123Valerie Strikes Again

Unprecedented Self-Indulgence.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

For Winter

This is recycled writing from my real (i.e., non-Interweb) life. I apologize but, I am swamped. Still, I hate to let down my fan(s):

Stage Dive Bomb: A Terrifying Tale of Stage Fright

For the record, I am a talented songstress. I feel it in my core. Not only do I know it with every fiber of my being, I know it with every fiber of everyone else's being. That's how self-assured I am of my ability to sing and write and reasonably lump along with my guitar accompaniment.

I don't say this out of ego or blind self-aggrandizement, either. I can back up the claim. My manly, rough-and-tumble friend Jason cries when I sing. My brother-in-law John regularly calls to holler above the din of some mega-talented female singer/songwriter's concert, "It should be you up there."

In the midst of a particularly ugly scene during which an ex-boyfriend dropped off a collection of my things that had accumulated at his place, I noticed that my poorly-recorded demo tapes and CDs were missing from the box. His explanation: "I hate you, but goddamn, I love your voice."

I've heard enough similar sentiments over the years to finally build up my reserve of confidence when it comes to my musical endowment. So why, oh why, do I find it nearly impossible to perform in front of a live audience? Whether it's three people or three million, I become powerless with fear. I shake. My stomach gurgles uncontrollably. My throat feels like I swallowed a cup of sand.

When I'm about to take the stage (or the campfire or the living room—venue makes no difference), I have to plea bargain with my bladder to remain under control. "Okay, I swear if you let me get through this without peeing my pants, I will never, EVER drink coffee again. I promise."

In the past, I used to try and plow through the panic with copious amounts of bourbon. I found, however, it impeded my efforts to remember little things like chords, lyrics and my name.

I tried more holistic approaches with gentle kava kava tea and lavender oil. I even tried to use healing gemstones; the citrine and amethyst were my favorite to meditate with, but I quickly clogged the stones with my negative energy, and they're still awaiting a cleansing bath, along with my laundry.

When I'm alone, I kick and strut and belt out songs with a rabid fierceness reserved for ancient mating rituals. But, in the presence of even the most supportive crowd, I can barely croak, and I have a hard time hitting the simple one-fingered E7 chord.

Growing up, I wasn't all that involved in music. My sister, Maryann, was the family diva and took the lead roles in every community play and choir show within a 50-mile radius. Each time we’d load up the family to go watch another of her performances, my dad would shake his head and sigh, “I just don’t understand why she needs so much attention.” I quickly learned that there was barely room for even one superstar in our family.

I did play the xylophone in grade school band, but only because my friend Megan Jane and I got to stand in the back next to the cute drummers. Every once in a while, we'd assert our presence with an elegant ding, but for the most part, no one counted on us to keep the rhythm or melody going. I easily slipped into musical laziness.

Later, when I realized that I had a true, if undeveloped, passion for music and songwriting, I sadly let the familiar musical languor take over. I hooked up with a couple of killer guitar players, sang their mediocre tunes and fooled myself into believing that I was content as the "sidechick" in a few of un-dynamic duos.

Much discontent and awkwardness later ("It's not you, it's me. I just don't like the songs you write. I don't want to sing them anymore."), I finally realized that my path to artistic happiness was independence. I worked on my songs, and in turn the thought of playing live (by myself!) worked on my nerves. I wrote songs about writing songs that I couldn't perform for people.

A chance to break from fear's cunning chains came in the form of a local singer/songwriter contest for original compositions.

I entered a similar competition before with one of the aforementioned partners, and we did well enough for complete amateurs, placing third out of 30 contestants. I was thrilled, he was not. That sparked the end of our collaboration and the beginning of my self reliance. It also had something to do with him falling frenetically in love with me and writing thinly-veiled ballads about it. It's an odd sensation to sing a love song, and not a particularly good song either, written about oneself. I don't know how Stevie Nicks did it.

I saw an advertisement for the contest and debated endlessly about entering. I lost sleep. I gained weight. I wasn't ready. Surely, I wasn't ready. Never mind that the neighbors would come out and listen on the lawn when I played with my windows open. (I didn't know this until I was moving out, when they stopped by to tell me how disappointed they were that the concerts were ending. Otherwise, I could never have practiced so openly. I'm much more careful now, I'm afraid.)

Finally, in a desperate fit, I filled out the entry form. I had a slot. The first slot. Oh boy.

I practiced manically. I rehearsed my stage shtick. I went to the coffee shop where the contest was to be held and tried to read the building's vibe. I asked the guy with a scraggly beard behind the counter if the contest was affiliated with any churches or other organizations I should be mindful of.

"No, man. Just do your thing," he assured.

The night came, and I was ready. Mostly ready for it to be over, but ready none-the-less. I didn't invite anyone to watch. I expected it would be easier in front of strangers, but I realized my mistake when I entered and felt colossal gratitude for recognizing the guy with the scraggly beard.

I meditated. I drank. I chewed gum. I shook. I prayed. I peed a lot. As first up, I knew I was in a precarious position, so I gave it everything I had. We each showcased two songs, and I picked two of my favorite bluesy, folksy, rocky, spirited pieces about boys, and drinking, and rolling around in the hay with boys while drinking. I was raucous, crass and classy all at once. Planted in the stool, I felt my musical soul soar.

I finished up the short set, walked off stage to a wave of hoots and hollers, and all I could focus on was the bile and saliva collecting in my mouth. I walked by the judges, and one of the women stopped me.

"Oh my Gosh! You have such a beautiful voice! You could bring so many people to the Lord if you just sang the right songs," she praised.

Huh? What? The Lord? Who?

It turns out Scraggly Beard was wrong. The contest was sponsored and judged by a Christian music store. I deflated. The clever songs about boys and drinking and hay most certainly were not what they had in mind.

I had about 40 opportunities to listen to the kind of material they were looking for--love songs about seeing Jesus in the beauty of your girlfriend's face and trying to stay true to the righteous path. Lovely sentiments, for sure, but the acts mentioned in my songs broke at least six commandments.

I still took fourth place, even with my devil music, but the lesson I learned that night is no matter how prepared you are, you will always end up looking foolish.

And a fear of looking foolish, I believe, is the root of stage fright. It's intensely personal to bare your songs and your soul on a stage. It's frightening to think that the people you're sharing with won't understand your message, or worse, won't like it.

So, while I can attest to the fact that I am talented, I will never, ever believe that I won't look foolish. No amount of praise can help me overcome that. It's going to take complete abandonment of caring about the opinions of others. Therein lies my problem, and the reason that dear friends who have known me for years, to whom I would willingly give both kidneys, have yet to hear me sing and play my own material.

When I sit and practice in seclusion, I often wonder who the bigger fools are: Those who chase their dreams and take the proverbial stage dive only to bomb, or those of us who sit at home and write songs about it.

In the Comments Section, tell what you're afraid of.



  • At 12:57 PM , Blogger Matt said...

    I thought this was going to be about European capital markets.

    Well, I can tell you you do have the voice of a siren, that's for sure.

  • At 1:00 PM , Blogger Matt said...

    You should do a (good) rendition of "Smelly Dog" from Friends. Remember?

  • At 1:49 PM , Blogger EsLocura said...

    I'm afraid I'll never get to hear you sing. and even worse, that you might hear me sing.

  • At 1:59 PM , Blogger Winter said...

    It's sad that fear holds you back.

    In high school we took a trip to a university in DC, it was this big deal with several important people guest speaking. I was running late with a couple of friends, when I told them to go ahead because I had to pee.

    So after the bathroom, I headed to the large banquet type room they were hosting it in. Everyone was already seated at their assigned table. Too scared to really glance around, I saw the food layed out in buffet style in front of the stage. Thinking everyone had already been through the line, I grabbed a plate and started helping myself.

    It wasn't until I looked up and saw the person on stage had stopped talking, and was looking directly at me, I then looked around and saw NO ONE ELSE, had a plate of food on their table.

    All of my friends started dying laughing, I'm talking on the floor out of their chair type of thing.

    So I finished filling my plate, and marched to the back of the room to join my table.

    See no shame. Try it sometimes.

    You don't die or anything.

  • At 2:01 PM , Blogger Winter said...

    Thank you for the post btw.

  • At 8:19 PM , Blogger mist1 said...

    Feel free to borrow my Casio keyboard/karaoke machine when ever you please.

    I am afraid of bugs and falling in love.

  • At 10:12 AM , Blogger Kristin said...

    I cannot imagine the top three if you were #4. You have SUCH an amazing voice. I wish I could wave away the stage fright. The world's missing out.

  • At 10:47 AM , Anonymous 123V said...

    Thanks, Matty.

    Es Locura, I could use a vacay. I'll be sure to bring my ax.

    Winter, isn't it though? I also have a new-found fear of buffets. Thanks.

    Sweet, Mist. I will--can we duet?

    Aw, K, you're sweet. I think maybe it was more about content than quality. Boo.


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