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!

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.

Self-interpretation: How to perfect your own songs.

This post is one for all you singer-songwriters out there.

Whether or not you're a regular performer and even if when you write your songs, you put your whole heart and soul into them, there comes a time when you're playing live and you're just not in the right headspace to be expressing what the song needs to say. Maybe you're on tour, and the last thing you want to be thinking about was that hard breakup, when you've been underfed and under-rested for the past two weeks. Or maybe you've been sick with a fever but you just can't give up the opportunity to play that career-making gig. Either way, there's some cheats to get around this, and make the song sound (roughly) as meaningful as if you'd written it yesterday. And this is what you've gotta do:

1. Change or specify the meaning.

What I mean by this, is you need to actively take a seat and write down what you can make the song about. You don't want to do this all the time, but if the song is about something that's too outdated, painful, generalised or silly for you to get the vibe of on stage, you need to make the song be about something else, that you can identify with easily. Make a note, draw a picture, do whatever you gotta do. When you're on stage, having something specific to express is pretty vital.

2. Map out your song.

Now if you're like me, this might feel a bit silly, but I guarantee you it will make your performance come out 100% better. First thing to do is print off or write down your lyrics, so you've got something to look at. Now, pretend that you're communicating the song's sentiment to someone and literally read the lyrics aloud. That's right, in your speaking voice. 

Now there's certain things to be garnered from this exercise. One is that your voice's natural prosody has a lot of clues in it. Prosody is just the way your voice rises and falls (intonation), the way it emphasises certain words (dynamic), and the speed at which you say certain phrases (rhythm). Your speaking voice is already very musical.

Now if there are certain words or phrases that you emphasise more than others, underline them. Likewise, if there are any noteable changes in intonation or rhythm in your speech, make a note of them too. This is your performance cheat sheet. If you can add some or all of these spoken elements to your song's melody, then your voice will sound like you mean it. Even if you're playing to an audience of 5 in a city you hate with a drunk hooligan trying to storm the stage, your voice will still retain all the hallmarks of meaningful communication.

It's some extra homework, but the results are definitely worth it. I also recommend this technique if you're recording take after take and are feeling like the results are a little lackluster. Try it out and let me know how it goes!

Singing and Mindfulness

In the past months I've been getting very much into mindfulness. By this I mean mindfulness meditation, but also mindfulness as a whole.

One really good resource from this has been Diana Winston's free recordings from the Mindful Awareness Research Centre at UCLA. In her recordings, Diana defines mindfulness as, "the art of paying attention to our present moment experiences with openness and curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is".

Now, regardless of whether or not you partake in meditation or believe in its uses, there are a few really helpful things that happen when we apply this mindset to singing...

1. Holding yourself with kindness during the learning process.

One of the biggest road-blocks that some students tend to go through is the belief that they are expected to get everything right, or the feeling that they are required to be impressive. In reality however, this is not at all how the learning process works. If a student already knew everything there was to know and could do everything perfectly, there'd be no point in coming in for lessons. If you think about the first time you did anything- learning to ride a bike, your first job, the first time you learned something at school - you made mistakes right? Mistakes are what enriches the learning experience, rather than detracting from it. How are you meant to learn exactly what the right way is unless you've learned what it's like to do it the wrong way? As a student it's your responsibility to get things wrong at least some of the time. If you can manage to hold this experience with a level of kindness rather than self-criticism, you are more able to focus on the learning part of making mistakes rather than just beating yourself up.

2. Staying focused during the performance process

Nerves before or during a performance are totally normal. But once we get caught up in our nervousness, we become unable to break free of it. The art of mindfulness is all about choosing what to pay attention to, and not letting yourself get caught up in the emotion of it all. Now try this the next time your nervous about a performance! Say to yourself (silently or aloud) the following:

  • Nerves are perfectly normal.
  • Nerves are just gearing me up to do the best job that I can do. They are a superpower.
  • I am accepting of the fact that I am nervous. It shows that my fight or flight response (my body) is working, and that I really care about the outcome of this. That's a completely reasonable way to feel.

After saying this to yourself, the whole idea of being nervous seems kind of normal (or even boring) doesn't it? Now rather than allowing yourself to think of the future and what it may or may not hold, try grounding yourself in the present. Try standing still, closing your eyes, and cluing into the following:

  • How does my body feel?
  • What are the sounds going on around me?
  • What does each breath feel like in my body?

Try not to make judgement calls about these things, just be aware of them happening.

This is a really great way to stay grounded and focused during and in the run-up to a performance. Once you learn how to stay in the present moment, nerves don't really seem so bad, do they? And if you still find yourself getting nervous, you know what to do. It's perfectly normal, just "[pay] attention to our present moment experiences with openness and curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is".