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

Get Inspired!

"When I talk about “the music within us,” I’m talking about when we connect with that place inside us where our vibration, our energy is aligned with our passion. It’s like music to our ears.  There’s a different sound to how we present ourselves in our lives when we are connected with the music within us, and that’s my metaphor for the essence in our nature coming out.  I’m just inspired whenever I see that, and it speaks to me." - excerpt from my interview for the Get Inspired Project

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking with Toni Reece, creator of the Get Inspired Project. Toni is conducting 365 days of interviews with people who are inspired and inspire others.

The transcript and recording of our 15-minute interview are now live on Toni's site:

This excerpt I found especially inspiring even for me to read again now:

Toni: How did you come to realize that this essence, this music inside of you, the creativity, the spark, would play a part in your own courage to move you forward?  How did that realization happen for you?

Lisa: Well, I guess the story that I would tell is that I went to medical school, frankly, because I was expected to.  In my family, education was a really high value, it was a priority, and the assumption was after college you go to some sort of graduate school; it doesn’t just end in college.  Just so people know … that’s the base assumption that I was operating on.  I went to medical school.  My brother is a doctor, I’d seen it done, it seemed very doable, but it was not my passion.  It was definitely a path to secure a career route that would do good for society, and these are all good things, but it wasn’t something that I loved.

You know, the first realization was that I didn’t have to go to a residency and do what everyone else around me was doing, and that was sort of my first step of courage when I looked around and said “You know, who says that I have to?”  When I realized that, it enabled me to look beyond the options that were presented to me in that system, and that’s what sort of led me to my next job, which was in finance, as a venture capital finance person working in medical devices.  And that sort of opened me up to the whole business world.

When I was there – and I was really there for idealistic reasons, thinking that I could help to discover the next great medical technology that might change the game or a particular field in medicine — I was having a conversation with a colleague who was also a MD, who had been in venture finance for 15 years, so he was older than me.  I remember talking, and he asked me, “What’s your number, Lisa?”  I said “What do you mean?”  He said “You know, everybody in this business has a number. We're in this to get to a particular number – so what is it?  Twenty million, 50 million, 100 million?”  And he was talking dollars.

I was just stunned, because I didn’t really go into it for that reason.  I was not going after a number.  He said “Because when you get to your number, then you’re done.  That’s what we’re all here to do.”  I just really couldn’t believe it, and I said “Well, you know, what if you don’t get to your number?  How do you reconcile living your life for this thing that might not happen?”

The conversation evolved to the point where we were talking about what we would do if we had the number.  I heard myself say out loud, completely unexpectedly “If I had my 20 million, I would open a violin school.”  It totally surprised me to hear me say this, because I had sort of put away that dream that I had when I was four years old to be like my violin teacher who taught me from age four to 17.  We went on concert tours, and I played at Carnegie Hall when I was eight years old, and the Kennedy Center, and Moscow when I was 14 — just a lot of world-class experiences at a very young age — and yet I was sort of told not to pursue music as a profession because it was not as reliable a way to make a living.

And so to hear myself say that I would do this, it really woke me up to something that I had been putting off, saying that, you know, I have to just make all this money or whatever it was, do this career, and then do the things that I really dreamed about doing.  And that moment really indicated to me that there was something else that I could be doing with my life that was from a more passionate place.  So actually, within a few months, I resigned from my job and moved to California and opened the violin school.  It was pretty quick after that conversation.

Toni: It sounds to me the way you’re describing yourself and your story is that it really was … your breakout moment was when you realized you had freedom of choice.  And when you had freedom of choice, that created your freedom.

Lisa: Yeah.  Yeah, I think that’s a great observation, and I think it’s been an unfolding, because it’s been sort of small realizations.  It’s like, what’s the next door that I’m going to open?  It didn’t just all open up at once.  This sort of progression that you hear in my story, you know, even continues.

I mean, my violin school was based on the classical training that I got when I was growing up.  It was basically the model of teaching that I had received.  And what surprised me in the school – I had it for five-and-a-half-years — it was successful.  I brought my kids on concert tour every year.  It was a very intense program, just like the one that I came up through, and I realized that it was not giving back to me in the way that I expected, because here I was living my dream, right?

It was supposed to be a dream, and to experience what was essentially burnout from that after five years was really stunning to me, and going through that physical exhaustion that I experienced, which was a result of basically taking full responsibility for everyone and everything that happened in the school, my life brought me two things:  The field of life coaching, which I discovered … it just sort of appeared in my life, there is no other way to explain that, and a program in music healing.  Both modalities I have actually been training in myself for the last year, and that’s really opened me to this other whole realm of freedom that I never knew up until this point.

I started doing improvised music for the first time in my life.  I’m now recording a CD of all improvised music.  I had never played anything prior to last year that was not written down or that I had not heard before.  And so, to even realize that I could create music is this latest opening for me, and it just … it’s brought me another level of joy that I never imagined before.

To read the entire transcript or hear the complete recording, visit The Get Inspired! Project.

What music will you bring into the world?

A few thoughts from my balcony this morning (including all the "and"s and "um"s of an unrehearsed, unedited vlog!):

And here's the clip from a group improvisation, created about 35 minutes into the workshop session. We had prepared ourselves through a series of listening meditations, breath improvisations, body work, and open sounding exercises.

The sacred space created from these collective activities is what enabled the pure freedom of sound you witness here. I post this with so much gratitude to the seven beautiful women who participated, and to my volunteer videographer!

Learning to play again

[singlepic id=202 w=320 h=240 float=center]

How the mind gets in the way

Two different days. Same scenario. I am rehearsing for an upcoming gig I've been graciously invited to play with a singer/songwriter/guitarist and a bass player/percussionist/backup vocalist. None of us has ever played together before. We met at a jam session and our lead guy summoned us together to join him for his gig.

The difference between the two days? How wild my mind was the second time around. And how it prevented me from going “full out” with my expression. Interesting to notice. I’ve talked before about the freedom of the first take, and how I’ve found that when I’m totally open, not trying to “get it right” or worried about “playing the wrong notes,” I usually create something very interesting and often artistic. The minute I start redoing, rehearsing, recreating, researching – in the sense of trying to “live up” to the quality of the previous takes or the original version of the song done by the “people who knew what they were doing” – I lose it. I start trying way too hard. I start thinking, second-guessing, and measuring. The sound becomes stiff and artificial.

I've played at six different jams in the past two weeks. I'm beginning to see that there is such a difference between playing from a place of pure listening and ownership of everything coming out in the moment, versus needing to know what you're doing. I used to play mainly from this latter place. I either "knew" a piece or didn't. I had the confidence that I could learn anything if I just practiced it enough. But this confidence didn't make "on the fly" or improvisational sessions possible for me. These weren't fun because I was attached to the idea that if I just had more time to practice, I would know enough to be able to join in. In fact, I always felt slightly underpracticed. Not quite as good as I could be. My so-called confidence was something I held in private, something that was conditional upon my having more time to prepare.

Aside from instilling an obsessive work ethic that served me well at things like getting into Harvard, getting through medical school, and impressing people who think that the more degrees you have the better person you are, I haven't found this constant feeling of slight inadequacy to be that useful.

In fact, here are some of the ways it has made my life more difficult/less enjoyable/less peaceful:

  • Not wanting to approach new people with my services/skills/ideas until I have developed them to perfection. By the way, when you’re creating and inventing, there is no perfection, so this is a formula for never putting your stuff out there.
  • Constantly questioning how I can do more, how I can measure up to “Everybody Else” who seems to know what they’re doing better than I do. I’ve talked in previous posts about the plague of believing “I am never doing enough”.
  • Not celebrating or acknowledging the small steps I am taking in completely new directions, because I am preoccupied by a greater vision of how things “should” be. I get so lost in an idea of what I want to be, that I totally miss what I actually am right now. There’s nothing wrong with having visions; I just need to remind myself to bring my attention back to the tiny beautiful little things happening right now, which are often drowned out by the volume and intensity of my big future vision. Funny how the mind blurs those lines, isn’t it?
  • Becoming a bystander versus a doer. I’m trying to find a new balance point between observing and doing. I’ve previously erred on the side of doing more than I needed to, and now I’m finding a new dynamic state of doing and observing.

[singlepic id=209 w=320 h=240 float=center]

Bringing "play" back into "playing music"

I can't tell you how antithetical this is to the way I have lived for the majority of my life. It's only now in my exploration of what play means, for me as an adult, that I see how I have forgotten what it's like to play.

Remember when play used to feel like this?

[singlepic id=210 w=320 h=240 float=center]

We all have that pure joy somewhere inside us.

My little musical excursions into improvisation are like baby steps for me to train a completely new way of being. I remind myself to be gentle with the child in me who is learning to walk again. I’m discovering – actually, in a way, I’m teaching myself - what it’s like to FEEL my way through musical situations – and life - without a piece of paper in front of me, and just my body to guide me.

Talk about a practice in relaxation! I often have no idea how my fingers or my vocal cords are finding notes. When I let go of needing to know, they just get there. And sometimes they don't. But my ears guide them back again, as long as I keep my mind quiet. If I spend any time in that mode of slight inadequacy, thinking I need more practice, or more time, I've lost the connection to the music. The reality is that the music is happening right now, and I don't have the option of considering "what if" I had more of this, more of that, a little better this or a little less of that. I'm either part of what's going on, or I'm lost in my own head, and not connected to the music.

Great metaphor for life, too, actually. If we spend all our time planning, wishing, wanting things that aren't there, worrying about the future, believing we can use our cleverness to outsmart this moment, we miss the opportunity to connect with the music of our lives. We are somewhere in our minds, sitting it out, dreaming about how much we would be able to do if only we had more time to practice.

And then we miss the chance to just listen and play.

Photo credits (used under a Creative Commons license):
Cat playing guitar by Andrew:
PLAY sign by Ed Schipul:
Girl in pure joy by Jesper Sachmann:

What is the sound of YOUR music?

We all walk with music within you know the sound of your own music? I'm sharing a few brief audio podcasts on my musings today about the metaphor of "The Music Within Us" as the unique vibration we hold within our hearts and our individual power to create a lasting effect in the world.

Sit back, enjoy, and allow the sound and rhythm of these words sink in awhile.