If you haven’t read the first parts of  this blog series about my adventure on “America’s Got Talent,” they’re here:     Part 2

To recap the story:  I was  invited to compete on  “America’s Got Talent”  last March in Seattle, played James Brown’s “I Feel Good,” and was buzzed (rejected) with  lightning speed.  The show aired a few days  ago.

Malik Williams coaching me on James Brown

So, yesterday a friend  sent me the thread of a blog forum about my AGT performance that read:  “Yes, it’s important for  a professional musician to be flexible, but also to know where to draw the line so that one’s dignity is not compromised.  For example, singing and  playing James Brown’s “I Feel Good” on a national televised talent show may  actually make you feel not so good afterward…”

Hmm… well … in fact, I felt elated afterwards.  And my dignity … I’d compromise it  any time to get at the truth.  But I probably need to put this all into context, so first off, here are the 3 things that wove the backdrop for that moment:

1. Years ago I was signed to a record label, GRP, that had a specific ‘sound.’  For three years we struggled, them trying to make my music sound more “GRP” and me trying to sound like myself. When I looked back years later, I often thought, “If I did that again, I’d put myself utterly in their hands, just to see where the ride would take me.”

2. Since 2009 I’ve been working on a musical called “In the Wings (or “What the Hell are you doing in the Waiting Room for Heaven?) about the ultimate game show — to win a place in the heavenly choir (see AGT blog #1)

3. For the past year I’ve been in conflict with myself about a project a producer-friend wants me to do.  He wants me to develop of Classic Rock harp program for orchestra, something that would take at least a year to put together, with no guarantee that it would be either artistically or financially successful  His motivation is that it would be easier to sell me in that package, not that the project would deeply resonate with my own artistic values.

These all form the background of my experience with AGT which began earlier this year with an email from my agent saying “America’s Got Talent” invited you to audition” — and not just to audition, but to skip over preliminary rounds and go straight to the TV round.  My first thought was, “Why would I ever want to do that?”  My second thought was, “What an incredible opportunity to learn about high-pressure talent shows.”

So to my agent’s surprise I said, “Sure, what the heck?”

Malik straps on the harp himself

Once I realized it was actually happening, I started calling other friends who’d been on the show to ask for advice.  They told me to expect a lot of pressure from AGT producers to “game” the show by playing familiar music (subtext: DON’T play your originals) —  and a lot of hype about how good my chances were.   I’m not great in situations like that so I asked this producer-friend (the one in #3 above) to run interference for me,  and play the role of manager during the negotiations, which he kindly agreed to do.

I thought I was really smart to buffer myself like that, until my next phone call with him.  Because suddenly HE was pressuring me to put together a list of pop-tune covers for AGT, HE was telling me I was being difficult and unreasonable, and HE was seriously questioning the validity of my insistence that I should play an original.  So instead of dealing with pressure from an unknown AGT producer, I was dealing with it from someone I really like and care about — and NOT dealing with it well.

When I said I couldn’t come up with a list of five current pop tunes I could convincingly play on electric harp in a nationally -televised contest, he said, “What’s so hard about that???  It’s easy!  Look, I’ll sit down with you and tell you what tunes to play. I could do it in five minutes.”

And before you fault him for this, remember he really thought he was doing the best for me:  He saw what I’ve been able to do with the harp.  He saw the rock energy in my playing and — I  gotta love him for this — he thinks I can do anything.  It’s not his fault that he loves rock, wants to see me play it, knows how to promote it, and would have LOVED for me to get National TV exposure successfully playing a well-known cover.

But I didn’t know how to hold my own in the face of his certainty about what I should be doing.  I didn’t know how to articulate the fact that embodying the artistic spirit of an art form is totally different  from being able to convincingly play standard repertoire.   Yes, my performances are informed  and inspired by the spirit of many genres and artists from Jimi Hendrix to Guiseppe Verdi, but I play very little standard repertoire from any genre, and when I do it takes  years for me to make it my own.

So HE was saying, “Here’s what you have to do to win.”

I was saying, “But … but … but … but ….”

And NOBODY was saying:  “Look, just be as genuinely YOU as you can be – and if you fail, fail as YOU.”

I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t say that for myself, since it was the first and most important lesson my teacher John Swackhamer taught me over 30 years ago  at U.C. Berkeley (along with “If you play faster than you can, it just sounds like mush, so slow down.”)

We just start having fun

And while it’s easy for me to see all this now, in that moment – a week before the show, when I finally knew for sure I was going to Seattle to compete, and that I’d play James Brown (and, trust me, it was waaay closer to anything I actually can do well than the other options I was given) — by then I’d lost my center:
– I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to go on the show because I knew it was a precious research opportunity for my musical.
– And I knew I was miserable, but I didn’t know whether it was because I’m unwilling to make the sacrifices that would make me a more marketable musician, or because I was being expected to do something that simply isn’t me.

The truth is that knowing “who I am” as an artist seems to be taking me a lifetime, and figuring it out sometimes means taking on roles that don’t ‘feel’ like me for a while.  It’s hard for me to decipher the difference between the discomfort of molding myself into something I’m not, and the discomfort of pushing myself to greater authenticity. They’re both uncomfortable.

And since I often can’t tell which is which, the difference between getting lost and finding myself isn’t immediately clear to me a lot of the time.

I want to be clear that I really enjoyed working on James Brown, once I committed to it.  I loved the process of  trying to figure out how to translate a full James Brown ensemble onto solo electric harp, I loved working on my singing with producer Malik Williams, and working on the structure of the audition piece with a performer-friend who’s been on AGT several  times and with whom I’d agreed on a consciously risky strategy to build the 90-second competition piece from something that was intentionally underwhelming in the first 10 seconds, to something bigger-than-life at the end.  All of that was great, fun.

But when I walked onto the “America’s Got Talent” stage — the real competition was in me, churning and  unarticulated — the competition between being the artist I am and trying to be a ‘marketable’ artist; between ‘doing what I uniquely do’ and embracing the opportunities of a new experience.

So there I was in the belly of the  beast.  My beast.  And it was time for me to step out onto the stage ….

Stay tuned for “The Path to Revelation” (part 2)…

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