The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts December 8, 2006

The View From the Stage

They say you should practice what you preach. A friend of mine, junior Emily Hultman, and her band, Moirae, performed an indie/folk show at the Cat in the Cream last Wednesday. I performed two covers in a duet with Emily, singing and playing the guitar. And it was terrifying.

I thought at first that I could pull it off. I thought I could play the part of the seasoned performer onstage and that maybe people would believe I’d been playing the guitar for more than a year. I’d watched plenty of other people do it, why couldn’t I? The Cat inspires this confident behavior. Filled with candles and cookies, it screams, “I’m more akin to a bunny rabbit than your worst nightmare!” And while it is making this declaration, you have a panic attack on stage.

The band had left the stage; I, in turn, left the good-sized crowd, sat down amongst the instruments of an abandoned stage, muttered something silly into the microphone and Emily and I began to play. It was everything I could do to keep a steady rhythm.

I suppose performance should not be so daunting to me. I grew up giving annual piano and violin recitals, which made me nervous, but I was usually still breathing in the hour approaching. These little events happened in venues as small as living rooms and as large as actual recital halls, but with one main difference: the house lights almost always remained on. Maybe this was due to the fact that my various music teachers understood that stage lighting is frightening.

There’s a reason I like picture windows. I like to watch the people go by; I like to see their expressions, wonder why she is smiling and he is furrowing his brow. The setting onstage puts you in the picture window. It threw me off to have my own view of the world snatched away, to be replaced by what I like to call “the dark abyss.”

This sight is far from friendly. You fear what you don’t know. Well, I had no idea who was sitting two feet in front of me. Where do you focus your gaze? It is hard not to look like a particularly theatrical deer in the headlights.

Most people I talk to tell me that the dark abyss is a good thing: not seeing the faces helps them forget that there are faces at all. But I can’t lie to myself like that. There are definitely faces. They exist. Because they exist, you have to talk to them.

This is yet another difference between my past recitals and this show. I have never had to talk to an audience before I played. I just went up there and played. Impersonal but safe.

I wish I could tell you what I said to the audience at the Cat that night, but my mind has a tendency to immediately erase all the things I have done that it finds particularly embarrassing. I’m guessing that my mumbled intros were not things to be proud of.

Of course, I’m forgetting that, to the crowd, they were probably not mumbled. They were probably perfectly clear because, you see, I spoke into a microphone. When have I done that before? Probably never. Mics pick up every little thing, voice and guitar, and ensure that the audience can hear. I have a theory that they actually amplify shaking hands and uncertainty in your voice.

I’m sure the microphone did just that for me last week, but I am not sorry that I created this amusing display. In fact, I plan to do it again, hopefully in a new and improved form. After getting over that crazy nervous feeling, somewhere in the middle of my second song, I started to appreciate performance.

So it was only a cover (Josh Ritter’s “Wings”), but it still let me convey a message in a way that did not involve talking. And everyone was listening. I like performing for the same reason I like to write: it’s a way of amplifying a certain sentiment, giving the specifics of a certain idea, without going through the tricky process of explaining it verbally.

In addition to stage fright, I now have even more respect for my fellow singer/songwriter and a desire to take a slightly more active role in the exploration of this insightful world of musicians.


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