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Make Yourself Uncomfortable

January 21, 2022

Like a lot of professionals I’ve been fortunate, being asked to do a lot of enjoyable projects. Most of the time I’m asked to do things that are in my “comfort zone.” While working in your comfort zone can be fun, productive, and musically rewarding, today I’d like to discuss how making yourself uncomfortable can be good for your musical growth.

A few months ago I was contacted by someone I knew who asked, what I thought, was a very funny question:

Would you be interested in playing on a tune on John Mellencamp’s next album?”

I, of course, answered that, OF COURSE I would be interested. Shortly after that I had a phone call with Mike Wanchic, who works with Mr. Mellencamp. He told me that he’d send me some tracks and a chart, and that he’d be in touch when they were ready to record. The tracks were a demo of the tune- one just piano, the other piano and someone singing. The chart was a document with the lyrics and some of the chords written below the lyrics.

This is where my discomfort started. Nearly all of the work I do involves someone handing me sheet music, with a very specific idea of what I’m supposed to play. This was completely different. Not only was there no sheet music, I had no idea what I was supposed to play. I spent the next couple of days experimenting, learning the introduction in case I was supposed to play that; learning the piano solo in the middle in case they want that to be trumpet; learning the ending in case that’s something that should have trumpet as well; and generally just trying to get a feel for the song.

The phone call came just a few days after the chart and demo recordings. It was Mike: “I think we’re going to get this done today…can you make it out here later?” At that point I asked: “What exactly do you want me to play?” He told me that I should play where the piano solo is. I said okay. That afternoon the phone rang again, and it was time to go.

When I arrived, Mike took me into the engineer’s booth and introduced me to John Mellencamp. They played what they had recorded that day, and I asked what they wanted me to play, as I wanted to make sure I was doing what they wanted. They told me where to start, and Mr. Mellencamp said I should keep playing until he finished singing.

The recording engineer took me into the studio, set the microphone, handed me headphones, and walked back to the booth. He made sure he could hear me, and that I could hear the recording. Then he asked if I was ready. Normally when I answer “yes” to that question, I really mean it. Normally when I’m about to perform, I’m confident and have a fairly good idea of what is about to happen. Although I answered “yes” to his question, the very clear thought in my head was this:

I have no idea what is about to happen.

I’ve been playing trumpet for a long time, and think of myself as a versatile musician. I’ve played a wide variety of gigs. I’ve played in the Blue Note with Maynard Ferguson. I’ve also played the Georgia State Fair, where we had to wait until the pig races were over before starting (true story!). A couple of years ago I played the score of the movie “West Side Story” with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A few years before that I played the Holland Tulip Festival (that’s Holland, Michigan) with Myron Floren and Jim Nabors. Like a lot of musicians, I’ve got a bunch of stories from the performances I’ve gotten to do. A lot of times the best stories come from the most…um…challenging…gigs.

It would be easy at this point in my life to keep doing things I’ve done before, and staying comfortable. Here’s the problem: Once you stop trying to move forward, you don’t stay in the same place…you start moving backwards. So even though I knew I had never done anything like this before, I said yes, putting myself in the position of being uncomfortable. It forced me to practice and think about music in a different way.

Now that I had taken a gig without knowing much about it, prepared in a way I had never tried before, and just found out what I was supposed to do, I was standing in a recording studio about to play with no idea if it’s what the people hired me wanted to hear. The recording engineer started the track a few measures before I’m supposed to start playing. I did my best to clear my head, and played. As the tune finished, he stopped the track, and there were a few seconds of silence (where I’m sure there was a short discussion in the booth) and I hear: “Cool…so, are you happy with that?” I laughed, and answered : “It’s your project. If you’re happy, I’m happy. Now that I know that’s okay, I’m happy to do another so you have choices.” He said okay, we did another, and he told me I was all done. I walked into the booth and he played back the track with my solo. John Mellencamp was very nice, and thanked me for coming in. I thanked everybody and went home. I was out of the building in under 20 minutes.

Here’s the tune, “Gone So Soon.” It’s on John Mellencamp’s new album “Strictly A One-Eyed Jack” which just came out today.

I’m very happy to have had this opportunity, as it pushed me in a direction I didn’t even know I had missed. Keep this in mind if someone asks you to do something when your first thought might be “…but that’s not what I do.” Take on the challenge. Put yourself out there.

Make yourself uncomfortable.

6 comments

  1. Sweet! So very tasteful. What you did fit perfectly with the song. GREAT sound


  2. Nice playing, Joey! Really enjoyed this.


  3. That was lovely! I was transported to another time and place. I might have bumped into you on the 50 yard line. We were all a lot younger and surrounded by people we called family. A few that have passed have been on my mind. Thank you for sharing.


    • Thank you. We did spend some quality time on the band (some people called it a football) field. We did crazy things like give bassoonists cymbals and tell them to join the percussion (Sylvia’s) section. You’re right though- it was a family.


  4. Hello Professor,
    I was listening to John Mellencamp’s new album for the first time this afternoon at home in Tulsa and stopped during GONE TO SOON to check the credits, specifically for trumpet, which in turn led me to your website. Your recap of the recording session is fascinating and your recorded performance is delightful.


    • Ken,

      Thank you for the kind words. I’m glad you like the final product.

      Joey



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