#2 Creative Hack

What stops you from engaging creatively? For many of us, it’s doubt. We worry we won’t be good enough. We anticipate the reaction at the end of the work, and see ourselves failing. Or we get started and find ourselves expecting perfection from every word, note, brushstroke. Frustration builds as we make mistakes, and we stop. The reasons (and excuses) can be many. We may dream of writing that book, or finishing an album, or taking that trip to Italy, but somehow it never starts, or if it does, it fizzles out. Some people might say, that’s proof our dream didn’t matter as much as we thought.

I disagree. I think we avoid, procrastinate or stop because the dream matters. It sounds strange, I know. Shouldn’t the importance of the dream lead us to take action?

Years ago, after a personal stocktaking, I finally recognized that I had wanted to sing since I was five or six years old, but had let that dream die. I’d sung in choirs in my teens, and even tried having a band after leaving school. But I got involved in work and life, let it go, got that full-time office job that paid decent wages, etc etc. When I had the epiphany, when I decided I needed to find my voice, I asked a friend for the name of his singing teacher.

It took me three months to get up the courage to even call. I went to a meeting, he had me sing a couple of scales, we talked. He asked me what my goal was. I said, “I’m just… I just want to explore what I can do.” And then, as an afterthought, almost under my breath, I added, “If I could sing opera, that would be really cool.”

I went to my first lesson and almost didn’t go back. Not because the session wasn’t good. Not because the teacher wasn’t nice. He clearly had knowledge and was encouraging. I almost didn’t show up for the second lesson because… I didn’t want to find out if my dream couldn’t come true. It would be almost better to keep dreaming.

But I went. And each week, I’d wonder why I was going. I’d wonder, who am I kidding. I’d say, they’re just being nice. I’d say, maybe I’m too old to start this now. I kept going, and I kept doubting. I’d resolve to stop and then, I’d feel my whole body almost slump to the floor. ‘If I’m not here to sing, then what is there,’ the tiny me-voice would answer the shouting ‘you’ll never be good enough’ chorus. So I’d go to the next lesson.

On the bus, on the way to the lesson, I’d feel this heavy sense of reluctance. I’d arrive feeling like I didn’t want to sing, what was the point. My teacher would say, ‘just sit on the couch, we’ll sing a few scales.’ Two hours later, I’d be walking on air as I left. Technical exercises, opera arias, vibrating with sound, watching his face light up when I did it right. For a few minutes or hours, I’d believe it was possible. Then the darkness would close in.

To help defeat the doubts I kept a practice journal. When I practiced, I’d write down the date, and what I did. When the negative voices in my head crowded around, telling me it was pointless, that I didn’t work hard enough, that I’d never make it, I’d open my practice journal and literally say out loud, “Look! I practiced twice a day six days this week. So shut the f- up!”

If I’d seen my doubts as a stop sign, I never would have become a singer again. I never would have found my way into teaching voice to shy singers - something that has brought me so much joy. I never would have met a student who wanted to work on writing songs… and found myself back writing music. I would not have sung in the opera. I would not have music in tv shows.

You see, it really didn’t matter so much how ‘good’ a singer I was. The fact is, when you work on something with awesome mentors, when you practice your craft, you do get better. And the fact that you are working at it makes you stronger. It also opens you to the flow. To the possibilities. To the place where you might say, ‘oh, I’d like to try that.’

The only answer to the doubts: persevere.

See #1 Creative Hack

#1 Creative Hack

Today I found myself watching the Oscars from 1965. How interesting it was to see the ceremony, much less lavish and much more intimate than the one they have today. So many actors and actresses I recall from older films and musicals. My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins and The Unsinkable Molly Brown all vying for awards. The most beautiful moment for me was watching Audrey Hepburn present the award for Best Actor, and she was so sincerely thrilled to announce that Rex Harrison had won. She flew into his arms when he got on stage. So wonderful.

It reminded me of how lucky I have been to have the support of so many people as I have made my meandering creative journey towards freeing my voice, writing my perceptions, expressing myself in song and sound. Many of the composers and songwriters I have come to know are extremely generous with their time and knowledge, honestly celebrating the success of others and sympathizing when things are less successful (while offering sage advice on how to make it better). I can truly say that I would not be where I am today without the help of others who willingly listened to my attempts at composition and production, shared their expertise with me, and encouraged me to keep going inspite of the setbacks.

If there's a Creative Hack I can recommend it is to surround yourself with people on the same path. This is one reason I really enjoy participating in things like
FAWM (February is Album Writing Month- http://fawm.org/)
50-90 (50 Songs in 90 Days- http://fiftyninety.fawmers.org/)
NaNoWriMo (Ntnl Novel Writing Month- http://nanowrimo.org/)
TAXI Forum (http://forums.taxi.com/)
Just Plain Folks (http://www.jpfolks.com/forum/ubbthreads.php)
and others.

Why not look around today and see if there's a Facebook group, forum, message group or online community you can join? You might be glad you did.

Never underestimate the power of doodling

Years ago I had a philosophical difference with my esteemed vocal coach, who was of the opinion that his students shouldn't sing between lessons, for fear they would practice incorrectly, and further cement bad habits.

Although I understood his point of view, I disagreed with him. I told my students they should practice. Optimal would be at least once a day, six days a week, I said. Acceptable would be at least once a day three days a week. Any less than that, they'd be running the risk of slowing their progress.

I knew that they might do things ineffectively in their practice, with the best will in the world they would not always know if what they were doing was the ‘right’ thing. Their existing habits and old ways of thinking would be with them, and possibly taint their execution. I wanted them to practice anyway.

Indeed sometimes they would return to their next lesson and as we worked I would see where they had stepped off the path. They’d demonstrate what they had been doing and I would see where the misunderstanding was and set them straight. We’d repeat the ‘right’ way in the hopes that the experience would remain with them between lessons.

Still, I told them to practice. Why?

First, as Julia Cameron says, they would be ‘filling in the form’. 

“Make your practice part of your daily life, as much a habit as brushing your teeth,” I’d tell a student. “Get up every day, practice, and then go out and do your daily things carrying the knowledge and energy that comes from knowing you sang that morning. It will feel good.”

Secondly, those voices in our heads can easily defeat the burgeoning creative. ‘You suck, you’re too old, you don’t even try, who are you kidding, you don’t practice enough, you may have done it okay that time but you’ll suck again soon.’ The only way I know how to defeat the doubts is to take action. And taking action is practicing. Whether it’s singing scales, or playing riffs on the guitar, or penning a lyric, or sketching a tree, or writing morning pages. We need to ‘do’ in order to grow beyond our programming.

I was watching an interview with Hans Zimmer yesterday, and one of the things he said is that you have to have the courage to fail. He echoes other creative gurus such as Julia Cameron. Part of our daily practice is to experience without expectation, to experiment without judgement, to ‘play’. In this we build a foundation of consistency. Our creative muscle is toned. We open ourselves to the flow.

I have an ongoing dialogue with people who are at odds with me, who say that routine or discipline is the enemy of inspiration. I have to disagree. I think the muse will visit me when I’ve created an attractive place for it. It will come when my antennae are up and I am ready to receive. When I have done the job of practicing my instrument or my craft so that I am ready. If I tinker and play. If I doodle.

If I do not take the time to practice my skills, if I do not ‘fill in the form’, my imagination will not take flight.

Shy evolution

Years ago I worked at a large corporation which had, of course, a lunch room. I used to dread using it. Because I knew that it was very likely that, if I walked into the room, I would be engaged in conversation, and have to make Small Talk. I had no idea how to do that.

But I’d have to enter that room at some point, if only to get a coffee, or put my lunch in the fridge. Of course someone would be there, or come in while I was there, and so it would begin.

“Hi Vikki, how are you?”

Oh gawd. Now I had to answer that question. How am I. I didn’t know! There had to be a million answers. No one wanted the truth, really. Whatever I said, it would be dumb.The little chorus of voices in my head would shout at me internally: “You’re boring! B-o-r-i-n-g! Nobody wants to talk to You!” With a nervous giggle I’d finally say: “um ok-kay th-thanks, gotta g-go.” Escape as quickly as possible, almost spilling my coffee, back to my desk.

“Hey Vikki, how was your weekend?”

Oh my gawd. I didn’t know!! I couldn’t think of how it was! Eyes were looking expectantly at me, waiting for the reply of a reasonably intelligent human being.The little chorus of voices in my head would shout at me internally: “You’re an idiot! You’ll say something stupid! S-t-u-p-i-d!” A hundred answers would go through my mind while I stood there, like a stone, dismissing each one, finally… my eyes would go to the right and up to the ceiling, my tongue would cleave to the top of my mouth and I’d literally stammer, “f-f-f-f-f-f-ine.”

I hated how I felt at those moments. Weird. Awkward as hell. Like a hundred piranha were chomping at me. All I wanted to do was run away, be invisible. Everyone else seemed to know how to be, what to do, what to say. Not me. I didn't get the manual.

I avoided people as much as possible. If I was walking down the street and spied someone I knew, I’d duck into a store or something, just to get out of having to talk to them. They could be the nicest, sweetest person you could ever know. They still terrified me.

How did I go from that acute state of social phobia and debilitating stage fright to speaking on panels at music conferences and being interviewed on radio shows about shyness, singing, and voice?

I believe I was led to walk a path of healing that worked for me. It worked because it involved music, it involved creativity, and it involved singing. My mentors at the start had no inkling that what they were teaching me would help me to heal. They were simply trying to help me to sing.

But because part of singing is to look at what you are thinking just before and during your execution, over time I began to see the kind of thoughts that went through my mind as I attempted to sing. As I recognized the negative things I told myself, I was then able to begin the process of replacing them with something more positive. Something more tangible. Something more effective. I had to practice this, a lot. And I mean, a lot. For days, weeks, months, years. Slowly, unexpectedly, my consciousness was raised.

I started to recognize the programmed voices that repeated judgements and negativity to me… I began to awaken to the realization that these didn’t just occur when I was singing. They happened to me everywhere in life.

Six years later, I’d begun to teach a few other shy singers in group classes and private lessons. As I worked with them, I truly began to realize I was not alone. That there were many others that felt fearful when asked to perform or present themselves socially. My students taught me more about what it means to be human. How complex we are. That what seems easy to some can be terrifically terrifying for someone else for all kinds of reasons.

One morning, about eight years after my first tentative steps on the path, as I lay in my bed, I had this sudden epiphany: I wasn’t so scared anymore.

When I look back, it seems to me that, in the throes of my most shy moments, all my thoughts and energy were focussed on myself. My own angst, awkwardness, thoughts and feelings would overwhelm me and leave no room for anything else.

But, eventually, I found myself anticipating social interaction instead of dreading it.

I went into classes, lessons, panels, and coffee hours with a different attitude. In social situations I hoped to help others feel welcome and comfortable and respected. As I focussed on them, I found my shyness had less power over me. I could answer their questions and ask a few of my own, create a dialogue, and come away feeling that I had enjoyed myself learning about someone else.

It didn’t happen overnight. I didn’t even know, when I began to take voice lessons after shying away from singing for so long, that I would be starting a road-trip to freeing my Self.... the work continues, the path has twists and turns. I have not yet ‘arrived’, I probably never will, as life is an ongoing journey to growth.

Today I am grateful for the synchronicity and creative process that led me in the direction of healing, for the students who have honoured me with their trust and shy voices, and for the world-wide web which allows me to share my thoughts with you. May you have peace and beauty in your life this Christmas season.

Art and discipline - mutually exclusive?

Monday morning, early. I've been trying to change from a night owl to a early bird. As much as part of me wishes to still be wrapped in warm blankets, drifting off to sleep... another part of me (a very small one) is excited to think I'm already at the computer deciding what I want to do at this moment. Work on the song I started yesterday? Lay down more percussion for the instrumental cue I started on Friday? How about write something for my blog?

I remember, years ago, walking with my girlfriend across a long bridge in my hometown, and talking about what it might be like to be free from conventional work. To not have to work in an office, factory, or restaurant. To not have 'a boss'. We talked about the way our lives are structured by the work that we do, the expectations of us during those hours, and how we develop a sense of responsibility and even loyalty to that structure and those who impose it. In return for our time and efforts, we are compensated with cash. Security. Benefits. And a sense of foundation because we know what we are going to be doing come Monday morning.

What would it be like, we wondered, to be totally free to pursue our artistic, creative lives, without 'a boss' other than ourselves? How would we find the discipline to 'do' when it would be just as easy to 'not do'. Would we be able to structure our days effectively and produce on a consistent basis in order to receive compensation? We agreed it would likely be difficult, especially in the beginning, after leaving the structured work world we knew so well. Not that we expected to have that opportunity any time soon... it was a dream, then.

I remember, a year or two later, arranging to meet with a local visual artist so that I could interview her for an article I was writing... and she told me she started her day with morning pages and coffee. Then she painted from 9 am to 3 pm. She could meet me after that. I was rather in awe of that discipline.

One of the difficulties in working at home or working as an artist is often people don't see what you are doing as 'serious' and will often expect you to answer the phone, reply to emails, meet for coffee, run errands, look after this or that... and it's very easy to lose the time you had set aside for creative projects.

But more than that is your own inner voice. You sit down, pick up the pen, open the notebook; turn on the computer and load up your DAW; arrange your brushes, paints, and prepare a canvas.... and suddenly a nagging voice will start to invade the process... telling you that the kitchen floor needs a wash, or the junk drawer needs tidying, or that stuff at the back of the fridge might need sorting out. Before you know it, you're checking Facebook or email or watering the plants.

As much as a creative person might say they don't want to be scheduled, they want to work from inspiration and without expectation, if we don't set that time aside for ourselves, inspiration will likely not occur that often. We need to make a schedule and keep that commitment to ourselves. Without that kind of focus, we feel adrift... blurry... maybe even demoralized.

It's better for us to create daily, good or bad, as part of our routine because then, our creative muscle is flexed consistently. We have to be willing to write / play / sing / paint / etc the not-so-good as 'grist for the mill' in our daily practice because then we will have the foundation prepared and ready to receive inspiration and carry it through to a final product that works.

Sometimes it's hard to start. That's why I like participating in things like NaNoWriMo, FAWM, 50-90, etc. If we do artistic practices like writing morning pages (The Artist's Way) or writing exercises or speed songwriting or skirmishes or challenges... then it assists us to move away from judgement and worrying about the end result before we've even begun. We open the door to the muse and the flow. And hopefully, too - we feel a sense of satisfaction in the rest of our day because we kept that commitment to ourselves, and because.. well... the act of doing lights us up inside.

How do you jumpstart your creativity? Do you have a schedule or routine? Let me know in the comments below :)

Finding the right vision

Reading a fellow composer's post today on 'The Achilles Heel of Sour Grapes' (feeling jealous of other's success) made me think of how we view people who complain too much or spread too much negativity, and how that might, unbeknowest to the person involved, inhibit their career. It prompted me to remember a time a dozen years ago when I was going through Julia Cameron's 'The Artist's Way' with a friend. We'd read a chapter every week or two, do some of the creative exercises, and then meet to discuss over coffee.

We got to a chapter that asked you to visualize your dream and write it down. Of course mine had to do with music... and the more I thought about doing the exercise the more angry I felt. I was filled with sour grapes, and then some.

But I went ahead and wrote down my dream, which was, me dressed in a beautiful evening gown, standing on stage in front of a cheering audience on their feet after my world-shattering performance. I read it over. I was mad because despite the years of training and trying that hadn't come true. I cried, I wailed, I slammed a door or two.

After a couple of days of this, I started to think about that vision more deeply.

I realized the goal of that 'critically acclaimed performance' was to prove to aaaaalllllll of the many people in my life who had called me names (school) or put me down (family, work) that they were wrong, wrong, wrong! The vision said, 'Look at me!! I've accomplished something, I'm recognized, I'm 'better than you creeps'! - See how wrong you were to treat me like that?'

Once I had that realization, I really started to see the negativity, the TON of sour grapes, that went into this supposed dream of mine. And I knew then that this was not who I really wanted to be.

I was able to look at this vision again and ask myself what I truly desired. What did my real dream look like?

I'm a music soul. Yes, I'd like to be 'more successful' in terms of paying the bills and saving for retirement and even perhaps have a little recognition in the biz of being a good person, a reliable creative, etc. I believe that comes through continually learning craft, persevering through the doubts and rejection, building skills & experience, and most importantly, creating sincere relationships with other creative/musical people who walk the same path and understand. (It's amazing how much support I see offered in songwriting and composing groups, 50-90, NaNoWriMo, FAWM, TAXI, etc).

But the best thing I learned in this TAW exercise was that my true vision is to wake up and 'be' IN the music everyday. Whether singing, playing, practicing, teaching, performing, reading scores, composing. And that's what I do my best to do. Imperfectly, doubtfully, joyfully.

Failing Faster

Three days ago I had a cue rejected. I was quite proud of this cue. It had been forwarded for consideration to a music library, and a different A&R person whom I was speaking to about another topic, took a moment to congratulate me on that forward. I'd placed the track first on my website and waited the results of a submission of this same cue to another opportunity. Then the results came. It was rejected, and not because it didn't quite fit the needs of the brief. Because it was 'too synthy' and the bass 'overpowered the track' etc. Whaaat?.... :/

Needless to say, I felt quite demoralized. I felt like giving up. Again. I was emotionally attached to this cue and felt confused by the conflicting reactions to it. That sneaky little voice inside of me piped up and said 'what's the point?'

Instead of listening to that voice, I decided I needed help. So I looked around for some. I found someone talking about Failing Faster. It started to make sense. I was putting far too much weight on the fate of one cue. The fact is, as Julia Cameron says in 'The Artist's Way,' we have to be willing to fail on the road to being good. But more than that.

We have to do two things:
-keep trying, whether it's good or bad, because each failure is an experience that, somewhere down the road, will be the foundation for something better;
-as much as possible, learn from each failure.

We need to do the legwork too. Study, practice, research, try again. Listen to what succeeded and ask what distinguishes it.

Very quickly, instead of going to bed sadly, I was at the controller playing chords and developing a melody and strings to support it. Sketched it out, went to sleep happy.

The next day, I worked on a new track, an old school spy piece. Didn't come out too right, I struggled with the brass. But I wrote some lively counterpoint and in the hands of someone better at that sort of thing, it might sound cool. Maybe even me, in time, when I have increased my skill level...

My goal of working diligently on music for 90 mins to 2 hours per day [on the days when Life/Work allows], is all very well and good but it needs to include education. Watching videos, listening to music, practicing playing live instruments, etc.

I reminded myself besides keyboard I have guitar, mandolin, violin and baritone ukulele to practice. Yay! The more live instruments in my cues, the better :) No more 'synthy'! (I hope, lol)

"I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." - Michael Jordan