Wednesday, June 29, 2011


I am thinking a lot about words. My singing coach has me focusing on my words and the feeling I put behind them. I find I am constantly aware of the feeling in my vocal chords and the sound of certain words. Certain words carry varying degrees of emotion, and you can feel them when someone is speaking  to you.  Last night, he had me sit at the piano and play the same chords over and over again until I really felt like I was ready to sing. I was not allowed to sing the words until I felt them in my core, complete with images and memories to accompany them. Pretty powerful. This exercise made a huge difference, and I sounded completely different by the end. I was singing Leonard Cohen songs. To me, he is the God of good lyric writing. No one does it better than Leonard. I was singing the song, "In My Secret Life." At first listen, this song sounds like it will be about an affair, but the more I sing it, the more I realize it is really about this inner world we all possess and often never express. Sometimes it is hard to get the words out. It is so difficult to get our feelings out in words that will not offend. It seems like every time I read the news, someone is apologizing for their words. Freedom of speech does not really exist in this country. Sure, you will not be jailed for your speech, but you may lose your friends, your career, your family, your whole livelihood. Sounds like a slightly different kind of jail.

I believe I started singing because I was afraid to speak. When I was a kid, my family moved to a small Southern town in North Florida from Connecticut. I remember being excited about moving to Florida, but I was surprised and saddened when the kids at school made fun of my voice. I suppose it is only natural to develop a Yankee accent when you begin talking in New England, but in the South, you do not want to sound like a Yankee! This wasn't one of those super traumatic experiences that requires years of therapy to release, but still, it made a deep impact. I was very proud to be from Connecticut, but I do remember being ashamed of my voice. I remember it wasn't just the accent that offended people. The timbre of my voice, the volume, the vocabulary, the absence of "m'am" and "sir" in my vocabulary... I also talked a lot. I was so excited about life, so I was very chatty. Southern girls tend to be a little quieter, a little more calm and tame. I also said "You Guys" instead of "Y'all" and when an adult called for me, I said "Yeah?" instead of "M'am?" I still remember the look of shock on my teacher's face when she heard that. 

I remember thinking that one day my voice would blend in better. Surely I developed a hint of a Southern accent by the time I was 18, but even then I remember a guy in college asking me where I was from because I (say it with a southern accent:) "don't talk like you're from here." By then I developed a pretty good sense of humor about it. I learned how to laugh and admit, "Yeah I know... I moved here when I was 5, but I'm technically from up North." 

In singing practice, you must become so sensitive to the sounds coming out of your mouth, and the feelings behind them. It is a completely different kind of mindfulness practice separate from piano playing. I have had moments in my life when I am so rushed that I don't give a single thought to the tone of my voice in a conversation. My words have been misinterpreted as "rude" simply because I was not aware of the tone as they were coming out. Singing practice has made me more aware of my voice in all areas of life, but right now I am focusing harder than ever on what my voice sounds like on a regular basis. Try saying the word "love" with different emotions backing it up. Say "love" with anger, calm, melancholy, regret, irritation, impatience, kindness. The feeling is going to give it a different meaning each time. 

I began singing because I needed a safe way to use my voice. Being a bit of an oddball in school made me shut down and keep my thoughts to myself. When I began interpreting words through singing, I would feel every single line and something about the feeling resonated with audiences. As I became a teenager, I began choosing songs with a little more edge, and I noticed I could get away with expressing thoughts in song that I could not get away with through speaking. For some reason, I could sing the thoughts in my head in a way that resonated with others. My speaking voice though.... I don't really know. Somehow the sound, the accent, the volume... it brought up negative feelings in people. A prejudice of some kind. That's why I believe so strongly in the power of music. Music can transcend all negative thoughts about others, and make you realize that we are all human beings possessing all of the same emotions. Music can transform a word into a pure emotion, an emotion we can all relate to.  

My favorite verse in the song "In My Secret Life" goes: "I smile when I'm angry, I cheat and I lie. I do what I have to do to get by. But I know what is wrong, and I know what is right. And I'd die for the truth in my secret life."

I like this verse in particular, because I feel like we all lead double lives. We live the life that we show the world, and we live the life inside ourselves, where only we get to know how we really feel. For the most part, we are dishonest with our words. We lie to avoid hurting other's feelings, and sometimes lying means sacrificing our own integrity or happiness in order to make others more comfortable. Good thing we have music to bring us all together again. Mr. Cohen understands this. His words always remind me of the importance of music and the importance of expressing emotion through song.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Staying Focused

Just a Few Things to Think About
I noticed some of my students with focus "issues" spacing out during our improvisations. During! Turns out, they had all of the keys memorized and figured they could just play any key while looking around the room daydreaming about something else. No, no, no. That is not how music practice works! 

When you play an instrument, your attention must be on the song at hand, the present moment, and even a little teeny tiny bit into the future! There is no room for daydreaming. So, I pulled out some paper with each space cadet and had them help me make a list of every detail one must focus on while playing the piano. One student came up with 22 items! During every single note, and every single rest, there are many details your brain has to process. The tempo (speed), the dynamics (volume), the curve of your fingers, is your back straight? What comes up next? What kind of mood should I be playing? How many beats should I be counting per measure? Are your eyes on the right note? How many beats does that rest get?? 

And the list goes on and on. The brain must process all of this information very quickly, during each and every single note. Every note is important. I believe this is why music practice is such a good brain work-out. Probably also why it is a stress reliever. When you are freaking out about something, try putting your focus on playing an instrument or singing a song. It will give your brain something else to focus on besides the problem at hand. With music, my brain has gotten used to focusing. After many years of practice, my brain knows that as soon as I sit at the piano it is time to focus. No matter what chaos is going on in my life, I can always count on this habit. It really comes down to staying present. Not in the past, not so far into the future. Just one note at a time, one beat at a time. 

Monday, June 6, 2011

Letting Go & Moving On

::::::Dearest Blog Readers::::::

Can you forgive me for my absence?? It has been so long since I posted! Over the past two weeks, I have had many blog ideas come into my mind, but nothing has really stuck. I personally do not like blogs that contain filler, so I choose to only write about a topic that I really feel very strong about. I kept wondering when the right topic would enter my mind... on my long runs, during lessons, jamming with friends, writing songs... it's been busy to say the least! I have missed corresponding with blog readers and sharing my journey with the world. Luckily, the new blog topic came to me yesterday during two different situations. The topic is Letting Go & MOVING ON.

By "Moving On," I do mean in life, but also in music. Dedicated readers know that I am going through a huge transition in my life & learning how to adjust to a totally new lifestyle. As always, the parallels between music and life's challenges are becoming more and more obvious to me. Yesterday, while jamming with my friend Racheal's band, we noticed after each take that we all independently pointed out our mistakes. David, the drummer, said, "Well, that's what rehearsal is for." In other words: get over it. Ha! How simple but necessary to remember. We cannot get stuck in our musical mistakes, especially when we are practicing!

Music and life provide many moments where we can choose to stay stuck in the sadness, dissapointment, fear, worry, regret or we can move on. In Pema Chodron's book "Taking the Leap" she describes a study that finds that the average amount of time we are truly experiencing an emotion is only one and a half minutes. The rest of the time we spend worrying is a result of repeating a story in our heads, basically trying to stay stuck in that awful feeling.  At some point, we have to make a choice if we will stay stuck in the negativity, or if we can move on. Moving on isn't easy, I know. Especially when your heart is beating really fast, and your face is getting red with anger. There is a big temptation to stay in that feeling, but what good will it really do? I had a challenging moment like this yesterday.

At the retirement home where I host my recitals, I was gathering my students in the TV room like I always do. I turned the TV off and a very crabby old man yelled at me. The ironic thing is I was about to do a calm-down breathing session with the kids to help them relieve their nervousness. I calmly told the man I would turn it on after 5 minutes of talking with my students. He didn't want to hear it. He kept yelling at me. I was completely shocked. I couldn't believe someone would yell at a teacher right in front of her students. That made me angry, but I kept thinking about the example I was being forced to set right then and there. When I realized that this man really wanted to keep yelling at me, I decided to ignore him and I instructed all of the students to turn their attention to me and I made eye contact with as many of them as I could as we silently waited for him to stop yelling. It was the worst timing ever. The kids were already freaked out about performing and now this man was yelling at their teacher! They had looks of worry on their faces and that made me angry at this man. I was not feeling compassion for him in that moment. Not at all. The kids were there to do a service! I couldn't believe it.

I was very upset, but I had to gain control as fast as possible because I did not want them to start a show feeling upset and scared. I asked all of them to take 5 deep breathes with me. By the time we finished, one of the dads had an employee come to quiet the man down. I tried to stress that we were all there because we love music and we want to share, but I could tell they were all discouraged. It was hard, because so was I, and whatever I feel, they feel. I didn't know what to do, so I had them all go into the living room where we perform and sit in their designated area. I asked a friend if he had any suggestions for getting them to shake what had just happened. He told me to keep encouraging them. I realized that I had to let it go. Right there. I had to just drop the shock from my system and move on as fast as possible. So I went over to them and looked at them all and said in my most relaxed and joking voice.... "Man that was awkward!" They laughed and I felt relieved. I told them how much they mean to me and that all week long I had looked forward to this recital because I am so proud of them.

Racheal opened up the show with a beautiful song she wrote. This was the best way to transition into the show. It ended up being out best recital yet. Everyone seemed to feel good afterwards, and I was so, so, so proud of them.

Yesterday taught me to let things go as fast as possible. If you don't they will continue to influence the rest of your experiences, and who wants that? In music, the show MUST go on, so we simply have to shake things off, like crabby old dudes bullying a teacher. We can't carry it with us if we want to perform well, whether that performance is on stage or in life. Here's to letting things go, and moving on!

At My New Place