Category Archives: Motivation

Pining for Novemberfest

The other day, I posted to Polkadelphia’s Facebook page:

Well, our first Oktoberfest season has come and gone. We had a blast playing from Philly to northern Jersey to the Polkanos. We had so much fun that I've decided to continue the party into... NOVEMBERFEST! Break out the insulated lederhosen, the polka Thanksgiving tunes, and beer beer BEER! We're coming for ya!

It was a kind of tongue in cheek way for me to both take pride in what I had accomplished over the previous month, as well as express some anxiety about the holes in my working schedule.

October was a very good month for me.  Polkadelphia was playing at least once a week, often much more.  While 2 or 3 shows per week for a polka band during Oktoberfest season seems a little low, I’m really proud of how much we accomplished as a band that hasn’t been around a whole lot.  I also had great gigs with 5 other groups across the month some of which were bands I had never played with before.  I got to play accordion in the West Philadelphia Orchestra, giving me the opportunity to expand my role in the group and learn new repertoire on that instrument.  I also got to write new songs as Neon and Shy and perform in one of my favorite venues (shoutout to the Zen Den).

Novemberfest!Last month I got to amp up my business acumen as well.  Booking Polkadelphia repeatedly taught me some new skills for finding work and negotiating.  I actually began to look forward to calling clients, instead of cringing any time the phone rang.  I had the opportunity to teach sousaphone lessons to a colleague, jumping back into the teaching world.  I was hired to build a new website for a client, and I got a few graphic design projects thrown my way as well.  And of course I got the brilliant idea for Novemberfest which, while not a full-fledged idea yet, has great potential for the future.

In October, I managed to meet my financial goals, meaning I earned enough to pay my monthly expenses.  This is an accomplishment of which I am especially proud, as it gives me the confidence and reassurance to continue working hard to make music my primary source of income.  It’s yet another reason I pine for Novemberfest, since I know running a polka band during Oktoberfest contributed greatly to my financial security for the month.

That last sentence there is the insecurity in me talking, and it has been nagging quite a bit lately.  The real trigger for it was the end of October, when I got my car inspected and found I needed major repairs.  The bill made a massive dent in the earnings I had worked so hard for, and I started second guessing myself.  Talking with a few other freelancers who assured me this sort of thing is always happening has made it a bit easier, but I still feel like I’m not accomplishing enough.

It’s an odd pattern.  There’s a very small sweet spot between when I start a project (book a show, write a song, arrange a new piece for a band) and see it to fruition (play the booked show, perform the written song, showcase the new arrangement) in which I’m feeling like all is well in the world and I’m being productive. After that, it’s easy to start to panic that I’m not doing enough.  While it’s important to have a strong work ethic, it’s far too easy to be, as David Bowie says in Rock ‘n Roll Suicide, “religiously unkind” to myself.*

Looking back over October, I can see why I might feel this way.  I’m still finding ways to be physically comfortable after my back injuries.  It’s cutting into my productivity, as one of the few places where it doesn’t hurt to work for over an hour is in bed (where I’m currently typing this).  And as business-like as my bed is, there’s no escaping the fact that I go there every night to rest.  Also, as I learned in 9th grade, you can’t really practice the tuba (or any other instrument) in bed.  It just doesn’t work.

I’m also a little gun shy about performing too much.  It’s hard to feel the correlation between the pain I feel and the performances, so I don’t always know what specifically to stop doing.  While performing is sometimes about landing those big lucrative gigs, I am finding that it’s also about just getting out and being present.  So I’m trying to do that without overdoing it.  As a whole, I’m trying to continue my experiments in productivity without damaging the future of my productivity.

So I’ll continue to find new approaches, develop new ideas, and create new opportunities.  Now that I’ve seen it happen for one month, I know financial solubility can be a reality.  I’ll keep on pushing through the thin veneer of terror and impossibility that can cling like a film to see what’s on the other side.  Onward to Novemberfest, Decemberfest, and beyond!

*

I’ve been really loving this song lately.  While it’s ostensibly part of the Ziggy Stardust story at a point in which he is washed up and depressed, I find it a timeless inspiration.  We as creators feel that timeless drag towards self-destruction, the clock ticking away our time left to say something, anything, and the solitary confinement of the path less traveled.  And in one soaring ride, David Bowie offers consolation and respite.  It’s really such a gorgeous journey.

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Dare, Double Dare, Physical Challenge

When I was in elementary school, every day when I’d get home my sister and I would watch Double Dare.  For the uninitiated, it was a game show in which kids would get asked trivia questions, and if they couldn’t answer them, they would have to perform physical challenges instead.  As a show with its roots in Nickelodeon, the physical challenges always involved wading through some disgusting slime to find a small flag or something similar.  I watched the show so many times, that to this day I still have the back and forth patter between the teams stuck in my head from when they couldn’t answer the trivia question: “Dare, Double Dare, Physical Challenge.”

Little did I know that this would become a theme in my adult life.

Double DareSee, since I left my full time job, I’ve been pushing myself to the limits.  I play three instruments that are rather taxing physically: accordion, sousaphone, and tuba.  I’ve been taking every opportunity to play as often as possible and put myself out there, and it’s starting to take a toll.

You may have read about my exploits performing in the SEPTA train stations.  What I haven’t mentioned is that carrying an accordion and music stand on the train is exhausting.  So is standing for 2 hours holding the accordion and singing.  After that I jump back on the train (once again carrying the accordion) and walk back to my house.  I’ve been telling myself that it’s tiring, which it is, but there’s a more accurate way to phrase it:  It hurts.

Similarly, playing 4 sets on the tuba from 9-1am after having gone play at the station at 7am that morning hurts my hand, my shoulders, and my head.  It also prevents me from getting the rest I need to recuperate.  Everything I’ve done so far has been a learning experience, and I am coming to terms with the simple lesson that I’m stretching myself too thin.

This came to a head last week, when on Monday I found myself barely able to get out of bed.  The persistent throbbing pain in my shoulder blade had turned into a more icepickish nightmare, and I couldn’t make it go away.  A trip to the chiropractor and my medical doctor resulted in a more pain and encouragement to take more ibuprofen (respectively).

I had to cancel a rehearsal on Monday because of my incapacitation.  That was the most difficult thing for me, and the part that made everything feel very real and serious.  I felt ashamed that I couldn’t power through and make it happen.  The experience made me feel unreliable and second-rate, while also calling into question the sustainability of my endeavors toward doing music as a career.

I know that these are unfair assessments, and that our bodies change over time and we have to continue to listen to them.  I know that many times we deal with pain in our lives and have to adapt to manage that pain.  But I just didn’t want to be that guy, and the strength of my conviction not to be that guy had me in a serious state of denial.

The rest of the week, I tried to find ways to alleviate the pain while still preparing myself for the 4 shows I had that weekend.  2 of which involved 2+ hours of driving.  I heated, I iced, I rested, I stretched.  Nothing made it go away.  I googled!  I read about how important it was to rest the muscles that were strained, but I couldn’t figure out how to flex or relax the muscle right under my scapula.  I slept a few hours each night as I woke up with the driving pain in my back.  On Sunday, I finally got a little relief as the acute burning icepick seemed to dislodge, but today I’m hurting once again.

So then, how do I find a way to do the things I love without hurting myself?  Great question!  And one I don’t know the answer to.

I’ve set up an appointment with an Alexander Technique teacher.  I took some Alexander Technique classes in college, and I refuse to reference wikipedia to pretend I know what it is.  From what I remember, it’s about retraining your body in everyday activities such as walking, crawling, and sitting so that it is being used as efficiently as possible and with as little tension as possible.

I continue to stretch and exercise.  For the past 12 years I have had a daily yoga practice.  If I skip a day, I hurt the next day.  I’d like to incorporate more exercise into my life, but I find that when I add more, I hurt myself more.  I don’t really know what to do about that.

I have reached out to friends who have gone through painful experiences and asked how they managed their pain.  They have given me names of doctors, types of therapies, and specific exercises, all of which I hope to find immensely helpful.  I say I hope, because at this point, I don’t know what will make things better.

Lastly, and most difficultly, I’ve decided to be mindful of my activities and to be more aware of the impact they have on my body.  This means, heartbreakingly, I am taking a break from my SEPTA busking to see if I need time to heal.  As a performer, I can’t stop everything.  The money I make from performing is important to me, as is the performing itself.  I’m willing to shift a lot of things to improve my life, and I desperately hope the elimination of performing is not a road I’ll have to go down.

So just please, be kind to yourself in every way you can.  Nurture, forgive, celebrate, accommodate.  Rest, listen, learn.  Leave diving down a giant mouth into a pile of goop to the 80’s TV shows.

Risk: Not Just a Boardgame for Masochists

Dethhed photo

When in doubt, add more flames.

Last Friday was the inaugural Make Music Philly event in which different groups banded together with different venues to create a solid day of performances by local musicians throughout the city.  Not wanting to be left out, I joined forces with my friend Samantha to form an impromptu band named Dethhed.  I play tuba and accordion, she plays ukulele and harp.  We have a few original songs that each of us has written as well as a collection of songs we sing together.

After running into some difficulty finding a venue, we opted to go to a park in Center City and just set up and play.  While this seems pretty straightforward and easy, we both had some anxieties.  We’re both people who have a respect for the rules, and we didn’t want to be breaking any laws.  Samantha was concerned that police might come and ask us to leave.  I was concerned that people in the park would find us a nuisance.  We discussed this on Friday on the way there and came to the conclusion that we would see what happens.  There wasn’t anything inherently wrong with what we were doing, but if someone asked us to stop, we’d try to be respectful to their wishes (especially if they were an authority figure).

As it turned out, the performance was very well-received.  The police did not ask us to vacate, and the audience was very receptive and engaged.  We played for about 45 minutes while onlookers watched, filmed, and danced.  We were both relieved to find our fears were unrealized and encouraged to try new ways of performing in the future.

Dethhed in Concert

Dethhed Live at Louis Kahn Park

While we were driving to the park and discussing our anxieties, I apologetically shared an overly cheery maxim: Worrying is a waste of imagination.  We had both imagined and fleshed-out a scenario as to why we couldn’t or shouldn’t play; I might add that we both have exceptional imaginations.  The whole situation could have easily turned into an excuse (valid or not) why we stayed home instead.  Instead, we recognized the potential negative consequences, weighed them against the potential positive outcomes, and tempered them with our own sense of integrity.  The net result was a risk that we felt comfortable making.

Let me talk about that “tempered with a sense of integrity” part, as it has been weighing heavily on my mind lately.  My natural inclination when I need to ask something of someone is to put as little burden on them as possible.  I am slowly beginning to feel more comfortable about making reasonable requests of people.  Reasonable by whose standard?  Well, just mine.  I can keep this in check pretty well, as I have a pretty hard time lying to myself.

For example, a few weeks ago I was playing with a 4-piece band for a 4 hour show.  I had played the same venue the night before with a 3-piece band for a 2 hour show.  At that show each of the 3 performers was given 2 food/drink tickets.  That’s 6 for those of you without an abacus.  With the 4-piece band, each of the performers was given 3 food/drink tickets, for a total of 12.  Avid fans of multiplication should realize that if the ratio is the same, we should have been given 16 tickets.

Asking for more was the last thing I wanted to do, but I felt like I had the facts (the math) on my side.  If I were playing this solo, I probably wouldn’t have bothered, but I was the bandleader and I wanted to make sure the people in my band were getting their fair share.  The risk I was taking was the rejection I might have faced as well as becoming a perceived nuisance to the booker.  I looked at the risks, looked at the benefits, and tempered it with my own integrity of what I thought was right.  And so I asked.  Had we been given 16 tickets, I would have had a hard time justifying asking for more, because I truthfully didn’t think we deserved more.

My point here is definitely not that taking risks yields positive results.  Rather, when we’re honest with ourselves about the things that can go wrong, the things that can go right, and our justifications for our actions, we can make the most of the situations that present themselves to us.  If we want to continue to develop, we sometimes need to take risks.  There really isn’t any other way to grow as a person.  We just need to keep our worrying imagination in check, keep our eyes open, and try to do what’s right.

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