Tonight, I’m doing a solo gig for a local foundation – a couple of hours of background music at a restaurant a few towns down the road. It’s been a while since I did this type of gig. I think the last time was when I was doing senior centers prior to the pandemic. So, it’s been years!
Over the last few days, I’ve been reacquainting myself with some old songs and some of my own so that I have a set list of songs that will fit the occasion and, most importantly, that I will enjoy playing and singing. It’s this last point that I want to focus on today.
But a little history, first…
Over the course of my musical career, I’ve had a split focus (as is appropriate) on writing and performing music that served the clients (children or adults) and, to a lesser degree, served me. In children’s music, I’ve always felt that educating them was Job #1, so the material we chose was always based on that intention. While I have always enjoyed most of the songs we play for schools, camps and libraries, my greatest joy comes from playing the ones we composed. But I always remember Job #1.
For adults, it’s been more of a mixed bag and I’ve had conflicting feelings and thoughts about what I chose to play. In my youth (15-25) I leaned hard into cover songs from the 60s and 70s and played at bars and restaurants. This canon of singer-songwriter material, composed by my idols, was the music that I loved to listen to and play for many years. I will forever be grateful to these musicians for pointing me toward great tunes that sharpened my skills as a performer and writer.
As I became more in tune with my own muse, my desire to play Scott’s songs increased and my interest in playing covers correspondingly decreased. I still played the old tunes at Hootenannies and the occasional gig, but I had begun to feel the conflict more deeply. I suppose it’s the same for artists who are asked to “play the hits” when a part of them wants to stretch and play their new songs. It’s a conundrum that musical artists face with a mixture of frustration and, eventually, acceptance. The majority of audiences come to hear the hits and they’re paying money and traveling to see the artist. In the case of a Hoot, people like to sing the songs that they know. It’s a nostalgic, enjoyable time and I’m glad to be a part of it (most of the time).
And now to the present…
Recently, I’ve returned to therapy and I’m really benefiting from the decision. All of the thoughts and feelings that swirl around in my head are now in a shared space with Baila, my therapist, who has been with our family for the last seven years. Yesterday, we started talking about my music and I’m so glad to be sifting through this process with a guide.
Speaking of guides, Baila suggested that I consider using Pete Seeger as a mentor. I wasn’t sure about this until I started reading about Seeger’s life and the way he approached music, the music business, advocacy, celebrity, mentorship and living a meaningful life. Without going into too much detail, Pete created a path that I can follow, one that takes into account the needs of the artist, the man and the audience. I’ll touch on each briefly.
An artist is someone who creates because he is called to do so. While he may have some desires for fame, money or greatness, his primary motivation (I think) is to use music to express thoughts and feelings, to share them and to get better as a creator.
A man is someone who wants to have some sort of impact during his lifetime. He wants his work to matter. In Pete’s case, he was a tireless advocate for unions and racial equality and other causes. He mentored many younger musicians and he reacquainted us with folk music and singing as a community. For me, it’s been about educating children about how to be a good person, loving one another and, like Pete, building connections through the act of singing, dancing and having a good laugh.
The audience we want to cultivate are people who mostly agree with us or who are willing to see if we’re their cup of tea. Whether we’re a heavy metal band, a pop diva or a singer-songwriter, we’re attracting like-minded folks who like what we like! In the best of cases, our hearts sync up and we go on a journey together – in one concert or throughout a career. That’s one of the perks of being a kids’ musician. We’ve got fans who have known and loved us for one day or remember us well into their adulthood. Heck, I’m sure some of the kids we play for are the children of the first kids we entertained. That’s pretty cool and it moves me (emotionally) to think about the effect we’ve had on people. Wow.
What Pete always had trouble with and what I share, too, is our culture’s desire to put people on a pedestal. Pete HATED being a celebrity. He eschewed the spotlight and turned it back on the audience as often as possible. Throughout his life, Pete had to deal with people treating him like a god when all he wanted was to be a good man. In our society, artists grow up thinking that celebrity and money are the rewards of success in the arts. Sadly, very few people make it that far and this can leave us with a feeling of inadequacy, incompleteness and, at worst, a belief that we have failed. The trick, then, is to figure out how to dump those societal, adolescent fantasies and develop a more mature relationship with our art, our intentions and our audience.
And THAT is the subject matter of my work, now. It’s a return to the fun of playing and singing, to plug into the beauty of the music, to understand the importance of connection and to forget about my egoic “want” to be admired. It’s about (as Pete said) picking a place to live and digging into the needs of the community, using music as a vehicle for entertainment (sure) but acknowledging that some of us are called to use it to advocate for change. It’s about shucking the desire to be as good as our idols and instead, to be brave enough to be fully ourselves.
The Adventure continues tonight with a small but significant gig, a chance to strum some chords and sing a bunch of songs I like and some I love. My intention is to be present. My hope is to be alive and to breathe a little joy into the room. And my prayer is to be like Pete Seeger who just wanted to be Pete. So, tonight, I’ll try to just be Scott.