Do People Really Notice?

Originally posted 8/19/16

Sometimes when I get asked for my advice about music in performance and practice from students and some professional musicians, I point to musical details that at first might seem small and/or insignificant. An interesting question I hear from time to time is this:

“If I pay attention to more details in my playing, even very subtle ones, will anyone notice?”

We all know that a seasoned musician with a trained ear would notice the level of detail in our performance, but what we’re talking about here is essentially the non-musician general public. I understand the subject of a generalized audience to begin with is a bit open-ended–it’s likely to be quite different depending on the individual–but I believe some assumptions can be made about the “average” music listener. More on this later.

This question–“will anyone notice”–is usually arrived at from one of two perspectives. One is of slight laziness and a willingness to cut corners where needed or desired. A sense that good enough is good enough. “Do I really need to do all that? Is it that important?” The other is sort of an extreme musical nihilism in which someone figures, “nobody notices or understands what I’m doing anyway, so what’s the point?” In my humble opinion, both perspectives are self-defeating and prevent many musicians from reaching the next level in their playing.

I was recently preparing someone to sub for me in a band that plays several different styles of music. This particular drummer can play rock and pop very well, but is far less experienced in jazz and swing playing than I am. He can play with a nice basic swing feel, but he just doesn’t know the language quite as well as an experienced jazz drummer typically does. He came over for a few lessons, and we worked through details such as chart reading, brush playing, playing kicks/hits, two feel vs. four feel, and other things. Of course, I gave him some recorded examples to check out. We covered the bases, but as with any other style of music, there is a lot to cover. However, the vast majority of time in swing music (especially for dancing) is spent playing plain ol’ “spang-a-lang” ride cymbal time. So then let’s return to the question some might ask in his position (for the record, he did not–he was eager to soak up as much information as possible):

Whether he just plays basic swing time, or plays with more understanding and depth, will anyone notice?

The answer, of course, is just as complicated. The average listener would tend not to overtly notice small details. However, that doesn’t mean those details (or, likewise, the absence thereof) won’t shape their overall experience of the music. Perhaps more importantly, a more highly-nuanced and deep interpretation might cause someone in the audience to listen a bit more closely.

For a slightly different example, let’s take a look at Picasso’s “Guernica” for a minute.

Personally, I find it to be a breathtaking piece of art. I’d be lying, however, if I told you I knew what exactly makes it great. Beyond having a musician’s affinity for art and having taken a couple of general art history classes in college, I would definitely not claim to have much more than an “average” knowledge of the medium. Experts might tout Picasso’s use of color and shading, and the unique balance of shapes and figures, though maybe not–I’m not entirely sure; I’m just throwing out possibilities. However, I am sure that whenever I look at one of Picasso’s pieces, it draws me in, motivates me to see more of his work, and even study his life and history a bit more.

Are people who listen to music deserving of any less than our best effort, just because they might not know the language as well as musicians do? When we play music, we’re communicating; trying to pull our audience in. A performance always begins with barriers between performer and audience, and it’s our job to knock them down and invite people on this journey with us. On the other hand, apathy (from either performer or audience) breeds apathy and creates a vicious cycle until neither audience nor performer could care any less–and, of course, the venue owner predictably decides to stop investing in live music altogether.

Recently, I was on a gig with my rock/pop band at a club, and a waitress came over to a few of us on a break and said this: “You guys are awesome. We had a band in here last week, and they were terrible. We [the waitstaff] were all getting angry and snapping at each other and we couldn’t figure out why. After they finished playing, we realized the music was so awful that it had been putting us all into a bad mood. Today we all feel like dancing!”

So, when you bring a high level of musicianship to a performance, do people notice? The fundamental point isn’t for them to notice, but to feel something. If someone walks away feeling different somehow, you’ve done your job. The problem with this is that it’s entirely possible in many cases that you will never know the effect you had. It’s possible they won’t even know. In a world where live music is too often relegated to a sideshow or shoved in a cramped corner of a restaurant, it can be difficult to feel appreciated sometimes. That’s no reason the music itself should suffer a similar fate.

An excellent example of this idea is the 2007 experiment in which the world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell was brought to a busy Washington D.C. subway station to perform undercover, as a “street musician” to see if anyone would notice. Did they? Not at all. And, absolutely yes. To quote one passerby, “whatever it was, it made me feel at peace.”

Washington Post Story

Also, for a clearer picture of what is meant by bringing “more details, depth and nuance” to ones playing, check out this post: Less Is More….or is it? The sophistication of simplicity

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