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Blake Lambert recording a video for students at Ryerson University's School of Journalism.Blake Lambert/Handout

Blake Lambert is an instructor at Humber College and Ryerson University and works at The Canadian Press.

The piano riff begins, and I count the beats in my head to keep time with the rhythm section. It is my first, and thus far only, live jazz performance. My anxiety manifests itself through an awkward swaying motion during the opening four-bar vamp. Our quintet of a pianist, two saxophones (an alto and a tenor), a bassist and a drummer is making its debut with the standard Autumn Leaves. It is late June, 2019, roughly six months before the discovery of the novel coronavirus.

It was my responsibility to play the “head,” or melody, for the first 16 bars until the tenor sax took over. All I wanted to do is to play the notes as cleanly as possible based on the sheet music. Of course, I flubbed one of the first notes in the opening phrase, but I persevered. Many bars and two solos later, it’s my turn. Channelling the riffs of War Pigs by Black Sabbath and Hotline Bling by Drake, I somehow managed to stitch together a 32-bar solo that was harmonically pleasant and non-dissonant.

In the pre-COVID-19 era, jazz functioned as a John Coltrane-sized giant step outside my comfort zone. I am a “caustic, astringent, stabby, grinding” guitarist – or so my former postpunk bandmates tell me – who masqueraded as the alto sax. I suffered not a little impostor syndrome in my ensemble because much of mainstream and conventional jazz disinterests me. I can’t stop preferring the lacerating guitar of the late Andy Gill of Gang of Four to the transcendence of Coltrane. Taste, while discretionary, is one of our core comfort zones.

That was one challenge leading up to my performance more than 18 months ago. However, after almost a year of the pandemic, the discomfiture of taste seems ephemeral. What COVID-19 and its attendant lockdown measures have done is to deprive millions upon millions of people in this country of the comforts they have long taken for granted. This includes employment, family and socialization.

Discomfort surrounds us. My wife, who’s a primary gym teacher at an independent school in Toronto, conducted virtual gym classes from March to June. She was back in the classroom from September to December, wearing a mask, a face shield and sometimes even gloves, with no shared gym equipment. Now she is off again. Teachers who specialize in drama, band and music were “repurposed” into other subjects – because you can’t gather in non-physically distanced spaces or share instruments or have spit flying around during a pandemic. Many first-year postsecondary students across this country who graduated high school during the pandemic are now subjects in a mammoth emergency experiment of online classes.

There are the tens of thousands of essential workers in customer service, personal support or health care who haven’t stopped working since the lockdowns began. There is also ample evidence as to how COVID-19 has exacerbated this country’s racial and financial inequities. Those with sufficient means to work from home are able to socially immunize themselves from COVID-19 compared with those who are poorer.

What’s especially troubling about our pandemic discomforts is that – until the vaccine arrived – they didn’t come with a fixed end date. Even now, we don’t know at what point in 2021 life will return to normal. That’s the opposite of my foray into jazz, which ran for the first six months of 2019 for an hour-long session each week. That was followed up by another four months of taking part in a non-performing jazz ensemble, which was slightly less painful.

Yet my middle-aged wish to become a competent saxophone player serves as an anodyne microcosm of our perpetual uneasiness with a pandemic-stricken world. I wrongly thought playing guitar for 30 years would prepare me for trying a new instrument. Little did I know that a guitar is to a saxophone what a dog is to an elephant. Moreover, a DIY postpunk guitarist is to jazz saxophone what a bricklayer is to Yabu Pushelberg. But what connects these disparate discomforts is our need to let go of our preconceived notions. While we can and should mourn the lost opportunities from our pre-COVID-19 existences, as we greet 2021, we can also think of what should be: a fairer, more just, healthier world.

My goal for taking up the saxophone is equally optimistic: to play Afrobeat – the extraordinary music created and propagated by the late Nigerian genius Fela Kuti – competently by my 55th birthday. But daring to approach the distant goal of extreme mediocrity on saxophone requires me to relearn how to read music, embrace practice and study musical theory. It entails hours of struggle and failure. Prior to COVID-19, neither concept was framed positively, where outcomes shared on social media supersede the value of the hard, inglorious process. Yet it’s the very uncertainty of the process that pushes us out of our comfort zone. According to wildly popular researcher and author Brené Brown: “If you’re not in the arena getting your ass kicked, then I’m not interested in your feedback.” The saxophone, the jazz ensemble and my willingness to play for anyone all serve as my arena.

This forced me to ignore the inner inhibitors of terror and fear. They are the reasons why many adults who used to sing, dance and play instruments no longer pursue these creative activities. We are terrified of being terrible and we are fearful of the results and other people’s judgment. But I can’t improve as a saxophonist without risking failure. Several years ago at an early stage of my saxophone journey, I brought my horn to a Humber College class and frustratingly fluffed basics such as Mary Had a Little Lamb and Iron Man in front of my leadership students. One of them charmingly wrote on her final test: “Keep working at it, and you’ll get better.” And yet, in a welcome video I produced in early September for first-year Ryerson journalism students, after months of not practising, I botched Iron Man again. No wonder Dr. Brown believes that “vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.”

By casting vulnerability and courage as twin emotions, she reframes our willingness to look foolish and out of step with peers as a real chance for growth. However, we have to accept feeling uncomfortable when we’re doing the unfamiliar – whether it’s playing the saxophone or living with COVID-19. For so many of us, it is hard and unending. In our arena, the pandemic is humiliating and humbling us daily.

However, if we are fortunate, let us not forget that these frustrations can sometimes be rewarding. We haven’t remained static during the pandemic: children have been born, pets have been adopted, new ways of thinking have been embraced, and new behaviours and hobbies have been attempted. That’s why it’s worth celebrating the victories – whether it’s playing jazz in front of a live audience, or receiving kindness, compassion, empathy and understanding from family, friends or employers. In my case, what 2020 convinced me of is that I’m increasingly confident that my first jazz performance will not be my last.

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