There needs to be some element of danger, some chance that things could go horribly awry, for growth to occur. For musicians, the comfort zone – that place carved from nothingness, usually very early on in the learning process, where one can retreat in order to exert some modicum of control over the situation – is ultimately a stultifying safe room, where the danger is kept at bay, but the light never gets in.
Some musicians spend their entire careers inside that comfort zone, and sometimes it works for them. But if you have a taste for the thrilling challenge that quite likely was part of what drew you to music in the first place, you need to find a way to, as Brian Eno once put it, "discover your formulas, and abandon them." You need to, at least once in a while, walk the high wire without a net.
By the mid-'90s, as a musician in my mid-20s, I'd worked hard to become good enough to develop my own set of formulas, to the point where I could be relied on to play consistently and mostly error-free in a live setting, provided I'd been able to rehearse the material often enough. Being in a super-tight band that performed at a high (if largely pre-scripted) level was a point of pride for me. But after a while, I felt that something was missing. I was starting to get the feeling that I'd already peaked. I wasn't improvising very much, and as a result, I wasn't discovering anything particularly new. I very rarely surprised myself with my own playing.
Buffalo musician Tom Fenton, a friend through our shared employment in the Record Theatre warehouse on Main Street, asked me out of the blue one day to stop by a new weekly reggae-based jam session he was holding at Nietzsche's. "Bring your guitar and sit in," he said. "The tunes are pretty straightforward."
I was nervous, but I did it. I didn’t know the tunes in advance, we didn’t rehearse, and I was well outside of my comfort zone. I recall Fenton calling for Peter Tosh's "Stepping Razor" and the Neville Brothers' "Fiyo on the Bayou" on that first night. I had no choice but to rely on my ear, listen closely, leave space and go for it.
My world changed, forever. Improvisation in real time became something I craved as both a player and a listener. Hanging out in the comfort zone started to feel like a real drag.
A similar conception is behind the Queen City Music Lottery, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this year. Launched by art space Sugar City, the lottery is all about taking musicians out of their comfort zones – in this case, by randomly teaming them with other musicians, via a "luck of the draw" approach. Those musicians – who might well be strangers, seasoned pros or eager beginners – are sent off to play together for a few weeks and come up with their own 15-minute set of original music. The music will then be performed in a showcase on June 2 at the Adam Mickiewicz Library and Dramatic Circle (15 Fillmore Ave.). To participate in this year's lottery, you need to attend the sign-up meeting from noon to 3 p.m. March 10 at Sugar City (1239 Niagara St.).
If you'd rather not leave it all entirely to chance, you might consider the Iron Jam, slated for March 18 at Buffalo Iron Works (49 Illinois St.). For this event, musicians and singers are welcome to come and join in the real-time creation of unscripted music with peers, friends and strangers. Sure, this could turn into an audio train wreck. But the challenge here is to listen closely, to leave space, to "speak" through your instrument only when you have something to say.
The benefits to this approach are myriad for the musicians themselves, but listeners – particularly those who have created their own "safe rooms" in terms of their listening habits – can benefit greatly from this sort of artistic risk-taking, too.
The goal is liberation, for all. And you can’t get there if you never take the chance.