singing

The night Captain Fantastic gave me a voice.

elton john captain fantastic voice courage

The Chrysler station wagon smelled of cigarettes, beer and spoiled milk. It did on hot humid nights. My older brother Greg was driving, and he and his friends were playing that stupid game of repeating exactly what each other said a split second after saying it. It was like being in an echo chamber full of morons and it was irritating.

That summer of 1975 was big for Elton John. He had released Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and the breakout single, Someone Saved My Life Tonight, was playing on the radio. A miserable and lonely 14 year-old, I identified with the world-weary, but hope-filled lyrics and passionately sang along, oblivious to the snickers around me:

I never realized the passing hours
Of evening showers
A slip noose hanging, in my darkest dreams
I'm strangled by your haunted social scene
Just a pawn out-played by a dominating queen
It's four o'clock in the morning
Damn it! Listen to me good
I'm sleeping with myself tonight
Saved in time, thank god my music's still alive

As he’d done so many times before, my brother snapped the volume off, leaving my voice exposed in the now-quiet car. In the past, I’d sheepishly clam up, embarrassed to be singing. Not this time. Those stirring lyrics and hearing my voice above the mocking gave me courage to go on:

Someone saved my life tonight sugar bear
You almost had your hooks in me, didn't you dear
You nearly had me roped and tied
Altar-bound, hypnotized
Sweet freedom whispered in my ear
You're a butterfly
And butterflies are free to fly
Fly away, high away, bye bye

The laughter stopped, and Greg turned up the radio.

That night was the beginning of finding my voice — a process that still continues. Sometimes that voice is quieted by soul-crushing failure, a negative review or disapproval from others. But magically, the mere act of speaking out — singing, saying or writing what is true for me — blasts open the timid doors of my heart and I’m free to fly.

Someone saved my life that night. Turns out, it was me.

 

Losing (and finding) my voice.

finding menopause losing voice dysphonia

The symptoms started last summer vacation in Colorado. In the car practicing scales, my voice cracked — a common enough for a 14 year-old boy, but never me. The more I sang, the more hoarse my voice became. It was terrifying.

I was 52, had left a good job in marketing to be a jazz singer only a year and a half prior — and now this. As always, I jumped to worst-case scenario and cried on my husband Dave’s shoulder that night. “Will you still love me if I can’t sing?” I half-seriously asked him. More important, I wondered how much I’d love myself if I couldn’t sing.

Googling “vocal problems, hoarseness, perimenopause,” I discovered women often experience a loss, changing or lowering of their voice at mid-life. Opera singers, in particular, age out and quietly retreat from public performance, avoiding the public humiliation — often, only in their forties.

A life-long singer, I had taken my voice for granted, wondering instead if age or looks would be the determining factors in success (heck, even those few extra pounds), all the while not realizing my entire career rested on two tiny vibrating pieces of tissue less than an inch long. Talk about feeling vulnerable.

Of immediate concern, was my rapidly approaching debut at the Lewiston Jazz Festival. How ironic would it be that after years of applying to the festival, my first performance there would be diminished or, God forbid, even cancelled?

The more I researched, gastric reflux (a common malady of menopause) appeared to be the direct cause of my problems. Simply, stomach acids were frying my vocal cords and affecting their ability to vibrate properly and produce sound.

The next morning, I hit the pharmacy and started taking Prilosec – which belongs to a group of drugs called proton pump inhibitors (PPI’s) or acid-reducers. Within days, the vocal cracking stopped. My range returned, and the relief was as big as the surrounding Rockies.

My performance at the Jazz Festival was a success, but vocal problems continued to dog me. Again, I turned to the internet to research my condition. In addition to preventing reflux by not eating large or late-in-the-day meals, modifying a number of habits would keep my voice limber: avoiding caffeine, alcohol and decongestants and raising the head of my bed six inches.

Just how important was it to keep singing? I even gave up my beloved red wine. And, as averse as I am to medication, hormone replacement therapy soon joined my medication regime.

Finally, having exhausted self-diagnosing, I visited an otolaryngologist. He confirmed reflux, but to great relief, my vocal cords were only irritated, not permanently damaged. It also turned out (in danger of having doctor creds removed), I had been taking Prilosec incorrectly.

So, I’m singing again. The range is back and doesn’t skip. And yet … this is not voice I had in my thirties and forties. It’s not quite as lush or round. It sounds (gasp!) older. I hear the difference in my recently-recorded CD and am not entirely happy.

These days, I have to work much harder to maintain vocal fluidity and limberness. The passage from chest voice to head voice is not as easily navigated. I have to sing every single day to maintain tone and flexibility.

And yet, there is something I did not have in my thirties and forties — vulnerability and connection. These songs have been lived, revealing both broken hearts and simmering passions.

Now 53, I also believably project sensuality and playfulness. I take myself less seriously and am more confident. I’m not sacrificing the message of the song to attain perfect tone – the phrasing is more conversational. You also hear that on the CD.

This last year has seen the death of a number of friends, most of whom were artists. The world is the lesser for it. I wish I could hear just one more of their songs or see another of their paintings. Yet, here I am, alive, sometimes tempted to stop sharing my gifts out of vanity or perfectionism.

keep-calm-and-sing-on

Funny, when singing, my flaws and limitations are forgotten. In that moment, I am a conduit for God or Spirit. I’m lost in the song, creating joy, and often (especially with the elderly) making someone’s day. My audiences connect, and through the music, buried emotions are unearthed. My work matters.

Yes, I am an older woman with an older voice, but I have a compelling story to tell and hearts to touch. Until my audiences stop listening, I’ll keep singing.  

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.

 

Making the teacher appear.

teacher-student-throwing-pottery-humility

When the pupil is ready, the Master appears.
– Unattributed

Mrs. Padlog, my piano teacher when I was 11 years old, probably wanted to strangle me. I had a good ear, picked up rhythm quickly, had great melodic sense and practiced only when I felt like it, mostly never. But, songs came easily and I could play them well enough after two lessons, so figured the end-of-the-year recital would be easy-peasy and I would be crowned Best Student.

Facing 30 or so sweaty and anxious parents and children in Mrs. Padlog’s living room was not the cakewalk I had envisioned. King of the Road became a path of landmines in a forest of snakes. Guantanamera was the childhood equivalent of showing up naked at a cocktail party with a chicken wing hat. Playing faster did not help as the black notes danced and blurred while my heart beat crazily and face burned with shame. I ended with a mashed-up flurry of notes, and slunk off stage, followed by sparse claps and sympathetic faces.

I was not worthy of Mrs. Padlog’s patient instruction. It would be 30 or so years before I was ready for my teachers to appear and truly learn from them. In time, becoming a good musician was important enough to overcome self-defeating habits and a bad attitude.

Besides a little bit of talent, getting ready for the teacher is the key component in any success I’ve had as an artist and performer. Do you want to sing, paint, write, act or dance? You’ll need a great instructor, mentor or coach. I’ve been lucky to have a handful of them. Here’s how to get primed and draw them into your life:

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!
~ Goethe

Envision
Where do you want to go? Do you dream of becoming a tap dancer? Picture yourself dancing in front of an appreciative crowd, commanding the stage to thunderous applause. Chart your path with gusto — a rudderless boat heads nowhere. Seal the deal by sharing your dream with a supportive friend. Four summers ago, I told my husband I wanted to be a jazz singer. He responded with a fist pump and an enthusiastic “yes!” I was on my way.

Expect the unexpected
Your teacher may not look the way you pictured or come from where you thought she would. What matters is that they have the heart of a teacher and can inspire you. One of my vocal coaches, Guy Boleri is a cranky, almost 80 year-old I met at a party. He yells at me, and early on, made me cry. Now I laugh at his bluster. He’s taught me more about phrasing and song choice than any book or college course could have.

Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.
– Les Brown

Aim high
Whom do you admire? Often well-known performers and artists will supplement their income with teaching – and they might agree to teach you! They’ll certainly know of a good teacher to recommend. When I heard Andy Anselmo was going to be at a party I was singing at, I buzzed with fear. Andy is known as “Teacher to the Stars,” having taught such students as Liza Minnelli, Tony Bennett and Mandy Patinkin. That night I worked up the courage to talk to Andy and now he’s my other vocal coach. In addition to intense vocal exercises and performance advice, I hear anecdotes about great American artists.

Be prepared to pay
And pay you will, in time, money and passion. You might have to give up cable or that weekly dinner out, and while that outlay can sting, the investment in your talent will inspire hard work. My biggest improvements have been when I’ve practiced when I least want to — late at night, when I’m tired, or during a holiday or vacation. It’s my message to the universe: I’m dead serious about succeeding and will pay the price to make it so.

Wearing the white belt here means you have agreed to set aside all knowledge and preconceptions and open your mind to learning as though for the first time. Students here receive one belt and one belt only: the white belt. Those who put in the time, training, and effort will find their belt getting so soiled that eventually it turns black of its own accord.
~ Philip Toshio Sudo, Zen Guitar

Drop the ego
You may have been the lead in the high school play and the family’s best artist, but the attitude most helpful in attracting and keeping a good teacher is humility and a beginner’s mind. They allow you hear criticism, resist comparing yourself to others and persevere in the face of apparent failure.

One of my first and best vocal instructors was a classical teacher named Frank Scinta who was also my father’s choirmaster. Dad knew I needed improvement and gently suggested lessons with Frank. Initially offended, I ditched my punctured pride and studied under him for two years. He gave me the gift of good tone, breath support and enunciation. None of this could have happened if I had maintained the illusion of not needing help.

I believe that when we open our hearts and ask (and if we are willing to work), the universe, God or whatever sends us what we need. The gift of a good teacher is that they can take our mediocre or budding talent, help us surpass our own expectations and rise high above limitations.

So, get dreaming, get humble and get ready to fly!

 

Envy in the arts (and how to get over ourselves).

envy arts green jealousy flower

When I was seven, I wanted to kill my friend, Jeannie Stevens. Every year, our local supermarket sponsored an Easter-themed coloring contest with the hotly-desired prize of a giant Easter basket filled chock-a-block with glistening jelly beans, epic chocolate bunnies, and pillowy marshmallow Peeps.

As serious as a heart attack — I’d take out 48 crayons and, zen-like, shade and color the black outlined Easter scene to waxy Crayola perfection, this time sure of winning.

The entries papered the store by the thousands like an explosion of Buddhist prayer flags, yet every year, inexplicably, unfairly, tragically, classmate Jeannie Stevens won the contest and the grand prize basket. This annual travesty persisted, though I was sure my coloring was as good as hers.

Thomas Aquinas’ description of envy as “sorrow for another’s good” did not even begin to describe the toxic bile I internally spewed at having lost, yet again. I wished Jeannie nothing but eventual capitulation and annihilation — and she was my friend!

I would like to say my envy has been conquered in adulthood, but that wouldn’t be true. I flinch when a fellow singer (usually female) gets to play a desired venue and critique her performance, adding up what I possess that might be better than she. I obsess over festivals and clubs not booked and seethe about the method and politics involved in the choosing of acts. I’ve often said bitterly (in my head)

“Who do ya’ gotta know in this town to get a gig at …”

If you have never had that sour metallic taste in your mouth as another enjoyed success, advantage, acclaim, reward or publicity in your creative field, congrats and all that (barf). You can stop reading here and wish your fellow Miss America contestants the best of luck as you maintain your Vaseline smile and clutch your Miss Congeniality trophy.

For the rest of us flat-footed Hobbits, envy is a familiar, if not often admitted emotion. In fact, evolutionary scientists believe it’s a natural condition with hard-wired roots. Envy is a tool to evaluate our rank in the competition for resources. It helped our cavemen ancestors — and now us — know when to hit the gas and try harder for the goods.

But, let’s face it. Envy is ugly — one reason we deny it and pretend we’re above it. In fact, Evolutionary psychologists Sarah Hill and David Buss cite research that we respond to envy with either ambition (I’ll show them!), submission (withdrawal, white flag, denial — it didn’t matter anyway), or destruction (@Jeannie Stevens). None of these strategies are particularly noble or empowering.

Maybe there is another way. In a search to better handle my still-operating envy and jealousy over other’s successes, I interviewed painters, singers, musicians, actors who admitted to not always being able to quiet the five year-olds inside them caterwauling “what about meeee?!?” — brave souls willing to cop to envy, but also share creative methods of coping and thriving with this very human emotion.

Reach higher.
Often, we’re most envious of those who are similar to us – our artist friends and acquaintances. This can poison a relationship but also limit our prospects and vision. Opening our eyes to world-class artists helps us to attain greater heights and exit the local rat race. Painter Phil Durgan doesn’t waste his time envying his peers their success: “I've only envied trailblazers (Duchamp, Picasso, Basquiat) because they discovered something before I did. Hats off to them! Because they, too, envied someone else.”

Believe in your own path.
When you have discovered your mission, you will not have time nor reason to focus on someone else’s. Actor and singer Kerrykate Abel states it this way: “The older I get, the more I realize how individual everyone’s creative path is. While it is true that sometimes it does seem that some people have more opportunities than others, it all evens out, and I am a firm believer in creating your own destiny and opportunities. If you want what someone else has, go out and make it happen — the only thing standing in the way is you!”

Work Harder.
As an adolescent and sometimes an adult, I’d respond to hearing a better singer by either criticizing them or taking myself out of the competition. Now, after reflection, I head to the basement and practice — my only competition being the voice that needs to improve – my own. The opportunities seem to grow in direct proportion to the amount of work I put in, or, as Samuel Goldwyn said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Learn from it.
Instead of blaming the process of selection, denigrating the actor she lost out to or avoiding the play she didn’t get cast in, Actor Loraine O'Donnell studies her own process: “When I don't get a part, I look back to see if there was something I could have improved on, learn from it and move on. Quite often not getting the part will light a fire under you creatively and actually help you to become a better artist.”

Actor Peter Michael Marino uses a similar approach when witnessing a superior performance: “I usually just try and figure out why someone in my field is doing better as opposed to resenting them for doing well.”

Josie DiVincenzo, also an actor, is refreshingly honest with her struggles with jealousy, wondering, “What's wrong with me that I didn't get the thing the other person did? Or, I get angry at the people choosing, thinking it's not fair that they favor that other person, and also wonder what magic or trick or ‘je ne sais quoi’ that person has that I don't have, LOL.” But, Josie ultimately derives insight from her feelings: “In the end, I always realize it's my internal work I must do to not hang my happiness or blame on someone else's choices or life.”

Count your blessings. When we are faced with another’s success it’s easy to forget our own creative wins — the phenomena of “what have you done for me lately?” Actor Peter Palmisano responds to envy by telling himself to “Stop being an asshole and forget it. I already consider myself to be very lucky in my ‘career,’ so I have no business being jealous of anyone else‘s success.”

Embrace your own bad self.
Like a beach ball forced under water, repressed envy can pop up and hit us in the face.  Accepting our emotions may be the fastest way to process through them. Pianist Michael McNeill freely admits his own struggles with envy: “I stew. Then I remind myself that I'm on my own musical path, and while the things we commonly associate with success can be helpful in developing one's music, the music comes first, and I can keep making my music without outward signs of success. But sometimes I still stew even after that.”

And if all else fails …

Ponder your mortality.
The Buddhists are big on picturing their dead and decaying bodies while meditating. Pretty grim, but it puts petty concerns like fame into perspective. Or, if you prefer, a gentler take from the Bible:

People are like grass; their beauty is like a flower in the field. The grass withers and the flower fades.
~ 1 Peter 1:24

In the bigger view, what we do here on earth is not nearly as important as it often seems and fades with stunning swiftness.

As I did when I was seven (and sometimes even now), we can allow envy to sour our souls and alienate us from our fellow artists, or we can let it be our signal to work harder, love more and let go of our self-importance. 

I’m still working on it.

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.

 

On being loved fully and outrageously, like I deserve.

intimacy-couple-sex-self-respect-loved

First, a confession. For the first 40 years of my life, I did not feel worthy to be loved romantically. I projected an aura of superiority and self-confidence, but inside felt unlovable and undesirable. A lot of women do. We internalize slights from middle and high school and hold ourselves to impossibly high standards. We find ourselves lacking.

What cured me of self-loathing? At first it was becoming a musician and singing out publicly — finding a passion and that audiences liked me, they really liked me, as Sally Field once said. This flew in the face of my old story about being unattractive. Secondly, it was going through a painful, unwanted divorce.

To heal I needed to fully love myself, faults and all. Early in the separation a memorable moment occurred in front of a full-length mirror. I assessed my body and finally embraced its beauty, uniqueness and flaws. I loved it — and me, completely.

Loving myself was an important step to being loved, but before dating, I also needed to map out what a successful relationship would look like, so I created a vision statement for my new life. It painted a verbal picture of my new home; the atmosphere, art and music that would live there — the social life, vacations and spirituality I’d pursue.

I also envisioned the man in my life. He would be kind, hospitable, generous and fit. I imagined a mutually loving relationship with a lot of sex and affection. I wanted a man who adored me, would lay it all down for me, put me first and powerfully desire me. I shot not only for the stars but the whole dazzling Milky Way before even setting a foot in the dating swamp. This became the road map for my future.

A friend who had been single for many years warned about the lack of prospects in our hometown. “There are no good men. They are all taken. The only ones left are losers. Trust me — I’ve dated them.” I envisioned better for myself. I reckoned it was only a matter of time before Mr. Right came into my life. The key was to not be entangled with Mr. Wrong when he finally appeared. The more I loved myself, the easier it was to lose the Mr. Wrongs. And while setting the bar high might result in singlehood, alone and happy was better than coupled and miserable. The bar stayed high.

It didn't drop with that first man I dated who noted I was “loving and feminine onstage, but vulgar and boorish offstage.” Bye. It remained high with the wealthy but incurious man with only one thing on his mind and it wasn't quantum physics. He was stopped at the second date. Significantly, the bar didn’t lower when dating the well-off, fit and sexy plumber who had anger and jealousy problems. It was sad, but I ended it and was alone again.

Dave was not an obvious choice. He was a recent widower of a dear family friend. He was an artist like I was and quiet, probing, funny and smart. We started out as supportive friends with no thought of dating while I kept looking for Mr. Right. To our surprise, over time our friendship became romantic. We were remarkably compatible, sharing interests in museums, theater and music. We both loved to read, travel, entertain and wanted to create a house filled with love, respect and generosity. Most important, Dave wanted me — was willing to do anything to get me. Nothing came before me. The more he loved me, the lower my defenses became and the more I loved him back.

Newly single, I'd been told that “statistic” that a middle-aged woman had as much chance of remarrying as getting struck by lightning. But, that was a mindset of scarcity and desperation. Instead, I determined there would be abundance and love in my new life, if not specifically a new man. However, it turned out that accepting myself fully, envisioning an ideal life and keeping high standards became the magic path to the love of my life.

 

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.

 

Sundays with Guy Boleri (or, getting yelled at is good).

Photo by Charles R. Lewis

Photo by Charles R. Lewis

Just a typical Sunday afternoon with my 77 year old, cranky vocal coach Guy Boleri. Some days it’s enough to make a grown woman cry.

You’d think I was a beginner. I’ve written and produced two acoustic folk and one jazz CD. I’ve opened for and performed with semi-famous people (Sylvia Tyson, Shawn Colvin, Richie Havens). I’ve had voice training for over ten years. Why do I sign up (and pay) for this abuse? Turns out, I really need the help.

Here’s what I get from Guy:
Guy holds a mirror up. When I’m good, he lets me know. When I blow it, he tells me (unlike a family member or friend), because I’m paying him to tell me. I can see it on his face and, very rarely, in the tears in his eyes.

Guy knows more than I do. Guy performed at a piano bars and clubs in Hollywood and Northern California for decades. He knows hundreds of songs from the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s by heart. He sang a lot of them when they were first popular. He has forgotten more of the Great American Songbook than I will ever know.

Guy raises the bar. Just when I get comfy, he suggests a song I hate, or find too hard to sing. “Lush Life” and “What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life” nearly killed me. I’m still struggling with “Mad About the Boy.” On my own, I’d coast on Mediocre Street.

Guy cares about the music. Do not mess with the lyrics. Change an adverb and Guy will be up your business in a flash. He can also magically tell when you are filching someone else’s interpretation, “What are YOU thinking?” Instead, Guy insists I strip a song down to “as written” then encourages me to improvise with my own ideas, not a cheaply rip-off of someone else’s.

I don’t study with Guy because I want to be good. I’m with Guy because I want my voice to stop people in their tracks, and shake them down, looking for any emotional spare change. I'm hoping for brilliance, craft, and ultimately, transcendence.

My “Sundays With Guy” is a start.