Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Facing Fears ... One String At a Time

When you move, you question every little piece of stuff: "Why do I have this? When is the last time I used it? Do I really need it?" I went through this process when I moved to Denver in June 2006 and came across the simple Yamaha guitar that my father had bought for me at Costco several years prior.

Unloading it from the U-Haul, I realized I had no idea how to play it. Within eight days, I was dumped on my ass by the man I'd moved there for and suddenly, had A LOT of free time on my hands. Thanks to Swallow Hill and many a night of fumbly practice, I can now pull off a song or two. "I just want to play well enough to impress drunk people" I always said. Well, I've tested it out on the Mississippi clan at Xmas and my goal has been attained. (Evidently, I'm even more impressive if there is a campfire involved.)

But I never learned to sing. I've been whispering and warbling my way through but never had any training; I decided it was time to learn a new instrument. So. I signed myself up for a "Singing While Strumming" class at SH and every Monday night, 11 of us file into a former chapel hall and face our fears.

Now in the third week, the teacher, JT Nolan, has grown tired of us chickening out. Pointing a scary fingernail at us (he's grown one hand all long, like a vampire, for guitar picking reasons), "Tonight, you are ALL getting up here to sing so GET READY!" We let out a collective groan and quivered in our folding chairs.

Now, when it comes to comedy, getting up onstage feels pretty natural; the idea of a singing performance, however, makes my stomach go queasy and my throat clench up. The great news is, I'm not alone. I watched each student get up there, apologize for themselves, be nervous, fuck up, charge through and express relief that it was over. The fact that we were all equally nervous and terrified helped a lot - like we were all battling the same horrible ego demon as a team. As one guy said, "It's funny. I know this song really well ... just not in front of 10 people."

When it came my turn, I got up to play a very simple version of an old song that I have been playing in my living room for over a year - a three-chord version of "Will The Circle Be Unbroken." I can sing that sucker in my sleep. I stood up and a girl in the front said encouragingly, "I like your shirt." I had worn my favorite t-shirt featuring several female superheroes. "Yeah, I wore it to give me courage but ..."

I started to play and realize that I had no memory of the chords or the melody. My mind went completely blank. Several false starts until everyone picked up their guitars and tried to remember the chords for me. Highly humiliating. I always thought that drawing-a-blank-from-stage-fright thing was an exaggeration but now I know - it's quite real.

Finally, I quieted everyone down with some insistence, "I know it! I can do this! I just need to close my eyes and pretend none of ya'll are here. Nothing personal." So, that's what I did and managed to get a few verses into it before desperately wanting to get offstage. My chair mates gave me lots of "You did great!" back pats despite my colossal mistakes. Talk about a safe environment - it's like a support group. The teacher kindly said I had a "sweet voice" but that I had made a formidable selection. "You've chosen a spiritual and we are in an old church. You need to dig deep and fill this room."

It was scary as hell and totally exhilarating. I can't wait to do it again.

11 comments:

Mark Dowdy said...

Congrats, Heather! The first time is always the most nerve wracking. There's really no way to prepare yourself for that sudden bout of amnesia, but, after the initial fear has faded, it becomes less of a problem.

That's when the real fun begins ...

ClizBiz said...

Thanks, Mark! I meant to include a paragraph about when I lived with you and noticing how much you practiced and battled the songs until you had them down. Big inspiration.

Xa said...

Bully for you! Way to pull it together and get 'er done.

In college, my ear training professor used to have us sight-sing using "do, re, me" syllables, working up to singing in groups in front of the class. One year, a prospective student and family visited the class just as a group was getting up to sing, and all four people started crying! If that had been my year, I think I'd be among them.

Not sure where that kid ended up at school.

ClizBiz said...

Yeah, my Dad asked if he could come with me and sit in and I had to tell him no. It's definitely an insider's club. I would cry too if outsiders were allowed to observe. Wah!

Susie said...

I love that song. It's on my memorial service playlist. If I outlive you I hope you'll sing it. Actually what would be really cool is if I record myself singing it and then you can sing-a-long.

Or would that be too weird?

I loved it when you sang at CCWX - perhaps you need to drink before class...

hotdrwife said...

Yay for you!

I'd rather sing in front of anyone than speak in public - craziest thing. In high school, I sang the Ntl Anthem before the basketball games and felt compeltely natural doing so. Ask me to stand up and talk? Watch me lick my palms ala Ferris and find me sitting it out.

ClizBiz said...

Susie: Glad to know I am not the only one who as put together a song list for my final farewell. Are we morbid or just good planners?

HDW: That is weird. Again, it's all about what feels natural. We should sing together sometime - maybe I could get some inspiration. Or some perspiration. Or something.

hotdrwife said...

Anytime, mama. Come over, bring the geee-tar, I have my piano, and all we'll need is something to blow on a jug and play the washboard. :)

hotdrwife said...

Something? Let's try SOMEONE. Yay for proofreading. Is it time for wine yet?

Fang Bastardson said...

Sorry to be late to the game, comments-wise... But you performed a number of songs for us in our front room in April of this year, and your voice was lovely. I remarked on it at the time.

I applaud your desire to take your skills to the next level, but even untutored you did an excellent job singing and playing for us. Can't wait to hear what you sound like with some schoolin' under your belt.

Mark was always an inspiration to me too, but eventually I quit drinking anyway.

ClizBiz said...

Fang: You are much too kind. I remember - that was my first public concert and I was horribly nervous. The only thing that pushed me through was the knowledge that you and the Mrs. would still have to love me anyway. (I don't expect a commitment from Lucas until much later.)

Someday, it'd be nice if me, you and Mark got together in somebody's garage and banged out a few tunes - with or without a video camera.