My first Call came in early 2013. Memory of specifics has been obliterated by the pure rush that ensued, but in there was something to the effect of, “San Francisco Symphony… conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas… Beethoven… mandolin soloist… May.” I think I remember saying yes.
Every musician gets that call at some point in their careers if they last long enough. Those who have survived The Call know that what follows immediately are two stages of amygdalic dispatch in rapid succession. First, the elation. The hypothalamus dumps its store of noradrenaline like a speakeasy barkeep during a raid. If there are friends in the room, your voice goes up an octave as you share the news. You bask in their congratulations. You try to appear humble. It doesn’t work. Your blood pressure rises quickly, and your circulatory system diverts its resources away from non-essential function like digestion. Your stomach acid goes into overdrive. This is what we call ‘butterflies’. It’s a pretty way of saying that you’re quietly crapping yourself.
The next thing I remember saying was, “Oh, f*ck.” That’s stage two.
The Call feels like a confirmation. A graduation ceremony. You’re ready, it says. The cool kids want you to play in their sandbox. This is what you’ve been working your whole life for. You just powered up. Boss level time. You’re ready. Time to show the world what you got. This is The Call you’ve been waiting for. You deserve this. You’re ready.
The Call is a lie. You’re never ready for The Call when you get The Call.
I got The Call again early this year. This time, it was from my friend Kelly. Kelly is a runner. A really, really, really fast runner. I’m a runner too, in the way that roller skates and Lamborghinis are both means of transportation. She’s the Lamborghini, if you catch my drift. You could watch two whole Simpsons episodes in the time between her marathon finish and mine.
Nevertheless, we’d been talking of entering an ultramarathon together. We’d both done several ultras before. I’d done a few in the 40-mile range; she’d just finished a 50-miler. It’s fun for people like us [read: lunatics]. Marathoners usually know their personal record (PR) to the second. Ultramarathoners are the hippies of the running world. The courses are very different from one another in terrain and elevation gain, so having a PR is a bit absurd. There is competitive racing, but you’re also dependent on your competitors for pacing, companionship through the hours of running, and a watchful eye for injury or illness. The people who do well in ultras are those for whom the moment of struggle, of overcoming fears, pain, and their body’s limitations when it’s screaming at them to stop, is a joyous experience. A shared joyous experience. It’s common to feel just as happy to see someone else finish as it is to cross the finish line yourself.
I understand when people say that pushing yourself like that sounds horrendous. I say I’ve sat through entire Renaissance flute concertos, so you don’t know what horrendous is, and I’d tell you all about it but then no one would ever invite me over for dinner. Regardless, the jump from 40 or 50 miles to 100 miles isn’t like the jump from a half marathon to a marathon. It’s a whole different league. To run a 100 miler, you will be running through the day and night with no sleep. A weekend duffer like me will often do well to finish in less than 24 hours. I’ve heard from other runners that the moment that you enter your first 100, you’re forced to contemplate your preparedness, your dedication, and no small amount of your own sanity. You get nervous. You get ‘butterflies.’ This is a feeling I’m familiar with.
Familiar enough that I knew it would be coming. Kelly paced a friend of hers over the last 30 miles or so of the Vermont 100, one of the Grand Slam ultras, which also includes Western States, Leadville, and the Wasatch Front. Participants in the Vermont 100 scale 15,000 feet of elevation gain over the duration of the course and run alongside horses who are a part of their own simultaneous race. It is held in July, when temperatures regularly approach 100 in the valleys at midday and near freezing in the mountains by night. Sounded like bliss to me.
“I’m thinking of doing a 100. Wanna do it with me?” On a playground, this would be known as a dare.
“Hell yeah I wanna do a 100! You really doing it?” This is sometimes known as a dog dare.
“Yeah, just trying to figure out which one to do. There’s one on Long Island in October that looks doable. The course record is 19:22. You can definitely beat that.” The dreaded double-dog dare, which on the playground is usually accompanied by a chorus of “oohs.” Kelly is a competitive person, and I was 100% appealing to her nature because I’m devious like that.
She was also coming off an injury. There would have been absolutely no shame in her saying she wasn’t ready to come back just yet – and not just back, but back for a distance twice her previous long. Come to think of it, there might have even been a part of my lizard brain that was hoping she’d use that moment to talk some sense into me. This is not Kelly’s way.
“I’ll do it if you do it!” The triple-dog dare. Backing out now would have made me a playground pariah for the rest of my days. Holding a sliver of insurance against the possibility that we’d both eventually come to our senses, I said I’d sign up when she did. A short while later, I saw this:
“F*ck.” You’re never ready for The Call when you get The Call.
I wish I could say The Gig with the San Francisco Symphony went swimmingly. I certainly prepared well enough. I was to play the Beethoven Sonatina in C for mandolin and pianoforte, part of what Maestro Thomas envisioned as an evening of Beethoven both great and small, including movements from his symphonies and oratorios as well as smaller chamber works like the Sonatina. It’s not a particularly difficult part of the mandolin repertoire, but nevertheless, I learned the piece as thoroughly as the map of my apartment. I pored over the score, the historical significance of it, previous performances and recordings and considered every angle of approach like a mountaineer plotting a summit path. I spent weeks considering the difference between fingering and the benefits of playing a passage in 3rd, rather than 2nd position. I even practiced in full tuxedo so that I would be comfortable spatially when the day arrived. Nothing was left to chance. I was ready.
And then just before The Gig, everything that could possibly go wrong, did. My apartment was robbed while I was out of town. My hotel was next to an expo hall that blasted electronic dance music until 4 a.m. the night before the first performance. The next morning – just a few hours from showtime – I got a sunburn from what I thought would be a relaxing boat ride in the Bay (Sara Caswell from my band 9 Horses was with me on the trip, and she tried to assure me that I didn’t look like an overtoasted bagel although we both knew that I did). And due to a logistical difficulty – some would say poor planning on the Symphony’s part – the pianoforte player and I would have to be stationed near the back of the stage, rather than the front, meaning neither I nor anyone else would hear a lick of what we had spent months preparing to play.
I think I played well enough, considering. The conductor invited me to repeat the program with his New World Symphony in Miami later that year. The Chronicle review was ok, if a bit backhanded (“For a true novelty, there was a short Sonatina in C for Mandolin and Fortepiano, delivered with wit and zest by Joseph Brent.”) But internally, I was a wreck. If it had been a run, I might have DNF’d.
At the time, it was the biggest solo gig I’d ever played. I’ve since played bigger gigs, including a few with 9 Horses. But it will always be my first solo performance with a major symphony orchestra. You never forget the first time you walk out onto a stage like that alone. Except, I didn’t walk – I rushed out, with a little hop, like the beginning of a home run trot. The crowd welcomed me as best they could whilst straining forward to inspect this funny little instrument that had dared come amongst the giants of the orchestra. There might have been some good-natured chuckles. I grinned at the prospect of the sound of a single mandolin filling Davies Hall. The keyboardist and I shared a little wink. In spite of everything, it was a shared joyous experience.
Regardless of my apartment and hotel issues, and the fact that I was the first bagel to play Beethoven, I can look back at the journey from The Call to The Gig and know I did everything I could to be ready. I think I’ll be ready for the run in October, too. Years in the shed as a musician have given me a fairly keen sense of what it takes to prepare for something like that.
You spend your life seeking The Call, but in the moment, it chooses you. The Call is an origination, The Gig is a destination, and in between is a path only you can forge, made up of your lifetime of general preparation and the specific focus on the one performance. You spend that time on a marvelous, difficult, but ultimately hugely rewarding little journey. It’s probably no coincidence that Joseph Campbell was both a musician and a runner.
I said earlier that Kelly and I would be running this ultra together. What I meant by that, of course, is that we’ll start together. The course is a 10-mile loop repeated ten times, so I probably won’t see her again after the start unless she laps me. She will probably lap me. She will certainly finish about least 10 Simpsons episodes ahead of me, or nearly half a season. I’m totally ok with that. My competition isn’t between me and her, or any other runner on the course. It’s between the person I was when I got The Call and the person I hope to be on The Gig. You’re never ready when you get The Call. The joy comes from the journey, and knowing I’ll be ready when it’s time for The Gig. And this time, I’ll even wear sunscreen.