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Why I Refuse to Play for People

Rating: 1 votes, 5.00 average.
"Hey, will you play something for us?" That's often what people say when they walk into my house and see the mandolins and banjos hanging on the wall, the guitars leaning up against a bookshelf, the shelves of music ...

My answer is always the same: a resounding "NO."

With a follow up: "I'll play if you play, too." And I point out that I have stringed instruments, recorders, kazoos, drums, and even soup pots and wooden spoons. They can play any of those along with me. But if they don't participate, I won't play.

Here's why. It's easy for someone who's not playing an instrument--someone who is inundated 24 hours a day with re-recorded, highly edited, polished, synthesized and lip-synced and I don't know what all sounds--it's easy for that person to think that music is just sort of a natural thing that's everywhere, so easy to do, always perfect just like they hear it on Pandora, Spotify or a CD. When they hear live music, and it's not extra-ultra-perfect, they start judging: "That's not very good. That's not like I heard it on the CD. That guy doesn't know what he's doing. He should never play in public." Or whatever: they think less than processed perfection is a failure. When what it really is, is a triumph of the will for the musician to believe that you can create magic out of wood and wire.

On the other hand, when people are invested in creating or participating in music--even if just with that wooden spoon and soup pot--they become part of a community. They're "musicians." They see how hard it is to keep a beat. They start unconsciously getting into making their own playing sound better. They end transported out of their imaginary world of air guitar where they can play just like Joe Walsh or Keith Richards, having to fight the reality that a spoon and a pot--or rosewood and steel--just don't naturally produce a nice sound: you have to work at it.

If they're willing to ante up, I'm in. If they want to be entertained, they can go buy a CD or fire up Pandora and feast on synthetic perfection.

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  1. Bertram Henze's Avatar
    I have had people like that in my house once or twice, but there was no follow-up...
  2. CarlM's Avatar
    I will relate a story that opened up my eyes and thinking about this.

    Several years ago there was a regular jam at a local music store on Tuesday nights. It was open to anyone who wanted to join but not to spectators to avoid problems for the store with BMI or ASCAP licensing. One night when we finished the group of us was walking to our vehicles with our instruments and saying good night. Three or four kids came by on their bikes and asked if we could play for them. The lady who organized the jam session said no we really couldn't. The kids looked really disappointed and I thought about it realizing that here are some kids in there early teens and they are politely asking and really want to hear us play. It felt kind of petty and small to say no to them and not have a few minutes to play for them. So I got my guitar out, sat down on a median in the parking lot and played Deep River Blues and a couple of other songs. They liked it a lot and thanked us. It seemed to make their day a little brighter and happier.

    Sometimes it is not appropriate and does not work. I do not feel guilty for saying no I can't when it does not work. If I were a professional I might not want to give away for free what I would be earning my living with. But my bias now is toward sharing and letting people hear it if they really want to listen. Otherwise it is like sitting around talking to myself. Music is to communicate feelings and ideas. It works best when it is shared.
  3. chuck3's Avatar
    Try being mainly a bass player ... with no one to accompany, it's hard to perform. I can whip out a short solo on upright bass, but there's not much to do with a solo bass guitar (if you don't play it fancy-style, which I don't).

    That said, when it comes to mandolin, I don't share your view. I've worked out 3 or 4 tunes that I can do as solo pieces (or as a medley) if people want to hear something. It's true that mandolin is mostly better with other instruments, but to me that's not a reason to play it solo if someone is curious. Pick something easy that uses open strings and/or double stops a lot. Ashokan Farewell and Arkansas Traveler are two for me.
  4. Ausdoerrt's Avatar
    I've written a few simple, upbeat tunes I can accompany on the mandolin, but the lyrics are extremely weird/obscene, bordering on uncomfortable. It's a nice trolling mechanism. The feedback usually goes something like, "that's a cool/fun/upbeat tune, but man, what's up with the lyrics?"
  5. multidon's Avatar
    Very interesting, belbein. Definitely a valid point of view and there is much truth there. You obviously have given this a great deal of thought. But for myself, I do not agree and will play for people. That being said, I think this is an individual decision and there is no one size fits all answer. The reasons I will play for people are as follows:

    1. I already perform in public. A lot. I have for years. So playing for people is second nature anyways, almost a reflex.
    2. I have a pretty good repertoire that I have prepared to a reasonable state of "perfection", knowing there really is no such thing, but not playing anything that I'm not reasonably certain of pulling off.
    3. I find most people are very unfamiliar with both the instruments I play (hammered dulcimer, Celtic harp, mandolin, octave mandolin) and the genres I play (Irish Trad, Celtic, Old Time). Therefore, they are unable to compare what I play for them with the usual pop drivel they're used to. Rather than being judgemental, instead they are usually curious about the instruments first, since they are so outside their experiences. Even instruments I play that may be more familiar, like fiddle and guitar, well again I am playing styles they are unfamiliar with.
    4. Most non musicians I encounter are far from judgemental regarding my abilities. Instead they always seem easily impressed and are just simply amazed that anybody can do anything on a musical instrument. It's always oh, that's so wonderful, I could never do anything like that, etc.

    But everyone has different experiences. I am not saying mine are any more valid than yours. Everyone has do do what works for them
  6. Gelsenbury's Avatar
    I'd like to know whether many people actually have criticised your music along the lines you mention. Your argument is logical, but rests on the premise that people judge live music in the way you say.

    That hasn't been my experience. However little I could play, I've always had people fascinated and appreciative of the sound coming from a real instrument - not a CD or digital audio file. Maybe I've been lucky, and maybe I've always stopped playing soon enough! But, even with my very modest skills, I play for people when I get asked.
  7. belbein's Avatar
    Thank you all for reading. I appreciate everyone's responses. Of course so much of what we experience of the world is filtered by our interpretations--maybe I'm reading people wrong. I'm certainly very insecure about my playing (and have reason to be). I also may be hanging around with the wrong people since nearly nobody I know actually plays music or spends much time listening to live music.