It finally happened, Saturday June 5, 8pm – the first indoor gig for McShane and Shaw in well over a year. It’s been a year of not exercising the muscle of live performance and while some have used this time to learn musical instruments many in the performing profession have lost motivation. Why practice without a reason to do so?
In my books The Ukulele Entertainer and The Art of Ukulele I have written about performance preparation and performance anxiety (stage fright.) In many ways coming back to performing, after so much time away, has felt like starting over and I thought you might like to hear what that was like.
The effects of Covid 19 have affected musicians and performers in all kinds of ways. While some were devastated by the lack of work others discovered new income streams with online Zoom lessons and performances. For me it’s been a mixed bag. While yes, I did lose most of my income, I welcomed the enforced extra time to review my career and work on some new things.
Personal responsibilities and a less than perfect Wi-fi connection prevented me from going the Zoom route. Instead, I started a recording project with fellow McShane and Shaw member, Chris McShane. We worked by recording ourselves and sharing music files. But, while music and video recording partially fulfilled the creative need, I also noticed that I’d stopped playing my performance repertoire. It’s hard to describe the feeling of ennui and pointlessness of practicing when there’s nothing to practice for. I felt guilty for having the lack of desire but I can’t say I did much about it. I guess I could have made an effort to practice for an hour every day but that is never how I’ve worked (I practice a lot when working-up new songs and then polish them up for gigs but I’ve never had a formal practice schedule.) The closest I got was to occasionally pick up an instrument to see if I could still remember some random song.
In May 2021, as restrictions lifted in England, some bookings came in and we performed our first show on Saturday at the nearby Royal British Legion (The RBL is a nationwide social club for war veterans but it also welcomes membership by non-military.) It was a slightly daunting way to start because at 3 X 45-minute sets, the running time consumed most of our repertoire.
We met to rehearse and found plenty of rust clogging up our once smooth-running performance machinery. Yes, there was the matter of remembering chords, lyrics and harmonies, but as a duo we had also developed spoken and physical material. Much of this had fallen by the wayside and needed to be remembered, reinstalled and, when that failed, reinvented.
The work of getting back up to speed was sweetened by the joy of simply being in the same room to play and sing once more. We rediscovered our old routines and invented new bits of business as we slowly cobbled together a show of mostly familiar material with some new stuff thrown in.
Time off from playing does strange things to the musical brain. Some things get forgotten while other areas improve. There’s an instrumental ukulele/harmonica duet called Galileo that Chris and I wrote and recorded for our next album. At over 5 minutes it’s quite a demanding piece for me to play. I’m not used to playing extended harmonica instrumentals and I constantly feel like any wrong note will stand out like a neon ostrich in a penguin colony. But, remarkably, after months of not playing it at all, I discovered my muscle memory for this tune had somehow settled in and I played more calmly and accurately than I ever had before. That calmness you get from feeling confident in your ability, is what you need when performing. But would it be there on the night?
There are two main flavours of performance anxiety: The kind you get prior to going onstage (can happen minutes or even months before the event) and the kind that attacks you in the middle of performing (that’s the little voice that tells you you’re going to forget the next line and so you do.)
The cure for both of these is similar. You need to find within yourself the resource to become confident and calm. In the run up to the show, plenty of practice, plus visualization of a successful outcome, will help generate the right headspace.
The anxiety that arises while you’re onstage however is a trickier prospect. Outwardly you might be smiling but, on the inside, it feels like you’re hanging on for dear life as you try to find some way to quell the panic and not let it run away with your brain. Fortunately, with this interior work, unless you’re very obvious about it, for example by running away screaming, “I just remembered, I have to be somewhere!” the audience doesn’t usually pick up on it. Doing regular performances helps a lot with onstage terror because your psyche starts to get the idea that it’s just a “normal job” and not worth panicking about.
We didn’t have any disasters on Saturday and our biggest glitch (when we forgot to play an entire instrumental break) didn’t get noticed at all. However, I was interested to notice how uncomfortable I felt during the first half of the show. Little pockets of panic loomed up and then fell away again. It’s been a long time since I felt that.
Mid-afternoon on show day we set up and did a thorough soundcheck. I like to settle into the feel of a room. Being in the physical space takes the unknown and makes it real.
Home for dinner and then back by 7.30, ready to start at 8pm. But where was everybody? The Legion normally has a regular clientele who come to every event. But, unfortunately for us, we’d landed on the warmest weekend of the year at the end of a weeklong holiday. Most people had opted to stay in their gardens or at the seaside rather than go out to pubs and clubs. But whether it’s 2 people or 2000, it doesn’t matter – the show must go on (there were more than 2 by the way.)
In every show there is a moment when I suddenly relax and enjoy my time onstage. I wish I knew how to create it but that’s like telling someone, “Just keep calm!” It was in the middle of the second set when I realised, I no longer cared about anything and was now in the zone. But sheesh, it took a long time to get there.
It’s curious that having a small audience doesn’t necessarily lessen the anxiety. If anything, it’s worse because you feel an extra responsibility to hold every single person in the room so they don’t go elsewhere to drink and chat.
Was the show a success? “Yes Ralph!” For indeed, it was good to know that McShane and Shaw can go out and do 135 minutes of material and at the end be told by every single person in the audience how much they’d enjoyed their evening. It was a great thing to do.
Bookings trickle in, even amidst new warnings of rising covid levels. Whatever happens we have proven to ourselves that McShane and Shaw are primed and ready to launch whenever needed. And we look forward to more music, happy times and full houses once again.