I came to an important conclusion this week as I played the open mic at Cartems Donuterie. (When I have donuts, they’re seasonal eggnog donuts) Jess Vaira hosts the weekly shindig and was kind enough to show me all the tech specs on her PA system so I can bring my keyboards and electronic nerd gear next time.
My conclusion came in the form of committing to a new goal – to perform 52 times in 2018! That’s once a week for a year, and I’ve got some weeks to make up – consider it my late-in-the-game New Year’s resolution.
Actually, this is an old goal. In 2013 back in Winnipeg I was determined to overcome my major stage fright once and for all with my homemade brand of exposure therapy. I got the idea from my Sports Psychology class at UofM, which could have just as easily gone by the name ‘How to Use Behavioural Psych To Train Anyone To Perform Well Under Pressure’.
And it worked! Big time.
Studies show (my eyes glaze over when sentences start with this phrase, but it’s true) that athletes (performers) who engage in deliberate practice in environments as close as possible to the way things will look and feel on “game day”, benefit multiple times more from their training. Makes sense – get the real thing burned into your habitual mind so there’s less to process when it counts.
So, playing in front of real strangers, singing into a microphone, hooked up to a PA, plenty of noisy interruptions etc etc.. that’s high quality practice compared to playing in my basement. And in 2013 when I put this method to the test, the benefits became clear.
Not only did I get over my stage fright, but several other invaluable things happened that I never could have predicted in my wildest dreams – all stemming from what I thought was a minor personal aim.
The first 10 performances were the hardest. They killed me. I had played in plenty of bands in the past on guitar and bass, but singing – and singing songs I wrote myself – *and going up there alone* is a different level of vulnerability.
Most of the first 10 were at the Le Garage Café open mic. I showed up an hour early every Tuesday night just to get that flood of anxiety to wash over me early, to get it out of the way. Then once I actually had to go up, I had been there for a couple of hours so it felt a little more gradual. A little more voluntary.
(***If you want to get geeky about it, that approach allows the parasympathetic division of your autonomic nervous system to kick in which relaxes you, and lets your brain experience the thing you fear while also being kind of relaxed. Which can neutralize the fight/flight response over time. Wash, rinse, repeat.)
But it still felt like jumping out of a helicopter from 10,000 feet in the air. My hands and legs were shaking. I would forget which chord comes next. I forgot entire sections of songs I had been playing for years, and all the lyrics from others.
I survived. And it was a messy gong show. Accented with the occasional sublime moment of connection. Accidental beauty beyond the fumbling and struggle. Which was enough to keep me going.
It didn’t get any easier, until about the 15th time. I was still shaky and forgetful.. but something changed. I had been up there enough times that.. well.. being afraid of performing started to get old.
Fearing the worse case scenario was a huge expenditure of mental and physical energy, one that my brain started to rev up but ultimately say “Meh..” to, and plop back down on the couch with it’s bag of dill pickle chips to watch another episode of Storage Wars.
I had conquered the sharpest point of my fear. Ground it to a dull edge through repetition. Something I don’t think would have been possible without doing it again and again and again. It started to become as fun as it was terrifying.
By the 20th time, people took notice that I was playing a lot. I was out there. For better or worse, I was looking for excuses to play to rack up the numbers in my goal. It was around that time that two killer musicians in the folk scene, Patrick Boggs (standup bass), and Donovan Locken (mandolin), agreed to form a trio with me to play shows (thanks of course to an introduction by Dianne Martineau).
It was way more fun than playing on my own.
Because we were so active, all kinds of doors opened up to us. We started getting invited to play coffee shops, bars, house concerts, and showcases. I don’t remember “applying” for single gig, but inevitably one gig would lead to the next through someone that saw us play.
By my 40th performance, Tim and The Twelve String Band (our trio) was all tuned up and ready to play a full set gig at the Frame Arts Warehouse.
It was there that I met British expat Emily Senyk (Wood). She showed me some ukulele cover songs she had been working on. We shared an obsession for all things UK music and DCI Gene Hunt from Life On Mars/Ashes To Ashes. So naturally we formed an acoustic duo on the spot.
We played a number of gigs and even filmed some videos, like this cover of The Decemberists we shot in the St. Boniface Cemetery. Which wasn’t us being gothy, it was lyrically relevant to the song. 😉
By my 50th performance, it was hard to contextualize how far I had come as someone with major stage fright, to now being able to perform in front of a crowd of any number with relative confidence.
To use the helicopter metaphor again… if the 1st performance was like jumping out of a helicopter at 10,000 feet, the 50th was like stepping gently out of a grounded helicopter into an abandoned Salisbury House Restaurant parking lot in the summer and being handed a refreshing Dr. Pepper Slurpee from 7-11. Anyone from Winnipeg knows what I’m talking about here.
It’s crazy to think how something as simple as setting a time limited goal can lead to so many intended, and unintended wins. So why would I commit to 52 shows in 2018? Why do pretty much the same thing again if I already got what I wanted?
The reason is because of everything great that came along from pursuing my goal back then. The very act of trying to crunch the numbers of those shows gave me momentum. People sensed that. The world seems to open up when you’re on a mission. When you’re on your way somewhere specific and that you know to be important, people want to help you, and more than that, they want to come along for the ride.
At the end of the day, that’s one thing I’ve found to be better than the music itself. The people who care, too, who I might not have met otherwise.
So, 51 more shows to go in 2018. What changes, lessons, and friendships might await me on the other side? It will be fun to look back on this writing next year and be able to answer that with specific examples.
Wish me luck!