Ask Charlie...

Why Do You Perform?

Hello Troubadourians! Years ago when I began writing this column I had planned it to be a source of information for performing musicians as well as a forum where musicians could ask questions about their gear and get advice on anything from how to select an instrument to how to make a PA system work. I’ve covered all of that—and more—many times in eight years, but I don’t think I’ve ever written about why someone might want to perform. I suppose you might think there are as many reasons as there are musicians, but the reality is probably much simpler. And, I venture that the reason or reasons change over time. I know that is that case with me. What was my initial reason to perform? Girls. Plain and simple. No sugar coat. I’m sure that a lot of male musicians would likely have to make the same admission. No doubt that attracting a potential partner is still a motivation for some performers, but as we mature in our music and performance, the motives and motivation to perform u econd most stated reason is money. Early on, if we’re any good, (and even if we’re not) there are people who will pay us to perform. I don’t think I’m too far off when I say that nearly everyone who has ever set foot on a stage has imagined doing it for a living. That interaction with an audience can be intoxicating and very seductive. Every musician that I’ve ever played with has entertained the idea of making a living performing music. Some of us have even been able to sustain a career or maybe just make a living as a performing musician. At least for a while. That life can be brutal and often costs us our relationships, our health, and even our love for music. I’m not trying to discourage anyone from following their dream of being a “famous” musician, but I do think that the better informed you are when entering any career path, the better your chances of success and the better to avoid the pitfalls.

But those of us who attempt to perform for a living are in the minority. Much more common are we who play and perform as an avocation rather than as a vocation, the semi-pro or “weekend warrior” who has a day job but plays for money whenever they can score a gig. There are a lot more people in this category than you might think, but still a minority when compared to all the people who perform for free (or tips) at open mics or in church. Yes, performing in church qualifies you as a performing musician. It could be said that the performers in this group perform mostly for the love of music, and it is probably true, but there are exceptions…

To answer the question; why do you perform? was the idea that inspired this month’s column and I’ve done some thinking about that, so it seems appropriate that I relate my more recent experience and motivation as my personal answer to the question. After my adolescent motive for playing was replaced by the desire to “get good” I found that playing and performing became much more complicated. I had begun entertaining the thought that I’d like to make a living playing music and I was both inspired and overwhelmed at the thought of it all. First, I wanted to join the Grand Ole Opry but that went out the window after meeting an actual Opry member who really creeped me out. Shivers… I went through various phases of wanting to play with this band or that band but not being 21 really put a damper on a lot of my ambitions. I finally settled on wanting to be a studio musician and I actually moved to Hollywood for a while. I played on a few good sessions and a lot of really crappy ones. The common denominator for me was that I wasn’t enjoying it at all. It became clear that what I wanted out of playing music for a living wasn’t what I was getting out of what I was doing. I’ve since come to realize that I want to have more control over what I play and whom I play with. That isn’t always an option when you’re hustling every gig you can get just to pay the rent. And I had witnessed some good friends go down some dark paths while chasing that dream, some who never returned. There was also an element that I didn’t expect, which was that being a good player was irrelevant as well as relative. What I mean by that is that some gigs required playing skills that I had yet to develop while others required practically no effort. I met far more bad musicians with good gigs than good musicians with good gigs, and I realized that I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be and wasn’t going to get any better if I continued where I was headed.

So, I went back to school, got my engineering degree, and played when I could. Somewhere along the way I met some really good musicians who were also really good people—people I could trust—which is obviously very important. Here’s the interesting thing that happened: as I matured into a better more educated person, I also matured into a better and more educated guitarist. Maybe it was something to do with the 10,000 hours thing or maybe I just needed to get out of my own way. Whatever it was, I found myself in my mid-forties being able to play things I couldn’t even think of in my twenties. And my motivation to play was different too. I found that I was interested in the people who came to hear me play. These weren’t the cliché barroom groupie-type people either. Rather, these were people with real lives and interesting stories, and they were coming to listen to and actually hear what I was playing. That was a revelation for me. My music was speaking to people and they would take the time to come and talk to me about it. While I always took a lot of pride in the presentation of my music, knowing that people were actually listening moves me to play so that every note counts. One lady said that it was like I was speaking to her through the guitar. Exactly what I wanted to achieve all along.
Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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