Fleet of guitars, waiting to be played!
Gig Diary 2014-#15
Last night I played at a different place from my normal weekly Sunday “home” so I thought this deserved a special write-up – particularly as I have a lot to say about it (hah!) I hope that this will illustrate how becoming a performer is a personal process involving my own emotional development as much as anything else. As a process it’s a funny combination of learning new things all the time while also recognising that some things I used to find difficult have now become second nature; often this happens much more quickly than I expect and in the rapidity of that process of comfort-zone expansion I often overlook the progress I’ve made. I’m still not posting real links here because this blog is my space to post incognito about my journey and fess up to things my fledgling professional singer-songwriter persona might not want to admit to, which I hope as a reader you’ll understand.
This was my 15th time playing live this year (and ever, basically) and it’s been quite a long time since I last played somewhere different – not since the end of May. I was going quite well up to that point and getting used to the basic process of learning to perform, dealing with nerves and so on, but something about it didn’t quite feel real, I was getting discouraged with my own inability to be in the moment and get into my own emotional space in front of a wall of faces and so that ended with me taking some time out from playing live, until I found the local group in August which was a far less-pressured and often just sheer fun way to sing live. It’s a different group each week but a place like that with a core membership that feels like a family has been so valuable to me in rooting my development as a performer, finding my own style, learning what works and what doesn’t – including learning about what’s important to an audience. I’m glad that I feel able to branch out again and play in different places (albeit that last night’s gig involved a handful of my favourite crew from Sunday nights so it was kind of a home away from home).
I still get massively nervous going out to play. It’s not even just the performance itself, which is often only 15-20 minutes of singing in front of friends, but the whole process of getting ready, going out in the dark with my guitar, finding my way to the venue, wondering what it’s going to be like, sitting with those uncomfortable fears of not being good enough. I go through that whole process while I’m en route to any gig and it’s my least favourite part, but I know that dealing with nerves is part of the ongoing process so I try to bear with it and trust that it will get easier in time. I don’t feel anything like as nervous waiting to get on stage, or standing to play those first notes, as I do walking to the bus stop! My mind goes haywire with all sorts of random worries about the house burning down in my absence or getting mugged on the road, those kinds of unrelated fears – it’s quite surreal.
So this place is a good bus ride away and in a field, in the middle of nowhere, on a dark foggy night. I feel braver the nearer I get – my sense of adventure rises and once I am inside, and am sure I’ve got the right place, I know I will be OK. I no longer have any real problem walking into venues – this was slightly easier as I knew there would be people I know there – but as long as there are people with guitars, I usually feel comfortable enough to just go in and start making conversation. Musicians (especially acoustic musicians and even more especially guitar players!) are generally friendly folk. Walking into a place on my own for the first time potentially not knowing anyone is one of those things I never thought I could do, and now I can. Another even bigger couldn’t-but-now-I-can thing is meeting new people – I used to HATE it, agonise over it, and avoid it wherever possible, but now I do actually enjoy it. I think part of me feels this little jump of delight every time I speak to someone new and am welcomed rather than rejected. Ever since Japan I’ve had the ability to chat to new people and find out interesting things about them or things we might have in common – that’s the easy part – but being real about myself, presenting myself and what I think and feel in an honest way without feeling like I have to pretend, and feeling comfortable doing that – and the joy of knowing that other people value that too – is a recent development. It’s definitely one of the many things I enjoy about being a musician, those little conversations that happen on the fringe of gigs, in the intervals between songs, or during brief trips to the bar – and the speed with which you can connect quite deeply in very small pockets of interaction with fellow musicians. Totally blessed, when I think about that, actually.
So once I’m there I feel pretty comfortable right away, hanging out at the back of a small but packed side-room in a community hall, with maybe half a dozen of my favourite characters I’ve met over the past couple of months. I spot a handful of other Sunday regulars in the crowd and get the vibe of the room, pick up on who the regulars here at this place (you can often get a feel from the volume of the banter!) who is here to play and who to listen – and I guess without realising it I’m picking out one or two friendly faces to make eye contact with, people I might try to greet in the break between sets so I can begin getting to know the group. Some people I don’t know play, followed by a string of people I do, and I get to have a chat with the guy running the night who has the all-important “list”. Eventually it’s time for the act before mine so I wiggle my way out the back (they have a side-room just off the stage area at this place which is super handy and means I can get tuned up and have a little freakout in private!) Tuning is always worth doing twice, my guitar is quite poor at holding its tune and it depends a lot on the room, so I try to tune at the beginning of the set before mine and then re-tune before I go on.
There are two elements about this gig (apart from the unknown element of the audience, which is common to all gigs!) which make it slightly more of a challenge – not much more but just in comparison to my “home” group which is kind of like playing to your family in your lounge. The first is that I’m going to play standing – that shouldn’t be that much of a big deal but it is ever so slightly tricker than playing sitting down because my guitar and playing positions are slightly different (some chords are slightly further to reach, it’s a matter of millimetres but does warrant separate practice) and also I have to remember not to fall over, knock things over, kick people, etc.(!) The second thing is that they have a PA, whereas home club is completely acoustic – so this means a lead into the guitar (one more thing to fall over!) and a microphone, an extra element to think about as you have to concentrate more on the sound going through the mic, overloading, popping and hissing. Of course when I’m singing I’m thinking about the quality and tone of my voice whatever the circumstances but attempting to tailor it through the equipment provided is another aspect of that.
I’m not feeling horrifically nervous, it’s a small venue of friendly people, so really I’m just down to the basic nerves of wanting to play and sing to a satisfactory standard. I don’t take my notebook of lyrics because I want to prove I am a pro (!) and maximise the connection with the audience. I step up to the mic, say a few words of intro, interact a little with the banter from the front row (it’s kindly meant) and make a start. Despite my initial fears that I will be completely incapable of playing, my fingers start to move and nice noises come out and this is reassuring! I start to sing, and people recognise the song and start to smile, and I’m off.
When I think back on it now, actually I do really love to sing live. And I guess that’s kind of an obvious thing to say, but it’s not just something I feel I have to do to be successful or have forced myself to do out of some sense of artistic duty – if I didn’t love it, there’s no way I would have been able to stick with fighting past all those nerves and the lack of confidence and stagefright. I love how as a singer, you get on a stage and something opens – a moment emerges, and you take everything you’ve learned how to do (but not all at once, it’s a process of knitting together just what is needed for each note played and sung) and as you share it something happens. You look out at the faces, some people know you, some people don’t; some people like you, some people won’t. And you try to weave together a moment, a shared experience that can only be for that place and time, in that room, with those people. And it’s not even completely down to you as an individual, but in that moment you’re the only one who can do it, because these people have come to see you, and are willing to place themselves and their emotions in your hands, for a little while. And I suppose a really professional performer would be thinking carefully about where to take those people and how they want to feel and how to give them that – for me, at the moment, I’m just trying to hold the guitar together and give the sweetest vocal I can get, and hope that’ll be enough. It’s like people put their trust in you and you seek to be worthy of it, give the best of yourself, give them something honest in return.
And at some point – clearly I’m not used to this quite yet – I get so caught up in this process that is going on that I completely forget the words to the final verse of a song that has been going really well, an old favourite that everyone loves. I’m completely distracted and have to pause – thankfully my front row crew have been singing along and feed me the words – and even with all that I struggle to get back on track. That’s the worst I’ve bombed out of a song in any of the times I’ve played live, but it doesn’t matter – I laugh it off and apologise afterwards and I don’t think anyone minds one bit. Sure, it would have been nice to do that song justice – but also maybe it’s not bad to be human and the most important thing is to be able to deal with it with humour and be cheerful so nobody needs to feel uncomfortable about it. It happens, you move on. Through the middle of some of the other songs (there are five altogether! Such luxury!) I drop a chord here and there and forget some more minor words, but part of the art is in being able to keep playing and not let it destroy the mood you’ve been trying to create or betray the people who have been enjoying what you’ve been doing so far. I didn’t feel this way until the morning after, but I’m proud of my ability to keep going (nothing is ever going to be perfect) and not let those slip-ups mar the set as a whole, which seemed favourably remembered by most people who heard it. Forgetting the lyrics because I’m absorbing the moment is not quite the same thing as forgetting because of nerves – but more experience will inevitably help me in either case.
Afterwards I am completely hyper, which is the nerves releasing themselves – I miss much of the next set because I’m doing hugs and high-fives in the bar (this is why it’s great to have people who know me and care about me). I used to be much worse at dealing with that euphoric fallout and I’m still learning to deal graciously with compliments – when people come up to you after a set and actually want to talk to you or give feedback, it’s such a fundamentally open and kind thing to do to offer that connection, and I want to try and honour that by giving them a meaningful, honest part of myself, and not just a bundle of post-nervous energy.
Then we all hang out, and it’s a good feeling – relaxing, finally. I am preoccupied by the forgotten lyrics but not to the extent that I stop enjoying the moment and other people’s music. It’s not until the morning afterwards that I realise how much else there is to take from the experience and how much to be proud of. I feel like I could do this over and over and it would be a wonderful thing to be able to do – and getting myself to that point has been really hard work, but I am there.