"What did you say your name was again? Why haven't you been around before?"
That's what the director of the bands said as we were tuning up at my first audition for the jazz band at Cornell. The memory is still exceptionally vivid - more lifelike than most I carry with me. I was nervous, insecure, but excited. I suppose everyone is a bit nervous at those sort of things but I was extra nervous. Like most tryouts of the sort, it was a group audition that essentially played to all my weaknesses - sight reading, well structured improv, and the insecurity that comes with being surrounded by enormous talent. Many of the folks there that day have gone on to careers in music.
But I also remember the way the fear rolled off my back when I heard the director say those words. He sensed something in just that one note that ultimately led him to ask me to join the band. I fumbled my way through the sight reading section, botched my solo, and sweat buckets waiting for the results. Sure, I was only in the top band for one semester (apparently playing a good C isn't enough) but it was a transformative experience.
While the moment stood out for me as something wholly distinct ("hey, you've got something special") in my 20+ years playing the sax, it really shouldn't have. That's where the insecurity and lack of awareness came in. I had heard that refrain before. Just a few years earlier a top music professor asked me to be his student at the Manhattan School of Music prep program because he "heard something" - potential. He also said he heard that I had "no tone", but that's another story.
And a few years before that I was in a music shop trying out mouth pieces when a few fellow musicians said off handedly how I sounded like another musician they loved. I ignored the signals because of my own self-doubt. I knew I was good. I worked extraordinarily hard to be good. But I also felt I didn't have what it took to be great and that expectation always limited me.
So I learned to listen to signals better. I began to realize that others would value me only as much as I valued myself.
What I began to realize as I did more photography is that people stopped asking how long have I been doing photography but rather were more interested in what I focused my efforts on. What interested me. What drove me.
There are days I miss my sax but more importantly I remember what I've learned because of it.