passion

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.

 

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.

Taking my leap of faith (or, “all in”).

leap-of-faith-woman-courage

Many months ago, I took local jazz singer and Frank Sinatra sound-alike Jack Civiletto to lunch. I quizzed him on his career – how he got there, what he loves about singing full time, and how he decided to make jazz singing his career.

I was surprised to learn that Jack had not been blind from birth. His condition began in his late twenties and got worse, till in his thirties, he lost his sight entirely. He was forced by circumstance to give up his successful job as a clothing salesman and expand his part-time musical career to his full-time vocation. And boy, is he good at it. I have more than once wished I were limited to just one career. What if singing had been the only thing I could do?

Nearly one month ago I quit my day job as a graphic designer at a bank to become a jazz singer/graphic designer marketing specialist. Every day I get up and ride two horses. When I spend time on my 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. I am torn.

This quote inspires me:

Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
~ Mark Twain

I’ve always wanted to be a singer and put on a show. When I was 10 years old, I wrote, produced, marketed and performed in a variety show to benefit the SPCA. We made over $47 dollars, which, in 1971 was a nice haul.

Fast forward to June 26, 2010. I’m debuting my first-ever jazz singing trio to benefit Gilda’s Club. We make over $1,675. That night, I knew; this is my passion — doing good and singing
— putting on a show and benefiting a cause I believe in.

Is there a career here? I really don’t know. I’m in the weeds right now with not a lot of gigs on the calendar (who am I kidding? Just one), a whole lot of discouragement, and this amazing gift I’ve been given, but doubt, oh, about fifty times a day.

In the belief that truth sets me free and with the knowledge that I’m not alone I’m sharing my journey. Come along. Share yours with me. We both might learn something.