Playing for an empty room.

The biggest component to making a living at something is as simple as giving it a really solid attempt.  You aren’t going to be a world famous accountant if you don’t spend your days, ya know, accounting or whatever and you aren’t going to become a famous performer without performing.  So last week, I entered the world of performing in Hawai’i.

I sent an email to an acquaintance who does a lot of bookings for local acoustic acts and asked him if had any opportunities for me to perform.  He emailed me back pretty quickly and asked if I was free on Tuesday, which was 4 days away.  Of course! It’s almost too easy.

So I had something like a 30-minute set on a Tuesday night at a place called Station.  I’ve been there before.  It’s a small place, but it has a nice vibe and seems to have a very welcoming crowd.  Perfect for my 1st performance in a long time.

I’m in a cover band and we play fairly often, so I’m not a stranger to the stage or anything, but being up there alone with an acoustic guitar is a different story.

I made one fairly key mistake before the show even started:  I only told about three people about it, one of which was my girlfriend, who I told to not worry about coming.

So I show up to Station with my acoustic guitar in hand.  When I walked in, there was no one there, besides the employees: a bartender and two “hosts”.  I guess I assumed that this would have some kind of a built-in crowd.  Wrong.  I called my girlfriend and demanded that she come.  I told the host that I’d play when my girlfriend showed up.  They didn’t care.

As we were waiting, one of the hosts of the evening pulled out his acoustic guitar and began playing along with the jukebox.  He was just doodling and playing a few lead licks along with the songs, but it was all in the wrong key.  Oi.

After a moment, we began talking and I’m pretty sure I gave him the impression that I’d never done anything like this before.  In the last 4 years or so, I’ve grown quite humble due to my horrific lack of success and whatnot, but perhaps I’ve grown a bit too humble?

The host was a really nice fellow but he made me feel like I was his younger brother and he had my back.  He offered to play the cajon while I performed. (A cajon is pretty much like a wooden bongo.  Just a percussion instrument).  A James Munro at age 23 would’ve said, “Hell no.  You aren’t playing a single note while I perform, you’ll just make it sound terrible.”

But a humbled, age 27 James Munro just said, “umm…” and decided this was not the moment to be arrogant.  At worst, he’d ruin my songs in front of my girlfriend.  And I’m pretty sure he was doing it to be supportive, and I appreciated that.  However, I did secretly hope he had a better sense of rhythm than sense of key. (He didn’t)

And just then, something magical happened:  four people came in!  A girl that I work with brought three friends, just to see me.  And a few minutes later, my girlfriend came in.  That’s really all it takes.  So I had five people that came for no other reason than to support me and see me perform.  It’s extremely heartwarming.

I started my little set and no-rhythm Jones played the cajon for me.  I’m going to throw out a small disclaimer here:  Just because you know how to hit things with your hands does not mean that you know how to play percussion.

Ok, so I guess I still do have a little arrogance in me.

Anyway.  Playing for people that came to watch you is not really stressful to me.  It’s super easy.  It’s when you play for people who aren’t paying attention that it gets scary.  That’s when the demons come in.  It can feel like you’re just in the way of their conversations and it’s so easy to assume that they hate what you’re doing.  But when people sit and watch, even if they’re super judgmental, it means you’re worth watching.

I had fun with the rhythm-less cajon player.  I kind of left him hanging a few times.  I gave him no warning of rhythm changes or stops.  I actually started laughing a few times.  I’m pretty sure I was the only one who found it funny.  If you’re ever bored, mess with the tempo of an already floundering percussionist.  It will bring you great joy.

A handful of people walked in during my set.  I’m pretty sure they were there to see the other performer of the evening, but regardless, they immediately sat down and intently watched me.  Another very heartwarming moment.  I said I was going to play one more song and one of the newcomers said, “No man, I just got here!  Play at least two more!”

I played another two songs, thanked Captain Rhythm and put my guitar in its case.  I walked over to the newcomers and thanked them for their attentiveness and kindness.  They said something like, “Of course! You were performing, of course we’ll listen.”  That is not a normal response.  Whether or not they thought I was good, they listened because they respected my art.  I have a strong believe that every attempt at creativity should be rewarded but I don’t often meet people that share my belief.  I was really happy to have met them.

My first acoustic show in a long time was hardly a success.  I didn’t learn any big lessons about myself or performing or working a crowd.  However, I did feel the profound effect that kindness and support have.  It doesn’t take much of these things to really make a difference in someone’s life.

I am extremely thankful for the small but attentive audience.  I greatly appreciate the cajon “player” who backed me up because he thought I was nervous.  I’ve played in many venues. I’ve been booed.  I’ve been applauded.  But I’ve never played in such an encouraging environment before.  I strongly encourage anyone who’s still finding their stage legs to seek out a place like Station and go for it.

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