my 1st gig in over a year
Leading up to my first public performance in over a year, I had to relearn how to deal with performance anxiety & efficient preparation.
Before Tuesday, the last time I'd performed in-person for others — and gotten paid to do it — was this unique collaboration in November of 2020.
In the months since, I've surprised myself by sustaining my musical practice without external motivation — churning out scales & sound exercises in my living room, concocting my own recording projects.
While quarantine has taken away external motivation, it has allowed me to reconnect in isolation with the beauty of my sound. To rediscover a deep joy in that beauty. A sense of purpose, even.
The specific texture of my sound — the way it feels like sunlight to me — is pretty much why I'm still a musician. Sometimes my sound "disappears" for a week, or several. But so far it's always come back, whether after a few days off or after weeks of constant practice.
Being in quarantine has taught me to make music for no other reason than, it's beautiful & brings me deep joy.
While the loss of opportunities to share music through live performance has been painful, an active performing career has no longer felt necessary to being a "real" musician.
Along with deconstructing why I make music, I've noticed growth in my capacity for expression through phrasing. (Among musicians, phrasing is like how you speak a sentence so that the mere sound of it communicates meaning.) This has led to immense growth in confidence about my playing.
Yet I've conflated this flourishing with isolation — for the first time in my life as a musician, there's no pressure to sound "good enough" for others.
Content with making music in isolation (even if to others, this meant being an "amateur"), I thought I'd let go of a performing career. I'd accepted that the kinds of collaborations I want to contribute my sound to — multidisciplinary, community-based, cross-cultural — were rare & happened on their own timelines. They could never form the basis of a career.
But they could catch me by surprise. A couple months ago, I heard from the directors of "Khūrākī," a show by RealTime Interventions & women of Pittsburgh's Afghan refugee community. I'd performed music for "Khūrākī" since 2019. We were in the middle of a run in Millvale when quarantine began. Now, two years later, we'd be performing at Carnegie Mellon University.
To prepare, I spent most of January & February bringing my playing back to "performance-level" — in other words, remembering how it feels to carry the weight of others' listening in my playing.
Unfortunately, in my case this means reabsorbing years' of tension, generated by this dread that upon being heard by others, I'd be proven inadequate.
Within weeks, I felt as if I'd lost access to the expansiveness that isolation cultivated in my playing. When I heard myself, all I could hear was everything that needed to be fixed.
Below is a recording from practicing for this show. I honestly cringe to share this — it's far from my best. Still, I think it's so meaningful when artists can be transparent about the up's & down's of our process. For me, this means sharing how the process of "sounding my best" is decidedly non-linear.
When I hear this, I hear a lot of tension in my sound, in my breathing, & a lack of phrasing. Leading up to this performance, I found singing to be incredibly helpful in opening up my sound, restoring a more natural use of the breath, & establishing a clearer sense of phrasing.
Days before our show, I tried to reverse my mindset. What if, instead of obsessing over everything I could do wrong, I centered myself in the thought, "I am more than capable of delivering how I want this to sound"? For weeks, I'd done my best to prepare. I had to trust in that preparation, albeit imperfect, & let go of the anxiety that I couldn't deliver in the moment.
On Tuesday, we performed for a wonderful audience. My parts went well, but I didn't love how I sounded, partly because I hadn't been able to shake off the tension of being heard by others.
But this is how performing goes: as long as I put my best work into preparing, I can let go of how it went.
Part of me wants to listen to a recording of the show to obsess over the details of my playing. While there's plenty I could learn from doing so, it's freeing to think: "What I created was received by the people who were there, in that moment. What I created belonged to that moment. I don't have to worry, or even think about it anymore."
Yes, it's been freeing be a musician in isolation. But in a different way — predicated upon something as simple as honest connection — I'm rediscovering how it is freeing to share music when other people are present with you, in that moment.