Sometimes it's in the doing...

This blog is really just one simple idea to take away with you today...

Something I see a lot in singers (and in humans in general) is the tendency to want to check how to do something before we go for it. Sometimes this is a GREAT idea. IKEA furniture is one of those times. Or knowing what you're allowed to take on a flight.

But often with singing I get questions like "Is this a good song for me?" or, "Does this suit my voice?" or, "Is this song to challenging?", and my question is always "Have you tried singing it?"

All of these questions imply a certain self-imposed limitation - as though there are only certain things we're allowed to do, or express, or expect of ourselves. But I say, go for it! And this is where the fun (and learning) begins.

Once you've had a run through (perhaps along with a recording of the piece), ask yourself some questions.... 

- How did it feel to sing the song? Physically? Emotionally?
- Was it lower or higher than is normally comfortable?
- Was it louder or softer than you might normally feel comfortable singing?
- Did you manage to stay in tune?
- Did you manage to connect with the emotion or the story line of the song?

There are probably a tonne more questions you could ask, but the main thing is to see what comes to mind and see if it has anything to tell you about your current strengths an weaknesses - skills or areas for improvement. You'll learn a lot about how your voice works, how it sounds in comparison to other singers, and where the edge of your comfort zone lies.

Sometimes you've just got to start doing.

A Practice of Thankfulness

Here's something I've been thinking about a lot lately. Sometimes singers start to get their heads all in a funk. Nervousness starts to take over - sometimes before a performance, or sometimes even in a lesson or when trying to practice at home. So here's just a little idea that could help change this around if this is you...

Try introducing a practice of gratefulness into your singing. There's a whole lot of research already out there about how gratitude can help you through the hard times. Even Oprah has endorsed the idea of using a gratitude journal daily as a way of keeping your mindset positive. After all, it's difficult to feel fear when you're doggedly focusing on what you're grateful for.

So the next time you start getting nervous while singing, say or think to yourself:

prayer and singing

It is not about me.

I am singing today in service to this song.

This song is wonderful. Its flowing melody and harmony take me to another place.

I'm so grateful for this melody. It is such an honour to be able to replicate this beautiful melody that I love to hear. Thank you.

If you are religious or spiritual, you could incorporate this into your gratefulness practice. Or you could leave it as is, and just mindfully be aware of any feeling welling up inside you; being kind to yourself the whole time. And see if, for a little while, you can JUST focus on the undulations of the melody - and perhaps the lyrics if there are certain lyrics that give you an enjoyable emotional reaction. Sing through the melody slowly and with focus - explore the highs and lows with interest and enthusiasm for where the song can take you. Just ride that wave and think of nothing else. Don't think about whether your voice sounds "pretty" or "breathy" or "strong" or "soft"; don't think of "quality" or of "getting it right", or even "what would my teacher say right now?"; don't think of performance. Just take a deep breath, close your eyes and trace in your mind's eye the beautiful patterns in the melody you're singing.

I'd love to know if any of you have tried something like this and if it helps. This may be something that other people haven written about, but it's something I've come to in my own experience. Feel free to comment below with any feedback you may have!

Whatever You Do, Don't Lose the Joy

Recently two people I highly respect have been communicating quite the same message (see links at the bottom of the post). And that message is: Don't take things so seriously that you lose the joy. Do everything with lightness and take care of the joy you find in creativity.

It’s dark because you are trying too hard.
Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly.
Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply.
Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.
— Aldous Huxley

Sometimes when we start to take things more seriously, the joy starts to seep out. All of a sudden we're putting ourselves under pressure to achieve certain outcomes. All of a sudden we don't want to be "amateurs". Why do we feel this way? Well it's usually for the simple reason that we feel the great IMPORTANCE of what we're doing, and we want to do it justice. This is a very real and legitimate feeling, regardless of whether you are doing paid creative work or taking up a hobby. We want to be proud of our creative output, we want it to be perfect the first time and every time after that. After all, why would we risk putting that little bit of ourselves out there in the world? Why would we risk that vulnerability?

But there's another way to look at this. Many people don't realise is that the word "amateur" means "lover" from the Latin amator. When this word came about, it was something to be proud of! You could be proud of the love and commitment you gave to a certain thing. It was about the LOVE of the activity, not the "expected objective quality of the output" of the activity. The negative loading of the word "amateurish" only seems to have come about to distinguish between those being paid for their work and those who aren't. As if monetary compensation for an activity is the paragon of achievement in your chosen field, and anything less is not worth trying for.

But it is. It is worth it. Be a proud AMATEUR. Be a lover of creativity; a lover of the joy that it gives you. And never let that go. After all, isn't that why you took this thing up in the first place? At the end of the day it's not even about you, or how "good" you are at any one thing. It's about the love.

I highly recommend reading Austin Kleon's enlightening post titled Don't Lose The Magic. And this piece of advice from the wonderful mezzo-soprano, Joyce DiDonato.

A challenge, and the risk of doing something just for you.

Hey dear readers, I have a challenge for you today. My challenge is that each day for the next week, when you get home from work, or at some other time during the day, you should put on a song that you love and sing along to it.

All it takes is a few minutes. Sounds simple right?

You may have seen articles in the news or online that talk about how singing is so good for you. And it is. It's great for your respiratory system, it's great for your mind (I've heard that the combination of maths and creativity involved is good for making connections across the brain hemispheres??), it's AMAZING for you psychologically, and when done regularly, it can become an invaluable part of your self-care system, keeping you healthy along with yoga, eating good things, etc. etc.

fun singing and dancing

But let's be honest here, that's not really why we sing is it? We don't sing because it's "good for us". We don't coax our friends into a (perhaps drunken) session of karaoke because it's good for our health. We don't join a choir to lower our blood pressure (although it might). 

We sing because something truly extraordinary happens when we express ourselves by sending our voices out into the world. It may be a sense of catharsis or of pure joy.

But the problem is that we humans in the modern capitalist world aren't great at doing things just for us. We're great at doing things that contribute to the economy, or to our families, or to our jobs, or to peoples' perceptions of how successful we might be. The more strong-willed of us are great at going to the gym, but often this is more about changing how we appear to others, rather than creating a practice of joy (this is partly why so many new years resolutions fall by the wayside).

So my challenge is that every day after work for the next week (you don't have to do it on weekends if you don't want... I struggle to keep any habit that isn't tied in with the Monday-Friday routine... but if you're feeling extra keen, go for it!), put on a song and sing along. Have a dance as you do it. Make it silly. You can just do it alone in your bedroom if you want - no-one has to know. If your family or housemates are home and you don't want to look like you're taking yourself too seriously, get them involved with it. Choose a pop banger that everyone loves, get into your pyjamas, dance around the house together and sing even louder. Make it stupid. Make it joyful. Make it a habit.

singing at home

And see what comes up for you when you do this. Is it hard to let go of a day of stress? Is it hard to do something that isn't an obligation? Even though it's only 3 minutes? Does your brain come up with all sorts of ideas about why it isn't possible?

The number #1 rebuttal I get whenever I suggest people make singing a part of their lives is "Oh, I could never do that. I'm not a singer. I can't sing". But you know full well that this is irrelevant. The joy that comes from singing has as much to do with "being a good singer" as it has to do with "it being good for your health". Zilch. It's not about ability, or about the neighbours, or even about singing in tune! It's about joy. Just joy. Just 3 minutes of joy.

I'd love to hear how you go with this if you take up my challenge. I know how "out there" it can feel to do something just for yourself, without justifying it in some way. It's challenging. But give it a go and see what happens!

Love, hugs and encouragement from me.  x

Working on your chops vs. selling out

When I studied Music Industry in London (all the way back in 2010), one of my favourite subjects was called The Business of Music Performance and it was taught by a rad guy called Chris Banks. The subject was based around Chris' experiences as a fairly successful session musician (playing keyboard for the Sugababes around that time if I remember correctly), and the insights and skills garnered from his significant experience in this industry. We learned how to write resumes for session work, how to do invoices and do our own accounting, how to find performance-based work, and a heap of other practical stuff.

Despite all the practical skills gained from completing assignments and so on, there were two ideas that he communicated that really stuck in my mind. The first was:

"If you really want to be a musician, make sure you find a day-job that works on your chops." (Note: If you're unfamiliar with the word "chops", in the music world it just means "your technical abilities on your instrument")

Many musicians shy away from doing corporate/function band work because they see it as "selling out". But Chris told us about how when he and some friends were young, they got a job playing at a ski resort for the high season, and played the same kind of crowd pleasing music day in, day out. It wasn't the genre of choice for any of the band members, but once you've played the standard pop hits enough times, you get so bored that you HAVE to find ways to improvise musical parts, or to engage the crowd more, to pass the time. And if you find yourself doing this, chances are you're getting WAY better at your craft, whether you realise it or not. 

In fact, this is kind of what the Beatles did when THEY started out. In 1960 when they were really just starting out as a band they discovered that they could get a regular "gig" if they moved to Hamburg, Germany. So they all up and left and earned £2.50 per day, playing covers, for absurdly long hours. Each day they'd play 4 sets between 8pm and 2am on weeknights, 5 sets from 7pm to 3am on Saturdays and from 5pm to 1.30am on Sundays. “In Liverpool, we just used to do our best numbers, the same ones at every gig,” John Lennon said in Anthology. “In Hamburg, we would play for eight hours, so we really had to find new ways of playing. […] We got better and got more confidence, playing all night long. It was handy, them being foreign. We had to try even harder, put our heart and soul into it, to get ourselves over.” 

The second thing that Chris always said in our course was this:

"It's not the virtuosos that get the jobs. It's the people who follow through on their commitments, and are nice, reliable, and respectful that get the jobs."

Whether it's work in a live or recorded setting, many producers or artists would of course say they'd like to work with "the best drummer" or "the best violin player". But it just so happens that often the people who are the best at something, often have the biggest fees, and sometimes the biggest egos. And from a producer's perspective this combination could mean a waste of both money and time. Instead what they really want is someone who's good enough to play the style of music with a level of confidence, someone who shows up when they say they're going to, and someone who's nice and amicable when working with everyone else. This is the magic combination of skills that get the job done, every time. And as a musician, they make you super employable.

This advice is valid for people doing original work too! Some artists get tied up thinking they need to constantly upskill themselves before they can "make it". Like "if only I could play that riff, then I'd be good enough". Although getting better at your instrument will generate confidence, at a certain point it becomes not necessarily about your proficiency alone. The crowd want to see an engaging performance. The venue booker or promoter wants to see that you load in on time and that you know your way around invoices and APRA forms. The sound engineer wants you to remember their name, and not make life difficult for them where possible. And that's it. 

So... (TL;DR)

1. Don't worry about "selling out". Just go work on your chops.

2. Remember (for instrumentalists and vocalists alike) it's not JUST your technical skills that matter. Having plenty of performances under your belt is also time to demonstrate being a great performer and a generally nice, reliable human. These are all skills that will take you forward.

This article was inspired by a good friend of mine back in the UK, Matthew Rusk, who is doing awesome work at the moment with music teachers across the UK and Ireland.