As I walked into the Desmet Jesuit High School auditorium, the sound of camp counselors’ guitars and drums blasting classic rock tunes from the stage pounded in my eardrums, and I felt my stomach tightening into a knot. Scanning the rows of seats filled with other young musicians, I searched for an empty row, hopefully towards the back, where I could sit and not be noticed. Finding a sufficiently isolated spot, I sat down and began observing the crowd of kids with guitars and drumsticks. The age of the group varied anywhere from three years younger than me to five years older than me, but they all might as well have been twenty years older than me and ten feet tall. Watching them silently plucking at their unplugged guitars and tapping out rhythms on their chairs, my hands felt like they were in slow motion in comparison as I played a few scales and tried to warm up. Watching the counselors jam onstage under the massive “Camp Jam: St. Louis” sign, my fingers felt as if they were made of stone as some of the city’s best local guitarists showed us the finer points of music performance and rattled off wailing solos like it was as natural as breathing. I felt myself sinking lower and lower into my chair.
After sufficiently blowing the minds of everyone in the room, the counselors decided to invite some of the campers up to jam with them. The eager hand of a boy my age shot up from the row in front of me, and the counselors called him up. He jumped onstage, plugged his guitar into the spare amplifier, flicked his long, reddish-brown hair out of his face, and asked the counselors if they knew “Sweet Child o’ Mine.” From the first note he played, the sound coming from his fingers was stunning. Ripping through the intro, every beautiful note he played was a stab wound to my pride, and every ounce of confidence I had slowly bled out of me as the song went on. The idea of somebody my age producing such sweet, singing solos and grinding power chords with such ease and dexterity seemed impossible. I yearned for my quiet room and my tiny amplifier that I could plug into and play by myself without being heard. When the song was finished, he hopped offstage and came back to sit in the seat in front of me. “Nice job,” I managed to choke out. He turned around with a warm, light-hearted smile on his face and replied, “Thanks, man.”
After one or two more campers went up and played, no more volunteers presented themselves. One of the guitar-wielding counselors looked disappointed with us and tried to goad us onstage. “Come on,” he said in an encouraging voice, “Nobody else?” The room remained still for several seconds that lasted for hours. “Come on guys, there has to be someone else,” he half-pleaded with us. I looked around, and nobody looked willing to go. “Anybody?” he said. Somehow, as I sat among the hordes of dead-quiet kids with guitars, it seemed he was talking directly to me. I felt as if every little plea he made was aimed at me personally, begging me to step up. I had never seen him before that day, but it seemed as though he knew me, and knew that for once in my life I needed to just go for something, even if it meant falling on my face. His voice penetrated through the walls of seclusion I had been building around myself for the past eight years and went straight to my stomach, tightening the knot until I thought it was about to burst inside me.
The stillness in the crowd was broken by a shaky hand being raised that I barely even realized was mine until the counselors pointed and called me up to the stage. Standing in front of seemingly countless pairs of eyes, I knew I had put myself in exactly the position I had become so fond of avoiding. Feeling sweat dripping down the back of my neck, I had no doubt somebody had turned the heat in the room up as high as it could go. They asked me what song I wanted to play, and I went blank. After frantically searching my brain for a song I knew, I stammered, “Uhh…Ironman?” They nodded in approval and began the song.
The ominous pulse of the bass drum sent a hush over the room, and we launched into the infamous guitar riff. Struggling to make my fingers keep up with the beat, I didn’t to dare glance into the crowd to face the millions of eyes staring at me. My gaze did not lift from my hands, unless I was making eye contact with the counselors to signal transitions from verse to chorus or chorus to bridge, and I had no intention of changing that. I continued through the song this way until we made the transition to the bridge leading to the solo section. The counselors looked up and nodded at me, giving me the go-ahead to take the solo, but two things stopped me: I wasn’t exactly sure what key the song was in, and on top of that, I didn’t see any possibility of me doing anything to stand out onstage, much less taking a solo. I looked back at them, shrugged, and quickly glanced back down at my fingers, but I could still feel their eyes on me. I looked up into the eyes of the counselor who persuaded me onstage, the one who saw right through me, and I was filled with the same feeling he had given me before. Just go for it he said with his eyes. With my heart in my throat and my stomach feeling like it had been tied by an Eagle Scout, I went for it. I turned the volume on my guitar all the way up, found the B minor pentatonic scale on the fretboard, and cut loose. With every note that rolled off my fingers, I felt my stomach loosening and the tension seeping out of my body. Feeling the true liberation that only comes with reckless abandon of one’s insecurities, I brought my solo to an end and looked out into the crowd. For the first time, I didn’t see a pack of animals that would pounce on the first sign of weakness, but a group of kids who just wanted to play music. We drew the song to a roaring conclusion, and I stepped offstage to applause from the crowd that sounded surprisingly genuine.
As I came and sat back down in my seat, I heard someone from the row behind me choke out, “Nice job.” I turned around with a warm, light-hearted smile on my face and replied, “Thanks, man.”
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