the media in which I communicate, this here blog being a great example. Even the concept of selling myself, a persistent thorn in my side, is becoming easier as I find myself accomplishing more.
When I get negative about myself, I have a few guideposts I follow to help me get out of it.
I consider Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes. In discussing the raw nature of their brilliant first album, he talked about how the slight blips and intonation issues across the album were a reflection of the band’s sound. A cleaner version wouldn’t have nearly as much energy, and more importantly, wouldn’t reflect the nature of the band.
I consider Carmaig de Forest, a close friend and phenomenal songwriter, who told me once that it took him years to feel comfortable on stage. Rather than adopting a persona, he eventually learned that being himself on stage is enough, and that it’s ok to just find a way to make yourself as comfortable as possible.
I consider a speaker at the Henry Mancini Institute (can’t remember the speaker… so sorry!) who told us to remember that we have the talent already, and how we choose to interpret it is where we identify ourselves. I believe that same person also said one of my favorite quotes ever when it comes to improvisation: Don’t worry about playing a wrong note. At any given time, 8 notes are good, and the other 4 help you get to those 8.
Recently, I’ve considered a post that my friend Samantha made about this very topic of self-doubt, and about how we continue to grow when we push out boundaries. She also posted this picture recently which has really resonated for me:
Ultimately, I’m still guarded when I’m asked if I can perform a task using a heretofore untested skill. I’m finding it an adventure though, to discover the things I’m good at and figure out a way I can offer it to the world. With each new success, I find a new world to explore and be a part of. Maybe the next time I’m asked if I do session work on accordion, my six words will be “Sounds good! Let me know when.”