I played a recent art gallery ambiance gig and there was no shortage of people giving me supportive comments, and some even watching in awe of what I do with my guitar, but there were a few who were completely unimpressed. Not that you have to like what I’m doing, but surely you can find some aspect of it that brings you stimulation on one level or another. At least, that’s what I’d always thought.
The gallery, devoid of people for nearly half an hour, though the artist and gallery manager assured me that people would start to file in after about an hour, was cavernous, perfect for gallery exhibitions, and for live acoustic music. Gallery shows are always fun for me, even more fun when gallery attendees can shed some dollars in my tip jar—wink, wink. In addition, they’re great for somewhat introverted performers like me, who can get up and talk between songs and at least make attempts at getting giggles and laughs, but have to work really diligently at making it successful. At galleries, I get to just hang out and play my music, almost like I would at home. The exception being that I actually have to play each song the whole way through without mistake, and focus on all of the parts of a successful song’s performance as they revolve through my head. Playing solo may just look like one task, but it requires attention to detail at such an extreme level that by the end of playing songs for two hours straight, I’m burnt out and need to step out for some fresh air, find a restroom, and enjoy a quick beverage if they‘re available.
As far as I could tell, the only visitors so far had been friends of the artist and a few of their dogs. The first to approach my corner of the gallery was a middle-aged woman and a small girl. Sometimes I find it difficult to pay attention to the song and judge whether or not the listener is enjoying what I’m doing. But this pair set all guesswork aside.
“Where’s your microphone?” the woman asked. The young girl, about three or four, let go of the woman’s hand and began to move around, putting all her energy into a little toddler dance of sorts.
I’d like to note that, if you see a solo performer playing music, it’s probably incautious to strike up conversation with them during the performance of a song, even in an art gallery. Unless you’re able to talk and play at the same time, and I don’t mean sing (that’s an entirely different act, which I can do but don’t incorporate into my song compositions), carrying on a conversation with someone is very difficult. I can’t do it very well, and if I must answer a question, as was the case in this instance, the song I’m playing at the time suffers, severely. But the question poser is likely not listening to the music anyhow, right?
“It’s in the guitar,” I say, trying to keep the beat straight and the melody working, assuming she has asked how I could get the guitar to play through my amp without a microphone in front of me.
“No, your microphone.”
The little girl whirled and danced. I’d never had an audience member so young, so obviously enjoying my music. It put a huge smile on my face.
I said, “There’s a microphone inside my guitar picking up the sound.”
“No, I mean, don’t you sing?” she replied.
“No, I only do instrumental music, no singing.”
“Oh,” she said. She took the hand of the adorable young listener and dancer and turned away and walked, the girl obviously wishing to stay and listen.
I finished my song and gave myself a second to consider what had just happened. The woman, mother or grandmother, didn’t care what my music expressed unless it also used my voice. As an instrumentalist, that’s quite an affront to my passion for the art form. I know there are critics and not everyone likes what I do, but I hadn’t considered the existence of a music criticism such as that.
I’m highly selective of the music I listen to, especially when there are vocals involved, and usually, I only listen to the melody carried by the vocals. The lyrics fall much lower in the list of things that catch my attention.
I wanted the little girl to come back. She had a clear appreciation of anything that sounded musical, with or without singing.
I find that it can be hard for an instrumental musician to find a place in a world where so much value is placed on singing as an integral key to the success of a song. Maybe it has something to do with the wide range of musical styles I was exposed to when growing up, but never once have I thought to myself that a song absolutely had to have words and singing to be considered good or interesting. It’s always good to have a reminder that tastes in music vary from that of Taylor Swift to mostly unheard of instrumental guitarists.
I would urge you, those of you who are not musicians, to consider how much hard work, how many compromises, how many sacrifices, how much time, and how many resources a musician puts into what they’re doing. Maybe you don’t care for certain types of music, and that’s absolutely fine, but if you consider yourself a lover of any type of music, please, consider the individual who is performing for you. What they are doing makes a difference in the lives of some, and with that, their musical service is comparable to that of any occupation providing any service, be it plumbing, counseling, you name it. It is work, it is fun work, it is really hard, sometimes—especially in the case of a solo instrumentalist—very lonely work, and even if you don’t like what they’re doing, you can perhaps appreciate the dedication they have, just as you’d hope that musician would appreciate the dedication you have towards whatever passions and responsibilities you have in your life.
Perhaps most importantly, try to enjoy the music!! Try to feel what that musician is expressing. Don’t shirk on gaining new perspective by ignoring it because it’s not what you typically put on in the car. Open your mind and live a little. Heck, dance, whether you’re only three years old or fifty-three years old.