Painful experiences are some of our greatest teachers. It can be difficult, however, to see through the pain to the wisdom awaiting us on the other side. How we interpret our experiences depends upon how we contextualize them. This is done through the questions we ask ourselves, the thoughts we think (consciously or unconsciously), and how we respond to the situation in general. All pain offers lessons. Whether the healing allows the learning or vice versa, the two are inextricably linked. Following is one of the more challenging experiences of my life, and therefore one of my greatest teachers.
During my senior year of high school I became an avid music fan. This translated to an interest in learning the bass guitar. My desire to learn the bass was unique from earlier childhood musical experiences since it was completely intrinsically motivated. This time no adults were placing me in piano lessons. There was no school band program in which all of my friends were involved. No one was encouraging, or even suggesting that I explore this developing interest. It was all mine. So the summer before I left home for my first semester of college, I began studying bass guitar.
I studied bass on and off through my first two years of college. One month prior to completion of my sophomore year, in the midst of a major depressive episode, I left school. Upon recovering, I discovered, among other things, that I wanted to pursue music professionally. Not only did I have some catching up to do, I also realized that I wanted to study percussion as my primary instrument rather than bass.
Fast forward five years and several teachers, and I decided that I needed to go back to school.
Getting Formal, Getting Serious, Getting Kicked in the Ass
In March of 1999, I auditioned for admission into the vaunted Jazz Studies program at Rutgers University’s prestigious Mason Gross School of the Arts. The audition date that I selected was the next to last one for admission for the Fall ’99 semester. I selected this date strategically to give me more time to prepare, although I wasn’t certain I even would need the additional time.
This was due to the nagging feeling that I was still so far from being qualified to study in this program, that a few extra weeks or even months would not be enough to get me ready. And the fact that I was struggling through a second major depressive episode did not help matters.
I had spent the past three years studying with master percussionist Atilla T. Engin. My level of impatience with my progress left me anxious to audition despite Atilla’s opinion that I was not ready. We had focused the majority of our attention on hand percussion, and I was to audition on drum set for admission into a fiercely competitive program. Admission would mean studying with one of the finest drummers in the world, at that time either Ralph Peterson or Tommy Igoe.
No doubt I was already studying with one of the finest percussionists in the world. But we had not been preparing me specifically for formal study on the drums in a structured jazz program. Why we weren’t doing so, I see in hindsight, was Atilla’s response to my lack of commitment. I couldn’t see it at the time, but I hardly had devoted myself to my alleged chosen path. He was struggling simply to reach me so that I could establish a solid conceptual and technical foundation.
I had not made music enough of a priority in my life to have essential habits in place. My mindset, I see now, needed to be that all the other shit in my life (work, eating, sleeping) was just stuff that happened in the down time when I wasn’t working on something music related.
That may seem extreme, but despite the psychological and emotional obstacles in my way, I knew on a deep level that what I truly wanted was mastery. And as a master musician, my mentor was a person who understood both what was required, and the intrinsic rewards of simply doing the work (let alone achieving the desired outcome).
Here was a man who had left home at eighteen, living hand to mouth, often on the streets of Istanbul, or crashing with girlfriends, just to pursue his music dreams. He was self-made. He saw in me, no doubt, a young man with a deep love for music and percussion, but a comparable amount of baggage and excuses about my life.
The result was that we never delved into a consistent course of study. No progressive curriculum that systematically covered the fundamental aspects of musicianship; reading, listening, technique, coordination, genres/styles, time-feel, etc.
To be honest, despite his astonishing musicianship, I don’t think he possessed the character traits necessary to be a true guide. I don’t know that he had the capacity for self-awareness that is a necessary prerequisite to compassion and selflessness. Those are the traits essential to being a truly great teacher; a guide and true mentor.
None of that really matters though. One of the many lessons I’ve learned in my life is that regardless of external circumstances, if my internal state is aligned with my goals, if my thoughts and deeds are in integrity with the experiences I wish to manifest; it is only a matter of time before the external circumstances match.
Regardless of where the responsibility resides, I was not ready for that audition. Yet I knew that I had to do it anyway.
Looking back I realized I had followed a basic three step process.
Step One: Put your Head Down and Take the Hits
My memory of that day, colored no doubt as it is by my internal state at the time, is that it was a cold, gray, late winter New Jersey Saturday. I awoke early enough to shower, eat breakfast and make the forty-five minute drive from my parents’ home in North Jersey down Rt. 287 to New Brunswick.
Arriving at the appropriate building, I encountered a scene that only reinforced my growing suspicion that I was not prepared for any of the challenges I would face that day. The place was swarming with high school seniors, all of whom appeared to be pedigreed musicians. Many of them strolled confidently about the space, conversing with theirs or other prospective students’ parents, or with other applicants, discussing all of the summer programs they had attended and how they had already been studying privately with the teacher who would be there applied instrumental instructor at Rutgers, making the audition essentially a formality.
I overheard discussions of which repertoire they had prepared for their auditions, at which other top music schools they had already or were going to audition, to which programs they’d already been admitted, why this was their safety school, how they had applied to Rutgers as an appeasement to their parents despite not really wanting to study there because they didn’t like the applied instrumental teacher they would have, how they’d only brought their cheaper instrument on their auditions because they didn’t feel safe flying from Chicago with their more expensive main instrument, etc.
And here I was. Twenty five years old, with no formal experience or training, praying I wouldn’t be asked to sight read or I’d be dead in the water. I didn’t bring my own cymbals unlike most of the other drummers. It was just as well because at that point I didn’t even own appropriate cymbals for jazz. I didn’t even own a stick bag. Instead I’d tucked one pair of sticks and a pair of brushes into the pocket of the pullover parka I was wearing over my one decent dress shirt and tie. I did not belong.
After a brief greeting to the prospective students from the head of the Music Department, it was off to music theory placement exams. Struggling through a two hour exam before even getting to the heart of the matter (the actual audition) did not help my confidence in the least. Being one of the last test takers to complete the exam diminished what little confidence I had to nearly none at all.
After the theory exam, I headed to the practice rooms to warm up before my audition. Walking down a hallway of practice rooms, overhearing other applicants warming up drained my confidence further. They were playing shit I didn’t know I even should have been learning. I slipped into a practice room, happy to be alone. I tried to warm up, but it felt useless.
“Why bother,” I thought to myself. “I’m out of my league. Maybe I should leave.”
But something would not allow that.
“What if they hear something in my playing that leads them to accept me into the program? What if I am more prepared than I believe,” I asked myself. “Regardless, I can’t come all this way not to audition. I can’t succumb to the fear.”
So upstairs I went to put my name on a list and wait outside the jazz audition room for my turn.
When I entered the hallway where I was to wait, I encountered a crowd of perhaps forty people. All of the prospective jazz students on all instruments auditioned in the same room, one at a time, for a single panel of jazz faculty.
For three hours I sat in a hallway filled with pedigreed jazz students awaiting my turn to enter a room and play for a panel comprised of some of the best jazz musicians in the world. These kids seemed unfazed by the prospect of playing for the top professionals in a field that they wanted to enter. Apparently they were familiar with the audition process. The were relaxed. I was not. To them it was just another playing situation. I hadn’t had many, so the same was not true for me.
We sat together, many of these kids talking casually, joking. We listened for whatever sounds we could hear from each audition leaking through the door out into the hallway. Then the playing would cease. The door would open. A student would step out, shrugging, smiling, reflecting on their performance. Compliments or questions would be exchanged. A faculty member would poke his or her head out of the room, survey the number of auditioning students remaining, call the next one in.
I was the final one to audition.
I can’t recall which of the faculty members called me into the room, and I don’t remember all of the people present, but there was one person there whose presence I never will forget. That is Kenny Barron.
In 1962, Kenny Barron was just nineteen years old when, within one year of having moved to New York City, he began playing in Dizzy Gillespie’s band. That gig may have signaled his arrival at the highest levels of the international jazz scene, but it was only one in a very long list of accomplishments for a man recognized as one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. In 2010 the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him the title and prize of Jazz Master. And here I was, about to sit down to play with him.
Despite the fact that he had been sitting in a room for the past three to four hours playing with and or listening to countless prospective students audition for the program of which he was the director, he was extremely gracious, friendly, and warm. Even after hearing me “play”. Perhaps that was due to the fact that he had announced his resignation from his teaching and administrative duties at Rutgers following the spring ’99 semester. Since this was one of the final audition dates of the year, maybe he was relieved that I was one of the last auditioning students he would have to hear. I truly believe, however, that it had more to do with the type of person that he is.
Regardless, I sat down at the kit, hands visibly trembling, got out my sticks and brushes, and prepared for the ego bruising I was about to receive in front of a living legend of the music and a panel of onlooking faculty. With a gentle voice and a kind smile, possibly recognizing that I was not a jazz trained musician, and definitely aware that I was scared shitless, Mr. Barron, Kenny, called a tune for us to play. I don’t remember which one it was.
I vaguely heard some instructions.
“Let’s play a standard. Do you know blah blah blah?”
I nodded. I’m sure I didn’t know the tune at the time, but it wouldn’t have made a difference if I had.
“We’ll play the head, then I’ll solo for one chorus, we’ll trade fours for the first two A’s of the second chorus, then you take the bridge and the last A, and then we’ll take it out.”
Uh huh. Is there drool coming from both corners of my mouth or just one? What the fuck is he talking about?
He counted off the tune, and off we went. Off I went. Way off. I could feel that I had strayed almost immediately from his tempo. He smiled and tried to reel me in as I stared around the room, glancing from the panelists listening, to Kenny, to my hands, which seemed to be moving of their own accord. I don’t remember hearing much other than the pounding of my heart and the screaming internal monologue telling me how awfully I was doing.
When he stopped playing I realized that we were supposed to be trading fours (where the soloist plays four bars and then the band drops out leaving the drummer to play a four bar solo). Oops. Shit. Fucked that up.
Then he stopped altogether. As he stared patiently at me I realized that it was my turn to take an extended solo. I would have known all of this if I had the slightest knowledge of song form, but I didn’t at that time.
I played for a bit. He came back in with the melody, gently interrupting my rambling “solo statements” to indicate I had lost the form and it was time to play the melody again and end the song.
Thank fucking goodness. The song ended. He smiled.
Really? You are a very kind person. Yeah. Can I please leave now?
“Should we play a tune with brushes now?”
No. I should leave and crawl in a fucking hole immediately after destroying my drumset and receiving plastic surgery to change my physical identity. But we might as well since it can’t get any worse.
So he a tune that I don’t recall, but I’m sure I didn’t know since my knowledge of the repertoire was non-existent at the time.
There are many ways to learn that you do not possess a requisite skill for your field. Performing for and with one of the finest musicians in the world is not the way that a drummer wants to discover that he don’t know shit about playing with brushes. But that’s how I found out.
Ok. That didn’t go well.
“Good Jon. Do you have any questions?”
Questions? What are questions? Who is Jon. Oh yeah. That’s me.
I say no.
One of the panelists, Vic Juris, asks me if I had anything else I wanted to play for them. Any odd time grooves?
I told him I like playing “in seven”. He asked me to play something for him. I attempted, hands shaking, mind rattled. It quickly fell apart.
Vic thanked me. Kenny thanked me. Somehow I stood, my legs carried me out of the room. On the way out I could hardly bare to make eye contact with the student volunteer who was waiting outside the room and, no doubt, had heard my horrendous audition. I quickly headed to my car and made my way from the scene of one of the most humiliating experiences of my life.
Step Two: Lick the Proverbial Wounds
Ok. So now the pain has been inflicted. Wounds received. Is it that bad? For myself, pain quickly gives way to numbness. I spent the rest of the day in a daze, like I’d taken a knock out punch on the chin and awoken with a concussion. Mostly, I felt a dull, throbbing ache.
Ironically, without knowing the dates coincided, my mother had purchased tickets for her, my father, and I to attend a performance of the Japanese percussion ensemble Kodo that same evening. The timing was divine. I use the word divine intentionally here since the healing energy of that concert was precisely what I needed after the whooping my ego took earlier that day.
Step Three: Let the Healing Begin
As I stated earlier, healing for me must be accompanied by perspective. And the perspective I received from this experience was extensive.
First, I came to realize that my personal opinion is irrelevant. What I might want or believe I need from the perspective of my ego is completely inconsequential from the broader perspective of my soul. There is something far deeper compelling me to move in the direction of my authentic dreams and desires. So regardless of the pain I fearfully anticipate, or the pain I actually experience, I feel the presence of a force, a drive that carries me into, and eventually through, challenging situations. Whether my ego or mind are willing to suffer some discomfort, the authentic source of my individual psyche is willing to endure meaningful pain.
Likewise, it doesn’t matter what other people’s opinion is of me. Not in the final analysis. To be sure, if Kenny Barron does not feel that I have the skills and awareness necessary to play the drums in his jazz program, I’m going to listen to his assessment of my current abilities and deficiencies. But that is all such an assessment is worth. A critique of my current skills and abilities in comparison with where they need to be.
Someone’s opinion is no measurement on the quality of my being, nor does it predict my future in any way. The only value that another’s opinion of me has is in the learning that it offers.
Only when I’m feeling enough confidence in myself can I take others’ opinions precisely for what they offer, nothing more or less. And if my self image is negative, it doesn’t matter who praises me. That praise won’t penetrate my own feelings of inadequacy.
The bottom line is if I’m feeling good about myself, I don’t need validation from others. If I’m feeling bad about myself, even genuine external praise won’t fill the void. So when peoples’ opinions effect me either positively or negatively, it’s really just an indication that I’m not firmly rooted in my own self love.
In my most enlightened state, anyone is free to assess me, love me, hate me, criticize me. Their feelings don’t affect me since my sense of self is derived from within.
Certainly, this is an ideal state toward which I strive, but only occasionally embody. Still, I can fall far short of full enlightenment, and continue to live out my dreams. No one other than myself determines my fate in the end.
Again, if there are skills and abilities that I need to acquire in order to reach a specific goal, I always can consult the top experts in the field to gain a comprehensive understanding of what I need to learn, and what I need to improve. Then I can begin working on mastering those skills.
There is very little in life that cannot be learned. If the desire is great enough, we will find the guides and teachers; formulate the plan; apply sustained, persistent effort; and accomplish what we feel compelled to achieve.
Needless to say, I was not accepted into the program that year. Or any year. Despite having been rejected, I attended Rutgers anyway, pursuing the same curriculum as a jazz major and auditioning two more times for the program. Both were unsuccessful. The reasons for these failures are too extensive for this installment of my life story. Suffice it to say that I had not yet fully committed to my goals.
However, I did get my shit together. In 2005 I received my Bachelor of Arts in Music with a concentration in Jazz Studies. Two years later I completed my Master of Music in Studio Music and Jazz at the University of Tennessee. And finally, a little over ten years after leaving Rutgers, and nearly eighteen years after dropping out of Syracuse, I completed my Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) in Jazz Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
What Did I Make it Mean?
Painful experiences can be viewed in either of two broader contexts. In one context, pain is simply a reinforcement for us of all of our negative beliefs about ourselves and life. A reminder of all of the negative thoughts we already think.
I could have chosen to view my audition as evidence that I started playing too late in life. That I didn’t have the proper background or training. That I didn’t possess the innate talent. That I couldn’t do and be what I so deeply desired to do and be.
But that’s all bullshit.
Because in the other context, the more accurate one, pain is simply the disappointment of the ego failing to have what it wants, when it wants it. The rest is simply a matter of recognizing how far short of our goal we landed, and understanding how to travel the rest of the way.
I made the pain of that experience a lesson teaching me the distance I had to travel, and the terrain I had to traverse to manifest my dreams as a musician. Ultimately, I made the pain a part of the story of how I became a full-fledged musician.
How About You?
Please ask yourself. What experiences have you had that may have left you feeling that you cannot achieve something for which you feel a deep, burning passion? If you are reading this, it probably means it is time for you to take it on, and finally conquer it. Because nothing happens without a reason. There is an infinitely wise and intelligent part of you calling you home to yourself. Gently urging you to live the life you are meant to create.
I am here to tell you that if you are feeling that deep desire to manifest some internal vision for your life, you already have the most important ingredient. It is the one that will carry you through the challenges and doubts.
The rest is just patience, persistence, and sustained skills acquisition. Do this, and watch how your life changes. And more importantly, how you become who you are meant to be, the being you have come to manifest in this world.
At your service.