Category Archives: Mind

On Waking Up and Walling Up

My life happens first and my art imitates it. That’s the usual way. What I experience becomes my authority in what I bring across on stage, in a scene, a song, a mood, emotion, sentiment, argument.

I admit I’m an adventurer, happier on the edge than in the center. Yet anchored in the center with at least one foot, or even just one finger….tip. In waves, with my whole body. That’s usually after I’ve been out exploring and, like a satisfied cat, am back in a sun-soaked window licking myself. My fur, of course. My surfaces.

My sun sign is in an earth planet, and all the other dominant aspects are in fire signs. It isn’t always easy or practical –  these opposites and their eternal tugging – but it makes for me better art than were I simply grounded or simply restless. Actually, I was painfully shy as a kid, as a young immigrant freshly off the boat (or in my case plane, as my Dad was an airline man), but that’s another entry.

What I want to write about is this subject of life happening first… scary life some days…

I was deep into my upcoming album project yesterday, writing a lot and in a self-imposed exile. After dinner RM and I were noodling away at our respective noodles when he suddenly let out a gasp and “Oh God.” Something about Boston. Explosions. The marathon. The marathon? Are they kidding?! I broke from my writing and Googled Boston and there it was…a new story about mayhem and terror and injuries and death in a place where people are running. Running. Sporting. Competing…with themselves. Lots and lots of people. No, I had no desire to watch the gory details and have them playing in my head at sleeping time. I turned my machines off.

Now it is morning. I have not opened myself to it – the unfathomable, inexplicable, horrible to which we are all witness and vulnerable, we fear, and on some level, implicate. Events like this color a day, a week, a month, a lifetime. We artists are sponges after all. We feed on this stuff. Six years after my Off-Broadway success with a piece called Little Death, I’m creating the next chapter in its life. I live with this project. I breathe it in and out. Destruction is one of its many themes. But this morning, life happening first is too much for my art. Too external. Too violent.

I am building a shield around myself for as long as I can…for certainly it is dominating the news now as such things do and have only too recently done in a town not far away.

It pisses me off. Another group of people mowed down in their innocence. People passionate about running are innocent. They’re alive with running and with what’s running them. The people watching are innocent. They’re passionate about watching running, or watching movies. In the throes of our passions we’re unguarded. We’re vulnerable. We’re children. Does that go for the bomb-makers too?

Last night someone on Facebook wrote…”I love Boston, now I can’t trust it anymore.” I left a comment:”If you give away your trust, they’ve won.”

I feel this morning a giant NO. No, I will not turn to this. No, I will not distract myself with it, fall off my writing streak, my creativity, my creation. For then you have power over me…you tiny and frightened and miserable souls with your desperate pleas for attention. You are not animals. Animals don’t do this to each other. No living thing in this world takes from it what a human is so capable of taking.

This is all I’m permitting on the subject. A blog entry on how to erect a wall. A wall around myself to protect my innocence and inspirations which come from who knows where but someplace good. I am in the business of breaking walls down not building them up and in that way, you takers have won. For the moment.

But I set the tone here. The choice is mine of how much I give away and how much I retain. Today I stay with art and life will content itself with imitation.

Later I will visit Lenny’s grave just over in Greenwood. Kindred spirit. Good for the soul. The highest point in Brooklyn is near where he rests and from where you could have watched New York burning 12 years ago.

“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” – Leonard Bernstein

Postscript: Bomb-maker – I call you tiny, frightened, miserable and desperate in your plea for attention. Not very nice of me, is it. For all I know you are passionate about what you do and believe your inspiration comes from some good place too. In my heart I know that you and I are neighbors and that railing against you is railing against myself. That the impulse in me to diminish you is a tiny seed compared to the full-blown jungle who’ve created, but it’s the same impulse nonetheless. To the soil all seeds are the same. Nobody knows until one breaks through the crust of the earth what kind of thing it is and whether it will bloom by day or by night. You and I each exercise our passion according to our cherished beliefs, but here’s the thing: In my world, nobody has to die so I can be heard.

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Play It Again, Sam

(there’s more to this theme this week…)

I witnessed something beautiful the other night in an intimate room here in Manhattan…an error so seamlessly handled as to go almost unnoticed. The singer was turned slightly away from her audience, looking off stage left and sharing a duet with her bassist at the opening of a tune. Their dialogue was sparse and sensual and then, nearly a minute into it and without changing her position or glance, she said, “I need to start this song again” and said his name. And he, without missing a beat and without adjusting his curled position around the strings, continued to play – from the top.

Something was off for her, something about the tune and where it lay, or didn’t lay. Yet within the texture of the piece and both their connection to it, it was a beautiful moment.

Years ago in Germany, in the days when I was attending concerts as much as I could and studying anyone I could conceivably learn from in this craft of mine where the living mentors of a certain age are so few, I heard the great Ingrid Caven in an all Weill-Brecht program. Seated in the nosebleed section of the large theater, I heard her begin a song midway through the program and moments later, stop. “We must start over,” she said to her band. “I have too much respect for the composers.” I remember thinking to myself,  “Wow!…even at this level mistakes happen. A singer can derail and have to stop a song.” That was a big gift from Ingrid to me.

Perhaps it came from her time in film. Filmmakers get a break, don’t they? “Bad take? Okay, let’s go for another!” We, of the living stage, get one shot. That’s what we think and what we prepare for. But why? Why aren’t we permitted two and three and four or as many turns as it takes to get it right? Because that’s not what live performance is. That’s what rehearsing is. Because people don’t pay to sit and listen to something that’s OFF. They come to hear what’s ON. What’s good and what’s right.

I think it’s this constant flirtation with danger that makes it so exciting – the ever-present threat of a royal face plant, or worse, complete and mortifying humiliation. The excitement is in the chancy-ness of it all. Yes, it’s why we rehearse and why we don’t stop until we have perfect rehearsals. But then the performance comes and we toss it all to chance. We know firsthand that some of our most sublime moments have come with no preparation at all, and that hours of rehearsal haven’t safeguarded us against the demons of treachery and the bitter agonies of defeat.

In all the years that I’ve been singing and have watched singing happen, with all its false starts and faux-pas, the drawing of blanks and full-on derailment (sometimes within a few measures of the finish line), I know this much is true: the mistake is always worse for the one being watched than it is for the watcher. Most mistakes go unnoticed. And yet getting through them is its own mastery.

For a solo artist on the stage, sometimes stopping a song is the honorable thing to do. That’s been the take-away for me. And like so much of stagecraft, it depends entirely on how it’s handled. Enter grace. Enter respect. Enter humor. And surrender.

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There is no law for getting it right the first time or the 10th. Perfection is no law; it’s an idea (usually someone else’s). Something to aim for, but rarely struck. True perfection just happens. It happens wildly, capriciously, full of abandon. It may even slink in from behind masquerading in a circus cape. Being open in the moment is perfection. Being alive to whatever comes, and doesn’t come.

In life, we know when something’s off. When something’s dragging behind or racing ahead or  just not in its groove. In life we stop, correct, adjust our steering. Take skating. New York City’s famous ice rinks are beginning to slow down for the season. I passed one in Central Park the other day and paused to watch the skaters. I love ice skating. I don’t do it often enough. I realize I love it because of how it sounds.

When I’m on skates, I have a sense of my own groove. I’m either in it or adjacent to it. My blade is one with the ice or not exactly. It’s the same kind of tuning. Here too, things are best when I’m centered, not digging in and not riding on the edge of it. Things are best when I am not the resistance – when I am the glide. Singing is the same. Resistance or glide. Force or flow.

To someone watching from the perimeter of the rink, I’m skating like a pro. They’re possibly even a little bit lost in my skating. And yet inside me, I know. I know when it’s ON and when it’s OFF. And in singing when it’s OFF for any reason – timing, phrasing, wording, feeling, intention – I have the right to stop it. I owe it to the song that I love, to the composer I honor, to the audience I respect. I owe it to myself.

Stop. Begin again. Breathe through the mistake (mis-take) and seamlessly guide your people through the fabric of the song. “Play it again, Sam. From the top, please.” A mistake can be a thing of beauty for the artist connected to her song. It can be a lovely lesson for living in general, and a listener may take it away as a gift forever.


Drawing Blanks

The other night I was on stage with my singing partner, leaning back on a chair as her next song began. Only it didn’t begin. The pianist played the intro, but when it was time for her to sing, no words came out.

This is the nightmare! The singer’s, actor’s, speaker’s nightmare: Forgetting. Drawing Blanks.

It happens to all of us. No matter how much or little stage experience we have, no matter if we’re just starting out, or seasoned for decades, it happens that we come to a place and forget entirely where we are. And it never ceases to be frightening. The very thought of it, the anticipation that it could occur and does occur is probably what keeps most people off the stage and out of the public light. And yet…what actually happens? What do we perceive versus what’s going on? How much of our fear is real and how much is imagined?

What happens to time? Time – ha! Time does us the honor of stretching itself to both ends of eternity. Things that once felt like seconds are stretched into hours. Or so it seems.

And in those hours, what happens to the brain? The brain – ha! The brain goes into overdrive – reaching, searching, darting, probing. Is it this? Is it that? What word is first? What line? And we stumble along in the dark recesses of our minds. Blank.

What happens to the body? The body….well…the heart rate quickens, we begin to perspire. We lose the color in our cheeks or suddenly gain it on our neck, on our chest. Our temples throb. Our breathing sputters. Send in the paramedic – we’re heading into cardiac arrest! I’m dramatizing for effect. On the outside, most of this is invisible, but inside the body is on high alert. Somebody might as well be holding a gun to our back. We want to shout. We open our mouth yet no sound comes out.

And is it ever lonely! We can be solo on stage or in a crowd. The moment we draw a blank, everything recedes leaving us out there exposed. We turn to our fellow actors, singers, musicians for help, for comfort.

Such was the momentary plea in my partner’s eyes….what is it? Fill in this blank. As the seconds stretched into minutes, I searched my own brain for the word. I knew the song, knew her line. I couldn’t retrieve it either. If I had, how would I have communicated it to her? Speaking it aloud may only have drawn more attention to its absence, to its masquerade as a mistake. I could have been clever about it and offered it to her completely in character. But what did it matter. I drew the very same blank.

I shared her pain – I’ve been there. Soon my own palms would begin sweating, my fingers tighten around the microphone I held ready for my turn. God, why do we do this? Why do we risk it? What kind of masochists are we?

I could not help her with words, but I could help hold the frame. I straightened up in my chair and strengthened my intention. I kept a cool gaze. Behind it my eyes blazed with belief and support…”You’ve got it,” they beamed. I flooded the stage with power. I stayed in character. Soon enough she had turned back to face her audience, centered herself and a second later was off and singing. Our pianist did not miss a beat – he stayed glued to her throughout the 30 tiny seconds that felt like 30 minutes.

And what did the audience do? They waited. For all they knew there was nothing the matter. This was exactly what was intended. And yet they did know. Deep down they sensed that something was off, that before them stood a singer and human being momentarily out of phase. They felt her struggle, drew in their breath and held up their own part of the theatrical frame. As the words came to her and she took back her song, they enveloped her there and then in their loving applause.

These events are what humanize us stage artists. They are what make live performance so thrilling and daring. The recognition. The seeing ourselves in each other. We think there’s a judge, an us and a them. Performance shows us time and again that we are all in this together, and that sometimes just holding space for someone to falter and catch themselves is the only thing there is to do.

Because it’s happened to us all.


Understanding

To become exemplary, an artist cannot imitate, cannot be a carbon copy of someone else. She must present that which is thoroughly unique – herself – and for this she needs to know herself and to continually grow herself.

A good singer builds herself a mental reference book. She excels in the art of seeing into someone else’s eye to glimpse the truth or a lie, or of hearing into someone else’s voice. Every artist can be inspired by another person, another artist. Every interpreter can have her models, but in the end our own signature must go on the work. We must become Creator and use everything that exists to make something new and to reveal a soul, an original soul. Can one learn to be observant if one hasn’t possessed this quality since childhood? Very definitely, yes!

There is no real art without understanding. It is our responsibility as artists to combine sensitivity with intelligence. Sensitivity enables us to beautify our work, but that can only happen if it is supported by knowledge. It is the job of the actor to present human truths artistically, but not in some kind of precise and mechanical mirroring process. If he shows an ugliness, he should show the beauty in that ugliness as well. The actor is not a photographer but a painter and must derive his inspiration from the myriad sources around him. So it is for the singer, who paints a picture with each tone, word, and gesture.


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.


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.


Training

A person wishing to become a chanteuse must study the voice. A chanteuse who both sings and speaks her songs is continually in danger of damaging or even losing her voice if it does not rest on a solid foundation of technical training. It is, however, possible to over-train the voice. The principle behind most vocal regimes is to identify the singer’s voice and focus it, thereby whittling down to one the many voices we start with. Singers can in a way become more limited through study than expanded by it.

The antithesis of disciplined training is instinct – easily as valuable as training and perhaps more so. Unlike a trained voice, good instincts cannot be taught, but only acquired with life experience, mostly in the form of painful mistakes. If one has instincts about singing, they have likely come at a price. To allow instinct to be trained away is to squander good artistic investment.

To be able to color a song requires not one but many voices, perhaps many registers in a single song! For that, theatrical training is valuable. To be able to inhabit your body, to move it around, to animate your limbs with intention and grace, to stand still with ease and comfort – for this a study in dance is essential. Stagecraft is an inter-disciplinary pursuit. Learn from the actors, the dancers, the singers. We are here to teach each other.

Train, train, train and then leave the training. Revisit it from time to time throughout your life as you feel drawn, and as master teachers cross your path. Learn primarily by doing, by engaging, by succeeding and by failing. The stage and all whom you meet there, most especially the one inside your own skin, is your best teacher by far.


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