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The moment you knew music was your calling

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The pivotal performances that convinced two renowned artists to build their lives around music are not what you might expect.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Some artists may be born knowing that music is their calling, but for many others, there’s a distinct moment when the path becomes clear. For Stephen Dusenberry and Ricky Kej, that moment happened in performances early in their careers — and neither were at venues you might expect.

Kej’s one-man show

Ricky Kej is a three-time Grammy-winning composer, producer, and global activist. His early pivotal performance happened when he was eighteen, and just beginning to explore the possibilities of playing music professionally.

“This was back in 1998, when I had just gotten a KORG Trinity, which was a cutting-edge professional keyboard at the time,” he says. “Computers weren’t used much in music creation then, but the keyboard had a sixteen-track sequencer, so I was able to program all sorts of sounds and textures.”

Working from his childhood bedroom in Bangalore, India, Kej created a one-man show that included sequenced backing tracks from his keyboard, guitar parts that he played live through a small processor, and his own vocals. “I’m not a very good singer,” he says, laughing, “so I ran my vocals through a second guitar processor to mask my voice.”

Rockin’ the bedroom

Kej put together a promo flyer and started handing it out to everyone he could find who might be in a position to offer him a gig. Finally, two young agents at a large events company took notice and asked to hear Kej perform before booking him.

“They wanted to know how they could listen to my music, and since I had no recordings and wasn’t performing anywhere, I invited them over to my house,” Kej says. “They were quite surprised to find themselves sitting on my bed, watching me set up my Trinity keyboard and my really cheap guitar, all of which I’d custom wired to play out of a really old stereo system I had in my room. I could tell they were shocked by how unprofessional it all looked and wanted to leave immediately, but I managed to convince them to stay for three songs.”

Kej’s guts and persistence paid off. The agents liked the music and offered Kej a 45-minute slot at a corporate event outside of Bangalore — the composer’s first professional gig. But Kej says that that first performance in his bedroom was a life-changing experience.

“It was quite amazing. While I was playing, I started hearing myself through the agents’ ears and imagining their reactions. I realized that the interlude to one of my songs was too long and they were getting impatient, for example, and that certain other parts really drew them in. It was such an important experience, not just because it helped me start performing professionally, but because it also gave me a new perspective on how to make my music better. It showed me, on multiple levels, that music was something I could do for the rest of my life.”

Dusenberry’s inadvertent audition

Grammy-nominated drummer, composer, and producer Stephen Dusenberry gave his life-changing, pivotal performance without even realizing he was doing it.

“Growing up in Pittsburgh, I used to spend a lot of time at my grandparent’s house, and they had an old drum kit of my uncle’s set up,” he says. “I hadn’t had any lessons, but I loved going over there and just banging around on it.”

One day, someone walking outside the house heard Dusenberry’s groove and gravitated toward the sound. “This random guy knocks on the door and tells my grandma that he heard my drumming and wanted to meet me. I was afraid I’d been too loud, bothered one of the neighbors, and was going to be in trouble — but that wasn’t the deal at all. He told her he was a musician and had been looking for a drummer for his band and he loved the way I played. He said he wanted to meet me.”

Not quite ready for the gig

Dusenberry’s grandmother laughed and politely told the man, “I’m sorry, but he’s not the drummer you’re looking for.”

The man persisted, but Dusenberry’s grandmother held her ground.

“Why won’t you let me talk to him?” the man asked.

The grandmother replied: “Because he’s four years old.”

Despite his young age, Dusenberry says he remembers that day vividly, including the impromptu performance he gave for the curious musician, who Dusenberry’s grandmother invited in to prove that her drum-playing grandson was indeed little more than a toddler.

“Whenever I thought about that story, the fact that my playing, at age four, was enough to pull somebody off the street who wanted to jam with me reaffirmed to me that I really had the potential to do something with music. After that day, it was never a question that drumming would be a huge part of my life. I never looked back.”

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Did you give a pivotal performance that inspired you to pursue music as a career? Tell us in the comments below.

rock rewindMichael Gallant is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur living in New York City. His debut album for the Steinway & Sons label, Rock Rewind, features solo piano reinventions of Pearl Jam, U2, Halestorm, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and more. Read his recent article for the National Endowment for the Arts and follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant and Facebook.com/GallantMusic.

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