Posted by: laurie689 | September 2, 2013

How We Relate to Professionals

There’s no denying that we tend to treat professional musicians differently from non-professionals, and exceptionally good amateurs differently from those who skills are average. It seems natural to be deferential to those whom we deem special in some way, to be perhaps overly polite, and even to be timid around them. Maybe we should take a look at this phenomenon.

When I was touring, I was on the receiving end of the best hospitality and the kindest interactions I could imagine. I got used to it. Even though I’d paid my dues coming up in the ranks and sometimes being treated with disdain before my skills were polished, once I began to consistently experience very positive attitudes, it was too easy to forget the past. It seemed so natural to be treated well.

The phenomenon of unequal treatment is unfortunate, especially since it’s not difficult to treat everyone as though they are special  –  after all, everyone is special in some way, whether or not we are aware of how. A good musician is just another person who happens to have a respectable set of skills

On the other side of the coin, we also tend to let “special” people get away with things they shouldn’t.  We often ignore questionable behavior that wouldn’t be tolerated in anyone else. Bad manners and inconsiderate actions are not the price we have to put up with to be around a really good musician.

On the other hand, we sometimes go off the deep end in the opposite direction, being less forgiving about of questionable behavior in professionals it than we might be with others. Professional musicians have the same fallibilities and weaknesses as anyone else; being good at something doesn’t make them super-human, and that’s exactly why they should neither be put on pedestals for who they are nor disparaged for who they are not. Pedestals are unfair to the person on the pedestal, because they aren’t allowed to be real people.

Then there are the performers who are deemed to be divas. (I’m reminded of a joke that struck my funny bone: “What does a professional (fill in your favorite instrument here)-ist use for contraceptives? Her personality.”) Sometimes the Diva title is deserved and sometimes not. Concert promoters, for instance, get the brunt of the many demands that famously come from performers.  But there are certain things a performer needs in order to do their best performance and give the audience what they came to hear. Those things are different for each performer, and in most cases they’re justified.

My own contract, for instance, asks for the green room and the stage to be the same temperature (so my instruments will stay in tune)  –  between 70 and 75 degrees (so my fingers will move); for stage lighting to not be changed during the performance (so I can always see my strings); for no other activities to be scheduled for me for a few hours before a concert (so I can get a nap, a meal, and tune my instruments); and so on. Without knowing the reasons for those requests, someone could make negative assumptions.

Livingston Taylor asked for a fruit plate in his dressing room  –  seemed like a good idea. But whoever it was who required a bowl of M&Ms with all the yellow ones removed was going too far. I understand that Donovan used to travel with a large entourage but would never ride in the same car, or stay in the same hotel, or eat with the others. This may have been an ego thing, or it may have been necessary to avoid being bombarded with too much fawning. I suspect it was a bit of both.

We do sometimes have a poor understanding of how our own well-intentioned behavior comes across to an professional. For example, just before a concert, people sometimes try to strike up conversations with me while I’m tuning my instrument; obviously they have no idea how rude that is. I try to politely tell them I’ll be able to talk after the concert. Because of that, I’ve occasionally been mistaken as an unfriendly person.

On a more extreme note, some naïve people hold forth with long-winded monologues or too many questions just so they can bask in the perceived light of a professional’s presence. Not everyone fits that category, of course, and most professionals do enjoy a conversation with actual content.

One problem that arose for me when I was touring was that because people usually asked many questions about my career and my music, I spent too much time talking about myself and not enough asking about them. I had to be careful not to forget how to make a conversation equal. More professionals could do well to learn that!

Years ago at a conference the band I was with did a panel on what it’s like to be a professional. I said that we were just folks and that many people could become professionals if they worked as hard as we did at our music and stage skills. I don’t think the band members ever forgave me for that. But I truly believe it. I’ve seen too many very accomplished and talented people rest on their laurels while less “gifted” but harder-working artists surpassed them.

At a recent music camp I attended, there was a fabulous guitarist who partook in the sessions and was welcomed by everyone because he played brilliantly. But he was rude, drunk, and overbearing. I wondered why people put up with him. Probably because they were in awe of his music skills. I think, though, that if he had been made welcome only if he behaved himself with the same polite demeanor as the other participants, he’d be a lot more pleasant and just as good a player. Someone has to stand up to folks like that.

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if more very good musicians treated everyone else well, and everyone else treated each other with the same respect as they do the best musicians?


  1. Very interesting and thought-provoking. Thanks, Laurie! I still remember well how nice you, Michael and Sylvia were when you came to Amherst.


    • That is very sweet of you to say, Joyce. It was definitely a reflection of your wonderful hospitality!

  2. I’ve read about the M&M thing. It was a test. The group’s stage set up was very complex. If not done correctly, the situation could be dangerous. They included the M&M clause to see whether the promoters had actually read the contract and the specs for the setup. If the bowl had the wrong M&Ms, they knew that there might be other areas of the contract that were not fulfilled, and people could be hurt. So just as your requests are reasonable, so were theirs, even if they seemed frivolous on the surface.

  3. Hi Laurie,

    Love your blog as always!!

    Thought you’d appreciate this… I read a story once about the M&M thing. I don’t remember who it was but it was the lead of one of the big, big rock bands. They had a very long, technical section of their contract regarding the lighting and sound equipment for their show. The leader was very concerned that all of this be followed carefully for their safety and the overall show. He inserted the thing about the M&M’s in the middle of the contract. That was his way of testing to see if they actually read all the details of the contract. If he saw the correct M&M’s he knew he didn’t have to go back over everything to make sure it had been done correctly. So sometimes those things are diva and sometimes there is a method to the madness.

    Hope you are well. Beth

    Beth Stockdell, Harpist

    503-329-6881 Cell

    Follow Me On:

    • That makes such good sense! I’ve had people sign my contracts without reading them, then wonder what went wrong!


  4. Laurie, what a thought provoking piece. I can think of many professional touring musicians I’ve seen in concert who seem to avoid all contact with their audience – aloof, hiding out in the green room during intermission and disappearing after the concert. It seems they have a disdain for us “common folk.” I remember better those who’ve mixed with the audience during intermission. There are a few I’ve talked to briefly at a concert, and the next year when they come again they actually remember me and even greet me by name – I find that incredible, but so nice. I know who I will come back to see the next time they are in town. The others I may be inclined to just listen to their recordings, if that. I’ve hosted professional musicians at house concerts where we’ve put them up for the night and then spent some time jamming with them – what a pleasure. They seem like real people.

    • Thanks, Stu! I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the folks who keep to themselves backstage are actually shy. I fact, I KNOW some of them are. Believe it or not, it’s possible to be a great performer on stage and very uncomfortable socially when not on stage. Although I personally think performers ought to learn to be sociable, I guess for some it’s a big issue. From the other side of the coin, I usually avoid trying to greet performers I don’t personally know, because I know they’re too often overwhelmed with greeters.

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