I live a lot of my life in front of other people. I write work that is published and, in theory anyway, read by many people. Lots of times, what is published under my byline is written on tight deadline and thus is a pretty raw look at how I write and how I think. It doesn’t really bother me. In my free time, I sing music with a chorus that is routinely put in front of audiences, sometimes with lots of people and sometimes with some amount significantly less than that. Performing for hundreds or thousands of people, nerves never enter the picture.
Something about a crowd excites me. It calms me, even. It allows me the opportunity to creatively express myself—or maybe a heightened version of myself, depending on the medium and the venue—to an anonymous interlocutor. Whether I’m singing or writing doesn’t matter. Even if I’m reporting a dry news story, it requires me to apply news judgment to report what I think is important to the story; thus, the creative responsibility is on me to perhaps look at the story in a way others wouldn’t (otherwise, everyone could be a journalist). It’s fun. At least, that’s my way, as a creative type, of justifying it. Anyway.
A high-school quartet of mine once sang the national anthem at a sold-out Reds game. I was 15 years old (I might’ve been 14, actually, but you get the idea), and standing behind home plate scanning around to see 40,000 people in front of me actually helped me focus on singing.
After we finished singing was when the nerves hit. All of a sudden, walking to my seat meant I was no longer dealing with one crowd; I was dealing instantly with 40,000 people. Forty-thousand people and one crowd of 40,000 people are two entirely different groups. This is my life.
I had to walk past them and through them, and they were going to say things to me (or at me, probably)—even compliments sometimes stir me in a way with which I’m not comfortable—or just look at me and force me to draw my own conclusions about the thing I just did in front of them. As a master of psyching myself out, that never begins, middles or ends well.
From the time I was really young, I’ve spent just about my entire life in front of audiences, whether that means singing or acting or the professional audience of a different kind I remain in front of in my current line of work. I’ve had enough forgotten lyrics, botched lines, missed dance steps, careless typos and inane syntax gaffes to properly evaluate the emotional value of each somewhere around zero. Nothing bad, at least to me, can come from performance. The highs are about the best a human can experience. I chase them every day. The lows aren’t bad at all. You mess up, you move on. The only way to take the fear out of screwing up in front of an audience is to do it a lot, and of all the things I can’t say I’ve accomplished, I sure as hell have made it past that threshold.
But as I got older and found myself in this closest facsimile to adulthood I can accept, the opposite effect affected what happens to me away from an audience. I have trouble enough navigating people every day. As I’ve probably said on this very blog before, the best way to identify me in public by myself is probably by the pattern in which my hair parts. I figure if I keep my head down and walk briskly with my headphones in, I’m safe from the inevitable judgment passed down from the world around me. I can control my world, and honestly, I’d almost always rather track cracks on the sidewalk to a soundtrack I choose than run the risk of making weird eye contact with some guy passing in the bike lane or spend the rest of my day wondering what those two people thought of me when they stopped their conversation as we passed on the sidewalk heading in opposite directions.
I wish I knew how to navigate people the way I can control a crowd (or, at least, the way I can control myself in front of a crowd). Last Saturday, my chorus had an all-day rehearsal which we followed with a “guest night” and a small, informal performance. We probably sang for 150 or 200 people, but I was still in full performance mode. I was featured in front of the chorus at two points in the show, and in two totally different ways: one singing a solo in a medley of Nat King Cole songs, the other yelling testimony in the style of the hillbilly-est southern preacher, straddling the line between laughing and believing, during an epic gospel song. Neither bothered me. Challenging myself to provoke—maybe provoke isn’t the best word, but I’m leaving it in—the audience in different ways is exciting, and if I pull it off, that’s pretty cool.
An audience member saw me across the room and walked up to me afterward to shake my hand before I could quietly retreat to the dressing room. Because of the nature of the performance—it was a night to introduce our chorus to guests and prospective members—I had briefly met this audience member earlier in the night. He was a prospective member of the chorus, and I had even done a little bit of singing with him. He was a high schooler and he was very good, and I even saw a little bit of myself in him because he was so excited about singing around the same age when I first really got excited about it.
So after the show, he came up to me, and I guess he had really dug one of my solos or something (I would like to believe it was the one in which I actually sang, and not the one during which I made a fool of myself yelling like a preacher on cable, but I didn’t ask him). He walked up to me with a big smile on his face, shook my hand and said, “Man, who are you?” He laughed. I laughed. I had a normal, human conversation with him, somebody I had never met until he put himself out there because he felt a thing inside him that told him he should say something. I don’t know why he felt this urge, and in my state of social semi-shortcomings, it’s difficult for me to even understand that urge. But earlier I had felt something in common with and even seen some of myself in this person, and he just did something I don’t know if I’ve ever done. How many times in my life have I walked across a room of crowded people with the sole intent of saying something thoughtful to a person I didn’t know? Sure, there was a bit of context that made it a little less constricting for him to say that thing to me. But what is it about some people like me that’s programmed so that such a small task—one that I know firsthand made me feel so much better about myself than I did in the instant before he said it—feels nearly impossible? I can’t walk down the street with my chin up, let alone approach somebody I don’t know and tell them about a thing they did that affected me. Just now, it took me a solid 30 or 40 seconds to decide how to ask the person at the coffee shop if they’d mind shifting over for a second while I plugged in my computer. If stage fright is being nervous and anxious in front of crowds, I guess I have the opposite of that. Is off-stage fright a thing? I’m not sure.
So I guess the point of the 1,300 words of drivel to this point has led to this: On Saturday, a teenager walked up to me and, without him having any idea, made me decide to try to get over it. I guess walking with my head down and keeping to myself has “worked” to this point, but I think this is a social hurdle worth clearing. I don’t know what the end game is, but if a life of being in front of audiences has taught me anything, it’s that forcing myself outside my comfort zone has always made me a better performer in some tangible way. Maybe if I make it a habit to walk with my head up, I’ll realize that the world in front of me isn’t as judgmental and unkind as I currently perceive it to be. Maybe if I make it a habit to occasionally consider complimenting a friend on something he or she wrote or a shirt he or she wore, or even a stranger in a coffee shop on the book he or she is reading—maybe then I’ll realize it isn’t so hard despite the idiotic words surely falling out of my face. Hey, maybe I’ll realize something I know to be true even if I have seemingly inescapable fear practicing it in reality: Putting myself out there when I’m not in front of an audience can be just as tough, but it can (probably) be just as rewarding.
To start, I’m going to walk with my head up more and my headphones in less. That seems like a small thing, but I’m going to try to do it. I don’t know what step comes next. I know I would never become a better writer or a better singer without working toward making it happen. I would be a fool to believe I’d ever be a better person without similar tangible steps.