My Most Important Performance

I’ve had some good luck in my musical life. Over the years, my trumpet has taken me to Costa Rica, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, and all over the United States from Massachusetts to Hawaii, and much of what lies in between. From small clubs to large theaters to outdoor stages and from major music festivals to corporate shareholder conventions, to weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, parades, and even one outlaw biker jamboree, my performing history has no shortage of variety. Yet, for the past twelve years, one performance has always stood out to me as the most important of my career. It was for an audience of one.

In 2006, I was asked to join the Cornell University Wind Ensemble for their first tour of Costa Rica as guest principal trumpet. The venues included a major concert hall in the capital city, San José, an outdoor amphitheater in Tres Ríos, and a U.S. Diplomat’s palatial residence. My most important performance was not at any of these locations. It was in the courtyard of a retirement home run by nuns, just before the officially scheduled concert. I had dashed out of the area in which we were to play, to apply some desperately needed valve oil and to find water. On my way back in, with only a few minutes to spare, an elderly resident taking a stroll ambled over and quietly spoke to me. Knowing only enough Spanish to place a clumsy order in a restaurant, it was a matter of luck that I was able to decipher what he was saying. He wanted me to play him a bolero. Not knowing any boleros, but not wanting to disappoint the old man, I did the only thing I could think of; I closed my eyes and improvised something. It couldn’t have lasted more than forty-five seconds or so, but I played from my heart, and when I finished and opened my eyes, they locked with his for a moment. In that moment, I knew that I had managed to satisfy his request, and I also knew that I had participated in the most direct and honest musical communication of my life. To this day, my goal is to strive for that directness and honesty in all my playing, and that is why this remains my most important performance. It paid nothing and the only people present were myself and the complete stranger in my audience of one, but it still meant and means a tremendous amount to me. It is my constant reminder of what music can be, but so often isn’t.

Nikola Tomic