Two weeks before my open mic appearance, I begin learning my first song on the banjo.
Although it’s far from my first choice, I settle on a song that meets my basic skill level: “Old Joe Clark”, one of those traditional folk songs that repeats the same simple melody over and over. The lyrics are silly and I think I’ll be able to sing them in a funny voice, which is key because I’ve never had any confidence in my singing.
As I sit down to learn the first few chords it strikes me as totally odd that in two weeks I’ll actually be walking on to a stage and not only playing my banjo, but attempting to sing — in front of people. The idea is so far-fetched, so many miles outside the small town of my comfort zone that I’m not even apprehensive about it. I know that in the moments before I’m called to the stage my body will be overtaken by the high tingle of panic-mode and I’ll have to concentrate on taking deep breaths and mentally reminding myself, “This means I’m alive”.
But in the meantime I feel more in awe of myself. I’m seriously going to do this? As if. Like many of the things I fear, this is an experience I’ve longed for. I got my banjo two years ago with performance in mind, and then never put any effort into learning anything.
After a few days of practicing “Old Joe Clark”, I decide I don’t like it. It seems silly to perform a song I feel no connection to. So I stop practicing. Over the next week-and-a-half I struggle to fi nd something new — something with resonance, something edgy and interesting, something breathtaking. Something that will give my audience the feeling other musicians give me. But I keep coming up against the limits of my skill level. Song after song proves to be, in one way or another, beyond the scope of a first-timer with a very limited time-frame.
Frustrated, with three nights between me and the stage, I decide to finally watch the instructional DVD that came with my banjo. After a short intro, it begins teaching me to play a familiar song: “Old Joe Clark”.
A new thought occurs to me: the point of this exercise is not to surprise everyone with the amazing musical skills I’ve pulled out of nowhere. The point is for me to try something I feel very uncomfortable doing — something I would otherwise keep putting off, maybe forever.
I lay my lofty musical aspirations aside and accept myself where I am: a beginner. I practice constantly for three days, until my wrists and shoulders and fi ngertips are sore. I arrive at Gold Pan Saloon’s open mic night on Thursday, strategically late, hoping to play to a mostly empty room. Instead it’s packed to capacity. Katie Avery is playing her fi ddle. One of the guys from The Midnight Sons Band follows her. Ryan McNally is in the audience. The place is brimming with actual musicians. My elusive nervousness finally shows up. I order myself a beer.
It’s not long before I’m motioned towards the stage. I groan and sip the last of my drink. I start with a heavy preface: I’m not a musician, I learned this song three days ago, I’m only here to face my fear. Then I begin to play.
And it is as if someone has placed a glass around me, like a spider on a table. There are people all around watching me, but I feel completely alienated from them. And the sound of my banjo is out there with them — the sensation of my fi ngers moving across the strings feels so removed from the loud melody I can hear coming through the speakers. The room is so noisy that I can’t hear my own voice as it leaves my body; I only hear it coming back to me through the speakers, like it belongs to someone else.
After the first verse my mind blanks. I forget the lyrics, the notes, what comes next. I pause, less than 30 seconds in, and look out at my audience, bewildered. People cheer me on. “Keep going,” they shout.
I begin to laugh as I realize why I am forgetting everything. I should not have had that beer.
Afterwards, no one tells me I was good. But they do say I was endearing. They say I was composed. They tell me how cool it is that I just did this — I played my first open mic night.
Because, of course, almost everyone in the room has been in my place before. Everyone who performs has had a first performance.