It is impossible to deny the instinct to be proud of our accomplishments within our medium. We experience these feelings of pride perhaps as a result of artistic ingenuity, professional accomplishments, or even accolades from those involved in the press industry. I say this because I, along with countless colleagues, have spent the majority of our lives in private practice—trying to hone a craft that is not perfectible. Because of our efforts, we are naturally inclined to be proud of what we can do. Thus, it is rare that we are able to respond to public criticism with gracious acceptance-let alone to celebrate it. This ultimately boils down to the ego reflex within each of us. The ego though can be a particularly invaluable force, when recognized and used as fuel for career improvement. When the ego is acknowledged and subsequently broken, we then enter into the inner sanctum of true selflessness, which in the musical realm, allows the music, not us, to rise to its fullest potential.
In the current culture, we have become accustomed to tooting our own horns, so to speak, with the added convenience of social media. I think it would be safe to say that we do not actively promote the mundane aspects of our personal and professional lives with the same importance as of those that make us shine in the public eye. However, we must be cautious not to allow it to inflate our egos to the point of preventing us from realizing the full potential of the many and diverse collaborative efforts which we face throughout our musical careers. As rhythm section players, the bass player and I are primarily called upon to provide a supporting role. It is essential that we, as a unit, put ourselves in the back and be content with the idea that we are to invisibly lay the foundation for the rest of the band. I am not suggesting that we aren’t heard or seen, rather, making an attempt to reveal that we choose to embrace the reality that without that foundation, the band has no chance of building any sort of fortress. We absolutely must function as one and consider ourselves “brothers in time”, but above all, we must be unified in the mindset that our ultimate goal is to make the music sound great all the time. We are servants to the music.
The human ego is a natural entity within each and every one of us, whether we choose to acknowledge or deny it. It seems to be there from an early age regardless of gender, ethnicity, profession etc. As artists, we ultimately consider ourselves creators on various levels. It would be impossible to imagine the process for developing our artistic identities without accepting that we aren’t concerned with the response that we may or may not get from our perspective audience. The problem with the ego is that when left unchallenged, it becomes a dominant force that guides our creative process and can ultimately overshadow our musical ideas and efforts. I hear this a lot in young musicians, and always immediately recognize it when they do things that expose their musical virtuosity and seem to be more interested in how the audience responds to them versus the beauty of the music. It brings to mind the cooking process and how the intensity of heat can ruin even the finest ingredients. Figuratively speaking, it is not unlike cooking on high heat all of the time, when simmering would yield the best results. We have all seen the Hollywood renditions of similar stories depicting young hotshot athletes, business tycoons, musicians etc, that let their pride run their career until an ego crash causes them to take a new approach. The story of the underdog and their triumph always stirs great emotions of encouragement and joy.
As a sideman, I have had the great privilege of accompanying a very colorful array of musical personalities and musical luminaries. It goes without saying that each and every one of these musicians requires a subtle learning curve. My approach to stepping into the arena with new musicians is to put my ego away and concentrate on making them sound as good as possible. I have noticed that it is usually a reciprocal effort and that, they are doing the same with me. Much like dancing. My first response is to play a foundational role and as the music unfolds, more subtle shades of the depth of our musical dialogues reveal themselves. Most of the musical direction is spoken through the musical language and not verbal. However, there are inevitably times when someone might mention something about laying back on the time or playing more on top of the beat or some other subtlety.
For example, one time, very early in my development I had an opportunity to play with the great David Liebman. Our set was nearly finished and I was doing my absolute best to listen carefully to everything he did. During his solo, out of naivety and lack of experience, I was intentionally responding to everything he did, and to my surprise—in the middle of a chorus, he turned to me and stopped playing while gesturing for me to solo. After I finished and the pianist took over, he came over and rhetorically whispered in my ear, “can you hear what I was saying?”. Unable to respond verbally while I was playing, we continued the discussion after the set. He was suggesting through his playing to not follow him so closely. Did he embarrass me publicly? No, and by the way he communicated with me without ridiculing or embarrassing me, he established a much deeper level of trust. The following set was an absolute blast. I felt as if I had been inducted into a secret society. As a young musician, I cannot deny that there were times that my ego would allow an irritation reflex, but most of the time it would end up as a distraction to my personal performance. In retrospect, I am grateful for most of these experiences and consider them to be crucial building blocks to who I have grown into as a musician, but even more so, a civil human being. I have been conditioned to accept those moments as more of a relief, because there is less guessing and a more tangible approach with which to apply. Some musicians won’t say a word, however, they have mastered their musical presence to the point that they are able to heard the sheep (the sidemen) and direct them where they want without having to ever say a word. There will always be the few who may have way too much to say. In this case, I have also learned when to discern what is relevant and when to just nod and smile.
Another pertinent aspect concerning the harmful nature of the ego lies within the realm of envy and jealousy. New York City is often referred to as jazz mecca. The scene is loaded with enumerable highly skilled musicians who are ultimately vying for the same work whether it be in the performance or education arena. One of the distinct advantages that artists within the NYC network have, is the visibility that the city allows. You just never know who will walk into your gig. You absolutely never know what is going to happen in terms of the future of your career. Yes, word of mouth carries most of the weight, especially when you are new to town; but it is important to remember that amazing opportunities sometimes fall by luck and happen to coincide with being in the right place at the right time. I strongly feel that it is important to celebrate the accomplishments of the other musicians in your network. The minute that jealousy creeps in is no different than taking criticism with a negative connotation. We should strive to want our comrades to succeed to the highest level, because the higher they go, it positively effects all of us.
It is important to decipher the difference between ego and confidence. We spend so much time in the practice room honing our skills with vocabulary, chops, learning tunes and studying the masters so that when we step onto the bandstand, we are ready to confidently contribute to the unit and the overall experience. I will be the first to admit that I am not perfect, nor is anyone. I have always tried to consider myself as a leaning post for everyone, but there are still going to be times that I need to be held up as well. I always find comfort in being able to trust the guys with which I am sharing the bandstand and can always sense whether or not they trust me as well. There are inevitably going to be the moments when something happens and the band has to compensate. The egocentric approach would be to insist that you are right and not validate the situation. This approach usually ends up in a disaster and someone looks like a fool. Maybe even yourself. I have noticed with the higher level of musicians with which I am working, that these moments are usually cleaned up magically and 99% of the time the audience has no idea that it even happened. This is where confidence steps into the ring. It is essential that we are present to the moment and paying close attention all of the time and allow our confidence to be felt within the band.
While the ego carries a negative connotation in this article, how can we turn it into an advantage and an opportunity for musical development? Here are a few ideas to consider:
First, recognize that it is there and keep it in check. Don’t allow it to hinder you from fully experience the music by getting your feelings hurt or getting angry. It will destroy the music and possibly a musical relationship.
Second, Look for opportunities to be the underdog and get your butt kicked! Always seek chances to workout with musicians who are stronger and more seasoned than you are. Its very much the same as playing basketball or working out with people who are stronger than you are. It really makes you step up your game.
Third, understand the difference between ego and confidence. The whole point of this article is to encourage selflessness, not timidity. Be content supporting, but support with confidence.
Fourth, Take Criticism. Keep your ears open and listen to everything the seasoned musicians suggest and try to take it as seriously as possible.
Fifth, Don’t burn bridges!!!!! Don’t allow your ego driven anger allow you to disassociate with anyone. Do your best to engage in discussions that will make the music stronger. Its ok to have differing opinions. Talk it out and try to meet in the middle. Trust me, we need all the work we can get.
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