Friday, August 14, 2009

You're a Singer? Sing Me Something!!!

Friday musings...

Several of you have offered this as your pet peeve and asked me to write about it!

How do you handle that query of "Oh you are singer? Come on, just sing something!"

First of all, generally the people asking are genuinely curious. And don't have a clue about what you do or who you are.  Singing isn't a career or a calling or a way of life or an artistic temperament or anything of the sort - it is more of an American Idol parlour trick to them.  Often, they are not trying to be rude, they just don't know.

Now, that doesn't excuse the behavior! But instead of allowing ourselves to develop a stroke due to the stupidity, perhaps we need to examine the psychology of WHO is asking the question.  Once we recognize that, we can often walk away quietly, or in some cases, educate!

What makes us unique as singers and as actors is that we carry our instrument with us.  I would be interested to hear from those of you who play an instrument that doesn't happen to be nearby what you are asked to do and how it is framed!  As a pianist, when I as younger, often the question was framed thus: "You play piano? I would love to hear you play sometime! What do you play?"  The piano wasn't THERE.

Unfortunately, as a singer/actor, YOU are your instrument.  And there is a great deal of ignorance about what that means to an outsider - a non-musician, a non-artist, a non-career in the arts.

It does not excuse the behavior, especially if it is persistent, but it does create an interesting point.

Sometimes a simple smile, and a quiet "Thanks, but I don't break out into song" is enough.  If possible, change the subject, move on or in the best of circumstances, walk away.  Getting angry will not get your point across. Even when it's frustrating!

Often I try humour in response to queries such as these.  "You'll have to pay for your ticket to hear me just like everybody else" or "My CD is available online, here's my card" or "If I was warmed up, sadly I would probably take the side of your head off" - and most times, people move on!!! Or it opens up another avenue of conversation...then questions about where you sing, what you sing, what is on your CD etc begin to emerge.  And a REAL conversation and REAL information can begin to be discussed!

If you are pestered - be it at a party, in the living room with relatives, in the hair salon with wet hair, WHATEVER and WHEREVER, perhaps then you can instead try to describe not WHAT you do, but rather how it relates to the person pestering you!

I always try to turn it back to them.  What do THEY do for a living? Where do they do that? How would they respond to be asked for legal advice, a bang trim, financial ideas, a shoulder rub, medical advice when not in the office/place of business on their day off?  Often, when it is translated into terms they understand, there is a moment that allows them to get it.  And you have educated someone!  

In this culture, you will always be asked something like "would you have been in any shows I know?" or "why don't you go out for American Idol" or the like.  Sadly, it again is ignorance. They don't know! You can either go into a grand treatise and debate and watch them glaze over, or you can simply smile and say "probably not" or "not interested thanks" and move on.

I have even used the same language back and it often stops things cold, just because it sounds so ridiculous! Example:  "You are a singer? Sing something!" with "You are a lawyer? Legal something for me!"  To which they look at me like I'm nuts and I return the gaze!!!  It is stupid, but they don't understand it but often, they get it. If they don't - it's not your responsibility!

Smiling and nodding and moving away can be your best decision but the situation will dictate what is necessary.  Trust it.  If you have the energy and there is room to educate, then do it!  Remember, education is not about talking AT someone but rather talking WITH someone, and translating an idea to allow them to make a decision.  It takes wit, patience and clarity of purpose. Sometimes we don't have time and energy for it.  So know what you can do and what you are willing to do, or not, and commit to that.

Bottom line: never feel bullied into doing something and certainly not to feed someone's curiosity when they are not actually willing and able to recognize what you are about!

Smile, nod, put the subtext in your face and your language.  

I had a hair stylist who in the salon was telling other stylists I was a singer - and they all wanted me to sing.  After a few minutes of pleading, I simply said "If I were to sing you a short song, you would owe me haircuts for the rest of the year - if we want to trade services."  Everybody disappeared.

EDUCATE!!! And when in doubt, walk away.  After all, some people just won't hear it.


  1. There's always the Lena Horne legend - true or not! When asked this question, the response was: "If I was an author, would you ask me to right a book?"

    Still, I'll never forget a party thrown for the cast at a major donor's home. As always happens, a guest had a birthday, so the cast was asked to sing. With one exception, we all wanted to just disappear. That exception was the great Helen Donath - a woman who only lives love, joy and generosity. (She's a firm believer that everyone needs three hugs a day, and guarantees that at least one is from her.) Helen walked up to the honoree, opening her heart, soul and voice in song. I will never forget it - not just for the beauty of the sound but, most especially, the divine gift behind it.

  2. Thank you Susan. Thank you so much for blogging about this. I have been plagued with this for a long time. I have had people (who are musically inept) say, "well if you're this so-called singer, you should be able to sing at the drop of a hat, for anyone." I usually respond, "well if I drop that hat, will you drop a 100 dollar bill in it?"

  3. ironically, the Lena Horne story could be right or write! right? lol

  4. Ah! Another fabulous post that applies to all aspects of life... especially the smile-and-nod part... and that part helps improve your acting skills. Thanks Susan!

  5. Right on target as usual, Susan! Great post.

  6. You know, I think that the difference is that most people work to live. We SING to live, and live to SING. It's what most people who work to live dream of doing. We should always be mindful that no matter how much we earn, we are doing what millions wish they could do and in some way, they look up to us. We are the bearers and keepers of their forgotten dreams.

    So if they are telling us we should be on American Idol, they are actually giving us a compliment in their small, limited world. We have to remember that in their eyes, we are the risk takers, the "rock stars", the people they wanted to be at some point. So if they ask us to sing, maybe they're not putting us on the spot. Maybe they just want to hear something they wish they could do because it's so hard for them and so easy for us.

    If we have compassion, and look past our own voice, world, and product, and try to understand a non-singer's world, we won't be so resentful the next time someone asks us to pop a note. We still have the choice not to, and maybe we won't, but when we're asked silly questions, at least we won't be so annoyed. :)

    PS. This comes from someone who was singing on a boat for seven months and was asked silly questions (and to pop a note) at least 30 times a week by guests. :)

  7. A voice teacher of mine told me the story of a famous concert pianist who was a guest at a party. The hostess repeatedly asked him to play. After politely refusing, he finally gave in. A week later, the hostess received his bill.

    People who do not have an intangible skill/talent think it's just easy and fun for us and that we should be happy wiling to sing for nothing at any moment simply because they want to hear us. In the past, I have often just done it because I was afraid of being perceived as stuck up, rude, a Prima Donna, whatever. No one would expect an account/lawyer/doctor/plumber/whaddeveah to just "do their thing" because someone wanted "proof" they do what they say - or think them rude if they refused. I finally had to cut off an aquaintance who would not respect my boundaries and would repeatedly ask me to call him and "just sing a few notes" over the phone to him.

  8. Excellent post Susan! I actually had a day job where we were preparing for a fundraising event and my boss announced at a meeting shortly before that I would be singing! I found out in the meeting along with my coworkers: had never heard about it previously. And this was someone who was involved in the arts (in a periphery way). I was floored!

  9. I think you can tell the difference between jerks who ask singers to prove their talent versus well-meaning people who would just love a note or two. The former should be ignored, yes, but sometimes in certain situations, you can leave a negative impression on people if you word things so that they have to pay to hear you. Only the famous can get away with that. :)

    I don't think there's anything wrong with a note or two, or a song, especially if you really like the people who are asking and if they've been generous to you. It's free advertising.

    I know many friends who are doctors, lawyers, hair stylists, vocal coaches, and mechanics who are SICK of being asked for free legal/medical/beauty/vocal/car advice at parties and gatherings. I don't see how their situation is any different.

    If you've ever asked a teacher in a social setting about a vocal issue you've been having, or an ENT about a good remedy for a sinus problem, or a mechanic on some problem you've had with your car, and you're not paying for that service, you're just as guilty as these people who've asked you for a few notes.

    These doctors, lawyers, teachers, and mechanics are giving away for free what they spent years to learn and what they're paid to do, just like we are when we're put in the same situation. Yet they know that if they share a tidbit or two, they might get a new client or a referral from that person. It's not necessarily a bad thing to give away something for nothing. You never know who might be listening and who they might tell about you.

    You might get a free place to stay when you audition somewhere. You might even get an audition and a gig from someone who told a casting director friend about you! That's why giving in and of itself is an art! When people connect with your giving, they want to give back in some way. :)

    In a world of infinite possibilities, I still think going above and beyond what you're paid to do is always a good thing, even if it means giving away something for nothing. But the ego has to be put at bay in order to truly enjoy how great it is to give fully without expectation.

    Eventually someone gives me something for nothing and it makes me glad I give more than what was required. It's really about the good karma, the exchange and the connection for me. I'm still the bearer of someone else's lost dream and I try to be mindful of it everywhere I go.

    Just my second two cents. The penny jar's getting pretty big here :)

  10. Thanks for this post! I'm a pianist, and this occurs EVERY time I'm in a room with a piano at a family function. I know it comes from a place of innocence but yes it is taxing, I appreciate the thoughts!

  11. I usually tell people that I'll only play/sing for them if they'll dance to my music. They stop asking pretty quickly. :)

  12. this is such a great post im a singer and im often asked to sing so this really applied to me thanks