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Musical Hospitality

This may not necessarily be a story, but it would be great to see what your readers think. My circle of friends and family include quite a few musicians. Some enjoy playing for the family, some don’t. There are a couple of issues that always seem to come up during my parties. We always have a sing-along where everyone participates, and we learn new songs. But during the course of the day or evening, one of the guests invariably picks up a guitar or sits at the piano and begins to play. I prefer to think of this as very nice background music and usually carry on with my conversations. Other guests have shushed those people who are talking so they can sit quietly and listen. The musicians themselves are split as to whether they prefer a silent audience versus a talkative one. I never know how to handle this argument when it arises.

The other issue always comes up when the guests ask an unwilling musician to play a piece. I say leave the poor musician alone if he or she doesn’t want to play, but the other guests disagree. One teenage girl who plays oboe now refuses to come to the parties because she felt so compelled to play, and she felt that the pressure made her play badly.

How do I handle so many differing points of view at my gatherings?    1204-11

The solution to the teenaged girl’s dilemma is simple.  Don’t bring your oboe to these parties.   When asked to play, she merely responds with regrets, “Oh, I’m sorry.  I did not bring my instrument.  Maybe another time.”

Some of your guests are hijacking your parties with impromptu recitals during which they expect your guests to cease their mingling and give sole attention to them.   Since music plays a central part of your parties, you, as the host, must conduct the schedule of events during these functions.   For a future party, include on the invitation the times various activities are set to occur.   A sing-along learning new songs will happen at 3 pm,  impromptu performances and recitals between 4 and 5 pm and mingling over light hors d’ouevres with background music at 6pm.   It’s your party so take control over the arguments and make a decision as to whether this is the appropriate time for guests to quietly appreciate another guest’s musical contributions.

And you may want to consider hosting several parties that have no musical theme whatsoever in order to wipe the slate clean and literally retrain your guests to expect something else.  If the pattern of your parties has been the same for years, your guests have come to expect the same routine when they attend and so the tension between background musicians and performance musicians and their audiences continues from party to party.   Have some parties that are recitals of specific individuals, for example.  Shake it up at bit!


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Marigaux December 27, 2011, 4:39 am

    Your parties sound fun! As a musician (I’m not afraid to bring *my* oboe but I’ve been playing a long time 🙂 ) I have enjoyed hosting “jam sessions” for other musicians, where the whole point was to get together and just play for fun and ourselves. Sometimes we were trying out new pieces so we wouldn’t want an audience at all, other times we would invite parents and other friends. These would usually include mingling and food/drinks, but the main focus was the music and any audience knew that, and would limit their conversation to between sets. It can be a very non-threatening, casual time with no pressure for the musicians to perform so the oboe player (and others) might be a little more comfortable. So you might consider hosting a jam session every couple of months, and less music-focused parties the other times.

  • Miss Alex December 27, 2011, 8:43 am

    I was hoping this would be brought up eventually! I’m a music student, and I never know what to do in those situations either. Personally, I don’t mind people talking as I play; the “sit down and listen reverently” etiquette didn’t really take hold until the nineteenth century, when Beethoven would pointedly stop playing and glare (and on one occasion, throw a chair!) at audience members he felt were disruptive.

    I sympathize with the poor girl whose pressured into performing. That’s happened to me a few times, and it can be very difficult to say no. If leaving her oboe at home isn’t an option, perhaps she could find some small ensemble music, like for a wind quintet, or even a solo oboe piece with piano accompaniment so she wouldn’t be up there performing all by herself?

    Admin, all of your suggestions are great.

  • jena rogers December 27, 2011, 9:34 am

    Years ago, I hosted annual Christmas parties with my now ex-husband, which included mostly musicians as well as other creative types. Our guests knew the routine because we indicated it in the invitation: “A buffet dinner, followed by jamming. Bring your axe.” At 10 pm or so, people knew it was time to play music. We had a piano but no one ever thought of playing until after one of us would pull out a guitar. Those who did not play an instrument could pick up one of a variety of hand percussion instruments to play along with, which was a nice way to engage everyone. While some folks might stand around and continue their conversation it was understood that they might need to go to another area to be heard, given the way the invitation was worded, and no one seemed to feel imposed upon. An impromptu playing of the piano at a party can be nice if the piano player is competent, subtle, and does not expect to be the center of attention, respecting the rights of other guests to continue dialogue without distraction. If I had a mixed bag of guests, some of whom could pull this off while others might be too loud and distracting, then I would nip that in the bud: I’d keep the piano shut, until such a time that it’s more appropriate. If asked why, I would say that the piano tends to be too loud and can distract folks who want to talk; no need to blame the musician and potentially hurt feelings, when you can easily blame the instrument.

  • jena rogers December 27, 2011, 9:39 am

    Just wanted to add, an easy way to discourage impromptu musicians from playing is to keep the recorded music going and be sure no one else has control of the CD player…

  • Jennifer December 27, 2011, 9:39 am

    I am a singer and I very much dislike the “Jennifer is a singer – sing something for us, Jennifer” even after I have refused. There are lots of reasons I may not want to perform on a particular day. Unfortunately, I can’t exactly leave my instrument at home.

    Pressuring a poor teenager to play her oboe when she clearly doesn’t want to is well over the line.

  • MellowedOne December 27, 2011, 9:53 am

    There’s a lot of confusion here–OP, guests, performers. Wow!

    I’m not really sure about admin’s suggested a schedule of events. An excellent overall planning strategy, but in the context of the type party it might stifle it. I’ve been to such events, one of the reason they are so enjoyable is their ‘ebb and flow’ relaxed feel. Stating appointed times may put a damper on the atmosphere.

    I do agree with admin’s suggestion to plan a party of a different type! I know the OP’s circle of friends and family include a lot of musicians, but musicians enjoy other things too!

  • GroceryGirl December 27, 2011, 10:27 am

    I have a friend who plays the guitar and every single time we have a party it inevitably breaks down into his own little concert. I absolutely hate this. I totally agree with Admin, they are hijacking the party. There are appropriate times for playing and someone’s party is not one of them. It always brings things to a grinding halt.

    However, if this really is something you enjoy then let me suggest this: have a “music room”, designate one room where the musicians can play and anyone who wants to hear them can go there to listen. I did this with my friend at my last party and it worked pretty well.

  • aka Cat December 27, 2011, 10:38 am

    There are two groups of incredibly rude people in this story. The ones who badger the teenager to provide free entertainment, and the people who expect someone else’s party to turn into their free concert.

    I think it’s up to the host to tell the first group to knock it off. (And while they’re at it, they should stop pestering guests who happen to be doctors, lawyers, agents etc into free consultations.) I’m not sure why the teenager is bringing her oboe if she doesn’t want to play, but if she needs to bring it it would be nice if the host found a good out of sight spot for her to stash it. If the demanders expect the oboist to use an instrument that isn’t hers, maybe they need a lesson on hygiene and the other reasons woodwind players don’t share reeds.

    Since it’s not up to the host to arrange a musical recital, she can choose between scheduling a “recital” time during her parties, or making a general announcement that the party is not a recital.

  • WildIrishRose December 27, 2011, 10:47 am

    I’m with jena rogers. If you must have background music–which I personally love at a party, as long as I don’t have to shout over it–then make a Christmas/holiday playlist on your iPod or shuffle some holiday CDs and play that just loudly enough to provide background sound without being intrusive.

    I’m a singer also, but I disagree somewhat with Jennifer. I love singing, and I love being asked to sing, and as long as there is accompaniment of some sort, I’m game. If I go someplace where I think I might be asked to sing but don’t feel up to it, I beg off by explaining that I have an event coming up and need to rest my voice. And that’s usually true!

  • Shannon December 27, 2011, 10:49 am

    Like GroceryGirl, I have a friend who would bring his guitar to parties and stage loud impromptu concerts. It kills the party and people get annoyed and leave early. I’ve learned to just remind him in advance that I live in an apartment and live music is too easily heard by my neighbors – and we wouldn’t want security to shut down the party!

  • Cobbs December 27, 2011, 11:00 am

    Correcting another guest’s behavior is never acceptable. Expecting anyone to perform is never acceptable. I like the ideas expressed here in having a “come to play” party or a “no one plays” party. Don’t combine the two. And, if you are an amateur craftsperson of any type, keep your results in a room separate from the ones you entertain in. I dislike being forced to compliment it as much as being forced to listen to someone play.

  • icekat December 27, 2011, 11:28 am

    In my opinion, somebody who randomly sits down at the piano or picks up a guitar and starts playing is unreasonable if they expect everybody else to drop what they’re doing and listen.

    There have been some excellent suggestions already, which I agree with. I would also suggest a standing rule, which is that a person who just starts playing is expecting the conversations to continue. A person who wants people to stop and listen needs to grab everybody’s attention first. “Guys? I’ve been working on a new recital piece; I’d like to play it for you.” That would be a clear, unambiguous signal that the person was expecting an attentive audience.

    It’s all about managing expectations. When people know what to expect, there’s less confusion.

  • Library Diva December 27, 2011, 11:57 am

    Awww, I miss when my family used to be more like this! I used to bring my own instrument and play along with the older generation on the piano…sadly, they’re all on the other side of the veil now, and we don’t really gather anymore. I think admin’s suggestions were great, as was the commentor who suggested having a “music room”. Also, as host, I’d add that you have a duty to back up the reluctant oboeist. Tell her on the phone that you won’t let anyone pressure her into playing if she attends, and make sure to remain on her side: “Ivy has said she doesn’t want to play. Let’s leave her alone and listen to Michael, I see he’s brought his guitar again this year.” Or even more subtly, if you see people starting to badger her, just butt in and request her help with some random task in another room. It doesn’t even have to exist, just get her away from the people that are bothering her, and then say, “Why don’t you hang out in here for a few minutes until they’ve managed to turn their attention to someone else.”

  • Merriweather December 27, 2011, 2:40 pm


    ” And, if you are an amateur craftsperson of any type, keep your results in a room separate from the ones you entertain in. I dislike being forced to compliment it as much as being forced to listen to someone play”.

    I would have to disagree with this. A photographer is very likely to have some of their own photos displayed in their living room, just as an artist would likely have some of their work displayed. Amateaur or professional, most people display what they create in their own home, and no guest is forced to compliment on the decor if they choose not to.

  • Malu CLBS December 27, 2011, 3:55 pm

    Hello, I have been reading a lot of posts in this site, and I really like them, but this is the first time I write.

    I can relate to the oboe playing girl from the story. However, the solution given by the admin doesn’t apply if the instrument is always in the host or hostess’s house, which we don’t know from the post by itself. This is my case, I took piano lessons when I was younger but it’s been a long time since I actually practiced. So when my other relatives play at my grandparents’ house (where the piano is) I usually get nagged to play the piano too, and since I’m a very shy person who doesn’t like playing when I haven’t practiced in a while, I decline to do so, so they keep going at it until they surrender, which is really uncomfortable for me. Luckily, this doesn’t happen too often and the one that does most of the playing is my grandpa.

    Anyway, this is a complicated issue, it being so relative (no pun intended). What I would do is first ask the guests (prior to the gathering taking place) if they would like to perform for the rest. If people don’t want to hear others perform, they could always say they’re not attending.

  • Sara December 27, 2011, 4:00 pm

    Oh, I hate get-togethers with some members of my extended family for exactly this reason. My husband and I are both choral singers and conductors, and there are a lot of singers with varying levels of training and ability on my mom’s side. EVERY SINGLE TIME the extended family gets together, some of my aunts and my grandmother insist that we do a “sing-along” which is really just a thinly veiled excuse for my aunts and my grandma to try to outsing one another.
    My husband and I have just stopped taking part in these “sing-alongs” because we both find the one-upsmanship absolutely sickening (“I’LL take the high note in the Phantom of the Opera Medley! No, I will!!!”) I, for one, hate giving impromptu performances–I get terrible performance anxiety, and people tend to think it’s false modesty when in fact it really is a true dread of standing up to perform without adequate time to practice and prepare.
    However, my grandmother wanted to have one of these “sing-alongs” at our rehearsal dinner. Since she was paying for the dinner as her wedding gift to us, we decided to oblige her when she and one of my aunts stood up and sang a bunch of songs in front of a captive audience. This wouldn’t have been so bad–except that they then brow-beat me and my husband into standing up and giving an impromptu performance. We had absolutely no idea they were going to ask us to do this, as I had specifically told my mom that I did not, under any circumstances, want to stand up and sing in front of everyone that night. No matter–they still stuck the microphone in our faces and did not leave us alone until we sang in front of everyone. I was mortified, my husband’s side of the family was uncomfortable and embarrassed, but my relatives appeared not to mind at all.

  • Mary December 27, 2011, 4:34 pm

    Maybe I am the rude one here, but if I were at a party where someone sits down and starts playing an instrument (without being asked) I would see them as being conceited enough to think that everyone wants to listen to them play their music.

    Also, if I were invited to a party by a friend and then discovered that I would expected to participate in a singalong with everyone else, that would be the last time I would accept an invitation from that host. That is the opposite of my idea of fun! I would be extremely uncomfortable with the singalong concept.

  • Lola December 27, 2011, 4:38 pm

    Poor musicians. You never hear one demand a gymnast perform a full split to entertain somebody else’s party guests…

    To answer the OP’s question, “How do I handle so many differing points of view at my gatherings?” You don’t. As a hostess, your job is to provide a pleasant environment for your guests to spend a few hours — not to arbitrate their arguments. If any one guest gets disruptive to others, for any reason whatsoever, it’s time for a private chat. And if that doesn’t remedy the situation, exclusion from future events. Guests have an obligation to be pleasant, too.

  • Cat Whisperer December 27, 2011, 4:40 pm

    Wow, all I can say is that OP is fortunate to have very talented musical friends. If I and my friends tried to do a sing-along or engage in any musical activity, we’d probably have everyone within hearing running for the exits.

    FWIW, I’ve always been taught that if someone is a professional musician, it is a gross breach of etiquette to ask him/her to play or sing at a social activity where they are an invited guest. That would be sort of like inviting a friend who is a chef to a party and asking them to go into the kitchen to prepare food: they are supposed to be there to enjoy your hospitality, not to be part of the entertainment for other guests. I seem to remember that in a “Dear Abby” column a long time ago (original “Dear Abby,” Abigail Van Buren), this issue came up and a man who was a professional pianist said that when he was at a party, if he was requested to play, he would tell the asker what his recital fee was and smilingly suggest that the requester contact his agent to arrange the booking.

    Regarding the young lady oboe player who felt badgered to play for guests, I have always felt that in any social situation, if you are engaging someone in conversation and you notice that the subject, whatever it is, makes them uncomfortable, it is the height of rudeness to continue to continue the subject. This is without regard for whether you’re badgering someone to play an instrument for you, asking a guest who is a doctor for medical advice or a lawyer for legal advice, or talking about personal matters: if the person you’re talking to seems uncomfortable with the subject, you gracefully drop the matter and move the conversation to something they are comfortable with. If you know the person isn’t comfortable with the subject and you continue, then you’re rude and boorish and committing an etiquette felony.

  • Gina December 27, 2011, 6:07 pm

    At my college, every single party ended with one person (same person every time) pulling out a guitar and playing Indigo Girls songs. Then multiple other females would plop down and start singing along with misty voices, gazing around expectantly, waiting for everyone to stop carrying on and admire their faux-hippy barefootedness. At this point I usually started feeling ill and had to go home.


  • Rei December 27, 2011, 6:20 pm

    I find that when someone is a singer, the nicest way to approach the fact that you would like to hear them sing is to compliment the person about it and ask what they’ve been up to lately in that regard. If they say, “Well, would you like me to sing something for you?” or “Well, I’ve been working on something new if you’d like to hear it…”, great. If not, no pressure has been applied. It gives the musician an opportunity to sing when they’d like to without feeling like they’re imposing a performance on others but also without making them feel as if they are obliged to perform.

  • Powers December 27, 2011, 9:19 pm

    I don’t think Miss Jeanne understands the dynamics involved when a bunch of musicians — even amateur ones — get together and there’s a piano handy.

    I do, however, agree that no one sitting down at the piano in this situation should expect rapt attention, and he or she should take care not to drown out any but the most determined conversation.

    • admin January 1, 2012, 8:28 am

      Powers, Miss Jeanne has a very musical family that play percussion, hammer dulcimer, acoustic guitar, bass guitar, piano, and violin. That doesn’t include the extended family who are professional musicians that tour the eastern half of the US. I spend part of my Christmas day sitting around a baby grand piano singing Christmas and Broadway tunes with the inlaws.

  • ArtK December 27, 2011, 9:53 pm

    As a host, you have a duty to keep the party flowing. So, when some guests try to “shush” others, you say: “Oh, that’s really not necessary. We’re having a party not a concert. If you’d like to hear better, then sit closer.” If they continue, you can take them aside and tell them. bluntly, that what they’re doing is spoiling the party for others and you’d appreciate it if they would stop.

    For guests pressuring someone to play, you take a similar tack: “Oh, we’re here for a party, not a concert. I’m sure that Miss Reed gets enough performance time and would like to enjoy not playing for once.” Again, if people are so rude as to persist, you take them aside and tell them plainly that they are hurting the party and they need to stop. (If the oboist has a sense of humor, you could always say “Oh please no! Everybody knows that an oboe is an ill wind that nobody blows good!”)

    It’s fine having explicit “play” and “no play” events as well.

    As an aside, I recall an old Virgil I Partch (VIP) cartoon. There’s a man playing at a piano and another man leaning over, obviously talking to the pianist. The text is “Yes, I just happen to have it with me.” The instrument he “just happens” to have? There’s a full-sized tuba in his hip pocket.

  • Xtina December 28, 2011, 8:59 am

    As to the “silence and listen” vs. nice background music issue of uninitiated mini-concerts at parties, I figure that if someone (and/or the group as a whole) didn’t *ask* the musician to play a piece, then it’s nothing more than nice background noise while everyone else continues their meal, their conversation, and generally interacting. If someone asks, then that person/group (depending on if a general announcement was made, or it was just for the benefit of a few people) need to be silent and pay attention to the musician.

    Agree with the admin–if a musician does not want to be asked to play, then they should leave their instrument at home. However, if it’s something like a piano or having the instrument with them can’t be avoided, then they will probably need to bean dip or politely make a joke about how playing at parties is bad luck or their fingers are dirty with food residue or something. It could also be a situation where the musician in question could be “distracted” by another person or some activity going on or a need to use the restroom, and make a polite getaway while conveniently forgetting the request when they return to the group.

  • Allie December 28, 2011, 4:29 pm

    It’s your party, so your guests should not:
    – be expected to play if they don’t want to;
    – play without your leave;
    – expect others to be quiet while they play; or
    – expect others to be quiet while they listen.
    I agree that you need to take control of the situation and ensure that guests are not bullied into playing or listening quietly. Yes, you need to be quiet when you go to a concert, but you don’t need to be quiet at a party where there happens to be live music. If guests want to play and want a quiet audience, I would suggest you set them up in another room away from the main area of the party and invite any guests who want to listen quietly to go there.

  • Felis D December 29, 2011, 1:55 pm

    I agree that if someone decides to pick up an instrument randomly and play at someone else’s party, they shouldn’t expect to get everyone’s undivided attention. That is highjacking, and rude.

    On the other hand, I always enjoy parties where someone starts playing and everyone joins into an impromptu jam/singalong. Those are always fun.

    On the OTHER other hand, one thing that has always cheesed me off is when people ask me to play for them while I am at their party – i.e., “Oh, Felis plays piano, and she does it wonderfully! Felis, could you play us a little something?” – and then when I start playing, everyone including the person who requested it in the first place starts talking over it like I’m an iPod they just turned on. If you ask someone to play, I think the least you can do is sit through that one song and then start your conversations again after that. It’s gotten to the point where I just tell people I can’t play in public anymore.

  • mbbored December 29, 2011, 5:35 pm

    Oh sing-a-longs. I have a rather musical circle of friends: I sing in 2 different choral groups and many of my other friends also play instruments, sing, etc. Every once in a while, somebody might send out an email saying they want to do a Christmas sing a long or as part of a birthday party, sing a special song for their SO. Except one woman. At every party she’s invited to or that she throws, she pulls out her guitar and a bunch of Joan Baez music. I find myself mysteriously tired whenever that happens.

  • Enna January 1, 2012, 7:01 am

    I agree with what Admin has said and I also agree with Jena. Put some music on. If I was in the teenager’s position I wouldn’t want to go to parties if people were nagging me to play an instrament – that is a gread idea Admin.

  • Isabelle January 3, 2012, 1:11 pm

    I may be off base here but I’m thinking that, to answer the dilemma as to whether people should be quiet or listen while a musician is playing depends on how it all starts. If the musician randomly starts playing while a conversation is going on, I don’t see why you would stop the conversation. To me, it would be either the musician felt like playing or had an idea that he/she wanted to try out or something. However, should the musician like ask “May I play something for you all” or has an introduction before the music starts then it’d be akin to a performance and then, yes, you’d need to listen and cut the conversation (or take the conversation to another room).

    As for encouraging musicians to play, I think that it needs to be done kindly and, if the musician refuses, leave that person be. My 2 cents.

  • kait January 8, 2012, 8:52 pm

    my significant other is an attorney and quite a blunt one. it is very common for people to approach him with legal quandaries outside of work and he normally replies “i charge $250/hr. are we on the clock?”. it is certainly an off-putting approach but definately does the trick