Exceed the comfort zone…

For those that don’t know, I’m a musician. I’ve been a musician for practically my entire life.

And that’s not an overstatement.

As the story apparently goes – I wanted to start playing the violin when I was 3 years old as I watched world-renowned concert violinist Itzak Perlman on Sesame Street (a show at that age I had on permanent repeat. You’re welcome, Mom. I went to them and made it as clear as a 3-year-old possibly could that it was something I absolutely had to start.

So Christmas comes around that year… and they gave me a toy guitar.

As any 3 year old is on Christmas morning, I’m sure that I’m over-the-moon elated at the sight of this musical instrument. Except, it seemed to be missing something. I promptly rested the guitar on one of my shoulders, placed my chin on the top and swung my other arm in the motion of moving a violin bow, while confusingly asking, “Where’s the thing that goes like this?”

Couldn’t make this up. Somewhere in the vault of haunting blackmail material, there lurks damning a picture of me with said guitar under my chin, confounded by the incomplete musical set.

Ahhh, the experiences that shape who we think we’ll become.

Anyway, my parents eventually break down with this conviction and certainty in my desires and they find a small organization in the area that specializes in starting young children with violin techniques and how to properly handle a delicate instrument so as not to treat it like a toy. Eventually I get to graduate from a breadbox with a ruler duct-taped to it to an actual violin.

Seriously… I couldn’t begin to make this stuff up.

In the beginning, I was taught the basics of performing classical music and fiddle music. My teacher, from Tennessee, knew the importance of spreading my acumen across a variety of planes of style and techniques. But for whatever reason, the fiddling part didn’t stick (we also moved across the country at the ripe age of 8, so my amazing new teachers focused more on the classical side. But I also think I had the option and locked in on the latter).

To much the detriment of my family, I fought tooth-and-nail to avoid fiddling. I don’t know what it was… the loosening up it entailed, the growing distaste for country music in general (at that time), the addition of improvisation skills… I’m not sure. I was just more content with reading the music off the page and interpreting it how it was supposed to be interpreted.

And literally, as I typed that sentence… I can see exactly why, as an introverted teen, I wanted nothing more than to be able to keep my face hidden in the pages of Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, all this music that I truly loved. I was more content with it and was guided with how I should probably interpret this music that has been around for hundreds of years, and been performed millions of times. The notes were right in front of me… so why go out on too thin of a branch, take too much of a chance, be a little uncomfortable?

The irony is that when it came time to perform in front of friends and family, the older I got, the more jittery and anxiety-ridden I became. I went to college to study music performance and I started to dread getting in front of people to share a craft I’d owned for my entire life. I stopped enjoying it and just did it because I was supposed to.

Obviously something had to change. But I didn’t know what.

I finished college and essentially went on a performing/practicing/taking-the-violin-out-of-its-case hiatus.

Until, one day I randomly came across a good friend from college who had grown to feel exactly as I had and decided to head to Nashville and start a folk/country music career. He was back living in Colorado and looking to revamp the band that he had created in Nashville, and needed a violin player. Naturally, this was a perfect opportunity for me to essentially hit the reset button – rekindle my love of performing.

Except… oh right, I avoided any sort of improvisation at all costs.

So now I have a decision to make – I can either stick my feet in the sand and continue my hiatus or I can try something new related to a passion that I’ve let slip for far too long. And not just try something new, but attempting an entirely new skill plus do it in front of people on the first shot. Oh… shit…

I learned on the fly. I wasn’t even close to a perfect improv fiddler, still hanging onto many of the perfectionary tendencies that classical musicians put upon themselves – nitpicking the finest of nitpicks. But I kept chipping away at new licks and techniques and being ok with screwing up. Hell, it took me years to be comfortable even calling myself a fiddle player (in concern of offending a ‘real’ fiddle player). Insert FACESLAP emoji here.

Fast forward to about 8 years later and I’ve now been on countless tours with that band and my current band, Ponder the Albatross, shredding away at strings, bow hairs and crowd expectations (I don’t exactly look like a fiddle player… so I’ve been told). I took a chance, stepped out of my comfort zone and as it turned out, I actually fucking love performing for people. I just wasn’t doing it the way I thought I was supposed to be. The thing I fought against so vehemently as I was growing up became one of the things I’m absolutely most passionate about. All because I took a chance on an uncomfortable opportunity and I made the most of it.

So… why am I bringing all this comfort zone business up? Why do I feel the need to talk about a phrase we all hear so much about that it’s become a little cliche? Because I think that, even though we talk about it, hear the advice of ‘do something outside your comfort zone’ so often, that it’s guidance we take for granted. Even now, I no longer get nervous, I just show up and have fun. But now, I’m starting to wonder if I’m continuing to grow further in my craft – if I’m pushing myself.

It’s kind of like if I were to think of my relationship with Jess as, well we’re married now so we can just do our typical routine every day and it’s just how it’s going to be.

Uh… no. That doesn’t work very well. I like to regularly challenge myself to surprise her, to do something that’ll keep her on her toes. And she does the same. Because otherwise? We’ll get bored. So why wouldn’t I apply this logic to other areas (like… writing a post, a newsletter, a book… all things that I’m most definitely not comfortable with yet).

So – I was just visited by a new opportunity last week that now has those little butterflies flapping around in my stomach again, something I’m excited, nervous and fuckin’ pumped about. I was just asked to join an entirely traditional bluegrass band to perform at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival band contest. Which entails learning real fiddle tune standards and performing these fiddle tunes in front of hardcore bluegrass music fans.

Oh, Shit.

I could have thought, no… I don’t really know any fiddle standards, I’m pretty good with where I’m at.

But then, how do I grow? How do I make myself better AND how do I expect to have the opportunity to play on the big stage at <insert your favorite concert venue here> (mine’s Red Rocks) if I don’t embrace the challenge that is legitimately placed right in front of me? How could I continue to write motivational messages if I didn’t listen to my own advice??

So, of course I said yes. And now I’m performing at the (side stage) at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. And if we’re one of the top 3 in the preliminaries, we’ll play on the main stage. So… yeah… bucket list shit.

And I just practiced at home for the first time in…. It’s been too long.

So, yeah. The whole get-out-of-your-comfort-zone schtick is every bit its own standard in the motivational speaking territory. But I think it’s something really important to continue to pay attention to. Because otherwise, are you really developing? Are you actually kicking ass and taking names?

Grow with me….

Exceed the Comfort Zone…