The Voice World is like a Balloon Factory

I listened to Seth Godin say something this morning that stopped me dead in my tracks while I walked my dog.

In his book Tribes, he uses a fabulous analogy of a balloon factory, to talk about the institutions that we train and work under where the systems we have in place keep things humming along at status quo level. It’s safe in the balloon factory, it’s comfortable, and you learn how to do what you need to, to produce the product you want.

But, the problem with a balloon factory is there are these other things, sharp things, that are the enemy of the balloon. Things like pins, knives and, yes, Unicorns. If you work in the balloon factory you learn to fear those sharp objects.

If a Unicorn walks into a balloon factory, he suggests, it can send everyone into a panic. The disruption a Unicorn causes can make workers become protective of their work, fearful of the change it might cause and make people turn their backs.

As I listened, I realized I AM A UNICORN IN THE BALLOON FACTORY OF THE VOICE WORLD!

We are trained in school about the systems of the voice – respiration, registration and phonation. We read all the pedagogy books which teach us about the voice and how those systems work from the standpoint of ideals on a page.

I’m over here saying WAIT, what about skeletal, nervous and muscular systems of THE WHOLE BODY?  What about the fact that no one has a nervous system that developed perfectly, so we don’t actually function like a 2-D skeleton on a page? We have joints that are limited in range, muscles that are underused, imbalances and lack of function globally in the body. Those are the issues that impact the voice that NO amount of vocal technique can solve.

I’m disrupting the vocal balloon production line by suggesting that we can’t just say the pedagogical platitude the whole body is the instrument, we actually need to know what that means AND what that looks like in the body; our own and those of our students. We need to be the boss of our body so our careers are sustainable and productive.

I get it, Unicorns and their horns are terrifying if you need to make 30 beautiful balloons by the end of the year and have only 1 hour every week to work on them. Isn’t there enough work to do already? Everything you need to know you already learned from those 22 books you read on balloon production in graduate school, right?

The voice world, like so many other industries that rely heavily on the ‘this is how it’s done’ mentality, fears the Unicorns. But, we so desperately need Unicorns to help us grow and change and improve what we are doing and how we are doing it so we can do our jobs better than ever before.

Join me in popping those pedagogical voice balloons to find new ways of really understanding the body and voice and how they work together.

Here for you.

Your Vocal Unicorn,

Sarah

 

Consistency is Key

We all know that right? Consistency is what will ultimately bring about change. Want to shift your voice? Your body? You have to put the time in.

But…there’s always a but, right?

What if being consistent is the thing that stops you in your tracks?

I’ll be the first to admit I usually start something great guns, but after a while I will peter out. When I began to investigate why that is I made a startling realization.

I’m someone who really needs external accountability to keep me on track. In my life that can look like paying for a gym membership, buying the right shoes for the movement I want to do, signing up for voice lessons. Hell, I rescued a dog so I would be forced to get out the door and move every morning because I knew if it were up to me I’d just stay where it’s warm and cozy.

Gretchen Rubin has done some really cool work in this area and come up with Four Tendencies – categories that most people fit into – Obliger, Rebel, Upholder and Questioner. You can take a quiz here to see which category you are.

I’m a classic obliger. If I tell someone I’ll do something for them, I do it. If I tell myself I’ll do something for me, it’s more than a little questionable as to whether I’ll follow through, unless I find a way to make myself accountable for it.

It is my understanding that there are an awful lot of obligers out there.

So, here’s my question….are you wanting to make a change to your body or voice, but simply making that commitment to yourself isn’t getting you where you want? If you need some external accountability, reach out and let’s talk. Maybe it’s a class. Maybe it’s a series of 1 on 1 sessions tailored to your needs. Maybe it’s a workshop.

But, rest assured, you don’t have to do it alone. I’m here to help keep you accountable!

Do you pay attention to yellow lights?

If the light turns yellow as you approach an intersection, what do you do?  So often, we are either in a hurry or simply aren’t paying attention that we don’t see the yellow light as a sign to slow down. We either speed up or just keep driving along with minimal awareness of our surroundings.

I love applying the yellow light theory to our physical being. In our body yellow lights come in the form of small aches and pains; a crick in the neck, or a low back that aches or maybe even a bit of leakage when you sneeze. These yellow lights are the whispers of imbalance.

These whispers are the body’s way of asking us to slow down and make changes. In our culture of quick fixes and spot treatments, slowing down is a tall order. We want everything figured out, fixed and finalized yesterday, if not last year. So, we think the way to get there is to blow through it at top speed, focusing solely on the spot where we have pain (assuming we do anything about it at all) at which point we can declare, loudly, DONE! But, really the pain will return and likely it will be worse. Or, alternately, we just pay no attention to the low level pain that is accumulating, until we’ve hit the red light level of chronic pain.

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Our physical bodies are about loads. The forces we generate by moving (and not moving) create loads throughout the body. When there’s a problem at the yellow light level, that’s a sign that we aren’t bearing the load well. While our default is often to look at the place where the problem is and work there, we really need to understand that the place where pain is occurring is really only part of the picture….the best, long term solution is always one grounded in curiosity and compassion that includes the whole body.

The yellow light theory says, slow down, pay attention to the whole body: what’s moving that should be moving, what’s moving that shouldn’t be moving and what’s not moving that should be? Find a pure range of movement free of the aforementioned compensations and work there, no matter how small that range is. When you do that you make gains, you will be able to move farther faster, building strength and stability as opposed to simply doing the full pose and wondering why you are sore the next day.

Honoring your yellow lights and working with pure movement allows you to lay a foundation for making  lasting change. What are your yellow lights? Can you get curious and slow down to find a true solution rather than moving quickly and wondering why you don’t get any better?

On Balance

For a number of years I held this picture of stacked rocks in my mind as a representation of balance. To me, the rocks meant it isn’t easy, but balance is achievable. And, once you get it, balance is a beautiful, serene, permanent state.

Zen stones in water

This fall I’ve revised my thinking on balance. The stacked rocks above are balanced, but how easily will they topple? Wind, a push of a hand, a heavy snow or a wave will knock them over. Those rocks can’t yield to the unexpected forces of nature.

In the past I’ve thought ‘if I just figure out x, y, and z I will find balance,’  as though there is some magic formula yet to be discovered. Parenting, working, marriage, music, yoga…they would all just fall into place perfectly and I would live happily ever after.

When I stack the rocks of my life up a particular way, declare myself balanced and then life asks to me spin in another direction, I topple.

I’ve done just that, over and over and continued to wonder, “Why can’t I find balance?” Then I proceed to feel less than because I can’t figure out how to achieve balance and surely everyone else has.

It turns out life just doesn’t work that way. It is ever changing. This fall I realized there has to be a better way. Those stacked rocks can’t be my symbol of balance. But, what could be?

As usual, when life smacks me over the head with these realizations, I turn to yoga for my answers.

Vrksasana, Tree pose offers a new frame to explore the concept of balance.

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If you’ve ever tried tree pose you know how challenging it can be, and seldom is the pose ever the same. It is easy to get caught up in the external factors that impact the pose… your foot’s contact with the ground, the pressure and position of the bent leg foot against the inside of your standing leg, the tilt of your pelvis, the position of your hands and arm, where the wall is in relation to your body and on and on. We can only truly focus on one of those forces at a time and it can seem impossible to pull all of them together into one, balanced pose. Sometimes, when we are beginning that’s all we can do – we have to address strength in our feet first and then move on.

But, if you are always and only tuned into the individual, external factors, you miss that balance comes from within. You find balance in tree pose when you can move your attention inside, breathing and ‘being’ in the pose rather than ‘doing.’ Trees are grounded through extensive roots. They reach in all directions, striving for sunlight. They move in response to the forces of nature and they communicate with other trees to create a community in which they can all thrive.

The same is true in our lives off the mat. If we are always looking to external factors like work hours, after school activities, sick days, snow days, meal times, product launches, auditions, concerts, we are trying to stack rocks against an eventual tide. Sometimes we need to begin by addressing an individual factor, but we must quickly move on from that.

True balance comes from within. We are balanced when we can adjust to life’s challenges by simply being and releasing the need to do. We understand that sometimes we experience being out of balance and rather than judging we get curious and move back towards center.

We breathe.

We move in response to what is asked of us.

We are present.

We communicate and community-create.

Balance is an ever moving spectrum.

 

 

Resolve or Discover your Dharma?

I love what the new year represents – a fresh start, a new beginning and the idea of a clean slate. But, I’ve learned not to do much in the way of resolution making. They just don’t work for me. Resolutions are the things two weeks at the gym are made of. You know, the first two weeks in January where the gym is super crowded with folks who have resolved to get fit, exercise 7 days a week and lose 50 pounds by bathing suit season. But what about the other 50 weeks of the year?

Why don’t we keep our resolutions? What’s missing, I think, is the connection to what your soul wants. When your soul speaks it has a purpose – to set free our deepest, most heartfelt desires. This is the stuff of your dharma, or your purpose in life; what you are put on this planet to do.

Your dharma answers the question, so well put by Mary Oliver in her poem The Summer Day: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one, wild and precious life?”

There is a process to discovering your dharma which involves understanding your gifts, embracing your uniqueness and identifying what it means to fulfill your distinct purpose. This comes from tapping into the voice of your soul and understanding how our desires both material and spiritual and our longing for pleasure and liberation manifest. Our greatest power lies within and it is from here that we can realize our potential.

Once you identify your dharma, you need to figure out how to get there.

In yoga, we call these steps, or resolutions, sankalpa. The word sankalpa breaks down into san, meaning, from the heart and kalpa, meaning, unfolding over time. It is the next most important step you can take in achieving your dharma. These aren’t meant to be pie in the sky ideals. They are the nuts and bolts, practical steps that will work to liberate your greater purpose.

It won’t all be smooth sailing, you’ll encounter resistance, both external and internal, but with a sankalpa that is about the greater purpose of your life and not just about what you want short term, you have a better shot at staying the course.

So, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Waiting to Begin

Are you waiting until the right time to begin your practice?

The truth is there is no right time. At any given moment there are any number of things that can grab your attention. Waiting for it to be calm and clear means you could be waiting forever.

It is the ultimate yogic approach to simply accept the chaos and go for it anyway.

That is what my practice looked like today. This morning I settled down into my little yoga corner, a space that is just wider than my mat and not much longer either. My kids are on winter vacation and I knew it would be a day full of parenting so this was my shot at zen. I didn’t even bother to take my jammies off. I just got on my mat and began.

Usually it feels cozy to be in my yoga corner, tucked away from the rest of the house.

However, this morning, it ended up looking like this.

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My son brought his giant crane truck over and then my daughter joined him. And they argued over who would hook up what vehicle, how to wind the crane, where to turn it, where to dump it all while sitting about 6 inches away from me when they could have been in any other spot in the house.

Just out of the range of the camera was my 75 pound dog who wanted to be RIGHT next to me.

If I waited until the perfect circumstances presented themselves, I would never practice. That’s just reality. Today I knew I needed the practice and so I did it. For a full hour. An hour that was, in many ways, anything but peaceful, but was still filled with stillness. And I am the better for it.

Don’t wait to start. Just go do it.

No Mud. No Lotus.

At the risk of indulging in drama, have you ever had an experience where you think, that’s it, my life is over, everything is ruined?

Maybe you blew an audition and didn’t get the part you were sure was a key turning point in your career. Or maybe you had a performance that got panned by the critics, or got your heart broken, or didn’t get into conservatory or lost a beloved pet.

Life rarely goes how we think it will. Sometimes you just feel like you are covered in mud, stuck at the bottom and struggling.

And yet.

Time passes, wounds heal, other opportunities arise. You find yourself at another audition that goes well and you get the part, you have a performance that is reviewed well, you meet someone new, find the school you go to is actually a better place for you and you adopt a new dog.

Thich Nhat Hanh has a saying, “No Mud. No Lotus.” The lotus flower only grows in watery environments where the roots dwell in mud and the water is murky at best. The flower is gorgeous and considered sacred in many cultures, but it couldn’t exist if the mud weren’t also there.

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My path into singing wasn’t a traditional one. Though I sang in high school I didn’t pursue music much in college. It wasn’t until after I’d graduated and was working at a University that I began to think what if ? I took classes in song literature and other music related areas to explore and loved every minute of them. I took voice lessons in earnest, gave recitals, and even did a few auditions here and there. But, the reality was, I still wasn’t ready to pursue singing. I thought my path was different.

The path I thought I was supposed to take involved, moving south for my then boyfriend who I thought was going to become my husband, for him to pursue his passion and get a doctorate, and start a family. I sorta thought I’d figure me out later and willingly put myself and my interests on the back burner.

That was all well and good until he abruptly ended our relationship and said he was moving on his own. Huh. I was 24 and seriously heartbroken and lost. If you were around me then you would agree it was a dark time.

But, it was that breakup that opened the door for me to pursue singing. I got serious about what I wanted and in time was willing to admit to myself that I hadn’t been all that happy in the relationship either. By a stroke of grace from the Universe and my wonderful Uncle Dick, I was granted the opportunity to study at Chautauqua just a few months after the breakup. The time spent there immersed in music and singing healed my soul and gave me the chance to see what I could do vocally when I put my mind to it. What I discovered was it was okay to put my passion first. I came home from the summer, decided where to apply to graduate schools for singing and set off.

It is easy to look back at that time with the hindsight of nearly 20 years and know there was a lotus growing amidst the mud. I pursued my passion and actually got two master’s degrees related to singing, sang as much as I could before marrying someone who is a far better match than my boyfriend at 24 would ever have been and now have 2 wonderful children. At the time I would never have believed you if you’d told me that was all going to happen.

It has taken time and practice for me to be able to remind myself that even when the situation seems darkest, all is not lost. That, in fact, my only job when things are feeling muddy is to continue on with life and stay open to the possibilities of what will be.

For, in those moments, when you aren’t looking, a lotus bud just might appear and bloom right before your eyes.

 

 

 

 

Are you waiting to be PERFECT???

Looking back I realize I wasted a lot of time and energy as a young performer being controlled by fear. No, it wasn’t paralyzing and it didn’t keep me off stage, but it dictated a lot of what I did and how comfortable I was doing it. I would think, “if I just _______, then I’ll be ready to ______.” I was waiting to be perfect. And, because I was never perfect it kept me from enjoying the amazing performing opportunities I had and not going after some I wanted. Really, I did it with my entire life but since you aren’t therapists and this blog is about singing and yoga, we’ll keep it to my life as a performer.

These days, I can’t tell you the number of times I hear singers say to me, “I’d come to yoga, but I’m waiting until I’m _________”, or, “I’m waiting to audition for my dream choir/roll/company until I’m ______________”, or even, “I’m going to schedule this recital when I’ve ____________. They are all waiting to be perfect.

Perfection will hold you back. It will force you to live from a place of fear that reminds you of your limitations rather than realizing your potential. Probably everyone around you is befuddled because in general we have an easier time seeing the potential of others. If only we could apply that to ourselves.

Obviously you need to be well practiced to perform and audition. I’m not advocated walking out on stage and half-assing it because you haven’t bothered to prepare. I’m talking about recognizing how capable you are, embracing your skills and abilities and loving the richness of life that comes when you are imperfect.

Will you fail? Maybe, but I bet you will learn more and reap greater rewards by trying and failing than not trying at all. I often tell my daughter, “perfect is boring, failure is interesting.” You might even discover that failure isn’t really failure and the world doesn’t come crashing to an end.

Don’t wait to be perfect or life will pass you by. Here are some steps you can take to let go of your perfectionist tendencies:

Raise your awareness: Notice when your inner perfectionist starts to intervene.

Give her a name: When your inner perfectionist starts up you can say, Thank you Perfect Karen, but I don’t need you to talk right now. I need you to sit down and shut up. If you really want to you can flesh her out, give her a name, the type of home she lives in, what type of performer she is and how she is always perfectly dressed (usually this means the total opposite of how you live, dress and perform because, you know, you aren’t perfect).

Change your inner monologue: Create a mantra for yourself. “I am enough”, or “I’ve got this”. Say these over and over and over again.

Meditate: Visualize your performance going well and you have a better chance of finding success without standing on stage trying to be perfect.

Go for it: Live and perform fearlessly.