Professional Confessional

I had the great fortune last weekend, of playing with some amazing musicians.  We put on a show of Janis Joplin songs with a few old blues songs.  I’ve performed with most of these players before, and it’s always such an easy time on the stage, really listening to each other and being able to adapt.  Headlining the band was a sweet and lovely lady named Nicole, who also happens to have a monster voice.  No, not cookie monster, though that would be entertaining.  But huge, belting, expressive, knock-out, bring the house down sound.

Cookie McGee

Cookie’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose

We were having a conversation a little later about how talented she is, and after I made a comment about how she could take her act on the road and do quite well, she made the comment “Well, I’m not actually a musician.”  I understood what she was saying.  Music is not the way she makes her living; it’s just something she loves to do.  She didn’t study it for years, she doesn’t practice constantly, and she’s not schooled on music theory.  And just as I was ready to buy into the fact that she wasn’t actually a musician, my friend E.J. who had been listening, interjected.  I forget exactly what he said, but it was something like “Wait a minute.  You sing beautifully, you stay on key and in time, and you have a huge stage presence.  Doesn’t that make you a musician?  Why do you think you’re not a musician?”

He’s right, and I feel ashamed that I was already thinking “well, even though you aren’t a musician, you sound so amazing.”  Granted, she doesn’t make her primary living through music, but is that what makes a musician?  It is an interesting question to ponder: What is the criteria that makes someone a musician?

I’m realizing the answer is much more straightforward than I initially thought.  In fact, what I’m discovering is that the moment you decide you’re a professional musician and put that persona out there, congratulations, you are a professional musician! The merest act of asserting that this is who you are, and backing it up with confidence (blind or not), confers the status of musician upon you.  Of course, you still have to have something to say, or you run the risk of being a mediocre musician, but this first step is the most important one.

As with so many things I talk about here, this principle works in a multitude of ways.  In a recent conversation with a successful musician friend of mine, I brought up that I get anxious introducing myself onstage as “Neon and Shy,” since it’s a bit odder than just saying, “Hi, I’m Dan.”  She told me to claim ownership of that onstage persona and just make it a part of me, confidently and unwaveringly; or in her words, “just get up there and do it.”  Easier said than done, of course, but I found the next time I was on stage, I embraced being a one-person band called Neon and Shy, and it made performing so much more enjoyable.  I received comments afterwards that I seemed much more relaxed and confident up there.

Probably the hardest thing for me in music, is trying to book myself.  This is the “Shy” part of Neon and Shy, and it’s so hard for me to break down the barriers of self-doubt and fear to get myself out there, or introduce myself to a new venue.  As I write this, I’m summoning the courage to contact venues to book my cd release show.  Once again, it’s a large hump to get over, but I know the first step is to take ownership of the situation.  Everything else seems to follow right in line.

Our projected intent is our identity.  We are whatever it is we want to be.  I am a musician.  I am an artist.  I am a songwriter.  I book my shows.  This is what I do, and it’s a part of who I am.

And I don’t care if you don’t read music, never took a lesson, or do music in the farthest fringes of your free time.  The second you decide this is part of your identity, Nicole, you’re a musician too.


4 thoughts on “Professional Confessional

  1. great post. the distinctions we use to define who is and who is not a musician say more about our beliefs about musicianship than the other person’s abilities or knowledge. i truly despise the term “non-musician”–do we call people “non-readers,” or “non-thinkers”? of course not. all persons are musicians, and music theory knowledge is absolutely not a requirement for being a musician, any more than knowing about neurological theories makes one a “thinker,” or knowing the details of Italian literature makes one a “reader.”

    your friend sounds like a wonderful musician, and she is lucky to have as thoughtful and gifted a musical collaborator as you. enjoy your next gig together!

  2. neonandshy says:

    Well said, Mitch! It’s funny (and sad) to notice when I get so immersed in the day-to-day experiences of playing music, often with high-level players, that it’s so easy to fall into that categorization. But it does such a disservice to both the performers who get labeled as “non-musicians,” as well as the longevity of our industry in general. It consequently makes it easy to break music down into an “us versus them” approach, and contributes to the devaluation of music in society (math is for everyone, but music is just for musicians). Thanks for reminding me of that!

    I got excited recently reading this article about some of my fellow Eastman graduates. It speaks to the same issue.

  3. Emily Packard says:

    There’s this assumption in our society that what you ARE is what you are paid to be. I always squirm when people ask me at my day job if I’m a professional musician (usually if I say yes, they’ll ask me if I’m in “the” symphony) Sometimes I get paid to play music and sometimes I don’t get paid. Sometimes I get paid to do things other than play music. I have the utmost respect for people who choose only to do the gigs they truly love. As a “professional” musician, you don’t always have that option.

    • neonandshy says:

      True Emily. I wonder if most people DO define themselves as what they are paid to do (I’m an electrician, I’m an elementary school teacher, etc.). I wonder if it’s in the nature of being a professional musician that most of us draw from many different income sources. Or perhaps it’s a lifestyle that we have chosen separate from being a musician.

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