A couple of weeks ago, I was the featured performer at the newish open mic I’ve been frequenting since it started last August. It’s in a pub not far from my house (as opposed to across town, where all the other open mics are), the host is a peach, and I’ve gotten comfortable there. Plus they have good eats. It’s nice. I stopped going to my old “usual” open mic for several reasons, and while the reasons were good, it had the unfortunate result of what performance chops I had rusting considerably. So it’s been good to get back in the habit of playing out.
I invited all my nearest and dearest, as well as my guitar teacher, which was really a leap of faith for me. I didn’t know whether I wanted him to come or not, honestly. Well, that’s not strictly true. If I was going to be awesome and kick ass, I wanted him to come. If I was going to have a bad night and suck like a rank amateur, I didn’t. Problem is, you never know what kind of night you’re going to have until you’re right in the middle of a performance. And then it’s too late.
Because the thing is, my guitar teacher, Ryan, never hears me at my best. As a matter of fact, he hears me at my absolute worst: struggling through new material and techniques as if I’d never even seen a guitar before, let alone played one. Now partly, that’s his “fault,” because he, as I asked him to, gives me challenging stuff to push my limits to new and exciting heights. But complicating things is that I always get nervous playing for Ryan, because he IS my teacher, and because he’s an excellent player in his own right, and because I’m not just a student…I’m a fan of his band, too. I’ve been studying with him for almost a year now, and while I’m mostly over being star-struck, I don’t know that it will ever be completely non-intimidating to play for someone so much better than I am, even though he’s really patient, never mocks, and is a nice guy to boot.
I haven’t completely blown a performance in quite some time, but it’s one of those things that just happens. A lot of it is nerves, which is a vicious cycle—you mess up because you’re nervous, and then you get even more nervous because you messed up; the rest of it is a mystery. Why a person can play a piece perfectly marvelously a hundred times, and then, when it counts, butcher the thing, is one of the great musical conundrums. I have forgotten lyrics…lyrics I’ve written, even. My allergies have been bad and made my voice crack like a 12-year-old boy’s. Muscle memory has failed me and come up with chords that are not, strictly speaking, any kind of chords commonly in use in Western music. And then your brain starts working on two trains simultaneously: 1) how the hell did I just mess that up, and 2) dear god, what’s the next chord, and how am I going to get myself out of this?
The diabolical irony of this, however, is that the more you think about it, the more likely you are to continue messing up, because by the time you’re ready to play a song out, you don’t think about the chord names and shapes; you count on your hands to know. It’s a strange little tic of my personal brand of performance anxiety that I always fear I’ve forgotten how to play the guitar when I don’t have my hands on it. This usually manifests on the drive over to the venue, and I cannot be sure I can play until I have the instrument out of the case and back in my hands again. And I suppose to a certain extent it’s true. The memory is more in my muscles than in my head, or if it is in my head, it’s in places that I can’t access directly.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a perfect set; there’s always some error, and the key is in how you handle it. If it’s minor, you just keep playing and pretend like it never happened (even if you’re cringing about it for hours after the show). If it’s a spectacular, song-stopping mistake, you giggle nervously, give the audience your most charming smile, and you start again where practical, or surrender to the reality that that song just ain’t happening today when it’s not. I’ve learned over the course of 108 public performances that the audience is generally on my side, and I know that when I’m in the audience, I’m on the artist’s side, too. I once watched Neko Case and her band blow the start of a song three times in a row before finally nailing it, to great applause. Everyone had a good chuckle, and it was fine; and I felt much better about it happening to me. It happens, even to the undeniably awesome.
And so it was as I played for nine of my family, friends, and teacher, plus a whole bunch of strangers and musical acquaintances in the pub. My dear friend Beth invited Ryan over from his seat on the fringes, a kind and friendly act that put my teacher front and center for me to see during the entire performance. (Thanks a lot, Beth.) I made a few guitar mistakes, but none catastrophic, and it was a pretty good show. People were nodding and engaged and offered genuine applause (as opposed to the perfunctory kind you sometimes hear—for other performers, of course), including Ryan, which made me feel like I’d just won a gold medal at the Olympics. He was impressed, and everyone else was complimentary, too. SCORE!
I asked Beth if the screw-ups were really obvious, and she said she only heard 2, but I covered well. I said that was great, because I made at least 4. SCORE again! Antiguo once told me that he could never be a performer, because he wouldn’t get up in front of people unless he knew he could play perfectly. But if that’s the standard, no one would ever get up and play at all, because music is an intrinsically human endeavor. Performing gives you, or, at least, has given me, humility enough to try even though I know it won’t be perfect, and perspective enough to get up there again and again, because as it turns out, screwing up in front of an audience isn’t fatal. And being awesome and kicking ass is about as delicious as it gets.