What comes to mind when you think of a classical music performance? Elaborate formal wear, perhaps; a brightly lit stage; the incessant crinkling of cough drop wrappers. But would you ever associate such an event with the piquant scent of Mexican food or the creamy consistency of guacamole? Probably not. Yet, on a recent occasion, those very sensory experiences comprised the background to one of the strangest performances I have yet to witness.
It was a frigid winter’s evening in Rochester (as is always the case in Rochester, if you’re here anytime between November and May), and I was on my way home from teaching in the neighboring town of Brighton. Since I don’t have a car here, and have very little faith in the Rochester public transit system, I travel to work via the gracious and generous efforts of a car-owning colleague, Drew, who also lives downtown. On this particular Saturday, we were both working late, and decided to grab dinner at a local Moe’s before returning to the city. Of course, given that the outside temperature was hovering dangerously close to Polar Vortex territory, we had no choice but to take our instruments inside with us (Drew plays the violin and viola). Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve always felt somewhat awkward when taking my instrument into a place where I won’t be playing it. You can pretty much guarantee that there will be questions (“Is that a guitar?”), jokes (“Are you going to play for us, honey?”), or even complaints (“Dude, I can’t watch ESPN because your bass is in the way.”). But, considering that the alternative would entail open seams and strings with the consistency of wet noodles, I reluctantly dragged my cello up to the restaurant, taking care not to slip in the grimy slush that seems to perpetually coat all Rochester-area parking lots this time of year.
The reactions were just as I had dreaded; hearkening greetings of “Welcome to Moes!” quickly petered out as the workers behind the counter glimpsed our unusual cargo. I had hoped we could be somewhat conspicuous, but with Drew’s bright orange violin case and my general inability to get through the ridiculously heavy glass doors with my cello, we only attracted greater attention.
“Are you guys going to play for us?” joked one of the workers, who looked about seventeen.
Having emerged victorious from my battle with the door, I forced a laugh and hurriedly stowed my instrument in the nearest booth (taking care to not obscure the nearby patrons’ view of the TV, which was in fact tuned to ESPN). Drew, however, didn’t bat an eye.
“I will if you give me free food,” he said seriously.
I should mention that Drew, a good friend of mine, is somewhat of a risk-taker, so the prospect of whipping out his violin in a Mexican restaurant was certainly feasible. However, I didn’t really think he was seriously offering to play for his dinner-until I saw his sincere expression and the worker’s raised eyebrows.
“Seriously?” the worker exclaimed; clearly, this had never happened before.
“Sure,” Drew said good-naturedly.
“Well, okay, I’ll check with my boss,” the worker shrugged, and hurried off to the kitchens.
My mouth dropped open.
“What! Are you seriously doing this!” I exclaimed to Drew, who broke into a grin.
“Why not?” he countered.
“But-but-” I stuttered, unsure how to voice my reservations that a) I wasn’t entirely sure it was legal, b) there were, like, people around, and c) it was just….really weird. But before I could persuade Drew otherwise, the worker returned, looking excited.
“She says it’s fine!” he reported.
I put my head in my hands. But Drew looked thrilled, and after they had made his nachos, he opened his case and tuned up, to the surprise of the other customers and evident intrigue of the other Moe’s employees. A few of them even emerged from the kitchen, still in their guacamole-stained aprons.
With his meal awaiting him by the register, Drew began to play. It was mainly improvisation (which he does very well), but the employees and customers were obviously impressed; a few of them even took out their phones to record it. I remained stalwartly in line, where the worker had abandoned the creation of my Homewrecker burrito to listen up front. And here I had been hoping we could be inconspicuous….
After a couple minutes of playing, Drew arrived at a cadence, and we all burst into applause, me shaking my head in disbelief. The worker swiped the company card to account for the free meal, and Drew triumphantly headed over to our table, holding his nacho tray as though it were a trophy. After assuring the workers that I would not, in fact, be doing the same on my cello (I doubted they even had an appropriate chair), I paid for my Homewrecker and joined him, where we spent the meal discussing the obvious rarity of the occurrence. Aside from my personal expressions of disbelief that Drew had actually gone through with it (and that the Moe’s workers had actually given him a free dinner for spending ninety seconds improvising in A Major), we hit upon an interesting question: how many classical musicians would do something like this-just randomly take out their instrument and start playing, regardless of their surroundings? Granted, I don’t think a lot of us would attempt to procure a free meal (nor do I believe that a majority of restaurants would be amiable to such a request) but I do think it’s true that we generally feel uncomfortable performing outside of a comfortable, formal environment. Aside from practical issues such as space, climate, or acoustics, I feel that a lot of us are shy to perform somewhere where we’re not assured of the audience’s interest. If you just start playing something on a street corner, anybody could come up and throw tomatoes at you (or in Drew’s case, guacamole). Conversely, you never know who might start to listen and become instantly engaged. Despite the slight embarrassment I experienced at Moe’s that night, I was struck by how fascinated everyone was that, lo and behold, a real, live violinist had just stepped into the restaurant. For a couple precious minutes, surrounded by the smell of grilled chicken and distant echoes of the soccer game on ESPN, a group of strangers were united by the sound of music, a performance that no one (including the performer) had expected to take place in this most unusual of venues. Sure, it was kind of silly, and I’m not generally advocating that conservatory students attempt to play for their dinners (something tells me it wouldn’t quite fly at an Olive Garden). But all things considered, it was pretty cool.
N.B. Drew, who embraced my writing of this post with much enthusiasm, has subsequently informed me that he did the same thing at a Joe’s Crab Shack and a Starbucks in Schaumburg, Illinois over the holidays. Clearly, he is giving the term “entrepreneurial musicianship” a whole new meaning.