Category Archives: Mind

Oh Sweet Desire, You Know How I Hate to Practice

I’ve never been good at practicing.

I like to be good at something quickly, and if I’m not good at something quickly, I don’t like doing it. So I put it away, for awhile. Or forever. Such has been the fate of tennis, baking, sewing and tap-dancing, to name a few.

The blame seems to fall squarely on the shoulders of desire, but in fact it’s my inner critic who has to take the hit. I blame La Critica for successfully getting me to bail on a bunch of my passions. Back in high school, she convinced me that I wasn’t really any good at doubles tennis even though I was ranked first in my school and she knew how much I loved the feeling of being one with my racket, the ball, my partner and the court.

La Critica has convinced me that my cooking really stinks compared to my husband’s, even though I ace traditional German recipes and bake mouth-watering sweets. She’s even worn down my confidence in sewing, when in fact I made my own wedding dress, several elaborate gowns for the stage, a plush terry robe, and a pair of fancy pants for my guy (discovering all the secret tabs and pockets in a pair of men’s dress trousers). I actually find mending comforting.

Picking her nits, La Critica has been the most persuasive about something I’ve really loved. Dancing. More recently, she’s tripped me up in the luscious tango which I took up with a vengeance after discovering the tango parlors of New York City. Before that it was tap. Not film tap a la Eleanor Powell, but hoofing a la Honi Coles. Last week when I was down in my basement, La Critica stepped out of the shadows and got all in my face saying that I really should give away my tap shoes because the leather is cracking for utter lack of use. “No skin, no lanolin.” Little does she know that I have felt the most profound kinship with the rhythm of this earth while hoofing and actually cracked my leathers because I was dancing so much. Of course, she had a pointe. That was two decades ago in Austin when the exceptional Acia Gray was my teacher at Tapestry Dance. I stopped when I was just getting good (but that’s another posting).

When it comes to singing, it’s been a somewhat similar story. I’ve had little patience for classroom learning and claim only a handful of people as true mentors. The stage has been my teacher for 30+ years and what’s gotten me out there time and again is…desire. Pure and simple, Desire with a capital D. I learned my craft by doing, not by practicing doing. By singing, not by pretending to sing.  Indeed, it’s the many different stage partners from whom I’ve learned the most, and the many different audiences in the many different lands. La Critica is multi-lingual, and yet she’s mostly kept her distance here. It seems that opening myself to collaboration had the surest quieting effect on her secret voice.

In truth, no amount of pressure from her or her pal, El Guilto, have gotten me to volley any faster, cook any more frequently or dance any better when my Desire has flown the coop. We say it’s discipline we lack, but for me Desire is the D-word behind my drive.

When Desire comes knocking on my door, I run to answer. Fueled by her, I feel unstoppable, invincible, refreshed, alive and juicy. And she always brings her friends, Acceptance and Surrender, and together they tackle the demons starting with Resistance and lull him into submission. He loves it!

Don’t ask what the world needs.
Ask what makes you come alive and go for it!
Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
~ Howard Thurman

Following Desire is what it takes and I’ve learned this by her lead. When I burden myself with self-made stories about how passionless I feel, I know I’m really just desiring Desire. And she’s really just waiting for the coast to clear. When La Critica manages to throw my lusty, life-loving, art-priming passion over a cliff, she always climbs back up from out of some valley with a gleam in her eye. “Let’s go!” It may take a few hours, days or even months, but the happiest moments I know are when my Desire comes home.

Wearing many faces, she slips in by day, by night, in wet galoshes and satin slippers. I like her best barefoot and knocking vigorously on my door. Or when she lowers herself down from a branch and breathes herself into me for as long as I can stand it. Bar none she’s been the patient one, as all great teachers are.

Brush step, shuffle, ball change, f-lap
Brush step, shuffle, ball change, f-lap…

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.
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,

The bird of courage flies with wings of fear.

Money, Money, Money, Money

Back in November, I was interviewed by Lizzie O’Leary, host of NPR’s Marketplace Weekend who was querying different kinds of folks about their relationship to money, including me the artist. Our short chat was inspiring and has prompted more writing on the subject. (If you’re interested in listening to the segment, find it here – Nov. 13, 2015.)

Lizzie asked me to explain why I believe it isn’t noble to be a broke artist. We have to free ourselves, I told her, from the very old story that money is evil and has a corrupting influence on our art. That just keeps money at arm’s length.

A person who separates art from money is like someone who walks their bicycle. Money is a vehicle. You don’t walk it, you ride it. You let it take you somewhere, which first means trusting that it can and will show up and support you. Money is currency and green is not its only color.

Asked how I came by my lessons about money, I shared that I’ve had to unravel my own inherited money myths. After years of employment outside the arts, I finally in my mid-30s heeded the call of the voice within that said Sing! Sing full-time. And so I gave up the security of a fantastic corporate job for the chancy life of a nightclub singer. Every time that company’s stock split in the years thereafter, I wondered if I hadn’t made a huge mistake. I was still of the mindset that money showed up as payment for effort and nothing more. Something to put in the bank and live on. That led me down the path of fretting about money too. Luckily, I’ve always surrounded myself with people who really believe in my talent and understand the role that passion and a serious work ethic play in anyone’s success. And I’ve counted on these few trusted souls to nudge me back on the path of art whenever I threatened to veer off into safer havens or defiantly push away money and abundance.

I thought of that while riding my bicycle.
– Albert Einstein
on the Theory of Relativity

I’ve learned that money IS currency in a very broad sense. I’ve learned that when I am true to my art and calling, money will follow me anywhere I wish to go. In fact, it’s often already there waiting for me when I arrive. I trust money. I trust money as current and energy. Money is streaming energy and wants nothing but to flow. Money doesn’t want to be at the center of our lives as artists, it wants to serve what’s at the center of our lives. And it shows up in endless forms, dollars and cents being just one.

To understand why we’re so hung up about money, we have to look at our stories. Across time and all our cultures, we’ve concocted delicious stories around the idea of the poor artist. The poor, hungry, cold, solitary and yet somehow magnificently prolific artist is in our history books, folklore and romance. Poverty, we’ve told ourselves, produces the greatest inspiration – far better paintings, books, poems, plays, films, dances, and songs. The glory of the starving artist is a myth. If you’re starving, you’re not producing. Your mind is on survival, not the sharing of your gifts.

Another story we have is that money is corrupting and ruinous to art. We believe that the artist who becomes successful and amasses wealth will inevitably lose it – her bearings, taste, abilities, integrity, family, health, her very life. And it’s happened often enough that an artist dies and dies young, but not actually because of anything money did or didn’t do. That money is a demon is a myth.

So we actually give mixed messages to money – from “I don’t want you near me” to “I can’t live without you.” We demonize it at the same time as we glorify it. We chase after it with our fretting and anxious thoughts of fear and lack, and wonder why it runs away. Or we put up the blinders and wonder why it never reaches us. Suddenly having not enough money or too much money is the focus, is our daily bread. Now money is at the center of life, and creativity is huddled over in the corner, shivering and starving. That’s the distressing rumble we feel in our tummies when we fret about money. We think we’re hungry for money but we’re really hungry for our creativity. We long for integrity.

So we have to take a broader view of money.  We have to approach it with the understanding that it’s a tool, a vehicle. We have to respect it like we do any other current: a rushing river, the voltage in our walls. Money as currency and current looks like this: a studio in which to create, a patron, a voyage, a meal, a good review (a bad one too), a contract, a contact, a colleague, a student, a mentor, a bill of good health, a stroke of good fortune, whatever makes you smile. Apply this filter to your day as an artist and then ask: Am I wealthy? Am I thriving?

Abundance is our birthright. We were all born as artists, as creators, even though a good many of us have forgotten it. Create and you will never be poor; destroy and you will never be rich. Harbor thoughts of scarcity and poverty, and money will find another place to flow. It’s the way of nature. Open the portals, welcome all visitors, and watch as the money tree grows. And the wheels of life go round and round…

When Artists Die

I really didn’t know much about Philip Seymour Hoffman until he died. I hadn’t seen most of his films and none of his plays. Yet I’ve been moved to read about him. His unexpected death struck a chord and prompted people to weigh in on not only how he died but how lived. I found it fascinating that people weighed in on the matter of PSH’s death. That they judged his death. That they accounted for all his talent and riches and said it wasn’t enough for him to continue living.

Last week Erv Raible, cabaret impresario, also passed away. The last time I saw him was two years ago when he was one of six of us at an intimate dinner party hosted by a mutual and treasured friend, and I got to know Erv Raible a little bit more. Erv loved this artform and devoted himself to its practitioners . He owned/managed venues where I had my firsts: Don’t Tell Mama where I made my NY cabaret debut as singer and later as director, and the Duplex, where I first came onto the scene as a producer. Erv’s passion helped usher in my own emergence as an artist. That’s his legacy to me.

On the heels of PSH’s passing, ER’s death has also generated a lot of dedications on Facebook and elsewhere. It seems that when a person dies we really get to know who they were, how they lived, what they gave and who they inspired.

Suppose both of these gentlemen had had enough of living and decided it was enough and timely for them to go. One died in the hospital after a long illness, the other alone in his apartment. We have such trouble letting people live on their terms and die on their terms. We judge it in an effort to make sense of it.

I think it comes back to fear. Not fear of dying but fear of living. Fear of power, and the power of our will. If I were to truly exercise my power and my will, what would happen? I might live and be happy. Is it death we really fear and that makes us squirm or is it life?

We die so many times while we’re alive, every day, every second. You’d think we’d have gotten used to it by now. That final ending. How can we the living say its final? Because we do it all the time. We have built in all these living deaths along the way to remind us that there is no end to us. We exhale, we inhale – we stop, we go – we sleep, we awaken. We die…we’re reborn in someone’s memory.

PSH possibly reached more people in his death than he did in his life. Outside his circles of family and theater and film, he’s been all over the news and magazine covers and Facebook. Like others before and others to come. In the stage artist, the father, the addict, the man, the human being, we see something of ourselves. He performances registered, on stage, on screen and off. He showed us what passion looks like, his and our own, and in this recognition is a birth. Something in us comes alive, something is born. That is recognition. It may be an “ah” that lasts for 7 seconds. But in those 7 seconds there is more light than shadow and more life than not.

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages. – William Shakespeare

Channel Magic

You’ve got to find some way of saying it, without saying it. – Duke Ellington

In cabaret, I’ve experienced enormous freedom. I’ve lived moment-to-moment for an hour at a time, using anything that comes up in myself and offering that to my musicians and my audience. The result of my dipping into my own emotional palette is that others dip into theirs – their own emotions and stories and memories. And so it cycles ’round and ’round.

This is why the audience is so essential to the cabaret experience – because of this intimate and immediate exchange that happens. The magic happens when a channel opens, a channel of interpretation that connects us in limitless ways to each other and to something beyond ourselves.

Learning cabaret has helped me learn life. Just as I’ve spent years getting out of my own way on-stage and out of the way of what seeks to express itself through me, I’ve freed myself off-stage too. I’m better today at feeling empathy, at managing fear, at listening, at making mistakes, at lowering my expectations and letting myself be surprised. I’m better at trust.

The goal for me as singer is not to sing at all. The goal is to channel. To open myself to the emotions, ideas and messages that are at hand and to understand how that will sing itself. My method can be reduced to being fearlessly willing to stay open in the moment. To not “put” anything out there or put anything on, but rather to allow myself to be put out there. My work is as much about vanishing as it is about arriving.

Excellent performance is a matter of being rather than doing. It’s handing myself over and that takes time. Time and practice and trust. Ironically, before one can hand oneself over as an artist one has to first accumulate oneself. You can’t give up what you don’t possess. To release the self from performance requires a hearty self-consciousness, an amassing of self and an ever-increasing confidence to let go. And so we pack on the training and the experience and the “me/mine” for many, many years.

As singer and teacher today, I release myself from my preparation and live as freely as possible on-stage. I am not tied to my interpretation of a song (even the one I rehearsed yesterday) or my ideas about stagecraft. I dip into these things as needed – catch them, bring them to earth, let them go. Performance is like any language. I’ve learned it, it is in service to me and in opening to it, it brings itself forth.

In my workshops and privately, my students come with their presentations and I observe. Ideas comes to me as I watch and listen and I note my feelings as they occur. Then we play. The student guides herself to refine her piece, change it, polish it, transform it. I am the witness, the nudger. My aim is not to change the way she is expressing herself. I want that to be natural and real and on her terms. My aim is to help her bring herself to that channeling place, and to place her expression in a certain frame. I am an enframer, yes.

I strive to sing my songs the same way, as I would speak them. I let them come to me. I let the audience come to me. Allow, allow, allow. That’s when the magic happens.

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.


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!

A Glorious School for the Heart

 “Nature is a glorious school for the heart! I shall be a scholar in this school
and bring an eager heart to her instruction. Here I shall learn wisdom, the only wisdom that is free from disgust; here I shall learn to know God and find a foretaste of heaven in His knowledge. Among these occupations my earthly days shall flow peacefully along until I am accepted into that world where I shall no longer be a student, but a knower of wisdom.” – from Beethoven’s Diary, 1818

Okay, I’m going to risk being unpopular and say: I am loving this winter! And I’m happy to hear more snow is coming! Was that a snowball that just hit me in the back of the head? Could you at least have used less tired snow? – ick.

I’m not being sarcastic. This really has been one of the most beautiful winters ever. It’s true that I keep no kids or pets or car here, am able to adjust my days when snow comes and work from home, and go out just for pleasure and exercise. That makes a difference, I know. But before you pelt me with another white (uh, gray) stinger, let me share why I love the stuff:

Purity. Nothing is like snowfall. It defies imitation. In dusting the earth, even in blowing hard, it is purely and simply snow. It’s our atmosphere (so far we still have one) whirling about, dancing, coming to rest in windswept dunes. At the center of our hearts, we all love snow. What’s not to love? Snow is delicate, clean and white. It brings us back to something simpler, someone we remember, some place long gone. Snow brings intention. It has a clarifying effect. When it blankets us, we get to see what really counts – in our work and our play, on that day and on that shopping list.

Presence. Snow is a thing of this moment. Young and old, it has a quieting effect on our psyches and souls. Before it lays there, dirty and pee-stained and blocks our way, it’s a thing of beauty, right now. And we move differently through it – more conscientiously, softly and slowly. We think of ourselves and the person next to us. Like magic, snow brings out the best in us.  When it’s soft and fluffy and shimmering in sunlight, we love it. When it’s black and hard, we don’t. Everything that sticks around is like that. Settle too long in one place and you too will become dark and hard and be in someone’s way. That’s what snow does most for me. It nudges me back on the path.

Protection. Take heart. We’re going to have an amazing spring! Right now under all that protected ground, the earth and all its creatures are busy storing up their energies and reserves and protecting all the seeds. We call it the dead of winter, but there’s nothing dead about it. Another conceit of us humans, just because we can’t see something taking place. Nature doesn’t fault us. Soon she will gift us with a ground-breaking, death-defying, orgasmic Pop!, Pow!, Brr!, Shrrr!, Buzz! Breeeeee! Weeeee! Swang! Swing!….Spring! And that will be a great time for artists and lovers.

Poetry. Go ahead and take your inspiration now for snow is a poem. Snow is a story, a slice of a season, a gasp from a cloud. Snow is a pirouette, a prayer, a curse. It’s silence, a shadow, a whisper. Snow is light. It alights. Like a brushstroke, and a lyric. Thank God it’s here now and not coming down in July. That would really be shitty. Take your inspiration now. Take it before it’s gone. Gone for….good.

Prospect Park, Brooklyn, Feb 2014

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.

Don’t show us. Let us find it.

I attended a screening of the new film, Nebraska, with my Canadian actor and pal Jean Brassard. What a truthful bit of film-making it is and what amazing casting! In the live chat with Bruce Dern that followed, he shared some of his wisdom:

1. Don’t push. Don’t perform. Don’t show us anything. Let us find it.
2. Always leave a piece yourself at an audition, even if you have just 2-minutes of time. They will never forget that.
3. Take risks and build a family of creators around you.
4. Go home. Because that’s how you find out who you are.

I’m inspired to explore these themes in the next few entries.

First off: “Don’t push, don’t perform, don’t show us, let us find it.” Dern was told this by a casting director at one of his earliest auditions. How very compelling and very challenging! It seems like a contradiction – telling an actor not to show something; a performer not to perform. And it is a beautiful irony. Don’t the best performances seem somehow to be “dialed in”? It’s like they come from somewhere else. Genius and raw talent manifest in this way. An artist opens up and just streams the stuff from God knows where. That actor is a pure, clean channel. For me, its been precisely in those moments when I’ve managed to step beside myself and vanish for just a little while, that something real and truthful has been invited to come in. I feel at once all there and not at all there.

The best performances I’ve seen are also highly original and individual. I don’t think of us as purely pure channels. I do sense that there is a heightened awareness, yes, and a tuning that gives way to something less self-conscious. So what is performing anyway? Webster’s says it’s “presenting something, portraying a role, demonstrating a skill, taking action, enacting, and… beginning something and carrying it through. Now this really resonates with me. To perform is to carry something through, to quiet my urge to “show” something and allow something to show itself through me, using all my faculties and resources. I get myself out of the way to clear the way for something to convey. This is the essence of performing, of being a performer. For in handing myself over, I’ve still got myself in the mix.

Returning to Dern: Not to show something and instead letting it be found – how radical is that in our time and age! Where everything is shown, put up big and boldly and loudly, screaming at us all the time…”see me, see me, see me…want me!” – in advertising, in business, in our relationships.

For a thing to be found, it has to exist. It has to be available and given in the first place. No camera can find a thing that isn’t there, that hasn’t come into the room. Showing up is that thing given. Showing up at the audition, showing up for the camera, for the viewer, showing up for the carrying out. “Show up, don’t show off” is what Dern is advising. Present, but don’t push. Carry and stay, don’t get carried away. Convey, convey, convey. The rest is up to the finders.

Next Bruce Dern said: “Always leave a piece of yourself. They will not forget that.”

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.

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