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.

~ no ideas today

I’ve been trying to write this blog for two days. Well, mostly thinking about writing this blog… but at a loss for ideas. I go through that occasionally with everything. Ideas for songs, instrumentals, blogs and paintings seem to be as far away as the moon. I find myself reading books I like or watching DVDs of movies I enjoy. It’s funny cause if you were in the room with me, I wouldn’t find any difficulty talking to you about a whole host of things. It’s been stressful week, worried about family, worried about my friends with cancer, dealing with going to the dentist, counting my pennies and coming up short.

On the good side, I had three pieces of music forwarded (that means pitched directly by a trusted intermediary) to a film composer looking for long term relationships with skilled writers. On the other side, I ended up going to the doctor because I had a weird reaction to the dental anaesthetic that has never happened before. It’s slowly fading but my gawd. I did work on some music tracks this weekend – collabs with Chuck and Geoff, but more work to do on them both to get them into some sort of shape. Maybe I’m just trying too hard. The weather is improving, and Saturday night at dinner time I went to hear some friends play music at a local café, nice long walk there and back. Today I hung out and worked on music, watched some TV, chatted with my sister, researched some ideas for my book. That’s it. Maybe that's enough. Sometimes you just gotta be.