eyes on the prize. photo c/o M. Vinokur

Throwback Thursday: Keeping Both Eyes Open

I had just started playing guitar earlier that year, and now here I was learning how to take what little I had internalized and share it with the adoring public as a graduate of our camp song leader program. In this case, “what little I had internalized” was only a “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” “Hotel California,” a few assorted Adam Sandler tunes, and a handful of simple Jewish folk tunes, and my “adoring public” was a camp of 300 of my peers.

Nothing major.

In spite of these uncomplimentary elements, I was confident. I wasn’t altogether out of my depth either, having always taken delight in– and never missing an opportunity for– performing in front of people. Only now I was developing skills that those people might willingly like to be subjected to. Not to mention I only had to learn to present one measly song by the end of camp.

It was still a new skill, however, and “raw talent” alone was not going to get the job done. I needed some practice. Lucky for me, camp was full of opportunities for practice time. While my bunkmates were practicing getting to know the girls from the cabins across the way and perfecting their charm, I was busy practicing my one-four-six-five progression changes and perfecting my 30-second lessons on the meaning of Tikkun Olam (the Jewish teaching of repairing the world) in the song.

Finishing my preliminary run through of Oseh Shalom (Maker of Peace) in front of the handful of my fellow song leading neophytes and the head camp song leader, I felt accomplished and satisfied. Sure there’d been a slip up on a chord change or two, and perhaps I could have broken up the phrases better when I led the teaching portion at the beginning, but all in all a job mighty well done.

The other students gave their remarks and suggestions, following the required format of one positive for every negative. When they had given theirs, the head song leader looked at me and a smile spread across his face.

“Excellent job for your first time up,” he said, and I was overjoyed. I felt like skipping, jumping place, pumping a fist, and more– ah, thr natural high of a well played tune. My guitar was both my sword and shield, giving me strength, power and poise, and like any good knight, my instrument and I were one.

“Just one thing,” he continued, interrupting my inner exuberance. “Keep your eyes open.”

I was dumbstruck. I never realized my eyes had been closed. I’d introduced and taught the song with them open of course, but at some point during the latter half of presentation I must have closed them.

Surely, I reasoned, it was just my way of connecting with an awesome part of the song.

“That may be,” said our instructor, “but you have to let us in. Let us experience that moment with you.”

I thanked the instructor and the group for their suggestions, and returned to my seat.

I understood. Unlike the run of the mill musician that plays his song for a ready and captive audience, as a song leader my job was to share that song with a group of participants, so called because they want to partake in the experience of hearing and singing the song as much as I do. In closing my eyes for the duration of the song I had effectively cut the group out of that shared experience.

It was as if I had drawn my sword and shield, but forgotten the sword part.

Keeping my eyes open, however, presented its own issues, namely the question of where exactly to focus them while playing. If the goal was to forge a shared connection with my crowd, I couldn’t just pick a spot on the back wall and feel like I had truly accomplished the task. Nor could it be expected that I’d be able to lock eyes with every person in the room throughout my set, let alone during the length of my one, barely 2-minute long tune.

By the day of my big camp-wide debut, I decided that my best bet was to take measured, sweeping glances around the room. This too felt disingenuous as it never required me to keep my eyes on any one person for very long, but it was the best I could solution I could come up with.

Finally my turn arrived, and my partner for the set and I got up to play. We started all right. Good eye contact with each other, making sure to look out at our dancing, jiving, singing friends in the camp dining hall, and then looking back at each other again, keeping the rhythm, keeping the vibe going.

Then, glancing around the room again, I noticed someone returning my gaze.

I looked at her, she looked at me, and instantly the smile that was already on my face while I sang grew larger. My voice, prouder. My song, warmer. And looking back at her I noticed that her smile had grown as well.

I don’t remember how the rest of the session went or even how we ended the song, but I remembered this: if a guitar is both sword and shield (sometimes also referred to as an “axe”), then a set of steady, agile hands are just as important as are a keen, open set of eyes with which to guide your aim. All the practicing, rocking back and forth, and the euphoric high that comes afterward– it can mean nothing if it’s not shared. And when that knowing smile appears on the face of the singer and in the eyes of the listener / participant…

Keep both eyes open. Keep them pointed gently, steadily ahead, not back or inward, and you’ll be on the right path.

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