It can feel pretty lonely up there at the mic, and I have found ways to avoid direct contact with the audience while I am performing.
I often sing with my eyes closed. It helps me to feel the rhythm and to focus on the story of the song. Somehow, with my eyes closed I am better able to immerse myself into the music so that chords and lyrics flow more readily.
The drawback of singing with my eyes closed is that I pay less attention to the audience, so I have no idea how people are responding to the music I am playing. This avoidance behavior may help me feel more relaxed while playing in front of a bunch of strangers, but I lose sight (literally) of what is happening outside of the performance cocoon on stage.
I am trying to create a balance between the amount of time I keep my eyes closed and immerse myself in the song and the amount of time I am actively working to connect with people in the audience.
At times, I look out to see if anyone is watching. I look beneath tables to see if feet might be tapping. Are heads tilted thoughtfully? Does it seem quieter in the noisy bar for even a moment or two during my set? Is there a person I know I can make eye contact with? Am I brave enough to try to make eye contact with someone I don’t know?
I have been trying to get out more to play in public spaces—busking, open mic, any and every opportunity I hear about. So far, my sets have been a combination of covers songs and songs of Lowell factory workers. Somehow, this feels safer than singing songs from my own stories.
Performing can be scary and uncomfortable, but it is mind, body, and soul stretching. Performance without a captive audience has been stretching my comfort zone immensely. It is a good kind of stretching though, soul stretching. And I have begun to meet more people in Lowell as a result.
I may feel like a complete loser, alone and forsaken, when I am playing on a street corner, but as soon as someone walks by and we begin to talk, my heart and soul are filled to the brim. I can feel my spirit lifted up into a musical ethos.
I have also been able to share the stories of factory workers who gave years of their lives to the industrial story in Lowell. Honoring the people whose stories I have helped to lift into song is one of my greatest desires. Through my voice, I share theirs.
My most recent performance was again at the Back Page jazz bar in downtown Lowell. A band was playing and had invited local songwriters to get up and perform their music in between sets.
I contemplated playing one of my favorite factory worker’s songs. It is a song about a woman named Celia. I was instantly drawn to her when I first began working here.
Celia was the daughter of Italian immigrants and worked in the Wannalancit Mill in Lowell for 21 years of her life. In the oral histories we have housed in exhibits on the second floor of the Boott Cotton Mill Museum, she speaks with a thick, Lowell accent. “So I says to the girls, I says.”
She wore thick-rimmed glasses and spoke with wit and sarcasm. I liked her style.
Her song has become one that I sing without ukulele. It is a way I try to connect with my audience more directly. Rather than asking them to sing, I ask them to help me keep a rhythm.
I wasn’t sure a jazz bar audience would get into Celia’s song, but I decided to go for it anyway.
I asked people to help me keep a rhythm and to think of the rhythm of hundreds of looms running all at once.
It started out slowly, and I tried to concentrate on the melody and words of the song to avoid losing my nerve altogether. Little by little, people started clapping. I wouldn’t say the entire room was clapping by the end, but at least a few folks joined in.
I left wondering how it went. It is so difficult to know if I am even singing in key when I am up there.
The next day, I went into the post office during my lunch break. A man recognized me. He told me he loved the a cappella song I sang at the Back Page the night before. He recognized me in my uniform because I had introduced myself as a park ranger, and his daughter had been on one of my boat tours and talked about me afterwards.
I was so very thankful to this man for reaching out. He told me the audience was enraptured with the song.
Whether or not this was indeed true, it certainly lifted my spirits and gave me courage and ever so much more confidence for the next performance.
Putting myself out there can be scary and uncomfortable, but as long I just keep singing the words of people’s stories, I am sharing something meaningful.