If I had a dollar for every time I dragged my aching carcass out of bed the morning after a gig and declared “I QUIT,” then I’d be buying dinner for everyone reading this. A couple weeks ago I had a gig in NYC with my old friend and colleague Amanda Monaco’s band, also featuring one of my longtime musical heroes. And I finally put my money where my mouth was and I DID QUIT, though not in the way I have historically intended with the statement.
The act of playing jazz piano is very physical. And I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, and my joints are therefore loose and fragile and yet I want so badly to play what I hear in my head, to play what reflects my able-bodied heroes, and yet and yet . . . and the circular conundrum goes around and around and in frustration I declare “I quit.” And then of course the music calls me back and the cycle repeats. This has been a recurring pattern for the last 27 years or so since I simultaneously fell hopelessly in love with the music and started experiencing the first EDS symptoms that hinted at the obstacles before me (having previously experienced plenty of injuries, but ones that were generally fairly tangential to life as a jazz pianist).
One result of this has been a steady emotional resistance to the idea of being “impaired.” Even as I’ve reconciled that EDS is and will always be central to my life, and even as I’ve developed coping strategies, and even as I’ve been methodical about figuring out ways to maximize the musical potency and minimize the musical compromise, and even as I’ve worked to figure out what role performing plays in my life so that I don’t burn out my limited energies prematurely, there has been resistance. I have longed, at least when on the bandstand, to be whole, to be able-bodied. My biggest fear has not been of having to quit, but of sounding feeble.
For a little context for folks not into jazz (jazzheads, feel free to skip this paragraph), one of the things that’s special about this music is that the individual player generates much of the musical content. There are many other forms of music in which the specific notes one is responsible for playing have been previously determined, whether it be a Beethoven piano sonata in a concert hall or an accurate rendering of the “Jump” keyboard solo from the original Van Halen recording with a cover band in a sports bar. In this sense, while any musician with EDS or comparable physical obstacles is likely to have some struggles in playing the music before them, my inner struggles have another layer because as a jazz musician. much of the time I’m literally deciding what to play in the moment
When I listen back to my older recordings I cringe at times. Not because they sound bad (they mostly don’t, thankfully) and not because I feel wistful for my lost youth (I mostly don’t, thankfully). There are moments, though, when I hear myself “going for it” not because the music demands it at that moment but because that compulsion kicks in. It’s kind of like showing off, but in a more clear cut compensating-for-something manner. Of course, a case could be made that ALL showing off is compensating for something; I have observed that to be pretty valid. The thing is, these things don’t SOUND bad, but because I know my own “voice” as a player, I can tell when I let that stubborn resistance take over.
Before I hung up my racquet for good, I used to do this on the tennis court, but that was different. I would mostly stay focused on playing intelligently (playing “winning tennis,” one might say) and having a good time, but at times I would get into the mode of just slugging hard or running fast not because it was smart but because that’s what an able-bodied person would do and I wanted to have that feeling. Not only was this harmless playing tennis, but it was one of the main reasons I started playing again, because it felt so good to have those moments – and indeed, nearly four years after packing it in, I value the memories of those moments probably as much as the trophies (though for similar reasons I still appreciate the chance to point out that THIS CRIPPLE WON TENNIS TROPHIES).
But the funny thing is that the people who cared about me thought that was cool just because. Nobody ever said “what a profoundly heroic accomplishment for someone with a disability” or anything like that. They were happy because I loved tennis and it was a cool thing. I may get more of that with music (pats on the back for perseverance, for not playing like someone for whom there’s something audibly “wrong”), but usually it only comes up when people inquire about my ring splints and are surprised that they’re not a fashion statement. I have had many experiences where my limitations had professional consequences OFF the bandstand, where I’ve lost opportunities (and validly so) because of expressing limitations surrounding length of gig or hauling of equipment or other things that were simply not compatible with the needs of the venue or bandleader. But, again, this is not the same as sounding feeble. As time has passed, I’ve realized that while this fear of feeble musicianship is tangibly valid, it’s also a) not constructive, and b) not based on any feedback coming from outside of my own overactive head.
So as I took the train to New York, I reflected on my previous opportunity to play with the aforementioned hero, the bassist Rufus Reid, who played on so many of the records I studied in my late teens and early twenties. The previous occasion was 1996, I think, maybe 1997, and I was one of three young musicians chosen to round out a quintet with Rufus and the great drummer Akira Tana, who was one of my teachers at the time. That was a long time ago, but the memory is vivid primarily because I can remember the headspace I was in. This was an opportunity to sound like I was whole and IMPRESS one of my heroes. That all makes sense, except that a) he never perceived I was broken in the first place, b) being “unbroken” in a macho way doesn’t really impress anyone in a context like this (maybe weightlifting?) and c) being in that headspace takes one OUT of the headspace of being tuned-in, musically responsive, and soulful (which, among other things, is hardly “impressive”). So the experience went as one might predict – I didn’t embarrass myself, but I certainly didn’t play in a manner reflective of my actual musical personality or attundeness to what was going on. I remember one moment particularly vividly, when the music went in an unexpected and exciting direction and I stubbornly kept trying to play the no-longer-relevant stuff I’d practiced in order to be “impressive,” banging that square peg with my fragile arms until it kind of squished into the round hole.
I moved on to contemplating the gig ahead of me. This was one of those opportunities to do exactly what I worked so hard to learn to do, to make music with someone I respect so much and whose sound is embedded into my very conception of the music. And I thought about what a shame it would be to fall back into that “must impress, must sound not-feeble” head trip booby trap. As the train moved towards Grand Central Terminal I declared once and for all that I QUIT. I quit trying to distance myself from the reality of my physical existence. I quit feeling ashamed of being disabled when I sit down at the piano. And most of all, I quit caring about being “impressive” or flashy or really anything else but serving the music in the most genuine way I can
That sounds more dramatic than it was in a sense, given that it was at most a culmination of years and years of working on this stuff, not a sudden flipping of a switch. But it was the perfect affirmation before being in this environment. And the music? It was blissful, really, and felt as natural as I might hope. I even had an extra “test” when I looked out and saw one of my peers in the audience, an utterly brilliant pianist about whom the insecure, feeble-fearing parts of me might say “please, you think you’re HER peer?” Those thoughts hit me for maybe 10 seconds, and I took a breath, felt gratitude that she’d come to check out the music, and went back to being me, warts and fragile joints and all. As much as I encourage others to shed their own unrealistic expectations of themselves, I’m fully aware that it’s not always that easy, and I’ll always be grateful for this confluence of events to help me reach the next step on that endless climb towards an unapologetically authentic state of being. And in my case, it just may be that finally quitting will help me push the other kind of quitting off a bit further into the future.