Playing, Performing, Entertaining

Terry Stibal penned this in 2011 in the Woodwind Forum. He has now passed on, but his writings live on.

StageLeftThis is a pet peeve of mine. I know a lot of folks who can do the first, significantly fewer who can do the second, and almost geometrically fewer who can achieve the third.

We all can play, at least to some degree, or we wouldn’t be here in the first place. Mastery of the instrument, of reading music, and of functioning in a group constitute playing. It takes years, not a little practice, and some attention to mechanical issues along the way, but we’re all players.

In a pinch, I can get by with a player to cover a part. They may be a little inflexible at first, but given a bit of time and a couple of rehearsals of the charts, they’ll manage just fine.

Here, we’ve moved up a notch on the spectrum. Playing is part of performing, but only just a part. A “performer” has to be able to fit it all together, to change things on the fly if needed, to adapt to situations that are out of a player’s ‘comfort zone’. It means singing out on band vocals, being able to pick up the loose ends in a hurry if a vocalist skips a verse, and being able to work through an unfamiliar tune that someone requests without warning.

I have had some players who never move up to this point. They’re the ones who just sit there after a tune is finished (instead of making it a priority to get the next tune up and ready), or who don’t bother to master the ins and outs of a difficult chart. A lot of what’s needed here is preparation – for example, a good vocalist “fills in” their knowledge on what is being performed, and can spout patter on their next tune to cover if there’s a problem in the trombone section (where they always seem to occur).

Here’s where things get transcendental. With a lot of effort, we become players. With a little more and some organization, we can attain the performer moniker. But, it takes a special person to become an ‘entertainer’.

BonesThe ones that fall into this category are usually vocalists. Occasionally, you will find a sideman who has that special “something”. It may be that he or she is not just “my funny buddy” but instead someone who knows how to be funny with a group of strangers. Or, they may be able to make the transition from engaging the audience vocally to engaging them with a horn.

But, anyone who can make this last leap is usually better off as a vocalist. For, no matter how good the notes are coming out of a horn, people usually relate better to someone who is communicating with them on their level. I know that vocalists are pretty far removed from blowing a horn, but vocalists are what the general public relate to when the concept of music is broached. They may not be able to play a note, but they can all sing (sort of).

I’ve known performers who are mediocre players when they are at their very best, but who can lock in the audience’s attention, just from the way they move their eyes. It’s a gift, one that I don’t pretend to have as a musician.

(I can, however, handle a speaking assignment with the best of them. I did this during my day job for just over forty years, and it allows me to communicate with large numbers of people. Just don’t ask me to sing anything other than Love Shack…)

I’m interested in hearing the thoughts of others on this. What experiences have you had in dealing with players, performers and entertainers?

About Gandalfe

Just an itinerant saxophonist trying to find life between the changes. I have retired from the Corps of Engineers and Microsoft. I am an admin on the Woodwind Forum, run the Seattle Solid GOLD Big Band (formerly the Microsoft Jumpin' Jive Orchestra) a GOLD sax quartet, and enjoy time with family and friends.
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