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

How to be both "normal" and "creative" or "normally creative".

Big Magic, the Elizabeth Gilbert book about finding creativity in your life.

At the moment I'm reading one of the most hyped creativity books of recent times: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. And one of the ideas that's explored quite early on in the book is an idea you'll find in many other books of this ilk from Julia Cameron to Austin Kleon; the idea that you can be both a perfectly normal, functional human and creative. In fact it's encouraged. 

Many people have this idea about "what creative people are like". They might be moody unstable types; mad people who sacrifice everything and cut their ties to move to Hollywood and pursue their dream. But you'll be happy to know that not only are emotional problems, moving overseas and quitting your day job not necessary to have a creative life, it's also not recommended. Too often we fill our lives with "drama" thinking it will give us inspiration or give us a story to tell, when in actual fact this is often an avoidance strategy, and the drama and overwhelm stops us from developing our inner artist and getting to work in the first place!

In Hugh MacLeod's book about cultivating creativity, Ignore Everyone, a chapter titled "Keep Your Day Job" discusses the theory that even a "creative life" will always have a divide between the boring, necessary parts (often the ones that make money or give you day-to-day stability), and the creative, inspirational parts. And this is unavoidable - equally for hobbyists as it is for those who seem to have it all together; those who have "made it". He says nobody is immune. There will always be a "day job"...

"Life is too short to not do something that matters" by Hugh MacLeod.

"One year John Travolta will be in an ultrahip flick like Pulp Fiction, another he'll be in some forgettable, big-budget thriller like Broken Arrow."

He explains that the people who move ahead fastest with their creativity are those who accept this fully; that being creative doesn't mean being madly inspiring all the time, or never doing boring stuff. It might just mean making a little more time for the things that you love!

So how do you become a normal creative person? It can start with a pretty simple and well-known exercise.

1. Make a list of activities that make you happy.

2. Do these things more often. 

That's seriously it. You're allowed to try winning a Grammy if that's really what you want, but if the only thing you have to show for your creative endeavours is joy, then know THAT'S ENOUGH. You don't need a certificate to get started. You don't even have to think you're any good! As Martha Graham says: 



And the funny thing is that when you follow your interests and make time for the things that make you happy (no matter how strange or self-indulgent this may seem to anyone else), your life does start to take on a little bit of the extraordinary. All of the knowledge and depth of character that you foster when allowing yourself to pursue your passions, enthusiasms and curiosities, will reveal to you an experience of life that truly is far more enchanting than perhaps you'd imagined for yourself. Far more captivating even than a move to Hollywood. Something far more balanced, authentic and truly beautiful.