Friday, July 17, 2015

Flop Sweat

I lied to you.

In a post back in January, I promised I would host a sazerac party on June 8.  And I would play the banjo.  Shaking hands and all, my stated goal was to play in front of (and, hopefully, with) people by early June.

I did not.  Not only did I not play, I ducked the countless queries of friends, asking if it was going to happen.  I hoped y'all wouldn't notice, and that it would fly under the radar.  But....

But I did keep practicing.  Maybe not as intently as I would have for a proper recital.  But I love playing, even when I do it badly.  Which, as it happens, is quite a lot of the time.  I work on scales some, because the books say that it helps.  I play the notes of some songs I like, way under tempo, just like the books say to do.  I play the few tunes that I know well enough to play (almost) at tempo.  And then I just play around with the instrument.  My practice sessions are never long; there are always other things going on in the house that take my attention.

But I practice.

And this week, I played out in semi-public for the first time.

Every couple of weeks, I hold a non-denominational (I first wrote 'demoninational, but that seemed to communicate a very different kind of meeting) service over at the retirement home across from my work.  We have some songs, for which I download muzack on my ipod, we have a scripture and a homily.  Simple service.  I have told them for months that I would - someday - play some hymns on my ol' banjo.

This week, for the first time, I did.

Six seniors showed up and I pulled out my banjo and started playing.  A couple of months ago, I found a "three chord hymnbook", and started working through the ones I know from my childhood.  There are a surprising number of hymns that fit the category.

And most of them are pretty bloody:

There's Power in the Blood
Are you Washed in the Blood
Alas and did my Savior Bleed
Nothing but the Blood...

After an opening prayer, and the brief tuning session, I started out.  I had printed out the words so they could sing along.  And dove in. 

Here are the things I discovered.
ToC seems to reflect heavy reliance on the Broadman Hymnal
  1. When you only play three chords, you limit the range you sing.  When every song is in the key of G (C and D7 being your other chords), the song will be pitched too high to sing.  Or too low.   Necktie tenor, or gravel bass, there is no middle ground.
  2. The volume you use singing to yourself on the couch in your living room does not cut it in the chapel.
  3. After an hour of trying to project your voice in the gravel bass register, there is no voice remaining. 
  4. Nervousness as an adult no longer only expresses itself in shaking hands (as it did when I was kid at the piano).  Flop sweat, apparently, is a real thing.  The room was perfectly air conditioned, and I was drenched through.  By the second song.
  5. Missed transitions are not the end of the world.  If you just sing a little louder (in full voice gravelly bass, see #2) and wait for it to come back around on the banjo, it eventually will.
  6. Playing with people that love you means they enjoy the music, and forgive the errors.
  7. Playing for people who are retired means that if you are really bad, they can always turn down a hearing aid. Or two.
  8. Old tunes that I recognize are likely to be Baptist tunes.  Which, it turns out, are not necessarily recognized by everybody. (This is important when you are trying to get people to sing, ESPECIALLY small groups)
  9. I gotta do this more, and,
  10. I am terrified to do this more.
It was fun.  It was hard.  That kind of nervousness is exhausting. 

I sat down with the banjo the next day, knowing what I needed to work on.  Where my weaknesses were.  I know myself well enough to know that I should not try to get them all covered at once. But I played with a different focus.  How do I make transitions?  What do I need to do to capo up to a key I can sing to?

Something changed, though.  I struggled with every part of my practice.  Things that were easy yesterday are too important to enjoy/take lightly today.  Because I am a performer.  Looking forward to the next adrenaline rush, the next mistake, the next flop sweat.

The next chance to make music for others.   


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