At the beginning of last year, I promised myself I would sing and make music every day. Now, this might sound like a strange promise coming from a singer and musician, because why would we not sing or make music every day? So let me explain.
I had noticed that my singing and music-making had mostly become connected to preparing for a specific performance, being on stage, or singing in the classes that I taught. Combining busy teaching schedules with a theater tour, singing became very goal-oriented. Yes, I was singing and making music. And doing so basically every day. But I wasn’t spending quality-time with my voice and my musicality, exploring new sides of it, or “singing and playing just for the love of it”, without any performance outcome or other functional goal attached to the activity. I noticed I was beginning to lose touch with something essential: I was slowly falling out of love with singing.
The relationship between the art and the artist is quite fascinating. I like to see it as a love story, a love relationship. And we all know those can get rocky when the flame seems to be gone and things become routine. We also know that falling out of love can be something of a confusing and painful experience. And painful it is, when the “artist inside of you” starts to cry out: “Look at me!”, “Listen to me!”, “Spend time with me!”, “Ask me how I’m doing!” – but you’re too busy with other things (that ironically enough, involve that inner artist somehow, but perhaps not in the way it would want you to spend time with it).
Now, I’m not a relationship therapist, but I know pretty damn well that if you and your partner have “Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”, it won’t just magically re-appear by itself. There’s work to do. You’ll have to give each other real attention again. And perhaps also some forgiveness. You have to step from a place of “driving on auto pilot” to a place of awareness. Remind yourself of what made you fall in love in the first place. Learn to listen and look at things without judgement or preconceived ideas.
Practicing The Art Of Attention
One of the game-changers in finding back my love for singing and playing, was actually finding back to meaningful practice. Not just practice in preparation for a rehearsal or performance. But daily practice. And more importantly:
Practicing the art of attention.
There can be so much judgement and fear involved in practice and music-making. Being judgemental about what’s happening, or having a preconceived idea of what’s possible or not, due to previous experiences. Fear of not being or doing enough, fear of missing out, fear of failure. Fear of not having enough time. So we rush, we try to do too much. We don’t do certain things, because we are sure in advance that it won’t help anyway. Or we don’t do anything, because just getting started is difficult. The expectations, judgements and fears keep us from actually getting to work. And then we end up feeling shitty about that.
Last year, my own singing practice became different. I started approaching it from a gentler place, with curiosity and mindfulness rather than from a judgmental, fearful or outcome-driven place.
Finding a connection between meditation practice and singing practice taught me many things about staying in the present moment, accepting what there was, and observing things with an objective and open mind. Spending time on small details, noticing the daily changes in my voice and checking in on how my voice felt every day, opened up many new doors. I also fell in love with new practices like singing overtones.
And here’s the thing: attention makes space for transformation.
Eckhart Tolle writes in “The Power Of Now”:
The present moment is sometimes unacceptable, unpleasant, or awful. It is as it is. Observe how the mind labels it and how this labeling process, this continuous sitting in judgment, creates pain and unhappiness. By watching the mechanics of the mind, you step out of its resistance patterns, and you can then allow the present moment to be. This will give you a taste of the state of inner freedom from external conditions, the state of true inner peace. Then see what happens, and take action if necessary of possible. Accept – then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy. This will miraculously transform your whole life.
What I learned through daily practice, was to meet my voice with more loving kindness, no matter what it sounded like or was behaving that particular day. When something was “unacceptable, unpleasant, or downright awful” I learned to accept the situation and then act.
Instead of freaking out about it, going on a self-bashing spree or trying to immediately fix a problem with a “quick technical fix”, I’d pay attention to what my voice and body was telling me in that moment. I’d apply just one technique, tool or exercise, and then observe the effects of that. Sometimes “acting” meant taking care of my voice by canceling something, rather than trying to push the limits of what was energetically or physically possible. By paying attention and staying in the moment, I learned to listen to my voice and body in a more profound way. I started actually noticing the small changes, the subtleties that I would have missed out on if I’d just reach out for the “quick fixes”. And little did I know, that the solutions to many issues were often found outside of the toolbox of the typical go-to fixes.
Showing up for my voice, musicianship and creativity every day and doing the smallest possible thing on a consistent basis, made me not only feel accomplished, but it made me fall in love with practice again. And falling in love with practice made me feel that lovin’ feelin’ towards my voice, my musicianship, my art. It also brought new life and love into my teaching, because it opened up new doors for geeky explorations that I was genuinely interested in. That’s quite different from exploring geeky topics just because everyone else seems to be studying that topic, and you fear you will feel stupid if you don’t.
Playfully Rekindling Old Flames
Julia Cameron compares the “Inner Artist”, the part in us which creates, to a child. To me, creativity has always been linked to childful playfulness. My route to music started with curiosity and playfulness. I’d pick up a musical instrument, and wonder how to make it sound. But it’s so easy to lose touch with that playfulness somewhere along the roads of educations, growing up, becoming “a professional”, and seeking mastery.
Through the participation in a ‘PATEMPA’ course taught by Dutch master percussionist Bart Fermie, I returned to exploring sounds and rhythms, being challenged by complex rhythmical patterns, and being playful through improvisation. Improvisation is something I’ve always loved doing, but somehow dismissed over the years because I wasn’t using it in my performance repertoire. Experimenting with sounds and letting the music flow through me in an organic way was refreshing, and felt like coming home.
Another important practice in bringing back the lovin’ feelin’ was revisiting “old flames” and songs that were meaningful to me, but had been forgotten because they were not in my current performance repertoire.
As a vocal coach, I try to stay up to date to what’s going on in the singing world, and the artists that are ‘hot topics’ right now. But I can honestly say that I must have been one of the last people to have heard the hits of 2017 as they were appearing in the charts. I’ll confess here and now, that I was so “out” of what was going on that I was even unaware that such a song as “Despacito” existed. That’s the song that the whole world seemed to be humming along with last year. What? Was I living on the moon?
No, I was consciously narrowing down my focus, so that I could spend time studying my “masters” and own sources of inspiration again.
And besides, when I finally did hear “Despacito”, I concluded it wouldn’t be on my favorite song list anyway and I hadn’t really missed out on anything. So there.
And so I stayed unaware of that song, and other chart hits, while happily singing “Happy Talk” and “Save Your Love For Me” – my all time favorite songs from the Nancy Wilson & Cannonball Adderley album. I spent countless hours with the “Joni Mitchell – Complete So Far” and my Jobim songbooks. I’d listen to ‘new’ music and artists, but narrow down the focus there too. I fell in love with the Portland Cello Project, found inspiration in the musicianship of Cyrille Aimée, Esperanza Spalding and Ane Brun, to name a few of the contemporary artists that were included in my ‘narrow focus’. And I’d loudly sing along with my favorite Juan Luis Guerra, Alejandro Sanz and Carlos Vives songs, without feeling a tiny bit embarrassed of getting half of the lyrics all wrong. I’d even return to repertoire I sang way back during the years I had classical singing lessons, for no performance-goal related reason whatsoever. Singing Pergolesi’s “Se Tu M’Ami” just gave my heart wings, that’s why.
I’d also find myself back playing instrumental piano pieces, like my old Chopin and Bach repertoire, or just improvising on the Fender Rhodes. Or attempting to play along a Herbie Hancock solo, terribly failing at it and having fun while doing so. I’m not setting out to make a career as jazz pianist anyway, so who cares. The point is, it was fun. It felt great.
It was kind of like going for a date night with my own voice and musicianship. And we all know that great date nights are like magic for that lovin’ feelin’ 😉
The good news is: through daily practice, playfulness and “returning to the source”, I fell back in love again with singing and music-making, perhaps even more so than before!
My wish for you is that this story will inspire you to connect to your love of singing, making music, art-making and creating. Because in the end, that love is the most important thing there is between you and your art. So remember to nurture it with attention and loving kindness, and make many date nights with it!