Songs for the Struggling Artist


How Some Coffee House Music Almost Defeated Me
November 30, 2016, 11:53 pm
Filed under: art, music | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Full Disclosure: I play an acoustic guitar. I write songs. And I sing them. Not as often as I used to but it is a thing I do and have done. I am fully qualified singer-songwriter. If they gave out certifications for folky singer guitar players, I’m pretty sure I could get one.

And yet – the singer-songwriter mix at one of my local coffee shops made me want to smash my guitar. And I love my guitar. But this coffeehouse mix nearly put and end to it, and me.

It didn’t bother me right away. At first, I thought, “Oh nice! Some singer songwriters! I don’t really listen to this sort of thing anymore.” But by the end of my hour there, I couldn’t take another song. And I couldn’t really work at why for a while.

Then I broke it down. Most of the songs were sung by a morose dude over a twiddly guitar part. They didn’t seem to be about anything. They were designed to be inoffensive. They’re like the soundtrack to a Hallmark commercial. I‘ll call this genre Hallmark Twiddle.

And the thing about it is – even though it seems inoffensive…it also seems like music to get date raped by. Like – it’s “nice” guys with guitars who just want you to come up to listen to a few songs, baby.

At the café, the same few songs cycled back again and again. I had never heard them before but they began to make me feel crazy. I figured they were some Pandora or Spotify “Coffeehouse Mix” designed to have performance reviews meetings over. There’s nothing there that might accidentally make you tap your foot or feel something. And then occasionally there’d be some song I love and I’d get all confused. I came home from this experience all messed up and after some research, discovered that this was, indeed, the Spotify Coffeehouse Playlist. And the songs that drove me craziest had thousands and thousands of plays. (probably all of them at this same café where this is the only music they play.) I’ll tell you, I’ve never been a particular fan of hardcore or punk – but when my boyfriend played me some Dead Kennedys as an antidote to this experience, it really hit the spot. I felt a palpable relief.

So how does this happen? How did one Spotify playlist almost defeat me? I feel like so much of culture is like this now. It’s just designed to play in the background without interrupting your life. Don’t worry about it. It’s just aural wallpaper, baby – but it’s insidious. Its blandness can get under your skin and make you go crazy. There were only a couple of women in the mix but they were singing in a baby voice over a cute ukulele. (Check out my amazing friend Lydia’s song about this genre.) In this world, the majority of the tunes are sung by a guy with a guitar. But that guy isn’t Bob Dylan or Billy Bragg and especially not Bill Withers. He’s not someone trying to change the system or even just consensually get into your pants. A guy with a guitar now sort of half plays it and half sings over it to generically tell you it’s going to be okay and don’t worry, he’s going to take care of you, baby. Keep sipping that drink; there’s definitely no roofie in it.

This experience made me long for the days when the music in a place had to be chosen, when it had to be selected each time an album ended. When you had to put on a new record or tape or CD, you had to choose the music each time. You had to say, “Yes. We will be listening to Beleza Tropical here at the Flamingo Rotisserie again. I choose you, Patty Larkin. Today our customers will be dining with Oasis. That’s how it’s going to be. I’m choosing it.”

I find it hard to imagine an actual person choosing songs on this Spotify Coffeehouse list again and again. It has the feeling of someone selecting the music in the same way they selected the brand of plastic cups. I want more out of music. If it’s all twiddly guitars and drippy voices, it’s just like a faucet dripping all night. Actually, I’d rather listen to a faucet drip.

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In Praise of Not Knowing

This whole Shakespeare controversy may be silly but it’s gotten me thinking a lot. My initial post on the “translations” looked at the news through my experience as a Shakespeare educator. My second one didn’t really have to do with Shakespeare so much as the power of money in the arts in America. All of which has led me here.

The more I think about it, the more this project seems to be about a discomfort with not understanding, with not knowing every word of Shakespeare. It is a discomfort with ambiguity and mystery. While this particular project might stem from one businessman’s need to understand everything, I think people around the world are struggling with a similar need to have all questions answered.

We live in a world now wherein most of the answers to our questions are a moment away. As comedian Pete Holmes has said, having the internet at our fingertips means that “the time between knowing and not knowing is so brief that knowing feels exactly like not knowing.” (Watch this whole bit if you can. It pretty much sums up this entire blog post.)

Why do camels spit?  Where did Yoko Ono go to college? What answers are people searching for? I can know as fast as I can type (or speak to Siri/Google.) We don’t need to wonder, to try and resolve it on our own, we just look – and we know. Which is magnificent. I love knowing things.

However – there are fewer and fewer opportunities to really sit inside not knowing. Most film and TV is pretty straightforward. So is contemporary theatre generally. You don’t leave Mamma Mia or The Gin Game with a lot of questions. And even if the work is a little more abstract, like The Bald Soprano, you will likely still understand every word of a play performed in your native tongue. Shakespeare’s language requires a kind of surrender to not understanding everything. It is a chance to exercise the quiet muscle of taking words in without boxing them up in relentless meaning. It’s also an opportunity to not know, then find some answers and then discover how much there still is to discover.

This, I think, is one of the functions of art in general. To help us accept and appreciate what we can’t understand. Because as much as it feels like we now know everything (as long as we have access to the internet,) we cannot possibly grasp all the mysteries. I may feel I know my best friends but there are depths, dark corners and bright lights in them that I will never see, never know. Anyone who has ever been in a relationship can attest that no matter how well you know someone, there is still an ocean of things about them outside of your knowledge. You can’t Google a soul.

In years previous, you might have gone to a certain kind of college to get access to knowing things. A professor had the information and then relayed it to you. This style of learning runs counter to a style of learning wherein the information isn’t the goal. It is, rather, the skill of learning, of engaging, of building a self or developing a soul. In other words, grappling with the mysteries. Arts and humanities are the technology for this. And making peace with ambiguity is one of the tools. A concerto doesn’t mean something. A dance isn’t necessarily “trying to say” anything. A painting doesn’t have to represent something. Sometimes that’s hard for people.

Sometimes it’s hard for me, I’m not going to lie. I am a meaning maker. I try to make meaning out of just about anything. But stretching my ability to sit in not knowing what something means is very good for me.

And of course, Shakespeare is made of words and those words do mean things. But some of those words can have two or three or sometimes even four meanings. How can we make peace with a quadruple entendre if we’re uncomfortable with ambiguity?

We’re at this funny moment culturally. On one hand, we are understanding more and more, only seconds away from knowing things we didn’t know before – and on the other hand understanding less – about what we’re supposed to do with all this knowledge. And all the institutions that would help us deal with that question are under threat. The Education Minister of Japan wants to cut all humanities programs in higher education there. Arts programs are on the chopping block all over the world. The Arts Council of England has been painfully defunded by the current government. Here, in America, we’re giving our playwrights words to translate instead of asking them to help us reconcile the mysteries of the current moment.

Not knowing things is very important. But I want to be clear that I’m not asking for ignorance. There are things to know, yes, lots of things, and there are things to Not Know. Real education teaches how to know the difference and make peace with the unknowable. Exceptional art helps us sit in the mystery.

Belinda He, choreographer, in the mystery

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How to Get Inspired
September 17, 2015, 10:34 pm
Filed under: art, Creative Process, dreams, music, theatre, writing | Tags: , , ,

It may seem like artists just walk through the world waiting for inspiration to hit us – like it’s something that just comes upon you, like a lightning strike out of nowhere. And while this sort of thing CAN happen, it is pretty rare. If you want to get struck by lightning, it makes sense to search out the appropriate conditions and locations. It makes sense to go where it’s raining, for example – and to stand where lightning might be more likely to strike.

I started to think about inspiration while on a trip to Greece. I didn’t go expecting to be particularly inspired. I knew I’d be stimulated and edified and that the experience would enrich and enliven my work in lots of ways but inspiration was pretty much off the table.

And perhaps here would be a good place to pause and talk about what inspiration feels like to me – what I think of as real inspiration. For me, it is a rush of feeling. The closest comparison I have is the feeling of being in love. There’s a tremendous receptivity, an open-ness, a widening of the field – as if I were normally looking at the world through a keyhole and with inspiration, I suddenly see things in 360. Ideas rush in – some of them fully formed, some just little seeds – and I feel like I vibrate at a different frequency for a while. The feeling of this state is so powerful, an idea born from it will often sustain me for years afterward.

It’s different than just having an idea. I have those all the time. Inspiration is being lit up by ideas. If an idea is a lightbulb, inspiration is 25 strings of them.

So it was that a few days into my trip to Greece that the lightning struck and turned on all those bulbs in me. The ideas rushed in – there wasn’t time to write them all down – and it felt marvelous to be in the throes of receiving such gifts from what I was experiencing.

It had been so long since I’d felt this way, I had forgotten what it felt like – forgotten that it was possible. And I wondered about the conditions that created it. I wondered how I could court that muse, so to speak.

First, I couldn’t expect the muse to arrive. She has to show up when she wants, how she wants.

Second, I went to a place that held some power for me. My work has always been influenced by Greek mythology so there was a probable potency to Greece for me that might not have been present elsewhere. Even in Greece, there were cities and places that were beautiful and thrilling and engaging and edifying but that did not pull the trigger on the inspiration gun nor sustain it.
I have had similar experiences in other places that held power for me. Certain locations in London, for example – or Italy.

Third, I had several quiet moments with which to just soak in what I was seeing. Long car rides through beautiful scenery, for example, or writing by the water. It would have been hard for the muse to show her face if I’d been on a crowded tour bus cramming in the sites.

Fourth, and this is probably obvious but – Novelty is powerful. Just going somewhere new and foreign is a key ingredient.

It was an extraordinary privilege to get to go to a place that could give me this kind of inspiration. And in thinking about it, I realize that there are ways to court inspiration in more economically possible ways than traveling halfway around the world. I was struck with a small scale inspiration wave when I went to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in DC. for example.

But even in this small scale example – I didn’t go to that museum cold. I knew there was some work by my favorite painter there (I’d discovered her there!) and I went to pay homage. When I saw a painting I’d never seen before however, quite a few strands of light went on and the play that came from it is now finished and ready for a reading. I didn’t go there to get inspired. I just went to see my favorite painter’s work. I didn’t go to Greece to get inspired. I just went to see the site and culture that has given me so much material in the past. And I think this is how you catch the muse. You come at it sideways, armed with a little bit of love for something and when inspiration comes, it pries you open to love even more.

Inspiration hadn't kicked in yet when my mom took this photo. . .but space was clearing for it.

Inspiration hadn’t kicked in yet when my mom took this photo. . .but space was clearing for it.

 

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Going into the Arts is like Playing the Lottery
April 21, 2015, 10:19 pm
Filed under: art, comedy, Creative Process, music, puppets, theatre, writing | Tags: , ,

The odds are maybe not quite as bad. Maybe. But the chances for an actual sustainable life in the Arts in this country are very slim. When we begin, we’re all convinced we will be the one to beat the odds but only a lucky few will actually manage it. When you play the lottery, you can incrementally improve the odds of winning by buying more tickets. It stands to reason that the more tickets you’re able to afford, the more opportunity you have to win.

This is how privilege works in the arts, in a sense. Being white, for example, gives you some extra metaphorical lottery tickets. Being male will do the same. If you’re both those things, you’ll get an additional handful of tickets. And if you have some economic privilege – i.e. you can afford to do internships or not pay rent while you do a residency or whatever – that’s an even bigger handful of tickets.

But it’s still not guarantee of winning. This is why it’s hard to see one’s own privilege. It’s hard to feel like you’re winning when you’re losing most of the time. Winners of the Arts Career Lottery will tell you that all it takes to win is to work really hard at your craft and be the best you can be at what you do. The winners are experiencing something known as survivorship bias (to read more about this see: You Are Not So Smart.) Someone with Survivorship Bias attributes anything that they experienced as the reason for their success, that is, they worked hard, so it must be hard work that makes success!

But for every person who won the sustainable career Arts Career Lottery by working hard, there are probably hundreds upon hundreds who worked just as hard, are just as good and yet didn’t win. And there are also the ones who didn’t work very hard and just got lucky. You can do everything right and fail. You can have a fistful of tickets and still not win the lottery. You can have a fistful of privilege and still not win the arts lottery.

And like the actual lottery, sometimes a little win in the Arts will keep you playing. In the lottery, you play enough, you will win $25 or $50 and those small gains can encourage you to stay in the game, giving you hope that you could win. This happens in the arts, where a small bit of progress feels like a signal that you could win. You got that audition. You got that grant. You won that jury prize. So you keep playing. For better or for worse.

Should you play the Arts Lottery? Entirely up to you. The odds are terrible and you can lose a lot of money as well as piece of mind. I can really only recommend it for those who feel that they have no choice – that a life in the arts is the only available path. If that’s you: Welcome to the Lottery. Your odds are pretty slim but if you’re like me, you keep playing, simply because you cannot help it. Just be prepared for the moment when some asshole who’s never bought a ticket before, who’s barely trained and has not paid any dues suddenly hits the jackpot. I’ve seen it happen many times and it does not stop sucking.

But if you can let go of the idea that there might be order or justice or merit in the way the arts magic gets distributed, you might be able to enjoy the game.

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Thinking about JK Rowling and also Marge Piercy, with special appearances by Aisha Tyler and Marc Maron

I’ve been thinking a lot about JK Rowling. And not just because I’m broke, sitting in coffee shops and writing a children’s novel – oh, wait, maybe it IS because I’m broke, sitting in coffee shops and writing a children’s novel – but in any case, I’m thinking of her and how she began.

When she was broke, sitting in coffee shops and writing Harry Potter, no one would have predicted that she’d be a gajillionaire years later. No one. And while she was broke, sitting in coffee shops and writing, I’m sure all around her, people shook their heads and wondered when she was going to get her act together. Now, in retrospect, JK Rowling’s poverty is a funny origin story but I’m sure, at the time, it was as difficult as anyone’s poverty can be.

JK Rowling has made me think about all the other broke people who wrote in coffee shops and didn’t end up with mega-book & movie deals. Her story has made me think about how all of them, those with deals and those without, were all just driven to do it, results or not.

And that is the beautiful thing and the horrible thing about those of us who just can’t help ourselves.

In an episode of the Girl On Guy podcast, Aisha Tyler and Marc Maron were talking about drive and failure. Tyler talked about how much mediocre work artists have to make before creating a great thing. For example, a furniture maker has to make nine mediocre chairs before the tenth one can be great. It’s a way to explain and get through those difficult failing times. And Maron took some umbrage. He told stories about failing and how awful it felt and then said this: “If you’re not driven by something you can’t even understand that’s within you, good luck with creativity.” (It happens at 1:08:15 in the podcast, in case you want to listen. It sounds better than it reads.)

I found myself refreshed by this point of view. There is a sense of liberation from releasing myself from trying to imagine some bright light at the end of this tunnel. No, there might not be a reward. If experience tells me anything it’s that there probably won’t be. It makes me think of Marge Piercy’s poem “For the Young Who Want To.”

Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.

Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.

Read the rest of it here: Marge Piercy’s For the Young Who Want To

The last line is:

Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

I’ve had this poem pasted on my guitar case ever since I was a baby artist but I understand it differently now than I did when I mod-podged it there decades ago. It actually means more now than it did then. I think it is because I actually live it now.  When I first encountered the poem, I was one of the ones who wanted to. Now I am the one whose “hobby” gets more tedious to others the older I get. Embracing this thing in me that makes me make things, in the face of impossible odds, that causes people to worry about me, that is not socially acceptable (except in retrospect with a success story) feels like the next phase of the journey. I am not the Young one who wants to. I am the one who does.

For the post part, I’m not into the stereotype of the damaged artist. Usually, I steer myself clear of the suffering artist trope but maybe seeing that thing inside me that I don’t understand as a thing that won’t quit, seeing it as a fierce little demon, could actually give me some strength when all around me the world seems to be clucking its tongue and waiting for me to get it together.

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A Highly Sensitive Person in the Arts
October 28, 2014, 11:11 pm
Filed under: art, comedy, music, theatre | Tags: , , , , , ,

A copy of The Highly Sensitive Person fell into my hands recently. I read it with interest – as I assumed that if there was such a thing as a Highly Sensitive Person, I was probably it. I’ve heard “You’re just too sensitive” so many times, it’s like the soundtrack of my youth. A colleague once said, “You’re like an eyeball. You make me feel like sandpaper.” I felt that metaphor was apt. Like an eyeball, I leak tears easily and will turn red under stress.

After reading Dr. Elaine N. Aron’s book on Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) I can affirm that yes, I am one and apparently there are lots of us. (15-20 % of the population in fact.) I knew I was sensitive (I was always fighting it) what I didn’t realize was what a hand biology has in that sensitivity. HSPs have nervous systems that respond quickly and dramatically. Our systems go into high alert – what Aron calls overarousal – in response to things that have no effect on less sensitive people. This means, yes, that we blush easily – but also that the levels of cortisol in our blood get higher in these moments.

Overarousal isn’t all bad. Think about falling in love – all your senses go on overdrive. On one hand, it feels great and on another, you might lose some control of yourself.

According to Aron, HSPs tend to become overaroused when they are being observed or judged and this can have a radical impact on performance. For me? True, true and true. For years, whenever I would audition or compete, my chest would get bright red and splotchy. Evening gowns were an embarrassing costume choice for me. My teaching would turn to shit as soon as someone came in to give me an evaluation. Overarousal causes all these PHYSICAL responses, which explains why so many songs that sounded fantastic in my living room suddenly become strained in performance. My voice can become restricted, my fingers less facile.

For the most part, I learned to adapt to these little quirks. When I played with the band, we would often plan our set list in a way that would allow me to ease into performance. In other words, the first songs we played couldn’t feature my most challenging guitar parts (my fingers wouldn’t behave appropriately at the start) nor could the first songs feature my biggest wide-open singing. I had to begin with songs that sat comfortably in the easiest parts of my range and then move on to more challenging material once my system had calmed down a bit.

I’m thinking this whole HSP thing was probably a factor in my choice to skip the auditioning part of the performing business and focus on making my own work. In my own work, I can be completely at ease. Auditioning for me was always unpredictable. It felt like I had no control over my own system. Sometimes I was on fire, fantastic, blowing people away and other times I’d trip over my own tongue, have trouble breathing, turn red. Now that I understand this HSP thing, I feel like I could find some work-arounds for those quirks if I were starting all over again. (I’m not – there are a whole host of other reasons I make my own work.) I just wish I’d known then, what I know now.

It does feel somewhat liberating to recognize that I am not alone in this sensitivity, that there are others like me and that there is actual value in the the things that cluster around high sensitivity. Many of those things have not been of great value to me in the gladhanding theatre business (it is a loud “Everything is Great!” world.) Nor have these HSP qualities been particularly useful in my work in the loud landscape of the Education Business. However, I am finding that this sensitivity thing is an extremely important asset in my new career as a Feldenkrais practitioner. In fact, long before I’d heard of HSPs as a category, I was coming to appreciate the value of heightening my kinesthetic sensitivity. When I began to study the Feldenkrais Method, I encountered, for the first time in my life, a place where I could not only give my sensitivity free reign but found that I wanted to increase it. Suddenly, my ability to sense subtle differences allowed me to be of service, gave me opportunities to make a difference.

I find, too, that I’m interested in the possibilities of re-framing the benefits of being highly sensitive in the Arts. Sensitivity has always felt like a disadvantage in the marketing stage, the getting it out there stage, the publicity stage but it feels important to honor its benefits in the actual art-making stage.

Most of the work I like best has been keenly observed. I prefer highly sensitive art and highly sensitive artists are my favorite sort. I would like to see more sensitive work, to somehow develop a channel for HSPs to make HSP art and not have to dull their high sensitivity just to have it seen.

And still, even as I write this, I can feel my own internal skeptic sneak in and laugh at the sensitive artist in search of more sensitivity. “Sensitive” has been a criticism for so long that it is very challenging to reclaim it. In fact, what I think that laughing skeptic is responding to is vulnerability. It feels like a great risk to broadcast where I am so tender.

But to SENSE is of great value, especially to an artist. To be sensitive is to have greater access to those senses. And, yes, sometimes they can cause me to over-respond to things (there is no earthly reason that a person yelling NEAR me should cause such a dramatic startle response in my body) but those are the same senses with which I am able to take in the world. The finer tuned my sensitivity, the greater my ability to make something with it.

I would love to hear from other HSPs, I would love to hear about your work-arounds and understand your methods for proceeding through this loud and challenging world.

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And here’s a little 30 second song that I wrote many years ago about being too sensitive.

Just in case you feel like making a mash-up or something, you can download it there, too.

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Also, this XTC song reflects some of my HSP feelings.

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