How I Learned the Most Important Lesson in My Years as a Traveling Musician
The crowd was going mad. As the singer walked on stage, all we could hear was the roaring of 30,000 people expressing their love and excitement by screaming, crying, and shouting his name. The atmosphere was electric.
Standing on stage playing the instrumental opening of the first song with the band, I was trying to grasp at the fact that I was presently standing on the stage of the Wembley Stadium in London, an iconic place where hundreds of legends in music history had performed before us.
I thought to myself, “this must be the height of my career.”
If only people in the audience at that moment knew. If only they knew of the pain, the hurt, the sacrifices I had to do to stand on that stage right now. If only they knew all the stories, the adventures, the risks I had to take, the people I had to leave behind, the sheer sweat and blood that went into building my career up to this very moment.
“If only they knew where I started.” How many nights sleeping God knows where. The days howling my accordion at the crack of dawn to play on street corners during the busy morning hours. The weeks on the road with no money and nothing to rely on other than my limited ability to play music. All that I learned, all that I dared, all that I endured and tolerated.
The weight of so many memories accumulated during all those years leading to this point is difficult to explain.
I wish I could say I was overwhelmed with gratitude for everything I had accomplished while standing there on the Wembley Stadium stage. I wish I could’ve experienced it as one of the best moments of my life, finally harvesting the fruits of my hard labor. I wish this was the kind of success story that leaves readers inspired by the possibility of dreams coming true, as if reaching those dreams was something straight forward and easy. Isn’t it the way it always goes in movies?
Dream, struggle, conquer, the end. Everyone leaves the movie theatre with teary eyes and a smile on their faces.
The truth is, the only thing I felt while standing on that iconic stage is completely and utterly invisible and useless. My life didn’t make any sense. What I had to go through to reach this point of uselessness in my life didn’t make any sense. I was left with a huge empty feeling inside shouting “why” so loud that I could barely hear the crowd.
After an excruciating 3h show, it was over and I found myself in tears, walking down the stairs leading to the backstage rooms with my instrument.
I knew, precisely at that moment, that this phase of my life was over and it was time for me to move on.
I was about 22 years old when I bought my first accordion. I had decided to leave University with an unfinished Bachelor in Classical Music. I was fed up of the pressure, of never feeling good enough, of working my ass off and never being considered a competent pianist. I just didn’t feel I had what it takes to compete with the geniuses in my year who could play Chopin’s 2nd Piano Concerto in F# minor almost before they could walk and talk.
I decided that instead, I was going to see and experience the world. I was going to leave all the heartaches and bad memories in my hometown, and go chase dreams and adventures, reinvent myself in places where no one knew my name.
Still, music was my life. Being a musician was the core of my identity as a human, and playing music was the only skill I had some confidence to share. It was impossible for me to think about leaving town without taking an instrument with me. But which one? A piano wasn’t exactly super practical to take on the road…
A friend of mine, somehow, suggested I took on the accordion. I thought the idea was kind of funny at first. I mean… Wasn’t accordions instruments for old people? But being desperate to find an alternative to bringing nothing else than a cheap acoustic guitar, I decided to visit a music store and give this accordion idea a shot. After trying one, I found it surprisingly endearing, and, well, that was it.
The first time I traveled with my accordion was to go to British Columbia. Mel, my best friend’s sister and also a good friend of mine, already had traveled there a few times and managed to successfully find work while also accumulating wonderful stories to tell. Mel, though a few years younger than me, was a fearless adventurer. She had the power to decide on a whim to leave and explore the world, seemingly protected by her contagious smile, bubbly energy, and her unwavering trust in the Universe.
She’d told me she knew of a hotel in the small touristic town of Banff where we could probably get work as cleaning staff. That was enough for me to buy a 80$CAD bus ticket that would take me all the way there from Montreal.
We left in the summer of 2002, both carrying a back pack and me carrying in addition my new music instrument wrapped in a yoga mat. We spent four days and three nights in buses, occasionally transferring in obscure places.
Since both Mel and me were small in constitution, we found a way to sleep that made it somehow bearable: one of us would take the two benches to lie on, and the other would lie down on the floor below our two seats. After a few hours, we’d switch places. Looking back, I don’t know how we managed to make that work but somehow, we did, and we made it to Banff in one piece, albeit somewhat tired.
As Mel had predicted, the hotel manager gave us both a job as cleaning staff and showed us the communal house where we could stay. Since Banff is such a touristic town, it was usually assumed people working there weren’t locals so it was normal for businesses to provide lodging to their workers.
As we were both settling in our dorm, I unpacked my accordion only to realize it got damaged during the trip—some of the keys were distorted and out of place which made it unplayable.
I think I saw my life flash in front of my eyes at that moment.
This accordion was my only connection to what I knew best, what I loved the most, what I had spent my whole life working on: music. My instrument wasn’t just an object to me, it was a direct connection to who I was. And now, it was broken, while I found myself miles away from any city where I could possibly find someone who knew how to fix it. And anyway, even if I did find such a person, I had no money to pay for the repairs.
This is how I received one of the most important lessons I ever learned throughout my years as a traveling musician: care for your instrument as if your life depends on it, because it does.
My relationship with my accordion changed at that moment. It became much more than a “thing” I used to express who I was, we became partners. In this new reality I’d chosen to step into, I was dependent on him and he was dependent on me. Together, we were a team who dreamt of discovering the meaning of freedom, and who’s deepest desire was to express this freedom through music. This was our undisclosed agreement, our dirty little secret.
So after initially freaking out for a few minutes, I took a deep breath, sat on my bunker bed with my precious musical friend, unscrewed the cover protecting its inner mechanism, and took it on myself to find a way to fix what was broken.