Monday, March 12, 2012

Songwriting: Performance Milestones

This weekend just past I performed an original song, "The Power of Love," at a fundraiser Cabaret in Madison, a song I wrote last December, and revised somewhat while I was on my latest roadtrip. It was a personal performance milestone for me, because it was the first time that I've sung an original song while also playing Stick. Actually, the first time I've publicly sung and played at the same time. (You know, the usual post-folksong-revival singer-songwriter gig, where the singer/songwriter accompanies herself while singing. Usually on guitar; but I have no feel for guitar, have never learned to play it well, and never really sought to.)

For this Cabaret show I had piano accompaniment, so it was a fuller, richer sound for the song's instrumentation. It also gives me confidence to play with other musicians; I've always preferred ensemble to purely solo performances. The music I feel most confident performing, when in a purely solo setting, is improvised looping, which allows me to build layers of chords and melody over longer frames of time. For this singer/songwriter debut (I guess that's what it was!), it was very confidence-building for me to be able to perform with one other instrumentalist who knows how to improvise on chords from a lead sheet.

While I sang, I mostly played bass lines on Stick, a few treble chords, and simple bass patterns. I also managed to play a simple eight-bar solo after the bridge. We had two performances on consecutive nights; the second night I performed much better, didn't flub any notes or lyrics the way I had the first night. It's the sort of audience that would support you even during a train wreck, though, so it was a good, safe environment to try out a new performance skill, and build a little confidence around it.

I received several compliments about the song, and my performance—both because it was a new song written for the occasion, and a song unlike anything else on the variety-show program. Receiving compliments is Zen practice being about simple and graceful for receiving praise with neither false modesty nor self-denigration. One couple came up to me after the first night, and said that while I was performing, they were thinking of Neil Young: I took that as a major compliment, and was grateful for it. Some others said they really liked that I had done an original song; they also liked how I'd played, and (as often happens) were intrigued by the Stick.

Remember, as a performer you may know exactly where you performed imperfectly or made mistakes, but the audience usually will not. From their perspective, the performance is seamless and evocative, and the roughness may actually be part of the aesthetic. (Roughness and rawness are often part of the singer/songwriter aesthetic, in fact, where they are often seen positive qualities because they're authentic, not polished to an artificial diamond-hard sheen.)

At this point, I know a lot of more experienced musicians with lots of coffee-house gigs behind them will be thinking, Duh! But remember: what's old hat for you is still new for others. It's always good to remember we're not all alike, and more importantly, that it's never too late to try out venues or styles or performance modes that are new to you. You're never too old or experienced to carve new milestones for your personal roads.

I approached this performance mentally as though it was a poetry reading or open mic type of situation, which made it easier for introverted me to engage with an audience, even a supportive audience. I am actually pretty good at engaging with an audience, but it takes a lot out of me: I have to work up to it, psych myself up for it as it were, and it's tiring to be "on" for any significant length of time. After being "on" for an evening, coming home to the silent sanctuary of my own home is recharging.

I don't plan to run out and perform at local open mics all the time now. I'm a little past that point, careerwise. Nonetheless it's nice to know you can do it when you need to.

Some years ago, I believed very strongly that I was incapable of playing Stick (or bass or piano) and singing at the same time; I admired the musicians I saw doing that, but did not believe that I could do it, too. Now I have broken through, and done exactly that. Somewhere over the past few years of tribulation, turbulence, death and change, I acquired the self-confidence to break through that self-limiting idea. Actually, I know exactly where: It was during this past year of writing a major music commission, which basically has given me confidence to be a songwriter, combined with the attitude of: Who gives a shit, just do it, life's too short, and you almost died already, so take a risk, what have you got to lose. I am taking a lot more artistic risks in the wake of almost dying. Yet—while I could glibly chalk my attitude change up as another example of post-surgery life-changing alterations in my overall attitude—because this is about music, which is the artform I practice that is most closely connected to my heart and soul, it goes much deeper. It goes all the way down to my core, to my root self-image, to my Warrior self, to my self-confidence not just as an artist but as a person. This morning after the gigs, I feel a contentment, a self-confidence, a sense of accomplishment, that is both soothing and exhilarating. In simple words: I feel good.

Some other musicians will view this milestone as coming to me very late, compared to their own careers in performance and writing songs. They may have performed their first song while accompanying themselves very much earlier in life. But that's exactly my point in writing about this experience:

Personal milestones are individual.

They happen at different rates for different people. There is no one "usual" artistic career. There is no point at which you stop growing up, and become a stable, unchanging person or artist. (Stasis equals death.) There is no time at which you have "arrived," and don't have to continue to keep walking on your pilgrimage, keep walking towards the summit of your personal mountain. You don't have the luxury of coasting, you need to keep working. Artists don't retire, the way office workers do. You keep making art till you expire—I think most painters, for example, would be happy to die with the brush still wet in their hand. You keep going until the very end.

I have every intention of using this personal milestone experience to fuel more exploration, more artistic risk, and more reaching out past self-imposed limits that I once thought were permanent but have now become as insubstantial as mist. I don't know where the road will lead me next, but I do not doubt that it will contain more milestones.

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