Thursday, August 31, 2017

Writer's Block

Hmmm... what to write... what to write? From time to time, those who call themselves writers, composers, songwriters or poets experience that null... that vacuous state of blank-mindedness during which we struggle to finish something, or just to write anything at all. It can be attributed to stress, fear of committing words (or music) to paper, burnout, or to any number of causes. Since this is a universal problem, and since I value too highly the inspiration others confer upon me, I am happy to offer a few suggestions for handling such times.

At the risk of portraying meditation as a panacea for just about every ailment known to man (it's not!) I do highly recommend this method for bringing one's mind back into focus. I know that I sing with greater concentration and refinement immediately after I meditate. I write with less distraction after I meditate. I even cook better, clean the house with greater efficiency-- I may even drive more patiently. Ok, it is a panacea. Just don't overdo it.

Simply disciplining oneself to sit down, open up the laptop and make time to do the writing on a consistent, predictable basis can be enough to facilitate results. Often I find myself lamenting that I haven't composed a new song lately, only to remember that I have not set aside time to do it! It cannot get done if it is not a priority, so writers, give yourself permission to sit quietly and let your muse work. This will likely involve shutting off other distractions like television, your phone, social media, etc. Unplug from technology and watch your creativity come to life. We choose what we spend our minutes and hours doing, so choose wisely.

One rewarding solution to this issue is to go and get inspired! Attend an opera, read a classic novel, listen to some great music you have not dived into before. Newness is the key--let someone else's talents and artistic contributions feed your own. I once read that artists ought to be well-rounded and open to experiencing beauty in all its forms. Cultivating genuine fascination for nature, science, history, architecture, dance, and visual arts can only enhance one's musical and/or writing talents. For example, one mentor of mine stated that singers can learn a great deal about singing by watching world-class ice skating! How true that is... the grace, flowing lines, muscular control, performance joy, smoothness and awe-inspiring beauty that Olympic-level skaters display always inspire me toward greater artistic heights. It's okay that I will never skate in the Olympics--but I can learn so much about how to better execute my own musical goals by studying the disciplined, confident, capable ice skater's seemingly flawless performance. Learning to absorb beauty and to channel it toward one's own talent and aspirations are skills worth cultivating. Good luck and happy writing!

Friday, June 30, 2017


This hue begets a host of symbolic impressions, depending on the context… Green can represent money, envy, growth, freshness, or youth. It also stands for nature/the environment, and brings to mind chlorophyll-producing plants and algae. In a performance context, the term “green” may describe a person lacking in experience or polish. Kermit the Frog famously remarked “It ain’t easy being green…” which may well be the less-than-ready, immature performer’s mournful reality.

How to avoid being viewed as “green” (in the inexperienced sense) by one’s peers? Pursue study and practice, of course, and always show up fully prepared for each performance. I find that even experienced performers sometimes find themselves feeling a sense of under-readiness when returning to literature they have not performed in several years, or returning to a performance schedule after a long hiatus. In those times, it is imperative to do the necessary preparation “in spades” months before the concert date.

I once heard a wise counselor remark that green is also a color of growth… reminiscent of the pale, almost yellow shade characteristic of early springtime leaves. I have noticed that master performers are always seeking growth: growth in technique, growth in repertoire, growth in performance authenticity, growth in stage presence and poise, growth in confidence, growth in artistic awareness… Without continuous growth, careers and voices stagnate. If one is to cultivate an enduring career with stamina and strength to see one through during the tough times, growth that can best be described as “sacrificial” becomes necessary. By sacrificial, I mean sacrificing time- and energy-wasting activities as well as toxic situations for the good of one’s mental and emotional health. I also mean giving up certain things like dairy, caffeine, alcohol, junk food, and loud party atmospheres to pursue a lifestyle that will better care for one’s vocal health. Singers often have healthier hearts and lungs than their peers due to the consistent, strenuous exercise that high-level singing requires, but this of course demands discipline and daily commitment. We also have less time for TV and internet surfing than many, having to carve out time for dedicated practice, physical exercise, meditation, mental practice, performance preparation and other career-oriented disciplines. Pursuing the life of a professional singer means making tough choices and seeing them through every single day.

In an effort to remain “green” with continuous growth, I am endeavoring to attend more live concerts in the coming year than ever before. How wonderful would it be if more artists replaced television with attending high quality live performances?! Perhaps we would see our cognitive abilities enhanced rather than deadened, our mental sharpness become keener, and our motivation boosted by taking in more inspiring performances by those around us also seeking continuous artistic growth. Long live the “green” artists who habitually seek consistent growth as a lifestyle choice—it is these whom I aspire to emulate until the day I am forced to lay down my conductor’s baton, my microphone, my composer’s pen, and my choir folder at my final bow…

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A Tisket-A-Tasket

Last week I had the time of my life singing a centennial tribute performance honoring the great Ella Fitzgerald. What a special moment in the career of this singer to formally and publicly pay tribute to the one performing artist who had provided the greatest inspiration... who served as the primary model after which my own voice developed. To say that I grew up listening and singing Ella's songs would be a gross understatement. Most jazz vocalists have several influences. I had Ella. While yes, I was also enjoying the beautiful radio voices of Olivia and later, Whitney, my truly formative years were spent learning every nuance, pitch, smear and syllable sung by the First Lady of Song herself.

In preparing my show last week, I dusted off several transcriptions of Ella's arrangements that I had written very early in my career. Those were, after all, the first songs I wished to learn how to transcribe when I was a jazz arranging student. I have been singing them in public for so many years and they never get old, because, well, let's face it--the music of Nelson Riddle and George Shearing is timeless. So those transcriptions will be used again and again, long after I'm gone, I am sure.

I also ventured to create a few new arrangements, plus one that was essentially a note-for-note transcription of Ella's original recording of "A Tisket-A-Tasket" with the Chick Webb Orchestra. This was her first big hit with the band, and it made her an instant international star. I was a bit surprised that the entire audience (as well as the band) did not know the parts in which audience participation was traditionally included ("So do we, so do we..." and "Was it green? Was it red? Was it blue?") It is hard to remember sometimes that my obsession with Ella dating back to the 1970s was not shared by American youth's cultural consciousness... I did not hear this song on the radio--I heard it because I FOUND it and listened to it tirelessly for years and years... So again, I was surprised that my fascination with Ella actually set me apart from the band and the audience last week to a certain degree. Of course I knew the songs very well because I had prepared to perform them...for several decades, in fact... but why didn't they?

There is one aspect of this song that I find somewhat confusing. The poem reads "I sent a letter to my Mommy and on the way I dropped it." Later the text says "a little girlie picked it up and put it in her pocket..." Still later, Ella complains that she wonders about the whereabouts of her "little yellow basket" and hopes the girl will bring it back. The letter or the basket? Didn't she drop a letter on the way to the post office? What's this about dropping a basket? And how can a little girl put a basket in her pocket? This ambiguity really sets me off. How can I properly prepare a performance when I can't even ascertain what the song is about? A lost letter or a lost basket? What happened to the letter? Did it ever get delivered? Isn't that more important than stewing about an over-the-arm, wicker, letter- carrying basket? Sometimes I just don't know...

Well, I have accepted that I may never learn the secret to the letter/basket question. The answer, like a host of other ambiguous song lyrics, is probably blowing in the wind.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Singing Through Discouragement

This blog post represents a new leaf I am turning over as a blogger. From now on, rather than use the blog to talk primarily about forthcoming concert events, I have decided to devote my blogging energies to discussing topics that are relevant to performing artists, recording artists, and other creative artists in modern times. Or I may wax on a historical or theoretical topic related to music... or the teaching of music... So if the reader has any specific requests for topics you would like me to take on, please feel free to send an email and make a suggestion! This blog is for you...

So many days of our lives, depending on who we are, and on our psychological makeup, are dotted with moments of discouragement. How do we move through them as artists, and how do we give our audiences the quality shows they expect, even during these trying times? I am helped when I concentrate my mental focus on "the zone..." that beautiful milieu of freedom, creativity, awareness of the music around me, and complete divorce from distraction. Negative self-talk is particularly destructive during a performance, so part of this strategy is to grasp my mental energies onto something positive--the present moment of music-making--so that I cannot devote any energy whatsoever toward criticizing my performance, or thinking about discouraging circumstances. The time and place for self-analysis is always in the practice room before and after a performance--NEVER DURING!

Another strategy for managing the challenging circumstances of our up-and-down lives is to work in time for meditation every day. I confess that I do not always manage this well, but when I do, my ability to concentrate, to stay positive, and to feel productive in my life and work are always enhanced. Meditation is accomplished in many different ways by different people. One must not feel threatened by the spiritual energy of the process--meditation is healthy for people of all faiths. It has been said by Christian, Jewish, and other philosophers that, through meditation, God speaks to us... Prayer, of course, represents us speaking to God. It seems that if an individual seeks healthy two-way communication in any relationship, one must be as willing to listen as to speak! And so we meditate our way back to emotional health and wellness...

Physical exercise has helped to get me through so many rough patches in life. When truly upset about something, there's nothing like a good, long run to spend that energy in a healthy way. Exercise also clears one's head and dispels the high emotional response of stress and overwhelm. Getting into shape also helps us feel better about ourselves, which is a key way to combat discouragement when circumstances of life are less than ideal.

Finally, remembering that we are in very good company can be most comforting. All of our heroes battle discouragement at one time or another, and rising above one's difficulty is itself a heroic act. While situations change, our attitudes can reflect gratitude, kindness and love for those around us. Forgetting our troubles and helping someone with theirs is a sure way to improve our moods. Put another way, carrying our crosses, and acknowledging the crosses that others carry, remind us that we are all human and we are on this journey together. Happy to journey with you...

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Musical Ensembles

Performing with a wide variety of ensembles is one of the distinctly enjoyable aspects of this performer's career. One week I may be fronting a jazz orchestra, while the next I may be playing the piano myself in my own cabaret show in an intimate room. My need for variety and fresh challenges has historically been responsible for my booking certain themed shows before they exist, and then writing the musical arrangements for them out of the necessity of delivering a performance date. Any musician's thirst for new experiences would show this to be the way many of us operate. Along with the theme of the show, I often invite a concert presenter to choose the size of the ensemble they wish to book, which proffers me a great deal of booking flexibility, while giving the presenter some options.

Next month I have the distinct privilege of serving the U.S. Army Band, "Pershing's Own," as their Artist-In-Residence for a few days. During our time together, I will teach a master class and lead an improvisation workshop, and offer two coaching sessions for the Army Voices, a highly select group of professional singers who perform a variety of genres well, including vocal jazz. The highlight of this journey will be sharing a joint concert (date to be rescheduled due to winter storm Stella) with Army Voices and Army Blues (a most outstanding jazz "big band") as their guest artist. The concert will open at Brucker Hall, Arlington National Cemetery, and include a number of various ensemble configurations. There will be a set of my original pieces which I will sing with a small jazz combo (and I'll play the piano with the trio on one tune). There will also be a set of pieces during which I will perform with the big band, and another set with the vocal jazz ensemble. This concert mash-up lends itself to the variety I cherish, and is a great honor, because this band and vocal jazz ensemble are among the best in the world!

Another ensemble configuration I absolutely love is the symphony orchestra. I am fortunate to have two symphony shows (holiday pops and jazz pops) which I perform with various symphonies here and there. Conductors and executive directors of American symphonies (or those abroad) are welcome to contact me to discuss dates and programs available. Regardless of the ensemble size or instrumentation, live music itself is paramount and its culturally vital message of beauty and inherent value should never be underestimated. I hope that those of you in the Washington, D.C. area will join us for a fabulous show of the immense talent possessed by our young men and women serving in the U.S. Army Bands!