Photo by Eric Reed
Photo by Eric Reed

It could be any restaurant, a sports bar, cafe, or diner. (This could be either of these depending on how it’s intended to read, but I’m not sure which: “It could be any restaurant — a sports bar, cafe, or diner” or “It could be any restaurant, sports bar, cafe, or diner.”) A family sits at a high table. The mother leans in to whisper instructions on proper behavior to her 4 year old. Completely removed, the teenagers skirt their thumbs over their smartphones, ignoring the father who describes what he thinks everyone should order. Within earshot, two twenty-something dreamers hold hands in a corner both. They don’t even realize the server has arrived. At the bar, four friends watch a flat screen silently play a Yankees’ game.

The singer/songwriter sits on a stool, tucked back in a corner somewhere or, if they’re lucky, on a small stage used for live entertainment. There’s no smoke, light show, lasers, or dancers, and chances are that not a single patron —- save the wide-eyed friend or significant other sipping water at a table for one — has come for the colors this local musician will let fly from their throat.

Their sound will be unique and heartfelt. This may not be the biggest gig they’ve ever played, but for them, every chance to share their art is something to cherish.

Somehow, the chatter of conversation adds to the atmosphere, enhances the musical experience rather than detracting from it. What is distracting is the inconsistent applause of the diners. After each song, the families, friends, and lovers will allow an awkward pause to fill the room. A handful of them will almost clap. Sometimes, they will follow through on the impulse and, like children anxious for acceptance, others will join in until the room is filled with a hearty and well-earned round of applause. Other times, their hands will start the motion but, quickly giving in to self-consciousness, stop before much sound has been produced. Here, there is a palatable moment where you can feel the artist’s heart drop with the disappearance of potential applause. Here, there is no connection between artist and audience, and the musician is left, as Annie Dillard says, “holding one half of a love.” The feeling will show in their face but, if they’re good, not in their music.

There is a certain kind of courage, a certain sense of amateur professionalism, in reaching out to an audience as if you had their rapt attention when in reality you are the background music to their conversations, their meals, their evening.

Sitting outside a local coffee shop, enjoying a mild morning, a spectacularly talented young songwriter told me, “From a spectator’s standpoint it’s really comforting to be in the presence of a musician. It’s like being in the presence of a holy person, like they’re performing a sacred rite right there in front of you and including you in it. And even though you may not talk to them or know anything about that person, their work becomes part of you.”

And that, perhaps, is the skill, the gift provided by the local singer/songwriter. As they bounce from gig to gig at restaurants and diners where they know the audience has come for the food and each other’s company —- as opposed to their art — they do more than accept their role. They step into it. They make sure that if they are only the background music to conversations about mortgage rates or the NBA draft, they are going to make that music beautiful. One group after another, the diners will leave, conversations carrying out the doors, and if the musician was successful, whether the audience realizes it or not, the conversations that evening will have gone smoother, offered more fulfillment, because of the auditory enhancement provided by a beautiful, professional, amateur musician.

This article originally appeared in The Creative

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