Those who know me well, and those with whom I speak candidly about my musical life, know that I have suffered, quite literally, from some serious ambivalence about being a performer. It’s not stage fright, per se. I’ve acted, performed in orchestras, taught children and teens and adults, and given presentations in front of groups of strangers forever, and I only have a normal amount of nervousness beforehand with any of those things that usually evaporates once I’m actually doing it.
What plagues me is pretty specifically a guitar-playing performance anxiety. I’m kinesthetically challenged in general. My kindergarten report card shows an “Unsatisfactory” under “Gross motor skills,” and it’s not gotten any better with time. I’m slow to learn physical things, whether it was learning how to do “Miss Mary Mack” on the school bus in grade school, aerobics routines in the ‘80s, kickboxing combinations in the early 2000s, or my ongoing effort to play guitar.
I’m moderately capable on the guitar on my best days; capable enough that I no longer feel like a poser when I say that I play guitar. But a case of (entirely natural) nerves has the ability to render my playing ability entirely unreliable at the oddest moments, causing me to fuck up unexpectedly, with eyes on me, and this is probably one of the things I hate most in life. I’m good at a fair number of things, but fucking up with grace and acknowledgement of my own humanity has never been one of them; but I’m aces at stewing and beating myself up about it after the fact! I’ve often secretly admired acquaintances who can get on stage, mess up spectacularly, and then step off the stage exclaiming how much fun they just had. I’ve never been that person. I wish I had more of whatever that is. I know it would serve me well in so many ways.
I’ve gotten better at it as I’ve matured, but I really, REALLY don’t like to screw up. Especially when I’ve got an audience who has a reasonable expectation of competence, and who, if they heard me practicing alone in my office, would get it, but somehow, nervousness results in cotton mouth, cold and clumsy hands, and temporary amnesia for me, and these are all really bad things if you want to be a singing, guitar-playing performing musician. And my self-consciousness about this possibility wrecking all my carefully rehearsed effort no doubt contributes to a vicious cycle; the more you worry about screwing up, the more likely it is to happen.
The difficulty level of live performance is a known challenge, for anyone who attempts it. It’s easy enough for me to write, to sit in front of the computer and arrange and rearrange words until they suit me, taking as long as I want, and finally click “publish,” and not worry about it after that. If anyone reading this on the other end doesn’t like it, I’m unlikely to know it anyway, and as long as I’ve pleased myself, I’m happy. Live performance is a terrifying Zen high-wire act. You have no choice but to be in the moment. There’s no delete button, no rewind. If something goes wrong, there’s nowhere to go. You have to fix it in the moment the best you can. Maybe you do. Maybe you don’t. But there’s no net, and that’s why it’s scary. Because half your brain is saying “OMGOMGOMG that’s not right! You’re doing it wrong! WTF did you just do?” and the other half of your brain is trying to do a course correction and mitigate the damage while the first half is still screaming in the back seat. It gets very loud in your head while you try to keep smiling, keep playing, and hope that charm has bought you some audience good will.
Not that it isn’t survivable. It is. I’ve survived it many times, but each time it happens, it takes a little bite out of the confidence I need to get back on the stage. Which is why I basically retired from performing last year, playing just 2 shows in October. I decided if I hadn’t managed to crack this, or rewire myself, after 11 years, I probably wasn’t going to, ever. There was a fair amount of freedom and relief in that decision, but there was also regret that it had come to that.
I had a friend offer to play guitar for me for my porch fest, and there was a part of me that really, really wanted to take him up on it. It would be so much easier. It would take so much pressure off me. But another part of me was stubborn, and loud. And that part said it would be a surrender. A defeat. And I shouldn’t give up yet (even though I thought I already had.) So I worked really, really hard and played my porch fest the first weekend in October.
Aaaaaaand it was more of the same. Some really great moments that I could be proud of. Several moments that weren’t so great, mistakes that made me think, “Why did you think you should try this again?” Intellectually, I understood that after a year off, a few mistakes were understandable, and perhaps inevitable, and that if I was really no worse off than I was a year ago, after a year of not playing out, that was actually some kind of good news. But it didn’t feel good. And as I hunkered down in serious preparation for a porch fest I’m playing next weekend, one I committed to before I’d played my own, that feeling has reasserted itself in all kinds of self-doubt and frustration.
This morning, though, I came across this TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, and decided to watch it. I’d read her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, too, awhile back and got a lot of out of it, but this video seemed to distill the point of that book in a way that I haven’t been able to shake all day. And that’s a good thing.
If you don’t watch it (though I highly recommend you do), the sum of it is that once upon a time, creativity was considered a divine gift that came from unknowable source. It was an entity that contributed to our artistic endeavors. During the Enlightenment, that changed to the individual being the source of creativity, which put a huge and heavy burden on creative people that used to not be there. And being responsible for that has created the tortured, fragile, and too often dead, artist archetype we all know (and sometimes are), because that level of responsibility, not to mention the whole “it’s not art if it doesn’t destroy you” mythos that goes along with that, is too much to take. We still call it a “gift” when people create and touch us, regardless of our spiritual beliefs. Because no one really knows whence it comes. I know I’m a creative person, but I cannot point to where it comes from inside me. It’s just there. I have read old pieces I’ve written, and am impressed, and wonder how I managed it, because it’s rather more articulate and well-crafted than I would give myself credit for. I don’t know where the music comes from. I just write it down and then work at it some more. I know that dance, as an art form, doesn’t speak to me or come through me, and I don’t know why that is, either. It just doesn’t. The whole thing is rather mysterious. But regardless, it might be practical, for our own well-being as we create, that we consider the concept of a genius to be something we have, rather than something we are. And maybe we’re off the hook for creating brilliance all the time; maybe it’s enough that we show up and create at all.
It’s worth watching, if you’re a creative type. By which I mean a human being; we’re all creative. Some of us are actively engaged in that right now. Some of us haven’t found our “art” yet and are still searching. Some of us are totally engaged in creativity every day, but have yet to acknowledge it because our creativity doesn’t involve art supplies or musical instruments. Humans are innately creative. You only have to look around and see that’s true; otherwise, we’d all be naked, sleeping rough under trees and in caves, instead of dozing in comfy beds, wearing fuzzy socks and pajamas with Minions on them.
But whatever your art, whatever calls to you, it also requires something of you. It matters to you, and as soon as something matters to you, you’re vulnerable. Music matters to me a lot, and it’s not just my own ego (though I’m sure that plays into it all somewhere, too); it’s that music is a big deal to me, and I want to do right by it, and by the people who gift me with their time and attention when I’m making it. I don’t want to fuck it up for them by committing crimes against music. And it’s easy to be intimidated by the whole proposition, or by the potential for failing, possibly publicly, at something that matters to you, and just back away from it, but you end up living in limbo, caught between doing the thing that makes your soul happy, and not doing it because you’re worried that you won’t do it well enough, which makes your soul unhappy. Which, according to my interpretation of what Gilbert has to say in this TED talk, is not the point:
“What I have to sort of keep telling myself, when I get really psyched out about that, is don’t be afraid. Don’t be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some kind of wonderment be glimpsed for just one moment through your efforts, then olé. And if not, do your dance anyhow, and olé to you nonetheless. I believe this, and I feel like we must teach it: olé to you nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.”
So I think I need to try to just keep showing up for music, and let the rest be as it may. I’m going to work on that. Thanks, Liz.