I played at a friend’s Vintage Holiday Market weekend event this morning in Staunton, VA. I had one of the three hour-long slots for local musicians.
I really haven’t done much of this, and it has been a good long while since I coffee housed it. Last time was about 15 years ago in northern VA in a church-hosted coffee house type setting.
I’d forgotten so much about standing up in front of a crowd. Actually, the first thing that slipped my mind was the issue of pre-performance jitters. I remember clearly, from that long ago coffee house gig, feeling those butterflies onstage, and being distracted enough while at the microphone as to loose my place in the tune. But in this instance today I sort of forgot how to be jittery, and what I should worry about. I eventually figured it out, and went on to worry about nearly everything. The chair. The weather. The dress code. The “audience.” The venue (my friend’s store).
Mary, my wife, seeing I was preoccupied about the gig, asked me, rhetorically, what I had to worry about. Performance anxiety? I had, she said, spent the last 20 years in the Pentagon, performing on a daily basis before our country’s highest level defense and security leaders. Why would playing the banjo be nearly as unnerving as briefing Donald Rumsfeld?
That sort of put it in context.
But there were clearly things that I should have thought about more, or be more thoughtful (or wise) about in my planning.
First, this was an open air market, and Staunton is beginning to see the first bit of winter. Morning started out at 28 degrees, and by the time I took the catbird seat it had warmed up to 33 degrees. I should have hauled along my warmer banjo. Dressing in layers keeps the body warm. Wearing a hat cuts down on the consequences for one’s scalp in a wind tunnel-like open market area. But there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of clever articles of clothing that will keep the fingers warm and flexible. Biker’s gloves are fine if one is concerned with keeping one’s palms warm. But my fingers were cold enough to start walking off the stage before I’d finished each tune.
Second, being out of practice, I fretted a lot about how to fill up an hour with tunes. When I play for the Banjo Hangout Tune of the week, the Youtube Videos I cobble together generally run about 90 seconds. How does one fill an hour without drawing some of these tunes out so that they’re being played too long, or jamming so many tunes into the mix at the risk of taking on too much of a program. I decided to make up a list of about 15 G tunes, and 5 Modal or Double C tunes, and play them each for about three minutes – the average time of each tune on some of my favorite Dwight Diller CDs. That worked out well – in theory.
In practice, things were a bit different. The Third point is that once you list a tune on your program, you have to go about remembering that tune. Between the hubbub of the market, the impact of the cold weather on my mind and body, and the distraction of seeing so many lovely little kids decked out in inventive Halloween costumes I found myself loosing altitude on some tunes even though I jotted down a snippet or two in “tab” on my list alongside of the tunes I thought I might forget how to kick off. When that happened, I found myself drifting to an unscripted moment, noodling around quickly until I came to a tune more deeply rooted in my memory bank than the one I had selected for my list. While I would not say my performance was seamless, I would say that not many people noticed these few moments of hesitation.
And that brings me to the Fourth point. Playing in front of an audience at a concert, or a coffee house, is far different than being the “background noise” in a market-like setting. My friend the market owner seated me in the midst of about 8 tents for the various vendors, in the foot traffic pattern of customers milling about the large open parking lot in which the event played out, but I ended up being (very comfortably) invisible in spite of being at Ground Zero for this little event. Playing as background noise allows the protection of anonymity, and the only slight disadvantage is when a gaggle of shoppers decide to stop and chat with another clutch of market visitors right in front of the banjo player’s lonesome little chair. The up side is that it is sort of like playing comfortably on one’s front porch, protected by hanging vines and foliage – and one’s aggressively protective hounds. The down side is that one can drift toward playing in that quiet, intimate way – low, slow, tuned down and under the radar scope to the point that not many will hear the banjo. I had to keep all this in mind sand periodically adjust my projection power to match the decibels of the market goers.
I’d say “yes” to a return performance, but I’ll spend a lot of time hoping that such an event might take place in the warmer weather of spring.