Adam Rafferty – Guitar and Spirit

All about music, guitar, spirituality, personal development and being happy

The Day I Got My Butt Kicked in Harlem


He showed up for his first music lesson with the master, with his saxophone case in hand.

As they chatted for the first time, he told the teacher “I think I am one of the best sax players in town.”

The teacher answered “It would be nice if someone else thought that as well.”


That’s a true story that one of my teachers, Mike Longo told me.  It just goes to show, that when we are in our own little world, we think we’re pretty good.

Of course we do – we set the parameters, we avoid the critique of others, and no one is there showing us how far others have taken the same craft!

That same teacher gave me an assignment one week.

“There’s a jam session in Harlem.  There is something there for you to learn.  Don’t come back here until you’ve gone there.  That’s your homework.”

Yes Obi-Wan!

That led to my first night age 20 playing at a Harlem jam session.  I was playing pretty good bebop jazz guitar at the time, I could outline changes well, and had played many gigs.

I was a “talented little boy”  but nothing more – yet.

I had no idea that this experience was going to be life changing.

Playing in Harlem in 1990 meant there were no “music teachers”  in the audience, and the musicians on the bandstand were old school guys.

The audience and musicians did not care if you knew your scales.  They wanted you to GIVE whether that meant groove, blues melody – essentially it meant ENERGY.

People were hanging after a hard day at work, and wanted their souls soothed somehow, they were not there to “give you a grade in class.”

The house band called a jazz standard – “I Get a Kick Out of You”, and I soloed for a few choruses.  I was nervous, but hitting all the changes perfectly, according to me.

I played and played only to look up and see…

BORED faces in the audience.  OH NO!

Something welled up inside and I knew I needed to give more.  It was like a quarterback looking at the moon and trying to throw the football that far.

I started sweating, and my heart started pounding.  Next thing I knew, I was bending strings, playing Wes type octaves, turning my stomach inside out, just to give up a piece of myself.

This was not the plan!

My attitude shifted from  “I hope they like little old me….”  to


When this shift in me occurred – the audiences’ faces LIT UP.

They started screaming “Go Ahead!!!!”  On the set break I was hugged, embraced and encouraged by everyone.  Smiles, joy and a feeling of togetherness like I’d never felt was in the room.  The connection was made!

The irony is – if it wasn’t for them and their bored faces – I’d never have made the shift in attitude and in music.

This was the wisdom of my teachers lesson when he said “there’s something there for you to learn.”

By the time it was over, I felt like I ran a marathon,  I was  drenched with sweat and gasping for breath with adrenaline pumping through my body.

When I realized that this was the new level of what’s expected of me I had 2 choices – to  stand up to the challenge and rock the house every time I played, or quit.

Music schools “sugar coat”  because they want student’s money – so that’s not reality.  Reality happens when you leave school OR hit the bandstand – whatever comes first.

Social media can’t really give you the immediate person to person experience.  It’s a great testing ground, and wonderful for connections – but “belly to belly”  – meaning people in front of other people is special – and will never be replaced – even with holographs & 3d technology.

Pressure can be VERY uncomfortable – but in some cases, I think it’s needed, at least for performing musicians.

Whatever your pressure zone is, embrace it, dive in – and run into the battle like a warrior – and be amazed at how you can exceed your own expectations.

You’ll redefine what you thought of as “humanly possible”  for yourself.


Author: Adam Rafferty

Adam Rafferty. Fingerstyle Guitarist. Recording and Concert Artist. Meditator. Philosopher. Lover of Groove.

6 thoughts on “The Day I Got My Butt Kicked in Harlem

  1. ADAM RAFFERTY! I had to holler it out because you have been a great blessing to me today. Right on the heels of a stinging and half true negative comment on a video of mine, I got ur newsletter and it reinforced my resolve to get my playing to the next level this year……. Hope you can come to Seattle or I’ll have to work in a vacation and take in one of your gigs in West Outer Brindisi or some other exotic locale where you seem to play. blessings, James “Shoes” WalkerSeattle, but not forever

    Date: Sat, 12 Jan 2013 10:58:44 +0000 To:

    • James – Adam here.

      Ok, Tommy Emmanuel told me this: “What other people think of me is none of my business.” You just go straight ahead – and you have MY support!

      You have put the work in, and uploaded a video. It’s easy for others to criticize, but let’s see what they do. I salute you!

      As soon as I started getting up on stage I realized how much balls it takes, and that I had to practice 50 x harder than I thought.

      99% of the time, I support people – that’s what they need. I know they are just like me, and encouragement takes one much further than harsh critique.

      My advice – either don’t answer the comment, or say “thank you very much for the input – I look forward to seeing your videos.” It’s cold as ice, and puts the onus on them to produce.

      Also – leave the negative comment up, so other viewers can pounce on that fool without you doing it. Please send me the link 🙂

      Keep going my man, you can lean on me.

  2. Adam: Great post as always. I’m kind of dealing with the opposite problem recently. I get hired to do a lot of “background music” gigs. Often with with a bassist and drummer. I have really been feeling the urge to move people and open up with my playing but often management is quick to tell the band that we are too loud or too busy – even when playing quite softly. I don’t mind providing atmosphere but it’s been difficult keeping the energy bottled up. Any thoughts on balancing these responsibilities? I feel like the management is often more concerned about keep the music light than our audience.

    Also, I recently saw a video of Mike Longo for the first time and was blown away. Other than your posts I really didn’t know much about him but after only a short youtube video I realized how much he has to offer. I have just ordered his first instructional DVD on rhythm and am looking forward to diving in!

    • John,

      Thanks for posting this publicly. I dealt with the EXACT problem.

      I found this – with jazz tunes, especially blowing people feel “it’s loud” – it fights their conversation. What you think is “killin” is “killin them” 🙂

      With pop tunes, the same people often ASK you to turn up.

      So…It could be about your choice of material.

      As soon as I started playing tunes like “I’ll Be There” – even in a loud restaurant, background music setting, I started getting applause – to my surprise. This was a wake up call.

      As a test – learn Billie Jean with your trio, play it with NO SOLOS (Gulp). No blowing at all.

      Not Benson or Herbie, not even Stevie – but a real MJ song. No hiding! Total pop! Just try it.

      See if the inclusion of one or two tunes like that mixes things up. I bet you’ll be heard in a whole new light – and you’ll see that the audience & management will pull you in rather than try to “turn you down.”

      You need not go into that as your full time thing like I do – but it will sprinkle some sugar on top of how they perceptive you & the trio.


  3. Thanks so much for your reply Adam. I will take you up on your challenge, and let you know how it goes!

    We do play several standards and blues heads but I have been working to incorporate more popular tunes into the set. Recently we have started playing “The Way I Am” by Ingrid Michaelson as an instrumental. I think the other guys in the group see the song as no more than fluff or “filler” between blowing tunes but it is one of the few songs that people stop and applaud for. Other tunes that we have been working into the set successfully are “What A Wonderful World”, “Sleepwalk”, and “Walking on the Moon.”

  4. I’ve been thinking a lot about your last two posts. Although I have not had time to take you up on your challenge to have play “Billie Jean” with my trio yet, I played this past Friday evening at the same venue that I mentioned in my earlier post. The venue is an upscale dining room/lounge in a historic hotel. Although the venue often hires trios, we follow a quiet solo pianist and I often can see the look of alarm on some of the guests when they see the drum kit, acoustic bass, and electric guitar setting up. I’m sure they think, “Oh, it’s gonna get loud in here!” It breaks my heart that some folks finish up their meals and split before we can even give them the first note.

    I try to concern myself with all aspects of the audience’s experience (all the way down to lighting when I have any control over that) but this week I just decided to focus on melody, simplicity, soulfulness, and groove. In many cases I found myself leaving out some of the block chords I often play in order to make the melody really sing. I am lucky to have really fantastic musicians backing me up at every gig, but on this evening something new happened: No one left. In fact, many folks stayed. Some turned their chairs around after their meal and we actually had an audience. The manager commented on what a great job we did. I later found out that a lot more folks tend to stick around more on Friday evenings than on Saturdays (when my previous few gigs were scheduled) but I still feel like the attention to these specific elements made a difference to the audience. I know it made a huge difference to me. Thanks for keeping me inspired, Adam!

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