Category Archives: Body

Love Letter to Fear

Dear Fear,

It has taken me some time to get around to this, but with Valentine’s Day having recently passed and the world evolving the way it is, I’ve been thinking a lot about love, affection and their opposites. It’s high time I wrote you this letter.

The world is full of teachings that would have me confront you, tame you, control you, overcome you, silence you and be free of you.

Do the thing you fear most and the death of fear is certain.
– Mark Twain
The whole secret of existence is to have no fear.
-Buddha
Where fear is, happiness is not.
– Seneca
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
– Franklin D. Roosevelt
The enemy is fear. We think it is hate, but it is fear.
– Mahatma Gandhi

It’s tough to argue with sage souls.
Even Marilyn has no love for you.

We should all start to live before we get too old.
Fear is stupid. So are regrets.
– Marilyn Monroe

Life has taught me something else. It has taught me that if I make an enemy of you, Fear, I make an enemy of me. If I disown you, I disown what it means to be a human woman and breathing, living artist. What has it ever cost me to acknowledge you and own you? Have I been irreparably defeated or have I only ever gained from your lead? You who has the uncanniest way of showing me the path not by leading me along it, but by pointing me to it. You, who are not my leaping and my flying, but the miles of ground leading to the edge of everything that has ever been extraordinary and, in retrospect, essential.

I used to believe it was you who kept me from crossing the street, but really it was you who kept me from staying where I was. The tight feeling in my mother’s hand as she stepped off of the curb with my tiny hand in hers, that was her fear. I learned that fear feeling from her. I learned it so I could recognize it. I’ve heard it in the faint-hearted gasp of someone not coming along with me, or someone looking back over their shoulder. I’ve seen it again and again in the eyes of people, in animals, in the movement of crowds, in the gestures of evangelizing egoists. But I’ve never seen it in babies. Fear, you are not our first response, you are our learned response.

People talk about being free of feeling afraid. The enlightened teachers of our time encourage fearlessness. Is that even possible? Can I be free of the feeling of my heart racing, my stomach turning, the top of my spine tingling, my blood boiling, my mind playing tricks? How would I know these things, these life-defining things, if I were free of you? You are Life to me, Fear. Without you I am dead. Dead to myself. And fear of death? What is that, really? Is it fear or is it the absence of that other F-word….faith?

The people in my life who know me longest and best know that resistance is my gut response to any new and really worthwhile thing. I come in with a shrug, I furrow my brow, I speak with time-buying words, I step back, step around, hold my breath. It’s true that I never leap into the really good stuff, the stuff most destined to be me and mine, right out of the gate. My resistance is you, Fear, and how I’ve learned to trust it! That wall of No is how you get yourself across to me – for an hour, a day, a year if the stakes are high. It all depends on what’s on the other side waiting for my Yes.

You’re my safety, but not in the conventional sense. I’m not safely stuck to you. I know you don’t want me for yourself. You’ve gone five decades without so much as a blown kiss from me let alone a missive of love like this and look how you’ve thrived. You’re my safety because you want the utmost for me. There just near the heart of me, the core of me, the best of me, is where you are. As artist I’ve been saying it for years…fear is fuel. You are the way in to the center, not the center itself. The stronger I feel you, Fear, the closer I know I am to my jewel.

That band of prickly heat I feel on my neck on a dark street at night is you. That cosmic, no gravity, freewheeling feeling in the pit of my stomach when I look down from a very high place is you. That flutter in my heart at the sight of someone electrifyingly resonant with my being is you. In my every step up the aisle into long partnership, or downstage to the footlights, in those fleeting moments of sublime connection, in every exit visa, in every whimper of my heart beginning to break open, there you’ve been. Like a chaperone, you old chap. Because at the moment of arrival you are gone. You have no desire to own me and rule me. This is the great misunderstanding. You don’t want me to cleave to you like anxiety, hallucination, terror and madness would have me do. What are those but fear fearing fear. You want me to breathe through you, shake you off, move on from you. Your purpose in life is to see to it that I arrive inside the wondrous, elusive, and transcendent moments of being, alone.

I know you had a name once, long long ago and all but forgotten. Ireul. I know you came with wings and fire for anything seeking birth. You’ve been here always. In that fateful spark that became me, you were summoned for my journey. At long last I have the words to tell you what I know you’ve always known: that without you I don’t exist, without you I don’t create, without you I don’t breathe, bleed, feed, live and love.

The day you die, my Fear, I will die with you.
Until then, you are my compass guiding me toward all that I am meant to be and not to be.

Love always,
Karen

The bird of courage flies with wings of fear.


How I Prepare a Song: 6 Steps

Step 1. Whether I find them or they find me, my songs move me musically and lyrically. Sometimes the melody hooks me first, sometimes the lyric. If a song appeals to me musically but not lyrically, I won’t sing it. I’ll give it to the band to play. Lyrics are key. I can’t sing a song I haven’t lived. I can vocalize it, but I can’t really sing it. I have to be able to bring something to it from my own life experience. Indeed, there are many beautiful songs I have not taken into my body. Beautiful, as sung by others.

Photo: rand alhadeff

Photo: rand alhadeff

Step 2. I check the song’s vital signs:  title, composers, year, language, dominant emotion, secondary emotion, texture and rhythm. I ask myself “who am I here?” (me or a character?), and “who am I singing to?” (myself, another person, the audience directly). Does the song take place now, in the past or in the future? Is it a recollection, or a wish?

Step 3. Next I feel my way into the song’s “gender” and “color.” Some songs feel masculine to me, some feminine, and some neutral/neuter. The texture is variably coarse or soft, assertive or yielding, gritty or buttery. You might say that my “signature” songs all have a complex mixture of textures, making them compelling to me and worth every effort. From texture I get a sense of color so that when I structure a setlist, I can sort out the red songs from the pink, the black ones from the blues, the oranges from the yellows. Voila! – this is also how I get the color I will take to my lighting technician for that song. And decide on costume. The colors that my songs wear help me choose my dress color for the night.

Step 4. Depending on the nature of the gig, I may really dig into the song’s history. When was it written and why and for whom? If it’s not a contemporary piece, I ask – “What was the world like then?” I may decide to use this in my patter (what I say between songs or song sections), or keep it to myself. Either way, doing some homework gives me a deeper connection to my message and a sense of authority with a song. Both will come through in my interpretation.

Step 5. I memorize it. Word after word, repetition after repetition until I know it by….head. I was going to say “heart” but in the first several outings with a new song, it’s still mostly a heady thing for me. It takes time for me to know the song by heart. Like any love affair.

Step 6. I play with my songs forever. They are among the best investments I make in life and their return is priceless. Through my many moods and circumstances and years, my songs grow with me and change according to who accompanies them and who hears them. The musicians come up with their own ideas; the audience leaves its own signature on the table. When my songs have run their course, I let them go. Ah, were it possible to give up anything as easily as I give up a song when I know the time has come.

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For us stage artists who use words – singers, actors, poets, comedians and clowns – we sure have our fun with words! Words beg to be nuzzled, caressed, floated, struck, oozed, dribbled, slapped around, spit out, swallowed whole, taken by vowel, taken by consonant, taken high, taken low and every place in between. And they don’t mind being left out.

Words and silence need each other like hot needs cold, day needs night, sun needs moon, freckles need skin, and this sentence needs a period.

Note to actors, voice-over artists, public speakers and others: If you have a script, you can follow these steps as well. Have fun!


Harmony is for the Birds

Let’s face it: some music is really hard on the ears! I don’t mean the noise that’s out there, I mean the real and serious music. What makes music rough is this beautiful, unstable and highly useful thing called dissonance. In a dissonant chord, the notes aren’t aligned harmonically and so the sound is tense and unpleasant. But dissonance doesn’t last. It can’t. A dissonant chord wants to, has to, resolve. And so it’s always in motion toward some new place, some integrated and harmonious place. A still point.

If we look around us and feel into ourselves, our entire universe is flowing between these states of instability and alignment. Our very lives are organized around this phenomenon of tension and release. And as artists we love this! These states course through our craft and the more that we’re aware of them and employ them, the more effective and communicative we become. Where instability is missing, we create it. We set up tensions in music, in dialogue, in movement. We give, we hold back. We show, we conceal. We grate, we soothe.

Consider that everything inside us and in the world around us – the conflicts, let’s say – are there in service to us, seeking to resolve themselves in us and through us. Our very impetus to make art may just be the avenue we’ve chosen to give meaning to life and to nature’s inherent conflicts and tensions, its ebb and flow, its instability and balance. Trust therefore that what you perceive as something unresolved in your life – a task, a relationship, a reality – is right now working its way toward alignment, with and without your input.

This too shall pass. It has to.

The way of chords is also the way of questions. The question that hangs out there unresolved is moving toward the answer. Like a chord it has to resolve itself…and bring another question and an answer after that. And so it goes, like the sun around the earth and all the seasons. Therefore embrace the instability in your life. It’s temporary. Accept it. Use it. Every day, throw yourself off! Leave your still point. Leave something behind – the harmony maybe. Risk that.
What happens next may be the sweetest sound you ever heard.


Still Body, Animated Mind

What is it that’s so powerful about the performers who can command the stage in stillness? I’ve felt their confidence and comfort in their bodies. I’ve felt the force of their imagination.

In striving for this stage stillness and power in myself, I’ve watched them. And I’ve watched the video footage of my own concerts (yikes! – there is no more honest teacher). I’ve reined in my movement and gesture a lot to where they’re very minimal now and, I feel, more gratifying to me and compelling for others.

It’s an ongoing thing to bring awareness to my body and how it moves in these intimate cabaret settings of mine where everything is amplified and easily “over the top.” I use to feel I had to “do” something and move somewhere to be expressive and effective. The result was fidgeting. Gratuitous movement rooted in insecurity took away from my artistry rather than enhanced it.

For a dancer, movement is the voice. For an actor, a wide sweep of gesture may support a particular role. For us singers of the small stage whose words and tones are essential, gesture should be more sparing, and naturally conversant in support of the story, character and lyric.

A pantomimist indicates the meaning of words and emotions to his heart’s content – it’s his very art. For singers, it points to amateurism. A cover or compensation for the lack of connection to our inner life. We see it in young performers who as yet have little happening on the inside and make it “happen” on the outside. Lots of coming and going, and broad sweeping gestures and raised eyebrows and moving body parts. It’s not just the “green” ones though, it’s anyone who hasn’t yet connected their inner riches with the meaning of their songs.

In the stillness of the body, there’s no rigidity. Still as I am, I’m not frozen or stiff. The life in me, my passion, courses through my veins. My breathing is relaxed and musical. Like a plant rooted in the earth, I’m rooted on the stage. My energy goes down into the boards and back up through me. Below the stage, I’m anchored in my intention. Above it, I’m alive in my imagination and desire to reveal myself.

I may have one or both hands at my side but they’re not weighted down. I give them a little lift in the elbow. Imagining that I have invisible strings on the tops of my shoulders gives my arms the gentlest lift away from the pull of gravity. What happens? My elbows and fingers open and begin to communicate. It’s a very subtle thing. And mostly, it’s still.


But Beautiful

Last night at Town Hall here in New York City, Julie Wilson made a surprise appearance in an evening honoring two legendary interpreters of song – Mabel Mercer and Bobby Short.

Wearing a long sheath in brown tones with hints of gold accents she was escorted out on the arm of a man, her hair pulled back tight in her signature chignon and a flower framing her left temple. Nearly 90, Julie moved slowly, cautiously, as if with baby steps. As soon as she was in reaching distance of the microphone, her body came alive and undulated like a trapped bird does or a bee when it senses it is once more free.

tn-500_stephensorokoff-5568She began the first words with a voice that now contains an entire lifetime, with the color of an entire palette of human emotion, every glory, every setback. Julie Wilson has had a life and it is in her song. Her range has narrowed to a few notes that float and the rest are gasps and rasps and moans and airy whispers.

Love is funny, or it’s sad
Or it’s quiet, or it’s mad
It’s a good thing or it’s bad
But beautiful

Beautiful to take a chance
And if you fall, you fall
And I’m thinking
I wouldn’t mind at all

Julie Wilson takes her time. She’s lived it all and hurry is something she doesn’t worry about. She’s not singing to prove anything, advise anyone, convince or admonish. Love is not something she longs for, dreams of, not something that lies before her as once it did. It’s all in her now. She has become it.

Love is tearful or it’s gay
It’s a problem or it’s play
It’s a heartache either way
But beautiful

The hall was utterly still. No one was expecting this, everyone was rapt. She was matched at the piano – all her energy, pacing, phrasing, simplicity, the sparseness, nakedness and directness of every line. Julie was the canvas and we filled ourselves in between her words. It was her story and it was ours, her man and ours, her heartbeat and heartbreak…and ours.

And I’m thinking if you were mine
I’d never let you go
And that would be
But beautiful I know

Her masque transitioned between pathos, bewilderment and anguish, and she ended each verse in absolute joy through her smile, that inimitable Wilson smile. Julie is grateful to have lived it all.

Singing is story-telling. Singing is surrendering. Singing is serving up the universal themes that make a life. The great artists have had great lives. Big lives. Things happened to them. Meaningful things. We have to be fearless. We have to live to sing and put what we create of life right back into our song.

The more life we have, the more songs we can sing. Not just vocalize, but sing. Julie is a singer. Her gift is in her ability to take what she’s dared over nine decades to do and feel and be and think, and harness and acquire and lay bare. An artist lays herself bare and vanishes until what we see and hear out in the dark is ourselves. Singer, actor, dancer, painter, poet…a great artist let’s us forget who they are and remember who we are. The song is the bridge.

When Julie finished, applause and cheers filled the hall and most of us rose to our feet because it truly was such a rare and sublime treat. Beaming, she blew kisses and bowed and waved. Her escort returned from the wings to assist her, but Julie Wilson walked off alone. Beautiful.

And I’m thinking if you were mine
I’d never let you go
And that would be
But beautiful I know68648_10201267302028309_996694425_n

 

 

 

Photos: Stephen Sorokoff


Silence

Music begins inside human beings, and so must any instruction. Not at the instrument, not with the first finger, nor with the first position, not with this or that chord. The starting point is one’s own stillness, listening to oneself, the “being ready for music,” listening to one’s own heartbeat and breathing.  Carl Orff

Watching other artists perform is an invaluable part of one’s craft. It is the way one learns what works and what doesn’t work. Watching others artists, especially instrumentalists, is how I came to understand silence in stagecraft.

Silence creates a distance to time and place, therefore most people avoid it. It makes us uneasy. As actors, we work on tightening beats, avoiding the silence that sucks life out of a scene. As musicians, we adapt to the loud drone of electrified instruments, amplifiers and fans. As people, we escape into the harried world of sound and sight bites and the ever-present background noise. Silence has become a very precious commodity. My songs and the era from which they are drawn are inherently more silent. The mere fact that they are performed in a room where people can actually listen already sets this kind of music apart. Gradually, as people become tired of being assaulted, they are returning to the listening rooms and the salons where music played for centuries.

I use “Kunstpausen” (artistic pauses) to frame my songs, create mystery and maintain my power. Simply put, I draw whatever energy there is in a song out beyond its boundaries. I insert them at the beginning of songs so I can focus and gather myself into character. I pause within the song if I wish to emphasize something or be playful with the text. At the end of songs, I maintain my character for seconds before acknowledging my audience – my aim being to allow the scene to drift away rather than be jerked away by an habitual “thank you,” or a change in my expression and focus. I am quite aware of the effect this has on my audience. They want to linger in the moment with me, relish the space, their thoughts and their mood.


Gesture

Every singer, actor and anyone who doesn’t have their hands full on stage, struggles with what to do with them. Should they hang down straight? Should they point and lead? Should they give visual cues as to the words being sung or spoken? Should they be cut off? How easily they can be underused, overused, and simply misused. How to hold the hands isn’t always taught in voice classes, but it is taught in the theater.

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The hand, attached to the arm, gloved or bare, is as expressive and sensual a thing as the eyes and mouth for the performer who knows how to use them. The important thing is that the entire limb, from shoulder to middle finger be completely relaxed. Then if one opts to stand with the arms hanging down along one’s side, or held as in prayer, or secured behind the back, or used to accentuate a word or a part of the body, or to beckon and otherwise gesticulate, it will be natural.

Intention is the key behind my gesture. I may make it look spontaneous, and sometimes it is, but often there is forethought and intention behind it. A part of my artistic head, separate of the one concentrating on making good sounds, is actually calling out the moves seconds before they happen. This is how they can be remembered later as successes or failures.

Gesture is a risky thing. It can easily steal focus and interfere with the music and the rest of the scene. Less is always more. An audience is accustomed to seeing a trained singer hold her arms at her side. Everything else is extra. If she has good gesture, it’s called a nice touch. If she has exceptionally good gesture, it’s called style. It’s part of her overall “package” – her mystique – and people will attend performances for it alone. 

Gesture is the reason that I, when singing with a microphone, prefer one that is standing to one I must hold in my hand. At a standing microphone my hands are free to be used as tools in my song, extensions of my spirit, my heart and my intelligence. When I do use a handheld mic, whether corded or cordless, I make it an extension of my hand. It is invisible. It draws no attention to itself and simply moves with me. I don’t wave it around but keep it close to my body, relaxed. I have no death-grip on it. It is my friend, my link to the one up in the booth whose own artistry in sound brings another element to my work.

Experience is no guarantee of great gesture. I am thinking right now of a few world-class singers I know who can stilted and clumsy with regard to their gesture. Their limbs flop about as though the strings to which they were attached were severed from above. It is disheartening in so much as it distracts from an otherwise beautiful presentation and truly good vocalizing.

If you struggle with gesture, go the dancers, go to the actors – the movement artists – and study with them. In trade, teach them how to tell the truth, in words.


The Face

A singer’s face is a map. When the audience closes its eyes, her face should burn through their eyelids. I love faces. All my life I’ve studied them. Staring is a tool of the trade. The face relays the health of the body and the soul. A doctor always knows when we have a fever, and an audience always knows when we’re lying. Watching a singer sing one song and express another is distressing. The muscles of the face, the eyes, the mouth, all convey the depth of one’s inner commitment, or lack thereof.

The eyes that sing…they greet us or reject us, they are cool, confused, accusing, defending, stroking, killing. The eyes that ask and answer, that open and close, that look out through wide orbs or narrow slants…they glow and throw sparks. What an excellent instrument we performers have who know how to use them.

And the mouth – especially the mouth of a woman! It is the top of the instrument, the keyhole, the promise. What opportunities lie therein! What bewitching expressions, coyness, humor, spirit, tenderness, lust, mystery, excitement! And pride, arrogance, greed, revenge…all played out on two bands of red flesh. It is the mouth of a lover, a mother, a muse. An incredible instrument that one can lighten or darken through the precise showing of teeth, pretty teeth or deadly teeth, whose gleam can seduce. The audience loves a good mouth, especially on a singer.

photo: rand alhadeff


Carriage and Silhouette

From her first appearance on stage, before an artist has done anything to prove her talent, her posture will inform the audience. Even the grandest of introductions from a master of ceremony will be compromised if she walks on slouching. The performance begins with the first part of her that enters – her big toe, her index finder, her forehead, a prop – and ends with the last thing to leave – her heel, her rear, her index finger, her coat, her skirt.

A singer must know how to move on stage, how to hold the head, the shoulders, the hands, where to place the feet. This isn’t always taught in voice classes, but it is taught in the theater. And one can study it in the mirror. It is said that a singer is ready for the stage when she is able to sing in front of a mirror naked.

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How to hold oneself upright and what to do with the body, ought to be partly rehearsed and partly left to the moment. Being comfortable on stage, in one’s silhouette or costume, and feeling relaxed and in one’s power is what creates natural movement. Nervousness is expressed through awkward movements, fidgeting and lack of intention.

Sometimes a gesture or some patter will emerge from the creative flow and feel completely wrong. One should commit it to memory as a thing not to be repeated. Sometimes a gesture or some patter happens that feels completely right. It should go into the reference manual in one’s mind, ready to be accessed again. If something really unique and sublime happens, it should be taken home and rehearsed until it is natural. Grace is a thing you can learn if you aren’t born with it.

As important as carriage is the silhouette: how a singer looks, what she embodies, her physical style, her costume. I found my silhouette among the characters and the era of my songs. I love details and the era provides an abundance of them. Since my repertoire is diverse and rangy, I must choose an ensemble that will suit the many songs in the program. It is important that one’s silhouette reveal something of what one feels inside. Clothes can be worn or they can be expressed.


The Breath

Singing is placing music on the breath.

Breathing is a matter of never-ending visualization, exercise and practice. We practice by alternating between taking in air slowly and quickly, holding it as long as possible, and regulating its rapid or gradual release. Breathing should not draw attention to itself but be relaxed and effortless. Deep breathing is by nature relaxing to the body. Shallow and quick breathing is invigorating and energizing.

A teacher of mine once suggested that the ultimate goal is to sing through 24 measures on a single breath. Learning how best to breathe is the challenge that every song provides.

Knowing where to breathe is easy when one is singing for words, for then the natural breaks reveal themselves automatically in the cadence of the language. To help me identify the best places to breathe inside a song, I speak the text aloud as I am learning it. As much as skiing is just another way of walking, singing is just another way of talking.

All the air we need to sing with is there. It exists in abundance in the space around our heads, our bodies. And all the time we need for getting the right amount of air is always there as well. Trusting in this comes simply with experience.


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