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How To Turn Shaking Knees Into A Nice Vibrato
by Don Bray

© 1999-2000, Don Bray. All Rights Reserved. Used By Permission.

I remember reading somewhere that the number one fear in women is death by fire and the number one fear in men is public speaking, followed by death by fire. As a firefighter I can handle running into a burning building, but as a songwriter, getting up on stage can scare the bejeezus out of me. Go figure. The uncomfortable feeling I get when I perform has long been an issue for me. In fact, it was the core reason I took a brief hiatus from performing that lasted well over a decade. Earthquake knees, Gobi Desert mouth, Iron butterflies…the symptoms are no fun. I’ve been playing guitar and writing songs for about thirty-five years and they still haunt me. It’s been only over the past few years that I’ve begun to feel more comfortable. It would be a relief to be one of those people born for the stage. (Some day, after a really bad gig, I may be borne from the stage by an angry mob, but that’s something else entirely.)

For the longest time I thought it was a matter of performance anxiety, worrying I would forget a lyric or flub a guitar part. Going stone cold blank in front of a few hundred people (which, believe me, I have done) can be uncomfortable in the extreme. Certainly this adds to the butterflies, but I don’t think it’s the basis of my problem. In fact, in a perfect world (or at least one in which I had a perfect attitude), it would just add to the excitement of living on the edge (of the stage).

Lately I’ve gained insight into why it’s an issue for me. I’m hoping this will allow me to become even more comfortable as time goes by.

It came to me in a flash of light (not like a back draft, you understand, more like a good-sized camp fire or when a smoker doesn’t realize the butane lighter is set too high). Having never done a house concert, I was looking forward to doing my first one. I pictured myself going into some stranger’s lovely home and sitting in their living room in front of a small group of smiling people. I thought to myself, ‘What a nice intimate setting’. It was then, with the utterance of the “I” word, that the bells went off. (Not like a fire alarm, you understand, more like a doorbell rung by a panicking visitor or a Toronto street car in front of which you are turning left when the driver’s behind schedule.)

Intimacy, oh my gosh, it’s intimacy!

I guess this might seem obvious to some, but to me it was a revelation, one that made more sense the longer I thought about it.

I’ve never considered myself to be a person with intimacy problems. Over the years I’ve had tons of intimate relationships. I’ve enjoyed them, reveled in them, and grown from them.

All of these intimate relationships have one thing in common. I had the opportunity to get to know these people first, become comfortable with them, and come to the conclusion that I could trust them before drawing closer. You need to know whether the spittle on their lip is because they are crazy in a potentially dangerous way or because they have a bad habit of eating too much jalapeño sauce on their Cheerios™, like uncle Bob. Either one is OK, and maybe they’re the same thing, but it’s nice to know.

When you get on stage, of course, it’s a different thing. Though you may know some of the people in the audience, there are sure to be some you don’t. At least not that well. And what about the one drooling in the front row? Are you really sure you want to sing that painstakingly crafted song whose underlying symbolic meaning is the psychological damage caused by how small or large your…well you get the idea.

Some things you don’t even tell your mother.

My mother taught me that emotions were perfectly acceptable to express as long as they were mild happiness or half-assed enthusiasm. Anything else was anathema. As a sensitive singer/songwriter of course, I saw this as being counter-productive and worked, with what stifled passion I could evoke, to overcome my inability to emote. (My brother calls me a SNAFF—Sensitive New Age Fire Fighter—I think it might be an oxymoron).

Over the years my songs have become an acceptable way for me to express my emotions. Take sadness for example. I have trouble expressing it in my day-to-day world. It embarrasses me still, despite all the work. So I write a sad song. It’s a real tear-jerker. (Not like a 38mm hand line sprayed on a working house fire, you understand, but more like half a cup of coffee tossed on a smouldering ashtray or perhaps the bottom eighth of a warm  beer thrown at your face in a bar by an irate but strangely beautiful woman you’ve never met before with deep green eyes and who doesn’t like  the suggestive way you were leering at the “I Love Cats” brooch strategically located on…her lapel). Anyway I get to release my sadness without admitting to any chinks in the armour, so to speak.

Getting back to intimacy, the problem is that I then go out and play this song in front of complete strangers. Not friends, family or my dog, who knows me deeply in all my glorious and transparent weaknesses, but others, more distant and alien to my faltering ways.

And that’s why my hands sometimes shake when I play the guitar. These people are going to judge me by my music: nothing more, nothing less. And they’ll be able to see  things. They’ll know I was sad when John committed suicide, that I was horny when I saw the girl in the tank top riding the bicycle on Queen Street in the rain. The more perceptive or astute might even figure out that “Yum” is about my secret eating disorder, not my dog’s. (That’s why I’m so skinny).

And none of this “seeing” of me will be mitigated by an understanding of the deeper me, by seeing my weaknesses juxtaposed against my strengths or by having an overlying view of the context that makes up my life and my point of view and tends to make me mildly fearful of stout women in high heels.

So what does all this mean to me as a performer?

I know I’ll continue to get nervous and worry about breaking strings, dropping picks, going out of tune, forgetting lyrics and leaving my fly open. I know not everyone is going to like me (but that’s OK, my family’s stuck with me and, besides, my dog loves me). I know that just when I’m coming up to the particularly poignant line I always have trouble remembering in that sad song about homeless people, some devilish aspect of my inner psychology will internally blurt out, “You idiot, you forgot to pick up Soy milk at the health food store for Mary’s breakfast tomorrow. Boy is she going to be pissed!”

The bottom line is this: there are a few facts I just have to accept. I’m a songwriter who feels the need to perform his songs. I can be sensitive and emotional as well as tough, concrete-headed and slightly middle-aged. People can be cruel. They can also be incredibly accepting and supportive. There is a great deal of joy to be had (and hopefully given) in saying what you feel and really feeling it too.

I guess in the long run it’s apparent that my performing isn’t going to go away, and the best thing for me to do is learn to accept who I am, including all those yucky emotions. Despite the front row droolers I should perform with honesty, not only because people have built in Bull-poop detectors, but because they deserve it. If I can do these things maybe I won’t worry so much about what people think of me and I’ll be able to execute a more relaxed and full-hearted performance. Maybe I’ll even learn to accept, if not actually enjoy, all those irritating honking noises the audience makes (not like fire truck air horns on the way to an emergency, you understand, more like ducks in a bag or people blowing their noses when they’re crying over a sad song)

Previously printed in the 'Orillia Folk Society Muse'

Singer/Songwriter Don Bray works as a Toronto firefighter to support his music habit. His award winning songs can be heard on his CD "Decisions". You can check out his web site (and buy his CD if you'd like) at
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