Friday, September 23, 2011

The Musician's Voice

In my last post, I mused on the importance of the Artist's voice. Today I want to specifically talk about the awesome power of the Musician's voice. The Musician's voice is indeed POWERFUL. More powerful than any other Art form. I would be willing to debate the role of Film and Literature in this contest, but I think Music would win every time. Here's why: While a film or a book can be so powerful in changing minds that governments will ban the viewing of such spectacles, most of us will only see or read the scandalous piece once while a song is played several times over and over and over again. You can't help but be affected by it. It gets in you whether you like it or not. The melody and the words repeat in your head over and over again long after the song is finished.

In the 60's, music played a major role in changing the culture of the Western world. Rock and Roll had this way of getting under your skin in a way no other style had before. Jazz got close, but nothing affected the youth culture like Rock and Roll. When Rock and Roll hit the scene, teenagers all of sudden found their voice! The rebellious overtones in the lyrics and the primitive drum beats and guitar riffs reached inside and made everyone stand up and dance as if no one was watching. The music was created by black musicians, and the admiration and love from the white suburban kids surely played a role in the early days of the Civil Rights movement. If a musician can make you feel good, you don't care what color their skin is, and these kids were not afraid to tell their racist parents about it either. As the fans grew older, they started their own bands, unarguably ripping off the black music they so enjoyed, and the rebellious nature took on a more confrontational tone that pointed the finger at segregationists and war mongers. This music is what propelled the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam War movements. The music was played on the radio over and over again, and it hit an emotional nerve you could not ignore.

In 2003, I wondered how music would affect us in our beliefs surrounding the Iraq invasion. I listened to the radio and waited. And waited. Nothing revolutionary came on. Musicians had an opportunity to use their power and missed it. We were all too scared to say anything, but to be fair to my musical colleagues, even if someone had written a protest song, it would not have been played. In 2001 post 9-11, Clear Channel posted a memorandum to 1,200 radio stations across the U.S. which banned 165 "lyrically questionable" songs.  Songs like "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," and "Stairway to Heaven" were deemed too heavy for a nation grieving the terrorist attacks. We were in this hyper-sensitive shock mode where everyone had to stuff their feelings inside. What if we had been able to listen to "Wonderful World" (also on the list) and think about the 9-11 victims and just let ourselves cry? What would have been wrong with that? If a radio station couldn't play a song about dying, they certainly wouldn't be allowed to play an anti-war song. And we all remember what happened to the Dixie Chicks....

Now we are in a different era. Musicians need to own up to their power and realize that their voices are important. As awful as I find the censorship, the fact is that Clear Channel was smart. They knew music is powerful enough to influence our emotions, and they acted swiftly. In a so-called "free country" we should have the right to express our feelings through music. Censorship became a form of validation to me. The leaders of our country knew that music could change the culture's mind and were quick to act. I don't know how confident the musicians themselves are about this.

Being a musician means being cursed with ego problems. Our egos are fragile and often depend on the validation of an audience. Most of us never learn to become our own biggest fans, and therefore we are always living at the will of others. This has to stop. We have to realize that our voices hold tremendous power. If you really believe in what you are doing, criticism has to roll off your back. For myself, I have only one person in my life I listen to when it comes to criticism. Everyone else can say whatever they like, and I will not take it personally. I have come to realize that if I count on everyone's opinion, I will never get anywhere, because everyone is so extremely different in their opinions about music.

I've battled my ego for too long, and I am finally starting to realize that I have something to say with my music. It's impossible to please everyone, but for those who want to listen, I know I make an impact. Do you feel that way about yourself? Do you sing fearlessly? Dance freely? Play your instrument with soul? Speak your truth?

Maybe it's time to start.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Artist's Voice

No voice is more important than an Artist's voice. A political voice is full of lies, a religious voice is sprinkled with uncertainty, and a student's voice is concerned with winning approval. The Artistic voice is the voice that is brave enough to express itself with complete and unapologetic confidence. The Artist's voice can do this because it doesn't claim to have all of the answers, it only projects the feelings of the one carrying the voice. The Artist expresses what he feels and observes. He doesn't pass it off as fact. He sends it off into the world as an idea based on his experience, and he does it in a way that hits the listener in their emotional center.

I grew up nestled in a little arts community smack dab in the middle of a religiously oppressive city in the Bible Belt. Every form of artistic expression was like sticking our middle fingers up at the leaders of our town. You want to speak out against gays in the military? (Which is what happens when you mix military town with Southern Baptist run government) We will study the play "Angel's in America." You want to host a Promise Keepers conference, a sexist organization of men who vow to become the dominant rulers of the household? We will produce "The Vagina Monologues." You think Jews are less than Christians? Let's cancel an entire day of classes to watch "Schindler's List" and then have a panel discussion about it (yes, that really happened). Got a problem with the rising equality of blacks and whites? We will make every high school student read as many African-American authors as possible within the time frame of a school year. Why don't we learn to sing a few African-American spirituals while we're at it?

The lesson I learned is that Art is powerful. A strong Artistic voice belongs to someone who gets very quiet, goes deep within, and confidently shares what she finds. She doesn't care if you agree with her or not, and this is the secret to why Artists are the coolest people on Earth. My friend, Brett Anderson, who I can only describe as professional bad-ass and lead singer of "The Donnas," said to me the other day that "the only thing that makes you truly cool is when you stop giving a shit about what anyone else thinks of you." That is how an Artist thinks.

Some people will shiver at the idea of expressing yourself unashamedly, worried they will offend someone. The Artist knows without a doubt that it is impossible to never offend anyone. This cannot be done! So why waste your energy censoring your voice in the hopes of making everyone like you? Katie, my singing teacher, was critiquing me on my stage fright the other day. She told me that 99% of the population doesn't have the guts to get on stage and sing so I need to remember that what I do is special. That was powerful to hear and I wanted to extend the thought out to all kinds of Artists. I would stretch it out further by saying that 99% of the population doesn't have the courage to express themselves confidently and say what they really think, so remember that using your Artistic voice makes you special.

The 10th anniversary of 9-11 made me think about expression and censorship. Do you remember what it was like before 9-11 and then the day after? All of a sudden, critics were shunned. It was a terrible time to be an Artist. No dissenting opinion was allowed. Comedy was terrible because the only comics allowed on TV were the ones who cheered on that asshole in the White House. Music was either sentimental or emotionally bland and not at all challenging. TV stayed the same and writers were too scared to really say anything. Art just stopped and fear took over. This is one of the most devastating memories of our modern history. Don't you think it's time to get over the fear? I know I am tired of worrying about what other people will think of me if I open my mouth and show you how much emotion comes out of me when I sing. If you can't handle it, you can listen to something else. It won't bother me. There are plenty of other people in this world who still truly appreciate an Artist's voice and still work every day to cultivate their own. Those are the people I want to be around and those are the people I work for. When I stand in my rehearsal space and work through all the kinks in my voice, and I humble myself enough to cry through a song, I'm doing it for the ones who still care about real honest expression. I'm doing it out of respect for this sacred communication tool I call the Artist's voice.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Warrior Doesn't Quit

The artist and the warrior are not so different. Both keep fighting no matter what.

Today marks the 100th time I have heard an adult say, "I wish my parents had not let me quit piano lessons!" OK, I'm lying. I don't really know the exact number of times I have heard this, but I hear it a lot. A LOT. When I tell people I am a piano teacher, I hear one of two things: their own musical pursuits or their regret for giving it up. The past two weeks have been very challenging for me as a singer. Every day I have had at least one moment when I've thought about quitting, but every day I have also made progress. It's a funny thing, the way the mind works during music practice. Any ounce of imperfection can make me want to throw my hands up and turn my back on this silly little goal of becoming a great musician. Only it isn't a silly little goal, and making mistakes is how you become a great musician. Every artist must develop a warrior mindset about practice. A warrior keeps training, even when he's tired and even when he makes mistakes. 

I started Classical singing lessons last week with Katie, a doctoral student at University of Southern California. David thought it would be great to fine-tune my sound, and I agreed that the Classical model is the best approach. Katie has a beautiful operatic voice and she teaches in a relaxed and calm manner. She is a great example for someone jittery like me with my tight jaw and tense shoulders. I sang Italian Art Song for the first time in a decade and we were both surprised at how quickly the technique came back to me. I was able to pronounce the Italian correctly 98% of the time, and I hit all the notes fairly comfortably. But not EVERYTHING came back. I've developed some bad habits that I did not have when I was in the middle of my intense days as a student. My notes could be more pristine and my jaw is so tense. Katie told me to move my jaw in circles and move my tongue side to side. I look like a crazy person, but I think it's helping. I have decided to call it "face yoga."

From Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, my favorite warrior themed movie.

In my experience, piano students flirt with the idea of quitting once they reach level 4 or 5. I think when you reach this point in your practice you are starting to sound really good, but you have to begin working harder. I know for myself at that time, I felt frustrated that I wasn't perfect yet. I smiled as I wrote that, because after 15 years of practice, I am still not a perfect pianist and now have the wisdom to know I never will be. Students are usually approaching age 10 or 11 by this year and they are starting to develop different priorities in their lives and sometimes they sacrifice piano for other pursuits. They don't want to work hard to get better. They just want to play perfectly without trying. It doesn't work like that. That is not the warrior mindset. You have to keep working. Music is a discipline. If you stop pushing yourself, you will end up like the retired ninja who no longer trains and has the waistline to prove it. Your skills will plateau. What you already know will be very easy, but very boring.

While 11 year olds may in fact quit, because they would rather hang out with friends than practice the piano, I know I will not really quit. My moments of wanting to quit are more like the moments when you have a fight with your boyfriend, and you storm out of the room threatening to break up when all you really want is for him to chase after you. It's all talk. On my amazing practice days I congratulate myself and feel really good, and on the rough days, I feel frustrated but remind myself that music is a discipline. Just like a warrior in battle, you don't pull out because you are tired or scared. You keep fighting. The life of any artist is like this. When you believe you were put on this earth to create, you keep practicing. You have to stay strong and keep going.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Singing = Yoga

After spending some free time at the piano this summer playing through Jazz tunes like "Autumn Leaves," "Cheek to Cheek," and "Fly Me to the Moon," I am back to focusing 100 percent on my life's purpose: singing. Singing is a really fascinating experience. Unlike external, material instruments, the voice is the only invisible instrument we carry with us at all times. To study singing is very difficult. You cannot see the actual instrument, you can only feel and hear it, and the terms used in voice lessons can sometimes seem a bit esoteric: feel the vibrations coming from inside your head or your chest, make the sound vibrate in your nasal cavities, "think" the notes higher (as my high school choir teacher used to say). Voice teachers are used to seeing a lot of puzzled faces on new students. 

I studied Classical Voice intensely when I was a high school student. I studied mainly Italian Art Song, German Lieder, Gospel Choir, and Catholic-style Latin Mass music. As a teacher, there is only so much you can do for your students, because there is no way to really demonstrate on the actual instrument they possess. You can sing for them and try your best to describe how you do it, but ultimately, I find the experience of studying voice to be more spiritual in nature for the student. Which is why I titled this post "Singing=Yoga."

Triangle Pose

In yoga, we learn how to stretch our bodies in ways that seem impossible at first. With visualization and breath, we learn how to twist and stretch, and once we conquer a pose, the result is a calm, almost meditative feeling. I am beginning to feel the same way about singing practice. One must use breath and visualization to make the internal vibrations come out as pleasant, flexible sounds. 

Everyday, before I practice, I do thirty minutes of vocal warm-ups and then I practice a form of meditation called "Toning." In eastern philosophy, it is believed that we all possess seven chakra points, or wheels of energy throughout the center of our bodies. In this philosophy, it is believed that each chakra point can be balanced by singing it's pitches that supposedly resonate with each chakra. For the lowest chakra point at the base of our spines, we sing a very low pitch, and as the focus goes higher up the spine, the corresponding pitch also raises. I spend about five minutes toning each point. It not only helps me focus my mind, but singing extended notes helps me practice vocal control. After I finish, I am calm and my voice is steady.

For several weeks I have kept this daily vocal practice going, and it is paying off. Something clicked today. For the first time, all of the notes came out of me with very little effort. It was like all of my internal muscles relaxed, and the sounds that came out of me where beautiful to feel. I remembered very clearly how I fell in love with the act of singing when I was a very young teenager. It is very much like spending a year trying to form the perfect triangle pose in yoga, struggling each time to get your arms to reach up and down in a perfect vertical line, while your legs form a perfectly straight upside-down V and your face turns up toward the sky. At first it is impossible, but after a lot of practice, one day everything just falls into place, and the result is worth it. Once you form that perfect pose, and you are relaxed enough to take in a calm breath or two: total peace. 

I felt that way today as I sang. For several months, I have struggled to get my voice back in shape the way it once was. After years of only singing folk and rock music, my range had withered to only two octaves, and my breath control was weak compared to what I once bragged about. Today, the hard work finally proved to be worth it, because just like spending a year in a challenging yoga class, everything finally clicked and I felt the encouragement to keep going. Just like yoga practice, my muscles finally figured out how to relax so I could take a breath or two, and for a few moments I felt total peace.