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Musician Vs. Performer

Let us begin with a story: Several months ago, out of sheer boredom, I went onto craigslist to look for a jamming buddy. I hadn’t played music with other people for quite some time and didn’t know what to expect. I responded to an ad that said, “Musician Looking For Band!” She was very enthusiastic. She was incredibly friendly, and from looking at her Soundcloud, it looked as though she had been a part of some quality studio productions. 

We corresponded via email for a few days, and ended up meeting on a weekend. She had told me that she was a singer, songwriter and guitar player. The first warning sign was that she showed up about four hours late. My experience in jamming around in Oregon had taught me that this wasn’t entirely uncommon. It was just like spending the day with a buddy, drinking a few beers. It was a low priority thing that could be shuffled around. I was sure it was fine. I was sure we’d still have fun. 

She shows up and we talk for a bit. She’s been involved in music “for years,” but won’t say exactly when she began. She asks me briefly about my music history (I’ve been involved with piano, choir and other things since I was five) but then more to the point, do I want to play live shows. 

Sure? I thought. It’s getting a little ahead of ourselves here. We haven’t even tuned our guitars yet, and she’s thinking about a tour. I suggest we play our songs for each other, just to get a feel for where we are, if there is some chemistry to work with. I play her one of my songs and her response is, “Wow, I didn’t think people actually wrote songs anymore… I thought it was all suppose to be really easy.” 

Now alarms are flying off in my head. Who is this self-proclaimed song writer? I maintain the song isn’t incredibly difficult to play; it’s just not in first position. However, this is my first time meeting this person. I don’t want to get on my soap box quite yet. I ask her to play one of her songs that she sent me online. Her response, “Oh, I don’t know how to actually play that one, but it has the same chords as [some song I’ve never heard of].” 

She then reveals that she mostly sings. She’s a pretty good singer. Good tone quality, but a limited range. How limited? I can sing higher than she can. I try to teach her a harmony line (something she has never done) and after a good twenty minutes of repeating the same four bars, we arrive at a semi-decent level of kind-of-counterpoint. 

I met with her one more time after that horribly confusing encounter. I figured I could just write an incredibly basic, four chord song that we could dick around on. It was the easiest chord progression imaginable. God’s chord progression: C, a minor, F, G. At this point I didn’t expect her to know how to do a barre chord. My standards and expectations had already been shot. But this bizarre, extroverted, bubbly little girl takes it one step further. When I play the a minor chord, she looks at me all confused and says that she was taught that “the A was played like this!” (She plays an A Major) I tell her, “No, no its just the minor chord.” 

“What’s a minor chord?”

Now I am no Bach. I am no Hendrix. I am no Lennon. I do not think I am some amazing, muse granted voice and representative of the creative gods, but if prompted in certain circumstances I will call myself a musician. In the same respect, I would rather eat my own toe nails than call this girl a musician, let alone a songwriter. After some carefully worded prodding, I found out that the chords she knew could be counted on two hands. That may be enough for some people to “make music,” but it is my opinion that an actual musician would strive for a larger tool set. I own a hammer, a crowbar and a handful of screwdrivers, but I do not call myself a contractor, or even handyman. 

Granted, there are some actual musicians who choose to specialize in one particular instrument. That is why we have the title, “vocalist.” Again, I will concede, that the note range the girl could produce, were produced very well. The irritating thing about it is that in so many of her pictures, she is carrying her guitar. She has it slung around her neck, and cradled in her arms like it is an extension of her being, like it is her child. As I learned more about her, the more I realized that she was a performer trying to cast a wide net. She told me about her acting career,  her modeling, and other things you might expect from someone who spends half their time in Los Angeles. 

What am I irritated about then? It is misrepresentation. When I think of a musician, I do not think of Taylor Swift, or Justin Beiber. They are performers. Their individual musical merits do not justify the cost of their tickets, so to compensate, their concerts are filled with costumes, dancers, pyrotechnics, lasers and artificial fog. It is a performance in which music  is the bait by which the audience is drawn – although nowadays it is increasingly the Youtube video. Don’t get me wrong. They do it very well. They are performance artists. This girl I met envisioned herself as the next one-of-those-things. When I think of a musician, I think of those guys who cart around their gear on their backs. I think of the guys who fight for an every-other-week slot at a restaurant on the promise of better tips. They do not prefer to invest in bigger, flashier, louder equipment, but instead focus on themselves, and their abilities to master, manipulate and control their instrument. They search the fretboard, their voice, or the ivory for a technique they cannot presently do, and then push themselves to do it. 

By Eric Wong

Eric is a writer from San Francisco. Being Asian, he was forcibly inducted into classical music and choirs at a young age. So clearly, he knows what he's talking about.

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