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.