Many people that I get the opportunity to meet tell me that they could never get up on stage. Some wonder how I remember all of the lyrics (sometimes I don't!), but for most I get the sense that they wonder how I can perform with all of the eyes on me. Maybe that's like the old story about asking a spider how it can walk with its eight legs...the gist of it is the spider begins to think about it and then freezes unable to take another step. At this point, I think that I am kind of like that spider...though I still have some butterflies each time, It just comes naturally now. That hasn't always been the case.
My first public speaking engagement that I can remember was back in about grade 8 or grade 9. Mrs. Blyth, a stern but fair teacher who kept her desk at the back of the room so you didn't know if she was watching you, asked the class to write a speech about any topic of your choice. The topic I picked was moving from one place to another (It just dawned on me that this may have been a memory triggered from my last blog!). I wrote my speech out about all of the things that I experienced in the actual move. I put a little humour into it of course, though back then I definitely didn't have the Dad jokes to lean on. I remember writing in that speech about the gas station stops along the way. Moving across the country we could just stop any time we felt the urge, so the stops were spread out a bit. I remember writing into the speech that my sister and I would race into the gas station as if we were in Olympic trials in order to get to the bathroom first should there be only one. I remember thinking that line was pure gold. I drew the whole speech up on cue cards, practiced looking up, and went to class the next day to deliver the speech to my classroom.
We all had speeches to do. I knew every kid in that room. We were all friends. I delivered that speech as if I was talking to family. It couldn't have gone any better. I nailed it!! What I didn't know at the time is that whoever old Mrs. Blyth felt would do the class proud would be delivering this same speech at a full school competition! That included the high school in the school that I went to. I won my way into a lesson I still remember to this day.
The evening of the competition, I felt great. No pressure, I was just going to get up and deliver this speech the same way that I did in class. I'm pretty sure that I felt I had the thing won before I even arrived. Confident? More like naive. Did I mention that families were invited to attend? The audience was huge (I'm not talking an arena full of people, but it may have well as been to me at the time). There were people of every shape and size and the only ones that I knew were my own parents. This wasn't the same Kansas any more Toto. No this was different. Competitive nerves started to creep in a bit. That isn't always a bad thing according to my coaches. That just meant I wanted to win they would tell me at my games. In public speaking though, you don't get to burn off those nerves by trying to avoid getting laid out on the ice!
It's finally my turn and everyone has been great. At this point I still feel like I have a chance. I lock in, and begin. As I mentioned earlier, I practiced looking up. That was part of the lesson from Mrs. Blyth. Don't keep your head down and just read from the cards she would say. So I looked up. In the back row three of my buddies came to "support" me. Remember...grade 8/9. In mid-sentence, about 15 seconds into my speech, I see my buddies making faces and pointing at me. I choked. I started stammering, lost my place and all focus. It was like a plane spiralling down at that point. There was no recovery in sight. My face got red, I felt the sweat start in my hands and down my neck. After what seemed like eternity, I found my place...looked at my cue cards and I read word for word from them with zero delivery. People actually go to NASCAR races to see crashes like that!
The first time that I played live was in a coffee shop. I hadn't prepared for a live performance, the opportunity just happened to come up. The same feelings came back. I knew exactly one and a half songs. I played the first one and it went over fairly well. The host of the Open Mic says "You can't leave us with just one", so I start the next one and finished right square in the middle of it. That's all I knew. My wife and I quickly left after that performance and the entire way home I kept asking her why she let me do that. I felt like a moron. I was trembling. She just laughed and said I did great. The performance itself wasn't, but the fact that I got up was. It led me to where I am now.
Now I get on stage prepared. Now it really doesn't matter if there are 5 people, 50 people, 500 people and a dog...I'll stop there as I am not sure I have played to 5000 yet, but you get the point. Now...the songs are the familiar. Now I have rehearsed, and do I still mess up...yes nearly every show. Sometimes its so small that only a fellow musician would notice, but sometimes I may completely forget a line, a chord, a story, where I put my beer, etc..The difference now is that I know nothing dire is going to happen. Now I laugh at myself publicly if I make a mistake. I think by doing that, I immediately forgive myself for it and that is the person who was in my own head choking in grade 8. I didn't have the capacity then to realize it was ok and that I was the one making it worse. So if you find yourself in the position that I did and you feel even the smallest inclination to get up on that stage to play, tell some jokes at a wedding, join a band for a song, whatever muse is coaxing you to get up there inside...do it. Do it and when you mess up, not if you mess up, but when..think of that 8th grader who crashed and burned that now sits in front of strangers singing songs he wrote and playing guitar...sometimes incorrectly.