If there were leaves on the trees right now, 2 of them would have been turned over for me this past week. And despite the usual bumps and bruises of trying something new, it was a good week of growth and overcoming new challenges.
The biggest "leaf" was yesterday's Chet Baker tribute, where my quartet and I played the Chet Baker Sings album the whole way through. I love Chet's playing and count him as one of my major trumpet influences. His singing left its mark on me too. Not because he necessarily sounded great, but because he just did it differently than everybody else, and packed so much emotion into it. So in that way he really did sound great.
I was excited for the chance to play his music in front of an audience that came to listen, instead of just talk over the music during dinner, as happens so often at restaurant gigs. I thought, "I love Chet's playing style, and I sing a lot with other bands and music groups. So, it should be no big deal." But I soon realized that, even though I do a lot of singing, Chet's vocals were going to be a big deal for me.
It's like the first time I ever went skiing. I spent most of the day on the smallest beginner slope and was doing fairly well. Then, while riding the ski lift back up, I took a look next door at the next larger hill. "I can do that", I thought. My brother advised against it, pointing out that the hills always look flatter from the lift, but they look a lot different when you stare them down from the top. I paid him no mind and went to the bigger hill anyway. When I got to the top, I realized I was in for a "learning experience". My brother watched from the top as I looked pretty good for a surprisingly long time, reached a speed I couldn't handle, flew over a mogul, and ended up rolling rapidly towards the lodge, crashing to halt just shy of a wooden fence. It took me half an hour to find one of my skis.
I had listened to Chet sing hundreds of times and knew that his vocal approach was soft and airy. Like when you sing to yourself as you do chores around the house. As a listener, it sounded pretty doable. But just like that ski slope, my perspective kept me from seeing the real deal. The stuff I usually sing is more pop, bluesy and up tempo. Even the ballads I sing are done with a stronger tone that's more natural to me. I feel pretty comfortable with the Christmas caroling gigs we do around the holidays. I've sung all kinds of material in the classroom during my long career as an elementary school music teacher. But trying to emulate Chet Baker's style is much more challenging than Chet makes it sound.
I had to work on trying to accurately land every single note. Everything Chet sings stands out, often nearly naked against the tasteful backdrop of the rhythm section. I was used to singing with heavy accompaniment and at faster speeds. Getting pretty close to pitch was usually just fine in those situations. Not so at all with Chet's style. You either hit it square or you sound bad.
The extra emphasis on pitch was even more necessary on higher notes. Chet doesn't really sing high, but he supports his sound so poorly that I don't know how he even managed to sound good on the upper tones he did choose. But he did. And he did it without losing that ultra-smooth, smokey quality that saturates every word. I felt like I was doing the vocal equivalent of upping my exercise routine while eating nothing but doughnuts and drinking only soda.
The other challenge for me was to get comfortable with the fact that people were going to be sitting there listening to me sing, whether it was a natural style for me or not. I'm used to that type of thing with a trumpet in my hand, but not so much with a mic. Usually when I sing, people are dancing or talking. Or, I at least have other singers with me to share the load and to blend with. Not this time.
There was also the fact that I spent so much time working on the vocals for this show that I somewhat neglected what was supposed to be the easier part- the trumpet playing. But a day or two before the show I reached the point where I was ready to confidently go into the room and deliver what I could, warts and all, willing to accept whatever opinions or judgements the listeners inevitably would make.
But with the calendar turned to a new week, I feel good about the whole experience. It was challenging, imperfect, and at times somewhat uncomfortable. But what fun is life if you don't push the boundaries a little bit?