High Anxiety

Here they come – mild, frequent heart palpitations. People often ask me if I get nervous before a show, and the answer is “Yes, pretty much every time.”

Over the years, though, I’ve come to experience it more as anticipation than anxiety. The two sensations have a lot of similar characteristics, so you can psyche yourself into looking forward to potential success instead of fearing possible failure. Anticipation is really quite delicious. Sometimes it’s the best part of desire.

Since this upcoming contract was confirmed, I’ve spent 6-8 hours every day transforming all my paper lead sheets into my tablet and learning new material. I think it’s the most time I’ve spent preparing for a gig since I auditioned to become a percussion major at Northern Illinois University.  I didn’t have to motivate myself at all, I’ve been compelled to hit the piano before I’ve finished my first cup of coffee in the morning.

I know what to expect this time. My first piano bar contract, in 2010, was a trial by fire. I had no idea “Don’t Stop Believing” was so popular. I had no idea what a lunatic I must have been in my twenties until I was surrounded by dudes like that in my forties, my eyes darting around the circumference of my little white ultimate fighting cage. Ultimately, I was fighting the piano in that match, but I now understand the kind of pressure professional athletes have to endure from their audience. An advantage I have is that I’m in close enough proximity to mine to use the Jedi mind shit I quickly gained fluency with in the kill-or-be-killed environment.

I’m not exaggerating. You can’t run out of the club and drive home and hide under the covers. You can’t even pull into your dignity and just play what you play. You’ll die. Maybe stand up comics are a better comparison than athletes. Ever hear George Carlin’s bit, “Death and Dying“? CLASSIC. Only a master of stand up with hundreds of hours of experience could write that. I’m telling you, that’s where the anxiety comes from: It’s pure, genuine mammalian fight or flight instinct.

Again, no self-motivation necessary, not any more than you have to talk yourself into getting your head above the wave for a breath. Or grabbing the hands around your throat.

It’s a common misconception that the entertainers in a dueling piano bar are dueling each other. They aren’t. They’re dueling with their audience. The cruise ship piano bar is a fascinating evolution of the classic moody,  New York style piano bar with the new generation franchise joints like Howl at the Moon or The Big Bang, further mutated by recessive theme park genes.

It’s like you’re in The Tardis, and you blink, and the hands around your throat are suddenly massaging your shoulders. You’ve hopped dimensions in the space-time continuum and gone from struggling for survival to enjoying a hero’s return. This can happen multiple times in a single 5-hour night, every time in what feels like a camera flash going off in your eyes.

I bullshit with tough talk a lot, for the same reason I have a bunch of tattoos: I’m kind of a pussy. I have an almost pathological need for approval. On the other hand, the older I get, the less I care. I think these contrasting qualities work well together in navigating me toward artistry. One reason I turned away from jazz, and a reason I retrained myself at the piano to accompany myself, is because although I absolutely adore musicians, I can’t take the machismo in that scene. I don’t watch sports. I respect women. But I’m not gay, so this all makes me intolerably bored with dudes talking  tough. I don’t think it’s inconsistent that I love Bukowski. He talked tough to himself. I appreciate outsiders who want to communicate, as Joseph Campbell put it, “directly from one inward world to another, in such a way that an actual shock of experience will have been rendered.”

I’m practically shaking with anticipation tonight contemplating the opportunities I’ll have in the next few months to make the kinds of friendships only drunken bar fights can create. “I LOVE YOU, MAN!”

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