Never underestimate the power of doodling

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

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

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

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

Still, I told them to practice. Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shy evolution

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

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

“Hi Vikki, how are you?”

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

“Hey Vikki, how was your weekend?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art and discipline - mutually exclusive?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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