by Melissa Elliott
This article was originally published in PCJH’s Winter 2023 Pinnacle, “Seeing God in the Arts”
Picture this: you are on a stage by yourself for the very first time, standing in a bright spotlight in front of all of your classmates ready to say the monologue you have practiced over and over again. When you step up to the microphone, your mind draws a blank. You stand there like a statue – wide eyed, sweaty palms, scanning everywhere in your brain for the words you need to say. The audience begins whispering to one another, and before embarrassment completely takes over, someone backstage feeds you your lines and you meekly repeat them and run off stage.
That was my experience being an emcee at my fifth grade talent show and somehow I still yearned to be on stage. Throughout middle and high school I performed at piano recitals, choir concerts, plays and musicals. Performing is this incredible mix of nervousness and excitement, and after my frozen talent show debut I was determined to make the stage a comfortable place. There were (and still are) moments where I forgot the words to a song or missed my entrance, but in the moments when I really nail it – there is no greater feeling.
The love that I gained from being in the performing arts in school inspired me to study Jazz and Commercial Music in college. My time at jazz school taught me one of the most important skills as a performer – how to improvise. There are fundamentals to improvising that I learned in the classroom and in my voice lessons (scat-soloing, phrasing, what scales to use over certain chords), but the real magic happens in the rehearsal room and on stage when you and the band are creating in real time. By tuning in to the other instruments around me, I can calm my mind and open up my heart, allowing creativity to flow through me. There is an unspoken depth to music friendships because you communicate through the music in ways that can never fully be articulated in speech. Creative connection is sacred, and I feel the presence of the Spirit speaking through every note and chord change, reminding me that God is ever present with me in life and on stage, all I have to do is listen.
When I am playing a gig by myself I rarely have a planned-out set list. Sure, I have a long list of songs I know, but I don’t really know what I’m going to play until the guitar is in my hand, because I always get a gentle nudge of inspiration of what to play (I know, it sounds a little out there, but bear with me). I recently performed at a wedding up at the Wedding Tree. After the couple said “I do,” I had planned to play some post-ceremony music. I had the nudge to play “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash and sang and strummed while the guests mingled away for champagne. One woman stayed by me listening, and when I finished she came up to me and told me that “Ring of Fire” was her husband’s favorite song. He had a Johnny Cash tape in his truck that he would play over and over, and she said that she was always annoyed with it, but on that day she had never been so happy to hear that song because he had passed away just a few months prior. I got chills and she had tears in my eyes, and I believe that God was working through me through song to speak to her heart. In an instance like that, I truly feel like my gift as a musician is to be a vessel for God’s message of comfort and hope. To be patient, to be present, and to sing what is on my heart because it might be a message for someone listening.
Now when I’m asked if I get nervous before going on stage, my answer is always: “no, not really.” Through pursuing performance, I have been able to curb my spotlight jitters by focusing on those around me, and when I make a mistake I can improvise and move on. By tuning into the present moment, I feel myself as close to God as I can possibly be. When we are in situations where we are struck with fear, we can either choose to freeze, or to ease into the present moment and make space for God to speak (or sing) through our hearts and minds.