I first picked up a guitar in my freshman year and instantly fell in love with it. I would learn to play off of YouTube videos, jamming for hours every day as the strings steadily ground my fingertips into rock-hard calluses. Such was the mesmerizing power of music. But for a while I told no one about it, for heck I was shy and stubborn: The type of person who scoured every building on campus for empty lounges where he quietly plucked his guitar, all the while hiding his face behind an oversized hoodie.
I never felt good enough.
To play in front of an audience was too much to ask. Majoring in music didn’t help either, for gifted instrumentalists with every right to look down on a novice like me populate the department. Things remained where they were until one ordinary trip to a coffee house made me shed my shell. It was awfully windy that November day at the U of I. Shuddering in my jacket as I exited the library, I decided to grab something warm at a nearby place. When I sat down with my hot cocoa, I noticed a stage in a corner of the room. One could hardly miss the tall stool and microphone on it.
A guy with a guitar entered. He made his way onto the platform and started covering a song. His voice was raspy and his strumming slightly out of pace. “I could do better than that,” I thought as he finished, “unless I don’t get a heart attack in front of all these people.”
“It seems we have time left after this week’s open-mic,” a voice proclaimed. “Anyone of you folks wanna try?”
There was silence for a few seconds before chatter returned to the room.
I looked up and saw the announcer wearing a T-shirt that said “Music for the Masses.” “Anyone? You there… no? How about you?” The guy was awkwardly swinging his finger about trying to revive a fading scene. He got nothing but a dozen tired gazes. I guess the show wasn’t good to begin with. “He’ll do it!” I froze.
“He played every Thursday at night on the third floor of Lincoln [Hall].” A man near the door unwrapped his sturdy hand around his cup. He pointed at me.
“Come on, kid. You can’t hide it forever.” I could have just stormed outside had it not been the frigid wind slicing through my bones. I turned around. Then it came to me who he was. As the janitor, he was the only person who would frequent my secret hideouts. I was so busy jamming that I never even took note of him. He was right: I can’t hide it forever.
My legs shook like jelly as the announcer thrust a guitar onto me.
Despite choosing a song I’ve been playing for days, those sweaty sausages on my left hand kept sliding off the strings. In the middle of my gig, I made muffled strums in places where they were not supposed to be. Just as I thought the nightmare was over, I looked down and found my shoelaces untied. They just dangled before those sitting up front.
“I’m outta here.” I laid down the guitar and bolted off the stage with both eyes closed. But despite my clumsiness, the coffee house erupted in a flurry of applause. “Music for the Masses,” the group hosting this event, offered to sign me up for future events. Now I play for them once every two weeks. Curiously though, as I got better, I never managed to rack up as much excitement as I did with my first performance.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re perfect. People know you’re not Carlos Santana. There’s no point in being scared because people are not here to see you play like a pro. A fumbling new guy is all the fun there is.