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.