I sat, frustrated, on the couch in the living room.
I squinted at the clock. It was after 12:30am. I took a deep breath and scrolled through YouTube, poring through the search results for “easy fingerpicking patterns”.
Only 8 1/2 hours until I had to play in front of an audience of hundreds, and I still had no clue what I was doing.
Why did I sign up for this?
Fulfilling a years-long goal
In college, I lived on a dorm floor full of guys who loved to play guitar. It was fairly common to walk through the halls at any time of day or night, weekday or weekend, and hear at least one guy strumming away.
They were all pretty good. Some were great. Sometimes, a few of us would gather just to listen. Maybe a couple others would grab their guitars and a jam session would break out.
I wanted to play with them. My roommate owned several guitars, and he would let me borrow and practice on his in our room. So I would pull up guitar chords online, practice them, ask for advice, and once I learned a few, I could actually fumble my way through some songs. It felt amazing – I wanted more.
That Christmas, I got my parents to buy me an acoustic guitar – the S101 Standard.
In the ensuing months, I learned more guitar. I played with the guys. I went to open mike nights and watched my friends jam.
But then I transferred away from that college. I rarely – if ever – saw a lot of those guitar-playing friends again (outside of my roommate).
I moved into an apartment and went to a new college. I had no friends who played guitar. I still enjoyed playing for fun, but I played less and less. As I grew busier with work and trying to figure out my life, guitar fell by the wayside.
Yet, I still hung onto it. Every few years, I’d dust it off, put some new strings on it, and crack open that old binder full of songs from 2004, taking a trip down memory lane.
Then, it would taper off. I’d put it back on its stand and let it collect dust for six months or whatever.
I always wanted to play, though. Like, play. I used to sing in front of crowds in high school – to be able to play guitar and sing? That would be the coolest feeling.
I kept “play guitar at a performance level” on my bucket list. I wanted to do it.
As I got married and had kids, though, that goal seemed further and further away. It’s kinda hard to go out to a bar on open mike night when you have little ones at home. Priorities take over.
Then, I joined a band.
An opportunity came knocking – and I didn’t see it coming
A couple years ago, my church formed a praise band called Laude. Once a month, we get together and lead the congregation in worship, often incorporating some more modern arrangements and contemporary Christian music into the worship service.
It’s meant to be a bit of musical “fresh air” for the very traditional Lutheran church services.
Most months, I join and sing with the band, which usually comprises of my wife and at least one other female voice. Backing us is a piano, drums, sometimes a keyboard, and usually a guitar.
A few months ago, our guitar player left the band.
Now, we have another gentleman who can come play guitar sometimes. And one of our singers’ brother plays guitar very well, so he has jumped in to fill in.
But when this happened, an alarm went off in my head: Is this your chance to do it?
I went to the music director of our church and laid it out for her in no uncertain terms:
- I want to start playing guitar once in a while in church.
- I will need 6-8 weeks of notice before I can play so that I can practice the song.
- I need to play by myself right now because I can’t be trusted to keep a beat with other people singing.
She was fine with these terms. We picked a date for me to play my first song, solo, ever, in front of people. I was nervous, but excited. I sifted through available music and settled on a nice little song called, “Across The Lands”.
A boneheaded mistake ruins the perfectly laid plans…
I marked down the date on my calendar and got to work. I practiced the song over and over again until my fingers wouldn’t move.
While I never felt I was flawless, I was getting to a point where I thought it would be okay, if not a little boring.
One week before my performance date, I was getting my family ready at the front of church for my newborn daughter’s baptism. The gentleman leading the music for the morning approached me and asked about the song that I was set to perform… that day.
I wasn’t ready and I didn’t have my guitar. I couldn’t do it. I looked at the bulletin and realized that I had gotten my dates switched up. I was one week late. I missed my chance.
I was disappointed, but my nerves settled. I figured it was a bridge I could cross some other time.
A week later, one of our musicians asked me if I wanted to play the following week, since I had spent so much time practicing. I agreed, and went back to rehearsing that song over and over again.
By Tuesday of that week, however, I decided I didn’t want to do that song anymore.
Breaking my own rules
“Across The Lands” is a fine song, but by this point, we were into December. It was Advent, and I wanted to sing a good Advent/Christmas song.
I asked if I could play “O Come, O Come, Immanuel.”
Then, again, I got to work.
I’d never played the song before, and I was giving myself only five days to practice. It was rather foolish. I settled on a fingerpicking pattern (I had never really picked strings before, preferring to strum with a pick).
But the more I practiced, the more frustrated I became. I couldn’t quite get it down, and it sounded weird.
After my family went to bed the night before, I tried to practice even more, but I still wasn’t getting it. That’s why I started searching for fingerpicking patterns on YouTube.
I found one that I liked and tried it out. It wasn’t bad. I plugged away at it until my fingers literally couldn’t press down on the strings anymore. I couldn’t play it perfectly, but I was passable. It was the best I could hope for.
I couldn’t eat breakfast.
I couldn’t sit still.
That Sunday morning, my stomach was in knots from the time I woke up until the time I was finished playing.
I hadn’t been that nervous in forever.
How did it go? It was clumsy, but it worked. I did okay, and received many humbling compliments afterwards. Many encouraged me to do it again.
I was relieved to have that experience behind me, and I could cross off that goal on my bucket list. I played guitar and performed in front of a large audience.
For those interested in hearing a guy barely make it through a guitar performance, here’s a video of it.
Then, a few weeks later, I did it again.
Building up some bravery
At the next Laude practice, we were running through a Psalm that we were going to sing, and I noticed that our music had guitar chords written on it.
The song seemed straightforward, and I could strum it with a pick. I knew most of the chords. So I asked if I could bring my guitar the following week and play along for the service. Everyone agreed.
So, on one week’s notice, I played guitar in a band for a song I hadn’t heard before. I played with a piano and drums. And I wasn’t even all that nervous about it.
Once I crossed over, my confidence grew.
I may even be playing again at the end of the month.
The power of a public commitment
If I hadn’t committed to playing by myself originally, I never would have gotten over that fear. I never would have practiced enough to be comfortable. And I wouldn’t be playing guitar so regularly.
By making that public commitment to others, I forced myself to get across the finish line. And by doing so, I was able to overcome the worst case scenarios and build a little confidence in myself.
The idea that, in 2021, I’m expecting to play guitar for an audience in a band on a regular basis is something that I can’t even fathom. Just a few months ago, I wouldn’t have predicted it. But here we are.
Is there something you’ve always wanted to do? How can you make a public commitment to get after it?
Make it too easy to say “no”
The trick, for me, was to make it easy on myself. I set the terms, even if I didn’t actually follow them. I was going to play alone, with no other instruments, with plenty of lead time to get myself there.
Take a look at those goals you’ve always dreamed of. Is there a way you can achieve one of them on a small, controlled basis? That might be just the nudge you need to take yourself to a level you’ve always wanted to be at.
I’ve wanted to perform playing guitar for 15 years. Now, it’s becoming a reality. And that’s because I committed to something really scary at first.