Last weekend at the restaurant where I play music, during a break, a couple of my “regulars” came by the piano to say hello and chat. The restaurant was particularly busy that night, and one of them remarked, “It’s so busy tonight. It looks like no one is paying attention.” I just smiled, pointed to my tip jar, and with a smirk said, “Well… some people are listening…” We had a good laugh out of that. I explained that over the years I’ve learned that even though people don’t seem to pay attention, my tip jar is my gauge. If I’ve got even just a few bucks in it, I know I’ve reached someone. Plus, and more importantly, I added; I don’t let people’s seeming disinterest affect me. I just keep on playing with all my heart. I learned that from being a waiter.
A little back story first…
Back in 1999, I decided break out on my own and start my own little consulting firm, doing custom programming and QA services. I didn’t have many clients, but the clients I did have were all my little firm needed because they paid so well. Then 9/11 hit and overnight, I went from high-flying, highly-paid consultant to… nothing. I couldn’t find a job. No one was hiring, and the only jobs that seemed to be available in software at the time were pretty low-level, low-paying jobs that required oodles of time for not much pay. Employers knew they had job-searchers by the short hairs, so they low-balled all the offers, figuring they’d eventually get someone qualified who’d bite.
Between 2001 and 2004, I must’ve sent out over 500 resumes, applying at large, medium, small companies, whatever… But as these things go, the job I finally landed was through a connection, proving the adage “it’s who you know” is in many cases, absolutely correct.
But in those three years, to help out the family, my wife convinced me to apply at one of our favorite restaurants where the servers sang. I could make a little money, and also do what I love: Entertain. So I applied, got an audition, and got hired. Little did I know that there wasn’t much time for singing. Despite that, once I figured out the system of serving, I was able to sing between 5 and 10 songs a night. But that’s getting a little besides the point.
A valuable lesson that I learned being a waiter is what we Americans call “growing a thick skin.” You see, as a waiter, you see people both at their best AND their worst. And when you get their worst, you can’t react to it – at least not with negativity back at them. And it’s not so much that you just “take it.” You simply let it pass through you so it doesn’t affect your performance. What you have to realize is that 99% of the time, whatever anger someone is experiencing is not directed at you. What they’re doing is taking out their anger on the person they feel they can take it out on.
Make no mistake: Though we live in a democracy, imperialistic behavior is alive and well. But despite all that negativity, you still have a job to do. So you can choose to engage the customer’s anger, or you can simply let it pass through you and know that it’s not about you.
The same goes for entertaining; at least the kind that I typically do: Restaurants, parties, corporate events, etc. In those cases, I’m not the drawing attraction, nor the focal point. But I still have a job to do, and since I just love to play, I put all my heart into it, no matter where I’m at.
A friend of mine, for whom I got a singing job at the same restaurant I play, once shared with me that it bothered her that people weren’t paying attention. She is a former Broadway singer, having major roles in musicals like “Hair” and “Les Miserables,” so her performance reference was being on stage. But I shared that while we are technically “background,” we’re like the “canvas” for the dining experience. If the canvas is torn or of bad quality, no matter how good the painter is, the ultimate picture will not be as good as it could be. So we provide a canvas on which the servers “paint” on top of, and if we do our jobs right, we’ll be rewarded because people actually care about what’s being played and how it’s being played.
In light of all that, I’ve learned to grow a thick skin. After all, as a performer, it’s all about the music.