Tuesday night I continued my practice of saying “Yes” to life. I showed up at a Jazz Jam that someone invited me to after hearing me play at my gig last Friday with Randy Bales’ Chinese Melodrama.

I’ll always remember something said by the keyboardist who was in the group before I went on. Someone asked if he was disappointed in his performance. He answered immediately, “I’m never disappointed with a performance. I know it can always be improved, but I’m never disappointed. Especially when I get to play on a Steinway! How could that be disappointing?”

What an example of gratitude and acknowledgment of himself!

I was a little nervous showing up at something called  “Jazz Jam”, since I was carrying around the belief that “I don’t know how to play jazz”. It seemed to me to be a separate language, an insular club open only to members, and a totally separate skill set that I don’t have.

Funny how our beliefs are reflected back to us…

I sat down to watch the first group play, and Carl, the bass player who was to be in my group later in the evening sat down next to me. “So, do you play in the symphonies locally?” (He had heard that I was “classically trained”.)

“No,” I replied.

“And you’ve never played jazz before?”

“No,” I said.

“Well, I know how terrified most classical musicians are of improvising.”

I smiled. “Oh, I think I’ve gotten over that one. I’ve been working pretty hard on doing all improvisation for the past few months, playing no classical music at all.”

“And is this part of a thesis project? Or is it something personal?” he asked.

“Hmm! I never thought of doing a thesis on this, but now that you mention it, I suppose it is a kind of ‘research’, isn’t it? No, this is totally personal for me.” If only he knew the half of it!

“I was just thinking of a bassoonist I met once, who was a professor of music at San Francisco State, and took a six-month sabbatical from her position with a proposal to explore improvisation.”

I replied, “That’s a great idea! I wasn’t smart enough to get paid to do this!”

His body language during our conversation was curious but also slightly removed, as if he were bracing himself to deal with “another classical musician” and her issues with improvisation.

Flashback to November 2009…

I could understand the skepticism, because he would have been right about me even six or seven months ago. I was completely self-conscious and afraid of playing “the wrong note”. I would literally be blocked and unable to produce a sound on my instrument if I didn’t think I “knew” what I was “supposed to” play. This happened to me in front of a room of 40 people, last November, when David Darling, the masterful, Grammy-winning improvisational cellist and teacher, started a blues jam with the whole room. I sat with my violin, half hiding behind him so he wouldn’t pick me to do a solo. Silvia Nakkach, my teacher and director of the program, saw me and pointed at me. David looked behind him. Then he pointed at me!

I was so petrified. Everyone was moving, grooving, clapping, smiling, and jamming to this blues beat that was going on. My classmate Aletha had just sung her heart out and it was GREAT! I didn’t want to “ruin” it by playing something I considered (or worse yet, other people would consider) “wrong”. I tried to figure out what notes to play. Nothing I tested seemed to match. These were not the notes I was used to playing! What key were we in? What was I supposed to PLAY???

There were no answers to these questions, of course, because it was all being created in the moment. It’s not that the answer was being withheld from me, it’s that NO ONE knew the answer! Or, to put it another way, there was no answer “out there” to be known!

Seeing that I was not making any sounds, David walked over to me and said, “Play a wrong note.”

“What?” the look on my face must have said to him. “You’re crazy. I don’t play wrong notes!”

He took the third finger of my left hand in his, and slid it back on the fingerboard, way out of its “correct” position to play in tune normally. “Now play that,” he said.

I grimaced as I moved my bow and heard the sound that came out of my instrument – something I’d literally never heard before, because it was so “wrong”.

He moved my finger again, this time the same distance in the opposite direction. All the while the blues bass line and rhythm are going, and all eyes are on me.

“Now play that,” he said.

I was wincing as he constantly moved my finger around. My bow barely wanted to move to make a sound. I feared what I might hear. Finally he stopped and the room burst out in applause. I barely heard it as I threw my head back and looked up at the sky, thinking, “Oh my God, I canNOT believe I just DID that!”

The breakthrough into freedom that weekend with David Darling was not to happen with my violin. In fact, after our final improvisation at the end of the second day, which was a voice-body-breath-only improvisation, my violin case fell off its chair. Silvia attributed it to the spirits speaking. I took it to mean that it was time to set aside my violin and work to free my body, voice, and breath first.

That was the beginning of a journey that eventually brought me back to my violin. It continues today, and the chapters keep being written.

“No wrong notes”

The idea that “There are no wrong notes”, or, “Play the very note you think is wrong”, has stuck with me. I used it as a mantra before stepping on the stage Tuesday night. “No wrong notes!” I told myself. And I just listened.

Afterwards, Carl – the one who had been grilling me a bit on my background before we played together – came up and gave me his business card and a CD of his all-improvisational band, saying, “Have a listen. If you like it, I think you’d be great playing with us sometime. You’d fit in really nicely with our sounds.”

I guess you might say I was “in”. No longer an uptight, terrified classically-trained musician, I had crossed, in his eyes, into the realm of someone who could jam with the real deals.

Something magical happens when you are in the presence – and I mean, being truly present – with people who are completely involved with their craft and owning what they do without shame or apology. I’m not totally there yet all the time. I still judge my own performances, even as I’m giving them. But I’m learning that this is the only way to kill your own greatness – to judge yourself harshly. If you remain open and supportive and encouraging of yourself, you will find ways to improve. You will want to find ways to improve. And you will never need to be disappointed with your performance.

This morning someone referred me to the Facebook page of the venue where we played our Jazz Jam on Tuesday. Here’s what was posted there by someone in the audience:

Last night I attended the Pro Jazz Open Stage Night at Angelica’s Bistro in Redwood City. This Jam Session was with Professionals from all over. One person was there from Amsterdam. The Musicians all did there thing and it was AMAZING.

But peeps, when Robert and Carl from RWH and The Jazz Triad, along with James, a well known super Pianist and Lisa, the Violinist from Chinese Melodrama took the stage, the entire place went into shock. The playing was so phenomenal, I almost cried, it was that good.

They took you to a totally different space. Lisa had never played Jazz before and they weren’t going by music charts. It was just pure impromptu and it was beyond amazing. If you weren’t there, you missed it. It was true professional musicianship at work. It was the best Jazz Jam that I have ever witnessed.

Mine too.