The headlines are usually 20 Things Never To Say To a Musician, or, 10 Things That Annoy Violinists. While the lists of ubiquitous (and sometimes hilarious) assaults on a musician’s line of work are usually fact based, the knee jerk replies can be a door closer in conversations.

People are just trying to get a conversation going. Many times they are seeking acceptance and approval from musicians. So keep the conversation going! I’ve taken a few of the most popular things people say to musicians and divided them in to mini categories.

The objective is to not cut the “offending” person off at the knees making them feel stupid, but to keep a positive conversation going in hopes of inviting the person to further embrace or appreciate the art musicians are already comfortable and familiar with.

I’m cool, I know something about that thing you’re involved with

“I love listening to classical music, it’s so relaxing.”

“Oh, I love Pachelbel’s Canon!”

The tendency to recoil at both comments is strong. The urge to visibly gag and say, “Ugh, if I have to play Pachelbel’s Canon one more time I will be sick!” But the person is merely trying to engage in a conversation and they have just opened a door to you. Keep the door open by asking them questions about why they like a particular composer or work. Keep the focus on their views for a while.

After they share their thoughts, you should share something similar to what they just said. Perhaps, “I discovered Pachelbel’s Cannon in the 7th grade. Our orchestra teacher played that for us and said if we were good he’d play even more works by Pachelbel. And that’s how I started my obsession on Baroque music…which later turned into an interest in NeoClassical music!” This keeps the door open, hopefully they will ask what you recommend and perhaps go home and Google NeoClassical.

Or, “I really enjoy the relaxing works, too. My favorite lately are works by Vaughn Williams. But on days where we are bombarded with bad news I tend to seek out a more cathartic work, something with a driving rhythm.” Hopefully you’ve created a curiosity, and hopefully they will ask what that work would be so they could listen to it too!

Conversation stoppers, unless….

“You play violin? Cool, I used to play (violin, clarinet, piano) in middle school.”

“Would you play something for me right now?”

You can offer short answers like, “oh wow” or “that’s nice” when someone says they played when they were young, or you can open the door a little further and ask what they miss now by not playing that instrument, or, what music or composer did they discover while in middle school band that shaped their lives?

When someone asks if you can play for them right then and there, it can be an awkward moment especially if a musician doesn’t want to play at that moment. But don’t just say no, or giggle and come up with a lame excuse about a hangnail. Say you’d like to but you are saving your lips, fingers, energy for a performance later and invite them. Invite people immediately and give them dates and times.

My orchestra has several offers including free admission for children to our masterworks concerts. If someone asks if I could play for their kids and I don’t feel the time is right to pull the violin out, I simply invite them to an upcoming concert, give the time, date, and mention that kids are free!

If people don’t get that hint, then go with the lame hangnail excuse.

Unintentional insults

“I bet you wish you played the flute.”

“What’s your day job?”

Ignorance sometimes makes people say things that might be taken as insults. People who don’t have a view into a musician’s lifestyle don’t realize their faux pas but should be afforded some leeway.

People love to joke about musicians carrying a large instrument, but they probably don’t realize it’s a daily struggle. To the musician, it does get old to hear, “I bet you wish you played the flute,” while hoisting a double bass up a flight of stairs.

Smile and say, “Sure, but then the world would be full of flute players and nobody would be left to lay down this sweet bass line I get to play!”

For the “what’s your day job” remark, just smile and say, “You’re looking at it. After working hard for 20 years, I’m fortunate enough to do what I love: perform music for people who really enjoy it and teach the next generation of young artists.”

So keep the conversations going, keep the doors open, and invite people to be curious! You never know how your act of inclusion will shape a future ticket buyer or donor.

About Holly Mulcahy

After hearing Scheherazade at an early age, Holly Mulcahy fell in love with the violin and knew it would be her future. She currently serves as concertmaster of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra. She spends her summers at the celebrated Grand Teton Music Festival. Believing in music as a healing and coping source, Holly founded Arts Capacity, a charitable 501(c)3 which focuses on bringing live chamber music, art, artists, and composers to prisons. Arts Capacity addresses many emotional and character-building issues people face as they prepare for release into society. Holly performs on a 1917 Giovanni Cavani violin, previously owned by the late renowned soloist Eugene Fodor, and a bespoke bow made by award winning master bow maker, Douglas Raguse.
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4 thoughts on “Say This, Not That!”

    • Ha! I’d thought for a couple of days whether I should mention anything about the multiple times violinists get that line, but figured it’d be best to leave that one alone. I usually just ignore people if they say that in the airport or on the plane. Those people who ask that question are usually power playing for attention and not really someone to direct over into art appreciation.

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