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Concert Honesty: Life To This Point

By Josh Quillen

I fail.  A lot.  It’s been the only real consistent thing in my life.  Just a constant series of trials and errors.  Oh lord and sweet baby Jesus I fail a lot. 

See? I did it right there. 

I said, “Oh lord and sweet baby Jesus I fail a lot.” 

I mentioned Jesus, in a joke.  Bad idea.

I’m married to a pastor--Stephanie Grace Kershner—(the good Reverend--as she’s known in the parlance of our times)--and SHE knows that I would crawl through glass for her and her idea of how that sweet Baby lived His life.  But not everyone else does.  Which is where I’m gonna start.

I’m using religion as a starting point, but substitute the following:  practice time, Balter-blues, 5-octave marimbas, drum corps, steelbands, percussion quartets, stick-height, marimba-grip or favorite orchestral timpanist, and you’ll find a bunch of folks who will say they know the answer.  (Trust me when I say that having a great 4 mallet grip though, whatever that means to you, is most likely NOT a great evolutionary tool for survival, so let’s maybe let that one go and just do the best you can.  Hands are weird.  Mine are really weird.  There are people smarter than me on that subject, so listen to them.  I still don’t think Muesser grip is gonna save me in a street fight, but who knows.)

(back to my wife’s profession) 

The last thing the Man (baby J) said was “What the?”  (or something like that).  Point is, he questioned.  None of us know, and He, sure as apple pie, didn’t either.  Other-wise, I’m quite sure the Bible would have read “and Jesus let out a final wail of glee, “You’re right, I’m wrong.   This is preeeeeeetttttty great! See you soon Dad!!!! Weeeeeeeee!!!!!!  I love it….You’re plan has worked perfectly!!!!!!!!  I underestimated you the whole timmmmmmeeeeee!!!!!!”   (cue final breath)

But alas, here we are.  No one knows, really.   And if they say they do, they don’t.  At least that’s been my experience.  And my wife would even tell you that she doesn’t know.  To be clear, I understand not everyone feels this way.

It’s ok.   Some people will still say they know.  I’m just not one of those people.  At least I’m trying not to be one of those people.  I know nothing, John Snow. (spelling incorrect on purpose to drive my wife, and I’m sure Adam Sliwinski, absolutely crazy.  They know I know it’s “Jean”.  And that Game of Thrones is definitely not set in any specific time period in history, nor is it based on, or ever refers to anything historically appropriate.  Yes, they have dragons, so I get it, it’s “Fantasy”.  But why don’t they have iPhones?  Because it’s set in a specific time period.  That’s why.  (deafening silence while I wait for Stephanie and Adam’s response to that one… moving on to music…thankfully.))

A few years ago, I had a real bad experience in a concert in Houston, TX.  Some former SoSI students were in attendance to hear us play, among other things, a few movements from John Luther Adams’ “Strange and Sacred Noise”.  It was the first time I had performed any of the piece in public, and long story short...my music blew off the music stand (after I had made fun of Eric for taping his down).  A nice lady grabbed my music out of the wind and put it back on my stand.  I attempted to get back on the horse, so to speak.  But I was in the wrong spot, and the click track we had made just had crash cymbal sounds with no “letter A!” reminders or anything.  So I heard a crash and went to the letter I thought we were on.

It wasn’t the letter we were on. I was way off.  And didn’t realize it till the end of the 1st snare movement when I had a pretty tragic solo moment at the end.  I just faded out like an idiot.  Took a bow, like an idiot, and went into the green room to lick my wounds, like an even bigger idiot.

Listen.  I try.  This one just got by me.  I should have known the piece better than I did.  But I didn’t.  I should also spend more time calling my mom, but I don’t do that as often as I should either, so lay off.

Why all this “honesty” you ask?  It’s not real honesty.  There are things you don’t and won’t ever know about me if you don’t know me really well.   I’m sure there’s things you keep from others who you don’t know so well, too.   And that’s ok.  That said, there’s also a lot of other unimportant “truths” in daily life that I was trying to hide from people so that everyone thought a certain thing about me.

Some things just aren’t that important.  Right notes?  Not that important.  Good time?  Pretty important, but actually?  Not really.  Blowing everyone’s minds with a great solo?  Not that important.  Being someone others can count on in the heat of the battle?  Very important.  

But none of THAT is more important than calling your mom more, or giving what you can to charity, or trying to complain less (this is hard for me), or giving change to someone who asks for it (this one should be easy.  I always have change.  Why do I hesitate?  Every time I give what I have to someone who asks, I always feel better.  Always.  And if their day is a little better, and my day is a little better…isn’t that kind of what this is all about?  Everyone just trying to make their day a little less bad?  I don’t know.  I could be wrong.)

Stuff gets by me.  I’m only 38, but with each year and with each added career boost or improvement or perceived success, something keeps happening.  Stuff keeps getting by me, but there’s another change I think is for the better, but I’m not sure.  I’m hitting far fewer homeruns now, but I’m able, on my worst day, pretty much always able to eek out a single or a double.  Rarely is it a complete failure.  I’m getting better at being at the plate and knowing my weaknesses, and reading the next pitch. 

Why do we put Mickey Mantle in the hall of fame for hitting less than 1/3rd of the pitches thrown to him over his lifetime?  I’m well aware it’s not really a great comparison, but comparatively speaking, I play more hits on a block of wood during Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood during one of our seasons than Mickey Mantle took in pitches his entire MLB career (9907 career at bats, maximum of 6 pitches per at bat - I know there could be more or less so I just took a good guess) is around 59442 pitches taken in his MLB career.  If I play Music for Pieces of Wood 50 times a year in various situations, I hit that block about 1680 times a performance, netting me 84,000 strikes of that block of wood over 50 “at bats” of that piece.

(I’m definitely speculating here, but I don’t think I’m THAT wrong.  Someone do the math for me, please…now I’m curious).  So maybe I should not get super upset if a few of those 84K were off the mark.  Don’t get me wrong.  I do my darned-est, every time, to put them all where they need to go.   But?  Best laid plans….

I started thinking about this when my dad got sick.  My mom called me when I was on tour with So Percussion and Matmos in Montreal.  We were playing at a club called Le Nacional.  I sat on a curb as my mom (crying) told me what ALS was (Lou Gehrig’s disease), and that my dad was going to die, but she found a heads-up penny on the way out of Wal-Mart, so that’s a sign that this might work out. 

Sometimes you take anything because you just lost everything, regardless of your perceived privilege in the world.  “Ain’t none of us getting out of this alive,” my dad said, when he was diagnosed.  He was a humorously profound guy.

I told my mom I loved her, hung up the phone, and played a show.  If you’ve never done this, I hope you never have to, but let me tell you that wasn’t the worst part.  The worst part was watching the strongest person I knew at the time wither away for 3 years, getting another phone call in the Minneapolis airport to tell my dad goodbye, boarding a plane, landing in Helena, MT, and setting up for a residency week and playing a show.

Trust me when I say that playing those shows was the easy part. That was the moment I realized that playing concerts will always be the most insanely easy thing I do in my life.  It’s the thing I’ve always done, and it’s the thing that I did when the darkest hours of my life came a-knocking.  It’s where the consequences REALLY don’t matter, so I can just do a thing and be in the moment, because there are real genuine problems in the world, and Music for Pieces of Wood is not one of them.  That’s easy.

So don’t be scared.  Of any of this.  None of this matters.  Or….maybe it all matters.  Someone is right.  But like I said, I don’t know.  And if someone says they do….

A few rules to think about (again I know nothing, Jon Snow…see I fixed it) with regards to navigating careers and life:

1. Try and find the “in” with everybody.  We all have one.  I find it really helpful to compliment people.  I like glasses, clothes, hair, tattoos, etc.  I haven’t met a single person who doesn’t like being complimented (in a non-creepy way of course, and if you really mean it.  People can tell if you’re faking it.  So don’t).  It’s a skill to hone and get better at.  Know what you like, but even more importantly, know WHY you like it.  Then find that in everyone else.  If nothing else, it’s a good place to start a conversation, but at its best, it’s a way to let someone know that you are seeing something in them that they’ve clearly thought about.  For some people it’s their hair.  I’ve had the luxury of working with many friends from Caribbean populations (in Trinidad and in Brooklyn) for the past 7 or so years, and there are a few folks in particular who I just adore because of the attention to detail in their hair (and other reasons too, of course).  It’s the first thing I noticed because it’s strikingly gorgeous.  It’s an outward sign, at least to me, that they care deeply.  And I can get down with that for sure.
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The ability (and more importantly, desire) to genuinely find something you like in someone, even if you think you have nothing in common with that particular person, will make people (and you) smile more often than not.

Ron White (amazing comedian, very vulgar FYI, but hysterical) once said of fellow comedian, Carrot Top, on Joe Rogan’s podcast, the Joe Rogan Experience, “I don’t need to be into his stuff to know it’s great and that he’s great.” I’m paraphrasing a bit, but I couldn’t agree more.

2. Fail a lot. Fact is, you already do, you just haven’t gotten used to learning from it outwardly.  I’m not saying you have to publicize every weakness you have.  Start small.  Own a missed cue or something.  Just start owning them.  Conor McGregor, MMA fighter, is one of the most gracious losers I’ve seen.  The stakes are life and death for him in his sport, and he is always reflective and honest and self-aware in defeat.  Rose Namajunes, MMA fighter, and Michelle Waterston, MMA fighter, hugged and repeatedly embraced each other after a vicious battle in the ring.  Both women smiling, relieved it was over, and gracious in winning and defeat.

I miss a few notes on a show and I sit and sulk in the green room after.  Something isn’t right here.  So I try and fix it when I get a chance.  I own it and move on.
 
(I’m not advocating you watch fighting. I get that you may not be into that.  All good.  If you’re into cooking…watch the Great British Baking Show.  It’s the same thing as MMA…just for bakers).

3. We’re all weak and we’re all hot messes.  All of us.  Being humbled is the first step in learning how to teach and to learn and to help.   Do something that exploits a weakness of yours.  For me, it’s bowling and Bikrim (hot) Yoga.  I’m really bad at both. A good friend of mine from my wife’s church, is showing me how to bowl better.  He’s in a league, and we disagree politically.  And we have a grand ole time.  He loves whiskey.  I love whiskey.  He loves to tell jokes, and so do I.  We just don’t agree on politics.  But actually, we do more than we don’t.
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I’m getting better at hot yoga and bowling, and my bowling coach is one of the most generous people I’ve ever known.  It’s a weird world, folks.
 
4. Complicate your world view. Confirmation Bias is a real thing--in music, in politics, and even in food tastes (I’ve often made the statement that Penso’s Pizza in Dover, OH was the best pizza in the world.  Then I moved to New Haven, and out of principle, never ate Pepe’s.  Julian Pelicano was trying to complicate my world view with his Sicilian ways, and I wasn’t having it.

Then I had pizza in Italy on tour.  Without a doubt, the pizza in Italy is better than all the pizza in Dover.  But, Penso’s is the best pizza in Dover.  If you ever are passing through.  Go there.  You won’t regret it.)  Sorry Julian.  I’ll make it up to you.

5. The world is not fair. That’s not it’s job.  I wish it was, but it’s not.
 
My best friend in grad school was Jamie Deitz.  He was a brilliant musician and player and all around inspiring guy.  He always had this particular fire and drive that I never had, and it always made me curious and made me care about him.  He was a genuine ball of fire, and that particular blend of heat took him a bit early.
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I didn’t have to deal with many of the things he did in life, but we met and we had a glorious time learning from each other.  He changed the way I see the world in many ways.  So no, the world is not fair.  At least in my experience.  So let’s also not pretend it’s fair for everyone else.  It clearly has not been.

6. That said…life is also pretty awesome, objectively speaking. It’s not without its troubles, but if you’re reading this, you probably HAVE the time to read this, are taking a break from practicing marimba, are swiping your way through social media, or (if you’re like me) are about to hit send on this thing and head to a party called “Cooktoberfest” at a brewery near me with my wife and some friends…which says to me, life is pretty ok sometimes.  Let’s be kind.  Fight the good fights.  But there is FAR more good in the world than bad.
 
My dad also told me a millions times over his life: “Life is 10% of what happens and 90% of how you react to it.”  It gets truer, for me, over time.
 
Let’s try and tell folks about the good at least as much as we talk about the bad.  We’ll be happier and more optimistic, and, thus, less likely to take our frustrations or fears out on others, which is kind of where this whole thing goes wrong in the first place.
 

See?  I’m even failing at writing this damn blog.  It’s been 13 days since I wrote that crap about Jesus up front and I still think it’s funny, so I kept it.  Though I probably shouldn’t have.  Someone may have gotten mad, but if they did, I would be happy to chat in person and hopefully, more articulately express my point in person, which is ALWAYS BETTER ANYWAY!!!!!!

Ain Gordon, a writer/director friend of mine, will tell you I HATE editing, and that should be clear to all of you if you’ve actually finished reading this ramble, but I hope my point still sticks. 

There are more important things than going back and putting one space after all the periods now instead of two, because THAT’S the new thing I should have to think about.  Nope.  Not gonna do it. 

Arrest me. I love you all, but seriously…not gonna do it.  Sorry Todd.  Sorry Adam.  Sorry Stephanie.  Sorry Mr. Gunther (high school English teacher).

Listen.  We got this.  You got this.  But there’s no clear line or strategy.  Sometimes there will not be leadership and you’ll have to figure out how to lead, but that won’t be easy either.   Mr. Rogers was on point when he quoted his mother in saying:  "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

If you’ve ever been to SoSI, you’ve heard this before, and I stand by it:

“If you need help ask for it.  And if you’re asked for help, give it.”

It’s pretty simple. 

Big hugs, and let me know if I can be of any help. 

Josh

Ps.  Game of Thrones is clearly set in 9th century England.  Ok, glad I got that off my chest.   That was hard to keep that in.

Josh Quillen is founding director of New York University Steel Drum Band and the Princeton University Steel Drum Band as well as a member of So Percussion since 2006.   He is also co-director of the Bard College Conservatory Percussion Program.  Josh also recently performed with Ain Gordon in a production of an original play called “Radicals In Miniature.”  So Percussion is the Edward T. Cone Ensemble-in-Residence at Princeton University.