I was reminded of this topic recently when a bassist mentor and friend, the great Lyman Medeiros, asked for responses to a common question asked of musicians carrying around large instruments. That question is essentially “don’t you wish you played the flute?” He got some great responses and it was a good opportunity to share those comebacks we have too much tact to actually use in real life.
I wrote the following several years ago but never posted it. This seems like a good time to share it.
If I’m Too Hard to Carry (2007)
There is an all-too-common question asked to musicians of particularly large instruments. Seeing someone carrying a tuba or a bass must illicit an urge to open one’s mouth and say stilly things and this question is usually some derivation of: “Don’t you wish you played the flute?” where the word “flute” can be substituted with any number of small instruments. Since I’ve heard this question about three thousand times, I have a few stock responses. Here are some of my favorites: “Actually, I wish I was a singer. Except then I’d have to lug around a giant water bottle, own about 45 scarves, and still carry around my huge head.” “Yes, I do wish I played the flute, but I’m not allowed with 500 feet of one after what happened last summer.” “No, because flute players don’t get as much attention from the ladies, so it’s worth the heavy lifting.” “No, because this is the only exercise I get. If I played flute, my eating habits would push me up to around 400 pounds, and that far exceeds the extra weight I’m hauling around in this case. Not to mention the fact that I wouldn’t have any work.” But, let’s be honest. I don’t say those things, though sometimes I’d like to. I just usually try to “out-small” them in the naming of small instruments. If they say: “trumpet,” I say “flute.” If they say: “flute,” I say “piccolo.” If they say: “piccolo,” I say “piccolocino.” or some other made up instrument. It’s a fun game.
Let us, for a second, expand on the logic established by these comments.
First: apparently your happiness and professional success is determined by how portable you and your belongings are. This is true in the business world of shrinking laptops, cell phones, and luggage – which all apparently make for more room for other miniature electronics (GPS, iPods, OnStar, satellite radio) in one’s luxury SUV. So, maybe the philosophy regarding professional happiness is: “less is more; smaller is better; more of the small stuff is best”? If that’s true, we shall assume swimmers and strippers are always happy; and would be especially so if they could fit a waterproof/sweatproof iPod in their Speedo/G-string.
Second: you should always do what seems easier, even though the long term ramifications are preposterous. Let’s just imagine every harpist, cellist, drummer, and tubist (both the name for “tuba player” and “one who studies tubes”. In this case we’re dealing with the former. Not to dismiss the plight of the tube scientist) in the world hangs up their instrument for the jew’s harp or the kazoo – all because they are smaller and easier to transport. Add up all of these new small-instrument players, and – besides being oddly similar to the house band in many of my nightmares – all of a sudden we have no need for subwoofers and no rock and roll whatsoever, not to mention the fact that NO ONE WANTS TO HEAR THAT MANY FLUTES*. (I am not making fun of flutes. The world doesn’t need that many basses either. Hint, hint, Mike Huckabee.)
Third: musicians should choose their instrument of artistic expression based on how much they have to carry. (Who cares if you are the second coming of John Bonham – pick up that tin whistle and get to work!) Or, if someone is good enough to have roadies (something common to big rock bands and not-so-big rock bands with poor/overly-nice/clingy/slimy/loser/stoned friends), then one is not confined to small instruments, but can play a large instrument if someone else carries it around for them. To sum it all up, I should have either been a flutist, a concert pianist, or just good enough to have a roadie. Then I’d never have to deal with the embarrassment – or effort – of “schlepping” “gear”. More importantly, one might argue (and that “one” is me), I would never have to pretend to laugh at these questions ever again. If you’re really, really big-time, you get to have a private jet and fire or humiliate anyone who says dumb things to you.
Ok, let’s take a step back. This really is not about me, nor is it about how much someone really understands about my profession. The crux of it, and the really interesting thing, is this: there is a strange phenomenon that prompts people to make essentially the same exact joke to anyone who appears to be a musician with a larger-than-fanny-pack sized instrument. It is not strange that anyone observing a person carrying such an instrument would think, “boy, that’s a big instrument.” What is strange to me is the high percentage of people who decide to comment, as if we’re old friends or have been having a conversation: neither of which are true. Furthermore, the flute comment accounts for about 78%** of the total spoken comments. And every time, I have to pretend like it’s a clever thing to say and give some sort of acknowledgement. I can’t be a jerk, and I can’t make fun of them to their face. Partly because I’m generally pretty nice. Mostly, though, because I’ve been that guy. The guy that makes the joke that is in fact an attempt at making a connection. And the joke usually isn’t as funny or clever as I wanted it to be, but it still hangs out there – in midair – in search of approval. When I’m on the other side, I won’t shoot it down. I’ll just nod my head in agreement as I put my masterfully carved 100 year old dear friend over my shoulder and keep on schleppin’.
* Like the line in the song “Misty” that says “walk my way, and a thousand violins begin to play.” Somehow this is supposed to be romantic and beautiful. I have a hard time finding it anything but frightening, claustrophobia-inducing, logistically improbable (how many violinists – professional or otherwise – in any one area would be available and willing to participate) and either potentially bad (if they are working for free, you are not assured quality) or very expensive (the price of a decent string quartet can be daunting, let alone one thousand violinists.) That’s an absurd number of cheap (or volunteer) violinists appearing out of nowhere for this grand, romantic gesture. Here’s some sonic math for ya … First of all, decibels (dB) are measured logarithmically. To double the volume of a sound source, it requires 10 times the original power, and is represented by an increase of about 10 dB. (2 violinists is only a doubling of power, not volume; i.e. 2 violins in unison is only twice as powerful as one, not twice as loud). At a somewhat close distance, one violin can comfortably produce sounds around 85 dB. Ten violins (a tolerable number and more or less half the violins in a symphony orchestra) are twice as loud as one violinist, and would be about 95 dB. One hundred is another doubling, and pushes the level to 105 decibels, and closer to the danger zone. (It is unclear whether this is the same danger zone Kenny Loggins referenced in “Top Gun”. For argument’s sake, let’s say it is.) One Thousand fiddles could reach 115 dB – a level that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would only permit you to experience for 15 minutes a day – easily surpassing, and sounding almost as good as, the noise from a power saw. As the song continues, we realize what Mr. Mathis thought was a thousand violins “might be the sound or your hello.” If that’s the case, you just might be dating a Siren. You should run, swim, or paddle as fast as you can. You have fifteen minutes.
**Completely, absolutely, and totally made up.