The Dubious Joys of Enhanced Muzak

Performing music to a live audience is an interesting experience. Sometimes you’re playing a concert or  some other sort of show where the crowd is focused on you — you are what they’ve paid to see. Sometimes you’re a part of some larger experience (like a musical theatre production). Sometimes you’re playing a party or a bar gig where you’re supposed to entertain the crowd and sell beer at the same time. Sometimes you’re the accompaniment for a special event — a worship service, a wedding, a funeral, a formal fundraising dinner. Sometimes, especially when playing in the background at a restaurant or event/party, you’re playing what I like to call Enhanced Muzak — it’s your job to provide pleasant, vaguely familiar music that soothes while not drawing undue attention to itself.

There is nothing innately superior about one sort of performance or another. The thing that links them all together (for me, anyway) is that each sort of performance requires the careful management of a set of relationships (performers with each other, performers with audience, audience with each other) in order to be successful. Musical performance is a fundamentally social activity. While one can make music alone (and I often do, and find it quite pleasant), there is a special magic about playing with and for and among other people that the isolated experience of lone music-making just can’t quite capture.
This “magic” (whatever it is) does seem to be found more readily in some performances than others. From the performer’s point of view, for example, a show in which a group of performers are really relating well to each other and to the audience is far superior to the usual experience of Enhanced Muzak, which may include little to no real recognition of or interaction with the performers on the part of the audience. For the purpose of providing Enhanced Muzak to an audience who want music but not necessarily interaction with it, the musicians should be heard but otherwise unnoticed.
All of which is a windy way to set up this fact: I got paid to play a solo gig that is sometimes Enhanced Muzak (with occasional potential for magic). I felt…well, weirdly naked playing the gig solo. Without another musician or two to cushion the chaos, I had to try to play my tunes and connect directly to the audience without disrupting the meal. It was very, very strange.
I learned a few lessons from the experience:
1) I learned how to set up my own (very nearly inadequate, but passable) sound system for the first time, and I think the balance wasn’t bad. I got drowned out on the low end, especially once the crowd got bigger and louder, but the instruments and the voice seemed to sit pretty well. I could hear myself, I didn’t feel the need to shout into the mic (so my voice held up all night), and the guitar was mostly feedback-free (give or take one awkward moment). The biggest problem was that I really just couldn’t turn the amp up much past a certain point, so when the bar got really noisy, there just wasn’t anything to be done but play/sing a lot louder. If I end up doing this regularly, I’m going to need to invest in a better sound arrangement.

2) I kind of hate playing alone sometimes. Playing Enhanced Muzak to people who aren’t there to pay attention (as I was doing often, early in the evening) isn’t as bad when there’s another musician or two to play with. For a solo performer, it’s sort of sad. It takes the energy out of the room a bit.

3) We all get by with a little help from our friends. :) The whole thing was a lot more fun when people I knew showed up and hung out! Yaaaaay, Local Musical Community!

4) I need to work harder on managing my set list choices. There were some things I played late in the night that I really, really should’ve done sooner — they required finger dexterity that my poor, weary hands had almost completely lost by hour 2.5. There were some things on my list that I definitely shouldn’t have bothered with anyway, and several others that I wish I hadn’t left out. I had no idea how many tunes I’d really need, so I was editing the list on the fly.

5) I need to shut the fuck up about how bad I am and just play as well as I can. :) My nervous inbetween patter often moved from charmingly dry and self-deprecating straight into creepy Eeyore territory. Play more, chatter less, love the music! Harder to do, actually, without an engaged audience or fellow musicians present…but a good goal to have just the same.

Well, lesson(s) learned! There was a little magic, every now and then, as the night went on. That made it totally worth it.

I also can’t complain about being paid. :)


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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