Half an hour later, I found myself strolling across a public park with a community garden at one end. Then I heard the sound of a saxophone coming from the garden. As I walked along the path leading to the garden entrance, I saw Toby standing, waiting for me. This was turning into an intriguing assignation.
‘So, what’s all the mystery about?’ I asked, but Toby didn’t say anything, beckoning me to follow him instead.
He led the way into the garden, where a band of teenagers were performing under a banner that said ‘Rhythm of London’. A youth worker in his twenties stood nearby and he nodded to Toby in greeting, as though the two knew each other. Toby motioned for us to stand closer and listen to the music. The band was improvising a tune. There was an assortment of instruments, some real and some makeshift ones, from flutes and trombones to a plastic bucket doubling as a drum. I also spotted a kazoo, tin cans, and a hand-held toy piano. A small crowd was beginning to gather, swaying and clapping appreciatively. The teenage musicians looked like they were having a ball, moving in tune with their music, their faces beaming. Their energy was infectious. I felt pure joy.
Following this intro, the youth worker raised his hand, bringing all the musicians to a stop and then addressed us.
‘Can someone give me a tune?’ he asked the crowd.
An elderly gent offered a melody that he hummed for the band. The youth worker picked up a trumpet and mimicked the tune, note for note, and then the rest of the band joined in. At one point the concertina player performed a solo, after which the upright bassist took over, adding to the solo. We were all by this stage bopping to the sounds, a smile plastered on everyone’s face. No one could resist this happy tune. A few songs later, Toby nudged me to sing a tune but I felt too self-conscious and shook my head shyly. Toby looked a bit disappointed and I instantly wished I had agreed to his little dare, but the moment had passed.
A little while later, Toby and I were sitting on one of the park benches. The band could still be heard playing in the gardens.
‘They’re brilliant!’ I marvelled at their ability to go with it without thinking about it or worrying that they might freeze. I told Toby that improvising was something I had never been asked to do in music school.
‘With classical music, you’re taking your audience on a journey, but you unwind it slowly, over time,’ mused Toby. ‘You tease the journey out, gradually drawing your audience towards the crescendo of the ending.’ Then he pointed towards the band. ‘When you’re improvising, it’s more immediate. There is still a story, but the difference is that you don’t know the ending. In fact, you don’t need to know, you just need to trust that you’ll naturally get there.’
I could now see where this was all going. The impromptu visit to the park was making more sense. But I let Toby finish what he had to say.
‘It’s the exact same thing with DJ-ing. Once you get past the technical stuff – which, by the way, you have, whether you believe it or not – it becomes about feeling your crowd, giving them what they want. Or what they think they want. And that’s a gift not a lot of people have.’
I smiled. ‘I think I understand the moral of this afternoon’s little outing.’
‘About time! Can I dismiss the actors and the art department now?’ Toby joked. ‘Those kids don’t come cheap, you know.’
We both laughed.
‘So how d’you know about these guys, then?’
‘I used to volunteer with them,’ Toby revealed. He went on to tell me a bit about himself, how passionate he was about music and how eager he was to partake in any musical events taking place across the city. This continued up until a period in his life when he decided to ignore his musical impulses. This admission of Toby’s really resonated with me in light of what I’d been experiencing lately, so I asked him to elaborate.
‘Are you sure you’re ready for my dirty little secret?’ he asked teasingly.
‘Only if you’re ready for my own dirty little secret.’ As soon as I said it, I cringed inwardly. I immediately regretted my pathetic attempt at being witty. It had sounded so silly. That just wasn’t me. I bit my tongue and cursed my inability to think first before speaking.
Toby had the grace to just smile briefly before continuing on a more serious note. ‘That was the period when I got my law degree.’
‘Wow, a solicitor!’ I was impressed, but I couldn’t imagine Toby in such an environment.
‘A barrister, actually.’
Toby then went on to explain that he had done this because of the pressure his family put on him. Everyone in his family had a solid profession and, while they had nothing against his musical talents, they urged him to pick a ‘proper’ career path and keep the music as something to do on the side. Without a back-up plan they warned him he’d be taking a very precarious route in life.
Under so much pressure, Toby finally caved in and chose law, because he saw it as a noble profession that helped people. After he got his qualification, Toby went on to work in chambers for two years as a clerk. But following his graduation, this was the point where he returned to music, and he began DJ-ing on the side.
‘That must have been exhausting!’ I said, as I knew just from that one gig what it felt like to have to then focus on something completely different.
Toby nodded. ‘I would work all day, the whole week and then be out all weekend gigging. Then, all of a sudden, Monday would come along, and I’d quickly change into my smart suit, morphing into the legal professional, you know, walking the straight and narrow. It was like this schizophrenic existence. During the week I was the corporate worker, the immaculately groomed, serious legal clerk, and then at the weekends I’d let it all hang out, going nuts, dressed in all sorts of weird outfits and dying my hair every shade imaginable.’ Toby smiled, shaking his head, as though in disbelief that he had actually led such an existence.
‘So how long did you manage to keep that up?’ I asked, curious. I was beginning to see him in a completely new light. It seemed that whenever I thought I knew who Toby was, he’d turn that notion on its head and surprise me.
‘I kept going like that until one morning when, instead of the dossier I was meant to present, I pulled out a bunch of records from my attaché to a very confused board room.’ Toby laughed at the memory. ‘I thought “enough with the double life”. It was taking its toll on me physically, too. Mondays I would always come in bleary-eyed and I was chronically tired. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of my colleagues thought I was on drugs, actually. I began to carry around this medical bag, like a First Aid kit, but tailored to all my aches and pains, from sore joints and muscles from all the jumping around to eye drops and headache pills and throat syrups. And there would be occasions when I’d just tune out during meetings, too exhausted to concentrate. I think what bothered me more were the mistakes I made during my DJ-ing sets. Friday nights were the worst, as my exhaustion levels would be the highest. By Saturday I usually recovered sufficiently, but I knew I was headed towards nervous exhaustion and then I may not have been able to do either job. So I made a decision. I chose the life I really loved, and I haven’t looked back since.’
He added that his family had come to terms with his choice, as they felt he always had his law degree to fall back on should Sway Records ever go bust.
‘Lucky for me,’ I said.
‘And lucky for me,’ Toby smiled.
His story had really struck a chord with me. I could recognise my own dilemma in his experience. I decided to take the plunge.
‘Do you still need a DJ for tonight?’
‘Why, d’you know any that might be free?’ Toby joked.
I laughed, glad that the offer was still open.