The Back Story
Back in the lost mists of time, I was a young lad at West Liberty State, my music education professors would always end up starting sentences the same way: (best to pinch your nose and read aloud for a true sarcastic effect, my gentle readers)
"When you are professionals, ladies and gentlemen... Or "As professionals, ladies and gentlemen..." It was like they had all memorized the same trite intros to lectures all designed to teach young men and women how to survive the horrors of the public school system. Preach as much education theory at me as you want, these perilous pits were not for me. Call me pretentious, but an artist's perspective is what I possess. Not a great artist, but an artist nonetheless. I just couldn't see then the value of teaching when I couldn't play very well.
Nay to the horrors of being a band director and neither for the elementary school teacher. Being an auslander, that is, I never played a band instrument, so trotting about a football field in a hideous uniform was not something I had done, nor wanted. I was there to learn about the noble guitar-the chasm between band/elementary music and the works of Bach and Villa-Lobos was too wide. Music theory, ear training, history? OK. Music education? Part of the deal. My parents always said, "You can always fall back on teaching." Good advice, but I wanted only to be a good musician and to be a "professional."
Now that twenty-two years have passed since I went from amateur to pro, reflections upon these events came into focus recently as the Dynamic Duo were called out for a wedding. So rare, it was a pleasure to play again.
Hang Out Yer Shingle
[Doesn't Vanna White look lovely?]
Professional, in its most limited meaning, means that you get paid for playing. It also means you smile graciously when things go wrong. When awkward things are said, the social graces kick in. You keep playing, despite a million distractions. And when the inevitable mistakes are made, recovery is quick and smooth (hopefully).
And toughest of all: to bite your tongue, to acquiesce completely to the wishes (and personality) of the client-however idiotic or snobbish. Case in Point:
Regardless of your day job, your education, your circle of friends, when you roll onto the private estate of Dame Matriarch, you are now shite. I have lost count of how many times I have watched a wealthy Mother of the Bride bully everyone from the caterer, the florist and musicians like she was Commander Lord God Bufoo of the World. Sir Patriarchs can be bad with their faux nonchalance about the apparent display of wealth: "Yeah...this is mine alright." But the men usually let the woman commando the wedding party while they sip a little single malt. I'm sure it helps.
Weddings are a necessary evil to me. Not that I dislike them per se, it's just that they are not really about artistry, but commerce. An easier commerce than other gigs. It's a Hassle versus Pay ratio the way I see it. The hassle of a nightclub or reception gig is thrice the hassle of a wedding ceremony. Though we play classical music, my chosen field, it is rare that one can fully enjoy the music because of so many distractions. How do we reconcile all this?
'Cause the dreams ain't broken down here now, they're walking with a limp
Some of my musician friends play in commercial ensembles. If they want to do that (or need to), then more power to them. It simply is not for me. Maybe that's a luxurious point of view, but isn't that what the day job is for?
I once got a call back in the 80's from some local musician who asked, "Do you want to play in a Top 40 band?"
Without a beat. "Nope." I didn't even ask who it was or what the band was.
A little irritated and with disbelief, he countered "So, you don't do that?"
Many, many fine musicians play in these ensembles, this is not to diss their abilities, but I can't see my way into that. Nope.
I may have lunch with Satan, but I am not about to join the family. I cannot fathom stomaching that awful music for the masses every night and having to fake enthusiasm. A band can easily take over everything in your life and that would be a monstrous transformation.
Being a pro doesn't mean being pukey about it. You can get all sorts of people to play your wedding. Get a vibe? Patrick has a big ole playlist. (Him and Johnny Winter's third cousin twice removed groove out in Eugene.)
In other words, there are folks who get really serious about this stuff. I will never leave a mark in the pages of music history, but certainly this seems to be a route which says to me: I cash in all my dreams to be a mercenary, to have no freedom, to have no creative life in music. Even for the money, how could anyone possibly find this a satisfying musical life? All that said, I am a hypocrite, but my hypocrisy only goes so far.
The Second Marriage
Back to the gig:
This lady who called me about the gig was so easy to work with. She said the magic words: second marriage. There are rarely Bridezillas in the second marriage category. They have already made at least two families and countless friends miserable the first time around and realizing that it was too much work, decide upon the simplest of ceremonies. I like those. Hassle Factor again.
The funniest thing about this was her musical choice for an old and moldy tune from the 70's called The Wedding Song. (When asking a person about what they want for music, you suddenly realize that years of doing nuptial events has paid more dividends than money. You steer them towards what you already do. Most of them have no clue and what we do is your basic meat and potatoes production. We already do...X. Here's why X will work. Hassle Factor.) She wanted it sung. I said, "Oh yes. No problem."
I told my partner what I had committed us to. At first she laughed. We had "history" with this cheesy nuptial favorite. When I first met her, it was at a wedding. No one had told me that this song was part of the service. Since she had her part memorized, could I play the chords? I agreed. I knew the key and so the rest would follow, right? Wrong! It was a train wreck. To this day, she ribs me about that terrible first impression. So much so, that that piece stays permanently in my guitar case (along with Almost Heaven-another high point of my career.). That will not be repeated.
"Ugh. Singing? I haven't sung for a while." My partner said this repeatedly.
Resistance? Yep. It ended up that I had to sing this at the wedding. (You see, singing this loungey tomato is real hypocrisy.) I didn't mind at all and surprisingly, I wasn't nervous.
Wedding Rule: Something Will Go Wrong (and Does)
We were scheduled to play for about 55 minutes and then do the Wedding Song as a cue to start. An hour had passed before someone informed us that (and I love this) "there would a bit of a delay." Saying there will be a BIT of a delay is like a speaker saying that his or her opening remarks will be brief. You might as well groan out loud because you are gonna be there much longer than you want to be. And so it was for us.
The guests were getting restless. Some began to munch on hors d'oeuvres. One kid ran around the room so fast that we thought for sure he was going to crash into the music stand. Parents, anyone? The bride, who had been a center of calm, now thought that maybe the music could allay the situation.
"Can you liven things up a bit?"
When she left, we gave each other that look that can only come between two seasoned wedding musicians. Liven up? This ain't no party reggae band. Flute and guitar, remember?
Meanwhile, the hyperactive boy kept running around the room. Eyes on the music were diverted to make sure the smash-up wasn't going to include our instruments. Keep playing, keep playing, kid running around the room.
Caterers, Musicians and Preachers
All are equal at the second wedding. No difference. Between songs, the minister started to take us into his confidence. He'd give us an update on the really, really delayed family who were coping with slow traffic on the interstate.
Let's Get This Banana Lit, OK?
Suddenly, as it always is in the true wedding spirit of hurry-up-and-wait, suddenly, game was on. The Wedding Song was sung, vows were exchanged and one goof: the unity candle was knocked over. Thunk! came the sound from behind the minister. We knew that something went wrong. At the Second Wedding, recovery is quick. No problemo. We're hitched, baby! That's all that mattered.
The wrapup was quick and soon we were heading off the hill. My hands throbbing a bit from playing near an hour and a half without much break. A light rain made things a little hazy, but the day felt good.
Li-Li and I were back on the scene, clients were happy and the curse of the Wedding Song was lifted. I wondered what my old professors would think of me now: jaded, a little bit too complacent, yet still doing weddings. Yep. I am a pro. I'll do your wedding and do a great job regardless of the thousand distractions and misfires that nuptial events are heir to.
We are the professionals, ladies and gentlemen.