Musical performance is an amazing, living, breathing and morphing thing; it has been as powerful a force as any, and more powerful than most, in shaping the zeitgeist throughout history. Every generation contributes some performances that remain in the collective conscience, to glisten and glimmer above the waves of fading history like blazing gemstones accenting our shadowy hallways, welding place-markers along our journey.
Over the years, we musicians tend to lose track of what it is we actually do—and why—as music the art gets replaced in our lives by music the job. Sculpting sound against a framework of time is, to me, the coolest art form imaginable. Yet it begins to feel like digging a ditch, once one becomes obliged to do it for one’s supper. I fight burnout on an ongoing basis, to varying degrees, depending on what kind of things I’m doing professionally. So to me it’s sometimes an alien concept that what I’m doing onstage is amazing and really cool to someone out there. I’m sometimes too distracted by the workaday, workplace mental flotsam to be able to appreciate where I actually am and what I’m actually doing; hardly the right headspace to be in for a show.
Jadedness is a very pervasive psychological space for us, though, since we’re surrounded by the causes of it at all times, to wit:
• Lighting directors who think they’re hot stuff and the real reason for the show, who painstakingly set up the lights for two hours before the show—commonly occupying too much space on stage with their gear—but then don’t even bother to change the “looks-like-worklights” scene from song to song during the show, and manage to black the stage out at the worst possible moments, and insist on killing our pipes, our instruments and our chops with Glycol fog;
• Soundmen who live up to the axiom that “the engineer’s job is to suck the life out of everything”;
• Little musical pet peeves with band members, which tend to be well-founded and hard to shake;
• Drunken slobs in the crowd who won’t stop bellowing requests that are so stupid they oughta be embarrassed, but (oh yeah) they’re drunk;
• Crappy power supply that makes the gear behave like something out of a Stephen King movie;
• EMF that interacts with guitar pickups almost as much as the strings…
…and on and on. This is to say nothing of bandleaders, clubowners and other workplace insect authorities, most of whom evidently think that the way to get a good showing out of performers is to constantly badger them with obvious minutiae or alarm them with dazzling displays of clinical psychoses.
If you’re a player, you know that of which I speak. The causes are real, they’re digging in under your skin all the time and it’s hard to tune out the irritating rash they give you. But guess what?
From the crowd’s perspective, exactly NONE of that exists.
They’ve paid very real dough to be there seeing you throw down, or at least they cared enough to get off their couch and to be there for your show. That, ladies and gents, is nothing short of love, being expressed towards you, by their very presence. It is a tangible, undeniably real thing, and a humbling one too, if you’re head isn’t up your ass. Whether you’re playing to 20,000 screaming fans or a dozen school kids, they deserve your very effing best, as does every note you play or sing, at all times, regardless of the stature of the gig.
But we’re human, so how do we shut off all the workaday head chatter so we can kick some butt and deliver the performance they—and Lady Music—deserve?
Let’s start with the obvious: If the music you’re playing doesn’t make your heart soar during performance, you’re on the wrong gig. If the gig pays too well for you to quit, but it burns you out, QUIT. You didn’t wind up on the musical path because of the dough; no one did who really belongs on this road. Most of us didn’t choose this road at all; we were chosen—some dragged in kicking and screaming against our better judgment—and every one of us should consider it a tall honor. So stay true to your musical heart, because: money does not constitute a reason to betray your love. If you free yourself up for what you actually want to be doing, you’ll be amazed at how many great opportunities exist around you to make great music. And if you write and play that which you truly love, the money will be there. Most likely more of it.
As a mistress, Lady Music is at once the most demanding and the harshest; the most rewarding and the sweetest. Through pleasing Her with our purest and highest efforts, we sometimes catch sight of the Promised Land: that fleeting, mythical, mystical euphoria we get for a millisecond when we’ve played or sung something in just the way that was needed. It happens only once in a great while, when we’re very, very pure in our love. And that Promised Land is always there, beckoning, whether you’re tuned into it or not, whether you’re paying attention or chugging through the gig like a mule in a rut. So wake up and tune in.
And if it doesn’t make you a little nervous to be working with the company you’re in, then yep…you’re on the wrong gig. Try to be a little out of your depth with the music and out of your league with the players around you. This creates growth, which is fatal to jadedness and burnout.
And what about the crowd? Think back to the tender young age of (fill in the blank), when you were so excited to go see (fill in the blank) in concert, and how amazing that was. It was really cool, right? You’ll remember that show, and many others, for the rest of your life, right? Well, now it’s your turn to be that for others. Maybe even ignite The Fire in a future musician.
After every show, without fail, I get people coming up to me with tears in their eyes, because the show brought back such powerful memories. Military vets who really connected with the Star Spangled Banner (which I play at every show in the band I’m presently with) come up to me, look me dead in the eye, shake my hand and solemnly thank me. It’s impossible not to feel how much it means to them—though not having served, I know I can never really understand—and it humbles me to the core. I always try to convey how grateful I am for their sacrifice, and how little I’ve done to deserve their thanks. Usually without success.
During the show, us players might not have our heads in the right place, but trust me: the crowd does. They’re there to be amazed, they’re receptive and they’re ready. It’s why they’re there; why all parties involved are there. So connect with that. Round third base and go for it. Return the love to Lady Music, to the drunken slob, to that little kid in the third row for whom you are the first concert…to anyone and everyone present. Amaze them all.
It’s why we exist.