ART and FEAR: Not a good fit

Most of us discover our love of creativity in childhood.  When I was a kid, my family was financially challenged, so we were not given all the best and latest toys.  Nevertheless, we always had things to do.  Mom came home from work with  thick tablets of scrap paper – so we always had something to draw and color on.  We had a big box of zillions of well worn crayons, water colors, and pencils to use.  Mom would make us clay out of some kind of weird salt, flour, and food coloring recipe (a substitute for Play-Doh) – it was fun to make little people and put them in a cardboard house, but they would eventually melt into a messy puddle.  Oh well.  We had an old treadle sewing machine and I managed to design and sew clothes for my Barbie out of scraps of fabric the neighbors gave me because Barbie’s store bought dresses were too expensive.  And we had a player piano.  We’d all stand around and sing together, reading the words on the rolls while one person in the family would work the pedals.  Most of the time, there was music on the record player, and we all loved to sing to it.  I remember my parents on Friday nights sitting around the hi-fi with their friends singing along with Tom Lehrer and the Kingston Trio.  And I loved to fool around on the piano, reading through the lesson books, but then trying to play songs from the radio by ear, and eventually making up my own songs.  All of it was in the realm of play.

Something happened when I got older and began to follow the path of a professional musician. I started to be afraid. Working in the world of serious instrumentalists who were extremely competitive and driven to succeed, my relationship with music changed. I began to feel that terrible insecurity that undermines the freedom of creative expression. I heard so much brutally harsh criticism by musicians about other musicians. There was such a hungry need to be working in the field of music, to stand out and be noticed, to measure up, that it became all important to me to find out what other people expected of me, and try to make myself fit those expectations. This process continued for many years. I did have a professional career in music, but in the end, what I was doing began to feel anti-musical. It wasn’t fun. Every time I went out to a gig it was like going to take a test where my worth as a human being was going to be judged. I evaluated my own abilities and assets through the eyes and ears of others, fearing criticism, scared of not getting the gigs. This was no longer play – it was music hell. The innocent creative play of childhood was in serious danger of being snuffed out entirely.

It took me a long time to start treating my musical life as a precious gift that I had to protect and nurture. When I began to present my own version of what I thought was beautiful and musical, it felt like a huge risk. I took tiny little steps in the direction of bringing my music into the world. Fortunately, I found musicians who seemed to hear and appreciate my personal musical vision. Eventually, with support from people I respected, I was able to design an artistic life that was not in conflict with my true self. And most importantly, I have been able to return, to a large degree, to my love affair with the process of creativity that is not outcome driven. There is nothing more delicious to me than being in the process of writing a song or an arrangement – even if it is never performed. And I have learned to trust what I feel is true: I am the judge of what is beautiful and meaningful in my art. I know what I like – and I work hard to measure up to my own standards.  No one else can tell me that my work is invalid if I have honestly given it my all – because the process itself is so satisfying. And what about outcomes? I don’t work in restaurants and nightclubs anymore. I don’t sing at wedding receptions. I don’t try to imitate Chaka Kahn or Ella Fitzgerald.  I never did hit the big time – and yet my musical life continues to thrive.

Why am I writing this? It’s because as a music teacher, I see younger aspiring musicians who hold themselves back from new experiences because they are afraid to fail. It’s now my mission  to encourage my students to try new things purely for the experience of doing them. When someone asks me how a particular musical activity will help them down the road, my response is that the benefit is not down the road – it’s in the doing of it in present time. What are the consequences if any musical activity doesn’t play out as a stellar success that furthers your career? You will have had a creative experience, and that alone is worth the effort. When you are offered an opportunity to try something new – you must realistically expect that you will be a beginner, not a master. But once you start, the momentum begins and the possibilities are vast. Failure is not an option, because there is no such thing in art. Art is a way of life, a way of being in the world, a way of translating that which the senses perceive into doing and making things, a way to allow imagination and feeling to take flight in vessels of our own design.  An artist knows that for every successful work of art that makes it to the light of day, there are many more attempts that were destined to be nothing more than present time artistic experiences. But through these experiences, the real treasures begin to emerge. We find out what works and what doesn’t. We find out what makes us feel like taking it to the finish line, and what makes us decide to let go of the work and start fresh with something new. If we never allow ourselves the time to just fool around in the artistic playground, we will never find the real stuff that art comes from. We can spend a lifetime going for the prize by imitating what others have proven to be commercially successful, attempting to please our teachers, our peers, our fans – and never really know what’s there inside waiting to be expressed. Or we can just have the courage and the desire to jump in and give it a try, take the opportunity to have fun doing something new. And if we ultimately discover that what we have to say as an artist does not bring fame and fortune, here’s the thing: We have lived an artistic life, which needs no other justification. There is nothing to fear, there are no negative consequences. There is only the joy of doing something creative that belongs entirely to you.

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Songwriting: True Stories. One Songwriter’s Songwriting Life.

I remember hearing Laura Nyro for the first time on Kraft Music Hall.  I was 16 years old at the time.  Sitting there at the piano, her long hair framing her face, she sang from the black and white screen of the little TV in the living room.  The song was “He’s a Runner”.  It was like being hit with a sledgehammer.  The living room went away, and my family, chattering in the background, disappeared.  I got a fierce headache and had to go to my room and lie down.  What was this intoxication I felt that was even more intense than the ecstasy “West Side Story” and the Beatles had provoked a few years earlier?  This solitary, strangely exotic woman singing at the piano, a song she had composed herself about something that had clearly really happened, so urgent and intense, so irresistible – why did it feel as much like pain as it felt like joy? Perhaps this was the birth of my lifelong search for expression through writing songs and singing them.

The 60s and 70s were insanely rich with influences, LP recordings that we played until the vinyl was just worn out.  My goodness, what riches.  The Beatles, Dylan, Joni, Paul Simon, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Donovan, James Taylor.  There was very little music school represented here, and yet these gifted, intuitive musicians were creating music that contained little worlds, movies, of depth and dimension.  And the craftsmanship was often exquisite, the arrangements, the attention to detail, and the VOICES.  They played their instruments, wrote the songs, did the arranging, and sang like heaven.

These were my first teachers, and I sat up in my room alone playing the guitar, or playing the piano downstairs, oblivious to my family and all the chaos of home (and they seemed not to notice me either).  I learned the songs and sang them over and over, fascinated by the imaginative lyrics, the cool chord progressions.  I read through the Laura Nyro songbook at the piano and marveled at the trippy little figures she would play, chantlike, over and over in a song, as her shrill voice summoned ethereal passion.  I learned about transposing from playing Dylan songs on the guitar: If he sang to a C-F-G progression, it was better for my voice if I played it G-C-D.  The chords were simple, but gave me the framework for singing his bold and  arresting lyrics “…come mothers and fathers throughout the land, and don’t criticize what you can’t understand…”.  Joni Mitchell was probably every girl singer songwriter’s goddess.  But of course.  What fantastically evocative, deep, sensual, cryptic, humorous, romantic imagery she used to describe her inner life and her escapades.  And what was that mesmerizing sound of open tuned guitar chords, modulating in the middle of a phrase, the winding melodies?  These artists were utterly fearless in revealing themselves through their songs.  And even without the benefit of long years of institutional music study, these songwriters were crafting tunes that still hold up all these years later.  The music tormented me, and I wanted to find this experience in myself, to write songs that dove beneath the surface, and flew up through the trees to that rapturous place that all artists are looking for.  And after all these years, I’m still chasing that song, that perfectly balanced, acutely true piece of music, with its subtext of tears, that might one day flow from my pen, from my voice and my fingers and grab the ears of some receptive listener and cause that wonderful ache inside the ribcage.

My first original songs were folky things with simple chords, romantic lyrics, as imitative as I could be of my heroes.  I played them at high school assemblies, and then in the folk clubs around Seattle.  Moving to San Francisco, I was drawn into the jazz scene and began to study music a little more seriously.  I learned theory, developed a jazz repertoire, and studied improvisation.  I performed for several years as a working class musician in hotels and bars, weddings, corporate functions, always doing material I thought the audiences wanted to hear – familiar hits, standards, etc.  While I have little formal education in music, I worked with musicians who were far more advanced in their skills and knowledge than I was, and they generously answered my questions.  The few teachers I studied with taught me skills, harmony, technique, conventional stylistic details.  I was happy to have a career as a working musician, augmented by teaching singing.  But my songwriting slipped into the background.  What I did gain in these years was a much broader musical vocabulary.

Eventually I found musical allies who were willing to play my original songs with me.  Thus began the series of recordings and concerts of primarily original music that became the centerpiece of my musical life and has continued all these years.  Finding instrumentalists who liked the songs and brought their own skills to the table was the true liberation of my music.  Always a marginal instrumentalist myself, I wrote at the piano, but was happy to hand that job over to the real cats who could provide accompaniment that was expansive and empathic to the songs.  Any songwriter knows that hearing your songs played beautifully by highly skilled musicians is one of those experiences that make life worth living.  I have been blessed to find my music buddies to whom I am so grateful for their contribution to my work.

I have not written hundreds of songs, but I’ve written a lot of them.  Each song I write is another new adventure.  They are inspired by the real people, relationships, experiences, and philosophical points of view that I think about, and care about.  Whether it’s a lyrical fragment, or a moody chordal figure, some scrap of inspiration breaks through and appears on my piano.  These gifts from the muse are really like portals into another world.  I walk through the gate into a playground that is strewn with notes, rests, repeat signs, chords, words, clef signs and codas.  Hidden amongst the toys are little glowing orbs.  These jewels contain the chi, the prana, the life force of inspiration.  All of these ingredients, all of these tools, are here for me to use in my search for what it is I’m writing about.  What idea is wanting to be born, to be actualized in a song?  This is play.  Whether or not a song does come forth, or if it is only an eight bar fragment that has leapt out of the ether for an afternoon and then evaporated, this process of searching, finding, refining, and finally allowing the voice of the song to be heard, is play.

I’ve never tried to write a hit song.  I’ve dabbled with things that were stylized and reflective of my fascination with various genre.  But the most important thing I’ve learned in my experience of this process, is that if I think it’s beautiful, it’s beautiful.  If I think it sucks, it sucks.  It’s my song and I get to decide.  I know how to listen for the next note, the next word. If I write something that I don’t think is beautiful, or true, I need to keep writing and revising, or I need to scrap it and start over.  I know the clichés and am vigilant about not giving in to them when I paint myself into a corner. Sometimes it takes an hour to write a song, and sometimes it takes years.  I am intentional about every note, every word, every chord, the structure, and the arrangement, and don’t mind working on a song for a very long time until I get it right.  I trust my own ears in knowing what is right – for me.  I know when I have actualized my inspiration.  And I know the moment when the song takes on a life of its own and leads me to its completion.  If it takes me in a different direction from where I thought I was starting, well, I’m along for the ride.  Sometimes I love them and no one else does.  Sometimes other people get them too.

There are many artists who have written songs that I would die to have written. There are songwriters I revere and consider masters of the art.  My own body of work is modest and obscure, but I can say that I have spent a lifetime working and playing at it.  I think most artists can relate to the notion that the process is IT, the doing of it, the creating of a piece of music, or any other piece of art, is about the doing of it.  It’s a way to frame your life and know yourself, and it’s a way to partake of the deeply satisfying act of pulling something out of your imagination, using all your toys and tools, and bringing it into the world, participating as a creator in the trajectory of life moving forward.  And sometimes it’s just a way to keep yourself company, have something fun to do on an otherwise vacant afternoon. At its best, it is a way to connect the inner world with the outer world, hopefully touching someone else along the way.

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Wedding Band Blues

Wedding Band Blues

There was a bar on College St. in Oakland and all the young singers just starting out in the club scene worked a kind of rotation. It was the early 1980s and I was there usually once a month, with a pianist and bass player, as I tried my darndest to wrap my voice around jazz standards, just getting started with my exploration of swinging and improvising. I was green, young, earnest, clueless, and usually mad at myself for not being better. I negotiated with my introverted personality and logged time on the bandstand, learning about charts, counting off tunes, etc., while adding pages to my book. I was also taking various lessons in voice, piano, theory, and composition with a few different teachers, and it was a great educational opportunity to be able to work with musicians who were more experienced than me. The Lobby was a lively joint in those days, and lots of people, friends and strangers, came and went on any given evening.

Neal came in one night and listened for awhile. On the break he introduced himself – a jazz bass player. He and his guitarist friend had a gig at Pier 37 and they needed a singer. This was the beginning of a very long and valued friendship with Neal Heidler. Neal, of the deep voice and half closed eyes, convinced me that I was an okay singer, and this would be a fun thing to do. Turns out it was pretty fun. Brian Pardo was an excellent guitartist and right away, after the gig, the three of us talked about putting together some kind of fusiony jazz band with totally eclectic material. Within a few months, we had a weekly gig at the Bancroft St. Lounge, affectionately referred to by local musicians as “the toilet”. We played tunes by Stevie Wonder and Milton Nascimiento , originals by the pianist, Chris Durbin, “Ana Maria” and “Beatrice” with lyrics I wrote, Chick Corea tunes, etc. The music was challenging and we worked hard at it. At least a handful of people came each week to the gig, many sitting in with the band. We were having a blast working in a dive bar (I remember cockroaches walking up the wall), making ten bucks apiece on a good night. Then somehow, out of nowhere it seemed, we decided to veer off in another direction. We became a wedding band.

They are also called “casual” bands, and yes, it was about the money. No question. It was also about a bunch of nerdy jazz musicians getting the chance to play fantasy rock star. By this time we had been joined by reed guy, Kenny Rosen, and drummer, Tony Manno. We rehearsed every Friday afternoon in Chris Durbin’s house in the Berkeley hills. Together we learned the repertoire of a working dance band. Besides the “dinner jazz” set, we had to select the hottest Top 40 tunes and learn to play them like we meant it. We knew that the gigs we were looking for, wedding receptions, corporate parties, required dancing to rock and R&B tunes. We would get the 45s, and each of us would learn our parts. And I can’t begin to tell you how much fun we had. This was the mid-80s and there was a lot of cool music, and of course we plundered the Motown hits too. Kenny sang the male leads and I got to be Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Tina Turner, Chaka Kahn Martha Reeves, Aretha Franklin, and Astrud Gilberto (to name a few). Covering tunes in a wedding band means learning every detail of an arrangement in the attempt to sound as much like the original recording as possible.

We started working on a regular basis, sometimes two gigs in a row on a Saturday, and actually began to have a handle on what we were doing. Jazz musicians have a good work ethic when it comes to learning and playing music, and often there would be little verbal skirmishes on the bandstand between tunes about a questionable chord or lick that someone had just played. The bickering was annoying to me, but the desire and determination to get it right was paying off. We were sounding okay. Here, I must say that this work was an enormous challenge for me. I had sung a great deal of musically complex material in classical and jazz styles, but this music was something else altogether. It’s basically about singing from the second chakra, or forget it. Groove is everything, and the vocals are big, aggressive, and heavily laced with blues. My natural sound was closer to Joni Mitchell than Chaka Kahn, so I began the study of pop singing. I would listen and sing along with every lick of the tunes I was learning, trying to match the vocal sound. I developed an even greater respect for these wonderful singers who had so much soulful energy and rhythmic kick in their big wild voices. I have to honestly admit here, I don’t think I ever really pulled it off all that well, but it must have been good enough since we kept getting gigs. I was also discovering my inner exhibitionist and I would be as energized and extroverted as I could possibly manage, while wearing tight dresses, stiletto heels, and gobs of make-up. I would often drive home from the gig thinking, “Who was that person onstage grinning, dancing, wailing….?” I wince a little now remembering it: “…my doctor said, take it eeeeeeeeeeeeasy, all this lovin’ is much too strong…”

But now let me tell you why I am writing this. Yes, it was an adventure. More importantly, it was also an amazing education. The musicians I was working with were all quite accomplished compared to me. I was definitely the “little sister” musically.  I was always asking questions, and they seemed to enjoy giving detailed answers. I wanted to participate, not just stand on the periphery musically. These guys were very generous in giving me answers to my questions, and guiding me through things I didn’t understand. Sure, they teased me and sometimes I felt like a fool. But it was definitely a learn-by-doing activity, and I had to pull my own weight. A few years into the life of the band (called “Between the Lines”), I was writing charts and taking an active part in the musical process, as well as taking over the booking of the band. We would often get cassette tapes in the mail from the bride and groom of a song they wanted us to play for their first dance. Sometimes my job was to transcribe the tune from the recording to chart form, accurate enough to be played for the first time, unrehearsed, at the upcoming wedding reception. It was so satisfying to present the chart and have the tune played the way it was supposed to be. That, and many other practical skills, became part of the classroom side of this experience. Learning such a range of material in itself is very educational. These bands are supposed to imitate, and that imitation was instructional. The musicians I worked with were meticulous about correct chord changes, tempos, grooves, sound gear, all the details that make the music good. They pushed me out of my comfort zone in a way that I will always appreciate. Fortunately, we really liked each other too and often socialized together apart from playing gigs.

Between the Lines played together for about eight years total, though the personnel changed quite a bit over the years. Everyone had continued playing jazz throughout the life of the band, and various original members drifted off to other things and were replaced. It stopped being fun when it got to be easy to throw together a pick up band just for the money. The musical excitement eventually faded and it was time to move on, not to mention we all got older. I began to notice that we were as old as the parents of the bride and groom, and that just didn’t seem right. By 1991 the band sort of evaporated. I continued to work with other bands as a freelance vocalist, some on a regular basis, but the naïve enthusiasm of the early years with Between the Lines was a thing of the past. I don’t know if there are as many of these bands working the private party circuit now as there were during the 80s and 90s. There must be some, but I think the DJ thing really took hold and was also more economical than paying a band. I have grown into other incarnations of my musical life over the years and that all seems like a long time ago, but I remember it with much fondness and pride. That we were able to pull it off at all is amazing, and that we held together as a working band as long as we did is a marvel. None of us started out as rock musicians, and none of us has ended up as one. But we sure had fun living out the fantasy, and I became a better musician in the process.

My advice to any young singer who wants a life in music: take whatever opportunity comes along. Bands, choirs, open mics, parties, karaoke, back-up singing, musical theater, anything, you name it – it’s the real education in music. You can learn a lot in music schools, and from private instructors, but actually making music in a wide variety of ways is the greatest teacher.

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Scared to Sing? Stage Fright is Manageable

Have you ever sat in the audience at a musical performance and wondered how those musicians manage to get through a performance without showing even a trace of stage fright?  You imagine yourself in the same situation and you are terrified at the very thought of standing up in front of people singing or playing your instrument.  What if you make a mistake?  What if you lose your place, or simply draw a blank, faint, shake uncontrollably, or sound generally terrible in front of all your friends and family?

Stage fright is a pretty universal feeling.  Sure there are some people who thrive on the attention of the spotlight, but most of us face this hurdle at some point in our performance lives, and for some of us it never really goes away.  So, why do this performing thing that turns your insides to jelly and sets you up for the torment of humiliation?  Well, there are few things in life that I know of that are as rewarding as playing music with other musicians for an audience of people who are there to listen and enjoy it.  I have a core belief that fear should never be the thing that keeps you from doing what you want to do.  So here are a few ideas that might help:

  1. You’re not alone.  Don’t beat yourself up if you are afraid to perform or think that it’s an inappropriate feeling.  Nearly every human being likes and needs affirmation for what we do and taking risks in that regard, in front of an audience, is scary.
  2. It’s just a mistake, and it’s just music.  Let’s put this in perspective.  If you play a wrong note or come in at the wrong time – nobody dies.  There are people in the world doing much worse things than this, and no one even blinks.
  3. Preparation helps.  Practicing is one of the few things that is within your control.  The better prepared you are, the more secure you’ll feel, especially if you are temporarily out of body and have to go on automatic pilot.
  4. Other musicians, or your friends and family who ridicule you for being less than great in performance have some growing up to do.  Remember, if anyone puts you down after you perform – it’s their problem, not yours.
  5. There is no substitute for just logging hours on stage.  To a large degree, the fight or flight response to performing, and the uncomfortable symptoms that go along with it, are initially out of your control.  You do your best and then you surrender.  The more you do this the easier it gets.  I promise.
  6. Always be ready to laugh at yourself.  Laughter is a great antidote for feeling awkward (try to avoid hysteria however).  Get your ego out of the way and allow yourself to be ridiculous in front of people.  Everyone will feel more at ease if you can poke fun at yourself, then move on.
  7. Courage.  It means being afraid and doing it anyway.  Courage is a character trait that allows you to take the risks that make life more meaningful and satisfying.  Safety is highly overrated.  Remember the cowardly lion? “If I only had the nerve”

Stage fright:  There is no magic word or potion that will take it away if it’s part of who you are.  But you can work with it, you can turn it around, you can learn from your mistakes and your successes.  Music is a path that lasts a lifetime and the gifts that you reap along the way are well worth the trouble.  When you feel afraid and think it’s all too much, ask yourself:  What if I couldn’t do this anymore?  What if I couldn’t play music at all?  Now that’s a depressing thought, right?

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