Thirty years ago on Saturday, I walked on stage for the very first time.
(pictured: Michael Barron, guitar; Susan Mumford, vocals; Chris Thompson, drums; Joe Menacker, bass; and Bob Boilen, synth)
Besides a few aborted attempts as a teen to play guitar, I'd never played music before; I just loved listening to it. When I was in my 20s, I quit my job running a record warehouse and bought a synthesizer. Three months later, I'm on stage with my Arp Odyssey and a new band called Tiny Desk Unit.
I had no idea how nervous I was until I got on stage. A few minutes into the first song, sweat began to pour off my face and onto my Arp. With all my nervous energy, I hit the keys on my keyboard with dramatic force. A few minutes later, I noticed that, no matter what key on the keyboard I'd strike, it would play the same note. I had broken my synthesizer. My nightmare was my reality.
I'm a pretty resourceful guy (I even had a hex wrench) and I knew what had broken. So I flipped over my synth, opened it up and unstuck the stuck key. In a few long minutes, I was up and running — until, of course, my nervous energy had me hammering the keys again, and again I was only able to play one note.
I remember this frozen feeling: I couldn't look into the eyes of all the friends who had shown up at DC Space that night. I couldn't look at my bandmates. In fact, my whole body felt trapped in this wicked nightmare. Time was standing still, and I was locked in.
At some point, it hit me: I could change the pitch of that one note by messing with the pitch of the oscillator, and I could change the tone with all the filters and the many sliders this analog synthesizer had. (This was the pre-digital age.) I began to improvise, and it wasn't great, but it was better and it got fun. It was still the longest 35 minutes of my young life, but I made it.
From that point on, performing live was always easy. I understood something about myself and about making music that I'd never understood before. I had the ability to think on my feet; subconsciously, I could do things that consciously I never would have thought of.
That understanding helped me through 19 years of directing All Things Considered, as well as some years of live theater and hosting live concerts.
Maybe you have a nightmare performance tale to tell — maybe as a musician, maybe as a public speaker. Let it out and tell your tale; it'll feel good.