Most musicians I know working in New York City are doing it several times a week – they bring all their passion, expertise and chops to play and effectively be ignored at a party, restaurant, or a particularly boisterous club. In the rooms I sing in, there’s usually a table somewhere having a conversation or a canoodle, as well as some folks completely listening and responding to what’s happening on the bandstand. It hasn’t come to a barroom brawl yet, but the listening types are usually dismayed at the lack of attention from the others. And then there’s the question of the music – does it change depending on who’s listening and how well?

I recently attended an event where there was a band hired – I could tell they did this kind of thing often – get paid (my guess is a lot) to make some vaguely groovy background music until the party gets going, and then they launch into some Motown hits. I tuned in as they listlessly played bossa novas and slept-walked through standards, and thought to myself: this is what happens to musicians who play with the expectation that nobody’s listening.

But listening they are – if you’re a musician who’s ever gotten a compliment from the cocktail waitress or server at the venue you just played, it’s almost better than a critic’s five stars. They are talking through most of your set, doing their job, but they know when something sounds good, and can feel the change of energy in the room when something’s swinging. The less musically aware guest just knows that their night out felt special, energized – even if they didn’t know what tunes you played.

This also makes me reflect on performance practices in history. Going to the opera used to be a very social occasion: you’d have conversation throughout the evening, perhaps have a box to consort with your friends or lovers – you could even pull the curtain on it to make your rendezvous more private. If we take it back to the Globe Theatre of Shakespeare’s day, I daresay it was a rare breed that would listen to every word – you were too busy as a rowdy peasant in the yard, or as one of the upper set who would kick them for entertainment from the next gallery level. Examples of this now unthinkable audience behavior follow the history of our greatest performing arts: is it any accident that the art forms we’re always lamenting as ‘dying’ are also usually performed in an atmosphere of quiet reverence today?

Jazz was birthed out of communal ritual, dance, worship and celebration. It belongs in Carnegie Hall too, yes, but fundamentally it will never die because it is part of the social fabric of this country (and now many others). Jazz can be an event, but it’s also in the background; part of the air we breathe (and sometimes, that means it’s minded just about as much.)

For the record, I love playing to an attentive audience – there’s a synergy there that crackles with possibility and spontaneity, and allows me to hear and feel what’s happening around me much better. To my mind, the attention between artist and audience goes beyond sound, and is what makes a musical experience move to the realm of the sacred. That said, I want to play wherever I can – and a buzzing bar or dining establishment feels more vital and real than many halls other music has been relegated to.

Mark Twain’s famous quote starts with “Sing as if nobody’s listening…” – I prefer to think it better to sing as if somebody always is.

Are you a performer that disagrees? Do the challenges of performing at non-listening rooms outweigh the benefits? I’d love to hear your thoughts, audience or musician.

8 Comments on “Are We Ever Being Ignored?”

  1. An honest and embracing reflection that should resound with anyone who works in front of an audience, whether to entertain, educate or both. I also endorse your modification of Twain’s words; one never knows who might be listening, but it is our responsibility to make sure our message is worthy of anyone’s time and attention.

    • Thank you so much for this comment – although this post isn’t audible, you have made me feel heard!:) I hadn’t thought of the broader implications of the message until you said it…and for that, thank you!

  2. For me, all the rehearsing and recording in the world is no replacement for performing live. It completes the creative cycle. But you never really know for sure just what the audience is hearing or what effect it is having on them! I remember one particularly awkward gig, where try as I might, I felt I made no connection with the audience. Then after the show I got some terrific feedback and made some wonderful new friends! Sometimes you only plant the seedling, when audience appreciation takes time to grow, and they don’t actually get much sensation till later. So yes, always sing as if somebody is listening. At the very least, YOU are…

    • What great thoughts, Shoe…I’d imagine with the kind of performing you do, the audience is always quiet, but you’re right – just because they are quiet doesn’t mean they are paying attention, or that you’re going to feel that connection. Live performance is all about that feedback loop, but I we also have to release our work with the lack of expectation or demand for a particular kind of appreciation. Paradoxical! Thanks for making me think…and want to hear you perform even more than I already did!:)

  3. I’ve been in West Hollywood.That’s why I haven’t been to see you..I’ll be back in February, and will definitely come to see you perform. I’m so looking forward to it.?……..Take good care of yourself,I’m sending a big hug, Your biggest fan, Bob

    • Well I can use all the hugs I can get – it’s freezing here! Looking forward to having you back to warm us all up with your presence.:)

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