Tuesday night I was supposed to go to the monthly meeting of the Tucson Musician’s Club, which is held in a bar all the way downtown. I missed last month’s meeting, and I’d been dragging my feet on practicing for the open mic that is generally part of the festivities, right up to the day, and then my shoulder went out. It was fine in the morning, and I don’t know if it was the sawing of fret markers that irritated it, or it was psychosomatic, but when I consulted my feelings on the matter of going to the open mic, I decided my sore shoulder was reason enough to stay home that night. It did hurt quite a bit, but I could’ve managed if I really wanted to.
The more I thought about my resistance, the clearer it became that I had, somewhere along the way, passed a musical milestone: I realized I am over open mics. It’s not that I’m afraid to go; I just don’t want to anymore. I only want to play gigs.
I played my first public open mic less than a year after I started playing the guitar; 9 months, to be exact. I was not good. I was so terrified, my leg wouldn’t stop shaking, and I had cotton mouth, and my frightened, uncooperative fingers played chords heard never before that night, and never since; my voice wavered in ways that could be called intentional only by the very charitable. Since then I’ve played out many times, and gotten better. I’ve played 122 public performances in the 8 years since then, and can probably count the number of actual gigs without having to take off my shoes, so most of those have been open mics.
Here’s how an open mic evening generally goes: Practice for your 15-minute set all week. Get terribly nervous the day of the open mic. Make several trips to the bathroom before leaving for open mic due to nervous stomach. Drive all the way across town to venue. Get to venue early to get your name on the list somewhere between first and 9:30, which is when your fingers and brain decide they’re going to sleep without you if need be. Play your 15 minutes (assuming you don’t get cut off early because there’s a big crowd, or the host’s friend is up next and is going to be given some of your time because cronyism is a beautiful thing). If you’re very polite, you stay to listen to the rest of the musicians, about half of whom will be worth listening to, and the other half will have you setting new records for eye-rolling and discreet sighing. If you’re mostly polite, you stay long enough to hear the people who were sitting there listening to your set; if you’re an asshole, you leave immediately after you play. Drive all the way back across town to home and lug your gear back into the house. Go to bed. Not counting practice time, you will spend 5 hours of your time just to play 4 songs.
Here’s how a gig generally goes: Practice for your set all week. Get terribly nervous the day of the gig. Make several trips to the bathroom before leaving for gig due to nervous stomach. Drive all the way across town to venue. Load in. Tune up. Play your half-hour or hour. Load out. Schmooze with friends after. Maybe go out for pie.
From a preparation and nerves standpoint, the experiences are identical. But if you’re going to put yourself through that kind of performance anxiety, the payoff needs to be the show, and it just isn’t there with your average open mic. There’s a lot of wasted time before your slot and after, not to mention the drive itself. When I was new to all this, I can remember driving 45 minutes across town to play 2 songs for a grand total of 7 minutes’ performance, just to have a chance to play. Now, I don’t want to saddle up for anything less than half an hour. The ROI just doesn’t warrant the effort. I’ll be driving up to a folk festival in Prescott in October, but both I and The Shameless Flirts have slots in that; it’ll be worth it.
In one sense, I’m relieved, because I thought it was stage fright that was making me not want to go. But I think I’ve put my time in in the open mic queue, and it’s done what it’s supposed to: made me a competent performer. I am not afraid; I’ve graduated.