Hello Troubadourians! I’m sure everyone has heard the old saying “The show must go on…” It sounds strong, like performers are superhuman or something, capable of entertaining while at death’s door. And there are times when an individual will find that something inside and is able to step into the spotlight and deliver, even when they should be in ICU. But those times are rare and sometimes do result in a trip to ICU or worse. I think that every performer has played a show when they were unwell and not at their best. Usually, that performance was only memorable for them just having made it through, not for how awesome they played or sang. If you are a solo performer, you only have yourself to think about. “Can I do this?” But if you are playing with others, even just as a duo, you are blessed with the opportunity to rely on them to carry you through when you need them the most. I recently had such a gig and I think I learned something from it.
When everyone is feeling normal and the band is well rehearsed, its second nature to be in tune with the other players and support them and expect that they will support you. When we aren’t well and have to perform, the tendency is to focus on ourselves almost to the exclusion of the others in the band. Which is ironic since this is when we need each other the most. Your head isn’t right, your voice sounds like a bad imitation of Barry White, and you can’t hear anything, but still you’re gonna play for the people…. We had scheduled a gig that we were looking forward to. Not anything big, but we’d all had some real-life things to deal with and we hadn’t played for a while. As the date approached, it became clear that we had all contracted something that was going around…. I was probably the least sick of the three of us but somehow, I knew I was operating on DayQuil, black coffee, and adrenaline. We all arrived at the venue and were obviously out of sorts. Normally, I would have been more attentive to my bandmates and to the gig environment. I would have not let the show happen until we were all comfortable. I would have made sure to know exactly how everyone was feeling and made adjustments to the setlist or arrangements, so that we could all perform as best as we were able. Instead, wired and worried, I let us proceed as if we were normal. We weren’t. We were three songs into the set before we righted the direction and started to sound like we knew what we were doing. I suppose it could have been much worse. Our second set was reasonably good, sort of like we rehearsed it, and we were actually asked to play “just one more song….” But it took everything we had to do that. I was lucky that my daughter was driving because I physically crashed on the way home. My bandmates faired no better and all of us were sick for a couple of days.
What I learned: You’d think that after all these years of performing I’d have a better idea of what to do when I’m not feeling well. After all, I come to every gig technically prepared for just about anything. Extra set of strings? I bring two sets. Extra DI box? I have three. Extra cords? I have four. Extra guitar? Check. Battery, picks, capo? Yeah, I have that covered. In fact, if everything failed for everyone in the band, I’d have it covered… well, I only have one backup guitar… But I did find out that black coffee works best for me to salvage what I can from my voice when I have a cold. I’ve heard about tea and honey or tea and lemon, but just give me black coffee and I’ll be okay. Regular room-temperature water for on stage. It’s tempting to have cold water, but I think that might make things worse. Tylenol every three hours. Yeah, that’s not the recommended dosage interval but we’re trying to cheat a cold here and going beyond my normal endurance curve required some extra help. This only made the physical seem bearable. My mental state remained compromised although I didn’t realize it until afterward. As I said above, I was in survival mode, and I wasn’t thinking about my bandmates like I normally would. My lizard brain figured that we were all on our own and could take care of ourselves. In retrospect, I think each of us were thinking that same thing. Maybe if one of us had been clear-headed enough to take us aside and have a health check, a mental refocus moment, we might have performed better from the beginning. Or at least felt better about it. While we seemed to play and sing well enough to be entertaining, I don’t think we were having very much fun. I also think we were too hard on ourselves for not being at our best. That isn’t logical nor realistic, but that is what most of us do. We could have cancelled. Maybe we should have. But we didn’t, and we played and sang the best we could. And despite our ill health we performed okay.
Now that we’ve made it through, I’d like to think that I learned to be more attentive to my bandmates, not just when we’re sick, but all the time. Because we don’t have to be physically sick to require or deserve more attention. When we rehearse, we spend time just talking and finding out how we are doing. I don’t always want to talk about how I’m feeling, I just want to play. But I need to share my feelings with my bandmates and listen to them when they express their feelings with me. Now I realize it’s a habit that we can carry with us into every venue and onto every stage. Even when—or especially when—we aren’t feeling our best.
Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (firstname.lastname@example.org)