Here’s What to Say

If you’ve been playing for a while it’s kind of inevitable that someone will either see you somewhere or hear you on a recording and will take the time to tell you they thought you sounded good.  They might say, “Hey, you sounded great!”, or “I really enjoyed your playing” or some other variation of that. For many people I know and especially younger players the response is usually some sort of self-deprecating explanation of why they didn’t “really” sound that good or how much better they could have been but this kind of response does a disservice to the social exchange that could be happening if they would just say the right thing. Believe me when I say that this is something that took me a long time to figure out and it’s something I still struggle with sometimes so don’t think of it as preaching.

First let’s examine the complimenter’s side of the interaction. They were in a situation where they heard you play and they wanted to take the time to make sure you knew they enjoyed the experience. That’s pretty special no matter how you played so keep that in mind.  Now maybe they aren’t some great musician with a finely honed sense of discretionary hearing or maybe they are biased towards you because they are a friend or relative. That shouldn’t matter at all but it does because I think players go even farther out of their way to explain how “bad” they were when it’s another musician. I also think everyone discounts the bias of friends and family. No matter what the connection just think of the context as exactly what it is…one human reaching out to another to tell them they did a good job.  That’s a powerful thing and you should treat it as such.

Another way to look at it is this.  When you negate someone’s compliment by being self-deprecating or simply disagreeing with them it makes them feel bad because you are essentially calling out their lack of musical knowledge or discerning ear.  No one wants to hear that.  No matter the person’s musical ability or knowledge they know what they like and their individual tastes should be respected.  Just remember that their experience is the sum total of many things like who they are with, what their expectations were going in, and yes even how much they may have imbibed that evening along with your performance.

On the other hand let’s look at your motivation.  You probably want to tell them how much better it could have been.  This is, of course, invalid because musicians are always perfectionists and it could always be a little bit better than it was.  I’ll bet even Michael Brecker had nights where he wasn’t happy with what he did but I would have still thought he was amazing. I remember seeing David Sanborn and when I was talking to him backstage (after he had thanked me for my compliment and then realized I was a sax player) he told me how much trouble he was having with his reed…sounded like first class Dave Sanborn to me.

Now sometimes people will pay you a “backhanded” compliment that’s really not heartfelt like, “I really dug what you were trying to do up there.” or something like that but these instances are rare and you should just ignore them anyway. Better to take the high road I always say.

So what should you say?  Simple is better so just say, “Thank you” (and mean it) and fulfill your part of the social contract.  Whether the person is a music expert or not doesn’t matter.  Neither does your true opinion of how well you did.  The fact is that something you did struck them in a profound enough way to make them reach out to you and you should respond in kind. Here are some things I do in addition.  If I really didn’t think I was that great I will often add, “You’re very kind” – it makes me feel better sometimes.  I’ll also often add, “I’m really glad you enjoyed it” because I really am.  I love playing live for people and my goal is that they have a good time.  Sometimes with other musicians or people I know to have a discerning ear I will follow up by discussing some things that may have prevented me from being totally comfortable but no matter what I always lead with a simple thanks to get things going.

It’s a tough lesson to learn and it sometimes feels counterintuitive but saying thank you will make you feel better and make the people who complimented you feel good as well.  Give it a try and I think you’ll like the results.


By Barry

I've been playing the saxophone professionally for over 30 years mostly in the Baltimore/Washington DC area. I've been through a lot of trials and tribulations trying to learn and play this wonderful instrument and my hope is to pass some knowledge along to others and maybe save them some of the trouble. At the very least I want to give you some things to think about even if you do something different or disregard what I say completely.

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