Saturday, February 6, 2010

Magical Moment 3, "Victory at the Broadway Comedy Club"

It is rare for me to find a legitimate piano gig. It is even more rare for the hirer to return my phone call and/or e-mail. And it is practically an occasion to break out champagne and dance a jig when all the details work out and I am officially “booked.” So I was totally psyched when I booked an accompaniment gig at the Broadway Comedy Club. Not the Vegan Poetry Reading House, not the accompanist for a Catholic school’s children's Christmas program, but the Broadway Comedy Club - in the heart of New York City and a legitimate landmark where many famous musicians have performed.
The gig was to provide accompaniment (which isn’t my best skill) of Broadway songs (which I don’t know a lot of) for professional vocalists (who can be a bit…diva, or divo). We had one short rehearsal the day before the performance and I arrived at the rehearsal about 30 minutes early because I still had no concept of how mass transit runs in this city. I made it a rule of thumb to leave an hour before I thought I really needed to and generally wound up barely on time anyway.

Confidence lacking, and completely intimidated by location, the prospect of on the spot sight-reading, and the company I was in, the first performer (a beautiful, petite blonde) handed me her sheet music. In slow motion I reached for the wrinkled stack of papers. Please, please, please God, let this be something I’ve heard before. I should explain that while, yes I am a pianist and yes I write and arrange music, I FLOUNDER when it comes to sight-reading. I mean sink like a rock. I looked at the title. Yep. Never heard of it. Yep. It’s in G flat. Yep. It's 12 pages long. I spread the music across the piano while trying to hold my head up and give some impression to the vocalist that I had the faintest idea what I was looking at. What are those, dotted 16ths? Ledger lines…good boys eat fudge. She stared at me, waiting impatiently for the intro to begin. I started to play. The tempo was off. The rhythm was off. The lead-ins were un-recognizable. The run through was a disaster. So was the second song I was required to play. And the third, fourth, and fifth.

By the end of the rehearsal, my head sank in defeated shame and I refused to meet anyone’s eyes. I will never forget the look I received from the blonde singer – a look of disgust. A look that said, “You’re going to ruin my entire performance. How did you even get hired?” My mind sorted through any possibility that I could get out of this. Is there anyone I can call to fill in for me? I would pay them. Is there anyway I could say there was a family emergency and not have it sound completely fabricated? There was no out. I had to do it. I had to learn these 5 songs PERFECTLY in less than 24 hours.
There wasn’t a second to lose. On the bus ride home I called my husband in a panic. Through frantic tears and gasps I gave him a run down of the catastrophe I had just been through. I listed the title of each song and told him to download them immediately. “I don’t care if you have to pirate, steal, lute - I need the songs on i-tunes the second I walk in the door!!!” Being the good husband that he is and having learned that you can’t reason with crazy, the songs were downloaded and ready when I got home. I walked straight to the music room with the laptop, shut the door, and listened to each song over and over until every note was drilled into my head.

I practiced all night long and into the next afternoon. I didn’t eat except for a few saltines which I took my hands off the keys long enough to stuff 2 or 3 in my mouth and went back to practicing as I chewed. I slept only 2 hours. When I felt like taking a TV break, I pictured that blonde girls' look of complete repulsion and how it would be magnified by a hundred if my accompaniment in any way affected her grand performance. Not to mention that my first real, respected, professional gig in New York City would be an utter failure and I would never have the confidence to try and play for anything again except children’s birthday parties.

By the time I made it to the show that evening, the worry and pressure had built up in my head so badly, I felt as though I was trapped deep under water, desperately trying to find air. My hands were wet, clammy, and cold and no matter how much I rubbed them against my black jacket (which was way too expensive, but made me look way more professional than I actually am), I could never get them dry. My foot tapped uncontrollably on the ground waiting for the show to begin causing my entire body to shudder. My heart was pounding into my ears. I was less nervous when I jumped out of an airplane for the first time. I thought about what a relief it would be to just run out the front door and not have to face this.

The show began and my walk to the piano felt like a dream. I played the first song. The intro was perfect. The singer came in confidently and with ease. The chorus, the bridge, the final not rang out with power – she nailed it because I nailed it. I didn’t claim victory yet. Four more to go. And although the night seemed to go on forever, somehow I made it through each song, recollecting everything I had rehearsed so feverishly in the last 20 hours. With every successful finish, I gained another ounce of confidence to begin the next one.

And finally the moment came when I hit the final note of the final song and took my foot off the sustain pedal. That was it. All those hours of practicing, listening, memorizing, and deciphering ledger lines had led to this moment. I smiled ear to ear. My husband clapped and smiled ear to ear. And although the crowd was applauding for the amazing job of the vocalists, each singer turned to look at me with a sincere nod of gratitude – even the blonde girl - knowing that their phenomenal performance would have been impossible without me. Suddenly my headache was gone, my shoulders relaxed, and I could breathe again. The air felt cool and refreshing and I was completely and thoroughly exhilarated. That was the moment that I first felt like a true musician.


Regina Daugherty-Teague said...

Wow!! My heart was gripped with fear as I read, my heart was pounding, and I think I was even holding my breath in hopes of a happy ending. Yay for you!

Anonymous said...

whoa. Girl, that's amazing! I am a decent sight reader, but there is NO WAY I would have been able to pull that off. Only you could have. Congratulations, you really should be proud of yourself for that one! For help with sight reading, I bought this huge book of famous classical pieces and play my way through it. It has made an enormous difference in the way that I play and read music. Maybe give it a shot so you're not as nervous the next time around? Again, great job!

Debboe said...

They couldn't have done it without you. I think that you are the most talented lady that I have ever met. Don't let anyone or anything keep you from doing what you love to do and are great at.