In June, after not having played for more than ten years, I caved and bought an acoustic guitar. The desire to start playing again had come to me at various points throughout the years, typically after trips to Portland when my friend Ben Dewey would force a guitar into my hands. But it was just this past March, after a morning spent talking about, listening to, and playing guitar with Ben, and an old acquaintance, Scott Barkan, that the idea turned into something I wanted to do. I took a turn or two, playing timidly at small fragments of half remembered songs. I had forgotten how much fun doing that was. Now, six months after buying a guitar a bulk of my discretionary income goes to lessons, with little purpose than to re-broaden my interest, beyond the scope of bikes, bikes, bikes.
However, the purpose of music is to be shared, an idea that goes beyond having my wife listen to me play a song for thousandth time, and it was with that notion in mind that my guitar teacher, Peter Spencer, organized a recital with some of his students at Dusty Strings in Fremont.
I can’t remember how I felt the first time I played in front of an audience. I had to have been nervous, because that’s how I am. I was sixteen then, and eight years later I was leading my own band, playing music I had written, and—as I remember it at least—I had learned how to tamp those nerves down. At least enough to not be shaky. A decade later, that is a skill I have forgotten.
Several of us had gathered to play for each other, bringing various levels of emotional support, mostly spouses and parents, though one guy convinced his wife that a trip to Ikea was more important. No one is a professional, or anywhere close to it, though I’m sure that if we put ourselves to it and played in front of people a bit more often, then we could probably make a dollar or two playing out. For now though, we all have to find a way to deal with the nervousness. I started off by making a joke about the socks I was wearing, the intent of which had more to do with calming my nerves than it was to make my captive audience laugh.
I can’t put my finger on the source of my nervousness. I have worked retail for most of my life, talking to people I don’t know, and more recently, having to repair their bikes in front of them, a performance if there ever was one. It could be argued that the stakes of that performative transaction are low, because it doesn’t ask me to really open myself up. Writing does, but even then I am hiding behind not just a keyboard, but the infrastructure of the web, or—more frequently—print. In those situations I am protected by distance. Those who deliver judgement are far off and I don’t have to confront them.
The comment about my socks is not enough to calm my nerves. My second plan, avoiding eye contact, doesn’t work either, simply because I am conscious of the fact that I am not looking at anyone. I start my first song, a Beatle’s song that starts with a two note pick up, but I’m not happy when I hit the first chord and so I stop, exhale loudly, and shake my head. A small laugh from my mouth surprises me. I try to take a deep breath and count the song out, listen a note or two ahead on the melody. It’s a strategy that works at home.
Last night, I played my two song set repeatedly, quietly in a friend’s living room as we talked. The notes of the song fell under my fingers, with an effortlessness in line with the hours I’d spent practicing this song. Now, in front of all these strangers I fumble the lines, rush the tempo mute strings that should ring, and tie my fingers in knots. To me it is a wholesale disaster, one that I surrender myself to.
At home and in my lessons I will often stop at a mistake, and repeat the phrase again before launching into the rest of the song. In this way, my playing is like my internal life, constantly replaying my mistakes. I can’t do that now, the song has to move forward, the beat has set the intention, meaning that the measures of the song I have set in motion continue forward, there no time to dwell on what happened. Instead
I need to focus on what is next.
Between songs I tell a story about doing something embarrassing before one of my lessons, and then playing well in that lesson. “I should have knocked over a hammer dulcimer before coming in here.” I say to laughs. The implication being that I just embarrassed myself with my playing. It works, at least a little bit, and on the next song I am a bit more comfortable with my inadequacies, and things don’t go too badly.
When I’m done I shrug and thank everyone for listening before hastily getting out of the chair and putting my guitar on top its case. I know I am capable of playing these songs better than I did, but—surprisingly—I don’t use my performance as a means of measuring my self-worth. It doesn’t matter to me really. What mattered was the push. Lately, I have been sheltered from discomfort. I’ve missed it.