Exactly 10 years and 6 days ago today I played my very first open mic in Tucson, at Bentley’s Coffee House on campus. I was so nervous and everything shook, from my voice to my legs, as I battled my way through those 4 songs. The whole gang came out to hear me, and while every single one of them said nice things after and told me how great it was, only two of them ever came to one of the subsequent 163 shows (and one of those is married to me, so he was kind of obligated to attend now and again), so it was probably as bad as I thought it was.
Such is the way, and the point, of open mics. Everybody has to start somewhere, and you need to put as much practice into your performing as you do in your playing and singing; it’s a whole separate skill set. So they tend to be a little rough, because you’re going through artistic growing pains, not to mention dealing with a fair amount of nervous energy. Because even when you’re certain this is exactly what you want to be doing, doing it will bring out every fear, insecurity, and nervous symptom you’ve ever had at exactly the moment you could do without those things. In my case, it was many trips to the restroom, cotton mouth, freezing cold hands, and jittery legs that I had to will into stillness while I was busy singing, playing, and trying not to look terrified.
Most of those symptoms have subsided after a decade, or at least lessened in degree, but the pre-show neurosis is still there, and there’s not a single performance in all these years that I haven’t considered bailing on. Hard to believe, because the single show I’ve missed was because of a horrible flu, but it’s true. I still feel these things, but I strap on my guitar and do it anyway, because I’ll be damned if the weakest parts of me are going to run the whole show. Nuh-uh.
I kept waiting for it to get easier, and to be more fun. I see some people who just sparkle on stage, who love performing, and it’s obvious performing feeds their soul. In the spotlight is where they’re supposed to be. I have no doubt I’m a musician at heart; whether I’m meant to be a solo (or even duo) performing musician is a different question. I’m not anti-attention. I wouldn’t have been a teacher, or a performing musician, if I couldn’t handle that. It’s not even stage fright in the classic sense. I could sing all day without fear. It’s that I’m not as good a guitar player as I’d like to be, nor am I a reliable guitar player, and I don’t know if it’s nerves, my natural lack of dexterity, or age that seems to derail my fingers and attention span at the worst times. And somehow, when 15-minute slots at open mic morphed into 3-hour gigs at coffee shops and farmers markets, the opportunities to mess up increased exponentially. And I’m annoyed to say, I took advantage, however unwillingly, of those opportunities.
I practice. I’m getting better. I had a serious chat with my guitar teacher recently and he confirmed both of those things. And also the very natural desire to be better, no matter where you’re at. I’d have to live 3 more lifetimes to learn half of what he does every day, but he has his own musical heroes and role models.
I’ve also realized I’m not having that much fun overall. This is an ongoing issue, one discussed in these pages many times. It seems to me that walking off the stage feeling relieved as if you just walked away from a plane crash is not the triumphant feeling one is going for. I’ve never had an utterly and irredeemably disastrous gig, but mistakes tend to stick with you until (and if) you can expunge them with the next gig, where you’ll presumably do better. This is the kind of mental torment that high personal expectations will get you. But I remember having fun, being one of the gang, at those regular Friday night open mics. I remember walking off the “stage” feeling like I nailed it. And then I sat down and celebrated with cake. Good times.
If you’re wondering why I do this to myself, you can be assured that I’ve asked myself that question only a million times. But when I consider my mixed feelings, and then consider walking away from performing, that never sits right, either. So I’m getting my ego out of the way regarding where I should be at this point, or what kinds of gigs I think I should be doing, and going back to the beginning. There’s a new open mic in town, and I’m going to bring myself and my guitar down there and try to build my performing chops to where I’d like them. My goal is to find my way to fun. And, you know, eat cake. Wish me luck.