Smoke and Dreamers
It was a rainy day on River Street in Savannah. I had lugged my upright bass down the stone stairs of death over the cobblestones and found myself under the pavilion facing the Trade Center. Yesterday I was 14, a freshman at Savannah Arts Academy, sorting through sheet music to play ‘Moon River’ for our first fan, an older gentleman from across the pond. I’d been reading music since before I could spell 3 syllable words so we figured; it can’t be as difficult as Tchaikovsky. We strung through it and he was well pleased and carried on after dropping in a tip. We hadn’t practiced this ‘set list’ we just grabbed some copies from a piano book and played R &B and old classics to our hearts content. We made about $75 that day which was huge for a couple of freshman in High school for about an hours worth of work. “This is what I want to do for a living.”
Today, I’m 25, it’s been about a decade since that day. I’m setting up in the corner of a bar who’s distinct aroma is that of deep fried alcoholism, soaked in addiction and finished with a double shot of sin and shame, Jack and Jim, spilling over on the stumbling stone surface. It’s raining again and I look out from under the faded blue awning to see where it started. Where I was, where I am, and if I could have known what it meant to “play music for a living”. No dream is alike, and they don’t always look quite like what we imagine. Today, this is what it looks like and tomorrow hasn’t come yet but I’m hopeful for then, and thankful for now.
“You’re so ‘lucky’ you get to do this as your job.” I’ve worked a dozen and half day jobs this past decade, two and three jobs at a time, all the while maintaining a passion and crafting my technique to get better and better. There were months, years even where I barely got around to the fundamentals of music, playing scales, learning new songs, taking care to maintain growth. There were years where music came second and third and twelfth to everything else. It wasn’t luck that shined upon me to bring me where I’m at today. It was a lot of late nights, sacrifice, calloused fingers and weary doubting that lead me to need this dream. It was necessity, not luck, that drove me to it.
I didn’t pick up the bass or guitar one day and say “hey this totally comes naturally to me I can figure this out in no time.” If you think that in a few years, you will all of a sudden be great at your dream, it won’t happen. It doesn’t work like that for the ninety-nine percent of us who are not prodigies. If you have goals that you want to reach, take small steps towards them. You are running a marathon. This is not a sprint or a “giant leap of faith” story. I did not cover my eyes, jump, and say “God will provide”. Not saying He couldn’t, I’m saying practice wisdom. Here’s what that looked like for me. I worked my day job and played music at night. At one point, I had a day job, I’d then go to a gig, and then I had an overnight job that I worked as well. That was totally unsustainable but at the time, financially, that’s what had to happen. Anyway, I started budgeting very carefully and after working extremely hard for those years, and taking into account what I could and couldn’t do and afford, I realized I could in fact pay my bills just by playing music. So guess what, I quit my day job. I’m not going to lie, that was scary. The comfort and security that comes from working for someone was almost worth staying. The risk that comes from working for yourself, relying on no one else, and no one else to blame for your failure, will drive you to some pretty scary, and pretty amazing realizations about yourself. One of those being, you are way stronger than you think you are.
Oh guess what. I ate black beans and rice A LOT, but I didn’t have a boss to answer to. I couldn’t afford my own tiny apartment so I sucked it up and got roommates, but I got to make my own schedule. I had to play some Tom Petty songs every once in awhile but I got to take vacations when I wanted and I could go see my family more often. I had to start playing more solo shows because not everyone needs a bassist on a Monday night, but I was still playing music for a living. Sometimes it rained and I was scheduled for an outdoor gig so my show got canceled, but in those times, God provided and there happened to be a random show I was able to pick up most of the time.
There have been some pretty close calls, but overall I’ve been able to solely make my living playing music, working for myself, and actually enjoying it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still very hard. When that drunk guy runs into your microphone, when someone tells you “Don’t quit your day job" but you already have, when you play three gigs in one day and you’re exhausted, or when you play your heart out and nobody hears you. There are downsides to the dream, but it’s still a dream and I’m still living it.
This wasn’t meant to be a “Follow you dreams” post but that’s what it turned into. It’s not too late to chase them. I see y’all out there. I see you chasing it, working hard, doing your best. I see the struggle and the sighs and I feel you. Keep going. As best you can, follow your dreams. They’re all different. My dream looks like playing music in the corner of a smoky downtown bar, making people laugh, hoping that they’ll sing along, and being thankful for every moment, even the ones that don’t feel so great. It means now, I’m fully alive, and living my little dream.