Ask Charlie...

Making Music in a Pandemic

Hello Troubadourians! There’s an old saying, some would say a curse, that goes “may you live in interesting times.” These are definitely interesting times. I never considered that we could find ourselves in a situation like the one we find ourselves in now. Regardless of your politics, I suppose it is classic American arrogance to assume that we are immune to things such as pandemics. It is also classic American resilience that we will eventually persevere and overcome adversity. I think, though, we are finding ourselves within a world community that will also persevere. In our local music community, we are seeing daily evidence of this. I’m not much on social media other than Facebook, but I have never seen so much activity from our local musicians—and others around the country and the world—ever before. If ever anyone wondered why we play, it should be obvious now that we have to play to survive. It never fails to amaze me when I meet someone I haven’t seen for a while and they ask, “Do you still play?” Might as well ask me if I still breathe.

I haven’t been participating in much of the online performances so far, as my day job has been keeping me every bit as busy as before all of this started, maybe busier. So, I’ll leave that to my friends and bandmates for now. They’re doing a fine job so far. It makes me glad to be a part of this community.

I don’t get out to see live performances nearly as much as I’d like. Most of my excursions are for my own gigs. That said, I didn’t realize just how much I actually “played out” until I didn’t. I’ve been blessed to play with some very talented musicians, in bands and on their recordings as a session guitarist. And I have had the great honor to write this column for you every month, going on nine years now. We skipped last month but we’re back with this online version. This is new for the Troubadour but it is definitely a timely and relevant addition to the Troubadour legacy.

I’ve often worried about what I actually do contribute to the music community and to music in general. I made a decision many years ago that I didn’t want to have to depend on gig income to pay my bills. That decision has both helped and haunted me. What was a practical decision when I didn’t make much money and decided to live within the means provided by my day job has also made me doubt myself as a musician. “Am I really as good as I could/should be? Can someone be really be professional if they don’t make a living as a professional musician?” My friend Sven used to say, “You are what you get paid to do.” I guess that makes me an engineer. I’ve always thought that professionalism was a matter of how you conducted yourself—onstage, in rehearsal, when interacting with fans—and not tied directly to whether you were earning all, most, or even just some, of your livelihood through music. That view isn’t necessarily shared by a lot of musicians and I can’t say that I blame them. They have the right to be protective of what they do. Still, I have always conducted myself as if I were a professional and that my very life depended on the quality of my performance. It’s a matter of pride if nothing else. I was just raised that way.

Regardless, I have deep respect for everyone that truly make their living making music and making people happy. It is a gift, some would say, a responsibility to share your music with people who are willing to listen, need to listen, and want to pay you to entertain them. As every musician who has put it out there for the masses to enjoy—or judge—knows, it’s something akin to an obsession that we have to feed just to feel alive. Yet even in the relative comfort that I have to make the music I choose to make, and with the players I choose to make it, I still have the angst and sometime regret that I perhaps I didn’t live up to expectations or my potential by choosing a different path to make a living. It doesn’t matter to my teenage brain that my contribution to society and to engineering through my chosen profession far outweigh what I might have been able to accomplish had I followed my arguably selfish path to stardom and riches. Of those contributions I am certain and proud. I’m neither rich nor famous, but I’ve invented some cool stuff in my time. And that has afforded me the opportunity to make some really great music with—and for—some really great people. I will be forever grateful to have been counted among my peers and not just tolerated as the “day job” guy who hangs out with musicians. I play with many musicians who fit that role and I’m sure that they all feel as I do. I also have the same relationship with many musicians who do indeed make their living as musicians exclusively, or nearly so. I think real recognizes real regardless of who or where we are. That’s been my experience anyway.

It kills me that so many of my friends and bandmates are suffering because of the loss of their gig income. As I began this article, I noted how so many have adapted to the change in their situations through performances online and via social media. I certainly hope that some of you have been able to successfully monetize those performances, even if you did it just because you “had to” perform just to keep sane and alive. And I’m not naive enough to think that having a day job is enough to save one from that suffering this pandemic has caused. The lock down has cost many their normal livelihood as well as their gigs. This double whammy is brutal and it makes me so very sad that we’re facing such a crushing situation here in America. I really don’t know what else to say. I can only hope that we keep our faith, stay healthy, and get through this together. I’ve tried to use this time to improve my own playing so that I come out of this a better player than I was when this started. I hope that many of you can do the same.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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