It’s 6:57pm. I made it — and with three minutes to spare! Sixty minutes ago, I was at work, way across town, biting my fingernails as I shut down my computer for the day and ran out of the office. Thankfully, the traffic gods smiled upon me and aside from a few inescapable red lights, I managed to weave my way through the cars, cabs, and cycles in record time. I stumbled upon a parking spot a few blocks away from the arena, skipped down the sidewalk, walked right up to the box office, and found tickets waiting for me.
And now, here I am, taking a breath and settling into my seat. Row J, Seat 12, Section 117. I glance at the people around me, wondering if they shared my excitement for the quickly approaching musical greatness. How couldn’t they? This wasn’t just any concert… It was Stevie Wonder. I had been gearing up for the concert all week, spinning Stevie classics and revisiting the incredible bass lines on “Golden Lady,” “Sir Duke,” and “So What The Fuss.” I pictured myself singing along to “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” while watching the one and only Nathan Watts groove like a…
A hush came over the crowd as the house lights went off. The arena was instantly transformed into a dark night sky, speckled with the shining lights of cell phones and glow sticks. The hair on my neck stood up straight as the air in the room changed. The darkness resulted in a new energy, a strange electric charge. The molecules in the room seemed to be both completely still and incessantly buzzing. If I were ever to experience an alien space ship landing right in front of me, I would expect it to be something like this. Thousands of people sat together, excited and positively nervous. The silence that accompanied the darkness had dissipated as people became antsy and impatient. Hundreds of voices began shouting, hooting, cheering, and hands began clapping. Perhaps the crowd needed some way to express this strange sensation; perhaps they believed that their rowdiness would expedite the musicians’ entrance.
Even I began feeling anxious, realizing that the past few minutes felt just as long as the hour I had spent getting to the show. I strained my eyes in the direction of the stage, hoping to see the players take their respective positions. I could sense their movement; I imagined them picking up their instruments, double-checking their tuning, making slight adjustments to the drum set, and gently pressing down the valves on their horns. “What is that first note going to be?” I wonder. Perhaps it’s an Eb, and they’ll start the show with “I Wish” or “Superstition.” Maybe they’ll save those until the end of the show, knowing that they’re the crowd pleasers. But wait, this is Stevie Wonder… every song is bound to be a crowd pleaser. Maybe they’ll start with…
The band enters, the lights go up, and I stop rambling. The music becomes real, my eyes and ears become focused, and the minutes, hours, and days leading up to the show have been let go like a balloon floating off into the heavens.
This amazing feeling, this feeling of anticipation, makes live music so incredibly special. It exists on stage as much as it does if you’re sitting in the audience. You’re in the same room, breathing the same air, holding onto an instrument or to a playbill. The nerves, excitement, impatience, and unpredictability still permeate the air, even if you have a set list in front of you. It’s the sense of wonder, the potential for creativity and showmanship, and the desire to experience music in the here-and-now that makes it all worthwhile.
It took me a long time to realize that this feeling was one and the same—that the anticipation surrounding a musical event should be present whether you’re waiting to hear a band begin, waiting to play your first note, or waiting to jump into your favorite song of the set. If you’re a gigging musician, the key to staying interested in a project should be that sense of wonder, that feeling of excitement, and the fulfillment you get from playing a show. If that doesn’t exist, then it may be time to find something new, or at least time to add a few new songs to your repertoire.
Frankly, playing on stage with Stevie Wonder is something that probably won’t ever happen to you. If it does, then you are one lucky bass player. You may never play an arena show or experience the landing of an alien spaceship, but the molecules in the room are still going to start buzzing if you’re at least somewhat excited about the music to come.
The key is to be present, whether you’re in a crowded bar, a two hundred person venue, a coffee shop, or a living room, and to recognize the magical change in the air before the first note is played.