When your best life comes at a cost

Last weekend I lived my best life. Friday night I found myself on a beautiful outdoor stage overlooking a cozy courtyard shrouded in a dreamy breeze alongside three incredible, professional musicians - Jackie Whitmill, drummer, Bach Norwood, bassist and Keith Schmorr, pianist. Dressed in a floor-skimming, off-the-shoulder dress adorned with bright fuchsia tropical flowers (perfect for spring), I arrived at McCall Plaza to meet Brent and Ryan, who were setting up the sound system, complete with a wireless mic for me. I rarely sing with a wireless mic, but boy did I get the most out of it. For 90 minutes my passion for the Great American Songbook poured out as I shared my favorite songs with a modestly sized yet attentive and participatory audience. Occasionally the train would whisk by, and I danced across the stage as I sang, lights twinkling in the trees overhead. I outstretched my arms to emphasize the sustained notes, I swivelled my hips to the beat of the bossa nova and I bowed graciously to my kind audience. I felt at home on the stage and had more fun than I’d had in a long time.

The next day I returned to the same stage, this time dressed in frayed, cropped jeans, black leather Chelsea boots, a kimono top and felt hat with my keyboard in tow. Best of all, I had my favorite team: husband & guitar player Zach Balch, brother-in-law and bassist Bert Willis, dear friend and drummer Aaron Hass and #1 fan, my mom, Myra. We were gearing up for a marathon day at Plano Art Fest. First up, Zach played a set of originals with his band. I stood alongside him, dancing to Zach and Bert’s bluesey duels, singing harmonies to songs we’ve been singing almost as long as we’ve known each other, and others that are much newer. It had been awhile since he’d played a set with his band, or even a show other than his monthly songwriter round at Opening Bell Coffee, and I could tell he was loving every second of it. He showcased his growth as a guitar player, riffing with Bert and taking solos, creating musical moments in his songs that had never existed before, and would never be played the same way again, reveling in the artistry of it all. It made me long for him to experience this kind of set far more often.

We quickly pivoted so that the same band projected a jazzier feel for my original set. I sat down at my keyboard. I had friends and family (my in-laws) in the audience. Strangers graciously listened to songs I’ve written. I, too, had not played a full band set for almost a year, and I felt slightly disoriented. I hit some wrong chords. I nervously tried to keep up with the tempo of “Just Love You.” I felt so inside my head that I couldn’t capture the spirit of delivery I’d demonstrated the previous night during my jazz concert. The moment I most enjoyed was accompanying Zach as he played an electric guitar solo to “The Other Side,” listening to him develop a melody that elevated the song to its climax. I internalized this experience as a growth opportunity, making mental notes on how to improve future sets and channel the exhilaration of the previous night’s jazz performance into my original band set.

After a dynamic solo set by our good buddy MD Wulf, Zach, Aaron and I along with bassist TJ Callaway set up for prolific Dallas singer-songwriter Nicholas Altobelli. This was fun for me. I don’t consider myself much of a pianist - I play keyboard to support my singing and songwriting - so it’s a relatively new endeavor for me to play keys in someone else’s band, and I’ve had a blast playing for Nicholas for two gigs now. I’ve been singing background vocals with him for five years, and I absolutely love it. Playing keys and singing in his band makes me feel like a valuable player, which is enjoyable in a totally different way than being a front person.

After a full day of playing (and about six total hours at the festival), we drove straight to Opening Bell Coffee for David Ramirez’s third and final night of three, playing his entire discography. Zach had been running sound for the entire run, and if you are at all familiar with David’s following, you’ll know that it was standing room only. If you’ve seen him perform before, he was just as engaging as you would imagine. My body, however, could barely stand itself up for the rest of the night. I was exhausted.

The following day we felt the weight of the work - all three 45-minute sets, the load ins and outs, the hours of standing, the rehearsal of the morning and the late night out - crushing down on us. It had been a monster of a day by any standard, but no longer being in our twenties, it weighed even heavier. Sunday, however, offered no time to rest. We had to be up and at it again, picking up the house to get ready for a studio session. I don’t know that I was ever able to fully recover. I felt strained throughout the work week, with sessions in the evenings and running straight from work to gig Friday afternoon. Another session Saturday. Another gig Sunday. And then, of course, another work week. The wheel keeps on turning, and I can’t stop running.

This life, as any musician knows, is beautiful, and it is hard. The grind isn’t kind. And there’s never a guarantee that it will pay off. Sometimes it pays monetarily, and a lot of times it does not. Sometimes it leads to future opportunity, and many times the said opportunity doesn’t show its face until months or years later. We can only cling to the moments of connection with our bandmates and audience, onstage and off. Those magical moments are the real reason we overcommit and overexert. I could never completely give it up. I do wonder how much longer my physical being will continue to carry me as I try, as ever, to push forward.

Any time I complain, I am fully aware that someone somewhere has it harder. Everyone has their own hamster wheel. Everyone is working themselves to the bone, burdened by their own circumstances. But as I’ve sworn a couple blog posts ago, I have committed to honesty here, because if my confessions make one person feel like they’re not alone in their struggles, then I can feel like it was worth it to write about mine.

What are you struggling with? And what is the passion that makes it all worth it? Please comment. I’d love to hear from you.