Anti-Piano Bias?

Please excuse me if this sounds like a rant, because it probably will be once I’m at least two-thirds through writing this.

I’ve been going to open mics around the Detroit area for a couple of years, and what I love about them is the chance to show off my stuff, test some things out, and meet new friends. It’s been an awesome experience. My favorite open mic is at the Black Lotus brewery, because you see the best variety of artists there with a lot of amazing talent. The hosts are also very sweet and the sound system and stage facilities accommodate a wide variety of musicians.

I’d love to play more open mics like this, but it’s frustrating because there’s hardly anywhere else I can bring my keyboard. It’s not an instrument I can just strap on my back and jump on a bike with. It has 88 fully weighted keys which makes for a 20 pound instrument. I’m in the market for something less unwieldy, but until then, this is what I got. It needs a stand, which requires me to make two loading trips to get everything on stage.

But it’s not just about me and my inconveniences. There’s also the issue of what kinds of music the venue wants to welcome.  Some may say they are truly interested in getting wide range of styles up there on stage, but they limit the kind of variety they’re getting by not having a keyboard – or at least a keyboard stand – available.

So what they end up with is guitarist singer-songwriter after guitarist singer-songwriter sharing their version of the guitarist singer-songwriter.

I just saw a new “acoustic open mic” being announced at a local pub, and it begs the question: How acoustic is acoustic? Does that mean no amplification, or just no electronic instruments? In either case, it completely rules out the keyboardist, even if she only plays her Yamaha Portable Grand. If there were an acoustic piano on site, she’d have no problem walking in and playing an expressly acoustic show. I, for one, don’t play all these weird organ patches and stuff with loops and samples – 99% of the time, I’m playing my acoustic piano sound, because rare is the music venue that has an acoustic piano in house.*

It’s partly money, I know. But if you can afford to have a decent sound system, then how much of a burden is it to have a keyboard stand so that you don’t just get 14 Bob Dylan wannabes in a row?

And that’s exactly what I’ve been seeing – guys AND girls with guitars (though now all the girls have ukuleles), all doing the same kind of folk-rock in this angst-ridden, valium-induced balladeering which is all starting to sound the same. Or, they will get a whole slew of guys that play only classic rock and blues, and when the blues stuff really gets going, the whole stage overflows with 10 guys all playing solos on top of each other for 20 straight minutes – as if there aren’t any blues clubs at all in Detroit!

Don’t people know that songwriters don’t all play guitars, and that some of them play genres other than folk rock? If you’re a venue that’s committed to having a variety of music, then please make it possible for musicians other than those playing acoustic guitar come play at the open mics. It’s really tough to haul around keyboards, drums, pedal boards and other equipment just to share music and make new connections. If you make it easier for us, then you might just experience a blossoming of live music at your venue.

But if you’re just offering an open mic night as a way to throw table scraps to musicians you don’t want to pay, then all you will attract are table-scrap musicians, and you’ll wonder why live music doesn’t bring in the kind of money you want. If venues complain about the lack of variety they attract, they’re the ones creating it by not having facilities that accommodate a wide variety of musicians.

*UPDATE: I had a wonderful conversation today with a local artist/producer/consultant/man of many hats that got me thinking differently about this post. I mean, there ARE venues with pianos on site – they’re called piano bars and jazz clubs. Duh! So I wonder if maybe I just need to poke around a different scene? What if I’m the one who needs to think outside the box to connect with more listeners??

Also, I should add that I forgot to include Goldfish Tea in Royal Oak as a keyboard-friendly open mic – they supply a keyboard and stand for their Friday night event.

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2 thoughts on “Anti-Piano Bias?

  1. Cathy DeWitt says:

    I am so with you on this. It is a shame there are not more clubs with real pianos–but most club owners/managers don’t like to tune them or maintain them, unless they are jazz-lovers. It is, however, I think, a LOT for you to haul your keyboard to an open mic, and then on top of that to feel unwelcome!
    For my money, there’s nothing easier (or more fun) than sitting down at a nice grand piano and playing it…

  2. I can’t say I’ve felt unwelcome at an open mic when I drag my keyboard in; in most cases, I stand out and attract curiosity. People want to hear me play, but I just have to jump through more hoops than most people to get on stage and make the connection. If I discover that a venue allows its open mic to be like a big campfire in the woods with guitars and banjos and such, I find I don’t relate as well to the other musicians. They’re more interested in playing “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” together.

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