Ventrilo-Dialogue: A Conversation With A Subway Musician


Subway Musician: People rarely pay attention when I’m playing music.

Tom: Oh, okay, I guess we’ve already begun our conversation!

SM: Everyone is always rushing by and no one has time for music.

T: I would love to hear more about that.
But first, thanks for taking the time to talk with me.

SM: No problem.

T: What instrument do you play? 

SM: I play hammer dulcimer.

T: Nice. What kind of music do you make?

SM: I guess you could call it improvised modal music. I
kind of make it up as so go along and my style is a work in progress.

T: Modal–meaning you stick to one scale at a time?

SM: Yeah, because of how the instrument is laid out, tuning-wise.

T: I like dulcimers because they’re a combination of a drum and a melodic instrument. Best of both worlds.

SM: For sure.

T: How do your pieces work?

SM: Usually my hands find a rhythm that they like and then melodies and themes come out of that.

T: Like you’re drumming on the strings?

SM: Exactly. It can take me a while to get something going,
but once I do it takes on a life of its own.
I’ll go for like ten minutes at a time, sometimes longer.

T: Nice.
So let’s return to why you think people don’t pay attention.
Is it because of the style of your music?

SM: It could be, but I think there’s something else going on.

T: Like what?

SM: Well first of all, almost everyone wears headphones now. 

T: (Fidgeting with ear buds.) Right, right.
So they don’t even hear you.

SM: Yeah. 

T: What about those who do hear you?

SM: Sometimes they listen for a bit, but it’s hard to get a read on them.
Sometimes I feel like they’re wondering why I’m even playing in the first place.
Like they’re curious about the spectacle of live music.

T: That’s an interesting way to describe music performance.
I hadn’t thought about it that way. 

SM: Yeah.
It’s like I’m interrupting their everyday lives—
sort of breaking down some imaginary wall that exists between us.
And that makes most people uncomfortable.

T: That’s an even more interesting idea about music. Tell me more.

SM: Well, I have this theory that even although almost everyone is too busy to actually listen,
they need me—they need music—to interrupt their routine lives.

T: Hmm.

SM: They’re desperate for a real acoustic musical interaction,
right this very moment, as they hurry by.
I’m game to try to hold up my end of the bargain,
but most people aren’t into it.

T: Who are the exceptions?

SM: Sometimes very young kids or crazy-looking adults. 

T: Oh?

SM: They get it.
They get music because they’re uninhibited and the sounds get through to them.
The sounds penetrate the walls they don’t have around them
because they haven’t been socialized like that.
They smile at my rhythms and melodies.
They dance to my drumming.
And they get that the music really takes off when they participate with it. 

Tom: Wow. Well put.

SM: You know what the best part is?

Tom: What?

SM: That moment when the parent drags the kid away,
as if saying, come on, enough of this nonsense.
Or when I see others judging the crazy-looking adults for how they’re responding.
You can just feel the crushing weight of a collective lack of responsiveness setting in.

Tom: What do you do when you see this happening? Do you stop playing?

SM: No! I play louder and smile because I got all the confirmation I need.
Music is magical.
Music is awesome.

Tom: That it is! Thanks again for talking with me.

SM: Anytime.

(More Ventrilo-Dialogues here.)

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