How I Learned to Be Aggressive

This post is about when I joined a fight club.

It's actually not. I've never punched anyone and am very afraid of the idea. This post is about the time when I learned to really harness raw energy as a performer; when I started to play it like I mean it.

When it comes to identifying as a guitarist, I am the opposite of many of the stereotypes, the biggest one being that I don’t like to play loudly. Numerous rehearsals have gone by where I was asked to turn up, as opposed to most guitarists who are yelled at by the vocalist to turn down. Playing obnoxiously loud is one dislike of mine among others that include: jamming on a 12-bar blues, jamming on two funky chords, jamming in general, and the dueling guitar solos at the end of Hotel California.

Before my break-through, I had been employing my usual sissy-like tendencies. A very wise front-person who I work for told me that if anyone was going to try steal his/her spotlight on stage, they expected it to be the goddamn lead guitarist. It was a shattering realization that for the last ten years I had become so good at being perfectly adequate, safe, and well… boring, as a performer. I was really good at doing the “cool guy thing”; staring down and blending in with the stage lights while supporting the singer and not screwing up ever. I honestly was really afraid of expressing myself on stage in a physical way in fear of making a mistake, and I’m still working through this barrier today.

A regular phrase in my musical vocabulary had been “I don’t want to be abrasive”. While my number one goal is always to support the front-person on stage, that phrase was starting to become my weakness. I was so afraid of letting go in front of everyone. This all changed as I worked for people who expected more from me. They expected a whole lot of heart, and while I don’t think anyone ever questioned if my heart was in it, this push lead to a very important break-through that forced me to figure out what I’m about as a performer. After all, I’m realizing that live music is so much more than just how in-tune and in-time the notes are - it’s about the energy you emit on stage and how this affects people.

I have an idea as to why I was so subtle in my playing for so long. If you’re a performer, I encourage you to think through the development of your craft and trace the steps that got you to where you are now. For many years I sang and played guitar on scores, which is a whole other animal. The film scorer’s job (most of the time) is to stay out the way, support the emotion/motion in the scene, and enter and exit without being noticed. By the way, if you can do those three things you can be a film scorer. PS – don't quit your day job, it's incredibly hard to master. Let’s also therapise this scenario in terms of my childhood. As an Avril Lavigne knee-high-striped-sock, tie-wearing teenager I was bullied by most of the male guitarists around me. I would be asked very important adolescent questions such as “how many chords do you know?”, and “you say you're into Hendrix, but do you even know Band of Gypsys?” If I didn’t give the right answer I was labeled a poser, and everyone knows that in suburban middle school a poser is the worst thing you can be. I shrank more and more into my shell and started moving away from this loud rock star stereotype of ripping solos in leather pants and banging chicks backstage (minus the banging chicks part). As a result, my playing came from a much more protective and shy place. It also came from a place of proving myself, but we're not going to discuss that in today's therapy session.

It’s been a long journey in my development as a performer. Six years ago I would do a show and play everything almost a hundred percent perfectly, move around a little, hardly smile, and never really see the crowd. After the show when I’d get in bed I’d hardly be able to sleep. I'd go over any mistakes I’d made and any mistakes my bandmates had made, and I’d be bummed out and obsessive about it all. This is because, my will to always improve aside, I didn’t truly understand what a show is about. I was missing the point.

A show is about every person who saved up their barista tips, their allowance from their parents, and their hard-earned cash to buy a ticket to stand in a sweaty crowd of people and watch you play. They waited months to yell at the top of their lungs the lyrics that got them through the most horribly sad nights or the most joyous drunken nights. It’s the music that they had sex to with their lover for the first time, that makes them remember how someone else's presence felt, or that takes them back to their prom or college graduation or wedding night. So fucking bring it. A show is one huge, beautiful celebration that will never cease to be important to the human experience. It’s not about being cool or being a rock star or a celebrity or the best guitarist in the world – It’s about connection and the moment. Nowadays if you meet me after a show I advise you not to try hug me, because I look like I’ve gone swimming. And it feels great. I work hard on what's important now that I’m figuring out what this show thing is all about. I smile from ear to ear when I see everyone in the crowd smiling, because how fucking rad is that?

It’s so rad that I want to experience it for the rest of my life. So practice and harness your craft, perform with conviction and heart, and own it. That goes for so many things in life, not just performing. May the force be with you, and try get in shape and run a couple miles every few days or you may faint on stage. Cardio and rock for days! \m/

Love from your friend,

Sulene