Is it time to take the plunge or hang up the axe?

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A personal exploration into this writer’s lack of enthusiasm for performing live. It’s been a part of my life for over 30 years – what’s holding me back now?

performing live
I’ve been in a performing band ever since I was in the tenth grade. If you count Black Death, the fictional band my friend Ray and I made up when I was in fourth grade, then my fascination with music performance goes back even farther. And I jammed with the older kids when I was a freshman in high school, playing Rush songs, or album sides – which are sometimes the same thing – with total abandon.

Since the tenth grade, through college and beyond, I’ve played hundreds of live shows. My projects were predominantly original – that is to say, we mostly wrote our own material.

I was always a drummer, and most often a singer (if not the only singer) as well, and have the confidence to pull that off in most any situation. Though, at the moment, my drums are in storage and my voice is not primed for hours of performances due to a self-induced lack of performance opportunities.

So it’s been the past three or four years that I’ve semi-seriously taken on the acoustic guitar, trying to craft an acoustic duo with Jack, my long-time friend and collaborator. We’ve been in numerous bands since 1991, from bombastic and heavy to rock n’ roll with a little more nuance – but again, almost exclusively original. Our cover material was always a heavily filtered experience. We’d take a song and turn it into ours, to the point that it might take you a minute or so to recognize it as someone else’s.

Jack is an exceptional guitarist. I am not. I picked up the guitar once I didn’t have a place to set up my drums in the house, and after having kids, the opportunities for full-on rehearsals and practicing the drums have largely gone by the wayside.

So here we are, an acoustic duo with nearly 80 songs we can play, all competently. Yet I can’t bring myself to believe we’re good enough to perform live.

Has getting older made me more risk-averse? Do I have a clearer understanding of how far I still have to go at this instrument and feel unworthy of performing live? Has being a father to two children made me want to curb my late-night lifestyle? Is the idea of playing predominantly cover sets just not that thrilling to me?

There is something preventing me from doing this, and I can’t figure out what. It’s not something I ever experienced before.

I was out with my wife the other night at a restaurant in our little town on the outskirts of Philadelphia, and there was a duo playing cover songs. They were in the bar area, which I couldn’t see from the dining area, but we could hear them clearly. They were OK, a female singer and a guitarist, interpreting a lot of male-fronted modern rock songs.

They started a song, I didn’t recognize it, but from the outset I could tell something was wrong. She started singing, it wasn’t fitting the chord progression, the guitarist began shifting chords, it was a total train wreck. They stopped. They just completely stopped. Then, without a word of explanation, they started the next song and moved on.

I thought, “Holy Hell, that was a complete disaster.” I believe one mark of a good act is an ability to land on its feet if and when such a calamity befalls, it certainly has happened to me with varying results. I thought they handled it poorly. First off, that song should never have been in the set. Beyond that, just abandoning it… seemed very amateur to me.

So what’s the takeaway? I know we would have handled that better. We would have sounded good in that setting. We’ve been at this for so long. We can be impressive when we play to our strengths. So why aren’t we? What’s holding me back?

A musician, writer, and marketer, Andre Calilhanna manages and edits the Disc Makers and BookBaby Blogs. Follow Andre on Twitter @dre_cal. Email him at

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27 thoughts on “Is it time to take the plunge or hang up the axe?

  1. I’ve been through the same thing!

    Was frontman/vocalist for various cover bands for many years, but I got to the point where I hated getting up on stage, and started having health issues doing so.

    So I roadied for some up & coming bands for fun, helping them with all sorts of stuff they needed to know, did lights, filmclips, all sorts of stuff – and we’re all still great mates, even though the bands ended up going nowhere.

    I also ended up getting a real job…. And ended up in a tech role that utilises much of what I learned along the way.

    I still love to sing/write/record, but these days I only do one or two gigs a year for fun, with friends.

    Working for a living sucks a bit, but at least i’m still (mostly) sane.

  2. Dang, I thought you were going to answer that question for me!

    I have been in the business of performing original music in concert in the faith setting (Church) for – yes – 30 years. I went from being an ignorable young upstart/prodigy to an ambitious professional who saw every situation as an opportunity for the next step up. My partner and I have travelled the world – much of it professionally. Then, I had 3 children, who went with us on virtually all our gigs and tours, yet who are now teens who need to be home and study. And then I weathered the economic downturn of 2007 onward – coupled with the Church’s decline in numbers, demographic and morale. I made it through by carrying on in the belief that the Church still needs to sing, still needs to have leadership to make sense of its new job in the world and that I was called to it. I chose not to take the sudden, abrupt smack-down in income and popularity totally personally. But it wore on me.

    On the other side of that, I have discovered some things: I took up a new instrument, which I’m teaching to children and it gives me great joy. I have taken up classical lessons on my main instrument and it is blowing me away with how much I love it (and the realization of how burned out I was with my old shows and material). I am covering more material by others (especially because I have not been writing as prolifically as I did BC – “before children”). This is a pleasure and probably long overdue in my concert sets.

    I gave away needing to be “hip” on stage and off – because I’m not and I never really was, but at this age you can develop a false memory syndrome of how sexy you used to be, now that you need reading glasses. I am choosing to see myself more as an elder than your hip artsy neighbour.

    Sometimes I think there may be something about the way I chose to steel myself against feeling the personal pain of low attendance at our concerts during the downturn years that may not be helping me out now. I made it through – when almost none of my peers could or did – and am still considered a somebody in my field. But now I feel an empty pit in my gut at the thought of trying to get out and build up the audience, whip up the excitement, grind the mill of press release and hyperbole to re-build the momentum. I feel tired. I don’t see a future in those things – I guess mostly because I don’t know the future of my market.

    I have a great advantage in all of this, though: I have a faith tradition and a connection to the Source, who I turn to repeatedly to ask where I am best used. I wouldn’t be in the Music Biz if not for that. I get my direction from friends, family and audience, roll them together and ask the Holy: “Is this where my best contribution is?” So far, it still seems to be, and we have been directed in new ways. At present, I am writing to you from the Christian Medical College Hospital of Vellore, South India, where we have come for a month to lead music with the staff, students and their families – to be like Bing Crosby, if you will, with the USO. New sense of purpose.

    Here is one thing I do know: The fact that you heard people performing worse than you could have done, is no indication that you should be up there doing it. It might be. But, mostly, those reactions are mere projections of our own belief that we ARE SUPPOSED to be up there doing that thing (“… and who do they think they are – performing publicly when they aren’t even as good as I am?”). I will be a music critic until the day I die, but that doesn’t give me many clues about what I am meant to be doing with all this musical skill I have accumulated over my lifetime. It is only the voice of critique I use on myself which I have temporarily turned on others.

    No, the question of vocation (where to next?) is yours to figure out. Why not make a list of the things you do in your life, both musical and otherwise and give each one a JOY rating: one to ten. How do you feel when you are doing that thing? Is it possible you will be surprised by what you see when you are done? You may be missing the next step in a career that has been fruitful, but which is now possibly bogged in “should be/should do”.

    Or maybe write 2 paragraphs: “What Would It Look Like to Take the Plunge?” Describe in detail.
    Then: “What Would Life Look Like if I Hung Up the Axe?” Describe in detail.
    Read them to only your most trusted friends. See where you become defensive – or where you feel suddenly released from heaviness. Meditate (what we in the church like to call “pray”).

    And if you get more insight, tell me. I’m open.

    1. Hey, Linnea – you’ve got an entire post of your own here! Thanks for taking the time to respond with such passion and detail. I think I’ll take you up on the paragraph-writing idea. Maybe that’ll be a follow up post. – Andre

  3. You care too much? Baloney! You should care. That duo should care though you weren’t close enough to them to really know how they reacted to their train wreck. Maybe they did care.

    Train wrecks are always bad. There are two types of musicians: musicians who will laugh and watch as the train wrecks (and some of those musicians can be really good players, too) and musicians who have standards, who will do everything in their power to keep the train from wrecking or falling below their standard. I think you fall into the latter category and you do care otherwise you wouldn’t have cared enough to write the article. A musician should always strive for excellence.

    Only you know if your hesitation around gigging is because you’re unsure of your guitar skills or you’re just not into the cover music. If you can’t find anything to like about the music or the gig, don’t do it. If it’s because you’re nervous about your guitar chops, here’s what I recommend: book your first gig a month in advance. That will give you time to get your chops up and it will also give you the motivation to get it together. Nothing works like having a gig to prepare for.

    Another thing to keep in mind: learning to play an instrument is a very subjective experience. Many things that I play on guitar, I don’t find particularly impressive because I know how to do it and have done it a million times but to the outside observer it may be very impressive. In other words, consider the outside chance that you may be better than you give yourself credit for. Then keep working to get your playing up to your standard and my best wishes to you on the gig!

    1. All true, Aaron. And I don’t know that I’m nervous about my chops so much as aware of my limitations. But then again, I suppose the best in the world feel the same way… but they take the plunge. Thanks for the insights! Andre

  4. Interesting topic. I have a few thoughts I’d like to share. First, if you look at the histories of well known popular acts that came out of high poverty areas the Southern U.S., or the slums of London, they tend to have good staying power. I have to think this is, at least in part, because life on the road is probably better than it was (or still is) at home and that the alternative to staying on the gig might be something like pouring concrete or working in a tire factory. Maybe we could call this the desperation factor.

    Conversely, I have known a number of friends and/or colleagues whose parents were at the highest level of pop music royalty. They tend not to do as well over the long haul, because living out of a van or bus is unfavorable as compared to the four million dollar house they bought with dad’s trust fund, and the already semi-famous position they’ve inherited without having to lift a finger. Maybe we could call this the comfort factor.

    At another level, we have the uber-talented, seasoned professional, where there is always the prospect of good financial sponsorship, great new music, adoring audiences and exciting opportunities. At this level, there will always be someone chasing you down to do another project, collaboration or tour. How could one say “no”?

    I’ve played guitar as a career for 50 years, with my interest waxing and waning, mostly depending on opportunities, personal health, what kind of shape my chops were in at the time and the headaches of a particular gig or project. I think it’s fairly natural for our motivations to cycle through ups and downs. Since recently having a diagnosis of advancing arthritis in my left hand, I no longer have the option to choose based on motivation. In this case, the opportunity becomes much like an amp or guitar that they suddenly don’t make any more. The value goes up and it’s name becomes “vintage.”

    So I’d pose a couple of questions: Imagine you are suddenly robbed of all abilities to do music, but still in good health otherwise. Would that hypothetical scenario be a strong motivation to do it while you can, or be just fine without? And secondly, if you were to suddenly be faced with a medical diagnosis of doom, would your history as a musician become a most cherished memory, would you regret not doing what you could while you could, or would it be of lesser importance?

    1. All good questions and insights. Gonna take some time to explore them (which is to say, i don’t have the answers at the moment). Thanks for taking the time to read and post! Andre

  5. As a fellow entertainer who has been playing live for almost 40 years and doing it for a living still, here’s my two cents.

    When you’ve played live as long as we have and as we see and hear our ever-morphing world around us changing, it becomes very easy (and common) to suffer what I call “The Confidence Crisis”. We start to feel out of touch with the “new” music and trends; we start to feel our “age” and sub-consciously begin to measure ourselves against everyone and everything BUT what made us what we are to begin with…our talents and the things that only WE can do OUR way. It’s an insidious thing. Soon, we try to justify our musical paralysis by dwelling on our other traits and accomplishments that have actually nothing to do with the burning passion that still burns within. The proof is in the fact that we are excellent critics. We don’t mean to tear anyone down, but we do so because in reality, we are yearning to find a new entry point or signpost that says, “GO FOR IT…you’ve still got it!!!” We’re really beating on ourselves for quitting and trying to mentally re-live our “Glory Days”, even if it only comes down to living vicariously through those who we knew and some that we don’t who have made it or are making it doing what we still LOVE to do. There is nothing worse than the hell that is “What if… or If only…

    So what is one to do? I can only respectfully offer my opinion, but in a nutshell, do SOMETHING!!!! Nothing crushes fear, depression, regret and doubt like action. Re-invent yourself. If you can measure others by what you or your duo would have done in a situation, then you need to be doing it. It’s no longer about being rich and/or famous, but using what you spent a lifetime getting good at to lift others who could have been given your talents but weren’t. They’ll appreciate you, believe me. If you think about it, isn’t that all you’re really looking for anyway? Confidence and satisfaction will grow exponentially and quickly as you strive to remain true to your art and yourself, especially with the support from those who also believe in you. That includes the ones you haven’t met yet and won’t until you get back in the game. Whether its for friends and family, church, kids, open mic or a steady gig, I believe you won’t be complete until you feed that musical child inside. Never pass up an opportunity to play. The best news is, you’ve got nothing to lose! So go bless some people…You’ll be blessed in return. I promise you.



    1. Love it. I do think the first “something’ we’ll do is record. That always stoked the creative fire, and if I’m not ready to perform after that, I guess that really is saying something. Thanks, Don.

  6. Perhaps you’re not the best judge of whether you’re ready (“good enough”) to play live? Ask friends you respect and know will give you honest opinions about how you both sound. Also, maybe you haven’t found the right guitar? Or the right comfort level with the guitar — meaning, sure, you can play 80 songs Ok, but do you love just sitting around noodling on your guitar? Do you look at it across the room and say to yourself, What a beautiful instrument? Do you feel inferior to your friend who’s played a lot longer so probably has lots of great chops? My advice (to myself) is never compare myself to any other guitar player except myself – otherwise the sense of “I have so far to go….” can be crippling. If you are you short on chops do you need to find a good teacher? Or, if you’re good enough, maybe you should be a teacher. That’s a great motivator. Anyway, best of luck.

    1. Well, my wife insists we’re “music’s best kept secret,” so we’ve got that going for us. I love her, but have doubts about her objectivity… Andre

  7. It’s time to quit playing.
    Play for YOUR entertainment in your house.

    It’s more fun than you think.


    The Professor

  8. Just do it. If you are decent, you will come off well. There may be someone in the crowd who can find a few minor issues, but what does that matter? What you heard in the restaurant made no difference one way or the other to the duo performing, and most people listening probably didn’t think about the song they messed up as much as you did. People appreciate a good, live performance, and unless they’ve paid a hefty cover charge, just tune out mediocre and bad performances. You owe it to yourself to get out there and perform your original music. People who appreciate good, live music will love you for it.

    1. Thanks, Timothy. I’ve had many of those same thoughts… As a performer, I certainly notice (as we all do) the mistakes and imperfections more than anyone else. Thanks for the encouragement. Andre

  9. I too am in a similar situation when it comes to singing .
    I never really liked my voice
    But I still perform publicly just to keep me on my toes.
    I know when my daughters grow up and go to college I will be back on that stage.
    For now I am a stay at home dad who loves to post YouTube videos.
    Through Youtube I have gained hundreds of fans you might want to start there.
    ~Masta Hanksta~

  10. I began to worry that the train wreck duo might have been one I perform with in the Philly area… I say, you can rehearse till you absolutely perfect but playing out is what perfects it. I like you don’t find a lot of joy in playing out leading up to it but when I actually do it most times it is a lot of fun… plus it justifies gear purchases…

    1. In all fairness, the duo really was pretty decent, but the song in question stuck with me for sure. But as many comments here suggest, I don’t know if anyone else even noticed. My wife didn’t.

  11. Not a musician, a stand-up comic, but I feel you. I have two kids as well and have gone through similar thoughts. The Professor said it’s about caring too much. Maybe, maybe not. For me it was never about caring too much, caring is a good thing. It was about being vulnerable. As we grow older we lose that ability to put ourselves out there. Maybe it’s a result of the accumulation of experiences that sometimes weaken our defenses. Sometimes, it may not even be about the experiences we’ve had but those that our peers have experienced. Anyway, you asked the question, “what’s holding me back?” The answer is the same answer for anyone who has ever asked that question: Fear.

    1. Maybe… I have thought that. I’ve also been amazed about how little fear I used to have. My first ever stage experience as a musician (other than school band) was performing at a high school talent show. Just me and my drum set, as a 6th grader. I got up and sang and played “Renegade” by Styx with no microphone or accompaniment to a big crowd of people with zero hesitation. The sheer balls it took just to do it won me a lot of support. Would I do that today? Are you kidding?

  12. When we were younger there was a goal of becoming the next big thing. Whether we became that or not, that goal has passed, so maybe there’s a lack of something to work hard toward. You probably don’t even have to practice much. Gigging small, local venues wears on us, they are usually 3-4 sets, the pay for solo is about the same for a duo and the pay is the same as it was in ’88; it just wears a person out. I live 30 minutes from the beach, there are 2 bridges to cross, almost zero parking during the gigging season, high risk of auto accidents due to drunken tourists, so it takes about 8 hours to do the whole thing which after expenses I might clear $50 out $125 gross pay (band member pay). I’ve toured full time and played local venues, several thousand performances; I’m not missing anything. I’ll stay home, write songs, have them plugged, watch TV with my wife, have a decent meal, sleep in my own bed, shower in my own shower. They can’t work my ass off and have my music for just a few dollars. If I want to give it away, I’ll give it to charity.

    1. Nice Don. It’s true, it can be a grind, and unless you land a seriously cushy gig, it’s a lot of time and effort (I’m thinking of the loading and unloading of equipment) for a pretty meager per-hour wage. You’ve gotta love it for something other than the money. Andre

  13. You care to much. You’re overreacting. The duo you describe appears to me to have it under control. They don’t care, which in this instance is working in their favor. They moved on without making an excuse public. Saying something about the disaster would have made it worse.

    99.9% of the audiences are their to hear music. The other 1/10 of one percent are their because they are contemplating their own career and are on a learning curve. It’s the 1/10 of one percent that will give you feedback that may result in you overreacting and caring to much. All the best, The Professor.

    1. Well written article Andre and a topic to which I can relate. I find myself thinking a lot of the same things as I suspect we’re of a similar age and share a common work ethic. Thanks for your insight.

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