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Mindi Abair: Defining the ‘It’ Factor

Trish Richardson By

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You have to give of yourself, you have to believe in what you are doing, and you have to be up there and be who you are.
It. What is It? How does one know if one has It? And more importantly, where does one get It?

It. Such a small, unassuming word, barely taking up any space on the page. But just what is It?

It. It is that almost indefinable, though easily recognizable "X" factor. It's quite obvious when someone has It—and when someone doesn't. It can be the difference between having a career in show business and not having one. Most people are not born with It. You can't buy It (if you could, there are some very rich people who would have purchased themselves successful singing careers). And even talent doesn't guarantee It. Talent may get you on stage, but It will keep you there.

So what if you don't have It? Can you still get It? Absolutely says saxophonist, vocalist and author Mindi Abair. She co-wrote, along with her father, fellow saxophonist Lance Abair, and Ross Cooper, the recently published book How to Play Madison Square Garden (Not More Saxophone Music, 2011). "I think some people are born with it, but I think most people are not. And it is definitely something you can develop. Some people just stand up onstage and they light up a whole room. They have that mystique as a performer or they know how to engage people with a charisma. You can definitely develop that in yourself."

Abair adds, "Maybe some people were born with it, but I think most of them paid a lot of dues and made a lot of mistakes. They've watched a lot of other performers onstage and studied them. They've had that music become part of them. And that's why they can light up a room now."

Abair has been a touring musician for over twenty years and has learned some things along the way. She said, "I've made every mistake you can make—five times." As for paying dues, Abair's road to success was not an easy one. "When I moved to Los Angeles no one was hiring me as a musician. Everyone had their people that they hired and their guys that they hired for sessions and their band members and everything. I was desperately trying to find my way in this community of music and find my place in it. I'd go to every jam session and try and fit in and meet people. I would get the L.A. Weekly, the local entertainment paper, and I would just scan it for any club that had live music or was hiring anything like I was. I would call them and try and get them to hire me. 'Oh, you need a quartet? I have a quartet. You need solo saxophone? That's what I do. Guitar and saxophone? Absolutely, that's my strength.' Basically anything. I'd be playing whatever I could try and cook up."

She paid her rent by taking a job as waitress, but it was something she quit in order to pursue her music, even if that meant street performing on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California. "I was waitressing during the day and it was all just seemingly a lie to me. I was an awful waitress. I hated it. It sucked up so much time and I wasn't making that much money. I just thought, 'Wow, I have a degree in music. This is crazy! What am I doing? I've got to go play.' So I quit my job as a waitress and said, 'If they don't hire me, I'm going to hire myself.' I went down to the street and put my case down and started playing."

Abair's decision paid off—literally—and she wound up making more money as a street performer than as a waitress. "It wasn't something I was proud of. It wasn't something you would send out flyers to: 'Come see me on the street. Live!' But I went down religiously, and dollar by dollar, or every once in awhile I would get five dollars or ten dollars, or twenty dollars. I made enough money to pay my rent and live and I was playing music, not waiting tables."

Playing on the street worked itself into other gigs when pianist Bobby Lyle saw her and hired her off the street, "which was pretty awesome of him, I have to say. That snowballed into other things. I just think you have to get out there and do what you do. And take the lump of it not having it be the incredible, prideful, rock star experience you'd hoped it would be. But you just need to get out there and do your thing."

Getting out there and playing for an audience—any audience—is something that Abair feels is essential. In How to Play Madison Square Garden, Abair writes, "Trust me when I say that you can play and practice learning how to interact with an audience anywhere . And that's what you need to think of it as—practice and experience."

A musician needs to be able to play music for an audience, not just sit at home and practice scales. The audience interaction is invaluable. Early in her career, Abair willingly "practiced" interacting with an audience everywhere she could, which included playing for free along the L.A. Marathon and in the men's underwear section at Macy's department store.

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