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What Is A Musician?


YEARS AGO I asked a couple of musicians with good reputations to record four or five tunes I had hoped would appear on an album. We were acquaintances and colleagues but they insisted I pay them for the session. It ran a few minutes longer than I had expected because they took long and frequent breaks. Before they left they also boorishly demanded I pay for their unnecessary “overtime”. The final injury was the unpleasant mediocrity of their performance; the recording was unsuitable for anything.

I was inexperienced, they took advantage of me, and I learned a valuable lesson. But that is not the point of the story.

A couple of years later my wife and I were talking about that session and she asked a surprising question about those two guys: “Why do you call them professional musicians?”

My answer was probably about the same as yours would be: “Because they have studied music, they are competent on their instruments, they have a lot of experience, and they earn a living from playing.”

Now for the point of the story:

My wife (who is very astute and has unerringly good taste) said, “But they aren’t professional because what they play never sounds musical. Nothing they play sounds good.”

Think about that.

If a musician is competent on his instrument but what he plays never arouses a positive emotional response, is it truly “music”? And if somebody purports to be a professional musician, should he, by definition, create sounds pleasurable to listen to? I refer to substance rather than style.

Many people seem to confuse reputations and style with real substance. Some rationalize and compromise in order to “fit in” or to “be nice” or merely to justify an opinion. And, over time, enough of that nonsense may corrupt a general perception, ultimately even corrupt an entire concept.

I spent a lot of time thinking about my wife’s statement. I think she’s right. If the notes are displeasing, the player is not a musician. He simply plays an instrument.

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