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.

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