Seeing a professional singer in the wild does something to your brain that neither medical science nor Miss Manners could properly explain. You can't just take their word for it. They need to prove their musical chops before your very ears.
Sometimes it's something as innocuous as asking if they can sing "Happy Birthday" to your friend or as obnoxious as a drunk in a bar telling them to perform their entire discography whether or not they have the faculties to pronounce "discography."
Either way, it can feel awkward, says country singer Ashliegh Lisset.
“When it’s somebody who’s random and I’m kind of put on the spot, I get very nervous and when I started, I literally had to close my eyes and pretend no one was there to sing to and it calms my nerves a little bit," Lisset says. "I’ll usually end up singing, but it’s nerve-racking and feels like I’m being put on the spot.”
It can reach levels of steam-spewing infuriation. Christopher Harrison, a bass-baritone who's performed in choruses and shows with the Dallas Opera and Orchestra of New Spain, recalls a time when he ran into an insistent person in a bar while hanging out with some friends who said that performing for him would be good for his career.
"I had been at rehearsal all day and was tired, so I really just did not want to sing," Harrison says. "I was vocally tired, but he kept pushing. 'Come on, man, it’ll be great for everyone here and it's exposure to get your name out there.' I said, 'I don’t need to prove anything to you. I'm already being paid for stuff like this.'"
Harrison says the guy still persisted and even tried to buy a song from him with a beer.
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"Sometimes I’ll go for that, but it ain’t gonna be a cheap beer," Harrison says. "I said, 'Sir, what do you do?' He told me that he arranges corporate travel or something. I said, 'How about this? If you can get me cut rates on a flight to Belize, I’ll sing for you.' He looked at me like, 'What?'”
It even happens with family members, says opera singer Bridget Cappel of the Fort Worth Opera, a mezzo-soprano who recently performed with the Charlottesville Opera in Virginia and is one of the Hattie Mae Lesley Apprentice Artists at Texas Christian University.
"I get asked to sing at weddings and funerals, which is something some of us do on the side for like freelance work sometimes," Cappel says. "It's not an everyday thing."
It's easy to forget or not even realize if you've never carried a tune that good singing can require a lot of physical exertion, and it can feel tiring to do even for a small audience.
“Singing is, in a way, athletic," Harrison says. "However, you’re just focusing on some much smaller muscles. Trying to coordinate that with breath support and there’s a lot of training to refine that coordination, that’s why not everybody can sing like this.”
Some singers, like Cappel, don't have a problem with it and understand their curiosity even when they take it too far.
“I don’t think it’s particularly annoying," Cappel says. "I think people are often just interested because they feel like it’s a normal job, so they are curious about what’s that like. I look at it like they're just interested in what you do, but I don’t think it’s fair for someone to sing for free because I wouldn’t ask a vet to work for free. I usually try to politely tell them I have an event coming up or an event where they can hear me sing instead of just doing it for free.”
It's not always a rude request depending on the situation. Harrison says he has a soft exception for kids who ask him about his singing.
"A kid will ask and I'll sing for them because
Cappel says the reason they get to make some or all of their living singing is
"What we do isn't just a hobby and not just something we do for fun," Cappel says. "You wouldn't ask a professional comedian to tell you a joke when they're offstage, so I think we should be able to have the same respect for our singing."
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It can also be a rewarding experience in ways they may not expect.
“It’s really rewarding when you are recognized for the work that you do," Harrison says. "I sang for some girls who were at an Italian dinner party in Dallas in 2013 and I was in Vienna later that year on a trip with my mom and my sister and they recognized me in the street and I thought that’s kind of cool.”
Lisset says she's happy to show people what they can do as long as she can make someone happy with her talent.
"I think it's really cool when you find someone and find out they sing and have this great power to pursue singing and it's super cool when I find out other people are interested in my singing," Lisset says. "Music is one of those things that bring people together and that's just how I think about it."