Sunday, February 20, 2011

In Praise of the Background Gig

For the concert guitarist, a background gig is a grind. They are a work of necessity, well paid functional playing, essentially, music as a service. Period. Whether it be a restaurant, wine bar, cocktail party, etc. it is no place to concertize, to express your art, or to push your product. You play among endless chatter, feeling ignored, playing but not being heard, filling the cracks between conversation or becoming a conversation piece for the awkward couple. In fact the only attention you usually get from such a gig is to be interrupted mid-tune by someone asking a question, "Hey! Is that a Martin yer playing there?" As I attempt to maintain the music, I may nod (sometimes I stop suddenly just to make a point), then the comments continue, "Yep, sure sounds like a Martin to me! Should have known by the sound!" (Yep, it has nothing to do with me mister. It's all the guitar.) After 3 hours of this, it can tear up anyone's fortitude, especially the fragile guitar man who needs to be listened to, who desperately needs to be understood.

When I finished the final piece of a recent gig (playing background music for a formal dinner), a funny thing happened; the patrons applauded. This wasn't applause as in, "Well thank God THAT'S over with!" No, this was appreciation. Appreciation for the service that I had provided. I think this was the first time I have EVER been applauded for my work at such an event. So what went wrong? These people didn't care what I was doing, they didn't listen, they don't even know my name! You know what was different? I cared and I listened. I guess they did too in a different way.

For years I have had a dismissive attitude toward such events grumbling my way through to the pay check. But more recently I am just happy to be working. My ego has stepped aside (or at least is on a break) and I have learned to embrace the background gig, to get out of myself (no easy task), to look up and survey the scene, and realize there is a lot of value to be found among the chatter.

I embraced this particular gig from the first note forward and I committed myself to my playing. It was not all about ME after all (guitarists are so arrogant), it was about the music and about them, the diners who were there to enjoy the evening with their friends, families, or lovers. They were into the night and I was into providing good vibes. I was adding value to the experience.

I noticed the joy around me and, lo and behold, the joy of playing! I was in the zone and playing for real. I mean, how may times have I checked out at the midpoint? Not on this night. I was fueled by the occasional tapping foot, the smiles sent my way, the food, the wine, and the warmth. When I paused - between tunes - there was a noticeable change in the dynamic of the room. I was in control and I too was having fun.

What are those silly sayings? "Dance like no one is watching!" "Work like you don't need the money!" Maybe I have a new one: "Play like no one is listening!" or rather,  "Play like everyone listening!" or maybe just "Play like one person is listening!" No bother. Just play and mean it. By giving the people an honest effort, you just might get what every sensitive performer needs, maybe, you will get some applause.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Snowbound State of Mind

Snowbound, looking down, drifting all around, white and falling. 
Cold wind blowing, can't see but the two feet in front of me. 
One foot in front of the other, heavy, falling down, incomplete, melting as I move, freezing as I stand. Snowbound, looking up, drifting all around, white and falling.
Deep, deep, snow, one foot in front of the other, one step more. 
My shoulder aches, my head aches, my soul sings to the music flooding my ears
The job will be done.

Five days a week, for five years early on, I participated in the ritual of the working man. My paper route; a time of solitude and a time of learning. "How many pages today?" was the foremost question as I approached the daily drop of newspapers. The number of pages determined the workload, determined the weight on my shoulders, and determined the pain. The cassette in my Walkman determined the pleasure. It always got me through.

Delivering newspapers in the dead of a Minnesota Winter was a perfect crash course in preparing me for the hard lessons and sweet rewards of working as an independent artist. Today, as I decompress from the end of a relatively major project - organizing, and performing at, the MN Guitar Society Acoustic Guitarathon - I observe the snow drifts piled up outside my window. I am revisiting the paper route in search of the focus needed to move forward with the next round of projects. Getting unstuck and getting on to the next round of work can be overwhelming. I am feeling snowbound as the projects keep drifting. Just figuring out where to begin is a challenge, but, it is best, to simply begin; beginning with this blog entry.

Walking along all of those early formative years I found strength in solitude. I was getting a taste of the long and lonely work of writing. It is an odd rhythm. A slow, step-by-step pace where progress is often barely perceptible. Yet, you have to keep moving forward to get the job done. Self-discipline and self-reliance is all you have as you face the inevitable obstacles of inclement weather, overstuffed papers, late papers, lost papers, incomplete ideas, and the occasional warm blast of inspiration; from the Dentist office on the corner. Just enough to set up your next move. It was a process of adaption. It was also an exercise in repetition and dealing with the sameness of day-to-day routine, even when I don't feel like it. Finding the necessary optimism is key. And where did I find the optimism? In the music. Under the headphones. The music always got me through.

And of course there is the sweet reward of hard labor paying huge dividends: the euphoria accompanying a solid day's work and feeling productive, the more tangible money (for the papers) and the even more direct music (for all), that hopefully will inspire another young laborer, learning some hard lessons of his own, trudging through the snow, delivering his papers, writing his songs, his soul singing to the music.

Blog entry complete. On to the next project. But first, the headphones...