Once in a while I imagine different general musician types, among which I include myself. Here are six types:
The underplayer. The underplayer doesn’t play “out” or deliberately enough. He’s often fairly recently out of school (a college music program), has his playing together and knows the notes, but there’s something missing. Maybe his strokes are too delicate—as if he’s not convinced of what he’s playing? The notes are there but they sound ventriloquized, as if they are those of someone else (his teachers, his favorite musicians as he imagines them playing). His gestures are proper but not yet his own. His solos don’t explore the music or dynamically interact with it—frozen riffs and patterns that he inserts at the appropriate time (the same way each night too), hoping for the best. If you change up your dynamics on him (as a friendly experiment), he doesn’t respond. He means well but you feel like he always needs to be turned up—way up. You want to compress and add reverb to his sound to compensate for his lack of presence.
The overplayer. Unlike the underplayer who may have some doubts about what he’s doing, the overplayer over-believes in the power of his own presence. The overplayer has confidence in his musical-motor skills to a degree that he has no problem, well, overplaying. Overplaying is doing too much of something—throwing in too many unnecessary “licks”, filling too many of the music’s spaces, playing too brashly or loudly, and so on. The overplayer’s confidence makes it difficult for him to listen well and interact sensibly (i.e. complementarily) with anyone else as he’s too caught up in the acrobatics of his own playing to notice. Watching the overplayer overplay, you wonder if he does that because he’s bored or because it’s in his personality. Maybe he’s insecure?
The steadyplayer. The steadyplayer is reliable yet somewhat boring (though apparently not bored), content to play the same way over and over, confident in the proven power of this or that phrasing, of playing the notes just like this, every time. The downside of the steadyplayer is that he can sound like an edited MIDI sequence. On the plus side, the steadyplayer is always attentive: he has space to notice what’s going on around him as he plays. He’s thoughtful, well-adjusted to being a professional, and always gets the job done.
The flashyplayer. Related to the overplayer is the flashyplayer, who knows he’s very, very good, and his playing reminds you of that at every turn. The flashyplayer is one step down from a virtuoso—the difference being that, unlike the virtuoso, the flashyplayer’s playing can’t make you cry; and unlike the virtuoso, the flashyplayer can never make himself disappear into the music. Like the reflective ball hanging above the disco, the flashyplayer is designed to perpetually disperse his own reflections around the space of the music. Here I am—Rat-a-tat-tat!!
The emotionalplayer. The emotionalplayer has sunk his life into these sounds in this musical moment, his every expression connecting to the currents of his inner life. But sometimes it feels awkward to listen to the emotionalplayer because there seems to be no line between his life and the life of the music. Even though that line-blurring is a courageous artistic accomplishment in itself, you sense that maybe the emotionalplayer depends on the music’s cathartic powers too much (and certainly more than you do). You fear that one day music could let him down, and then what will he do?
The naiveplayer. Whether a child just learning music or an adult with zero musical experience, the naiveplayer is free of the music world’s heaviness and has not yet learned the sonic signs of underplaying, overplaying, steadyplaying, flashyplaying, or emotionalplaying. The naiveplayer simply taps around on a musical instrument, delighting in the sounds being themselves, smiling because he gets one of the keys things about music—which is that its sounds provide instant feedback on your actions. This is so cool he says. It sounds mysterious! Watching the naiveplayer tapping around reminds you that every expertise has its downsides.