Sometimes the best lessons are ones that don’t appear on the syllabus.

There must be something in the air.

Several times this week I’ve paused in the middle of teaching to interrupt a student’s spiral of self-deprecation and frustration.  The spiral is easy to recognize, either by the words that accompany it— “This doesn’t sound right.” … “That note is so high!” … “Why can’t I get this?” —or, once you know what to look for, by the slow-blinking, eyes-downcast head shake and shoulder slump.  It’s unmistakeable body language: “I’m not good enough.”

There’s a running joke in my field that music lessons tend to be 10% technique and 90% therapy.  And while it is a joke—I’m a vocal supporter of the mental health industry and believe everyone can benefit from working periodically with an excellent professional talk therapist—I know that among the lessons I’ve learned from my own therapist are several that I share often with my students:

  • that every artist healthy human being struggles with self-doubt,
  • that finding (and trusting) voices that recognize and appreciate our inherent worth is one of the most important (and most difficult) things we can do as artists humans, and
  • that I, in my role as an authority figure in their artistic lives, am (I hope!) one of those supportive voices.

So pianist Herbie Hancock’s anecdote about a botched chord in a gig with trumpeter Miles Davis has been on my mind a lot this week.  If you’ve hit a wrong note or two in your own life recently, maybe you’ll find this story moving too.  Click “play” on the video below to hear Hancock tell it for himself.  It’s worth the 90 seconds.

In the meantime, namasté, my friends.  The Divine in me acknowledges the Divine in you.  Can you see it too?

12829043_10154764219683747_1422757073247409189_oMy good friend Jeremy Patterson has a new YouTube interview show called the Capital Area Theatre Show.  Guess who he invited to be his second-ever interviewee?

Tune in below or on the show’s YouTube channel to hear our milkshake-fueled conversation about art and life and idols and dreams and fears and insecurities, and why we do all that we do.  (And he eventually was able to steer me back around to Pippin, which was supposed to be the point of the show to begin with….)

PIPPIN LogoIf you’ve had your life together since day one, and don’t have any idea what it’s like to wonder who you’re supposed to be or what you’re supposed to do in the world, you may want to ignore this post.

The rest of us will want to make a point of being present in the luxurious Sunoco Performance Theatre at Harrisburg’s Whitaker Center when the Capital Area School for the Arts presents Pippin, the debut musical from the creator of Wicked and Godspell.

Actually, I probably should say the rest of you will want to make a point to be there.  I already have a confirmed seat for all four performances: on the piano bench with the rest of the band.  (I’m musical director and principal keyboardist for the production.)

At this point it’s customary for me to launch into a directorial testimonial of sorts, attempting to capture the magic of live theatre with a well-crafted list of superlatives in the hope that you’ll be motivated to give up a few hours on a weekend to spend time with talented high-schoolers.  But I think they can sell themselves better than I can do the job, even in a rinky lil’ iSight video through a tiny laptop microphone.  Here’s Drew Patti as Pippin and the rest of the company singing “Morning Glow” in rehearsal the other day:

Seating is general admission, and all seats are $12, available in advance at  Will you join us?

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Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

It sounds like a Harry Potter spell, doesn’t it?  It’s not, but it can have a magical effect on the demeanor of a beginning singer.  So many of the most common challenges for singers are simply matters of acoustics: the physics of how sound bounces around (or doesn’t) on its way out of your face.  Because singing isn’t much more complicated in our conscious minds than “say ah,” it’s easy to forget that the human vocal system is basically a big fleshy oboe, with two reeds (vocal folds) buzzing against each other and the sound modified by the properties of the tube it passes through.

The levator veli palatini (henceforth, LVP) is the muscle that raises the soft palate, that squishy part at the back of the roof of your mouth.  Evolutionarily the LVP has kept us alive by preventing food and drink from going up our noses when we swallow.  (Handy, eh?)  But singers use it to create a larger resonant space for sound.  It’s the soft palate that makes the difference between a Kermit the Frog (low) and a Sam Eagle (raised).  And more importantly, because raising the soft palate actually creates more space in the “instrument,” there are notes we can’t sing (easily or pleasantly, at least) with a lowered palate, that “magically” become available to us when the palate is raised.

Yesterday at our first vocal rehearsal for Pippin, I talked the cast through a few simple vocal warm-ups designed (among other things) to get the soft palate raised.  A few of our cast are primarily dancers who’ve never had voice training, so the effect was something new to them—and the amazement and delight on their faces made me smile.

One tiny muscle.  I wonder how often we feel like some challenge is completely (and shamefully) out of our reach, when all it would take is a small change to discover we’d had the potential there all along?  I wonder what wisdom we could open ourselves to that would make that challenge entirely, delightfully, doable?

Individuality: Always remember that you are unique.  Just like everybody else.
I think they’ve discontinued the mug, but you can still get the poster.

“Always remember that you are unique,” says the coffee mug I used to carry around the college music building, “…just like everybody else.”

One of the things I love most about teaching is the way it reminds me (on my best days, of course) that, while we all may speak different languages and connect most readily with different metaphors and envy different role models, we all really are more alike than we are different.  While in the course of a week I may see a couple dozen individual students—and to be sure, those couple dozen lessons often look very different from one another in goal, approach, and result—at their heart, all of those students struggle with what I think are three universal goals among artists.  Every one of them struggles to:

  1. overcome their own self-doubt,
  2. claim and develop their incipient strength, and
  3. demonstrate that they are individuals with unique voices, who find value in existing art but also have something to contribute to art and its longevity.

Callbacks are this week for CASA‘s next musical (Pippin—see the project page for details!), so the past several days have been full of the now-familiar mini-life-lesson scenario that I find auditions so often to be, at least in the educational settings where I’ve been privileged to serve.  That scenario looks something like this:

  1. Potential cast member (PCM) nervously enters audition room.  Coughs a little just to be sure we know s/he’s fighting the same congestion we’ve heard in the other 23 PCMs we’ve seen today, what with it being November and all.  PCM also exhibits at least one (but usually several) of the following:
    • shallow breathing
    • trembling extremities
    • pallid complexion and lips
    • wobbly ankles caused by the brand-new but ill-fitting shoes PCM hopes will distract from any performance weaknesses
    • “apologiarrhea”: the (usually situational) tendency to every response to a comment, observation, or question with “I’m sorry”
  2. Music Director (i.e., me) greets PCM, asks for charts, ascertains start/stop points, tempo, and cue, and begins to play.  PCM stumbles through fervent but terrified rendition, finishing with a “thank you” that sounds more like another “I’m sorry.”

In the “real world,”* where the point of an audition is to find the best actron to plug into the role to maximize the production’s first-week return on investment, this is where the audition process usually stops, at least for the PCM.  They slink back to the second half of their split-shift at the diner, promising themselves that next time they’ll have found the right shoes, or the weather won’t be messing with their allergies so much, or the pianist won’t be quite so hard to follow.

But when I cast a show in an educational setting, I get to move past the self-doubt and the desperate attempts at feat-of-strength performances, and look for the individual behind the sweaty palms and the straining neck muscles.  I get to ask “What do you love about the song you just sang?” and “What about this particular role really speaks to you?” and “If you could play any role on stage, who would it be?”  That’s where I start to learn what this voice has to say to the world—and if I phrase the questions carefully enough, the PCM starts to learn how this role could be a vessel for their own artistry, not just another “gig.”  This, in other words, is where the snowflake starts to stand out from the rest of the storm.

That’s a really, really important part of the audition process for me—the reminder to the PCM of their own value as an artist.  But I think the most important part of the process comes later, after the cast list goes up.  And the ones who gain the most from the process are the ones whose names don’t show up on that list, at least not where they’d hoped they’d be.

On the “Co-Curricular Resources” page of my site there’s a link to Dr. Noa Kageyama’s blog, “The Bulletproof Musician,” which is one of the few “must-read” subscriptions in my RSS reader.  Today’s post on that blog really digs into the value of those “failed” auditions, and how achieving the goals we thought we wanted isn’t always the best thing for us as artists (or human beings, frankly).

In a nutshell, “succeeding” at an audition—getting the role we wanted—may be a great ego boost, but it does less to help us improve for future opportunities than our “failed” auditions do.  (And in fact, chances are good that we won’t do as well at our “dream role” as we hoped we would, which can end up being a downer in the long run if we’re not careful.)

So does this mean artists are doomed to lives of pessimism and self-doubt?  Only if they do it wrong.  If you ask me, “perfect” art is far less inspiring and empowering than the more common kind.  That latter kind—art that’s about “flaws”—is, I believe, a very good thing for the world.

*More on that in a future post, I’m sure.