How to Be Complementary without Complimenting

Most musicians, at one point or another, have, or probably will play a gig where one of the other musicians plays poorly or with bad taste resulting in a “painful” musical experience for some. But an even more awkward situation comes at the end of the night when the player in question starts fishing for compliments. You don’t feel a complement is warranted and don’t want to compromise your principles, but to state the totality of your feelings or say nothing might result in an awkward moment and/or damaged relationships. How do you save face without lying?

As the level of musicianship among the world’s performers can vary greatly, it is a near certainty that we will all wind up in this situation sooner later. Sometimes a less than qualified player can wind up in a situation where he or she has no business. By the time this is obvious, it’s too late and you just have to ride it out. Of course music is highly subjective, and therefore competence and taste can be subjective too. Sometimes the chemistry is just not there. Nevertheless, whether the player was an obvious hack or his or her style didn’t suit your taste, you are still faced with that odd moment at the end of the night when you might hear the words “I really enjoyed playing with you” or even worse “So what did you think of the gig?”

I recently played a gig with a local band at a nightclub in town. One of the regular members had subbed out his spot and his fill-in was a friend of the other players in the group. While this player was technically proficient and new the material, he overplayed. I mean, I didn’t know that number of notes even existed. Although the other players didn’t notice, or didn’t mind, I had great difficulty playing with this individual, and ultimately had a miserable time. At the end of the night this player said “You sound great, I really enjoyed playing with you.” Oh no, now what do I do? I was hoping he wouldn’t say anything. I thought he was tasteless and I hated playing with him, but saying that would have been construed as an insult, possibly damaging relationships within the group. To leave his complement hanging in the air and not respond would’ve also been construed as an insult. The minimal response of “thanks” might have been sufficient, but the lack of a complement in return might also have resulted in an awkward moment.

So I said “Thanks, we had some great moments. I had fun tonight.” These were all truths and I spoke this with sincerity. I was appreciative of his comment and responded accordingly with “thanks”. Even though I was in musical hell for most of the night, there were a couple of songs where it all came together – hence “some great moments”, and at a few points (probably those same moments) I actually had fun. I don’t care how bad a gig is going, there is always at least one point, even if it’s just one chorus or solo in one song, in which everything comes into alignment. Even though most of the musical moments of this night were not enjoyable for me, I chose to draw attention to the few good ones. Although I didn’t have much fun overall, I did have some fun at a couple of points, and in my mind it was those moments I was thinking of when I said “I had fun tonight”.

So I didn’t lie and I didn’t actually leave a complement, yet I was still “complimentary”. Nobody’s feelings were hurt and everybody wins.

Now I just hope I never have to play with him again.

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