If you're anything like me, you feel self-conscious in front of other people. Last time I caught an airplane, I went to the front of the plane to use the toilet right behind the cockpit, and had to wait at the front because it was already occupied. I felt that rush of shame on realizing that the other passengers could see me waiting. Somehow in my head, I imagined them thinking the worst; even though they probably weren't thinking about me at all.
In situations like this I like to pretend that other people are always thinking great things like “Wow, he's awesome!” when they look at me, and while that's helpful, it hasn't entirely made the anxiety go away. One of my favorite hobbies is playing music, and it recently gave me the opportunity to confront this fear head-on.
I've been playing guitar for around 6 years now, and I can strum up a decent tune on my own or playing with friends. But I get nervous playing in public; I feel anxious and my mind wanders through a series of stressful thoughts like “I'm crap!”, “I'll mess it up”, “They (whoever is listening) won't like it”, “They won't like the song I've chosen”, “My singing sounds bad” etc etc.
The first time I played guitar for an audience was in my guitar class, and although I was nervous it went really well. The teacher wanted us to have a good experience playing in front of people, and the best way to conquer the fear was to play in front of a friendly crowd who were all in the same boat as beginner guitarists.
The next time I played in front of an audience was in a comedy club, doing a variation of American Pie with humorous lyrics. I was so nervous that my left hand couldn't make the chord shapes, and the anxiety got worse the longer I played. One of the guys in the audience yelled out “You've killed a great song!”
Damn hecklers! Damn anxiety! Damn damn damn damn damn!
It was a few years before I wanted to play in front of an audience again.
However, now with those few years extra practise under my plectrum, I signed up for Music On The Streets in Bondi Beach. This was the first time I was going busking for money, and I was both excited and nervous. Would I be able to do it? Would the fear take over again? Would I make any money?
The only way to know was to give it a go.
I've had a lot more practice playing guitar in front of a friendly audience since my traumatic comedy club experience. I do volunteer work playing music for disadvantaged people with A Sound Life once a week, and since it's roughly the same audience each week I get to build rapport with them; so it's not like a new crowd of potentially hostile strangers all the time.
I've also expanded my repertoire a lot, with lots of songs from books like Hal Leonards's Best Pop Songs For Easy Guitar, plus a couple of originals.
So last Sunday I headed down to busk in Bondi Beach alongside the other local musicians. This event organized by the local chamber of commerce is the only day of the year that it's legal to busk in Bondi Beach, so it's pretty popular. I went to the cafe to get my allocated spot, and headed out to set up my busking amplifier, Fender Stratocaster electric guitar, headset microphone and associated gear; and started to play.
At first I felt nervous as expected, but it was bearable. I started off with a song that I often play for the Down Syndrome kids: I'm a Believer by The Moneys, which they know as “the song from Shrek” via the Smash Mouth cover used in the movie. They like it because it's great to dance to, and I like it because all the chords are very easy to play. When I'm nervous, it's good to start with something that's pretty much guaranteed to go well.
I was off to a flying start, and it wasn't long before a man with two kids wandered past and gave his young son some money to put in my guitar case. Yipee! I was now busy earnin'.
Initially I felt self-conscious about singing, but remembered what my friend Adrian had learned from one of Bobby McFerrin's improvised singing classes: just wait until the urge to sing hits you. Before long it did, and I was singing along with my guitar.
It also wasn't long before my musician friend Steve came past and suggested that he abandon his spot outside McDonald's and join me instead, along with his didgeridoo, guitar and cahon. By this time, and with Steve's moral support, my nerves were significantly reduced.
Steve and I worked our way through a whole bunch of song and improvisations and we jammed on the streets for about three hours. By the end, we'd raised $32.35 for charity and I'd overcome my fear of being seen via busking!