Chris Davis is a trumpeter in the Chicago area. He’s the leader of the Chris Davis Jazztet, performs with the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, and is the host of a podcast titled, Behind the Note.
JN: Chris, get us up to speed, what’s going on in your world?
CD: I’m performing a lot. Working Broadway in Chicago right now, which I’m really excited about. It’s been a long term goal for me to do that. I’m playing with the Jazztet a lot, playing Andy’s Jazz Club. I teach primarily brass, which I love, in the neighborhood where I grew up. Plus, we have a new baby on the way.
JN: So what exactly is a jazztet?
CD: It’s a jazz group. I used the word “jazztet” because I wanted to be flexible. I didn’t want to be limited to a certain number of people I can use. My band in full is 7 pieces, but it varies on how the personnel is used.
JN: We’re talking peak musical performance. And sometimes to talk about the peak, we need to go through the valleys. So take us to what you consider to be one of your worst moments as a performer.
CD: This is very early in my career, but it’s important because there are a lot of cool things that came out of it. When I was in 7th grade, I was in a very competitive environment. Under one roof, we had 4th graders and 8th graders in the summer program. We were all working together to become better musicians.
When the school year started, we separated according to our age. When I finally made it to 7thgrade, I was able to play a jazz solo in the jazz ensemble. This was a big deal, because ever since I started playing, I had always wanted to do that. We grew up in grade school watching the band come through, and we all thought it was cool.
So I finally had my chance. The 8th graders are always looking down on the 7th graders. They thought they were better, and we wanted to prove we could play too. I finally had my moment. As 7th graders, we performed a lot at various competitions and we had a really good reputation.
So I had worked up my solo. The moment of truth arrived. I stepped out of the section, to the microphone, and I played the first 6 notes or so and froze up. I forgot what I was playing. This is a big competition so there were a few hundred people in the audience. It was a short solo, maybe 16 bars, but I couldn’t remember the rest. I ended up playing the last few notes. I walk back to the section, and the band is still playing. But I felt pretty bad about it.
JN: So you just got nervous.
CD: Yes. It was my first time soloing in front of people and I had never experienced being nervous before.
JN: You’re not the first person who has told a very similar story on this podcast. But those people have not only overcome those unpleasant moments, they’ve gone on to do some real cool things. So let’s talk about some of the takeaways, how it led to good things happening for you.
CD: The reason I share this particular experience is because I think the lessons learned from it apply to everything today. I froze up because there were a lot of people looking at me. We get concerned with what other people think but we don’t know them, and we don’t really know what they’re thinking. What I discovered on the bus on the way home is that the majority of people were really supportive of me. They asked me what had happened, that I had sounded great all week.
The great thing about this group is that we performed a lot, so I had another crack at it a week or two later. This time it was the total opposite. I nailed the solo. It was because I had discovered the people around me didn’t want me to fail. They wanted me to nail the solo.
So I went back to the practice room, and put even more time into the solo. I became even more determined that what happened that one time wasn’t going to happen again. It was a combination of a little extra work and I knew I had the support of my peers. That made me perform better.
Without realizing it at the time, I learned you have to put in a lot of work, and you can’t be concerned with what others might think of you. They’re probably not thinking the negative things you’re thinking they are.
Most people are for you. If people come to hear you play, they’ve taken time out of their day and paid money to watch you work. They want a good show.
JN: They didn’t pay money to watch you fail.
CD: That’s right. Things will work in your favor if you do the work.
JN: A common theme I hear doing interviews on this podcast is that preparation is the key to overcoming stage fright or performance anxiety. But it sounds to me like you didn’t know how to prepare for how to play with nerves in that moment.
CD: That’s exactly right. I had no idea how to prepare for that.
JN: With everything going on in your playing life, not to mention your family life, how do you stay focused, and ensure you’re giving the music you’re playing the respect you know it deserves?
CD: I watch sports a lot. You listen to the interviews with the athletes, and you hear them talking about “one game at a time.” So I primarily think about what is happening in the moment, or what’s next in my calendar.
I also make sure I keep my chops ready. I’m doing my fundamentals so that I’m ready for whatever call comes up.
There’s a mindset that I have. I take a lot of pride in my work. I see every performance kind of like it’s an audition. Right now I’m playing Broadway in Chicago for the first time. Everyone I’m working with has their eyes on me, so every day I show up is an audition. They’re checking my consistency. Am I on time every time? Am I playing the right notes every time or some of the time? They’re checking out everything. I’m always putting my best foot forward, because I might not ever get this opportunity again.
JN: Describe your mental state during the first rehearsal and performance for this Broadway show. Were you nervous at all?
CD: No, I was actually very excited. I’d been waiting for that moment for a long time. Over a decade ago, I was working Carnival Cruise Lines and I loved it. The only thing I didn’t like is that I was away from my family. I got to thinking, if I can do this at home, and it turns out there’s a way with Broadway in Chicago.
My first day of work, I was excited. I wanted to perform at a high level.
JN: So you’re using those nerves to make you better, rather than worse. You were prepared for it and you had the attitude that this is where you belong.
CD: That’s right. I actually observed something during my first time playing a show. My senses are heightened. I feel more aware of things, like the sense of time, I see just a little bit better, I hear a little bit better. I see the conductor’s pattern a little better. But when you get to the 13thshow, it’s more of a challenge. I don’t want to be that guy who lets down his guard. The challenge becomes to play at a high level even though you’re familiar with the show, you’re feeling a little bit tired.
JN: Chris, you are now on the Hot Seat. Do you think you can stand the heat?
CD: Bring it on!
JN: It’s 5 minutes before you go on stage for an important performance… What are you doing?
CD: I’m sitting in my chair, thinking about the opening piece, just joking around with the guys around me.
JN: What’s the best performance-related advice you've ever received?
CD: Practice. It was from Wynton Marsalis when I was 15 years old. He said it with a certain intensity that just cut to the core. I saw him a few weeks ago, and in the same way, he said, “Keep working hard.”
JN: Can you share one tip for our listeners to help deal with stage fright? (Physical, mental, etc.)
CD: Breathe deep. Your breathing controls your anxiety.
JN: What’s a non-musical activity that contributes to your success as a musician?
JN: Imagine you’re on stage. It’s the end of the performance and the audience is on its feet, applauding. They don’t want any more and they don’t want any less. Everything is perfect. What have you just done? Give details: Venue, repertoire, band mates, etc. Get Creative!!!
CD: I played a concert with the CD Jazztet in an auditorium. We played original music, everyone played great solos. It was a really high energy evening for a very receptive audience.
Chris Davis can be found on the web at behindthenote.com. He’s also featuring an interview with Wynton Marsalis very soon!