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  • Writer's pictureIan Galipeau

Context Matters

Updated: May 3, 2022

I remember seeing a video a few years ago in which a world-class violinist named Joshua Bell performed in the lobby of a metro station in Washington, DC. Over a thousand people walked by him, unphased by his incredible talent. A man playing a violin worth millions of dollars made $20 or something in tips.

I could interpret this story to mean that people in general don't have the attention span to appreciate music that carries its beauty in nuance, and then extrapolate that to explain how my music career is moving slower than I'd like because of a fast-paced culture of instant gratification. And boy howdy, would that explanation satisfy my ego... but A.) it's narcissistic, and B.) it's unhelpful.

Alternately, I could look a bit deeper for a useful lesson, and realize that context is the key to this experiment. A classically trained musician didn't fail to garner attention because people don't appreciate his amazing playing - they just aren't expecting to see a virtuoso on their morning commute, so their attention is elsewhere. He hasn't honed his skills on grabbing attention from an indifferent audience. A seasoned street musician will have developed ways to be entertaining in the context of a busy subway platform - Joshua Bell wasn't dialed into that, because he's likely never had to fight for attention from an audience. In the same way, many rock musicians might have a hard time conjuring their normal swagger in front of a black tie crowd in a perfectly silent concert hall. If the situation doesn't line up with your comfortable skill set and you haven't prepared to adjust for that, it doesn't matter how good you are at what you do... you're not set up to be successful.

As a solo musician, my favorite sets I have ever played have been in so called "listening rooms"... the places where the audience, however small, is silent and perfectly attentive from the moment the song starts. That energy is exactly the opposite of what you want when you play in a rock band... but it's a solo songwriter's dream to know people can hear and absorb every single word clearly. Unfortunately, those rooms are few and far between, and they're highly sought after by EVERY other songwriter out there... so I can't rely entirely on them to build up a community of support for my music. Which means the path to a wider audience leads through some of those stages es that I had a challenging time with as a younger performer.

I'm starting to book some new venues for the summer and fall, and they vary from listening rooms to breweries to farms to bars. I'm really excited to see how I can specifically play to fit each of those contexts, and connect with my audience where they're at - instead of lamenting that they're not listening closely enough. Here's hoping, with a little directed effort, that I fare better than Joshua Bell.

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