Andalucia Steve the dream

On Playing Music

What's it really like to be a musician


I thought I'd jot down a few thoughts on being a musician.
We're a breed apart. I'm not saying people who don't play music are weirdly different such that we can't mix, socialise, marry, procreate or whatever but there is in some way a barrier that the two can never cross. It is a bit like being in one of those American movies where the visitor and the criminal can only talk over the phone though a glass screen. I had a girlfriend years back who was charming in every way but for her tin-ear. Music had no meaning for her so we never really hit it off.
So to the non-musicians out there, what is it like to be a musician, why do we do it? What is the point in an age where live-bands can be undercut by DJs? Well it's a blessing and a curse. I hope to answer a few of these questions here today.
Music was born out of curiosity for me. Dad plonked me in front of a piano when I was four and had me picking tunes out but I had no great interest at that time and the business of playing Three Blind Mice seemed unchallenging and a bit pointless. I had recorder lessons at school to learn how to read the dots, but again this exercise seemed worthless for the same reason. Who wants to play Three Blind Mice on recorder? It wasn't until I got a little older and heard Jimi Hendrix play guitar that I thought 'wow, how did he do that', that I dug out an old Neapolitan mandolin, family heirloom that had been languishing unloved in the cupboard under the stairs, and started to pick out Purple Haze and Voodoo Chile (Slight return). From then on I was hooked.
Mandolin was a gateway drug to guitar. Soon after I managed to save enough cash to buy a Spanish Classical guitar and started learning properly. I couldn't afford tuition but a school friend lent me some sheet music and was gracious with his time to show me the basics of technique, so I was soon on my way. 
That friend of mine was called Graham, and his other role in this story was that he setup for me what would turn out to be a lifetime dilemma. He had been taking lessons and at about aged 14 he volunteered to do a concert in the school hall. What you have to know about Graham is that he was a very shy, quiet dude who wouldn't say boo to a goose. He was ginger, not Auburn but bright orange like a Belisha Beacon which became his nickname. I'd stepped in to stop him getting beaten up on more than one occasion as he was the sort of chap who got picked on a lot. But here he was, bold as brass in front of the whole school giving a recital of Sor and Tárrega. I was gob-smacked. Not only was I in awe of my friend's confidence but I knew that as an introvert myself, performing in front of a large number of people is about the last thing in the world I would want to do. My dilemma then was what goals to have as a musician if being in the spotlight wasn't one of them. This is something I wrestle with to the present day.
The thing is though, once you get the bug, playing music is a class-A drug. I love the physical production of sound, the fretting of a note. I love the action of changing its  pitch by bending and vibrating it. I relish the challenge of playing a new melody I just heard for the first time, picking up my guitar and figuring it out. When one starts to make combinations of sounds a whole new world opens up in which every note takes on a new life dancing with its partners in time which for musicians is a never-ending puzzle of mathematics and emotion that is somehow of capable of describing the greatest wonders of the universe to the human mind through the ears. As Mozart marvelled "If only the whole world could feel the power of harmony."
Somehow then I get endless entertainment from playing. There are downsides though. Practising is a necessary evil, especially with stringed instruments where it is necessary to maintain a certain degree of hard-skin and muscle memory. This can seriously piss-off any significant other who come to see your guitar as 'the other woman'. Gear envy is another big problem. There are so many instruments I'd love to buy if I had the money. As a non-musician you might look at all guitars as being pretty much the same, but when you're an enthusiast the nuance in sound between two instruments appears as a roaring chasm with green grass on the other side, a journey that someday somehow has to be made. I have a wish list on an online music shop that has been building up for years and it struck me recently that even if I could afford everything on the list I'd need a warehouse to store it all as my house would be far too small!
I was in several bands when I was a kid from about aged 14 and I had a love/hate relationship with performing. It paid money which was good. My first decent guitar came from gigging before I'd ever worked a proper day job. However I always felt uncomfortable on stage and hated being in the spotlight, i.e. when I was called upon to do a solo or something. However for some reason I kept on doing it, as though there was a greater purpose I was unaware of that needed to be pursued. 
Up until I moved to Spain in 2003 I'd always been a sideman, a musician in a band where someone else was the centre of attention, so I was generally fortunate not to have to be exposed to the spotlight too much. In Spain however I found myself in a situation with no fellow musicians to fall back on. I felt the calling to move forward and perform but I had no band, no friends to even jam or practice with. So out of necessity, I taught myself to sing and worked out a repertoire of songs to sing solo in a reasonable fashion. It took a while. A friend of mine who was a musical examiner gave me some vocal coaching lessons which was mainly about breathing and off I went. I did some local gigs and some busking and forced myself to become a solo performer. I can't emphasise enough how alien that idea would have been to me only a few years earlier, but for some reason I found the music driving me rather than the other way around.
Ten years ago there were a few domestic changes in my life and I found myself living in another part of Spain.  I immediately found there were more musicians here and struck up several friendships which I still cherish.  I soon began jamming with my partner-in-crime Nigel 'bad boy' Tucker and we gig together to this day. It works because Nigel enjoys the spotlight much more than I do. Initially we just played with two acoustic guitars. then I switched to acoustic bass, but this wasn't really loud enough, so we upgraded to electric bass, which in turn demanded a drum machine. As our music advanced though, I found myself increasingly drawn towards the production side. Then I figured out how to hack the drum machine so I could add other backing sounds like horns and organs until now we're a bit like a full band albeit with only two players.
Now I feel like all my Christmases have come at once. I get to perform without being the limelight, yet I'm getting all the satisfaction of arranging and producing all the music we play. My role is something of the unseen hand but it fulfils my original curious interest in music which is enjoying the endless fascination of how this stuff works. We don't do it for the money. A famous meme circulating online describes a musician as someone who puts $5000 worth of gear in a $500 car to drive 50 miles to a $50 gig. Well believe me, in this part of Spain, $50 gigs are few and far between, but as you can see for the reasons above, it's still very much worth it!