As a musician, it's easy to get swamped by the logistics of life on the road. Nailing down gas, food, and lodging, keeping up with your inventory and gear, preparing for all kinds of weather, and worrying about attendance and CD sales can sometimes overwhelm and distract you. But on every festival day, little moments manage to cut through the noise and bring you much needed perspective. Your conscience comes calling, reminding you why you got into music in the first place.
It might be a moment of real connection, an emotional transaction between the performer and the audience. Or it might be sincere gratitude for the music expressed with a hug or a handshake. Sometimes it's something funny. I once had a dairy farmer tell me that he played my CDs for his cows. He swore that it increased milk production by 20%. (Insert joke here.)
Sometimes it's personal. Someone might tell me that the music got them through a tough divorce or that it helped them mourn for a loved one. These are powerful moments. They bring back the focus. And for hopelessly insecure people like me, these moments can be a validation of sorts: "Hey man, you haven't totally wasted your time after all!"
One of the privileges of playing an obscure instrument like the glass harmonica is that people are more likely to stop and listen because of the novelty of the experience. I never get tired of seeing the occasional expression of pure joy, mystery, or intense curiosity on the faces of adults that have never before seen Bach or Beethoven or O'Carolan performed on water-tuned wine glasses and brandy snifters. It is rewarding to watch grown-ups gain access to the idea of magic again, to see a spontaneous reaction light up normally jaded eyes if only for a few moments.
(photo by Vicki Farmer)
Young children are another thing altogether. The world is still filled with wonder. They are drawn to the glasses like moths to the flame. Their smiles are infectious, their excitement contagious. And with no filter between their brains and their mouths, they say the most amazing things. I'll never forget the little girl dressed as a princess who approached the glasses and with an air of solemnity asked, "are you an angel?" That will always and forever be a career highlight.
One day last year at the Ohio Renaissance Festival, a family came by my spot. The two boys aged 5 and 7 seemed especially excited. The parents told me that they had purchased my Christmas CD several years ago. Apparently, the CD had since become the boys' favorite, played year round at bedtime. (I privately expressed my condolences to the parents for having to hear Yuletide carols in the middle of June.) When they connected the music they heard at home with my live performance, the boys were elated, radiating big smiles and clapping their hands. Despite it being September, I played several of their favorite carols for them, most notably "Silent Night." Their enthusiasm never waned but eventually it was time for them to move on. As they began to walk away, the older boy stepped purposefully up to me. As purely and honestly as it comes, he said "Your playing brings back wonderful childhood memories." This from a 7 year old.
(photo by Vicki Farmer)
My late brother Terry used to chronicle our adventures on the road in the form of funny and poignant short stories, many of them focusing on our interactions with the audience. I wish that I had continued this practice of documenting these festival moments. There are so many great stories in just one festival day, let alone 25 years worth.
One of the first things Nashville taught me was that not everyone will like what you do. Rejection from the audience, from publishers, from agents, and from record people helps you develop a thick skin. Don't get me wrong; it still hurts, but you heal much more quickly! The same is true with the glass harmonica. Not everyone sees is it as an interesting novelty; some people don't particularly like the sound of it. For every person lured in by the eerie tones, there are others who already know it all because they have seen "Mrs. Congeniality." This does not bother me. It is just human nature. And besides, I know that a moment of perspective is only just around the corner.