Sunday, December 13, 2009


I play intermittently with a group of amateur folk musicians that has been around for about 30 years. I got involved because several of my neighbors are in the group.  Everyone knows the tunes well, and most have been both dancing to them as well as playing them for many years. For the time I've been involved, the playing has been notable more for enthusiasm than skill. Anyone who fancies playing has been welcomed no matter what their musical ability. There is a core group of accordion, recorder, marimba, and a couple of fiddle players, with a few others who show up occasionally -- concertina, guitar, mandolin, and cello (for the past five years or so, that would be me).

Last night, the group held its annual Christmas dance. I was surprised when another cellist arrived whom I had never seen before and who proceeded to set up with as much authority as if she'd been playing with the group all along, though -- in the typical sign of a clueless string player who thinks it will help hide their bad playing -- she put on her mute.* She hadn't brought a music stand and didn't have any music. I shared mine with her, but throughout the evening, she really didn't look at it but checked the key and just sort of played things at random.

I was kind of steaming about this all evening. It struck me as incredibly rude of someone who obviously has no chops to plunk herself down to perform at a public event that is not an open mic night and that people are actually paying to attend. Now, I admit that I haven't been to any rehearsals of the group in a long time, but in my defense, I have played all of the tunes many times and can play plenty well enough for occasions like these without rehearsing.

I was also steamed at the guy who invited the cellist. He is a violinist who joined earlier this year. He always comes on time with a stand and his music in a neat binder with each piece in a plastic sleeve. He always plays very out of tune and with no musicality. He apparently had no idea that playing the cello in this band required any particular talent. Or maybe he's interested in this woman socially.

So I've been trying to analyze why this bothered me so much and why I couldn't just laugh it off as one more idiocy in this crazy world -- at least until I got home and laughed about it with my husband. I suppose it's been ingrained in me to view any performing seriously -- probably too seriously. Maybe I should not bother with this group anymore. I have often enjoyed it, though, because I like the music and felt appreciated. Last night's situation made me wonder if anyone really cares or can tell the difference between my playing and that of any random cellist off the street.

The de facto leader of this group is the accordion player, who is a typical absent-minded scientist type and doesn't exercise any quality control, either because he doesn't believe in it or is oblivious. And perhaps it's all fine. I don't really quite belong in this environment, and last night made it obvious.

Tonight we are playing a Scandinavian dance that is a somewhat bigger event. We rent a nice hall, provide refreshments, decorate with candles and greenery, and bring in an instructor and caller. I noticed last night that the accordion player handed a flyer to the cellist, smilingly inviting her to join us. I am so not looking forward to it.

I suppose my irritation is compounded by the fact that I am struggling to practice for next month's concert and bring my playing to a higher level, plus I want to practice my piano pieces. Every hour away from both of these projects seems like so much wasted time if I am not at least enjoying myself.

I do not want to discourage any amateur musicians from pursuing playing, but if anyone in that category is reading, I ask you to please consider the big picture. Sensitivity is always a good idea.

*A mute is a little gadget that hooks onto the bridge that is used to change the tone color by quieting some of the vibrations of the bridge. It looks like this:

It does not really "mute" the sound. Even the heavy practice mutes, which look like this,

do not turn an instrument into a "silent" violin or cello. It's still perfectly audible.

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