You ever been on a stage, in the spotlight, with every eye in the audience glued to you? The whole place is silent, anxiously waiting for you to begin. Pretty frickin' unnerving, right? But, after playing and singing hundreds of times in front of people, the butterflies in your stomach begin to dissipate. Then, after playing and singing thousands of times in front of people, you forget what being nervous felt like, even though when you first began performing you were terrified to be in front of an audience. Last night, at the first vocal competition I've ever entered that was judged by an actual panel of musicians/music teachers, and not by peers, those butterflies I'd forgotten came in like a wrecking ball. And they wre-e-ecked me in a most hilarious fashion; lemme tell ya about it.
I've always been competitive by nature, annoyingly so, as a child. I was the sore loser, I'll admit it. I was the kid who flipped over the Monopoly board when he lost. The one who wanted to fight the other players on the opposing team because they were winning. The one who hit pause on the NES to try and make you fall in a pit on Super Mario because you've got more lives than me. Yeah, I was that asshole. But, as I've grown older, I realized the best competition is with yourself. Competitiveness is sometimes productive, but in my case it can get out of hand---cooperation works out better for me. Also, no matter my skill level or IQ, on our great big planet somebody out there is better, or smarter. Why stress over it? However, we're all unique. Better to challenge oneself and develop that uniqueness rather than destroy your spirit constantly comparing yourself with others. Music has always seemed a more cooperative sport, ya know? Until last night. Anyway, enough pontificating, on to my demise!
I walk in the joint, about a half hour before the competition, and it's pretty packed. Probably close to 100 folks, a not untypical crowd at some of the restaurants I play, so not unfamiliar territory. The small stage is in a corner, left of the door, and the DJ signals for me to approach. I introduce myself and we discuss how we will set up my keyboard. As we chat, an older woman walks up and asks for the person in charge, as she's one of the judges. The DJ points her toward the Emcee and, for some reason, after meeting the judge, I feel a faint fluttering in my stomach. Hmm...
I set up my keyboard to the side of the stage and we plug it in, get a sound check. However, much to mine, and many other performers' detriment, no one is given a microphone level check. For a vocal competition. No chance to get a volume level for vocals. For a vocal competition. The butterflies start multiplying.
I sign up with the Emcee and notice I'm about 12th on the list. I go to the bar and grab a water and a Blue Moon, and park on a stool to observe my competitors. They're a motley crew, ranging from kids to old dudes, me somewhere in the middle. Mostly guitar players, though some sang with backing tracks(like karaoke). In retrospect, the night might have gone different if I'd just gone the backing track route, but, ah, hindsight. The night wouldn't have been nearly as funny, though.
After a couple grueling hours of waiting, trying to determine why the hell I'm so nervous, and sipping my beer, I'm up next. My nerves have calmed a bit, however I'm anticipating the possible monitor(speaker)situation on stage. You see, if you've never sang with a microphone through amplified speakers, you may not realize that it's pretty imperative to be able to hear your own voice, hopefully through the speaker on the stage, known as a monitor, or if you have no monitor, at least through the main speakers. Makes sense, right? If, for some reason you have no monitor and the main speakers are so far in front of you they can't be heard, the volume on the stage needs to be low enough so you can hear your voice from your mouth straight to your ears. In other words, the instrument running through your monitor needs to be lower than your vocal.
As a side note, my confidence also plummeted when I realized the DJ had a young protege, who was being trained on how to run sound that night. A kid, who was apparently young enough that his buzz was confined to sweet tea, ran the sound for most of the competitors--while the DJ constantly walked away to talk to people in the crowd--at a vocal competition. At a vocal competition with a Nashville recording contract as the prize. A little kid is getting trained. Dude...
Anyway, my name is called. I walk through the crowd and jump on stage, quickly grabbing the quarter-inch cable for my keyboard, hoping the young sound Padawan has muted the channel, as he did not for several other competitors, so the speakers make that loud popping noise that's so good on equipment and everyone loves to hear at shows. Almost as fun as the high-pitched squealing feedback from microphones
I plug in the keyboard(no pop, hooray!), grab my bench, and go to work. I quickly "check, check" into the mic, trying to gauge a quick level from my monitor. Good, DJ has it turned down low enough that I hear my voice and keyboard nearly completely through the main speakers. I can roll with that.
Ok, another quick sidebar, and I'll stop digressing and start making fun of myself. I promise. One of the judges, as introduced by the Emcee earlier, was some old guy tied musically to Muscle Shoals(I didn't catch the whole spiel from the Emcee, I'll be honest), who worked with lots of big artists in the 70s/80s. I did catch the first artist he named, though--Lionel Richie. Love Lionel. Only problem was, before arriving to the competition, I'd already decided my first song was going to be "Easy", by none other than Mr. Lionel Richie and the Commodores. So, part of my neurotic internal monologue while at the bar waiting, a few minutes prior, consisted of a heated debate of dropping the Lionel Richie song so I wouldn't seem like I was pandering to that judge. Or, that I might not do a LR song justice, in the guy's mind. But, I'm really stubborn, so I stuck to my guns. Which might've still worked out, but good ole Johnny Cash is the one who ended up derailing my Lionel train. I definitely did not hear that train a comin'...
We're back on stage--stay with me, stay with me, we're nearly there--and I run a G chord up the keyboard, getting those old neurons firing, muscle memory putting me in the zone, butterflies subsiding. I look up at the crowd. And every eye and ear in the audience is glued to me. As the butterflies return in force, my brain betrays me. As a wise man once said, 'sometimes you gotta blame the thing up here'. Instead of introducing myself, or saying to the crowd, "Hey folks, how are you tonight?", which me and my brain have done so many times before, I say, in my best bass voice:
"Ladies and Gentlemen, I'm not Johnny Cash."
Let's pause and reflect a little. At a live show, I sometimes do what actors call "breaking the fourth wall" when I've got a crowd that's unresponsive. Typically, fun little songs(maybe the theme from "Cheers" or "Peanuts")or a funny phrase or story before doing a song. For example, typically before I perform Folsom Prison Blues by Mr. Cash, I usually say the above line, in a bass voice, then pause a moment and launch into the song. It sometimes gets a giggle or two and, better yet, usually helps break the ice and lets folks know I'm fun and approachable. We're all in the mood for a melody, ya know, I'm the piano man.
But, see, the joke kinda only works if I play a Johnny Cash song. And I'm definitely not doing a Johnny Cash song. As I begin to play the intro to Easy, my fingers spring into action as my mind reels from my introduction(or non-introduction)to the judges, and audience, at my first vocal competition, for a Nashville recording contract as the prize.
I'm not sure if I can come back from this, but I'm in it to win it. I close my eyes, try to relax and get in the zone, and focus on a strong vocal. At least I'll be able to hear my voice, so I can focus on singing the best I can. I'm at the end of the intro, nearly time to hit that first note...
Then, as if Johnny Cash wasn't enough, the DJ, or his adolescent helpy helperton, not sure which, jacks the volume of my keyboard up in my monitor by many orders of magnitude. Like, I dunno if I've ever heard any keyboard so loud through anything, especially not a speaker 6 feet from my ear. It's so loud it's distorting from the bass and many of the notes I hit don't even sound like a piano anymore, it's such a sharp sound. Oh, and as a bonus, my vocal doesn't get turned up at all! At a vocal competition. He turned my keyboard up to 11 and my vocal was still at like 2.
So here I am, I just told everybody I wasn't Johnny Cash, all I can hear is my piano bouncing around my skull, and I start singing. Those damn butterflies somehow made their way into my vocal chords and caused my voice to shake like I was 13 year old Stephen singing his first solo at church. As I strain to hear my vocal, I can already tell that I'm singing too loudly, nearly shouting, but ya really can't sing quieter with 120 decibels of piano slapping your eardrums. Imagine when you listen to music on your headphones, max volume, bass thumping, and you try to talk to someone. That.
I somehow choke my way through the song, managing to only go pitchy a couple times. One song down, one to go, then it'll all be over. Of course, my second pick was a much more challenging song, naturally. I turn to the DJ and ask him to please, for the love of everything holy, turn my keys down and my vocal up for the next song. He complies and the sound is much better; I notice less blood trickling from my ears.
I'd love to say I rallied, sang Rocket Man the best it's ever been done, got a standing ovation, and won the contest by a landslide. But, I cannot. I was still so nervous my voice actually cracked. Yeah. Just like 13 year old Stephen singing his first solo at church. On one of the strongest songs in my arsenal. Plus, I grimaced after doing it, something I years ago trained myself never to do if you screw up on stage. Like an amateur, I grimaced. As I finished the song and hastily shambled off the stage, I knew two things. I was going to the bar to get another Blue Moon, which wouldn't be sipped this time. And, I can still apparently get nervous as hell when performing in front of people.
Now, friends and neighbors, after reading this tale of woe you might be saying, "But Stephen, you sound like you're chalking your failure up to sound issues, do you think you'd have won if the sound was perfect?"
Doubtful. I dunno if my neurosis is more neurotic than yours--not a competition I wanna win--but I reckon because of my unfamiliarity and inexperience of singing competitions, I worked myself into some sorta nervous frenzy. Why, Johnny, why did you throw me into that burning ring of fire?! I learned a lesson, though: as confident as you may be in your abilities and your experience, you can still be derailed...