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The Journey From Technical To Emotional

How I finally learned to be a proper rock star

My first experience playing guitar in front of people was a little like downloading a program then double-clicking the icon, or inserting a floppy disk then typing RUN into the command prompt, for those of you from my generation. What I’m trying to say is, my performance was as if someone strapped a guitar to a robot – it had no emotion.

The year was 1992, and Shelton High School was about to have it’s first “Rock Festival”, organized by our beloved music teacher, Ms Dziamba. There were many audition tapes submitted, but only 5 or 6 bands were chosen to perform – and I was in one of them!

We were called The Prions, based on something random we picked out of a biology book. Randy was on bass, I played guitar, and Robb sang. We would get together and eat pizza, drink cases of soda, and write ridiculous songs. Our collective influences included Iron Maiden, Primus, Eric Clapton, Frank Zappa, and of course, it was the 90’s – Pearl Jam and Nirvana.

But now we had a gig to prepare for, the perfect excuse to start taking things more seriously. We needed a drummer, so I began courting Brandon, who I knew from the marching band (where I played bari sax.) He wasn’t interested at first, but eventually I got him – with a china cymbal – which we would need for our opening song, Cliffs of Dover by Eric Johnson.

I’d been obsessed with learning this song since the transcription appeared in one of the monthly guitar magazines. It was just the right combination of extremely hard to play with a hooky melody – perfect to show off a little for the people at school – to show ’em what I got!

I was a shy kid, completely wrapped up inside myself, in my own little world, as a means of survival. It was hard for me to connect with other people, because I was full of fear and anxiety. My plan was to put myself out there, literally, on a stage, hoping that I might attract some attention, then people would approach ME to be friends. 

After months of prep and rehearsals, we were ready. We even wrote an original song (mostly Robb did), called Turn Away.

It was finally show time. 

The energy that night was insane. I could feel electricity in the air, the unruly crowd of teenagers in the audience, the hum of the amplifiers, the rah rah of the other bands and the crew pumping us up as we strutted toward the stage to plug in and prepare for takeoff. 

I tested my amp … false start. Total amateur move. I was shaking and so nervous. My bare feet were sticking to my brown boat shoes.

I plunged right in, starting the intro to Cliffs of Dover, with its heroic 16th note runs, all by myself, alone. I might as well have been naked, standing at the edge of the stage, looking out into the dark abyss of the auditorium, knowing the discerning eyes of my peers were sitting just below me. Then, just as the rest of the band joined in, the hot lights came on. Red, blue and yellow gels lit us up like a Pink Floyd concert. And, there was a fiery white spotlight pointed right at ME. Holy shit.

I kept going, Randy was stage left, just eating it up. He had done this before. Brandon was up on a riser, doing his best Neil Peart impression, banging on the $70 cymbal I bribed him with. I paced around a little, back and forth, as I played. Then, in anticipation of the main hook of the song, I moved closer to the edge where the front monitors were, thinking I was really getting into it. Later on, I watched the video one of the parents made with their camcorder, and saw the truth – that I was just standing there, barely alive … fingers moving, but looking down at the guitar, with no emotion, no enthusiasm, and no excitement.

When the song was over, after a minor flub in the last crazy fast guitar run, everyone cheered. That applause was really cool, but MUST CONTINUE! Robb ran out to join us, waving his arms like a maniac – he was the perfect front man. We started The Evil That Men Do by Iron Maiden (according to Randy, that was the ideal choice because it was more “pop” than Infinite Dreams.) We also played Simple Man by Lynyrd Skynyrd (which included Jim Russell on guitar), a Pearl Jam song, and Smells Like Teen Spirit

When it was all over, we walked off, and I was on top of the world – it was such a rush … to be done with it! There, I checked all the boxes; the computer program had ended. For the most part it went to plan, with only a few minor errors. People seemed to like it. I got some nice compliments the next day at school, which was my goal, but nothing really changed. I did not go on to become class president.

The band carried on for a while, with different line-ups. After high school and college, Randy and I re-tooled and created a Beatles inspired band. We became very interested in songwriting, thinking we might be just be the next Lennon and McCartney. We called ourselves The Trumen, and started playing out at bars around West Haven. One time we even played at a school dance. 

Well, the band broke up, as they say. If I’m honest, it was all my fault. I was dealing with demons of the drug and alcohol variety, which unfortunately consumed most of the next 10 years. Part of what fueled my need to escape reality was a longing to have a life in music, but not having the self-esteem and confidence to really go for it. I was in many bands, had many jobs, lived in many states, and even worked at a recording studio for a while, trying to find my way, but I just couldn’t make it work. I couldn’t make anything work. Apparently, what I was looking for was not “out there” ( … it was inside.)

Long story, short – I finally woke up, cleaned up, got married, had kids, and got on a path of recovery and self-awareness. 

I began to see my past and present from a new perspective. Life got better in so many ways, but music was still in a weird place for me. Why is it that, even though I was technically a really good player, I was unable to successfully express my feelings through music? There was certainly no lack of emotion, I was an emotional roller coaster!

Through the 12 steps, meditation, and slowing down my mind a little, I started noticing how I had a habit of hammering away at songs, treating the notes like they were a bunch of 1’s and 0’s in a computer program waiting to be executed. This was nothing new, but now I could see it happening – I was aware. It seemed that playing each riff perfectly, the way I had heard it on the record was all that mattered, that each song was just a means to an end, a check box. So, I decided to change. I started learning songs to the point of muscle memory, then when it came time to perform, I’d show up and just try to be in the moment, without thinking. I made progress, but still had a long way to go.

My wife Heather and I started writing songs together. Once the kids were old enough to use the bathroom on their own, we recorded an album with some amazing players at Carriage House Studios in Stamford CT. We played some shows, but I was still uncomfortable around other people, and had difficulty channeling my emotions into the music, but I knew I was getting closer. Time went by …. getting even closer. Until …

One of the best nights of my life was playing to a packed room at Cafe 9 in New Haven. They weren’t there to see us, we were the opening band – but that was ok. I don’t know what got into me, but from the start I was completely in the moment, in the zone, totally enveloped by the experience. During our set, I was moving around, interacting with my band-mates, smiling, even dancing a little, connecting with the audience – filled with enthusiasm AND emotion! THIS is what it’s all about, the feeling I had been looking for all my life! The songs, my voice, the guitar – they were just vehicles to allow me to experience the moment. I knew how and what to play without thinking about it. I was fully alive, like a fish swimming from note to note. I saw opportunities to express emotion (energy) in each stretched-out vowel of a vocal phrase, or slow drawn-out bend of the 8th fret on the B string. It was that place within the notes, the gray area in between, that allowed me to insert my true self. Everything that had been bottled up was suddenly, beautifully released in a way that freed me and fed the audience. 

So, what had changed?

I transitioned from technical to emotional – from computer to human. I was present, vulnerable, and enthusiastic. 

It turns out that authenticity and humanity are what moves an audience, not how fast I can play Cliffs of Dover.

Performing is fun now, because there’s no longer all that pressure to “do it right”. When I walk out on stage, I’m there to interpret and express the song, the way I see it. I don’t need to sound like Eric Clapton or Marvin Gaye. I can give them MY version. If I’m honest and authentic, and not overthinking things, I can’t go wrong. Because there is no wrong! This is art! Whatever is supposed to come out, comes out, and the right people will gladly receive it. 

Finally, perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned, that I’m embarrassed to say because it seems so obvious – is this: if I’m having a good time, so will the audience.

Header image of Parkway South at Cafe Nine in New Haven, CT by Sherry Lynn Photography

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8 Comments

  1. Honestly so inspiring! I had no idea you did all this stuff in high school, it just makes me want to perform 🙂

    • Thanks Stephanie, that means the world to me – GO FOR IT!

  2. Dedee Williams Dedee Williams

    Bravo, Mike! Thank you for sharing 🙂

  3. Marta Irene Marta Irene

    You gave me something to think about. Wow! Thanks! I’m gonna have to read this again.

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