The Terror and Benediction of Open Mic Night

One night in Arlington, I conquered my fear and stepped into the spotlight to sing.
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Arlington writer and musician Sharon North (Photo by Michael Ventura)

I am practicing for an open mic night. Although I am 62, I feel like a middle school student before their first band concert, going over a difficult section they’ve never gotten quite right. 

Performance is like that. You spend hours alone, perfecting notes and words, thinking, I wish someone could hear this! Then, suddenly, the big night’s upon you, and the panicked voice in your head screams: Yikes! Everyone’s gonna hear me when I choke!

I’ve told a few friends, and my husband, Charlie, but it’s a Wednesday night on short notice, so no one has committed to coming.

Everyone else I love is far away, or dead. If I dwell on this too long, I feel a loneliness in my heart—a hard, narrow stone lodged right down the center that crowds the love I want to put into my music. 

I breathe deeply, visualizing my mother and the biological father I never knew, looking down on me from the place of peace I hope they’ve moved on to. I feel the comfort and support of their spirits.

I’ve decided to do two songs: “Why Walk When You Can Fly,” by Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Nanci Griffith version of “From a Distance.” Both were suggested by my friend, Tom, the open mic host and my accompanist. 

The adage that “99% of success in life is showing up” echoes in my brain. No matter what, I will not chicken out. I won’t let Tom down. Usually his band, The Bad Manors III, plays, but the other two members are out of town. I don’t want to let myself down either. 

Memory carries me back to other rehearsals and performances. Age 12—practicing gymnastics in the basement alone. Age 16—doing breathing exercises in my room with the door shut before a church solo, wanting to audition for the high school musical.  Each time, I want to shout at my mom and adoptive father: Smile and listen to me! Hug me. Say you know I can do it!

Then I’m back to freshman year of college. I’m thinking about auditioning for the collegiate chorale, but I know I won’t. Not without extra voice lessons and coaching. And I know my parents will never agree to pay for that. They’ll say, “We can’t afford it. We’re already paying everything we have to send you away to school.” And my meager waitress paychecks are going for books.

They don’t know how much I yearn for their support because I don’t feel safe asking for it. Instead, I exude a practiced fake confidence to comfort them, to show them I am all right. 

I am the good girl. I am the “easier child to raise,” as my mother told me all my life. It seems that is the role I was born to play.

I arrive at the venue, a neighborhood pub in Arlington called Meridian Pint. Tom is rushing around, setting up sound equipment. The performance space opened up late, so we have no time to rehearse. I text Charlie to tell him we’re starting later than scheduled. Before I hit “send,” I see his car pull into the parking lot.

I am the only person signed up to perform. There are three occupied tables. With Charlie, there are four.

At a table directly in front of the small stage are two couples a little older than me. The women are seated facing the stage as they eat and talk. The men, presumably their husbands, sit across from them. One of the women is wearing a fuchsia sweater. Her bright eyes peep out from a frame of silvery, chin-length hair and crinkle when she smiles. As Tom steps up to the microphone, the men rearrange their chairs to face him, too.

I take a few swallows from my glass of Pinot Grigio and fiddle with my sheet music as Tom introduces himself with easy confidence and welcomes the tiny gathering.

I repeat lyrics in my head, praying I won’t flub them up too badly, breathing deeply to relax my gut. Charlie orders food and sits next to me, watching, as Tom plays an opening set that includes “Wagon Wheel” and “City of New Orleans.” 

A gaggle of little girls runs in from the outdoor seating area, past our table and into the restroom. Their giggling is still audible, and their father comes in to shush them.

The show goes on. Then, after a very short break, Tom says, “So, now it’s time to open up the mic. There’s plenty of space on the sign-up sheet if anyone wants to give it a try! Meanwhile, Sharon’s here to start us off.”

I am up. I adjust the light I brought for my music stand. My aging eyes can’t see without it. My hand is sweaty as I pull the microphone out of the stand, gripping it like a lifeline. 

Tom raises his eyebrows. “You ready?” My head nods. And we’re off. Once a performance starts, there’s no going back.

Except, this time, there is. Tom forgot to capo his guitar neck, so he’s playing in a key much too low for my voice. Panic begins to build in my chest. I cup my hand over the mic. “Whoa, that’s not going to work!”

After a quick apology, with the capo clamped on, we begin again. Less than 10 minutes later, I’m done.

Sitting down, I feel a gentle arm enfold my shoulders in a hug. It’s the woman in the fuchsia sweater. “I just want to thank you,” she says. “I loved your songs. I can tell we share the same values.” 

She holds onto me as I turn to thank her. The warmth of her smile and the kindness of that embrace go straight to my heart. The hug buoys me through the busy days that follow. 

I’m grateful my performance touched someone. It made a connection. That’s what music is all about. And the hard, cold stone of loneliness has disappeared.

Sharon North sings in a folk group and is studying acoustic guitar. A foreign service family member for 24 years, she is writing a memoir about her experiences living and raising children overseas.

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