It’s quarter after eleven on a Thursday night, and two hours ago, I got in from a three hour performance at a local fine dining establishment known as Johnny T’s Bistro. In musician lingo, I just got done playing a gig. And tonight, I was reminded of why I do and other should.
The pros to gigging are obvious: Getting paid $20 an hour to play music, take a few breaks and eat a complimentary dinner at a classy restaurant is the obvious one.
The cons are a little more subtle. Call in sick one day, and you’re out a week’s wages. At times I’ve found myself spending three hours playing through exhaustion, a sore throat and a headache, trying not to let on that the music I hope is relieving stress for restaurant patrons is causing it for me.
Then there’s practice time. Putting together a few hours of music takes a lot more than a few hours, and keeping the set new and exciting is practically a full-time job in itself. Twenty bucks an hour isn’t quite as appealing once you realize that most of the hours that go into each performance are unpaid.
Sometimes, I consider taking a different path, and spending all that time perfecting some recorded tracks and marketing them via the internet. That option seems so comfortable, simple, and rewarding. And I do hope to do that someday. But I hope I never relax so comfortably in the luxury of studio work that I become unwilling to experience the discomfort of playing live for an audience, ready or not, well or sick, relaxed or stressed. It doesn’t matter how I feel; music is a gift and gifts should be shared.
When I pulled in to the restaurant earlier tonight, I saw a familiar pair entering just ahead of me. The man was a frequent patron of JT’s, and his dinner companion was his five-year-old granddaughter, who he brings in somewhat frequently to enjoy the live music on Thursday nights. I had barely entered, lugging the subwoofer, when she exclaimed enthusiastically,
“Jimmy! Guess what? I have a cousin named Jimmy too!”
“Really? How old is he?” I was busy plugging electronics in.
“Ummmmmmmmm… I don’t remember. He’s this tall though.” She held her hand about a foot above the table. I responded quickly and made another trip to the car to grab my saxophone and computer.
“Jimmy, guess what?” I heard upon reentering. “I’m wearing high heels. Grandpa and I went to the daddy-daughter dance!”
I talked to my daddy-daughter fan base as I finished setting up, then told my audience that I hoped they enjoyed the music and proceeded to start making the most enjoyable music I could. As it turned out, I was one of those who found the performance to be exceeding expectations. I’ve never been good at following the music during improv sections, but it seems that lately I’ve been improving a lot, even though outside-of-gigs rehearsal habits have been abysmal. As it turns out, it’s hard to do something once a week for more than a year without getting better at it.
Recording that song is something that can always get pushed back until next week — and for that very reason, it always does. Playing a gig on Thursday night really can’t get pushed back until Friday; it has to be done on Thursday night or it doesn’t happen and the performer doesn’t get paid. Obligatory rehearsal and the improvement that comes as its consequence is one good reason to get a gig. But there’s a better reason. Sometimes my playing saxophone in a restaurant brings great joy to someone or even a whole group of people, and that makes it worth it. It even gives a grandfather and his granddaughter something to do on a Thursday night.
At the end of the night, even if it was a rough one, I still get the cash to remind me that in one way or the other, it was worth it. But when I think about the beauty of music and remember that it is not just what others do for me, but also what I get to do for others that is valuable, I am reminded that it’s worth it time and again throughout the night. When I have that mindset, remembering that I don’t “just have to get through the night” but that I can and ought to serve others through my playing; I play better. And when I play better I’m serving myself too, because I feel better, and the three hours begin to hold the potential for joy in addition to a paycheck.
Sure, I could charge 99¢ for a digital download of a polished piece. But watching a little girl stand on her tiptoes to put her grandfather’s dollar bill in the tip jar would not longer be part of the experience. And I’ve seen some pretty encouraging youtube comments, but it’s not quite the same as having an elderly couple walk up to you, holding hands and smiling, to tell you that the music made their evening dinner extra special. It doesn’t happen every gig — but when it does, I am reminded that there’s something special about playing live. These things just don’t happen in the comfy world of studio production, but I hope that I am always willing to trade out a little comfort for the chance to bring music to life.