how will I grow in 2010?

Ariel Hyatt, author of (among other things) “Music Success in Nine Weeks” has a CyberPR blogging contest running and I thought participating would be a good way to start the new year off right.

Step one of the contest is to buy the book. I already had it – I’d purchased it at a music conference in late 2008. I’d gone through it then and done some of the things she recommends. But that was months ago and I think it’s a grand idea have another look. Get motivated, think clearly, be the architect of my own success.

Step two of the contest is to blog your experience as you work through the book. So here I go.

Well, even though I’d read the book before and I know I had worked on various things in it… I really liked reading the first chapter again. “Getting Mentally Prepared” talks about creating visions and goals for the next year and for your lifetime. I like Ariel’s idea of getting away from the computer and creating a vision board for yourself with colours and shapes. The act of physically writing something down seems to keep it in my mind longer. I work better if I have my tasks and goals outlined and in front of me. I spent some time thinking about the chapter and thinking about my goals for 2010.

Over the course of the year I will:

-work through Ariel Hyatt’s “Music Success in Nine Weeks” book
-complete the tutorials for Cubase Studio 5
-take lessons/learn a new instrument (perhaps violin)
-learn the fingering for flute, oboe, trumpet & sax on my wind controller
-work through Robin Fredericks “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting” book
-participate in Bob Baker’s “Advanced Music Marketing” course

-work through David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” again
-get a safety deposit box for back-up discs & paperwork
-establish good routines
-be the best teacher/mentor I can be
-keep timesheets for each track I work on
-keep track of time spent on various tasks so can streamline
-at the end of each day, write down 5 successes for that day; and write down 6 tasks to do the following day to assist in moving towards my goals (this is from Ariel’s book)

-write and sign 100 tracks
-write/record/produce my first LOTR-inspired album
-catch-up or bow out of outstanding co-writes due to pressures of work

-swim 3 or more times per week
-eat healthy
-stay in touch with family & friends
-keep up with the house
-get that dental work done

~MONEY 2010
-pay off 2 more debts
-save for travel & business needs
-make $2,000 from music placements

-work on artwork for late summer show
-attend life drawing regularly for inspiration & practice

-keep up with my blog
-keep a file of ideas and musings for my book

Ariel also suggests coming up with lifetime goals, and I wrote several down, things like: be debt free by 2012; write one or more books based on what I teach; write & produce several albums; have 200 tracks signed by middle of 2012; be on TV; have music in films I adore; overcome past programming and SHINE; work to be a well-respected composer; be a good friend. I suppose I could add it's my dream to spend a month in Paris, just renting a place & taking in the ambience; and spend a month in Florence doing the same; and be able to winter in California & spring/summer/fall at home ;)

dance in the elevator

“When did you start studying voice,” one of my students asked me this week. She’s feeling anxious about an upcoming birthday (we seem to be especially aware of any number ending in “0”).

I took my first lesson in 1990. But I wonder about saying, “I started ____.” Because that implies at some point you’ll say, “I ended ____.” Some things do end, of course, like university, or college, a job, or relationship. But creative things don’t end unless we stop doing them.

Still, I know how much I’ve grieved the passage of time and the little I’ve had to show for some of it. That’s one reason why I try to work hard on my dreams now.

Yesterday is yesterday, and, therefore, as far as we know, gone. For all our wishes and grief, there is no way we can relive it, except in our memories and dreams. Our regrets may be many but, like Scrooge in Dicken’s ‘Christmas Carol’, we can resolve to go forward with a different attitude. The past can motivate us to use our time better in the future.

I only have to spend a day in the company of my lively and active 87-year-old mother to know that lamenting my age now is a waste of energy. It is what it is. I can lie about it, but I can’t change the number of years I’ve lived. What I can change is my attitude about it. And I’ll tell you one thing for certain: the spirit inside you doesn’t age.

So I resolve to start every day. I strive to grow beyond my programming. I compare my unhappiness with those who are homeless, or sick, or those who live in war torn countries. I am grateful for the gifts that I have been given. No matter how ‘old’ or ‘young’ I am, I can walk my path, live my dreams as best I can, picking myself up and dusting myself off whenever I fall.

We can’t change the past, our mistakes, the good and the bad. Our lives are a series of startings, and IMHO the important thing is to start and keep starting, no matter how old we are, or what happened in the past. Courage is not an absence of fear, it is walking bravely into the unknown or struggling to overcome our issues and reprogram ourselves. It is possible for human beings to grow and change. The challenge is to do the work.

Let’s all resolve to make 2010 the year that we begin, and keep beginning. So that we feel we have not given our time to external things without supporting the creative spirit within. Find time to play, and to create, and to laugh, and to reach out to those around us with a smile or a helping hand. To vision our lives effectively and to keep working on our dreams, even if it is only in moments stolen from our other responsibilities. Sing in the shower, doodle on our to-do lists, dance in the elevator, drum on our desks, read poetry on the bus. It’s never too late.

Practicing process

One of the reasons I write this blog is to share my process. I think it’s important that I share the ups and downs, the imperfect and the better than imperfect, the struggle, the slow baby steps towards achievement. In my opinion, success is built on a foundation of practice. Not perfection, not necessary production, but practice.

It seems to me there are some vital aspects of achieving change in our lives.

One: to assess where we are – good and bad. The “morning pages” suggested by Julia Cameron have this function. A daily practice of writing three pages of stream-of-consciousness whatever’s-in-my-brain leads to something. It gets the crap, the worry, the guck, the messy stuff out of our brain and down on the page. And it connects us to the creative flow. It does so, because it is something we do.

Over time, as we write what we feel, think, worry, we start to see patterns. I did something about my financial situation after writing about money worries every single day for three months. I set up a budget and I got a consolidation loan. I got tired of singing the same song and changed it!

And, I was surprised, after several weeks of morning pages, to realize that, for the first time in my life, I was hearing my own inner voice. It had been squashed and ignored for so long (because what everyone else wants, needs and thinks is waayyyyy more important, right?) it was very very quiet and I had to strain to hear it. How can I go on to #2 below if I can’t hear my own voice or assess my own feelings about what I’d like to do with the time that I’ve been gifted with?

Two: to visualize where we would like to go. This can be fairly general – “I’d like to have more creativity in my life,” “I’d like to be in better physical shape.” Or it can be specific – “I’d like to make that trip to Italy I’ve always dreamed of,” “I’d like to get back to playing the guitar,” “I’d like to take a photography course,” “I’d like to be more confident as a speaker.” The list is endless. Morning pages (and doing the tasks in ‘The Artist’s Way’) allow us to spill out our dreams and visions and fears. Because we’re in the flow every morning, before we go out to face the world, we touch base with the most important person in our lives, our best friend – ourselves.

Three: to begin the action(s) that will take us there. This is the crucial step. One of the reasons I like recommending morning pages is that it is action. It is a ‘do’. It’s too easy to read self-help books and talk to therapists and talk to friends. Change only happens through work, through struggle. We begin, not knowing how long it will take, or if it will work, or even where we will end up. But we begin, and we continue to begin, every single day. All those beginnings, in time, lead us. We find out more, we experience, our daily process is part of the quality of our lives. We do. We are in motion.

Four: to be conscious of what we say to ourselves along the way. We need to recognize that much of what our internal editor tells us is a feedback loop created by a part of us that thrives on negativity, stress, anger and frustration. This entity within us has a vested interest in us not changing, therefore, no matter what we do, it says bad things. “You’re too old,” “they’re just being nice,” “that was crap,” “who do you think you’re kidding,” “you may have done it once, but you’ll never do it again.” If we are not aware of what we say to ourselves, we run the risk of shutting down, turning off, stopping. The act of morning pages, and the act of taking up the threads of things we desire to do, these acts help us defeat the voice within.

Five: find joy in the little things along the way. Be awake and really taste that first cup of coffee. Be awake and smell the tang of the sea in the air when you walk to work. Notice the colours of the trees. If, on our way to work, we are in our ‘heads’, thinking about the day ahead, worrying about something that might happen, remembering what happened yesterday… then we are not in the present moment. But our body reacts to those thoughts as though they are happening – and we get stressed out. Returning to the ‘now’ is as simple as stopping to take a deep breath, and really being aware of that breath in and out. This is also something we can practice over the course of the day.

Morning pages, conscious breathing, conscious attention, visioning our lives and then taking steps towards that vision, these are how we practice process.

“As we are creative beings, our lives become our works of art.” ~ Julia Cameron

embracing slow growth

I’ve always been the slow and steady type. It takes me a long time to get things into my head, and an even longer time to make positive changes in my life. It seems to me that’s the way it has to be. Change happens, over time, as we take action towards our goals. If it happens too fast, it might not stick because we don’t have the foundational experience to support it. If it happens too fast, it might traumatize us because we haven’t built the strength to manage it. Personally, I think it’s better to practice 15 minutes a day consistently, than practice 3 hours once a week. It’s the daily application that moves us forward.

I have the philosophy that as I practice today, I might not see or feel any changes. The fact that I practiced today might not help me next week. But the fact that I practiced today, added with all the other todays I practiced, will make a huge difference 6 months from now.

A perfect example of this is my composing and production skills. Honestly, I knew next to nothing about producing in November 2006. I was sitting at a music conference with some people I had met on a songwriting forum, and I realized that I was talking to people who actually made money with their music. You wouldn’t know their names, but you’ve probably heard their music on shows like America’s Next Top Model, Ugly Betty, CSI, talk shows, etc. I decided, since I wanted to make money with my music too, that I needed to do what they were doing.

Up to then, I had been writing some instrumentals, but had very little in the way of tools or equipment to make them sound good. I wrote my instrumentals as midi with my keyboard or as notation in Band in a Box, and then used free Virtual Instrument (VI’s) plug-ins I downloaded off the internet to create the sounds. I wrote all kinds of stuff this way, but it didn’t have any hope of going anywhere.

After I got home from that conference, I bought my first orchestral program – East West Silver. It was one small section of the orchestra, and all I could afford. It was my Christmas present to myself. The problem was… the computer I had couldn’t run it.

I got a graphic design project, working with my sister, to design a textbook for a local college. I was pretty pissed, actually, to find myself working on it on Christmas Day because of issues with the client getting information and documentation to us. However, that contract, when it paid in January, was just enough to buy the custom-built audio computer that I needed.

After that, every couple of months, as I saved up the money, I added to my sound library. And during that time, I played and played and played and wrote and wrote and wrote. Many of my compositions, even with the new sounds, were still rejected for various reasons. I kept working at it and kept trying, and kept practicing. My hard drive is littered with tracks created and mixed during the next two years. I did produce some acceptable tracks and signed four to a music library – my first deal. I kept writing. I used my membership in TAXI as a measuring stick. If TAXI forwarded a track, I knew I’d done something right. Finally, in late 2008, all that hard work started to pay off, and I signed 10 tracks to another music library. In 2009, I started to sign more tracks still. In September 2009, I was pleased to be accepted by a prominent music library as a composer.

Still I consider this to be only the beginning of my five-year plan to sign enough music to be making a significant amount of money from it. Everything I sign now has the potential of bringing in income down the road.

More than that, though, is the fact that the daily work on music, the daily listening back critically to my own and others work, the daily working with tools, reading about composition and using sample libraries, etc etc… all this adds up to a level of experience that is the foundation for the future. These three years of effort, sometimes feeling like I’d never get it, have begun to pay off. I have much more to learn, more tools to get, more skill to attain. Thankfully. Keeps life interesting!

2005: Coffee Grind

2009: Data Stream (excerpt)

Creatively managing creative time

I was privileged to teach a class at a recent music conference. The class was called, "You Can Give the Industry What It Wants and Still Be Creative". It was taught by a team of 4 people: Suz Doyle talked about finding inspiration when you are blocked; Chuck Schlacter talked about how he researches opportunities and client requests, and illustrated how he sketches out the plan for a piece of music on a daily basis; John Mazzei talked about what it’s like to work with film directors as a composer, and the challenge of supporting the creative vision of the director while remaining true to one’s own muse.

I choose to talk about creatively managing creative time.

I was on a coaching call a while ago with Debra Russell and Nancy Moran, and Nancy talked about delegating tasks. Not just bookkeeping or web management… but the personal things you need to do around the house, or the errands you run. Her logic was, if you are self-employed, then everything you do is part of running your business. What a sense of relief I got when she said that! I’d been struggling with the house, shopping, laundry, and felt guilty about not being able to keep up with it all. It was huge weight off my shoulders to realize it was ‘ok’ to delegate some of that out. I asked my Mom to come in a couple of times a month (and paid her) to help me with the house, I found a local woman who would drive me to appointments or help me run errands (I don't have a car) in exchange for coaching.... and more.

Here's how I got myself organized:

1-Make a list of daily, weekly and monthly tasks. That’s everything you need to do. Pay bills, shop for groceries, go to the gym, etc.

2-Set up a calendar. I have mine set up as a table in Word. Preferably you want something where you can see the month at a glance.

3-Now schedule your tasks. Try to be efficient. For example, if you are downtown on Friday afternoons, then you schedule all your downtown errands on Friday afternoon, that’s when you get your photocopies, pick up toner from the office supply store, mail your packages, do your banking. If you set aside time on Saturday morning to clean house, maybe that’s also a good time to do laundry. You can throw a load in and then go clean the kitchen. If, like me, doing laundry means a trip to the Laundromat… well, I have enough towels and clothes to go one month before I need to do laundry. And when I do laundry, I put everything in the washer and then go to the grocery store and/or drug store, do any banking. Sometimes I’ll even call my mom from my cell while I’m sitting in the Laundromat. I can cross ‘call Mom’ off my list ;)

I mentioned in the class that I order my groceries on-line. There is a local company ( that deliver organics. I order those supplies on Mondays and they are delivered Thursdays. I then go to the store once a week (usually Wednesday morning) and get anything I need that they don’t deliver. I order on-line for the convenience, but also because I know that if I get swamped or overwhelmed, the first thing that goes is shopping. That is not good for my health. So ordering on-line is not only time management, it’s health management, to get a box of beautiful fresh veggies and fruit every week, encouraging me to eat sensibly.

Because I work at home, I’m able to manage cooking by preparing veggies for the steamer, and plugging it in before my last session starts, or using the crock pot. I tend to eat pretty much the same things most of the time. I make a meal plan for the week – this is not only good for time management but it’s a good budget measure as well. I always try to cook enough for two meals so I only have to warm things up.

Included in your schedule of ‘tasks’ should also be some daily personal time, just to be… to walk, to dream, to meditate, to be still. And also include, on a weekly basis, time to go over your schedule for the following week, plan your budget, balance your chequebook, make your grocery list & plan your meals. I allow 2 hours for this on Saturday morning.

4-The next step is to make a list of projects you want to work on. This could be musical collaborations, writing for opportunities, working on your album, etc. I have separate project sheets for library composing, co-writing, my album, and listings I plan to submit to. I have a project binder and in each section I put notes & emails for the different projects I’m working on.

5-Now look at your schedule, and plan when you will be in your ‘studio’. On weekends I plan 4-6 hours per day, during the week I plan 3 to 5 hours per day depending on what I have on. Allow time for social events…. Dinner and a movie – one night a week. Overall I schedule about 20 hours studio time as a minimum. Because I work for myself I’m in charge of my schedule. If you work full-time and you have a family, then your obligations are going to be different, and your available time for writing is going to be reduced. That’s life. We make choices and we need to see them through.

When you walk into your studio at the scheduled time, then you look at your list of projects and ask, ‘what is the best use of my time right now’, or ‘what is the most urgent thing to work on,’ or ‘what would I like to play with today’. Guard this time, don’t let other things eat into it. Use your weekly planning time to assess how well you are figuring out how to deal with your needs, and adjust accordingly.

It only makes sense to me that we should set reasonable goals, figure out what we need to get or to know, and then set out to save for that software, or set aside time to learn/practice, and use available resources (like songwriting forums) to get feedback on what we are doing, or even to share our process and ask for advice. We assess progress by looking back and asking… did I move forward over the past few months? Am I writing better, more consistently, did I finish what I set out to do?

I recommend these books:
“Getting Things Done” by David Allen
“The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron

The handout I distributed at the class is available here:

~ ready, set, go

Ah well what to report, what to report. Big Brothers came and took away a big bag of clothes and a box of shoes. The junk van came and took away old beat-up furniture, old junk, old carpet, et al. Feels good.

Been working hard to get prepared for the music conference I go to every November. Burned some CDs with examples of my composing in case I get close to a music library representative... and a few CDs with worktapes of songs to get feedback on.

Have any number of projects to work on when I get back. Three more instrumental demos to pitch, and then 21 instrumental cues to lengthen and do final mixes for. Also a number of collaborations need finishing up, and I have a few listings I'd like to write for. Also, 2010 is going to be the year of the album. I figure now I'm getting broadcast quality tracks signed by music libraries, I'm ready to produce the album I've been dreaming of the past couple years.

Am also playing a gig on December 11th that's a mix of original and traditional songs of the season, we'll have to kick up the rehearsal schedule when I return.

I'm on a 'tips and techniques for film/tv composing' panel at the conference, and I'm also one of a team teaching a class in how to give the music industry what it wants while still being creative. A little nervous about that, but hope I can remain calm and say something useful, lol.

T'was a nice day today, and weather reports are good for the week :)

~ boxed in

What is it in me that looks at an empty box and deeply desires to keep it? Walk into my bathroom, and on the top shelf there are empty boxes that once contained a toaster or a mixer. Walk into my bedroom and on top of my cupboard are empty boxes that once had a VCR or a IBM tower. Get into my closet and start sorting things out, and there are boxes with boxes in them.

Is it the ghost of Christmas past? For mother and grandmother would exclaim, on receiving a beautifully wrapped parcel, that it was a shame to ruin the wrapping. So they would carefully carefully remove the coloured paper, never tearing. And then they would put the wrapping and the gift tag and the ribbon or bow in the box with the gift. Did they actually use that paper again, I wonder? Did they actually find another occasion to reuse that ribbon? Or did they, like me, find it months later when they were looking for something else… and then finally discard it?

I find myself thinking, when I receive something in a box… 'oh… this might be good to put something in if I have to mail things… or if I have a gift to give.' But invariably I never need them. And even if I do…. I don’t mail 100 parcels a year. Maybe just one small box. At that rate it will take me 20 years to use up the ones I’m hoarding… and I’d be sending some big boxes with very little in them.

This week I ripped up several boxes and put them in recycle. But I still have more. Even writing this I feel a great reluctance to give away that VCR box… even though the VCR is more than two years old and the warranty has expired. I need to reassure myself that boxes will be available to me if I should ever decide to move… which will likely be never as I can’t face trying to pack all this stuff up and move it anyway.

But I am proud to announce that I actually (once I moved some boxes) was able to get into my walk-in closet today. I have several boxes of stuff to go through… but Big Brothers is coming Tuesday to pick up donations… and the junk van is coming Wednesday for the stuff that can’t be recycled or given away. So I am making progress on my goal to reduce, reuse, recycle and throw away.

But… I happen to know a friend is sending me something in the mail. It should arrive this week. It will be in a box.

Uh oh.

be gone, stufffffffffff!

I am trying to clean my bedroom - a Herculean task of mammoth porportions. If you don't hear from me, bring a tractor over & dig me out. Seriously. But I did find the abstract I painted in August - it's good, I like it. And I found piles of music I'd forgotten I had, in a box.

Anyway, I wonder how I managed to get all this stufffffffffff in one room and still breathe. No more, I say! The junk men are coming and taking it all away, soon!!! (Don't worry, I recycle or give away anything remotely useful.) But first I must have a lie down. Just looking at all those boxes makes me exhausted.

Sticking to your guns

You know, somewhere along the line, after waffling for years, never finishing anything I started… something changed. I actually began something that didn’t end. I certainly thought about quitting - a lot. I procrastinated. I didn’t follow through sometimes. But I never stopped totally. I kept going.

I kept going to voice lessons even when nothing felt good, even when I was making no progress in spite of excellent instruction. Every time I thought about stopping – and I often thought about stopping – something in me said, even if I never sing anywhere… there’s something I need to overcome just for myself, and this is helping. Of course, I love music, and that passion helped me to stick to my guns as well.

I was so tangled up inside with old programming. I had no trust in myself at all. But on some intuitive level, I must have understood that evolution comes from struggling to move forward against the odds.

If you ever go into my kitchen, you’ll see something on my fridge. It’s a little list of goals. And at the bottom, in big large letters, I typed “I promise myself I’ll never give up.”

Yep, slow and steady wins.

Finding your path as an artist

Someone was asking on a songwriting board I belong to, about how they could make money with their music... which way should they go - write for artists, record a CD to sell, score films...

I replied... why not do some reading. I suggest Jason Blume's "Inside Songwriting" for a bird's eye view of his journey towards being a pro songwriter (and songwriting teacher). I suggest John Braheny's "The Craft & the Business of Songwriting" for a primer on the biz. Check out Amazon for a book or two on the subject of scoring films. I also recommend Julia Cameron's "The Artist's Way" as a primer in creativity & making decisions about your path.

I make my living fulltime in music now, but I spent many years a) working full-time while training, b) working part-time while training and teaching/performing, c) teaching/performing & doing contract work (and still coaching myself), til today, which is d) teaching/performing, growing my skills & getting the tools, pitching & signing music, composing for libraries. I took my first voice lesson in January of 1991... gave up the full-time job in 1996, gave up the part-time job in 2002... haven't done any contract work since end of 2006 (and my last contract... paid just enough to buy me this custom built DAW... synchronicity in action).

Here's one thing I'd do: search out local folks who are doing what you think you'd like to do (score films, for example), and ask them if you could interview them for 15 mins or so. Talk to them about what they do on a daily basis, etc. Explore your ideas more... as you get more information, you'll be able to make some decisions. Whatever you decide... it won't be for the rest of your life... it will be to get experience in different aspects of music until you can see your path.

I don't know if you'll find this post helpful, but thought I'd throw it in the mix:

Striving for imperfection

Eh? What’s that you say? I should strive to be other than perfect? What’s the point of that?

Well… you see, we’re caught in this terrible bind.

We do need to learn something about what we are doing. As artists, we know we have to have craft, or skill, in order to produce our work effectively. We need to work hard to understand what is required, and practice doing it, so that we will become more expert at performing, or writing, or composing, or painting, etc.

And yet, at the same time, we want to express, we want to explore, we want to be organically in-the-moment feeling what we are doing.

If we focus too much on the mechanics, we run the danger of becoming mechanical, seized up, trying too hard.

If we let everything go and just perform organically, we lose something because we are not engaged in the act in the most effective way we could be - and our art suffers from our lack of craft.

So do we sacrifice craft for expression? Or do we forget feeling and work on precise execution?


When we bring our work to our mentors to be assessed, we bring it knowing it is imperfect. We present it with humility and presence. We say, “this is the best I can do right now.” Accepting where we are is the first step to moving beyond it.

If we resist where we are ('I can’t sing a note on key, even if you paid me'), then our whole instrument is bound up in hiding that state from everyone. We may consciously be willing to step into the light and give it a go, but our whole body rebels against it. And no wonder, because many of us have been traumatized in the past by unkind remarks and unrealistic expectations.

So we come into the studio, longing to sing, but afraid. We have been programmed to believe that we are not capable. Perhaps we were told that we had no talent, perhaps we were told never to make a loud noise, perhaps we were told by a teacher not to sing with the rest of the class. Even if it was forty years ago, that embarrassment and that hurt still lives in us. But it can be overcome, with time and patience.

We begin by allowing ourselves to be precisely where we are, warts and all. We allow ourselves to sing off key. We allow ourselves to not be able to coordinate things effectively. We allow ourselves to attempt to do what we are asked, knowing that we will indeed fail.

In order to progress, we must accept our own state of imperfection. We don’t know how to do it, that’s why we’re in the studio with a teacher. We can’t keep all the balls in the air – we’re not expected to.

We are challenged to sing, knowing that we won’t achieve everything that is being asked of us. And then we’re asked to repeat the act, keeping what happened right, and attempting to add what was missed. Sometimes we can. Sometimes we can’t. But either way, the roof never caves in. If we missed something, we simply try again. If we managed to get it all… guess what, the next thing we do is sing another scale… and the whole thing starts again.

In songwriting, composing, writing, singing, acting, dancing, painting, etc…. feedback is how we learn. Effective critique gives us understanding, gives us tools, gives us support. It never criticizes. We need to accept feedback as part of the process, knowing that whatever state of ability we demonstrated in the moment is separate from our worth as a human being. We have to try to be emotionally detached from our work. And it is the responsibility of the teacher/mentor to ensure that our process is supported.

So lessons aren’t just about performing the mechanical tasks of the artform. Lessons are also about understanding our Self. How do I think? How do I view feedback? How negatively do I think about myself and my abilities? How patient am I with myself? Hmmm…

The true challenge of walking the path of discovering the artist within, is embracing your own imperfection… and shining a light on it… and saying “Look at that. So, I have more to learn. That’s okay. Keeps life interesting. Now I know what to work on for next time.”

Playfully practising

I’ll be talking to a student and whatever we’re talking about is so interesting I think I should write a blog about it. But then the moment passes and a few days later I sit down to write a blog without the inspiration of that person in front of me. I did jot down a phrase during one discussion this week. “How 2 practice,” I wrote.

That’s an interesting thought. How do you “practice” creativity? I can tell you how I do it. I practice it by doing what I’m doing right now. I’m sitting here without one idea in my head, writing. I’m starting by telling you I don’t have any ideas. My brain feels all foggy, and I feel reluctant to write. But I’m writing anyway. After a quick ‘save as’, I’m back looking at the mostly blank page. But because I’ve started, something starts to happen. It’s like the act of actually doing something… even if it’s as mundane as writing “I have nothing to say” … is a spark.

So I think about the songwriting (February is Album Writing Month (FAWM), 50 songs in 90 days), script writing (Script Frenzy) and novel writing (National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenges that I do. I think about how people react when I tell them I’m participating in this or that challenge. Usually the reaction is negative.

“Fifty songs in ninety days? What’s the point of that? Isn’t it better to hone one song than rush to write a bunch of tunes? What publisher would be interested in that?”

My reply is… when participating in challenges I’m not writing for the commercial market, per se. Some of the things I write during FAWM and 50-90 do end up getting signed. But I write, to write. To push myself. To look for ideas and get them down on the page, recorded in a worktape. I am exercising my muse. To keep it toned, in shape, ready to work.

“Write an album’s worth of songs in one month? Fourteen songs in 28 days? I’m lucky if I write one song in six months.”

My reply is… perhaps if you did a challenge like this you might find yourself writing more than that. If you wait for inspiration, if you wait to be in the mood, if you wait for an idea… you could be waiting a long time. What if you just down and write?

Okay, so maybe one of the issues is looking for ideas. Hello, let me introduce you to Google. Google is the songwriter’s friend. No ideas? Follow this process:

Open up your web browser and go to

Type in something about no ideas. How about “nothing”. So I type in ‘nothing’ and I get 543 million results. There’s a few million ideas, huh? On the first page is a blog about nothing, a website about workers who believe in nothing, Wikipedia’s page on nothing, some videos, ‘the natural history of zero’, and several other things I could follow. Let’s pick one. Hmmm… workers who believe in nothing. They have nothing to do and do nothing all day. They are good for nothing. My brain starts playing with ideas. I could now go and write a quirky song about nothing.

I tell my students I think it’s more important for them to practice than to practice well. I mean, if they are able to incorporate everything we’ve talked about in a lesson, that’s great. But if not, that’s okay. Do it anyway. Because then they are keeping their commitment to themselves, and this is the most vital element of creative growth.

This is why Julia Cameron recommends writing ‘morning pages’ in “The Artist’s Way” (three pages, first thing after you get up, of stream of consciousness writing, no stopping, no editing). It’s why visual artists go to life drawing classes where they are given 2 minutes, 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes to complete a drawing. Try drawing something in 2 minutes. Nothing frees you faster from the details. But it’s interesting how whatever you drew in that little amount of time actually works.

If I wanted to run a four minute mile but I only ran a mile once every six months, I could do myself an injury. I need to train my body and my mind in order to achieve that goal. I need to run 3 or 4 times a week at least. I might even get a coach, make sure I have the right shoes, lift weights to tone, swim to increase lung capacity and avoid stress to my legs & ankles. I should learn how to warm up and cool down.

Doesn’t it follow, then, as a creative person, that you need to practice creativity? I consider it my job to write a lot of crap on the road to writing things that make sense. I consider it my job to play at music, play with words, play with sounds. I play myself into writing a blog, into writing a track, into making words sing. My shelves are piled with notebooks filed with scribbles and journaling and morning pages. I have files full of ideas written on scraps of paper, napkins, receipts, even bus tickets. My hard drive is littered with tracks I sketched out with whatever was around. Bits of orchestral, bits of electronica, worktapes of songs, drum beats, improvisations with piano, with voice, with sounds. These are all signs an artist lives here. Disorganized, committed, successful, and, most importantly, playful.

So there you have it. Absolutely no idea what to write about, 937 words later. Go play.

a spirit of wonder

As I speak to my students with the voice that has blossomed in me, I speak from the spirit that was healed through song. I see with the eyes of experience. I hear with ears that have heard many voices sing over the past dozen years. And with ears that had to be taught to catch the soft spoken voice within.

For many years I lived my life from the outside in. In many ways I was asleep. I went with the flow of those around me, sure they knew better than me. I needed their approval, without it I felt worthless… so my days were filled with crises, my nights were spent angrily counting up the wrongs done me the day before, imagining what I should of said, and anticipating the problems that would occur the next day. Guilt, worry, frustration and anger were my friends.

If we were to travel back in time to those days, and you asked me what I truly wanted… I don’t think I would have a real answer. I longed for a loving relationship but I pushed people away. I worked hard at my job, was considered to be responsible and efficient and organized… but my personal life was full of broken relationships. I tried many things, signed up for classes and lessons or other activities, but didn’t stay committed to anything. Except theatre. And, eventually, music.

I was hard on the people around me, and even harder on myself. Not that there weren’t some happy things, of course there were. Life is multi-coloured and full of variety. But often, when something good happened, I waited for the axe to fall, sure I’d have to ‘pay’ for anything positive.

But I think back to my childhood, before all the angst. I remember, at 8 years old, being so struck with the beauty of the sky that I cried. I remember looking out my bedroom window at night, amazed at the light of faraway suns that I saw as stars and feeling small in the vastness of the universe. I remember feeling confused by what people said and how it differed from what they did. I remember feeling unsafe and unsure around the meanness that other kids seemed to delight in. And I remember becoming the target of their derision. Perhaps because I was so gentle inside, so frightened of life, so big-eyed in wonder… I was the perfect victim for their ‘Lord of the Flies’ type energies.

So I closed down, over time. I tried to be small in my own way. I built armor around myself. I developed an eating disorder. I longed to be invisible. I read as many books as I could get my hands on to escape from the world. Hundreds of books. Sometimes I’d read a book a day. At 13, I was given a reading comprehension test. I read at the level of a first year university student, 6 years my senior. I was highly intelligent, probably bored in school, socially inept, but more than that, a social outcast. I read historical novels and Harlequin romances, and was often off in my own dreams of knights and warriors and winners. I longed to be strong like Ivanhoe, King Arthur, Merlin, Frodo, Eowyn.

How I would have survived without music, I don’t know. I sang in the school choir and the director was like a second Dad to me. After surviving another day at school I’d come home, go up to my room, and play my guitar. I wrote songs. I sang. I poured my heart out in the words and the music… the only way I felt safe to express what was inside.

After I left school it took me a long long time to dig through the baggage of those years and decide what to keep and what to lose. I’m still in the process in some ways. The spirit of the young girl moved by the beauty of the blueness above is still within me. I try to express that spirit in the words and the melodies I write and produce. I try to open my heart to my students and inspire them to explore their own capacities with wonder, knowing they are always much more capable than they think they are. Just like I was, just like I am, just like you are.

Giving up the day job, yeah!(?)

One of my followers asked me recently if I have any wisdom to pass along about giving up full-time work as a ‘wage slave’ so they would have more time to pursue their passion. A rosy future writing music for a living is the dream, huh?

Simplify your life.
We live in a climate of instant gratification and lustful consumerism. We have too much stuff. We need to downsize, organize, clear out, sort. Find simple (and cheap) ways to entertain, to play. Get rid of the junk, tidy the closets, set-up your office/studio. A great resource for this is David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”. Also look at where you live, how much you are paying in rent/mortgage, and assess whether you could live more simply and cheaply elsewhere.

Get serious about your finances.
-pay off your debts: One of the biggest mistakes I made in my journey from full-time to part-time to fully self-employed was… I didn’t pay off my debts first. Don’t even think of resigning your job until you’ve paid off (and cut up) all your credit cards, paid back any family members, sorted out that bank loan, etc. If you have more than one credit card, save the one with the lowest interest rate, only use it for travel or business expenses, and pay it off monthly.

-set up and maintain a monthly budget: you need to set yourself up to win. That means getting control of your spending, paying off debts, and saving for business trips, music conferences, new instruments, repairs, vacations, etc. As a self-employed person you are not going to be getting a bi-weekly paycheque. If you don’t know how to manage your cash flow effectively, you’re going to run into trouble, fast.

-don’t forget insurance. You’ll need home insurance, business insurance (if folks are coming to your studio), can you access some sort of health insurance. You might also think of life insurance and/or crisis insurance. Who will pay your bills if you get ill and can’t work for any length of time? You get no sick pay or holiday pay as a self-employed person.

-save. Include savings as part of your budget, not just for yearly expenses like vacation or attending a music conference, but, they say, we all need to have a minimum of 3 months wages in the bank to support us should something go wrong. Put this in a separate account that you don’t touch.

-think about what you need to support your business. Business cards? Computer? Recording equipment? External back-up? Get yourself set-up with the basics before you lose the paycheque. Remember to keep it simple, though.

Plan your transition.
Unless you have another sources of income that can sustain you, my best suggestion is to move slowly from full-time to half-time to part-time to occasional contract work. I went from 40 hours to 20 hours, then dropped to about 12 hours a week, over the course of 6 years. The part-time jobs paid my rent while I grew my studio.

Get educated.
You’ll be running a business. It’s not a corporation, but you will need to keep your books, file your taxes, market yourself effectively. Write yourself up a business plan with goals, read the books, attend the classes – whatever you need to do to get yourself ready to manage your studio.

Flex your marketing gene.
Sign up for the newsletters put out by folks like Ariel Hyatt & Bob Baker. Figure out who you are, what your niche market is, how you are going to attract clients.

Grow your network.
This is part of marketing, I suppose, but for me it’s more about community, about having a ‘tribe’. I enjoy meeting and connecting with other creative people on the same path. We share intel, we commiserate about things that don’t go well, and celebrate each other’s successes.

Get real.
Don’t assume that not working a ‘day job’ is going to be easy. You are going to have to be chief cook and bottlewasher. You are going to have to organize your own schedule, manage your own time, plan your financial life around intermittent income, buy the groceries, cook the food, clean the place, get the business cards, answer the emails. You will be head composer and CEO of housekeeping and general dogsbody. You will have days with little do followed by til-three-in-the-morning franticness.

You will go from working 40 hours a week with a steady paycheque for someone else, to working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for an income that ebbs & flows, and for the most disorganized, irritating but talented boss you’ve ever had: you.

Going beyond the safety barrier

Positivity. Do you get 'more' if you are ‘up’ and 'less' if you are 'down'? Dunno. I think so. I think when we are down, when we are negative, we send out vibes that are closed, dark, dreary. Yet, at the same time, I think it’s natural that there is an ebb and flow of light and dark in our lives. It’s all about balance, I think. Finding things to be grateful for. Feeling that we have a purpose in what we do or who we are. At least that’s how I feel as an artist/teacher/composer/human.

If what I do or say or share is the catalyst for someone else’s hope or inspiration, then my purpose is fulfilled in that moment. If I can witness to the process of someone else’s journey, then my purpose is fulfilled in that moment. As I watch my students struggle with their doubts and programming, I see myself reflected in them. And that has been one of the greatest foundations to my healing from shyness. As I began to work with my first students, I began to see that I was not alone. That I was not an alien. That a great many people struggle with self-esteem and stage fright. That many people have had their voices silenced in profound ways.

One gentleman, when 7 or 8, was singing with his class in school. In front of everyone, the teacher told him that he couldn’t sing and he should just mouth the words. Shamed in front of his peers, snickered at, sitting on the sidelines while everyone else participated in music… he grew up to be someone who could not even sing happy birthday in a group of friends, or sing a hymn at church. And he is not alone. At seven years old, when the brain is still developing and vocal chords are not fully developed, some of my students were told they should not and could not sing.

Others experience silencing without direct application to singing. Perhaps they were consistently criticized at home. They were told that they were flawed. They were told, if they couldn’t be perfect at something, they should not attempt it. They were not allowed to start and grow through a process of learning. Adult competency was expected of inaccurate, growing, innocent children.

I don’t know where this harsh view of others came from, really. But we integrate all these messages and repeat them to ourselves on a daily basis. Who am I kidding, I can’t learn to do this, I am too old, etc etc. Dr Wayne Dyer [ ] has a new book out, called ‘Excuses Begone’ where he talks about this issue. Julia Cameron, in “The Artist’s Way” talks about identifying the ‘blurts’ we tell ourselves, and turning them around.

All I know is… if you stick to it, if you are willing to keep going even when everything in you screams that you are useless, it’s hopeless, you’re too old, etc etc etc… then you will come out the other side. You will rise above your programming. You will become the architect of your own life. You will learn to sing on key. You will write that book, that album, take that trip.

It will only be one step on a journey of thousands of steps. But every step forward you take, shines a light for others. Gives hope to those struggling with the same things. Your positive forward motion creates a path for others to follow. Even if you never know you’ve been one of the catalysts for their evolution. And perhaps that is your purpose. To grow beyond what is safe and what is known. To challenge and explore your own ‘final frontier’. And find there is more in you and of you than you ever dreamed could be possible.

Dealing with rejection

I have a very good songwriting friend from the States. Whenever he’s angry because one of his tracks was turned down… I sympathize with him. Of course. As he sympathizes with me. We all know how it feels. But sometimes I’ll remind him that, in the grand scheme of things, having a track rejected isn’t the end of the world. I’ll remind him of his wife and kids, of what he has that’s good, the things that really matter.

Not that our creations aren’t important. But one rejection really doesn’t add up to a tragedy. It’s one blimp on the road to getting better, or submitting more effectively, or understanding what it is that we are pitching ('that sounds more country than rock'). It’s one more hearing from someone with a discerning ear who felt it wasn’t a fit in some way.

Hard to take, but part of the reality of life. We send out resumes, we never get a call. We go for an interview, they don’t call us back. We audition the very best we can, we don’t get the part. We enter our visual art in a juried show and we don’t make it. We send our query letters to magazines and get rejection letters. We submit our book proposals and manuscripts, and wait for the letter that says we’ve been turned down.

No one said it would be easy to be an artist, eh? The key is, I think, to separate your ‘product’ from yourself. If your work needs work, then it needs work. That doesn’t take any value away from the Self. It just means your art is, at present, or in this instance, not what was required. Perhaps another gatekeeper will feel a different way. Perhaps you need to target a different market. Perhaps you have something you need to learn.

The problem comes when we take all those rejections and put them in a pile. We keep building up our resentment, we keep fanning the flames of our anger. We feel hard done by. We get bitter. Our reaction to one rejection is then accompanied by all the baggage. Our negative attitude shuts us down, or shuts us out. We stop being willing to listen or to admit that we might need to move on from where we are. Not that it isn’t hard, when we have years of experience, to feel that our work isn’t being given the recognition we would wish.

Really, we are all on a journey. Not one of us, even if we have gold records or published books or signed deals or pictures that have sold – not one of us has “arrived”. We are simply one step further down the path of artistry and human development. Our art reflects our current stage of evolution. In that respect, it has to be done for art’s sake first.

I don’t write to make money. I write to express. I write to illustrate a story with sound or with words, or both. I write to communicate something within me to others, hoping they might understand my language. Even when I am specifically writing for a particular opportunity that has guidelines and ‘something that sounds like blank’ – I’m always interpreting that as Vikki Flawith. I submit what I have created, and, in a way, it’s saying, to whoever listens to it, ‘here’s where I am right now’.

I’m trusting that if I listen to what I’m being told, if I’m willing to learn, if I acquire new skills, if I am constantly practicing, then every piece of music I create is founded upon the past experiences I have built to support it. Every performance I sing has a foundation in past practice, rehearsal and lessons. Therefore, the track I create today should be superior to the track I created 6 months ago. If it isn’t, I haven’t been moving forward.

If we work, day by day, with deliberation, then success is knowing that we are better today than we were yesterday. If we continue to work in this way, I believe that recognition, and money, will come to us.

Perhaps not the way we have envisioned though. Perhaps we won’t have a hit song recorded by a major artist. But perhaps we will have credits on local artists’ CDs. Perhaps we won’t have a song in a major movie, but we will have underscore in an indie film. There are a myriad of ways the universe can lead us if we are willing to be open.

I never expected, it never occurred to me, I never even dreamed that I would one day be teaching shy singers how to find their voice, and I certainly never dreamed that I would be composing music for film/tv, or gigging regularly at local restaurants. Or writing & producing my own CD. I just followed the path… wanting to be in the music… and here I am, doing my thing. So, yeah, I get tracks turned down. I get songs rejected. I audition and don’t make the cut. But it is all grist for the mill.

“The essence of life is finding something you really love and then making the daily experience worthwhile.” - Denis Waitley

Life isn't 'over there' or 'after this'

"Don't ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." - Howard Washington Thurman

For some reason this reminds me of an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation. The Enterprise finds an alien and gives them assistance because the alien’s ship is in trouble. They begin a relationship with this new friend. Then a battle ship shows up, demanding the return of the alien. Apparently there’s a huge taboo being broken. The society has made it a rule that no member can search for or attain a new level of being. But the Enterprise gives the alien sanctuary, and watches as the alien evolves from physical being into a beautiful shimmering light. Not dangerous, not blasphemous, but a natural function of growth and emancipation. All the energy that society put into fighting against this change had been wasted.

And so, it seems, it is with us. I wonder what it is within me that resists the light, resists the aliveness that comes from doing the thing that makes me feel that I vibrate with life. What is the weight inside that pulls me down, feeds me negative thoughts, distracts me from my purpose, encourages procrastination. It feels dark. It feels dark and heavy and despondent. It feels nagging and contrary. It feels trapped, airless, devoid of movement.

I think it’s there for me to struggle against. I think it’s there for me to recognize. I think it’s there for me to look at and resist so that I grow into the light.

The strange thing is, when you do the thing that makes you feel alive, that darkness is held at bay. When you are actively engaged in playing an instrument, singing a song, painting a picture, writing your novel, composing music, devising a recipe, reorganizing your house, decorating your living room, planting your garden, penning a poem, learning your lines, filming your short, taking photographs, designing a house…. you are in the light.

My students feel this. It takes time to understand. It takes time to really get it. But when everything is working right, when one is singing freely, easily, on pitch and totally present with the voice… it feels light and easy. It feels like nothing. But it’s everything. It’s you, in the moment, alive and vibrating with your own beautiful sound. It’s stunning.

We need these moments in our lives, daily if we can. Because we are not meant to live in the dark. Because we need to do the things that make us feel life is worthwhile. And the consciousness that is willing to do the work to find this place is the catalyst for change, both within and without.

Life isn't 'over there' or 'after this' or 'when I get that'. It's shimmering in the moment as we do the thing that makes us feel beautifully alive.

[Recommended reading: “The New Earth” by Eckhart Tolle]

Re-programming your Self

I love getting feedback on my blog. I admit it. I like hearing from people of all ages and all walks of life. My readers and I tend to have the same aspiration: to be more creative, or to be more inspired, and accomplish something we dream of. Many of my readers also resonate with the idea of being a ‘shy singer’ or a ‘shy person’. I’ve had a couple of people write to me and say that they know what it’s like to be shy… but, they add, ‘you can get over that.’

Yes. You can. I am an example of how you can. But, I also want to say that many of us are so deeply programmed as ‘shy’ that we feel like social misfits who have no place in the world. I was so introverted that I simply wanted to be invisible. I had no social skills and felt so incredibly stupid when having to make small talk in the coffee room at work or if I met someone I knew on the street. I felt I was inherently flawed and that everything I did was simply not good enough and never would be. I felt that I had nothing to offer the world and was taking up valuable space.

It was only when I began to walk the path towards a dream that I’d had since I was 5 or 6 years old… that things began to change. That change was slow and gradual. It happened over time, as I practiced an art form. That, to me, is the secret of re-writing your own program. The answer to ‘how do I change’, is to take action.

Small actions. Baby steps.Repeatedly. Consistently. I practiced twice a day five days a week for 8 years, and every time I practiced I was growing my awareness of how I thought and how I related to my own voice. This perspective was vital to my self-emancipation. As I began to hear what I said to myself about my singing, I also began to hear how what I said to myself about my Self. And I was shocked. At one point I was journaling daily, and tended to write about 10 pages a day. I filled 3 of those big 300-page notebooks in less than a month. At the end of that month, when I looked through everything I’d written, I was stunned to realize just how negative my thoughts were, all the time. I was either worried or guilty or frustrated or entangled in some sort of procrastination. No wonder I couldn’t free my voice when all my thoughts were so anxious.

That awakening helped me to move forward a little more. Each step along the way, when change occurred, I could look back and see that it had been with me for awhile, tapping me on the shoulder, waiting patiently for me to open to it. By the time I embraced it, it felt like a natural step in the right direction.

There is a little story that I like to tell my students. I read it in a newspaper once, and I think it’s very true to our process.

There is a stone cutter, making a tool. He has his hammer rock, and the stone he is working on. On his one thousandth blow, the stone splits to a perfect edge. And he knows that that one blow didn’t do it. It was all the blows that went before.

we should let go of 'shoulds'

I am very passionate about the things I want to do with the time that I have. Yet at the same time I find myself caught up with the old habits of collecting junk and procrastinating. I think even my preoccupation with trying to organize my house and trying to get myself to complete tasks before they are overdue… is a way of distracting myself from the ‘real’ things that need to get done.

I’ll fiddle all day with something mundane, and then suddenly, at the time when everyone else would be sitting down to read or watch TV… I’m scurrying around, in a fit of doing. I don’t know why I think there has to be a time table anyway. Who cares if you clean your bedroom at 10 am or 10 pm? What’s the diff? See how I get myself tangled in the shoulds? I should clean my bedroom when it’s light out, apparently. When it’s dark out, I’m supposed be done with that stuff. But that’s just nuts. I mean, you don’t want to be vacuuming at 10 pm in case it disturbs the neighbours, but who cares if you are sorting clothes or going through a box of junk at midnight instead of during the day when it ‘should’ be done?

I don’t know where I integrated these arbitrary and perplexing ‘rules’ from, but I think it’s time I threw them out with the rest of the junk. If I want to spend the afternoon writing a piece of music (which is what I did today), what’s wrong with that? I did the dishes while dinner was cooking, and cleaned up the bedroom and organized myself for the week after dinner. Now I’m writing my blog, and then I’ll go to bed. It got done, then. Didn’t it?

Funny little rules. I became aware a little while ago that I still seem to have a set way I think things should be, or how they should be done. Years ago I was very judgmental and controlling, and I thought I’d moved away from all that. But every so often, when I look at my response to something, I start to wonder why it matters if it’s this or if it’s that. Or why it matters at all, really.

As creative people, it is hard to be detached from the performance or product of our work, that’s for sure. I try to listen to different genres of music and see movies or TV shows that I wouldn’t normally watch. I try to open my mind and explore the possibility that another point of view is just as valid as mine (and vice versa). Creativity requires letting go of expectation and product, and going with the flow to see where it takes you. Perhaps it also means sometimes eating breakfast for dinner, doing morning routines at night, having powernaps, and exploring new mediums.

I went to a meeting of my painter's group recently where my sister showed us how to use pastels. I drew trees in green and brown on textured paper and reminded myself how much I enjoy the act of creating visual art – no matter what it looks like in the end. I found myself inspired by the simple act of trying something new.

"To find out who you really are, go somewhere you've never been, with people you've never met and do things you've never done. You'll discover things about yourself you never knew existed." - Brian Austin Whitney, Just Plain Folks

~ when the world says 'no' - again

“Success seems to be largely a matter of hanging on after others have let go.” ~William Feather

It's human nature to complain. Rejection is a given in most creative modalities. Auditions, query letters, peer review, grant applications, book proposals, music submissions - chances are we are going to get rejected on a regular basis. That's a fact. The question is, how are we going to deal with it?

It isn’t easy. I can’t say I don’t get upset when I receive the email or the letter that says, ‘no thanks.’ In fact, I can honestly say that when I first started submitting music to various opportunities, I was absolutely furious every time I got a rejection. I would swear a little, and throw the results into a drawer somewhere, slamming it shut and stomping away.

‘What the hell are those people thinking? Can’t they hear the potential in my work? What’s wrong with their ears? What do they mean my melodies are too meandering and my lyrics are too poetic? Can’t they feel the emotion I’m expressing here? Idiots!!!’

After two or three days, I’d be thinking about what they said, and I’d go back to the drawer and read it again. I’d try to see what they were talking about, I’d try to understand. And I’d often say, ‘oh. I can fix that.’ I’d be inspired to try to change the lyrics or tighten up the melody or shorten the song.

That, in my opinion, is the secret to my success. I’ve been willing to listen. I’ve been willing to at least consider feedback. I’ve tried – after calming down – to open my mind to the possibility that I need to learn more about the craft of songwriting. And really that would apply to any creative thing we do. Singing, painting, writing, composing, acting, etc. Our work will, in many cases, be rejected on a consistent basis. Sometimes because it’s not a fit, not what they were looking for. And sometimes, because, in the opinion of the ‘gatekeeper’, it didn’t reflect the required level of skill.

I’ve been to many an audition where I didn’t get the part, and I’ve had starring roles. I’ve had query letters rejected by magazines, and I’ve been published. I’ve submitted my art to juries and been turned down, and I’ve had my work in shows. I’ve submitted countless songs and instrumentals to opportunities in the music industry and been returned, rejected… and I’ve signed tracks with music publishers and music libraries.

I’ve been knocked over more times than you can count, but I refuse to give up. If I need to learn more about my art form, if I need to focus on craft, if I need to take lessons, if I need to rethink my approach – whatever I have to do to get to the next level, I am willing to listen and learn from each experience, positive or negative.

I know my skill level as a composer is growing because the percentage of rejections has dropped to roughly half. I may not change a track because it was rejected, but I am willing to take that knowledge into the next composition. I may not agree the lyrics are too poetic, but maybe I need to rethink the genre – poetic lyrics might work better for rock or electronica than country.

I still am not happy when my work is turned down, but I am more able to deal with it as part of the reality of being an artist. The key is to separate that rejection from my worth as a creative human being. I am not my job, I am not my work.

As creative artists we have to believe in ourselves, yet be willing to learn; we need to forge new paths, but be willing bring craft along for the ride. And sometimes, it just takes determination and perseverance in the face of continued rejection. Many best-selling books were turned down several times before being published. Many famous actors lost out on parts before they got that signature role. Many singers are told they don’t have what it takes and then go out and prove the ‘experts’ wrong.

To be an artist who is growing and evolving, I think we need equal amounts of humility, innovation, craft, willingness and stick-to-it-ness.

Last word: I remember a talented friend of mine auditioning for a part in a play being put on by the Vancouver Playhouse. He was an Equity member (meaning, a professional), he read for the part, they loved him. But they didn't cast him... because the costume they had was for someone much taller.

That's life.

tearing down walls

In my work with ‘shy singers’ it seems to me that we often come to a place where the barrier between the person and the voice is ‘visible’. We start talking about it. It’s like, this medieval-thick wall, three or four feet deep, that stands between the singer and the singing. I know this wall very well. It took me about six or seven years of voice training to be able to see it. It was the slow growth of my conscious awareness (and a wonderfully intuitive teacher) that gave me the eyes to comprehend the limitations I had integrated. Those limitations were like big bricks in the wall that kept me prisoner for so long.

We can discuss why that wall is there, I’m not sure if that’s a necessary thing, but it’s good to think about it and ponder it. It seems to me it is a conglomeration of experience, precedence, programming, self-identity, and self-preservation. At some point, for some reason, we needed to protect ourselves. At some point, we felt that we were in danger. And so we added a brick to the wall. Each experience assisted us in building the wall stronger.

On our creative journey, the closer we get to breaking through that wall, the stronger that thing fights us for its existence. It’s typically at this point where we start thinking about stopping. We’ve likely been struggling with keeping a commitment to practicing our artform… now, with the wall in our face, we feel like giving up entirely.

The voice in our head is very active. “Who am I kidding anyway? Why does it have to be so hard? I understand intellectually what is required, but it feels like the body is not cooperating. Everything I do is terrible. Perhaps I’m just not cut out to be a singer (actor, writer, painter, composer, etc).”

What I’ve learned, from my own process, and from sharing in the journey of my students, is that this is a major turning point. This is the time when the choice is made to go forward, and change… or stay as we are. It’s a tough moment. Often we feel grief or tremendous reluctance. It’s always hard for me as a teacher when I see someone face this wall… and decide to turn away. But I know I have to accept that they aren’t ready. Whatever they are feeling and thinking becomes a ‘stop’ sign. And I have to yield to their choice.

Yet, I have experienced, time and time again, what happens when we make the choice to keep going. It’s scary because we are going to walk a new path. We are going to go someplace we have never been. But it’s also a slow, easy path, made for walking, made for enjoying the scenery. If we trust the process, if we have faith that our creativity and passion for music (or whatever art form we are pursuing) means something, we will make progress. And, in time, when we look back, we realize that… the voice we found was really just around the corner from that ‘stop’ sign. We realize… if we had given up, we never would have discovered it. Our willingness to explore the possibilities was a catalyst for changing our programming.

I picture this emancipation like this… I am walking in a forest of dead trees. There is no light where I am, but I can see it ahead of me. It’s only a few feet away. All I have to do is keep walking. But the ego, the thing inside of me that feeds on negativity, the thing inside of me that has a vested interest in me staying where I am, it manifests as little monsters that hang on my legs as I try to move forward. They shout all the typical blurts I tell myself (‘who are you kidding, you are too old, nobody cares, what’s the difference, it’s too hard, you aren’t good enough’). I struggle to keep going. Finally I reach the light and it shines brightly on me. The little monsters fall away with mouths wide open in surprise. I walk into the light and I am in a fragrant meadow. It is warm and welcoming. I wonder why I resisted coming here.

Do what you do do want?

Most of my life I didn’t really make decisions. Well, I suppose I did decide that I couldn’t decide. I didn’t think I had the knowledge to make the choice, or I didn’t trust my own thoughts or feelings. I didn’t want to upset anyone. I didn’t want to be different or strange. So I tried to figure out what everyone else was doing and then I’d do it. Or say it. If I offered an opinion and someone disagreed I’d quickly backtrack or find some way to end up agreeing with them.

I thought everyone else knew better. And perhaps they did – for themselves. Asking someone else what I should do, when they didn’t know me like I know me, when their tastes or interests were different than mine… when I think of it, that is pretty silly.

I can’t remember when I started to ignore my own thoughts or feelings in preference to others. Probably early on, in school. Desperate to fit in, but never fitting in, I spent my days in a sea of anxiety, afraid someone would talk to me and equally afraid no one would talk to me. When they did talk to me I shrank inside, sure I would say the wrong thing, make a bad joke, say something stupid, be totally boring. All I could hear during any social encounter was the voice in my own head yelling, ‘you are boring you are boring you will say something stupid you are boring.’ And naturally, because I only agreed with them, hardly said a word, and was practically inaudible when I did speak… I was boring, I suppose. I wanted to be included, but at the same time I wanted to be invisible because I knew I wasn’t good enough to belong.

Inside I seethed with creativity. I loved to read books, I painted, I drew, I wrote songs and poems, I played the trumpet and the piccolo, I taught myself to play the guitar, I choreographed dances with my little sister that we did around the pool table in the basement, I sang with my school choir, I discussed the value of education with the vice-principal… see how boring I was?

I feel like it’s taken a life time to find my way back to that creative youthful spirit. The first step on that journey was the first time I really asked myself “what do I, Vikki, want?” And the next step on that journey was the first time I really listened for the answer, from within me.

I was speaking to Debra Russell of Artist’s Edge yesterday [ ], and she asked a very interesting question. We were talking about the voice in your head and how it repeats, like a feedback loop, all the negative thoughts and judgments we have about ourselves. Yet, at the same time, we ask ourselves to listen to our inner voice when we are making choices.

So Debra asked me, how do we know the difference between the ‘good’ voice and the ‘bad’ voice? I think that’s a wonderful thing to muse about. Sometimes it takes me awhile to figure it out. Sometimes I have to write in my journal, or go for long walks, or make pro and con lists. Usually I need to find a place of serenity, a quiet place, where I can ask myself what I think. Sometimes I ask the question before I go to sleep and wake up with an answer.

It seems to me that the voice in my head tends to be negative… have a dark energy, it comes from programming or old patterns. It really feels as though it is ‘in my head’. But the other voice, my inner voice, seems ‘lighter’ and ‘brighter’, and it seems to come from my heart.

Making choices is tough. And while I think it’s great to have a vision, and set goals, and work towards them… at the same time I’m aware that we need to… go with the flow. Not every decision needs to be made ‘for life.’ I think that it’s okay if we take the time to explore options, to try new things, to check things out, to experiment with the options.

It’s like when I’m painting. I have a vision in my head of what I want to do… but if I try to force the painting to be what I want it to be… I get blocked, it doesn’t work, I get frustrated. But if I allow the vision in my head to morph, if I ‘follow the brush’… I end up somewhere I didn’t expect. My best work is done when I am just allowing.

Yet I still made the decision it was time to paint. I still did the work of getting out the paints, the brushes, and the canvas. I still sensibly set my easel up in the light. But then, I surrendered to the muse.

Tending your dream

Easter weekend included a visit with my sisters, K and S, for lunch. Figured it would be the usual kind of visit, where we chat a little bit about what we’re doing, laugh a little about the past, talk a little about what’s coming up. An ordinary long weekend lunch.

I’d planned on asking K for advice or ideas about how to write a book proposal. Before I could even get to that topic, she informed us that she’d had a book proposal accepted by a publisher and was now supposed to be writing the book. After many congratulations, she confessed she was having some difficulty keeping to a regular writing schedule, and she was concerned she was getting behind with the project.

I talked about how I’d set myself up a writing schedule a couple of weeks ago but, when that appointment-with-myself time came up, there was always something else – a trip to the dentist, laundry, groceries, etc.

It’s so much easier to talk about our dreams and goals, than to do the actual work of achieving them. I think that’s a pretty normal state of affairs. But the problem with it is that one day we’ll wake up and be a year older, and realize we didn’t do much, and have little to show for the time. Perhaps the publishing deal disappears, or perhaps our goal of writing and pitching a book went on to the back burner and stayed there. Perhaps we never took the art classes, or called the guitar teacher, or saved the money for the trip to Italy.

The only resolution I can see for this is to set goals, and work towards them in bite-sized chunks.

Yet the other issue is overwhelm. There are so many things we have to do, it seems. There are so many calls on our time. We feel stretched thin, tired, scattered, even anxious about all we have to do. When we are in this frame of mind, adding more stuff to do just feels oppressive. We know we can’t possibly do it all. It feels impossible. We may give in to hopelessness and crash in front of the tv instead.

That’s a real problem. It’s not just managing time, it’s managing the complex tasks and responsibilities we shoulder while still getting some quality of life. And it’s managing the day to day unexpected happenings that require energy and attention as well.

Enter the to-do lists and schedules, lol. I’m looking up to the left of my computer screen, where I have my to-do lists, separated into projects, pinned to a bulletin board. Right beside my keyboard on the left is my monthly schedule. I make it up in Word. I update it weekly, and I’ve got sessions, rehearsals and gigs set up on it for about the next 6 weeks. I estimate I probably spend about 2 to 3 hours a week just scheduling everything. Like planning my budget, it’s become a necessary part of managing my life.

Sometimes, when I look at the 6 or 8 weeks I have blocked out with all the things on it… I feel the weight of all that ‘to-doing’.

In March I made a list of all the things that I typically have to do on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, and figured out when I would do them. I tried to budget my time the way I budget my money.

I had decided at the beginning of the year that I would no longer work Saturdays in the studio. I’d worked 6 days a week most of last year, and only having one day off didn’t make me happy. As much as I love what I do, the time between the last session on Saturday and the first session on Monday seemed terribly short. If I had a meeting or a family get together on the Sunday… I hit Monday morning feeling like I never got a break. My spirits rose at the thought of having two days off in a row. Yet, at the same time, I knew my budget and debt repayment plan would suffer.

I figured, that would okay – if I used that time effectively, either to get caught up on the things that always seem to be on the back burner; and/or used that time to be creative. I planned long walks & photo-taking expeditions on some Saturday mornings, perhaps alternating with a bi-weekly morning of painting.

But here we were, my sisters and I, on a weekend in April. And I had done exactly '0' paintings, and had only done one photo-taking walk since the beginning of the year.

We came up with a plan. What if we set aside Wednesday mornings and Saturday mornings to write or to paint (S holds down a full-time job and is also a painter). If K, who runs her own business, could take 2 hours off Wednesday morning to write… and add 30 minutes to the other days of the week, she’d work the same amount of hours. I’d already set aside some time on Wednesdays to write, but other things had intruded.

In addition, we decided we would report to each other. So every Wednesday and every Saturday, we would send an email to our sisters, saying what we’d accomplished that morning.

I left K’s feeling inspired. The lunch with my sisters helped me to refine my approach. Simply put, I reorganized my organization.

The important thing now is to keep those appointments with myself. No dilly dallying, wasting time fiddling with other things. My appointment with myself has to be just as important as an appointment with a student or client.

So far, S finished one painting and started another; K did some research; and I wrote my blogs and worked on the draft of my book proposal.

It does seem like the height of rigidity to set aside time to be creative. But if I don’t get that time, I don’t feel lifted. If I don’t face the blank page and challenge myself to think of some words to put on it… I won’t accomplish anything at all.

talent doesn't just belong to the young

A few days after I posted my "what makes you think you can sing" blog, in which I pointed out that we are all made to sing, the world was getting excited about this:

keeping the commitment to change

In my blog of Monday March 16th, [ ] I talked about some personal issues I was aware of, but had not been able to change as I would like. As it's been a month, here is my report.

DISHES: Seems like such a silly thing, but when you work well into the evening, as I do, the logical result was consistently leaving kitchen clean-up til the morning. So I'd get up every morning, put the kettle on, and then have to do the dishes. But I would often feel a huge amount of reluctance to do them. Sometimes I'd give in to that reluctance, and the dishes would pile up all day while I felt bad for not doing them. I realized it was one of the ways my ego used to beat me up. So I came up with simple solution: do the dishes before you go to bed. I've kept to it pretty well. The once or twice when I've left them for the next day, I've regretted it; if I feel any reluctance to do them at night, I remind myself that I won't feel good in the morning if they aren't done. So now I take great delight in waking up to a clean kitchen, not only because it's clean, but because I've kept a commitment to myself.

SLEEP: This past weekend I was finally able to get to grips with this resolve, and make myself go to bed at a reasonable time. I had two great nights of sleep and felt all the better for it - more energetic, and more creative! Duh, huh?

ORGANIZING: This is where I have fallen down. This weekend I must do my books so I can do my taxes. I did call the junk removal firm and got a quote for how much it would cost to haul away some stuff I don't need and isn't in a condition to be given away. I started organizing some paperwork, but didn't complete the job yet.

what makes you think you can sing?

Talent – “A marked innate ability, as for artistic accomplishment.”

Really? And how does one know if one has ‘innate’ ability? Are we born being able to read? Are we born being able to write? If no one spoke a word to us, would we ever learn to talk? I don’t think so. Obviously most of us have the ability to learn to read, write and speak. So why do we tell ourselves that singers have to be ‘born with it’ as though it’s a skill that can’t be learned? It’s an easy way to avoid the artist process, that’s why.

Our society is so interesting. We follow actors on twitter, and flock to the movie theatres, we listen to radio, download stuff to our ipods, read blogs, catch every episode of Lost… enjoy watching the Grammy’s and the Oscars… we are great consumers of art. Yet most of us see the act of doing or producing art to be very much beyond us. Especially when it comes to singing.

I’ve had this discussion many times and the next thing that usually comes up is the example of dreadful singers on American Idol auditions. Yes, there are some that definitely sing as badly as possible to get on television. But there are others who clearly believe that they have a voice; they are stunned and often devastated to be told they are horrible singers who can’t carry a tune. What about those people? They can’t sing, can they?

Let’s put together these circumstances. You got up at 3 am to get down to the area to get in line. You’ve been out in the open air for hours. You are running low on sleep. You’ve been eating fast food and drinking pop. You’ve been talking to everyone in line around you. You’ve been screaming for the camera when it comes by. Then you get into the arena. There’s a lot of noise. You have to speak up to be heard. You try to maintain your level of excitement but you’re flagging. You get moved to another room. Your time in front of the judges is coming. This is the most important audition of your life. You keep chatting with everyone around you and yelling for joy when someone gets a gold ticket. Finally it’s your turn. The camera is now on you. They interview you a bit. They film you going into the audition. Now you get to sing.

You’re tired. It’s been a very long day. You haven’t had enough sleep. But it’s your moment. Everything is riding on the next two minutes. You have to do well. You have to win over those four people, including the sardonic Simon Cowell. But you’re vocally exhausted from talking and yelling. You say something stupid and grimace to yourself. You announce the name of your song and you begin to sing it. Your throat is tight and dry. Simon’s eyes are on you. He doesn’t look impressed. You can barely breathe, knowing this performance might be broadcast to millions of people. But it’s your dream, to be a singer. They vote, they say no. Simon says you shouldn’t give up your day job. You leave in tears.

Is that a fair test of ability? It’s really just an endurance test. The sensible ones don’t talk at all. Maybe even get someone else to stand in for them while they go rest and warm-up in the hotel room. The sensible ones eat healthy food and stay hydrated. The sensible ones have been working on singing for at least a year or more, with a good voice teacher, and/or in a choir or other group. The sensible ones also play an instrument and perhaps even have worked on songwriting. The sensible ones get some experience performing and recording before facing the challenge of competition.

It’s very easy to have a dream. But the real truth is that people who make it in any walk of life usually have to work at it, for a very long time. Singing scales, every day. Working with a vocal coach, every week. Taking dance classes so they can stand tall and move with grace. Singing at open mics and coffee houses and birthday parties – anywhere they can get experience.

Let’s find another example. A 7-year old child, whose brain is still developing, who can barely read, is asked to sing with the rest of the class. She sings loudly off key. In this instance, the repeated act of singing in a group will eventually lead to the brain to develop the complex mathematical skill of matching pitches. But instead of allowing the experience of singing in a group, over time, to be integrated so that the child sings correctly with the rest of the class… that child is asked to stand in front of the group and made to sing alone. They are told in front of the group that they can’t sing. They are told they must sit out of the class, or that they can still be in the group but must only mouth the words. That one embarrasing experience puts an end to any musical aspirations they have. They avoid singing for the rest of their lives. Or at least until they are in their 40s and the desire to be in the music brings them to my studio. Can they be helped?

Yes, I believe that anyone who can talk can also sing. If they are willing to do the work. Even if they sing off-key to start. I know because I work with tone deaf singers and every single one of them has learned to sing on pitch. The key is process. The key is consistently thinking about and working on the art form. The key is understanding the instrument and becoming aware of the subtle ways we think about ourselves that interfere in the natural activity of singing. The innate ability to sing is within each of us. Simply put, everyone can sing because – unless there is a physiological challenge - we were made to sing.

Does that mean we each have what it takes to be a professional singer? Maybe. No one can decide that for you. Only you. Only you can get up every day and work with your instrument, use it to express something in a unique and interesting way. Only you can want to be aware of habits that inhibit you and then want to work for as long as it takes to change them. Only you can dedicate the days and weeks and months and years to the act of something that gives you joy and lights you up inside.

Personally, I believe that if you do that work, you will find a way to live your dream. It may not be as a winner of American Idol. If you are open to the process and follow your path, you could end up doing things that were so far outside the possibilities that you never even thought of them at all. Like singing a season with a professional opera company. Like becoming a voice teacher. Like learning how to write and produce music for film & television. And then writing about those experiences in a blog.