You might as well know. I don’t think it’s a trade secret or anything. There’s nothing glamorous about performing. It’s all in a day’s work, and everyone on the other side of the backstage door has done this so many times for so many years that it really is just a job. As a musician crosses the threshold of a stage, they’re probably thinking one of three things
1) Gosh, I could go for a stiff whiskey.
2) If my standpartner/second trombone/conductor screws up, I swear I’m going to clobber him.
3) Is that smell me?
On the other hand, there is certainly a scale by which one may rate concert venues. According to that scale, there may be a greater or a lesser sense of honor, glory and prestige. For example, Avery Fisher Hall ranks quite highly. Play there, suffer those nerves, perform for the type of folks that attend concerts there, and be rewarded with snaps, props and kudos appropriate to the gravity of the undertaking.
Or you could take a Valentine’s Day gig at a grocery store.
Yeah, it was a blow to my pride. I ate a lot of chocolate and hoped it (my pride) would go down easy. Here’s how the gig went down.
The prickly store manager: “I hear you play the violin. Are you any good?”
Me: “I better be. It’s only been 19 years of practicing and 2 completed degree programs.”
PSM: “Oh. Do you know how to play any sweet songs?”
Me: “Only about 5 hours worth.”
PSM: “Oh. Do you want to play on Valentine’s Day?”
And yes, I was almost that snarky. I said it with a smile, so she didn’t know I was being borderline rude. Don’t ask a professional if they can do their job. It offends the delicate sensibilities.
On Valentine’s Day, I did my usual Thursday 8 hour shift, taking it minute by minute and crisis by crisis because the registers kept crashing. Nobody’s credit card ran, my printer died, I ran out of card bags, we were out of everyone’s favorite cigarette. I held Quasimodo at bay, because I refuse to be his Esmeralda, and that is that.
I’m telling you all this because it plays into the gig.
Naturally, I sold lots of flowers and an ocean of pink wine. LET THIS BE THE FIRST, LAST AND FINAL WARNING to my future man. No pink wine. I will smash it over your stereotyping, desperate head.
At the end of my 8 hours, I went upstairs and changed my clothes. I also availed myself of the bourbon in my flask. Yup. You heard me. I had a wee dram, and then I went down to face the music.
The produce clerk, the guy in recieving and the deli manager had created a safe place for me; set in an semi circle of roses and bounded in front with chocolate and a straight table. Within this bower, I was to be protected from the baskets and carts and crazy people slinging bread and cans and vegetables about. As a thing of beauty, I was to stand and play music. Not too loudly, but louder than the radio, and the high school kid bringing in the carts, please. Tall order.
Now, I am used to being stared at. Concertizing being what it is, there is an audience. But I am used to a still, quiet, audience placed where I can keep a suspicious eye on them for any funny business. This audience was flower shopping behind my back. A nascient paranoia rose. It began at the back of my liver and curled around my lungs, wafting poison into my heart and clouding up the back of my eyeballs. I revloved gently, staring at people who were staring at me. Serves ’em right.
Then I scared ’em back. Why do people think that if you’re playing a violin you can’t talk? I carried on a few conversations with a few startled customers who looked as if Admiral Nelson had struck up a conversation with a Trafalgar pigeon. Serves ’em right.
Once, I was horribly dissapointed. I was playing Wieniewski’s Legend (which he wrote to convince his sweetheart’s father that he was a real composer and could earn money with it. romantic, no?) and by golly, I nailed the final runs, ending with a tragic twin pizzicati. And the man chose his roses and left. No applause. I pouted, because my triumph was so great and the result so spectacularly nil.
Once, I made the humorless assistant manager laugh.
HAM: “If the ship goes down, you’re staying with it”
Me: “I know.” (Nearer my God to Thee, while slowly squatting behind the roses and thereby sinking from sight.)
Once, I played what was requested. Two pals love Lord of the Rings. That’s an easy one. Bum buuuum bu bu buuuuum…
And in the end, aching limbed, cold fingered and hardly paid, I left, surviving another day to gig. But. People smiled, kids watched, motorcyling badasses traced a tear down their faces and mimed a heart. People bought flowers and for a moment, these hurried grocery shoppers lived a sweeter life. I guess that’s reward enough.