With the wind chill, it was down to a sturdy 21 degrees outside, and I was up on stage in a T–shirt, jeans, and the world’s thinnest blazer. While I owned a pair of gray cloth fingerless gloves that would have given my hands some protection from the wind, I made no effort to wear them: they would have ruined my snazzy black–and–white aesthetic, and it’s not like I was doing anything that needed dexterity—I was just playing guitar.
Last spring, my friend Jackson and I were studying together when he casually mentioned that he wanted to form a funk band for the , the musical competition on College Green every year after the homecoming football game. Six acts, from solo performers to supergroups, from Penn students to alumni, compete for a grand prize of $1,000. Thinking nothing would come of it, I offered up my services on guitar.
He messaged me again at the beginning of the fall semester, and I realized that this funk band was a serious proposal. Thus came the problem: I don’t play funk guitar.
Funk is diametrically opposed to my preferred genres of blues and rock. Rather than meaty riffs played on lower strings and all eyes on me, the funk guitar exists mostly to add color to the horns and vocals: it involves complicated chords that focus on higher strings, and an amp on the quiet side. To add to these troubles, my solid–body Gretsch electric guitar was designed with other genres in mind, and no amp setting would fully erase the dirty blues sound. I decided that I just had to roll with it, and that our funk would have a little extra punch to it. Yeah, I messaged him back, I’d love to join!
Altogether, there were fourteen people in this ensemble: four vocalists, a bassist, two guitarists, a drummer, a keyboardist, two tenor saxes, two trumpets, and a trombone. For those keeping track at home, that means that, if we won, each member would get $71.43. I wasn’t in it for the money, though; I wanted a chance to get on stage, play, and maybe get a cool profile picture for Facebook.
Despite the low stakes, I was nervous for our first rehearsal. Because only six groups make it to the actual band slam, everyone who wants to enter the competition has to send a video, from which the judges pick the semifinalists. I knew ahead of time that we were playing “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” for this video and I also knew that I would be the only one on guitar—no one would be there to cover up my mistakes. I spent three hours before rehearsal watching YouTube tutorials specifically for “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and had to hope that we would be playing in the original key. An hour after walking into that Fisher–Bennett rehearsal room, we had a video and a name and a guitarist who wasn’t the worst. In contrast to the extensive planning going into the name we chose was slapdash: realizing we needed to submit this video under a band name, we looked around the room and settled on the words on drummer (and Street staffer!) Hailey Noh’s t–shirt: Bike Repair Shop.
A few weeks later, Jackson announced the good news in our Facebook group: we were playing at Homecoming. This brought a whole new wave of excitement and fear: we got to go on stage with “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and four shiny new songs at the ready—songs that I was sure I would ruin with my incompetence.
I don’t really get imposter syndrome. If anything, I’m a little too confident in my abilities as a student, as a writer, and as a musician. I’ve gotten in over my head more than once on the principle of the : if you look like you know what you’re doing, nobody will question you. That’s why my prolonged anxiety over my own abilities was so surprising. Maybe it was the genre, or the fact that the other guitarist had much more (read: any) professional training, or maybe my confidence just ran out. That I forgot my cable and had to play unplugged for one of our two following rehearsals didn’t help matters, nor did my inability to remember our chord progressions for more than a few minutes. After two hours of rhythm section rehearsal, a week of practice, and another two–hour full group rehearsal, the best thing I could say was that the other sections might cover up my mistakes.
The day of the band slam was chaos. Over half of our members, myself included, were in the Penn Band and would have to play with Bike Repair Shop after playing for three hours in the Homecoming football game. The wind players were in danger of overblowing during the game, while I had to switch outfits and instruments, swapping my clarinet for a guitar. As for the outfits, none of us had anticipated just how cold it would get by the time we went onstage. The general instruction was to wear ‘70s–inspired outfits for the funk vibe, but in keeping with my bluesy guitar, I took a different approach: all black save for the white blazer that I put on as a joke in H&M and was soon pressured into buying by multiple members of Bike Repair Shop in an attempt to diversify my grungy all–black wardrobe. I bought the thing, I reasoned, so I might as well wear it.
Of course, you can’t win a band slam if you’re not there, and getting onstage was the hardest part. Our trombonist left his instrument in Platt while he went to scrounge up dinner, and I was holding down the fort until he came back. After sprinting across Locust to College Green and convincing the security guard to let us get past the gate, we arrived just as the rest of Bike Repair Shop was going on stage. In the adrenaline rush of making it to the Power of Penn Palooza, I forgot how nervous I was about playing. I let muscle memory do the work and hoped that my hands didn’t freeze—maybe I should have worn the gloves after all.
We didn’t win, or even come in second. Those seventy–odd dollars I would have won never went to a few new books, or yet another pair of burgundy jeggings. I realized that I don’t like playing funk, and if I try to play again next year, it’ll surely be in a blues rock outfit. But when I got home, my phone had blown up with compliments from friends in the crowd—and I got a pretty cool profile picture. So I'd say it was worth it.