When Play is Work

Last Sunday, I was sitting in an echoey room that was at times the lobby of a posh rental hall, but that night was the field headquarters of a mobile catering crew. The idle chatter of my bandmates swirled around my head without penetrating my field of awareness, as my sleep-deprived mind surrendered to a moment of spontaneous introspection. What the hell am I doing here? I wondered.

After a summer full of shows, the venues had begun to blur into one big gig. Over the last few weeks, I sometimes found myself forgetting where I was. Imagine how much more an actual touring schedule affects musicians on the road! They not only have the constant travel, but they have near-total separation from home, which certainly can be disorienting.

Back home there were a wife and two children who had gone to sleep without a goodnight from Dad. I was facing a three hour drive back after the show, and work in the morning. I was being paid enough to consider the job cost-effective, but for that moment in the reception hall something felt vaguely wrong.

The day was stressful to that point. There were technical difficulties, errors in logistics, and a couple of performance blunders. The bride had expressed disappointment — bad news for performers in the wedding business, which makes or breaks you through word-of-mouth.

I’m struggling to gain momentum with the new music project that I’m trying to launch. I reflected on the irony that my attempts to produce something musically meaningful are proving fruitless, yet I can find regular work churning out wedding music.

Still, I turned my attitude around with a few thoughts, which I would like to pass on to the other working musicians that might be reading:

The first thing that I realized was that my internal monologue froze on the word “play,” as in, “I play music.” What does that even mean? This isn’t play, it’s work. I don’t play when I practice at home; I take my craft very seriously. But wait, why should I? If you were to ask me why I work so hard at practicing and performing, my instinctive response would be, “because I enjoy it,” right? When did I stop enjoying it? I guess I never did. So stop acting like you don’t enjoy it, I reminded myself. No matter what level you’re at as an artist, they still call it “playing.” And for good reason.

Then I thought about the money. Sure, there is the well-worn adage that you’re lucky to be paid to do something you enjoy; but I took this line of thinking one level deeper. These people paid a lot of money for me and the others around me to make their night special. This band is just part of a larger package, one including a ceremony, decorations, photos, video, hotel rooms, buses, and so much more. Every component of this day contributes to some of the sweetest memories this couple and their families will hold. So even if I stop enjoying what I do, I should take pleasure in knowing someone else enjoys what I do.

Then, I remembered this guy:



Just recalling this performance brought a smile to my face. And I remembered that one of the biggest lessons I have been learning — and never quite yet mastered — was to let go of my stress regarding all the things surrounding the music, and just get into the music. Just do it and love it. And stop feeling shitty about it.

Take a note from the blues. When guys sing the blues, they are talking about real problems, problems you and I generally don’t have — being kicked out of one’s home, being chased by the law, killing someone out of jealousy. The character in a blues song is turning tragedy into revelry. These songs are the pearls formed by intense irritation. If we fail to take pleasure in having opportunities to express meaning through song, then we miss the point of singing.

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