Confessions of a Closet Musician

[singlepic id=429 w=320 h=240 float=center] I still feel jealous whenever I see a musician performing onstage. I know, I call myself a “life coach” so I should be more evolved than that. But I’m not. I do know, however, that noticing my feeling of jealousy is a juicy nugget of treasure to show me the thoughts that are keeping me imprisoned. So I start to do the work.

Even now, that I am actually living a life of sharing my music in the world, there is an old, fear-driven part of my brain, which hasn’t quite let go of its hold over my essential self, that is yelling in my ear, "You'll never make it in this world as a musician! It's just too hard to make a living! You'll never be respected! You'll have to work too hard! It'll never be worth it!"

Ever notice that the people who say these things are the ones whose lives have actually proven these beliefs to be true? I haven’t found a successful performing artist who has said, “Forget it. It’s too hard. For all the effort I put in, it’s not worth it.” (On the other hand, for some reason, I've met plenty of doctors who've said this to me.) The reality – the truth - is there are many examples of people whose lives prove these beliefs NOT to be true.

What's the difference between these two groups of people? Is it talent? Is it luck? Is it genetics? Is it a mystery?

I now believe that it is as simple (and also as daunting) as this: You become what you believe.

Your life plays out according to the deepest, most closely held beliefs that you hold inside you without question.

When you are stuck, and you find the courage to question the beliefs that got you there, you unlock the keys to your own prison.

This is another way to describe commitment, dedication, and determination. We are all committed to a certain set of beliefs. The bridge between staying stuck and feeling free is in our AWARENESS of what we are CHOOSING to believe.

So here's an example:

56-year-old man, whom I'll call Lou, is an extremely talented jazz trumpet player, knows "everyone" in the business, has made recordings, played in various venues, knows all the standards and can improvise like a charm. In our first conversation, he tells me that, "No matter how hard you work in music, you'll never get paid enough money for it to be worthwhile."

Turns out his "day job" was as an inventor, coming up with ideas for the semiconductor manufacturing industry. How'd that work for him? Lou's answer: "Well, no matter how good my ideas were, I never got paid enough money for it. Someone else always made a fortune off my good ideas. That's just the way life works."

Interesting how we project the way OUR OWN lives work as the way LIFE IN GENERAL works, isn't it?

What I hear in this brief story is a limiting belief, "No matter how hard I work, or how good I am, I'll never get paid enough."

The results of this belief? Lou feels resigned in everything he does, believing that it won't matter anyway. He brings an attitude of, "Who cares? I'm better than this!" to what he does. The end result? He DOESN'T get paid what he feels he deserves. In other words, he proves his own limiting belief true.

Here's another example:

25-year-old man, whom I'll call Jason, is an extremely talented guitarist, vocalist, songwriter, percussionist. He walks through the world with the attitude that, "We can do fair business in this world, love the earth, make a living, and provide for our needs." He sings songs that inspire us to live, love, laugh, share, dance, and dream. He doesn't obsess about money. He thanks people for listening. He makes friends easily. He is invited back, again and again. His opportunities grow, seemingly without struggle or effort. He accumulates fans, supporters, and eventually purchasers of his merchandise. He acquires funding, space, and other resources for the projects he truly wants to create.

He doesn't hoard ideas, people, space, money, or time. He gives. He stands in his own space, with trust. He expresses his own truth without apology. He welcomes new connections, new ideas, and stays flexible. He walks the earth with a calm energy, with no need to defend or attack, and no sense of grasping or controlling.

I am intensely jealous of people like Jason. And yet I also recognize that people like Lou are the miserable curmudgeons I really don’t want to spend any time with.

So what does my jealousy mean? It’s a clue to a stuck area in my thinking. My destiny is telling me that everything I see in Jason feels freeing. It’s showing me another possibility – an alternative to the beliefs that have governed my life until now. And the jealousy is the raging battle going on between my fear – the deeply held, almost sacred beliefs I described earlier that I’ll never survive in this world by being free – and my soul’s deep knowledge of what is possible for me.

Think there is a fundamental, innate difference between Jason and Lou that just can't be changed? If you're looking at the level of DNA, be my guest. I'll be freeing myself while you search the genome for answers.

What I choose to believe is that you need look no farther than the content of their beliefs. Lou believes that nothing will pay off, no matter what. So nothing ever does. Jason believes that he is enough, his gifts are abundant enough, his trust is enough, his dreams are enough, to put out there and show up as simply himself, offering and believing there is a fair trade way to provide value in the world with what he does and who he is. And so he leads his life in such a way that these opportunities find him.

[singlepic id=428 w=320 h=240 float=center]

Would you rather live your life like Lou or like Jason?

It's your choice. Don't blame your childhood, your culture, or your current situation. Take responsibility for becoming AWARE of how you CHOOSE to think, and what you CHOOSE to believe. Then start making the choices you truly want.

Realize that you’ll probably have some work to do, some cleaning up of old beliefs that have produced the results you are experiencing right now. Embrace that work as the path to your own freedom.

Don’t trust fear. Trust freedom.

Photo of me by Rusty Sterling, used with permission.

Photo of smiley face guitarist by Mr Wilson, used under a Creative Commons license.

Starting a Band: 10 Lessons I've Learned from Launching Chinese Melodrama - Act One

[nggallery id=33] The past two months have been a whirlwind of activity for me surrounding my new band, Randy Bales' Chinese Melodrama. In case you haven't seen it, we have a new blog and a Twitter account, where you can keep up with our latest activities. We've played in the Bay Area at least two nights every week for the past two months, and spreading our joyful energy has yielded plenty of early interest in our fledgling local band.

I've been so amazed with what I've experienced that I put together 10 brief lessons from launching my first ever band. Let me say right away that it's been a total team effort with my friends and fellow musicians, Randy Bales (guitar/vocals) and Cathy Luo (percussion/bass/vocals).

1. Practice in public

  • In other words, be sure to play outside your comfort zone in public every once in awhile. Most of us can learn something from this statement: "Don't be so humble. You're not that good!" I can't tell you how many times Randy has encouraged us to play songs that I didn't feel were "ready". I can also tell you that at our first gig, I was deliriously frightened of what might happen! I had so many ideas about what a "performance" needed to be. Yet if I had waited until I thought we were ready, we might still have never performed in public to this day! My point? Be willing to start small. Just be sure to start!
  • Even if you consider it "practice", show up at your own personal best every time. This doesn’t mean you play perfectly. It means you set an intention for HOW you are showing up each time, and you let go of the results. And you do this every single time.
  • Notice that there will always be ways to improve upon your performance, but never be disappointed in yourself. If you’re tempted to “get down” on yourself or be harsh with your criticism, notice it and ask, “How will this help me show up at my best next time?”
  • Keep playing and be kind to yourself no matter what. Always know that you will have another opportunity to grow. It helps if you…
  • Create a regular consistent schedule of opportunities to play in a supportive environment. You will always get more comfortable by doing what seems uncomfortable at first.
  • All that said, also develop some “comfort food” – material that can always make you feel good, for those moments when you need to boost your own confidence.

2. Do the thing you think you cannot do.

  • This quote from Eleanor Roosevelt is framed on the wall of my office. Practicing in public (item #1) was exactly the thing I thought or believed I could not do, until about a year ago. My peak discomfort point was reached – in a public, but safe, setting – and it forever changed what I believed was possible for me musically.
  • Give yourself the gift of being open to this kind of transformative experience. Instead of avoiding the thing you fear, embrace it as the very chance you’ve been wanting to break through to your next level in life.

3. Strike while the iron is hot.

  • If you have an intention or an idea, start NOW while your energy is behind the project, and take defined steps right away to make your idea feel real to you.
  • Learn to trust yourself. Go with your first instincts.
  • Take small, defined, and consistent actions over a period of time rather than waiting for everything to be “perfect” before you begin. Hint: There is no perfection, so get over yourself and act now.

4. Support other people’s efforts with generous encouragement and humility.

  • Judgment comes more quickly than understanding. Seek to understand first.
  • Capture and share not only your own work but others’ as well. Facebook is a great example of how this works. Don't you love being tagged in photos or videos? And reading others' comments or "Like"s? There is a real-world analog to this, and it's called being present, supportive and expressive. Try it!
  • Collaborate openly. Playing with other artists helps build bridges of trust and understanding, and helps you understand yourself better too.

5. Know your partners’ interests.

  • What I mean by this is understanding what’s in it for the other people involved. For example, if you’re a musician, take the point of view of the event promoter or the owner of the venue hosting your event. Why are they interested in booking you? What value will you bring to their establishment or event?  Taking time to understand this point of view will help you provide higher value and therefore become a more desirable partner in the future.

6. Know what you want AND what you don’t want.

  • Know your own style. You really can’t be everything to everyone.
  • Know what you do well, and keep doing it so well that people can’t take their eyes off you.
  • Know what brings you joy and love from a situation (what makes you say “Hell yes!”) AND what your limits are (when you’ll say “No”). Both are important.

7. Gather a great team, with individual strengths and effortless collaborative energy.

  • Don’t keep score. As a soloist I never thought much about this. I focused mainly on my own technique and playing everything right and hoped everyone would just hear and see me. Only now do I appreciate the feeling of true partnership, humility, and support in sound. I feel a person’s heart in their music, no matter what – closed or open, hardened or mushy, afraid or receptive, tentative or persuasive.
  • I embrace the fact that I can’t do everything, and that everyone adds a particular value to our overall sound. I love this about a great group of people playing music together – the group energy becomes one, and we create so much more than any of us could alone. I appreciate this every single time I play music now.

8. Sometimes real life actually unfolds BETTER than your best-laid plans.

  • Learn to trust this and you'll begin to enjoy living here on this earth a lot more, right now.
  • Say “Yes” to unexpected or scary opportunities.
  • Prepare to be surprised. Pleasantly.

9. Show up on time, and be present.

  • Multi-tasking and music don’t mix.
  • Much of the magic of music comes from the total focus and involvement that is required of everyone making it. We could all use a dose of this.

10. Do something you find genuinely FUN and it will be contagious!

  • You can’t substitute good energy for anything else. What starts with YOU becomes infectious energy for anyone in your presence. So, if you’re having fun, you’ll spread that energy. It also works the other way, so if you’re troubled by a situation, check in with yourself first and ask what energy you are bringing.
  • Even our "marketing" activities are fueled by fun and enjoyment. For example, we made custom Chinese Melodrama fortune cookies, which people enjoy eating as much as enjoy handing out! Find out what brings you alive, and start spreading your best energy in what you do.

Read more about my journey with Chinese Melodrama in these posts:

Learning to Play Again

Feel and Heal with Music

Too much fun!

OK I just loved this performance by my band, Chinese Melodrama, last night. If you grew up listening to Metallica (which I didn't), you might recognize this tune. For me, it's like a thrilling roller coaster ride each time I play it, since I get to make up the ending every time! That's right, totally improvised every time. It reminds me that every single moment is fresh, whether or not it feels familiar in some way. Great way to live life! If you're in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can see us play this Sunday, 8/8, at 8pm, at the OCTOPUS Lounge in Pacifica. And "8" is an auspicious number in Chinese!

A little night improvisation

What a difference a few weeks makes! It seems like my musical world is expanding at breakneck speed, and relationships and opportunities are arriving effortlessly. All the while, I'm having so much fun, it almost seems criminal. Really! I have such a strongly ingrained belief that "work" is "hard" and "having a life" means "struggling" that doing what I'm doing right now has triggered a part of my brain that wants to cry out, "Danger!! This does not compute!!". Luckily, I now notice that this is an ancient part of my brain reserved for true fight-or-flight situations that I rarely encounter in this corner of the world I call home. Right now, in this moment, I'm sitting in a chair in front of a computer. I'm breathing. I'm surrounded by beauty. The sky is clear blue, the birds are singing, the sun is shining, and the trees are silently growing outside my window. There's nothing dangerous about being at peace. Sorry, brain!

Here are some of my latest improvisation videos from this week's open mic nights. In each case, I had never heard the song before and just started from a place of listening.

"Rooster" by Alice in Chains, with Randy Bales, at Angelica's Bistro in Redwood City, CA:

"Knocking on Heaven's Door" by Bob Dylan (performed with two strangers who asked that I remain onstage to join them after seeing me perform with Randy!) at Blue Rock Shoot in Saratoga, CA:

Something to watch tonight...

What do you do for a thrill? Go ride a roller coaster? Plan an adventure vacation? Book a skydiving or heli-skiing trip? Try something you've never done before? We all have ways that we access excitement, aliveness, and passion in our lives. Hopefully you've identified positive outlets for these emotions that we all long to experience, rather than resorting to addictions or distractions from your real desires.

My thrill-of-choice right now is showing up at open mic' s and playing all-improvised violin on songs I have never heard or played before in my life, with musicians I've never met before either. The story of how I got here is a little involved (I've written about it before here and here and here), but I am truly thrilled to have this new source of joy and freedom in my life, and a way to connect with people I can learn from.

Watch and listen to my new band play live tonight...all without leaving your home!

TONIGHT you can watch me play with my new band, Randy Bales' Chinese Melodrama, on a live streaming webcast! Yes, from the comfort of your own home, you can watch and listen to our music as we are playing it. If you're in the Bay Area, we'd love to see you join us live, but for all of you who are spread out across the country, please tune into this link at 7PM Pacific (10PM Eastern) TONIGHT, Friday, June 25:

Here's a little taste of the kind of music I'm playing these days. Enjoy!

Evolution of a Song

[singlepic id=221 w=320 h=240 float=center] One of my deeply ingrained childhood beliefs was the notion that, "In order to be able to do something, you need to go to school and learn how to do it first." In the thinking of my childhood, I was led to believe that there was a very linear, singular path toward any particular destination. That there was a prescribed sequence of things that needed to happen in a certain way if things were going to work out. I'm beginning to unlearn that lesson, among others. Part of why I am sharing all these old beliefs, as I take myself through my process of chipping at and melting them away, is to reveal that our beliefs, once we begin to observe them, are not as solid and rigid as we make them out to be.

We evolve.

So I share with you my own wide-eyed, childlike awe and wonder at learning - in my mid-30s - about whole other worlds that I never knew existed. After playing music nearly every day of my life since the age of three, I played for the first time into a microphone while wearing headphones in 2008. It was my first experience with multi-track recording. I learned a whole other way of "composing" that occurred with a mixing board and the software interface of a computer, when previously my mental picture included images of Mozart, wearing a powdered wig and stockings, sitting at a clavier and writing on parchment paper with a quill pen. The truth is I had never personally known any kind of real live musician other than the violin soloists and symphony orchestra players and conductors I was exposed to growing up.

[nggallery id=27]

I had met the then child prodigy Midori when she taught me in a master class. I had played for legends like Josef Gingold and Ruggiero Ricci. These were the idols and icons of my childhood.

So I never imagined that I would one day learn a new way of playing, without ever going to school for it. I have had plenty of teachers "miraculously" show up in my life. But they came to me by my being open to doing new things, searching actively for ways to reach out, and being willing to receive what was offered.

My first supporter and encourager to do non-classical music was Erik. After producing my students' CD, he asked if I would come and record some pop music with him.

I said, "I don't play pop music."

He said, "Music is music."

That opened a little window in my mind. So I showed up and tried, not knowing what he meant by "music". I've learned over the course of our weekly sessions - which are part recording, part brainstorming, part therapy (for both of us!) - that music is music. I have played on tracks ranging from Peruvian to American country to blues to pop to homemade percussion grooves.

Erik is an amazing drummer and has a very experienced ear for acoustic detail and timing. He was the only witness to my very first attempt at improvisation ("Johnny's Blues" track) and he gave me such support that I actually came back to do it again! And again and again. I even chickened out and stopped recording for over a year, out of fear for where it might lead me. Then one day I decided to come back, when I knew that I needed to find my own music again.

I've learned that songs evolve just as we do.

Playing from the printed page, the evolution occurs in interpretation: phrasing, dynamics, choices of tempo, articulation and length of notes. The way I was trained involved learning how to produce a particular sound that matched our best guess at the composer's original intentions. Frankly, most of the work involved learning the technical skill necessary to execute what was written. In the classical repertoire, only a very few students would reach the level to be able to express something heartfelt beyond perfect execution of the notes. The narrow gate into classical music artistry was determined by an ability to develop both virtuosic technique and some level of expressive interpretation.

Creating on a recorded track from improvisation, the evolution occurs in a totally different way: choosing melodies, rhythmic patterns, when to play and when to rest, how to arrange the song. Technique is not a barrier but rather a tool. With some songs, I find myself playing performances straight through, not thinking that it will be edited in the future. I try to create a complete performance each time. In other instances, I play with different ideas and fragments, knowing that most of it won't be used. Each take is like a scratch pad of notes to make sense of later.

I never knew that music could be created this way! And I never thought I could be participating in it. I had only ever heard final products on CDs or on the radio, marveling at how they managed to sound so good. I wish more artists would reveal their creative process on their way to producing great work. It might help us all realize that there is an evolution to everything. We live in a time when it's rare to see how things are made or to appreciate how things become the way they are when we acquire or consume them.

So to shed some light on the evolution of a song I'm working on with Erik (which I first posted after our first night of recording), I am going to share the three raw versions of the song that we are playing with on our way to creating a final mix. Please leave a comment to let me know what your favorite parts are!

[audio:|titles=01 Take Two from 6.6 Sultry]

[audio:|titles=03 Cropped Take One from 6.6 Sultry]

[audio:|titles=04 Overlay Takes from 5.23 and 6.6 Sultry]

[singlepic id=223 w=320 h=240 float=center]

You may have been lucky enough to have a teacher or parent or other mentor who made you feel that every - yes, even the ones your mind may label "ugly" or "forgettable" - step you take is a beautiful one in your own journey through life. If that's the case, I hope you hear their voices of encouragement in your head on a daily basis.

If not, I want to offer this story as a way of saying that you don't need to go back to school to learn what you need to learn right now. The lessons are all around you already. The teachers are not necessarily sitting in classrooms at the large institutions requiring entrance exams and letters of recommendation. They may be in the most unexpected places, waiting to show you who you never knew you could be. They may not even consider themselves teachers. But they could be yours.

There is beauty in every step of your life's journey, no matter how difficult or improbable a particular step seems. Surround yourself with people who will remind you of this as often as possible. You just might find yourself following unexpected paths toward indescribable feelings of joy and wonder.

Bottom photo credit: Rusty Sterling

All other photos - my personal collection