“My god, there are a lot of people out there.” This was not a statement of fact, or delighted astonishment. This was an exclamation of terror. The excitement of having finally gotten on a big stage, in front of a lot of people that had dominated much of the last several days, evaporated. So complete was this erasure that even the memory of that giddy anticipation was inaccessible. All there was at that moment was the fear that demanded all of her attention.

The people weren’t the faceless blobs or dots in a single amorphous mass she had hoped for. There were faces. Pleasant faces, pretty faces, anxious faces, perturbed faces, angry faces, ambivalent faces. Some of them had beards, some of them wore too much makeup, some were capped with brightly colored hair, or baseball caps, fedoras, stocking caps and even one beret. All of them unique, and the decided absence of anonymity unnerved Janie.

Previous attempts at managing her stage fright had revealed many tools, mostly ineffective. But now, she desperately inventoried all of them in a rapid sprint towards a bandage she might use to cover the panic, that anxiety that threatened to flow beyond her means to keep in hand. She inhaled a deep breath, held it for four counts, exhaled and held again. She was deliberate in her pace, fighting the urge to speed her tempo, all the while combing her consciousness for the capacity of detachment to regard her fear as nothing more than an interesting observation.

She looked at her guitar sitting upright on the stand next to the row of speaker cabinets behind Justin’s sparkling drum kit. She imagined herself playing it, trying to visualize the ease with which she would appear to observers. Cool and confident, deliberate and purposeful, like all her heroes…

A hand on her shoulder startled Janie out of her reverie. Doug with his bass already hanging from his scrawny frame, gave her a slight nod. She thought maybe she saw a veneer of concern. Doug always had been aware of her anxiety when it came to performing. Likely, he felt a degree of worry for her, or maybe it was concern she’d make fatal errors and the whole performance would be lost. Regardless of his awareness or concern, he was signaling that it was time.

The lights sank and with them, Janie’s stomach. Daniel led the group to the stage, moving confidently toward the gleaming microphone. Justin came behind him and split off toward the drums at the back of the stage. Janie stepped out in concert with Doug, a natural impulse to blend in with the crowd and not draw attention by lagging behind.

She snatched up her guitar with a forced sense of purpose. She heard the drums boom across the stage as Justin made one last check of their position, Doug’s speakers popped briefly as he plugged in his bass and Daniel’s breath could be heard softly through the stage monitors. Her bandmates seemed so far away, sprawled across the stage, experienced and accessible only through the intermediaries of the speakers and echoes.

“There is no backing out of this now,” she thought, as if the option had been open to her moments earlier. Yet the acceptance of her situation softened the sharp edge of her anxiety and she had maybe her first clear thought, uncolored by her protracted stress: “Deal with this moment, worry about the next when it comes.”

As though he had been waiting for this revelation, Justin clicked his drumsticks together in four sharp snaps.

“Now!” She didn’t think this as much as feel it.

Janie raked the pick across the strings and the sound intertwined with the concussive bursts of the drums and the low rumbling of the bass. Hastily, she played another chord and rested her palm on the bridge of her guitar readying herself to play a melody her shaking hands would find difficult. Briefly she considered playing a simpler version of the melody rather than risking a mistake that could easily compound if the rest of the band stumbled with her.

She took the risk and attacked the string with all the conviction she could summon. Her hand seized and her wrist went limp, then shook violently, but there was no time to process the panic. That moment was passed, there was only this moment. The band moved on, seemingly unaware of her error. The crowd bounced as an undulating unit, no longer a collection of individuals but a great, shifting landscape. She pounced on a kernel of excitement and resumed playing.

The moments passed, some slower, some more urgent. Sweat captured the fabric of her clothing and it clung to her skin, her hair stuck to her forehead and flushed cheeks. The smooth surface of her guitar took on a slick film of sweat. The air around her buzzed and shook, dimmed and brightened. Finally, as the last of the music faded and the waves of cheers washed up on stage, Janie dropped the guitar back on the stand and strutted off stage, once again exhilarated, the memory of fear and doubt having evaporated.

Musician and writer in St. Louis, MO matt.derouin@gmail.com

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