Playing in the Big Band

     At GIT (Guitar Institute of Technology), the great studio guitarist, Tommy Tedesco, conducted a workshop. You may never have heard the name Tommy Tedesco, but you have heard him play guitar on many soundtracks—pop-rock of the ’60s (Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley), TV shows (Bonanza, Mash), hundreds and hundreds of movies and recordings.
     He was a phenomenal sight-reader of music, so experienced, seasoned, confident—and working so much, day and night, he’d sleep on the sofa in the recording studio, be woken up to play a solo part in the midst of an orchestra, stumble over to his seat with all eyes on him, rub his face, take his seat and classical guitar, scan the music, watch the downbeat of the conductor, count through 24 bars of silence….and on cue, solo, in one take, play a heartfelt section, just Spanish guitar, ‘with feeling,’ for some romance scene in a movie where the lovers share a meaningful moment. One take, one & done, studio applauds, Tommy makes a joke and stumbles back to the break room to eat a snack.
     Tommy was funny, fat—and phenomenal.
      So Tommy is speaking one day at GIT in his signature hilarious style, and he gives a piece of advice that offended me. He said, “If you get to a part in music where you cannot cut it, turn down the volume, silence your guitar, and fake it—pretend you’re playing.”
     The class laughed, and I did, too, but not heartily. This —THIS—was fraudulent, scandalous, amateurish, and not going to happen on my watch. There’s no way I’d —I’m a pro, I will master my instrument and never get caught like that. 
  We had so many wonderful opportunities and connections at GIT. Big band music is one of my favorite styles, and a dream come true: one day, walking down the hall at school, a fellow guitarist stopped me and said, “I have a gig with a big band, it’s no big deal, it does not pay, we just get together on Saturday mornings for fun and jam through some tunes. I can’t do it this Saturday. You interested?”
     Interested?? HECK YEAH! I said yes, confirmed—then remembered Uh oh, Susie had booked us for a whale-watching boat trip she’d been invited to at work—she worked as a waitress and wore a short skirt and pantyhose with her husband’s approval (increased tips). The boss had invited her out on the boat; she asked if I could come along too, they reluctantly agreed, and we were booked on the boat. But the whales would have to wait. This big band gig was too good to pass. She reluctantly agreed and rain-checked our trip.
     At the Saturday morning gig, I hauled my gear in, plugged in the amplifier, set up the music stand, tuned up, ready to roll. They handed out music charts in a binder, and I got mine just as the conductor called us to attention for the first song.
     Opened the book turned to the song—holy crap…there are NO CHORD symbols! I was used to melodies written with the chord above (Am7—D7—Gmaj). No chords as letters, just notes—each chord spelled out as notes on a staff. A page full of dense notation, like footprints from a storm of ants. Oh crap. 
     The conductor taps his stand, chit chat quiets down.
     Oh crap.
   “Everybody good?” he asked in a tone that implied, “Don’t answer me unless you have a problem. Nobody says anything.
     “Ok, let’s take this at a brisk pace,” —and at a click like the ticks of a railroad track, he counts “One, two, one two three four”—and we’re off!
     Three bars in, and I’m lost. I had barely calculated what key we were in by counting the flats in the staff. We are off to the races, and I am completely lost. Completely lost. Oh crap. 
     Down goes my hand to the volume control. I turn it to zero. The guitar is now silent. My hand goes back to the guitar, and I start strumming in time. I am completely faking it. Watching the chart nonchalantly, as if having done this a million times, feigns I, a glancing eye on the conductor, shift as if comfortable in my chair. 
     He stops the band. 
     Something is wrong. He doesn’t say what, just tells us, “Ok, let’s take it from the top.” Pauses, then counts one, two, one two three four—and I am lost again. Guitar still on silent, still strumming, acting nonchalant. Now rivulets of sweat are running down my spine. 
     We did three more songs this way. I faked the entire thing.
     The conductor calls for a break, makes eye contact, and signals me over to talk with him. We stay away from the band, and with our backs to the band so we can speak privately, he says, “Ok, look…”—the pause. “I know what’s happening. Don’t think I’m not aware. They’re doing the best they can. Timing is off, it’s bumpy, I know… but you’re doing a great job driving the tempo and keeping the rhythm section together. Nice work. I appreciate it. Can you join us again next Saturday?”
     I was nauseous. My back is soaked, sweat now pausing at the tippy top of my butt-crack. I am flushed with humiliation, but I casually thanked him,” Ahh, it’s no big deal, it’s fun, thanks for your good words…—say, where’s the bathroom?”
     I faked my way through the remainder of that gig, said yes to playing the following Saturday; and I learned more about reading music over those next 7 days than I had my previous lifetime. 
By the way:
–I made friends with the drummer, who introduced me to a business project that changed the trajectory of our family’s life.
–And that same Saturday, while I was faking guitar, the whale watching boat got hit with a freak wave which flipped the ship and caused one person to have a heart attack while they floated in open waters awaiting rescue. 
     Yet another example of God’s hand on my mess.

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