January 19, 2023 I by Erin Kessler

How I Became Less Awkward

In January 2019, I took my first trip to The NAMM Show. Before attending, I dashed out to buy a new plaid jacket with fancy elbow patches and a pair of white Chuck Taylors. A word like “excited” barely captured how I felt. But if you’d actually seen me at the show, you never would have guessed it. I kept my head down, my hands in my pockets and my gaze to the floor. I was awkward then — and I still am. But attend a NAMM Show today, and you’ll see me with my head up, doing crazy stuff like making eye contact and talking to people. I grew up in the music products industry, so I know many of us can feel awkward on such an intimidating show floor. What brought me out of my shell? Improv. No, no, not that kind. The other kind. Despite my career choice, I’m talking about the comedy kind, not the jazz kind.

My grandparents owned Colonial Music, a multi-location B&O retailer in central Ohio, where I started working as soon as I could reach the repair bench to polish brass mouthpieces. My grandparents made a name for themselves, which has sometimes helped me, but I wanted to make a name for myself. When I started working at Maple Leaf Strings, Brad Patterson, our CFO, immediately saw my awkwardness and convinced me to try an improv class with him at Improv Cincinnati. Brad told me he wanted me to see myself as others see me. Also, I’m funny.

We finished that class together, and I had more fun than I could imagine. I then forced him to take all the classes they offered with me. I’m now lucky enough to perform several times a month.

What is improv? Like the TV show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” everything is unscripted. Performers let their imaginations explode on stage in front of a live audience. But improv is more than making people laugh, it’s about listening to your scene partner, collaborating and building something bigger than yourself. If you only focus on figuring out what to say next, you’re not listening to those around you.

When you don’t try to anticipate what’s coming, you instead pay attention to details and emotions that you wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

I slowly saw myself shift after a few classes. I was less afraid of failing when speaking in meetings. I began to realize that not every bold idea I put out there will be embraced, but they generate better discussions and more ideas. I listened more intently, looking for the subtleties in what people were saying. I started gaining the confidence to talk and create relationships with people who were, inexplicably, scary to me. Heid Music’s DeDe Heid and NAMM CEO Joe Lamond are good examples of people I found to be intimidating, but, after engaging with them, I learned that they’re not only a massive force for good in the industry, but also two of the nicest people you’ll meet.

I know improv isn’t for everyone, but there are lessons you can take from it and apply into your daily work and life. Here are a few:

Say “yes.” New ideas can create uncertainty, but saying “yes” is a chance to listen and build off what others offer.

Embrace mistakes. Everyone makes them. Take the opportunity to learn from them, and move on. You matter. And your voice matters, too.

Be present. Improv is all about being in the moment. There are no retakes. Listen actively to understand what people are actually saying.

Play and have fun! My improv mentor, Tone Branson, told me that improv isn’t meant to be a struggle, it should be fun. Improv is adults playing make-believe. Tap into your inner child. Bring that weird bobblehead into work that you’ve wanted to display on your desk. Doodle during a break or make silly faces with a coworker during an important meeting. Just kidding. You probably shouldn’t do that last one.

Improv put me in front of an audience, forced me to think on my feet and helped me make better connections with people faster. That all translated into my life in the music industry. Getting to know people and letting them get to know me led to my election to the NAMM YP Board of Directors and being selected to attend the Women of NAMM summit. And without that improv experience, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to present at the upcoming 2023 NAMM Show, and I likely wouldn’t have written an article about it. MI

Erin Kessler is the director of marketing for Maple Leaf Strings and a NAMM YP board member. To learn more about NAMM YP, visit namm.org.

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