It's every music fan's air-guitar fantasy. You're playing a massive solo in one of your favourite songs, when your favourite pop star approaches and says, "Okay, you're in the band."
It really happened to Judy Kang, the Canadian classical violinist who has been playing with Lady Gaga on her Monster Ball tour for the past year (they play Toronto's Air Canada Centre March 3. Kang, who played Brahms's Violin Concerto at Carnegie Hall last summer, heard from a friend that Gaga was looking for new musicians, and decided to flex her fandom by auditioning.
"To be honest, I just really wanted to meet her," says Kang. "I didn't even think about what it would be like to tour with her."
One year and 125 shows later, the 31-year-old violinist from Edmonton has had plenty of time to think about what it means to play in one of the biggest shows in pop. The Monster Ball has changed her life, she says, in ways that extend far beyond her identity as a still predominantly classical musician.
She auditioned in New York, dressing up "in Gaga gear" as instructed (most of it from American Apparel) and playing virtuoso versions of Speechless and Bad Romance for members of Gaga's team. Two callbacks later, Gaga herself arrived, and the mood became "very intense and serious," Kang says.
"When I played for her, there was so much positive energy there. I felt like there was something really good about this connection, like I was feeding off her. She had her whole crew there, and when I was playing, they were reacting, they were cheering me on and dancing."
Gaga picked her out of the pack, and within a few days she was offered a place in the band for a tour of indeterminate length, starting in three weeks. (Her contract bars her from sharing personal information about the star.) Kang's fan fantasy became real, and so did its consequences.
"It was more a sinking feeling than anything," she said. "I was so excited to that point, I really wanted it, but then I realized I had all these [classical]concerts booked already, and I needed to change everything. I was satisfied, but I also felt bad, because there were other people affected."
She had to adapt quickly, to an electric violin, to pop rhythms and to dancing while she played. She had to learn how to perform on a huge stage with a mainly male band unaccustomed to dealing with female conservatory grads.
"Gaga asked me where I went to school, and I said, 'I went to, like, Juilliard,' and that was a big thing for her," says Kang. "But everyone else was like, 'You went to Juilliard, so maybe you think you're better than us.' There were a lot of challenges in communication. I'm learning so much about relational things, about humility, about dealing with people. And that's really worthwhile for me. In the classical world, I didn't have so many chances to grow quickly as a person."
The initial 2010 spring tour ran through the summer, was extended through this winter, and is now set to continue through May. Kang, a devout Christian, has come to see her Gaga adventure as something more significant than a temporary detour into the pop world.
"I'm a professional musician, and I'm doing a job, but I also feel like I'm serving a purpose that's bigger than me," she says. "I feel like God is guiding me through this. There's a lot of spirituality in the energy of this group. It's such a strong force, and everyone's very attuned to it."
Gaga is also about transformation, she says, referring to the constantly evolving nature of the shows but also to the way that Gaga presents herself, as a human work in progress. Kang found she could connect her own history with Gaga's personal myth, of the misfit who overcomes, and even feeds on, other people's preconceptions about her.
"She described us all as that freak, that nerd in school that no one can like, that everyone makes fun of," Kang says, referring to an early meeting with the band. "She said that now we're onstage with her, making nerds popular and representing for them. That was a big comment for me. I thought more and more about incidents in school when I was a total outcast, but I didn't realize it at the time, or maybe I did but it was blocked. All the dancers and the band players, and Gaga too, we all had struggles that were similar."
She doesn't know about whether she'll continue with Gaga after the next album, and is eager to get more classical dates in her calendar, and more performance time with the $4-million Stradivarius on loan to her from the Canada Council's instrument bank. She has a concert at the Brooklyn's Bargemusic in September with the piano trio Trio21, and will make a record with the group then too. More solo recitals are planned through 2012, as well as shows with her new-music ensemble F.I.R.E.
In the meantime, she'll continue playing for the "little monsters" (Gaga fans), and waiting for the next stage of the divine plan to unfold. As Gaga sings in Born This Way, "God makes no mistakes."
Lady Gaga's Monster Ball tour plays the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on March 3 and Ottawa's Scotiabank Place on March 6.