Last week I played two weddings and three church services. It was the grand finish to a summer of prosperous gigging in both financial terms and performance opportunities.
I’ve performed for my fair share of sacred and secular services over the years. Depending on the context of the gig, many musicians, including myself, will assume a certain attitude. Some gigs, like degree recitals and paid solo performances, seem to rank higher on the “importance scale” than orchestral subbing, weddings, and church gigs, and background music. The truth of the matter is, sometime we decide to go-big-or-go-home (my personal favorite is the risky “YOLO-shift”) and sometimes we decide to phone it in.
But is there something inherently flawed with this pattern of thinking? What is it that influences how a musician treats their performance? Money? Prestige? Or perhaps it would benefit us to aspire to different virtues?
Consider the following hypothetical scenario. I am playing the Pachelbel Canon in D with an ad hoc string quartet for an outdoor wedding in which I am not even being paid because I am doing it as a favor for a friend. For richer or poorer, what exactly am I committed to and how do I decide how “good” my performance has to be? Are there constants that are unaffected regardless of the conditions of this situation?
Like any committed relationship, being a musician requires R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
1) Respect the Music: Whether we think Pachelbel’s Cannon of Dread is the worst piece on the planet or it’s the best thing since sliced bread, we should respect “music”. Its not about our own personal taste but it is about honoring art. We commit ourselves to expressing music at some level if we choose to take the instrument out of the case and play for other people.
2) Respect Your Fellow Musicians: Let’s face it. When you play with others in a chamber setting, someone’s gunna be better than you and someone is gunna be worse than you. Whether we are out-gunned or playing circles around the rest of the quartet, we should try our best. We commit ourselves to equal-treatment of our colleagues.
3) Respect the Audience: I’ve known a number of musicians who justify their lack of effort by saying “nobody out there knows the difference, they’re all ignorant anyways so they won’t know the difference”. Is this not an ignorant view in-and-of-itself? We never know who’s listening in the back row: a retired music teacher, a promising young student, or even another professional. Even if your audience is completely deaf, play your heart out because in the end, you’re listening to you too.
4) Respect Your Own Personal Integrity: If for no other selfish-serving reason, we should do our best for ourselves. Does it really make much sense to, on the one hand say, “I want to be a great musician”, and on the other hand say, “but only in these circumstances and at these times”. Ask any accomplished artist and I’m sure they’ll say that excellence demands consistency. Bruce Lee once remarked on this phenomenon.
“If you always put limits on what you can do, physical or anything else, it’ll spread over into the rest of your life. It’ll spread into your work, into your morality, into your entire being. There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”
Being able to play to our fullest capacity every day of our lives in a constant challenge. In many cases, we fall short and in some cases, for good reason. But just like a strong marriage, love and commitment get you through the tough times. So, the next time you have the chance to pick up your instrument, be grateful to be in a committed relationship.
(There happens to be a delightful gigue that follows Pachelbel's canon that you may or may not know about: