Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Jealousy sucks. Whether it's coming from you or someone else. Jealousy is one of the worst human experiences we have to deal with. If you are feeling jealous, you have to figure out why, and do something productive about it, or if you are like most people in this world, you act out in nasty behaviors in order to punish the person you are jealous of. Most of us are guilty of doing the latter. But what if someone is jealous of you? The other day, one of my most talented students was acting very shy about performing in the school talent show. Now, this is a kid who can play 3 instruments well, sing, dance, and basically excel at everything. On top of that, he is so sweet, so of course he is adored by all of his teachers, including me! He performs at the retirement home with me, and when he starts to play, everyone runs in the room to see who is making such amazing music! So when he said he didn't want to perform, I knew something was up. Turns out, there is a bully at school who is jealous of his talents. Ah. Ok. That made sense to me.

My first reaction to this was irritation and anger. Not at my student. At the bully. At the jealousy. What can my student do? Nothing, really. You cannot control someone else's jealous feelings. Jealousy stems from insecurity, and that is an internal problem. We had a very long discussion about how important it is to stay true to yourself and never let anyone else's insecurities stop you from doing what you love. By the end, he said he would think about performing. I'll take it. Much better than the beginning of the conversation.

It really made me think about jealousy in my own life. I am so jealous of the singer Adele right now. She is so amazing! The way she sings so freely. I want to be like that. But I try to remember what my best friend told me the other day... that there is room in the world for everyone, and that jealousy only holds me back. I think about how it feels to be jealous whenever I sense jealousy coming from others.

When I was performing a lot of shows in the North Florida music scene, I remember feeling like there was an unspoken competition between the (very few) female musicians. When I was there, I could count on one hand how many local female singer-songwriters were opening for touring bands. At the time, I was taking a lot of Women's Studies classes in college, participating in Take Back the Night rallies, going to Lilith Fair, and basically being a very loud cheerleader for women in music, so the thought of other female musicians being jealous of me bothered me a lot. If they could have seen inside my mind, they would have known that I was only excited to see more women rising up to represent music. But, like I said before, you cannot control how other people feel.

If you want to be a musician, or any kind of artist, and you begin to excel, you are going to have to experience jealousy from others. This is a fact. How will you deal with it? Will you let them succeed in destroying your dream in order to make them more comfortable? Or will you stay true to who you are and what you are meant to do in this lifetime? Will you continue to keep them in your life even after experiencing their jealous feelings over and over again? To me, letting jealousy get in your way and letting jealous people stay in your life is a form of self-sabotage. I learned how to let jealous people out of my life long, long ago. This is a difficult life, and you need to be surrounded by people who support you and lift you up.

Sunday, April 24, 2011


Yesterday, an interesting thing happened to me. I had one of those music-filled days that I like to blog about, but my mood (as you may have noticed ;) was a bit down. I woke up having one of those blue days, but I was ready to just roll with it. I have been reading a book by my favorite Buddhist author, Pema Chodron called "Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves From Old Habits and Fears."

Pema Chodron talks a lot about the Tibetan Buddhist concept of shenpa. Shenpa is that feeling of being very uncomfortable and having an immediate desire to get out of it as fast as humanly possible. Her teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, gives a great metaphor to the first part of that definition. He says that we humans are like children with poison ivy. The itch is very uncomfortable, and the first thing we want to do is scratch, but everyone knows that scratching makes it worse, and will actually cause the discomfort to spread. Shenpa is the experience of feeling the itch and really, really, really wanting to scratch it.

When shenpa is happening, our first instinct is to do something to relieve the discomfort. If we are feeling sad, we may turn on a trashy reality show to take our minds off of the pain, or if someone says something rude to us, our first instinct may be to say something mean back. The problem with giving into shenpa, is that it has consequences. It only relieves our suffering for a short moment, and then we have to live with the guilt of insulting that mean person who was probably just having a really crappy day. In terms of watching a reality show to relieve the suffering, if you are like me, you have to shower or go for a run or something like that to get that gross feeling out of you. Ughhh. We know better, and in moments of shenpa, it is hard to remember that.

The Buddhist response to shenpa is to sit with it. Instead of getting hooked by the feeling and reacting in whatever our conditioned instincts tell us to do, we sit with it and observe. Yesterday was a shenpa-filled day! Jesus, I thought shenpa would never end!

Despite my dramatic introduction, it was actually a wonderful morning. I met 4 students and their wonderful families at the Grammy Museum in Downtown Los Angeles and we saw the John Lennon exhibit. It was so much fun to explore this amazing museum with my students and their parents. They had so much fun playing with the interactive exhibits about music genres and sub genres.

I learned so much myself. There are literally hundreds of genres out there that most of us never learn about. It's really quite amazing.  There was an entire wall dedicated to the history of social change music that made my little heart go pitter-patter. Being in such a sensitive state right now, my eyes even teared up a bit.  If you have not been to the Grammy Museum, I cannot recommend it enough. Anyone who loves music will love this place. It is the only museum I know of that honors and documents 20th and 21st century music from the evolution of sound recording to the evolution of popular music.

The shenpa moments came up in bursts, which is normal when you are going through big changes.  Actually, they are a normal part of everyday, period. As I was watching the amazing video footage of John Lennon at the museum, I felt my heart get very heavy and filled with sadness at the fact that someone took this visionary away from us in such a cruel way. Enter shenpa challenge #1. I wanted to cry and mourn the death of John Lennon and feel angry at the man who shot him. I felt so sad for Yoko Ono, because no matter which side you take on how you feel about her, you can see that she loved him so much. My heart always goes out to her, because when I see footage of the two of them, I feel like I have never seen two people so in love with each other, and how awful to have that taken away from you. With Pema Chodron's teachings fresh in my mind, I decided to practice by feeling every ounce of sadness and then making a conscious decision to let it go and move on. Success.

Shenpa Challenge #2 came during the afternoon when I went home to practice for my evening performance. I kept feeling sad and unmotivated. I had moments where I just wanted to watch TV and not do anything I set out to do. I remembered to sit and observe. I reminded myself that music is a healing process and that if I just get myself to the piano and make myself play something, I will feel better, so I did. And I did feel better. And prepared! ;) Success!

Shenpa Challenge #3 came when I arrived at 7:00 to the gig I was scheduled for. It was a Japan Benefit concert in Hollywood with 40 performers on the list! FORTY PERFORMERS! That is freakin' insane! Of course, the event started 45 minutes late, and each performer was to play one song only and we went in alphabetical order. I almost called my mom to thank her for naming me Michelle and not Vivian, which had been the original plan. I did not go on until almost 10:00. When I saw the roster and did the math on my estimated performance time, I felt a strong desire to make up an excuse and get out of there, but being committed to conquering this shenpa thang, I decided to stay and sit with it. I let myself really listen to the performers I vibed with (and man, there were a lot of good ones!) and I let myself walk around outside and enjoy the moments to myself when I wasn't so into the performances. At first I thought, I committed to this, so I will honor my commitment, and then I can leave. But as the evening went on, and I continued to check in with myself, I noticed I was really having a good time. The musicians were fantastic, really inspiring. There was free food and wine, and the performers who were hanging out outside were a blast to talk to. I had a chance to bond with the guys in the new band I am singing back-up for, and I can't remember a time when I laughed so much. My performance was very well received and I felt a lot of love and appreciation. Then, after every thing was over, 7 musicians and I stayed up until 2 am (when we had to be kicked out ;) and had an impromptu jam session/sing-a-long. We sang  Fire and Rain, Imagine, Hallelujah, Let It Be, Patience. What a blast!

It's funny how I preach so much about the power of music and how healing it is, but I guess when you do something for a living, it is easy to take it for granted. The experience last night was worth waiting for. It was so healing to me. Sitting with the challenging shenpa moments throughout the day were just place holders for an amazing set of musical moments at the end.

When sitting with Shenpa, I am realizing that it's ok to feel a little pain. It's ok to be sad and angry at times. Just remember to sit and not react is the secret. The moment will pass, and a beautiful, exciting moment will eventually come. We just have to be patient.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


I have noticed that acoustic music is back. It is popular again. The last time this happened was in the 70's, after the war was over. In the 90's we flirted with it when MTV Unplugged debuted, but it didn't stick. I have noticed that in times of chaos, audiences need calm music to relax their anxious hearts.

I moved into my friend's 300 sq. ft. pool house last week, and I have finally gotten everything settled in. Miles Davis and Chopin Preludes are constantly streaming through my speakers as I work to make this my new home. The funny thing is, despite the tight quarters, I feel like I can breathe again. Having only one room to care for is so liberating. When I wake up, the first thing I see is my piano, and I remember why I was put on this earth. My goal is to live a simple life for as long as I can keep it up. I feel I have a responsibility to the Earth to waste as little as possible, and I owe it to my mind to keep things easy. I have chosen to not own a microwave and I am only buying enough food to keep me fed for a few days at a time. I don't want to waste anything. I am making my own bath products again, and I am washing my clothes by hand. My sewing machine is also waiting patiently for me to get really grounded again.  I find simplicity inspiring.

As I began the songwriting process this week, I tried to apply my philosophy of simplicity. I am one of those songwriters who beats myself up over every cheesy lyric choice, every lame rhyme, and every melody not worthy of being on the radio. My producer friend has given me the very interesting assignment of writing love songs. It figures that as I am going through a divorce that I would be asked to begin writing songs about the very topic I am struggling with now. I suppose this is the perfect time to begin contemplating the merit of relationships through song. Like many who have been burned, I cannot help but feel like marriage is such a joke. Just for myself of course... it is a common side effect for those going through breakups. I know many lovely people in beautiful marriages, but I also know so many who are chronically unhappy in their legal courtships.

I do believe in love. And I feel like love is really the answer to all of our problems. It's a very simple solution, but why is it so hard to achieve? My guess is that we are all stuck in our own inner prisons, seeing the world through our own messy life experiences. As people get older, I notice their ability to love is more and more challenged.

As my intention to live a simple life gets stronger, so will my desire to love unconditionally everyone I meet. I have found the idea of love to be the most powerful tool in every single conflict. When I sit for hours at the piano and come up with nothing, I remember to love myself. Beating myself up makes me want to quit, so the simple solution is love.

In my East L.A. neighborhood, it is very diverse. I like it. I have always lived in neighborhoods where artists meet working class families. There are young latin guys who have a tough and angry look on their faces as they hang around the neighborhood, appearing bored and annoyed with life. They walk with that "don't F%$# with me" sway, tight jaws, and hardened eyes. When a dear West L.A. friend asked me if I ever feel nervous around them, I didn't even hesitate when I said no. I look these boys straight in the eye and give them my most genuine smile and say hello. They say hello back. I can tell that I surprise them, and it gives me a giddy feeling to know that I am fighting the conditioned instinct to feel afraid. Why should I be afraid? We are all humans who all desire the same kind of love and respect from others. Respect and love are the only answers to any concern. All is well when you show love.

Today is day 8 of my experiment with simplicity. My first goal is to finish two love songs I started 2 days ago. I'm fighting the urge to write tricky and poetic metaphors instead of simple phrases that get the important messages across. Love songs are very popular for a good reason. It is something we all want every moment of every day, even if we are too afraid to admit it.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Music is a fantastic way to develop patience. I remember being a hyper 14 year old who was just dying to star in a Broadway musical as fast as possible. I practiced singing "Memory" from "Cats" over and over again and it broke my heart that I couldn't sing it perfectly every single time. There were always at least 5 bad notes or 10 missed beats. Always. I remember my sister used to tell her friends it was painful to hear me practice. She was right. No one wants to hear off-key singing.

When I started teaching myself the guitar during my 16th summer, I thought I would never get it. In the humid Florida heat, with a broken air conditioner and sweat pouring down my neck and arms, I struggled to get through a simple D7 chord. My fingers felt like they were pressing against shredded pieces of metal. I spent at least one hour trying to switch effortlessly from Easy G to D7, and I probably only accomplished that 3 times.

I can understand why students quit. The frustration of being imperfect is enough to make you want to punch a wall. I only continued because I wanted it so bad. I kept envisioning myself onstage, with a guitar, singing songs of my own. I just had to be patient.

Lately I am trying to teach my students about patience. Probably because right now now I need it in my own life. Yesterday I was listening to the "Real Jazz" station on Sirius satellite radio, and there was a soundbite of a musician who said "Improvisation is important to learn in music, because it is important to learn in life." This is true for so many elements of music. Patience is like that.

Kids are so naturally impatient. When most of my students make a mistake, they give a frustrated sigh, hunch their shoulders, and express a kid-friendly expletive. Yesterday, one very frustrated boy shouted "Dangit!" each time he missed a note.

I realized only recently that I need to teach patience for 2 important reasons: I want students (and myself) to become better musicians and individuals. Musical practice is all about creating and breaking habits and patterns. We play one scale over and over again perfecting our fingers, the rhythm, dynamics (volume), tempo (speed). If we make a mistake, we have two choices in how we handle it: we can either freak out or stay calm. We create habits of frustration if we choice the former.

Last night I suggested to Dangit! Boy that instead of getting so frustrated each time he makes a mistake, I would like him to try pausing, breathing in, and breathing out. Then start over. It took almost fifteen mistakes before he finally started to remember the new assignment. It takes practice to change a habit, and it takes practice to develop patience.

My hope is that some of this patience practice will seep out of the children's piano lessons and into the rest of their lives. Imagine what checkout lines and rush hour traffic would feel like if we could all develop a little more patience.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Reborn in Long Beach

IBMC, Where Kusala & I meet up to carpool each Sunday

After a long 3 month hiatus, I journeyed back to Long Beach, CA to begin singing for the lovely Vietnamese Buddhist children with Kusala. After travelingholiday breaks, and dealing with my own personal stuff, it felt like a second chapter in my personal world of peace singing was about to begin. To be honest, I was still feeling a bit run down. I woke up with the feeling of being homesick... the worst part was that I technically don't have a home right now. In the car, Kusala asked me if I wanted to listen to some blues. That would be perfect, I thought.

At the temple, the children waited patiently outside under a canopy. They sat cross-legged, shoes removed, clothed in blue uniforms with adorable little lotus patches on the upper left side of their shirts, which reminded me of the badges I used to earn in Girl Scouts. I wanted to open with the song "Imagine."

Kusala & Company welcome me back to the temple.

A few months ago, when the Arizona shooting happened, Kusala and I were talking about how sad the world is and how we feel like it is time to stop playing safe. In that conversation, we both talked about needing to sing songs that express more deeply how serious it is that we all learn how to live in peace. "Imagine" is in my opinion the best peace anthem I have ever heard.

The kids listened quite reverently, and when one of the temple workers adjusted the volume, a shrilling wave of feedback noise made me suddenly stop the song. When I told the kids that I had almost finished the song anyway, and that I would start another one, they all moaned loudly in protest. It was cute. So I finished the song. It was the verse that goes "Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can? No need for greed or hunger. A brotherhood/sisterhood of man." A very Buddhist verse really.

After that, I sang "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free." I like singing this song, because I feel like we all feel that way. We all just want to be free. And even though we who live in so-called free nations feel like we are technically free, we all seem to place these limits on ourselves or we feel our bosses or parents or teachers or spouses put limits on us, and sometimes it is difficult to feel truly free.  I like singing this song to the Buddhist kids, because they learn meditation. In meditation, you can get yourself into a zone where you feel free, even for just one little moment. That one little moment is better than any drug or medicine, because it comes from within you. It teaches you that you have the ability to feel free.

The last song I sang was a song I wrote called "Courage to be Real." The chorus of the song goes like this: "I have courage to be real, I have courage to heal from the mean things that someone has said to me. I have courage to be great, and to never, ever hate anyone for being messy with their words."  I wrote this song one year ago, and it was inspired by a student who was being picked on by kids at school. I was picked on in Middle School, so I thought that writing the song would be a good way for me to release any negativity that may still be lingering. The process of writing a song can be quite therapeutic, and sometimes I am surprised at how much trauma still sits inside my mind. The act of singing and writing is the best way I know for releasing such feelings.

I wanted to sing "Courage to be Real" yesterday, because I needed to hear it. As I make this journey from musician to full time, *living-breathing-sleeping-music* musician, I have to summon up courage. The act of performing, especially singing, is a vulnerable position to be in. People are cruel. They can say the meanest things to you about your voice or your words and not even realize how awful it feels. It feels awful, because when you sing, you are exposing a part of your soul. When someone decides to do this for a living, they are taking a very big risk. But, I feel like I have a strong heart and a level head and that I am ready for the challenge. Also, it is important to admit that this is just who I am, and I want to be real. Bottom line, I just want to be me.

Sunday's temple experience was a beautiful one for reflecting on Spring, re-birth, times of change, etc. In Buddhism, Reincarnation is a very important concept. This is a tough one for many westerners who do not grow up believing in such a concept. When I began studying Buddhism about 12 years ago, I remember thinking, well it's a good thing this is not a dogmatic-punishment style philosophy, because I will never believe in THAT.  But over the years, I have heard the term "Reincarnation" or "Rebirth" to mean something much more important than what happens when you physically die. In Buddhism, it is taught that we are constantly being reborn, year after year, week after week, even hour after hour. Who I was yesterday is gone. Dead. She does not exist. I had a few experiences, and I choose what I want to carry on with me. But other parts of me and experiences are not here anymore.  Only this present moment is here. The person I am in this moment is the one who is alive right now.

Kusala: Possibly the Coolest Monk EVER

After I sang, Kusala gave his talk and played his ukulele, and I wandered around the temple grounds. I sat in front of the sanctuary as dozens of children and adults chanted and rang gongs, and I thought about rebirth. As Spring approaches, I feel good about the new person I am becoming.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Modulation (Key Change)

Well. I spilled wine on my laptop last week. Yes. I was not being mindful. Yes, I was stressed out. It was bound to happen. So tonight I am finally back in the blogosphere with my new Mac Book Pro. Oh man, watch out world. Do not be upset if I get too excited and begin posting dozens of how-to videos on YouTube. Steve Jobs just makes it so darn easy!!

So anyway, things in my world of transition are beginning to seem just fine. I'm in a state of Modulation. In music, the term "Modulation" means to change keys in the middle of the song. What is a key? Well.... let's look at the word itself. When you think back to school, the teacher always had that much coveted answer key in the back of her special text-book. The place where all of the answers were. In music, if you know what key you are in, you know that there is a series of 8 notes that are guaranteed to sound good together. This is also called a "scale." So on the piano, if you take all of the white keys starting on Middle C and you play all the way to the next highest C, you have just played the "Key of C Major."

Sometimes, songwriters (especially pop artists), will change keys in the middle of the song. This is called "Modulation." Modulation usually changes the whole feel of the song. It is also a clever way to repeat that chorus just one more freakin' time without making the audience go "Again? Really?"

If you want a better understanding of what Modulation is, check out the sweet key change around 3:21 on Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" :

I am modulating from one key to another in my own little way. I'm moving out of my 3 bedroom house into a tiny 300 square feet pool house in my singer-songwriter friend's backyard. While my darling husband and I figure out how to peacefully part ways, I am staying in another friend's tiny guest house. Before you wonder if you should feel sorry about this dramatic change in my life, let me tell you why you should not. 

Have you ever read anything by SARK? She is this adorable artist/writer based in San Francisco. 
She wrote this awesome book called "Succulent Wild Woman" and I read it when I was just out of high school. She often talks about the time she found her "Magic Cottage" in San Francisco. It was a tiny little shed in someone's overgrown garden, and she was a broke artist who needed a home. She convinced this little old lady to let her move in, and that is where she made her masterpiece poster "How to be an Artist." That poster sent her on her way to fame. From there she became a best selling author and all around do-gooder and inspirational lady. I always thought, what a romantic story. So to me, my own modulation is flowing just as easily as a key change of G Major to D Major.  

My new place has just enough room for my piano and my bed. The guitars will go on the wall, as well as my hundreds of books (which I will not give up.) It is about the size of a dorm room, which is kinda how I see it. I am committed to spending my life studying music and peace and figuring out what the heck is going on in this world and how I can be of some kind of help. To me, life should be simple. A musician's life (or any artist really) is not about having massive amounts of space to set up furniture. It is about having enough space to create and think and learn. I am very much looking forward to modulating into the simple life.