Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Stage Fright

Tonight I played the banjo for the first time in public for a full set of songs. I accompanied my friend, Rachael Harryman, a singer-songwriter originally from Kentucky. We performed at Bar Lubitsch in West Hollywood. I was nervous and excited. I love the banjo. I think I might love it more than the guitar. I don't know if this will make sense or not, but the feel of plucking the strings and the sound it makes against the drumhead is similar to the way it feels in my vocal cords when I sing. It has a flexible sound and it resonates more like a human voice than the guitar strings. I was nervous because it was new in a lot of ways. I have only been playing the banjo casually for 4 years, and I had never played country music before I met Rachael. I wanted to do it because I like Rachael's music, and I wanted to challenge myself.

I am always nervous when I perform. I was very relieved when, after the show, David told me that I seemed totally comfortable on stage. (I have always been very good at deceiving audiences in that way.) In high school, we were taught to always appear comfortable on stage, even if we were terrified. One time in college, I opened for my favorite band at the time, Le Tigre, and I was so nervous my knees were shaking. That is a real problem when you are standing up playing a heavy Les Paul electric guitar. Even then I had to first figure out how to look at ease, and second, remember how to play my songs.

On my way to the show, I thought about stage fright. I was trying to relate it to life the way I always like to do. I realized that stage fright is something we all deal with, even if we are not performers. Sometimes we have to speak to a large group at work and that can be scary, but sometimes the stage fright can happen when you have to talk to one person. I have known so many people who are afraid to say what they want to say. I know I have been that person many times as well. The dilemma of the performer has to do with a fear of failure, and I think the same is true in our own personal interactions. At work, there may be a difficult boss who talks to you in a disrespectful manner. The thought of speaking up about it with her could be very scary. I think doing so would bring up a similar feeling to stage fright. So maybe the answer is to treat it the same way a performer would prepare for a show? Practice. Consider all the possible ways to perform the song. Then, share the different ways with someone you trust to give you honest feedback. Really think about the way the material will be delivered. And be totally confident that you know what you are doing. You want to always appear like you are brave even if your knees are shaking.

Once I realized that we all have stage fright on a pretty regular basis, I relaxed. I was still nervous, but I felt more at peace with the nervousness. I knew it just meant that I care very much about the outcome and all of the hard work I did preparing for the show. I would like to be honestly comfortable on stage, and I think I may have nailed the first step to doing that. A Buddhist would say I have "made friends" with stage fright. I feel I am understanding what it is, and by doing that, I may be a little closer to overcoming it.

Friday, August 26, 2011


I am trying to allow more feeling into my music. When I was younger, I had no problem baring my soul through music, but as I have gotten older, the walls have become thicker. The problem with this is the music suffers. In order to become a great musician, you have to allow your feelings to come through. It is a very vulnerable place to be.

I started a major life transition 6 months ago, and I have had to ride a wave of different emotions throughout the process. I have tried to put those feelings into the music, and I get a little closer as each month passes. I still struggle with letting go completely, but I can tell I am getting there.

Over the last two weeks, David has been out of town, so in a way, I had time off. I still practiced each day and worked on songwriting, but without our regular rehearsals, I had more freedom to do other things. I decided to do activities that would get me in touch with my feelings. I went to two very dramatic plays, took a few yoga classes, took two modern dance classes and attended a Breathwork class with Gong Bath at the end.  That last one probably sounds the most intriguing, and it certainly was.

My dear friend, Andrew Kutchera, leads breathwork classes here in Los Angeles. I met him when I was performing at a yoga studio many months ago.  In his workshops, we learn to do a 3 part breath that starts at the diaphragm, moves into the lungs, and exits through the mouth. We do this for 45 minutes, lying on our backs, covered in blankets. It sounds like it wouldn’t be a big deal, but it definitely is.

We always start each session with intention setting. Lately, my intentions have had to do with confidence and believing I have a right to share my voice with the world.  At this last class, I decided I wanted to become more grounded in how I feel about things. Everything. My opinions about life, my philosophy, the path I have chosen for myself… I want to feel secure in the way I see the world. I am a very sensitive person, and for a long time, I have questioned the way I believe my life should be. Sensitive people tend to spend a lot of energy pleasing others, and for the first time in my life, I am living totally for myself. I need to own that, and become more confident in the choices I have made. This kind of self-improvement is essential for becoming a better artist.

The breathwork experience was heightened by the Gong Bath. A very nice man, Nicolo from Italy, played the gongs through the entire session! Gongs are amazing. When a gong is struck, you can feel the vibrations throughout the entire room.  The vibrations from the gong plus the repeated breath technique made me feel as if I were on some kind of drug. It was really incredible. As I continued to breathe, my body became more and more aware of all the emotional ups and downs I have dealt with lately.  The gong vibrations hit me in a way I did not expect. When you hear a song from your childhood, your body usually responds. You have a memory and you feel like you are back in that same place where you heard the song for the first time.  The gongs hit me in a similar way, on a spiritual level. I suddenly had this overwhelming feeling that I would be all right. It is okay that I am who I am. It’s time to own it.  

After the class I had the sudden urge to sing “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” by Don Mclean. This song is about Vincent Van Gogh. How he was so sensitive and so different and out of place and how misunderstood he felt at times. For some reason, this song really called out to me, and I have been singing it for over a week. I was so moved by the chorus that for several days, I cried each time I sang it. Normally, I would stop singing it after crying no less than 6 times, afraid of the emotion inside of me, but this time, I decided to sing through it, tears and all. I’m sure the neighbors wondered why this girl was torturing herself sobbing through a song like that, but to me it was really a beautiful experience. I felt like I really experienced the music at a deep level. I no longer felt afraid to experience my real feelings through song. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Showing Up

It is a fact that most piano students hate to practice. I don't know why this is. I was never that way. I was one of the odd exceptions. I have a few students who are also the exception. They are focused and seem to get a thrill off of the hard work and resulting accomplishments. But most students... I wonder if they think it is their divine right or something? To play perfectly without practice, that is. I don't know... I shouldn't assume such harsh judgements, but it is also a fact that if you are going to play music well, you have to practice. No exceptions.

Writers can relate to this resistance to practice. Writers know very well that you must have the discipline to show up everyday and write, even if what you write is terrible. The point is to show up. Buddhists use this term as well, when talking about meditation practice. We can resist sitting on the cushion, telling ourselves we don't have time, but if we commit to 5 minutes, it is likely we will end up sitting longer. The same is true for all creative practice.

I have anxiety about songwriting. I also fear my own songs. I worry about sitting at the piano, because of the disappointing and impending doom of having to eventually get up and fulfill my other responsibilities. That is the problem of not being present, and the anxiety is really about my fear of failure, my fear of writing embarrassingly awful melodies and singing borderline cliche's. All of this rumbles through me at about 10:30 every morning as I anticipate my 11:00 start time for practice. I have dealt with this for years, and yet, I still manage to write songs that are okay, and despite my intense fear of failure, my voice continues to improve. This is why I say you have to show up first.

I am very hard on myself. I still think I could be a better songwriter, and my fingers could flow over the piano with more ease, my voice could soar with less effort, I could tear up the guitar with better solos, but for now, I just need to relax about showing up. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Open to Wisdom

I have always been resistant to authority, leery of "experts," and closed off to unsolicited advice from musicians. I am self-taught in many ways, and I suppose I can be a bit of a snob when it comes to education. It's just that I recall one too many situations with guitar dudes giving me advice as a substitute for clever pickup lines and bored teachers in my public middle school getting through the day the way I used to drag myself through a 4 hour shift at my first job at the hosiery counter in J.C. Penneys. I just don't trust everyone to give me good advice.

But one day last year, I decided I needed help. I needed to find someone who could guide me through this tricky world we call the Music Industry. I needed a producer or a manager or just someone who would kick my ass and give it to me straight. I wanted to find someone with a genuine love of music and writing who could see my own very serious commitment as well. I found that person several months ago, and it has been life changing.

David and I spend several hours a week practicing and writing. He spends a lot of time talking, and I spend a lot of time listening. He tells me when the notes suck and when I lack feeling. He also tells me he believes in me and the music I have to share with the world. Being in this position has made me empathize more with my students. It is challenging to hear criticism, even if you get compliments as well, but if I want to grow and progress into the great musician and singer I know I can be, then I have to listen and trust.

Because of my work with David, I am now on a tight schedule that includes running, meditation, singing exercises, piano practice, guitar practice, diction, song interpretation, and writing. I only socialize on the weekends and by the end of the day I am falling asleep faster than ever before. I love it. I love the discipline and focus and I love feeling the flexibility increase in my vocal chords as I work to get back the range I once had from singing 1st Soprano in choirs for 8 years.

The process has reminded me of what it is like to be a music student. I went to a public performing arts high school similar to the one in the movie and T.V. show, "Fame." We didn't have any bored J.C. Penney-worthy faculty at that school, and I loved being their student. I had the same kind of discipline then (better actually) as I do now. I remember spending each morning in the piano lab practicing for one hour before school, 3 hours of music classes scattered among my academic classes, and then after the final bell rang, it was off to a musical theatre rehearsal. I performed church solos several times a month, and I remember loving the life of a serious music student. I feel something similar these days.

It is comforting to trust someone else and become open to their wisdom. The process has made me respect the student's position more than I had before. I suppose I am beginning to better understand the role of a teacher, and therefore gaining a new respect for the way I make my living. A good teacher is someone who offers you wisdom without the influence of their ego, believes in you and what you are capable of accomplishing, and isn't afraid to push you when you are slacking in areas you know you can improve.

Becoming open to wisdom is making my life a little easier. David is a great teacher, and I am learning so much about patience, trust, and discipline. I have noticed that as I become more open to the wisdom in others, I begin to relax a little more about this life, and I begin to feel less alone in this world.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Music Equals Love

First off, I hope you like the new look and title of the blog. I originally started this blog as a project with my students almost 2 years ago. "38 Ways to Change the World Through Music" was a list I created to teach my students that music making and performance is not done for ego purposes, but for making our world a better place. My idea was to teach my students that music can change the world. As a musician or fan, music makes a big difference in our lives everyday.

I have written articles here about the role music has played in changing the way our society thinks and behaves. I also have posted about my trips to retirement homes and hospitals alone and with my students to share our musical gifts with those down on their luck. It has been a life changing experience. Truly. I still believe in the power of music to change the world. I try to change the world one blog post at a time by being real with you about how music has changed my life and continues to do so. Because the blog has become so personal, I thought it was time to change the title.

"Music Equals Love" is how I feel and I know you agree. Music has changed my life and I see how it changes your life and those around you every single day. Where would I be without that one perfect song to get me through a tough time? Or that upbeat dance tune that makes me smile? Where would I be without my piano to get me through insomnia filled nights and what would I do if I didn't have my voice to sing out my deep feelings and emotions? Where would any of us be without music?

I hope you like the new look of the blog, and I want to thank all of you who read my words and continue to follow my journey through this world as I learn how to navigate as a musician, seeker, teacher, and student.