From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul IV

The Greatest Audience

They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.

Carl W. Buechner

I was sixteen years old, and like many other teenage boys, I was in a band. We played a mix of hard rock and heavy metal, covering our favorite bands. We weren’t great, but we were good enough to come in third place at our school’s talent show, so we decided to see if we could get some local gigs. When we found out we’d gotten booked for a charitable event at a large rehabilitation hospital, we were ecstatic. It wouldn’t pay much, but it was our first real job. For two weeks we practiced hard, getting together every day after school to hone our skills and learn enough songs to fill a one-hour show.

The day of the concert, we showed up early in order to check out the stage. It was nerve-racking to stand there and look out at the hundred or so chairs lined up below us. To my eyes it seemed like those chairs went on forever. We set up and did a quick sound check, then went backstage to have a soda and rest, anything to calm our nerves. While we were back there the hospital’s entertainment director came over to talk to us.

“Okay, boys, I just want to fill you in on a couple of important details,” she told us. “A lot of the people in the audience are suffering from severe physical and/or mental disabilities. Also, many of them are older, in their sixties and seventies. Don’t let that alarm you. These patients have very few chances to see live entertainment of any kind, so they enjoy any kind of musical talent that we can bring in. Just play your regular show, and you’ll do fine.” With that, she left, going into the auditorium to help the volunteers and staff that were assisting the patients to their seats.

Soon enough it was show time. We made our way through the thick, dusty curtain that separated the backstage area and stepped out onto the creaking wood floor of the stage. As we picked up our instruments and plugged them in, we got our first real look at the audience. I think to one degree or another we all felt a kind of nervousness that had nothing to do with how we would perform. The auditorium was packed, and there were at least two or three rows of wheelchairs in both the front and the back of the big room. The majority of the people watching us had either been seriously injured in accidents or born with major congenital birth defects. Many of them were missing limbs. Some were talking quietly among themselves, but most were just sitting there, intently watching the stage. The quiet was unnerving, especially to a group of young men used to rowdy, energetic audiences.

Tommy, the lead singer, signaled us to start the first song, and we broke into the opening chords. Everything was perfect, and we played probably the best show of our lives. We hardly missed a note on any of our songs, even the ones that we’d only recently learned. My guitar solos seemed to flow effortlessly out of my fingers, and I felt surrounded by a wall of music. I knew I was getting a taste, just the merest glimpse, of what real musicians must feel when they’re on stage. Unfortunately, we couldn’t enjoy our performance.

As each song finished, there was a short pause, maybe three or four seconds, before we launched into our next number. This was the time when the audience would normally applaud. Now, we were realistic enough to know that even at our best, we weren’t professional musicians by any means. We didn’t expect thundering applause or standing ovations. No illusions of greatness here. But polite applause is usually a given, even if the audience doesn’t like you. We were getting nothing. Zero. If there was anything there, it was Zen applause—the sound of one hand clapping. To say it was disheartening would be an understatement. The deafening silence only made us more determined to win the audience over. We played each successive piece stronger, more furiously than the last, striving for perfection. Loud songs, mellow songs, it made no difference. Each time we concluded a number the audience just continued their imitations of statues. After forty-five minutes we decided to end our set early. Why bother finishing when no one was appreciating us anyway?

We unplugged our instruments and went backstage. A moment later, the entertainment director ran back and confronted us. “What are you doing?” she asked. “I thought we agreed that you’d play for an hour!”

“Well, that was before we realized that the audience was going to hate us,” Tommy replied, disgust and embarrassment evident in his tone.

“What are you talking about?” asked the director. “They love you. Get back out there and finish your show. You can even play some extra songs if you want.”

“Love us?” exclaimed Pete, our bass player. “That’s the worst audience I’ve ever seen!”

“You don’t understand,” the director continued. “Most of these people don’t know they’re supposed to clap. In fact, many of them can’t. I’ve been out there talking to them, and they can’t believe how good you are. They’ll be so hurt if you don’t finish.”

The four of us looked at each other. None of us really believed her, but we decided that we should honor our word and finish the show. Returning to the stage, we played our final three songs—and added two more for good measure.

Finally, the show was over and we gratefully began packing up our instruments. We had still received no applause, not even when we said good night. Backstage the director told us, “When you’re done packing up, please come back inside the auditorium. Some of the patients want to thank you for coming.”

We didn’t want to do it, but hey, we felt obligated. I mean, after all, it was a charity event. Of all the things I expected, what happened next shocked me more than anything. At least fifty people, ranging in age from ten to seventy, had gathered by the stage. All of them wanted to thank us; some shook our hands, and one small girl even asked me for my autograph. Several told us that we were the best band that had played for them in years. We couldn’t believe it. The director had been right all along; they loved us! We ended up staying there for more than half an hour, saying hello to people, telling them about ourselves and talking about music.

While I knew I was never going to end up having a career in music, I did play a few more small shows with different bands. But no matter how much the audience cheered, I never felt as good as I did that one special night.

Greg Faherty

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