Being the Guitarist
by Julianna Raye
As a singer/songwriter, I’ve had some pretty amazing opportunities. And I absolutely love the process of performing live, which I’ve done since I was 5 years old, in one form or another. I also love creating music. It’s a genuinely exhilarating process. But, I really can’t stand playing an instrument in front of people; I have a very hard time with that. I can barely stand playing it when I’m by myself. For me, it’s like being forced to speak a foreign language I don’t like, because I’m living in that country and I have no choice. It’s clunky and frustrating, like an old typewriter with sticky keys. Singing, on the other hand, is so easy and natural. You just open up your mouth and the voice is there for you. But a guitar or piano needs your fingers to tell it how to sound and where to go. I just don’t have the same cooperative understanding with my fingers that I have with my vocal chords. But because of the economics of touring and the desire to contribute in co-writing sessions, I’ve had no choice but to play instruments in front of people. So, since this was a necessary relationship for me as a writer and artist, I decided to treat it as a spiritual practice.
Every day, I would sit on my seiza bench with eyes closed and guitar in hand and I’d run through the songs for my set. I would concentrate mostly on the emotions that came up as I struggled to master this process. I would also concentrate on the way my fingers felt against the strings. I noticed that fear led me to grip the strings just a little too tight and that set off a chain reaction, affecting the fluidity of my performance. I noticed the frustration that came up in a sloppy transition between chords. I noticed the frustration that came up because playing guitar feels like work to me. I noticed a lot of frustration and discomfort, coming up. I even had insight into my childhood. I remembered knocking over the orange juice as a kid at the breakfast table and how pissed off my dad got. I started to look on my clumsy fingers with compassion, recognizing how they held the painful desire and helpless inability to get life perfectly right.
I’d like to tell you I had a massive breakthrough and was transformed into a virtuoso guitarist. So far, no go. But it has definitely brought something rich into the mix. On one occasion, I remember missing a chord change on stage and just as I was headed into a shame spiral I caught myself and chose a better way forward. In that instant, right there on stage, between the words of the song, I felt forgiveness and compassion for myself. I said some reassuring words in my mind and was able to let the fumble go. Another time, I became overwhelmingly nervous playing a new song for an intimate group of strangers. I warned them I might not make it through the song and sure enough, half way in, I slipped one time too many and begged off. To my surprise the crowd insisted I keep going. So I rallied and we weathered my repeated slips and stumbles together, until I finished, to rousing applause. We had climbed the mountain and survived the journey, together. I was reminded that it’s connection we’re all truly looking for. Connection can be most profound when we’re willing to turn towards the parts of ourselves we have the hardest time accepting, bringing love into the darkness.