Small Talk

One time, a middle aged African American woman came up to me on the Subway platform. She asked, “What’s in the case?” I was pleasantly surprised, certain that this kind woman was knowledgable and friendly. She must be a feminist, or at least sensitive to the fact that we share in some form of the same struggle. If she knows I’m carrying an instrument, and asking which one, maybe she is also a musician? So, being more bold than usual, I replied!

Usually, I completely IGNORE and do NOT respond to comments from the peanut gallery referring to my case – especially while riding the train. These almost always come by way of a greasy, drunk, winking-while-licking-his-lips, or just plain MEAN 30-60-something White, Black, or Dominican man.

One guy in Central Park even challenged me by asking me what the first chord of a certain [HARD] tune was. When I responded that I didn’t know that specific tune, he started laughing loudly and yelling at me – “YOU DON’T KNOW SHIT!” I guess I, being a young white female sax player, was a little threatening to him in his rightful place as King of the Saxophone. Or should I say, Old Homeless Man Without Heart. And clearly that is working out for him, since he is still unknown to me in the small Jazz community. I was happy to vindicate him.

Anyway, back to the lady on the platform. When I told her “it is a saxophone”, she began to scorn me. “You shouldn’t play that instrument! You should play violin! Girls can’t play sax. Their lungs are too small! It’s not lady-like. The violin is more suited for a woman!” At this point, I put my earbuds BACK in.

What was this woman hoping to accomplish? WHY did she feel these things? What did I do to deserve her scorn and resentment?

These questions may never be answered. But I deal with a LOT of this bullshit.

A large part of how our society runs, is by people meeting new people, engaging in small talk, introducing each other, networking, expanding social and professional circles. It happens all the time. You say “thank you” to a stranger at the grocery store check-out, or “excuse me, I love your shoes” to a woman on the train. More often, you’re at a party or bar, and you run into someone new. “Hi, I’m Sally, a friend of Jane’s from college. How do you know Jane and Bill?” Or you encounter someone new through your job or career, and say, “I’m a huge fan of your work. That piece you wrote on innovative aluminum technology was groundbreaking”. Or, in my line of work, “That solo was so killing! You’re a beast! Bad band, man. I’d love to play! Hit me up sometime.” By the way, that’s a complimentary sentence, in case you aren’t hip to the jazz vernacular.

Generally speaking, small talk is necessary.

Small talk is an informal type of discourse that does not cover any functional topics of conversation or any transactions that need to be addressed.[1]” – “Small Talk”, Wikipedia.org

So if there is seemingly no functional purpose for it, in terms of exchanging interesting or necessary information between people, why do we do it?

“There’s nothing small about small talk. Though you may think that making small talk is just a way to pass the time or avoid awkwardness, many great friendships and relationships have started with a discussion about the weather. Small talk can not only help you build a meaningful bond with a person, but it’s also a vital skill that will benefit you in the professional world.” – “How to Make Small Talk”, http://www.wikihow.com

“In spite of seeming to have little useful purpose, small talk is a bonding ritual and a strategy for managing interpersonal distance.[4] It serves many functions in helping to define the relationships between friends, work colleagues, and new acquaintances.” – “Small Talk”, http://www.wikipedia.org

A very small percentage of these encounters throughout our everyday lives may lead to a more interesting conversation, and even less likely, a meaningful relationship. Hope for this type of outcome is why we do it.

The only unfortunate thing is, I hate making small talk. In fact, it is often quite painful for me.

I am constantly meeting new people. I live in one of the largest cities in the world. I travel very frequently. And when I go to work, the “normal” person (i.e. non-musician – read, audience member) is there primarily to socialize. Musicians who aren’t “working” often go out to meet other musicians, to network. Or, if they are male, it is also possible they are there to try to meet “normal” girls, since there aren’t many females in my profession who they would meet naturally. Though, upon finding me, they inevitably approach me to chit-chat. In short, a large part of my job and my life involves making small talk.

But when does small talk become something else? Something MUCH, MUCH, worse? When does small talk infringe on someone’s happiness and break the boundaries of normal social codes and personal space? Leave the small talk out. None for me, please.

Don’t get me wrong, if I’m playing a gig, I am happy to hear from an audience member afterward. I live for moments when people tell me that they connect with the music, or that I showed them something new. I am also pleasantly surprised if a musician introduces him- or herself to me. These introductions usually lead to more gig opportunities, broad exposure to and knowledge of different artists and music, or even new friendships. It also simply nurtures a sense of community within the seemingly tiny and competitive world of Jazz.

But, more frequently, my conversations are not so deep or hopeful. They are full of mundane robo-scripts from clones on autopilot, grasping for straws in my unforgiving depths of a bottomless sea of what they hoped would be a pleasant conversation.

Now, you’re probably thinking: Everyone has to endure small talk. What makes YOU so special as to avoid it altogether?

I would argue that formulating responses to small talk is more difficult for me than for your average Librarian, English Teacher, Attorney, Financial Advisor, Psychologist, Marketing Consultant, Software Engineer, Fashion Blogger, Photographer, Basketball Coach, Rocket Scientist, or New York Times Bestselling Author.

I am a female Jazz Musician. and YES, that DOES make me special. I’m not yet sure which meaning of “special” it makes me, but…it does.

People often ask me, “What do you do?” This is probably a very common approach to starting a conversation. It certainly serves the purpose of categorizing people, or defining a social position.

“…[small talk] helps new acquaintances to explore and categorize each other’s social position.[5] Small talk is closely related to the need for people to maintain positive face — to feel approved-of by those who are listening to them.” – “Small Talk”, wikipedia.org

But, when I respond with, “I’m a musician,” I am, more often than not, met with a look that says, “but what do you DO?” or the actual question, “So what do you DO?”. And let me tell you, there is no easy answer.

Sometimes I wish I could just wear a flashing sign that lists well-said, thought-out answers to common questions.

As most musicians in the world probably do, but especially your average Jazz Musician in New York City, I DO a lot of different things. This is the nature of being a freelancer, and the nature of being a Jazz Musician. I think Musicians, and Artists in general, have always pieced together different projects, sources of incomes, and outlets to come up with a complete career. I just watched the movie, Amadeus, about Mozart, and he certainly did!

Not only is it necessary financially, but all the different parts feed each other. It makes you feel like more of a complete artist, and person. When you teach a lesson, you may realize something that you would like to learn more about, or you realize a skill you are actually quite good at and want to incorporate more. When you record a solo over a pop song, you remind yourself of why melody is important. When you stumble over the chord changes, or the tempo of Cherokee at a jam session, you have motivation to listen to a great recording, that may inspire you to write a wonderful new composition. The possibilities are endless, but the point being: All of the various facets of what comprise the job “Jazz Musician” are necessary, enjoyable, and interconnected. There is no one activity you could partake in that would make you a “successful” jazz musician, and if you claim it, I’m guessing you’re missing out on some great aspects of the career.

But also, running around town like a chicken with your head cut off, trying to be the new “Renaissance Man/Woman”, learning 500 new skills, being an artist, graphic designer, marketing expert, ad manager, booking agent, travel agent, manager, copyist, recording engineer, author, fitness guru, for the sake of your “music” career: this is a product of being a musician in the current economic climate, with the emergence of mp3s, the “fall” of the record label business as we know it, the slow but steady decline of Jazz awareness in America, and the slow but steady robotization and digitization of all popular music.

Explaining all of the random, numerous small things that I do to comprise a full career would take much longer than your typical 3-minute small talk conversation. As you can see, it is quite complex. But let’s say I choose to go into one of these various “activities” or explanations, in a small talk conversation. The person gets caught up in it. For instance:

ME: “I play around the city.” JOE: “Where?” ME: “Oh, various jazz clubs.” JOE: “Oh, like where?” ME: “like Smalls and Smoke…” JOE: (insert look of befuddlement) ME: think to myself, “great, another guy who has never been to a jazz club in NYC! and WHY did you ask me to list them?!”

Or another scenario:

JOE: “Do you play with a BAND? Or do you just play by yourself?” ME: (insert look of befuddlement) “I play with a lot of different bands, and I don’t ever play by myself.” How many bands does he think exist that could support a saxophone player FULL TIME? Not many, I assume…Also, has Joe ever heard a saxophonist on a gig play by himself? Oh wait, the most saxophone he’s ever heard was probably a guy playing by himself in Central Park. Does he think I support myself by doing that all day, every day?

I can sympathize with Joe thinking I perform by myself, since when you Google Image Search “Saxophone Player”, you come up with something like this…

Typical Sax Player image

And, yes there are a FEW bands that support sax players full time – even women! Thanks, Beyoncé!

Beyoncé with her female band behind her

But, didn’t I mention that I play JAZZ?

Or, another scenario:

ME: “I’m headed to Europe next week for a short tour” JOE: “OH MY GOD! You’re like a superstar!” ME: (insert look of befuddlement) If only he knew I’d be squished between 6 overpacked suitcases, 3 instrument cases, and 5 large men in a tiny European sedan, driving 7 hours without a substantial break, directly from hotel to gig to hotel to gig and so on. JOE: “Where are you going?” ME: “All over. Germany, a day in Paris, then to Rome” JOE: “Are you going to see the Eiffel Tower? My favorite shopping is in Rome! You MUST check out fancy-ass-coffee-shop!” ME: (insert look of befuddlement) Did I mention to him I’ll be WORKING?!

Although, YES I do get to see awesome things sometimes! A wonderful perk of my “job”! Here’s a shot from the Musée Rodin in Paris:

Cathedral Hands, Rodin

But there are other reasons why ELSE these situations are harder for me – or should I say annoying? Challenging? Let me back up to the beginning. Usually, these “lovely” conversations start something like this:

JOE: “What do you do?” ME: “I’m a musician.” JOE: “Oh! Are you a singer?” ME: “No, I actually play saxophone.”

Now here’s where the good shit really happens. Meaning, anything from a very supportive woman who gushes over what this means for her daughters and other women around the world, to the more TYPICAL quizzical looks, befuddled expressions, mouth agape responses, harsh judgements, unwanted advice, and critical side notes that ensue from finding out that the woman standing in front of them plays the tenor saxophone -and plays primarily Jazz music. And NO, I do not ALSO sing. Yes, Joe asked.

As hard as it is for most people to grasp the idea of what it means to be a Musician, more specifically, a Jazz Musician, or most specifically, a Jazz Instrumentalist, I feel like it is IMPOSSIBLE for people to grasp ANYTHING once they find out that I am all of these things. Somehow, being a woman and being a Jazz Instrumentalist do not match up in their heads. I’d like to point out that this is not an exclusive reaction from men, as demonstrated in my initial story about the lady on the train platform. This type of reaction crosses all borders of ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, nationality, and age group.

So, the conversation moves forward after an awkward pause or rude facial expression…

JOE: “Wow, so do you teach?” ME: Right, because a woman is most likely to be a music teacher. Also, if I were, I’d be proud of it, and would have said it from the beginning. “Yes, I do, but only one day a week during the school year, after school, for two hours leading a small jazz ensemble. Plus the occasional private student.” JOE: “So then how do you support yourself?” [Insert gig talk from above here]…

OR

JOE: “Can you actually make a living doing that?” ME: “Yes, I’ve been doing it so far…” And yes, I CAN support mySELF. Sadly, I realized that the typical “what else do you do besides play music” follow-up questions have subsided now that I am married. Meaning, I know there are people assuming my husband supports me. And that is great for people who are in that circumstance – but PLEASE don’t assume that I cannot support myself, just because you don’t know HOW it would be done.

OR

JOE: “Wow, I’ve never met a WOMAN sax player!” ME: I can tell! Also, they don’t make it easy to become one!

OR

JOE: “OOOH, I always thought sax was the SEXIEST instrument!” ME: What a coincidence! You and everyone else, when they find out that it’s my instrument! WHY does my profession have to be sexualized? AND, why does a piece of metal have to define my sexuality?

OR a combo of the above two:

JOE: “Excuse me, but are you like the hottest female sax player alive?” ME: “I hope so!” No, but really – REALLY?! AND it’s a question!

OR

JOE: “I used to play the saxophone!” ME: Who DIDN’T play an instrument in 4th grade?! Sorry, you are NOT special. If you are a banker, and I said, OMG! Sometimes I go to the ATM! Would that impress you?

I actually recently had an argument with a man in a bar, because he was trying to convince me that he and I were on the same page, since he “plays guitar and piano”. He mentioned that he just started playing both, and that he was in finance for a profession. His only knowledge of a jazz saxophone player was Kenny G. He was CERTAIN that this would impress me! His friend recommended him, so it must be legit.

Kenny G

I mean, come on!

PLEASE do not insult me or my profession by pretending that you and I have this thing in common. I have spent my entire life up until now studying this music. And mentioning Kenny G is comparable to me mentioning Benjamin Franklin alongside Finance. I mean, he’s on one of those American bills, isn’t he?

One of my favorite questions is, “How do you PLAY that thing?!”

I’m not sure what that means… By moving my fingers? 19 years of study? Blowing air into a conical shaped metal object and placing your tongue on a reed strapped to rubber with a piece of metal?

“No, I mean, HOW do YOU play it?”

ummmmm…PRACTICE! HARD WORK! DEDICATION!

“Aren’t your lungs smaller than a man’s? It must take SO MUCH air from such a SMALL person! How do you make your lips like that? Don’t you worry that it will make them look funny? I hope they don’t get stuck like that! I’m glad you don’t puff out your cheeks!” And so on…

For the record, I am probably taller, at 5’8″, than a lot of male sax players. Also, do you really think that being small, or having smaller lungs, would prevent a woman from playing saxophone? Can we not run? Swim? Sing? Yell loudly?

I found this online:

“The story goes, even into the 1980’s it was taken as fact that women had a smaller lung capacity for their size than men, and this ‘fact’ was widely taught in medical schools. A
researcher( I can’t remember the name) decided this didn’t sound right, and laboriously tracked the citations for each paper and found that the new paper referenced an older paper, that referenced a yet older paper, and on until he found them to all refer to a single study of lung function performed in the 1800’s, with the women wearing corsets.” – http://message.snopes.com/showthread.php?t=51515

I’d like to mention here that, growing up, there was a constant comment that I received: “You have such a BIG SOUND!” Now, I’m not sure. I DO remember having a bigger sound than my male classmates on the same instruments. However, maybe this was stated because the listener was surprised? Upon my arrival to NYC, I realized that there are men out there with much BIGGER sounds (and smaller sounds). To those “normal” people reading, when I say “big sound,” I’m referring to the volume of sound output. Also, the depth and power of my actual tone.

As you can see, what most people think “Small Talk” is in relation to me, my career, and my personhood, usually steers in a very strange direction. I yearn for a conversation in which I discuss my cat, Lulu, or my new Kitchenaid Mixer. I would get a thrill from a chat with someone about where they can catch my band playing next. I would love to hear about a book you’re reading. Please, tell me about your running hobby, and a pair of awesome workout pants I need to buy. I’m dying to tell you the name of my hair stylist. In fact, ask me the color of my nail polish. These are what I fantasize to be typical topics of small talk conversations.

My cat, Lulu

But let’s take it further. Tell me about a speech you saw the President make this morning – yes, I’ll take the politics talk! I’ll take religion talk! I love discussing Emma Watson’s feminist speech to the UN (#heforshe). I can’t wait to engage in banter about global warming. God forbid, we learn something from each other, or discuss topics that apply to us as a human race.

But instead, I get career advice – or ideas on how to entirely change my career direction. I get anatomy questions, or proclamations of ways in which I am not adequate to carry out my job. I get intrusive financial questioning, and judgements on my choice of lifestyle, and my current living situation. I receive scrutinizing comments about my body – positive or negative. Or I hear about someone’s opinion on my choice of clothing, hairstyle, shoes, or accessories. Or furthermore, how it somehow seems to effect them personally. I get disbelief, that I can actually DO what I’m claiming. Like I’m a liar. I hear stories about people’s uncles, and how yours played trombone in a band in the 1930’s. I get misguided questions about why I play a genre of music I know nothing about. People say personal violations in the guise of flattery. And worst of all, I experience a general questioning of my existence.

So a word of advice from someone who has had more than her share of light banter, chit chat, and pleasantries: stick to something nice when engaging in small talk. Otherwise, please for the love of everything pleasant. Shut up.

4 Replies to “Small Talk”

  1. Thanks for writing this. Musicians and other artists put up with a lot of crap; women put up with a lot of crap; and musicians who are women get all that plus extra crap that’s especially for you. (The preoccupation with lung size is bizarre!) I’m glad you keep pushing forward anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent. As a working musician in Chicago, this kind of ludicrousness is not confined to women, although you have reminded me, as my female colleagues have in the past, of the special, ignorant kind of scrutiny any woman in our business will receive. But the not-so-hidden judgement and assumed knowledge of what we do never ceases to amaze me, in particular people’s never-ending, complete lack of how (and how NOT) to request a song. Here’s a story a friend posted on my FB feed recently: “My favorite from a wedding past. A drunk woman came up to me and said, ‘Do you know that beautiful beautiful song?’ I said,’Do you know the title or who it’s by?’ She said,’It’s the one where the guy sings beautiful.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry I am not sure what song you’re talking about.’ Her response,’Really? You’re an asshole.’ Clearly my bad.” Also, when I tell you I don’t know it, you get extra asshole points when you tell me to “just go on my iPhone and learn it”. People really think music happens because of, well, magic.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This was a really great to read! This really captures the interactions of a female jazz musician so accurately. I am in college right now studying jazz trumpet and I always get treated like this too! Last night I played a gig with some male friends and when we went to talk to the sound guy he asked me if I was the singer and then when I said I played trumpet he said he never would have guessed that. It can be so frustrating!

    Like

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