The other evening, I stumbled into a local establishment where there was live music going on. Soon, up to the stage stepped an older man with his saxophone. He was well dressed. As he started to play, he swayed to the beat and obvious joy lit up his face. You could tell he was really into it by the way he moved. He’d obviously been playing sax a long time. His was playing some fairly difficult stuff.
I was interested to hear how the crowd responded. They clapped about as loudly as they had for the previous act. And I was surprised.
He really sucked
He was slightly out of tune with the music (to me, that’s like fingernails on a blackboard) and what he was playing didn’t go with the music at all. He was playing musical scales, but those scales weren’t closely related to the music. It was to me, the definition of bad music. It was painful to listen to. But to a lot of people, if you look the part, they think it must sound ok.
And who am I to judge? Well, I’m a record producer and recording engineer, that’s who. But music is subjective. And it’s not.
Flaws, talent and skill
If you are a basketball player and have a serious flaw in your game, unless you are extremely talented otherwise, you won’t play in the big leagues. You succeed or fail largely on your abilities.
Music is that way too — but less so. If you’re a musician and go on American Idol or The Voice or interact with any serious music professional you’ll probably find out what your flaws are pretty quickly. But personality, stage presence, networking ability and a host of other factors not directly related to playing music are also larger factors.
But, in general, there’s a baseline level of musical ability that’s needed. You have to turn whatever talent you have into skill. And sitting at home, playing sax in front of the mirror, this guy didn’t get a big piece of it. He’d mastered some advanced stuff but not the basics — staying in tune and playing something related to the rest of the music. He probably either never stopped to get a pro’s opinion or ignored what he heard. Or maybe he didn’t care.
Maybe he was doing it for fun
And in spite of the fact that almost everybody you see on TV or in the movies has met that basic level of musical ability and gone beyond, it’s not easy for everyone. For me, some things are pretty easy and some aren’t.
Sometimes I talk to people about struggles I’m having with something musical. Maybe I’m having trouble getting a vocal part to sound the way I want it to sound. Maybe I’m struggling with a technical guitar line or wrestling with the limitations of my recording setup. They almost always tell me they don’t hear the problem and that it sounds good. They think I’m looking for reassurance.
I’m a frickin’ record producer. I know what sounds good and what doesn’t — most of the time. It’s actually really hard to have perspective on your own songs sometimes. But as far as musical performances go, I know when it’s good and when it’s not. When I complain, I’m just complaining about my day at work.
Music (for me) is an art form that constantly confronts me with my limitations. I’m always pushing to be better and always at the limit of what I can do at the moment. Sometimes I’m happy with the way it turns out but I’m only momentarily satisfied with my progress. That’s the way it works. That’s both what sucks about it and what’s great.
And there are so many frontiers; singing, playing guitar, arranging, songwriting, engineering, producing, mixing. And that list, any of which can take a lifetime to master, doesn’t include live performance or marketing. And I admire anyone who takes up the challenge. Even if they miss something basic. Even if they suck.
So, sax playing septuagenarian — I Salute You! You worked on your instrument. You got up on stage. You looked good, you had good stage presence and you played your heart out.