What an Amateur!

“Damn good… for a king”: Rhama IX of Thailand is an accomplished saxophonist (Benny Goodman was a bit of an amateur at the king thing).

Recently had a chat with a singer acquaintance to arrange an upcoming thing, which had to be cut short because… she had to go and serve someone who’d just come into the shop.

I should add that she’s one of the finest singers I know and works the best gigs in town. But she feels she needs to keep it secret that she does a couple of afternoons working in a shop every now and then, because she fears people won’t take her seriously as a musician if it gets out.

Crazy huh? But it sadly seems to be true that musicians and punters alike just assume you’re not serious or not very good the moment they find out that you don’t live and breathe music. And heaven forbid you’re interested in or [FX STING] actually good at something else too…

Let’s put this one to bed, shall we. Borodin was a chemist; Ives sold insurance; had he lived a little longer, Elgar would probably have worked at Bletchley Park. Ruben Blades is a lawyer and former government minister, and Paderewski ran a country. As does the King of Thailand…

Closer to home, Art Themen is one of the best post-bop saxists in London – and also a renowned orthopaedic consultant. Dan Reinstein (also sax) is a leading ophthalmic surgeon. Oscar Peterson was admired as a photographer, David Bowie was exhibited as a respected visual artist and Anthony Hopkins has not only written and orchestrated, but conducted a film score. I know a really good trumpeter who works for a hedge fund (he seems to be making a better living with his trumpet these days).

In fact, as far back as you care to go, you’ll find that musicians have always been people with a wide range of interests and talents (generally, but certainly not exclusively to do with “the humanities”).

I’d go so far as to suggest the whole notion of being a “professional” is rather ridiculous anyway. In fact, it’s a relatively recent historical phenomenon.

Obviously you wouldn’t want an eager have-a-go merchant doing your triple bypass using the contents of the cutlery drawer, some twine and a car battery, but generally speaking it’s rather silly to assume that people can only be good at one thing.

Why should we be surprised if someone comes round to fix the boiler and then sits down and knocks out some really good Chopin while you’re making the perfunctory cup of tea? “Six sugars please luv, and do you mind if I do a Nocturne on your lovely joanna?” “Well, as long as you wipe your feet.”

It’s sadly still worth maintaining the pretence that your every waking moment is music and your life is a whirl of glittering stages and recording studios. But be aware also that pigeonholes are a mental convenience for those with limited imagination. Not a very jazz attitude, really…

PS I related the following experience to the singer to cheer her up a bit. I once got gushed at during a break and asked all about myself. I mentioned that I was also a financial journalist – and the light instantly went out behind the guy’s eyes. In a second, I had been recategorised from “cool musician” to “boring suit”.

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4 comments on “What an Amateur!
  1. Adam Cole says:

    Right, and maybe the real message isn’t to the audience. It’s to the musicians: it’s not that we should be good at one thing. It’s that audiences in general can only handle one identity at a time. When I got my root canal, I wanted my endodontist to be the most boring person on the earth, because that reassured me that she was fascinated with doing a great job on my teeth. While I respect your reassurances to musicians, realistically I think we do need to be wary of how we promote ourselves, since illusion, sadly, is more than half the music for some people.

    • Jason says:

      It’s interesting, isn’t it – the whole pro-am debate.
      Of course, I’m not saying people should go around claiming they can build you an extension because they’ve put up some shelves. There are a lot of charlatans about – and a fair few in the music biz.
      But in general, I think it’s silly that somehow society only allows people to have one specialism.
      Incidentally, or rather dentally, the woman who did my root canal is not only passionate about teeth but a really top-class salsa mover and a font of knowledge on tropical fish.

  2. vishalicious says:

    All of the local musicians that I know have day jobs. That doesn’t stop them from being proficient on their instruments, and its cool to know that they’re more well-rounded human beings. I think that if you can make your living making music, that’s fantastic, but there’s no reason that we shouldn’t have more interests, and – especially in this economy – more than one job if we need to pay a mortgage and raise a family (or really, just carve out a life for ourselves).

    No one told James Hetfield that he’s a failure for becoming an astrophysicist (although I was surprised when he became one). Adam Darski from Behemoth is a qualified museum curator and owns a chain of barbershops. Eric B (partner of Rakim in the 80s & 90s) is a multi-millionare who owns dozens of restaurants in the US. One of the guys from Pantera owns and runs several bars. These people are successful in life AND successful in music. They’re complimentary parts of who they are. My friend Jazmine Shadrack is a PhD and teaches over by you, in England. She’s also the guitarist/vocalist for an avant-garde black metal band called Denigrata.

    If people have problems with musicians having other vocations, then that’s their problem, but it can somewhat be addressed by more musicians coming forward and sharing their other jobs. It might even provide some networking, in either direction. Maybe someone at a show is looking for a broker, contractor, programmer, or whatever. How cool could it be to have a musician that they admire be that person? And vice versa – how awesome is it to speak with a client and find out that you have similar musical interests, either in style or instrument or some other aspect.

    When I speak with clients, I do sometimes slip in that I’m learning bass at my snail’s pace, and I’ve made some friends by doing that. Of course, I’m not a gigging musician, and probably won’t be for another decade, but all of our interests are potential connection points with other people.

    • Jason says:

      Hi Vish,

      I’ll stick my neck out and say that quite a few people I meet who only do music seem to have studied the art of story-telling in fine detail but don’t really have many interesting stories to tell.

      To quote Pantera: you can’t be something you’re not.

      And forget the “I’m getting there” stuff – every single one of us is always “getting there” (in fact, “there” is the ever-receding horizon for everyone). Go out and do some gigs, man. Enjoy it, have good gigs, have bad gigs. Get some dirt under your fingernails, get on your bike, fall off it a few times and get back on. Learn by doing.

      Nobody was ever born ready and everybody learns on the job – whatever the job. If you wait til you feel you’re “ready”, you’ll never start.

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