Musicians’ Unspoken Nod of Understanding

*originally published in Sound Waves Magazine July 2016

While washing and scrubbing out the dog food bowl this morning I spied my bulldog Penelope out of the corner of my eye so I turned a little and nodded and bobbed my head a few times at her silently saying, “Yes Yes Yes you are going to get a big bowl of food today, just like every day, I’m working on it, you won’t starve.” I mean, how much of the English language does she really understand anyway?

Humans do a lot of nodding and head bobbing, but musicians are actually the worst. I like to call it the musicians’ unspoken nod of understanding (The UNU.) When stuff gets really loud on stage there’s really no other way to talk to each other, hence the unspoken nod signaling something REALLY IMPORTANT is about to happen.

It’s a disaster of course when everyone in the band decides to nod and bob all at the same time resulting in massive confusion and nobody knowing what the heck the other person is thinking. And the bigger the band the more the head nodding ensues. The nod means “Do something!” or “Stop doing that!” or “Get ready for me to do something!” or “That was sweet!”

Sometimes I like to be funny and yell out over the mic: “Do you want me to do something now? What exactly is it?” And we laugh and laugh and continue to screw up the song.

But there’s more to the head nodding than that. You know that movie “Jerry Maguire” when Cuba Gooding, Jr. wants the “quan?” He wants love, respect and community like all the other well-liked football players. Well in your local music communities, everybody wants the UNU. When other musicians are doing a gig with you, or they come to see you play, they understand you’re not going to screw up, you’re going to do your part when it’s time, and you’re not going to act like an idiot.

They give you the unspoken nod of understanding.

They don’t hug and kiss you, or give you a high five, or slap your butt. They’re not there to be entertained. They’re there to play, and listen. We’re all in this together. It’s called respect. Not the kind Aretha Franklin sings about, or your boss talks about, or your parents hound you about. It’s just a nod.

We musicians, you see, are really just super-sized introverts. We only reveal our inner selves on stage. That is why the silent nod is all we can muster, and it makes complete sense. Think of us as an assortment of brightly colored candy coated M&Ms. When we perform on stage, we’re actually stripping off our candy coating, so you can see right inside our soul. In the mornings when we first wake up, we feel more like peanut M&Ms – our candy coated souls are filled with self-doubt and fear of allergies, and the candy coating is a little harder to get off. We practice, study and write in a silent drudgery that nobody gets to see. Except the dogs, who would rather just be taken for a walk.

I won’t state the obvious.

OK I will.

You have to actually be able to play something, anything. Even if it’s the tambourine, you still have to know when to tap that thing.

Some people will never be a part of the collective UNU. They’re just crazy nut jobs who are so pissed off they never made it big they can’t get out of their own way. They’re so serious all the time they can’t even recognize what all this stuff is about. They are the people we leave mid-sentence to go tune our guitars.

To an outsider or general fan, the unspoken nods may be confusing and a bit weird, but we get it. Hey, if you really want to complement a musician, just give ‘em a nod. It means the world.