The Present


This is an expanded version of a (private) journal entry. You may find it relevant, you may not. Make of it what you will 🙂

A few days ago, while practising for my support slot gig for Dave Hemingway's Sunbirds, I expressed to my fiancée, a certain frustration I was experiencing. I explained that these days, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a list of songs for an hour-long set, and even more excruciating for a 30-minute set, because I’ve got so much material to choose from and there are only so many songs I can fit in a fixed time slot. 

As the words left my lips, I stopped to think about it and felt a tinge of shame, because I'd just caught myself moaning about a non-issue, a first-world problem if you will. Having too many songs and not enough time is a problem, yes, but a good problem to have. Not so long ago I had the opposite problem. When I started out gigging, on the rare occasion that I was offered a 30-minute set (which was longer than the usual 10-minute open mic slots I was accustomed to), I always struggled to come up with material. Back then, I’d always have to practise a few covers to pad out the set. Needless to say at the time the thought of an hour-long set filled me with dread; it was just out of the question. Now, I could easily play a 3-hour set without repeating material. I say this not to brag, but to outwardly reflect on, express, and appreciate my journey to date.

Friday night came around and it was finally time for the gig, allowing me to release the pent-up energy I’d been carrying around all week. I knew this gig was one of the biggest in my career to date and I wanted it to go well, so while I was preparing for it I felt the usual manifestations of physiological symptoms – the stomach swirls, the hot flashes, the jittery hands and shaky knees – as my body deemed to remind me that I was about to do something important, as if I could ever forget. 

I recently wrote about emotional reappraisal and the practice of casting anxiety as excitement in the run-up to a big event, but even after reframing the symptoms and flipping the narrative, I couldn’t help but play the ‘what if’ game in my head. I went through all the things that could go wrong. What if the tickets don’t sell? What if my music isn’t to the crowd’s liking? What if I forget my lyrics? 

I turned up to see that the tickets sold reasonably well, it was a full house. Good news so far. I stilled myself, got on stage and played the set. I didn’t forget my lyrics, so things went well in that regard. And yet, after my set, I couldn’t help but feel…displeased. I’d played a terrible set, I hadn’t savoured the moment enough, I hadn’t taken my time to appreciate being on stage, I hadn't put on a good enough show for the audience, or so I thought.

When I came off the stage, I sat with my fiancée and her sister (who had both come with me to the gig). They were full of smiles and cheer, as they told me how much they enjoyed the set. I frowned and winced; I didn’t believe them. After all, they had to say nice things to me, that’s what family is for. 

It didn’t take long for my countenance to start to change though. Person after person came up to me from the audience to echo my fiancée’s words. ‘That was brilliant, thank you’, ‘fantastic set, I really enjoyed your playing, ‘you were amazing, I could really connect with your words’, and on and on.

I was forced to confront the possibility that my perception of the set was quite different to that of everyone else. I had to confront the idea that maybe, just maybe it was a good set after all, and the irony of it is that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have in the moment. I was so fixated on doing the thing, playing the set, that I hadn’t been present enough to savour the moment. For all my talk of living in the present, I wasn’t doing a very good job. The irony of this situation isn’t lost on me. It reminds me of a few sayings… 

The future never comes. Life is always now.’ – Eckhart Tolle

Imagine all the people living for today.’ – John Lennon

Now I can’t help but wonder how different my experience of the gig would have been if I wasn’t fixated on the aftermath, the outcome, the result. I can't help but wonder whether it would be different, to begin with. I’ll never know, and I have to accept that. 

I’ve spent some time reflecting on Friday night, and wondering what I could have done differently. I acknowledge that I could have been more ‘present’, but this is easier said than done. At the time, I wrestled with all the things that my mind told me were going wrong, and these distracted me from the present. The ‘me’ that was inundated with those thoughts didn’t stand a chance. 

There's little point in agonising over the past, but there's a lot to gain from studying it, not least of which is learning to avoid repeating the same mistakes. In this vein, I know I'd rather not be in this position again. The next time I get on stage, I want to savour every moment and come away from the experience feeling like I got the most out of it. This begs the question, what can I do now to put future ‘me’ in a better position? 

That’s the big question, and I don’t have definitive answers at the moment. Two quotes come to mind, however. The first is one I’ve shared previously on this blog…

Almost all our faults are more pardonable than the methods we resort to to hide them.’ – François de La Rochefoucauld

The second is by one of my favourite authors…

It is easier to learn to be soaked and happy than to learn to stop the rain’ – Matt Haig

What I take from these sayings is the value in learning to embrace situations, however suboptimal they may be. There’s little chance of learning to stop the rain, but a better chance of learning to live with it while it falls. Even better yet, is learning to thrive, come rain, come shine, and if there’s one thing I know about life, it’s that the rain will come, and the sun will shine. 

And on Friday night, the sun did shine, because by the end of the evening, having put enough time between how I felt while on stage and how I felt afterwards, and having had time to process my feelings while enjoying the headline act, I’d come to the realisation that my set couldn’t have been that bad. Actually, that’s a modest way to put it. I’d go so far as to say it was a successful outing and a solid performance. If it wasn’t, people wouldn’t have come up to me to ask for details of where to find my music, people wouldn’t have asked to take photos with me, people wouldn’t have showered me with words of encouragement to ‘keep on making music’, people wouldn’t have taken all the complimentary cards I brought to the gig off of me. 

So, what do I make of all this? Well, I’m still high from the gig. My set, meeting the sunbirds, enjoying their music, talking to the band members afterwards, taking photos with the audience, having nice conversations with lovely people, and having a wonderful time in general. I have to be thankful for moments like this, thankful for these opportunities, thankful that I get to live to do this another day.

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