open your eyes: social anxiety and musicianship

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on a sticky florida morning, i met ayanna at the old train station. with my guitar in hand, she pointed her canon and fired some test shots while i scanned the area for nice places to pose. during our lighting tests, a city worker walked by and asked me to play for him. i sat down on a stoop and as my fingers plucked the chords for heavenly day, i opened my mouth and closed my eyes. it wasn’t the best performance i’ve given, but it was my best at the time. when i was finished i felt the breeze blow my hair out of place, and heard an explosion of one-man applause. he offered me one critique: open your eyes more.

i’ve always had this thing when i meet new people–i either act like i’m too cool for school, caught up in being aloof and mysterious, or i speak as few words as possible while avoiding eye contact.

this revelation came to light this past friday night after i got back from one of the best concerts i’ve been to in a while. it was jamie grace and her sister, morgan harper nichols. as jamie grace walked onto the stage of the church, i readied my camera, making sure i had enough battery life and that the lens cap was off. as she introduced her sister to sing her song “storyteller,” I pressed record. throughout the concert, i laughed and prayed and said a lot of yeses and amens inside my head. and when it was all over, my friend and i got in line to meet them, and have our posters and cds signed.

as we waited, we talked and laughed about the first time we met them about three years ago. i found out jamie had seen me on youtube. after about an hour of waiting, we were finally within arms sight of the table. as i approached, morgan said, “hey we know you.” i smiled. as she signed my poster, and jamie signed my cd, jamie said, “you sing, right?” i replied with sort of, and another embarrassed smile. “sort of?” she continued with a chuckle, “i’m trying to get you to brag on yourself. you’re so modest.”

a few minutes before we’d gotten to the table, while we were still in line, i pulled a business card out from my bag, and wrote my website on the back (i made the cards before i decided to make a website). i didn’t know if i was going to give it to her, or not, but by the time we got up there, i had decided on not. then morgan asked how to spell my name, jamie remembered it was spelled with an e at the end, instead of a y. even though i’d decided against it, i thought it was the perfect opportunity to slip them my card, because they asked how to spell my name. when jamie asked, i pointed to the slick, black card stock with white lettering and she picked it up to read: “word welder. string tickler.” and she was like “oh! that means you’re a singer-songwriter!”

from the way i just described it, it doesn’t seem so bad, but reflecting on the night while in bed later, i realized i only actually spoke about five words. and i worried they would think i was blowing them off with my lack of social skills. to them, it probably wasn’t a big deal, but anxiety told me dwell on it and play it over in my head as many times as would make me dizzy, and think up all the things i could have done differently–all the things i could have said, everything i did wrong, was giving them my card too forward? i wished for a time machine. as we left they called after us, “nice seeing you again,” all i did was smile nervously and hurry away.

social anxiety busts its ugly head through any new or uncertain social situation, even if there’s only one new person in a group. i find myself throwing up the distance defense with curt, one-word answers, or just not talking at all.

when i perform, i don’t mind doing it in front of strangers, in fact, i prefer it. but after i finish i open my eyes all the way, glance over the room, then slide my guitar around my body to rest on my back and hurry off the stage and down the aisle as quickly as possible, without looking at anyone. after the show is over, if someone tells me how well i did or how much they liked it, i give a quick smile and slink away out of sight.

i think about all the connections i’ve missed, the people i’ve unintentionally offended, all the time i’ve spent alone. there’s no quick fix, but thinking back, all the could-have-beens make me want to open my eyes, and look up a little more.

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