Most of the time on this blog I write about my son, but today I wanted to do something different. What I would like to do instead is answer a question that nobody is actually asking, but has been nagging at me lately anyway. Why in the heck to I play guitar and sing in public? The answer is certainly not “because I think I’m awesome.” I consider my skill as a guitar player to be, at best, an advanced beginner. Vocally I think most of the time I am generally okay, occasionally I am reasonably good, and more frequently than I would like I am a train wreck. As for my stage presence and general abilities as a live performer, I am pretty much a rank amateur. So why in the heck do I do it?
Like many people, my love of music started very young. I played trombone all through middle school and high school and spent my junior and senior years as First Chair in my section. I was pretty decent, maybe above average for a high school student, but not anything spectacular. The day I graduated, I put down my instrument and never played again. I also sang in the choir throughout my school years, even into college, and was heavily involved in drama. I was on stage a lot as a teenager, and loved every minute of it. Even so, I had never for a moment considered doing it for a living. It just didn't seem practical.
The other thing I never, ever did was to play in a band. I didn’t pick up a guitar until I was nearly 20, and I missed out on the experience of making awful music in a garage and playing terribly in somebody’s basement. It seems like a silly thing to regret, but I really kinda do. With any skill you have to go through the part where you are awful before you ever get to the part where you are not. You have to build those callouses, both physical and spiritual, before you can attain any level of mastery. For me, I blew right past the phase in life where that usually happens fur guitar players.
At the time I did invent the perfect 80’s hair metal band, though. They only ever existed in joking conversations with my best friend, but they would have been awesome. The band was called Baby Factory, and their first big hit would have been “OB/GYN (Oh Baby / Gimme Your Number)”. I can still see them in my mind, strutting on stage in their spandex and spiked hair, wailing into the microphone and playing blazing guitar riffs. Their first album, “Pre-Mature Labor”, would have had cover art that showed a factory assembly line manned entirely by infants wearing diapers and hard hats. The follow-up album, called “Oedipus Complex”, would have shown the same infant workers at home in a suburban tract-house development where all of the buildings had architectural touches like Roman columns and such. The worker babies would be out front mowing their lawns, with their mothers bringing them cool classes of lemonade. I’m telling you, Baby Factory would have been huge. Sadly, their time has come and gone. I am still tempted, though, to finally get around to actually writing “OB/GYN”.
In any case, my college years came and went without me ever learning those performance skills. By the time I was 23 I had fallen in love, gotten married, and had a child. My party-days-that-never-were were past, and it was time for me to knuckle down, have a career, and support my family. I got out of my dead-end food service job and into software development without a glance back. I remained a music consumer, but for a very long time I did not make any music. It was a void in my life that I didn’t even notice until just a few years ago.
At some point, a few years after moving to Florida, I finally recognized that there was a music-shaped hole in my life that needed to be filled. I joined a community choir, began to sing every week, and for a time that was enough. Then I began picking up my guitar, and it felt good. I found that during my work day if I was struggling with a particular piece of code it would help if I pushed the keyboard away for a few minutes, picked up the guitar, and sang a song or two. I got a little Traveler Guitar to bring with me on business trips, and would find myself sitting in my hotel room in the evening making music to unwind from a difficult day. (Most of the time I work alone in my home office, and while I certainly value getting to occasionally spend time in person with my co-workers I also find being in an office around lots of people to be extremely draining.)
The thing is, I have gone about as far as I can musically by playing alone in a quiet room. Music definitely has its personal side, and I continue to have two guitars within arms-reach of my computer while I am working, but at a certain point music is meant to be shared. More importantly, there are some skills that just can’t be learned without putting yourself out there in front of other people. A while back I tried playing at an open mike night at a coffee house in Winter Park, FL, but I never really clicked there. It didn't feel like people were there to enjoy making music, rather it felt like the entire crowd was just guys with guitars (seriously, 90% or more were dudes) just waiting to play their fifteen minute set and get out of there. I found it to be really unpleasant and mechanical.
Then a few months ago I heard about a local open mike night right in my home town of Winter Garden. I went to check it out, and talked my wife into coming along. I expected more of the same, but figured I might as well stop in at least once. You know what I found there? Family.
It's not so much an open mike night, as it is an evening of people hanging around singing show tunes and Disney music. The people are beyond nice, and yet the level of talent is just amazing. The first song I ever played there was Skullcrusher Mountain, and they got it. I can bounce around between playing my original songs, old Harry Chapin tunes, and random weird stuff like Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, and the audience actually enjoys it. Heck, I have successfully thrown in covers of Wrecking Ball and Let It Go. It's like my own little patch of heaven.
Along the way I am gradually getting better at the technical stuff. Stupid things like remembering to turn up the volume on my guitar pickups so people can hear me (you would not believe how often I forget to turn that knob), or how to react when I drop a pick or break a string without going Tharn (if you're not familiar with the term, it's a Watership Down reference that describes that horrible sensation of just being frozen in terror). I really try to push myself, and come with something new every week. Sometimes it's a huge success, and sometimes it's a complete train wreck. But even when it runs right off the rails, it's a valuable learning experience.
Beyond all of that, though, there is one more reason I play there every week that trumps all of the others: because I love my wife, and Thursday nights at Pilars has become our weekly night out. It's so easy to get buried in the day-to-day minutia of work, chores, and being a caregiver for my adult autistic son and my aging mother. There just aren't enough hours in the day, and too often it seems like the person I love most is the one who gets taken for granted. It's just not right. And so, for a few hours every Thursday evening we take a break from the rest of life and just go hang out with awesome, talented people while we enjoy each other's company. In a few short months it has become my favorite time of the week, something that I constantly look forward to.
The side-effect is that any of you who follow me on Facebook get taunted with my performances. Sorry. You'll just have to live with it. I have something special planned for next week, so watch out.