jazz

My Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal.

big hairy audacious goal spider

The first time I did it, I was 11 years old. The local SPCA shelter was low on money and was forced to euthanize the overflow of puppies and kitties. It just about broke my heart. Something had to be done. So, we put on a show.

I envisioned a vaudeville extravaganza with corny skits, music, and written-out parts for the available cast — my two sisters and a couple of our best friends. Even our flea-ridden, mangy collie Kingboy would have a walk-on role.

We canvassed the neighborhood, selling flimsy paper tickets for 75 cents each that Dad had photocopied at work, baked cookies and made lemonade. We hung up a clothesline and pinned old tablecloths on it. Any available fold-up chairs were wrangled from the neighbors and lined up hopefully in our garage.

After one whole week of rehearsal — largely consisting of me telling everyone what to do and pitching fits when they WOULD NOT follow my directions — we were ready for the hoards of Harvey Road theatergoers.

And you know what? They came: mothers, fathers, squalling toddlers — even that new black family down the street (exotic for Grand Island) we’d welcomed with a cake. Everyone came with money in their pockets expecting fun, but knowing they were supporting something larger than themselves.

They clapped and listened appreciatively to our overwrought dramas in that hot, fly filled garage. They bought the overpriced brownies and Kool-Aid because five raggedy kids and a reluctant dog wanted to do something big and help something worthy.

I’m doing it again. I’ve put together a crack team of musicians and we’ve recorded a wonderful CD. We’re going to release it at a big party for a really great cause — The Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP). And boy, are they audacious too. They believe that with education and service they can grow and bring healthy food to the West Side of Buffalo.

The tickets aren’t cheap ($20 presale), but all of the proceeds and a percentage of the CD sales will go to MAP. We’d like to buy them a walk in cooler for their fresh, locally-grown produce.

Please join us on Friday, March 28 at 7:00pm at Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Buffalo. We’ve upgraded the cookies and lemonade to wine, desserts and appetizers. Instead of five awkward kids you’ll see some of Buffalo’s best jazz musicians. Kingboy the collie won’t be there, but if you’ll come, we promise you one hell of a show.

 

Finding a blue sky in Buffalo.

Painting by Phil Durgan

Painting by Phil Durgan

Can we agree that this Buffalo winter has been a real bummer? Misery for most, heaven for some, what we haven’t seen are many blue sky days. This has made the shooting of my album cover, “Here Beneath the Blue,” a near impossibility.

I had pictured me standing, relaxed arms wide open, under a brilliant, clear blue sky. However, glamour shots in 20° weather with icy howling winds don’t portray the laid back vibe I’m shooting for. Streaming eyes, nose and flailing hair might be fine for a metal band, not classic jazz.

Friends suggested Photoshopping me into an idyllic background — dependent only on a good shot and mad editing skills. While I’m at it, why not copy/paste a 20 lb. slimmer body on me, put a margarita in my hand, a nearby pool boy applying sunscreen and call it a day?

No, desperate times lead to desperate measures. Somehow, I’d create my own blue sky; that is to say, hire an artist to paint a blue sky behind me while I posed happily beneath it. Luckily, I know a few wonderful painters and was able to line up the talented abstract artist, Phil Durgan to be my performance painter. I supplied him with a thumbnail sketch of my vision and we were on our way!

What to wear for my cover — sexy, vulnerable, spiritual or slinky? Ask an expert. Last night I met with BFF and style maven Pamela Sieracki who shopped my closet for five potentially awesome outfits. She combined fabrics and colors like the designer she is and advised me against my own “What Not To Wear” disasters.

Mari McNeil outfits

In two days, the photo shoot will be a coordination effort worthy of D-day: first, my hair will be cut and styled by Michele Ruffino of R Salon. Then, my face will be painted, troweled, and airbrushed by Hollywood makeup artist, Dani Weiser. Next, it’s off to the indoor loft apartment/French bistro owned by the generous Paul and Sandra Wilkins. It has the distressed brick look I’m hoping for, plus lots of natural light. Phil will arrive on site with his partially finished canvas and painting supplies to set up a live backdrop to my posing.

Then, it’s time for my photographer, Marc Murphy, to work his magic with existing light and my thoroughly natural, hey-I-look-this-good-everyday, appearance. If all goes as planned, I’ll look happy and open — here beneath the blue.

Just like in real life, when blue skies in Buffalo are not cooperating, we create our own.

 

Be kind. Start with you.

vulnerability kindness self love hand butterfly

The contrast between the women in the two videos could not have been more stark.

The first woman kept her head down, talking lovingly to a baby in her lap, not looking up until addressed directly by the cameraman. And then, she looked pained, as if she found showing her face excruciating — for good reason. She was heavy — lumpish, her face shiny with oil and beet red with acne. Her hair was short, manly and dishwater blonde. Her glasses were thick, large and unfashionable, as were her clothes. After awkwardly facing the camera, the woman’s head dropped back down to the baby in her lap — closed again to scrutiny, trying to hide on a front porch in the mid-day sun.

The second woman is seen from a distance, singing to a crowded, buzzing concert hall. She’s wearing a low cut, body-hugging, cherry red dress revealing a shapely, lean figure. Her arms are flung wide to the well-dressed audience, face open and happy as she moves smoothly to the music on glittery black stilettos, accentuating muscled legs. Her fashionably cut, shoulder-length blond hair swings to the music — The Way You Look Tonight.

Both women are me. The first video was shot 23 years ago, when I was a mom in my twenties, the second, from a concert I recently performed while visiting relatives in Minnesota. Not long after that event, those same relatives and I viewed that first video of our kids … and a much different version of myself at 29 years of age.

It was fun to see our now-grown children as babies and toddlers, but I had not reckoned how viewing my younger, tortured self would feel. I had all but forgotten that girl, destroyed old pictures, and expunged my mental palette of her sadness, agony and ugliness. Viewing her, I felt the old shame and revulsion, but something more — deep compassion.

I wanted to reach into the screen and pull her away from that peeling porch, that ramshackle house and take her to a place of love and gentleness. I longed to undo the ridicule she received in middle school, free her from the cage of apparent security that conservative religion had provided, enlighten her to her latent musical talent, but most of all, show her the inherent beauty her body possessed, the tenderness in her blue-green eyes, uncover the radiant smile hidden for so long.

I yearned to tell her that she deserved kindness and respect from everyone around her. I needed to let her know that as long as she hated her body and waged war on her face she would mistreat it and feed herself poorly. I wished to reveal that most women know tricks — magic tricks to play up their beauty and minimize flaws to stunning effect. I could teach those tricks to her!

I felt desperate to rewind time and save her, but realized, with a jolt, that I already had. The massive changes which began shortly after that first video, had transformed me and culminated with a powerful metamorphosis; I finally accepted myself — no exceptions. I embraced flaws and fears, then parted with an old self-image that thought unkindness was OK, that not being loved was my lot. I learned that the most important person to impart that love was me.

Secure in that love, I left a marriage that was long dead, built a new life, and created an exterior as beautiful as the interior I had always possessed. And, in a surreal reversal of fate, now publicly performed with exuberance, power, and femininity — about as far from that 29 year-old as a housefly is from a phoenix.

My reaction to the first video made me wonder if I’d accepted my shadow side: what Carl Jung described as the “aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not identify in itself” — in this case, vulnerability, weakness, fear of abandonment and self-hatred. But, it turns out, the aversion to the video was a merely a vestige of an old self.

I am not the insecure and critical girl I once was. The gentleness and patience I now grant to myself is given to everyone in my life. I can walk into the burning buildings of people’s misery and troubles, with warmth and empathy. The alchemy is complete.

But sooner or later, age brings deterioration and illness. Looks are lost and talents may fade. Careers end, fortunes evaporate, loved ones die. What then? In making true peace with the awkward, unattractive girl I once was, I will return to that same bedrock of love and acceptance for the aged, diminished woman I will surely become.

I deserve it — we all do. Then, now and forever.

 

Band camp?!? No, really, band camp.

Photo by Gene Jochen

Photo by Gene Jochen

There’s something that just sounds funny about an adult going to band camp. You get visions of cousin Norbert with his coke bottle glasses and French horn getting on the bus and waving goodbye to his parents. Joking aside, jazz fantasy camp was a chance to get a little of the formal music education I lacked, and learn how to scat sing.

My friend from Buffalo, saxophonist, Mike SantaMaria, sold me on the fun of it. Knowing that Darmon Meader, founder, musical director, composer, saxophonist, and vocalist with the group New York Voices would be my teacher put a big green button on it.

The cost of tuition, room and board for the Tritone Jazz Fantasy Camp week at Nazareth College in Rochester, NY was $1,375 – steep for a working musician like myself, but perfectly reasonable given what I later discovered were the typical professions and socio-economic statuses of the attendees.

On day one of camp, the Wilmot recital hall at Nazareth was filled with 50 or so fellow campers (mostly instrumentalists) ranging in age from early forties to late seventies. As we introduced ourselves by name and instrument, I felt like a brown shoe in a tuxedo world, having labeled myself as “singer,” while others in my group of nine used the more formal term “vocalist.” I had a lot to learn, both big and small.

The daily schedule was cram-packed with rhythm, theory and master classes. Music theory class with the superb Jim Doser was a lot like high school math in that I did terribly, in spite of patient teaching, and got red-faced with frustration. I made supremely good use of my time, however, and surreptitiously surfed Amazon on my smart phone to order “Music Theory for Dummies.”

My fellow vocalists varied in talent and experience. We had a couple who played sax as well — the lone males in the group — who wanted to improve their singing. I was the only one who had quit their day job to perform, but one of the least experienced in reading music and ensemble work.

Our teacher, Darmon, immediately got us working on our ensemble pieces (think Glee). One of the songs, Frank Loesser’s “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year,” had a difficult solo section, which he pointed out might interest someone who was very ambitious. Game on! I recorded him singing it and endlessly practiced it during limited free time in the days to come. I was determined to nail it.

Evenings were for formal performances followed by jam sessions. Never a shrinking violet, I showed up for the advanced jam, but soon found there wasn’t a protocol for including singers. In a typical session, a player (often the pianist) will “call” a tune — that is, name the song and the key, and musicians take turns soloing after having run the song once through.

Some musicians resent vocalists in jam sessions. Singers sometimes need songs in unfamiliar, difficult keys to play. Also, they reduce the amount of time instrumentalists can solo. Finally, they often don’t read charts well — the road maps for how to play a tune. These deficits have led to jokes at the singer’s expense, ie: How can you tell when your lead singer
is at the door? She can't find the key and doesn't know when to come in. Buh-dum!

That first night, about 14 musicians crowded the jam stage; a pianist, bassist, drummer, clarinetist, flutist, guitarist, six saxes, two trumpets and me, the outlying singer. Undeterred, I grabbed a mic, sat down, and made sure to look like I wouldn't be leaving any time soon. They found a place for me, offering me my own turn as a scat soloist and occasional tune caller. Having discovered a position in the band I later invited some of my fellow singers to join in the fun. We all got along just fine.

Communal meal times gave everyone a chance to become better acquainted. I made a point of switching tablemates at each meal and getting to know as many of my fellow musicians as possible. The array of professions represented was dizzying: a medical physicist, accountant, cardiologist, physician researcher, philosophy and advertising professors, music teacher, three aerospace engineers, and at least eight lawyers — among many other professions. Conversation flowed easily and we didn’t want to stop.

Even more than the music, the one-on-one connections were most treasured: there was Christine, the serious lawyer with a heart as big as Wisconsin who dreamed of donating money she made from her gorgeous singing to the less fortunate; Bob, the gentle trombonist with MS who found it difficult to play anymore and thought he might like to sing; Frank, the shy, brilliant, aerospace engineer who made himself available to accompany me on piano during every break; Giuseppe, the gravelly-voiced saxophonist whose voice was made fun of as a child and wrongly thought he couldn’t sing; Celia the flutist/physician researcher who was torn between a profession she felt called to and the music she loved. Most touching of all was Carol, the paralegal with sass who had been gravely ill, undergone a tracheostomy and lost much of her vocal range, but could still movingly deliver a song with fewer notes, but oh-so-much soul.

Each of their stories wove into mine and I felt a kinship with these people called by the beauty of music, and camaraderie jazz provided. They were no longer strangers, and by the time our final recitals arrived, we had not only become friends, we had gelled into some pretty good vocal and instrumental ensembles.

And that difficult solo I coveted and practiced for? Christine, the songbird lawyer and I split it right down the middle. She was better than I, but no matter. What about Carol of few notes? She earned the sole standing ovation.

Just like in our lives outside of band camp, everyone missed some beats and hit a few flat ones, but here, there was love, acceptance and encouragement all around and gorgeous music was made.

 

“Take your hands out of your pockets!”

woman-hands-in-pocket

As I write this, Harvey Rogers, Buffalo jazz's best friend lies gravely ill in a cancer hospital.

Harvey has been a welcome fixture at all the local jazz joints for decades, supporting celebrities and unknowns alike with warmth and appreciation, and, in my case, helpful critique.

It was my first public jazz gig and I was frozen with fear. In my previous incarnation as a folk singer I had played large and small audiences and had learned to work a crowd, but always with a guitar strapped on my chest, sharing original tunes. This was different. Just me, sound, audience — nothing in between — vulnerable.

Harvey sat in the front row, his brown eyes snapping with attention behind the thick spectacles. As I began, Harvey nodded to the music, inspiring confidence. After three songs, I confessed nervousness and that it was my first jazz gig, but was learning. At that, Harvey yelled out “Take your hands out of your pockets!” I laughed, and the rest of the gig went just fine. At the break, Harvey was complimentary, then suggested a list of songs I should consider in my repertoire — many of which have become favorites.

In the three and a half years since that gig, I’ve paid close attention to what I do with my hands and the rest of my body. Stagecraft is hard work. More importantly, I’ve learned to take my hands out of my pockets in other ways. I've played with guitarists in addition to wonderful pianists, occasionally incorporating a sax, gotten acting as well as vocal coaching, and, in a few days I'm going to Jazz Camp at Nazareth College. I’m stepping out from the familiar and hope to learn more about theory and improvisation — how to cut loose, scat and perform with creativity and courage.

Next week, whether Harvey is on this earth to delight us for more days or just living on in our memories, he will be with me at Nazareth, urging me to take chances, sing with wild abandon and take my hands out of my pockets for good and all.

Thanks Harv.

Burning my last boat to live a life of passion.

burning boat life of passion courage

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.
~ Helen Keller

A year ago I quit my job. The stated purpose was to start a freelance graphics business and sing jazz at night, but I was lying to myself. I didn’t want to be a designer anymore. I just wanted to sing.

Singing always came easily – too easy. I was gifted with good pitch, a pleasing voice and loved singing more than anything else in the world. It was the first thing I was good at. But build a career out of it? Silly girl. I thought I was ugly, short and had no charm. Everybody knows performers are tall, glamorous and feminine. Instead, I took a consolation prize, dressed my little artist self in a grey suit and thirty years ago became a graphic designer.

I was good, but never great.

Passions have a funny way of persistently itching and mine would not let me go until I scratched it. At mid-life I owned what beauty and charisma I had and learned to love myself as is. I left the corporate design job ostensibly to work freelance and sing, but actually started an inner battle that shook me hard. It became a tug of war between doing something I did well or doing what my singing demanded — taking a leap into the unknown and believing in myself. At first I did both half-heartedly.

I posted in a blog:

Every day I get up and ride two horses. When I spend time on music, it feels as though I am cheating my business. When I work in advertising and design, I feel like I’m taking the easy, well-worn path of success and not devoting myself to my passion.

Clinging to the ruse of being graphic designer by day and a jazz singer by night ensured
neither would flourish. A saying kept haunting me: “Burn the boats to take the island.” It refers to an historical incident where a commander, having landed in enemy territory, ordered his men to destroy their ships, so that they would have to conquer the country or be killed.

I hadn’t burned my last boat. I kept swimming back to my graphics comfort zone and clinging to it. I was afraid to trust my singing and my ability to make it succeed — afraid of failing at something so beloved and desired.

This fear had a point. The music business has never been easy, especially in Western New York, where most musicians supplement their income with teaching or another job. Even low-paying gigs are ferociously competed for and guarded. However, hard work, competition and challenge had never stopped me before. Why should they now?

After a year of divided attentions, I still had no advertising clients. The few design jobs I pitched landed with dull thuds as the client probably sensed my heavy heart and lack of enthusiasm.
A previously strong suit was now dragging me down.

Meanwhile, music was succeeding in ways never thought possible. I had regular gigs at clubs, scored spots at festivals, was playing with some of Buffalo and Rochester New York’s best musicians, and had selected and memorized songs I loved, could master and deliver with feeling. Most importantly, I was connecting with my audience on a deep level and building a fan base at each gig.
The answer was blazing a hole in me.

One year after quitting my job, I officially quit my old career and faced my terror — closing the door on the one sure thing that was not so sure after all.

The American Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron writes:

A teacher once told me that if I wanted lasting happiness the only way to get it was to step out of my cocoon. When I asked her how to bring happiness to others she said, ‘Same instruction.’

Today, when asked what I do for a living I answer without hesitation: I am a jazz singer. I finally believe it.

 

Rockin’ this nose. The one I was born with.

rhinoplasty-nose-job-self-acceptance-mari-mcneil

He meant well. “Have you ever considered a nose job?” He said it with great delicacy and care, feeling it would improve my chances of succeeding in bigger market cities as a jazz singer. My response was measured, “I hadn’t considered it, but wouldn’t rule it out.” He went on to share the long list of performers he knew that had, including himself. “Why do you think I look so young?" I had to admit, for his age, he did look good.

I have my beloved father’s nose — a German-Irish nose, a not-small nose that shows no sign of shrinking with age. It never bothered me. Or, hadn’t — until now.

I am 51 years old. Many of those years were spent in self-loathing and holding myself up to unattainable, model-like standards. I had a love-hate relationship with my body and it held me hostage from doing the thing I loved the most — singing jazz, instead, spending 12 years as a folk singer, a safe place where an ugly duckling like myself could hide. It was only after a painful divorce that I learned to embrace and love my form in all its glory, with all its flaws. And three years ago, I switched from singing original folk music to jazz — finally feeling sexy and confident enough to get out from behind the guitar and sing the music I was born to sing.

Last January I quit my pleasant, secure day job to become a full-time singer. In addition to the loss of a respectable income and benefits, I have paid a very high price to make this change; I take voice lessons from two coaches, work weekly with a pianist/arranger to build my repertoire, read books on music, study classic recordings and sing for hours in the basement, car and bathroom. Each and every gig is widely promoted with e-mail, Facebook, posters and press releases. On some gigs I compensate my musicians from my own pocket — just for the exposure. Maybe this nose suggestion could be filed in the “price I have to pay” column.

The doctor was highly regarded. He answered every question with intelligence and thoughtfulness. By his reckoning, he had performed more rhinoplasties than anyone in the area. I knew one of his patients, and his work was subtle and attractive. He did not overpromise. This was the guy.

I recently attended a benefit that featured a number of vocal acts from New York City. All of them were smooth and polished — most were beautiful, svelte and dewy-fresh. They had stage presence and some had great patter, astounding ranges and vocal clarity. And, while I enjoyed their performances and derived many good tips, the biggest treat of the night came from an outlyer.

He was the opening act bandleader — a well-known, local horn player. This man is not conventionally attractive. He weighs well over 300 lbs. and is around 60 years old. As a lark, he presented a song. He moved slowly and painfully, and got up. Then he sang Little Girl Blue
with pathos — his voice soaring to a glorious falsetto, in turn brassy and bold, then dropping to an intimate, paper-thin whisper. “Why won't somebody send a tender blue boy to cheer up little girl blue." I was stunned. I could not close my mouth or stop smiling. That night, he was the sexiest man on the stage and it was his performance that stayed with me the most.

As I lay in bed that night reviewing the performances, I began to think of why I loved my favorite vocalists: Jeri Southern, an obscure singer from the 50’s, touches me with intimate vocals and vulnerability; Canadian folk singer Bruce Cockburn impresses with truth and musicianship; Holly Cole, a jazz singer from Toronto, amazes with originality and focus; Alison Krauss draws with silvery timbre and musicality; Ella exudes warmth, precision and tone; kd lang explodes with power and dynamic range; Mel Tormé seduces with smooth style and phrasing; Jane Monheit commands respect by overall mastery, song selection and interpretation.

Compiling the list, I realized not one of them was a conventional beauty. More important, as a fan, their looks were something I never once considered, loving them instead for their artistry, humanity and talent. I respect their work ethic, dogged attention to detail and professionalism and admire their bravery and creativity.

I do not think about their noses.

If I don’t succeed as a jazz singer, I suspect it will be because I got tired from the immense amount of work it takes to be great with so little initial return. Or, it will be the drain of preparing books and setting up sound equipment, or lack of venues for serious jazz. Possibly it will be the ridiculous amount of work it takes to promote a gig and get a crowd, or living in a small market city. Or, a creative block, beyond which I can’t go.

I don’t think it will be about my nose.

Monday morning, I’ll call the good nose doctor and cancel my pre-op appointment. And then, like most days, I’ll go down to the basement, open my book of tunes, and start working — hard.

 

How to live like you’re dying.

climbers-live-like-dying-courage-mortality

The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.

~ Psalm 103:15-16

When my daughter Louise was 15 years old, she decided she was ready for all-night coed sleepovers. This led to loud, dramatic discussions in which I was labeled as “unfair” and “overprotective.” Exasperated and out of options, I was inspired to explain my position in a different, more visual way.

I got out a piece of poster board. On it, I drew a long line width-wise. I labeled the left “0.” The right, I marked with with “80.” I explained to Louise, “This is a timeline of your life if you live to 80.” I placed a tick mark at the center of the line and one to the left of that and explained “Here is you at age 40, and you at age 18.” Then, I put a mark at 15 (her age then) and, using a red marker, connected the marks from 15 to 18. “This small bar represents the amount of time you have here before college; three short years.”

Finally, from 18 to 80 I drew a bright green bar. “The green bar represents all the time you have left in your life to do whatever you want. You’ll be on your own and there’s nothing I can do about it. You can be a stripper, a heroin addict, or a prostitute, if that’s your passion. So, how about you let me be your Mom for the next three years and not fight me so much?” She was silent as she took it all in. Things calmed down a little after that.

Numbers are powerful things. They do not lie.

At age 50, it was with my own timeline in mind that I considered quitting my corporate day job and becoming a jazz singer. On one hand, I could cruise comfortably until retirement, with good pay, benefits, and a pleasant job; on the other, take the incredibly scary leap into my lifelong passion. I contemplated the likely balance of time left to me, realizing I most certainly had less time before than behind me. My life was startlingly finite. So, I jumped.

I know a guy who toils at a barely tolerable day job. He is in middle management with a team of 11 and reports to a disinterested boss who was promoted to the position my boss should have received. Day after day he fades a little. Though he delights in his garden when he comes home, he does not have time to fully enjoy it. He’s too tapped out for friends or hobbies. He’s tired of his life.

His husband also works a job he would like to leave. His passion is selling used items on ebay and he’s brilliant at it. He buys low and sells high. He makes good money. With my boss' organizational skills and his husband's sales ability they could probably both quit their day jobs and make a killing in the re-sale market. Fear keeps them stuck.

I want to show him the timeline before it’s too late.

In my Buddhist practice I am instructed to ponder my own death during meditation. This is not morbid. For Buddhists, it is an exercise designed to remind us of the fleeting nature of our lives and to live meaningfully, mindfully, with purpose. It is over all too soon.

What is the nature of your life?
You are but a wisp of vapor
that is visible for a little while
and then disappears.

~ James 4:14

A few years ago, Tim McGraw sang a hit song titled “Live Like You Were Dying.” In it, he encounters a man on his deathbed who describes how his terminal diagnosis changed the way he lived:

And I loved deeper,
And I spoke sweeter,
And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying.
And he said “Someday I hope you get the chance,
To live like you were dying.

It is funny how pondering my own demise and the change it inspired has made life so much more vibrant and joyful. I have never been more engaged, excited, and fully alive than when pursuing my passion. I can’t wait to wake up in the morning.

It turns out, death is a great motivator.

 

The three pillars of success.

Three Pillars of Success

My friend Ryan recently sent me a link to a You Tube Video his 13 year-old daughter Skylar created. She’s covering the song It Will Rain

Her piano skills are competent (learned from YouTube!) her voice is in pitch with a lovely timbre. She’s attractive, fresh and yearning. She could go anywhere — or nowhere. It’s up to her.

She reminds me of myself at around that age. I had some talent. I had written a few songs, sung in a band, taken some lessons, had a few gigs. Then I didn’t win a musical contest, got my feelings hurt and dropped out of music for “real life.”

35 years later, I wish I could have told my 16 year-old self about the three pillars to success in music — and life.

Find your unique talent.

When I started playing guitar, I thought I’d be the next Melissa Etheridge — gutsy, angry, dynamic. As it turns out, I didn’t have a rusty, belting rock voice. A softer, folkier approach worked (think Mary Chapin Carpenter), but as a passable songwriter, I had limited success.
It wasn’t until my companions at a dinner party egged me to sing a couple of torch songs that I could imagine singing jazz. Jazz was always attractive, but a little too hot, vulnerable and sultry for my feminist frame on life.

But singing jazz at a ripe nectarine 48 is not like 23, and jazz finally felt like a tailored evening dress; snug to my body, smooth velvet and in just the right color! I had found my music at last.
Maybe your niche is comedy songs, or children’s music. I had a dear friend who excelled in Hawaiian slack-key guitar music. This is characterized by open tunings and dangling a needle over the guitar strings (from a thread hanging from the mouth) to produce a soft, chiming sound. He was so passionate and the best (and only one of his kind) in Buffalo.

Finding your singular voice will take time and probably be frustrating, but will pay off as people discover (and reward) the original that is you.

Work like a dog.

This as not as obvious as it might seem. In an era of instant stars ala “America’s Got Talent,” and “American Idol,” we have come to view success as talent + opportunity = meteoric success. And so, with all the other upstream swimming salmon, musical hopefuls scour opportunities, waiting in long lines to be heard, get auditioned – becoming demoralized (as I had) at the smallest failure.

This model disempowers the artist. It puts all the control in the hands of the judges, observers and critics. What sets the greatest musician apart surely is talent, but it is the unseen hours of work that boosts her over the top. While her fellow hopefuls attend endless open mics and talent shows looking for praise, she is in the basement singing, working, building on the talent she has. Work is her secret weapon — her edge.

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that it takes 10,000 hours of work before the greats experienced success (Bill Gates, the Beatles, Beethoven, Tiger Woods).
While one might quibble with the hour count, hard work is the non-glamorous component common to most success stories. You can’t control shifts in taste or create cultural tsunamis like Lady Gaga has, but doing the work? It’s all yours.

Seek qualified criticism and take advice.

In the current “everyone gets a trophy” “student-of-the-month” atmosphere, we have become soft. Everyone desires to be praised and no one likes to hear the truth. At my very first jazz gig, I sang in front of a small crowd in a coffee shop. I had prepared three songs and this was my first experience singing without a guitar in my hands. Not knowing what to do with them, I stuck them in my pockets.

In attendance was an ancient jazz aficionado named Harvey Rogers. Old enough to have and give an opinion on everything, he shouted from the audience “Take your hands out of your pockets!” Though mortified, you can be sure I did and from that moment on, paid attention to what my body was doing as well as my voice, later watching videos of Liza Minnelli and Nancy Wilson for good examples of stage presence.

I also have two vocal coaches — both old Italian guys who have been around the music business block. Guy Boleri regularly shouts at me for poor intonation and sloppy phrasing.
Andy Anselmo puts me through endless scales and vocal exercises to improve tone and berates me to “sculpt the words!”

My feelings have been hurt on many occasions by both of them — eliciting tears a few times too. Maybe it’s my age, but I can finally take criticism without permanently folding. It’s beneficial for me and I like to imagine the critics are so hard because they must think I’m good enough to take it.

The three pillars: find your talent, work hard, let go of your ego. I wish someone had been able to tell me these things when I was Skylar’s age. But, somehow, I doubt I would have listened.

 

Getting to “no.” How embracing rejection can set you free.

no-rejection-resilience-hand-courage

20 press kits had been sliding around in the back seat of my car for weeks. Knowing I should drop them off at bars and restaurants, instead, paralyzed — unable to walk in the door and “cold-call.” My winter depression was seriously kicking in, and all I really wanted to do was crawl into bed and forget this pipe dream of being a jazz singer.

I had been singing as a hobby my whole life, first in high school, then in a rock band and in mid-life as an acoustic singer-songwriter, producing two CDs of original music. I studied voice for years under wonderful classical teachers, then switched to jazz, found an arranger/pianist, chose a repertoire, hired a vocal and acting coach and had charts written for over 50 songs in my key. It was my dream to go professional, and I was stalled at the starting line.

To intensify the pressure, I broke the 11th commandment and “quit my day job,” announced grand intentions to anyone who would listen, and, at the age of 50, risked failing publicly and quite spectacularly. I felt as crazy as it sounded.

One day, my sister Linda called, and immediately sensed my malaise. “What’s going on? You sound really low.” It was no use hiding from her. She grew up observing my moods, tracking my triumphs and failures, and could read my voice in a nanosecond. I described my inertia with the press kits, which she airily summed up in one succinct phrase: “You’re afraid of rejection.”

Was it that simple? Was I just afraid of rejection? And, did success lie on the other side of hearing a lot of no’s? As it turns out … it did. 

Linda’s offhand comment kicked me into gear. I gave myself a goal of delivering the kits to 20 restaurants or bars, including the many Wegmans Market cafés in Western New York. It took about two weeks, and I did get a lot of no’s – quizzical, stressed-out bar and restaurant owners fielding yet another unfamiliar musician who wanted to play their establishment and drain their thin resources. But I remained cheerful, upbeat, and optimistic as I collected my rejections, “maybes” and “we’ll sees.”

Two weeks after the press kit drop, my gig calendar was still empty as I headed off to Pennsylvania to help out in a family emergency. Halfway there, I got a call from one of the Market cafés. Would I like to play the Alberta Drive Wegmans on May 25th? Two days later; another Wegmans. Soon after that, an art opening, then a birthday party at a private club, three benefits and two more Wegmans. It was happening, and no one was more surprised than me.

There is a new game out called Rejection Therapy. The Game

The game has one rule:

You must be rejected by another person at least once, every single day. In this game, rejection is success. You actually collect rejections to win. Terrifying.

In my old life, I avoided rejection like poison ivy. I gravitated to fields I knew well, was talented in, that ensured, if not easy, at least eventual success. Jazz was a journey for which there was no road map. And like jazz, it required improvising.

Embracing rejection is still a powerful piece in the puzzle of seriously following my passion and believing in my art. So, I tirelessly promote and connect with club owners, and those who know club owners. Some call me back, some don’t.

I apply to every festival this area offers and haven’t heard back from any of them yet; however, rejection has become, if not a friend, a fellow traveler on this journey to deep career satisfaction.

And lately, he’s been a little quiet.