Nera

Monthly Archive: September 2013

Gloomy Sunday

Some of you know, some not that I’m originally from Transylvania. I come from the ethnic Hungarian minority. My native language is Hungarian. I’ve moved away long time ago, but there is something in me that remains truly Hungarian. Melancholy. The dictionary says that melancholy is a feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause. True. I really have no reason to be gloomy.

I still haven’t decided if I believe in destiny or coincidences. Maybe both, according to what suits the given situation better. What I’m saying is, coming from that melancholic background, is it any surprise that the most known Hungarian song is called Gloomy Sunday? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gloomy_Sunday)

It is an old song, composed by Rezső Seress back in 1933. It’s a strange song, moving from minor key to major and back again. It does have a weird undertone to it. Urban legends say that the printed sheets of the song were found next to people who committed suicide. Hence Gloomy Sunday is referred to as the Hungarian suicide song. How cheerful! Hard to say if the song itself “inspired” people or the other circumstances. Maybe the suicides were just related to the era, not the song. It was written during the great depression. Ironically, the composer committed suicide 35 years later.

I wrote earlier that as a singer and a musician, you should tell your own story. Here are a few examples of Gloomy Sunday. Can you hear the different stories?

The first is Billie Holiday’s version from circa 1941:

The second is Sarah McLachlan’s from her 1996 album Rarities, B-Sides, and Other Stuff (never mind the silly pictures in the video, just listen):

Superwoman

The other evening I went to listen to a singer that I know has been performing for years. I sat in the first row and as the concert began, I realised something. She was afraid. How do I know that? By the uncontrollable shaking she had in her hands when she took the microphone. I know that she has been performing for all kinds of audiences, big and small, she’s been on the national TV more than once. Looking at her,  I saw something very familiar.

Stage fright or performance anxiety. I’m guessing we’ve all been there. With our hearts pounding and our sweaty hands, just a few minutes away from the “big” moment. Then we step on the stage and it gets worse. For what I can say for myself, it’s gotten a bit better with the years. But I still go to the loo every two minutes before a performance. Sorry, if I’m too descriptive.

I’ve been on tiny stages with a few people listening, to really big ones, performing for thousands. The feeling is always the same, it has nothing to do with the audience really. Depending on the performance, my fear usually goes away after the first song or even with the first few notes. Why? Why does it go away? Why did it appear the first place?

I can only speak for myself now when I say that it’s all in my head. I realised that stage fright has a lot to do with fear and with the desire for other people’s acceptance. Fear of getting rejected, of making a fool out of myself. Or even fear of success.  We all just want to be loved.

But how to get rid of stage fright? I don’t think we need to get rid of it, just have to try and live with it and use the energy!

But here are a few things that you can try. It works for anything, you don’t have to be a singer to try them. And if they don’t, seek professional help! But try first, it wont hurt you.

Consider for a few minutes why are you afraid? Failure? Judgement? Or success? Why does this matter to you? What will really happen if you fail? And what is failure in the first place? People don’t like you? Or are you afraid of success? I know it sounds silly, but I have been afraid of success. Success in many cases means that your life will not continue the same way as before. It means change, and once you realise that you might also realise that what you are afraid of is actually change. No matter the outcome, you will not be the same once you step on that stage. But if you don’t, you will stay the same. So is stage fright just another attempt to keep you within your known world? I don’t know.

Create your alter ego. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alter_ego) Leave your “normal” self at home when you go to perform. Or to snowboard. I’ve gotten myself into a few situations where I had to dig out the best snowboarder alter ego that I can. I needed to get down from a crazy steep icy thing that some call slope. Well, come to think of it, it wasn’t really a slope. Anyway, you get the idea.

I found that power posing helps too. Yes, staying in a superman position for 2 minutes. It’s even scientifically proved! Your body language seriously shapes who you are! Here is Amy Cuddy talking about the subject:

Breath! For once, I am telling you to breath and to focus on it. Close one of your nostrils, take in a breath through the other one, count to 5, breath out. Close the other nostril, repeat. Do this for a few minutes.

The most important thing, again and again, is to tell your story. Take a risk, use the uncomfortable feelings to forget yourself, and become one with the music and the lyrics.

Help yourself

About two years ago I quit my job. Was working in an office, I had a desk job with my own room with as much coffee as I  could possibly drink. I did pretty much anything that my boss told me to do, from ordering more coffee to booking meetings and scheduling trips or interviews. Just a basic 9 to 5 job. Not very interesting and it surely sounds like anyone could do it. Well, I couldn’t.

It would be foolish of me to blame the job or my boss for the fact that I left. Truth is, I was the last person for that job. It took me a while, but I  finally realised that I have to quit and I did. I left the so called secure income and traded it for insecurity. By many standards I’ve failed. I couldn’t fit into the role that I thought I was suppose to, you know, permanent position, house loan, two kids, half a dog and a Volvo.

But I learned so much from that failure. I learned that the world doesn’t stop if I actually do what I want and be the person I want to be.

Since then I’ve been trying to learn what does it really mean to be an artists. It’s not all about coping with the insecurity part.

Nobody ever really told me what is it that makes or breaks an artist. Nobody ever spoke about how to make a living once you are graduated, how to sell your script, book a gig or just what does it really mean to be an artist. Or maybe I just wasn’t listening. Anyhow, all of a sudden I was faced with a bunch of questions that I had no answers to. What is an artist? Am I an artists if I start to dress like a hippy and put flowers in my head? Or stop caring about my personal hygiene? Or scribble “poetry” that consist of words that nobody understands? Or just in general behave badly? Throw tantrums and go screaming “You don’t understand me, I’m an artist”. Will I be an artists if I become unstable, unreliable, an alcoholic with a drug problem? Or should I  just don’t do nothing and live off others, like parasites? Am I an artist then? Nope, that’ s not an artist, that’s an asshole.

The truth is I still don’t have the answers for all the questions that I have. But I’ve learned a few things.

Maybe the most important lesson came with realising that I am not at all the person I thought I am. Yeah, by now you’d think I’d know myself. If you really want to get to know yourself I advise you to quit your job and start doing what you love to do and surely new things about yourself will emerge.

What do I mean by this? Well, for most of my life I thought that I like that my things are in order.  It’s actually liberating when things are not. I don’t need to colour code my books or iron my shirts or have them folded into neat packs. Instead I can use that time and just… I don’t know, really go out and smell the roses.

Okay, the title says help yourself. Others can help you too of course, but you can start and make their life easier by helping yourself.  This is how I helped myself:

1. I believe! In myself. Period. I figured there is no point doubting myself, others do it anyway. That leads to no2.

2. I don’t listen to other peoples opinions. Seriously, it’s my life. Yes, they all mean well most likely, but they have no idea. This doesn’t mean that you should never listen to anyone or any suggestions. What I’m saying is, do remember that everybody has a right to their opinions, but in the end it’s your life and you are in charge of it.

3. I read self help books! Some work, some don’t. I can recommend this one, The Artist’s way from Julia Cameron. ( http://www.amazon.com/The-Artists-Way-Julia-Cameron/dp/1585421464) It did seriously change my life. Friend of mine said that it’s too religious, maybe, but if you could just not get stuck on the God part and do the exercises, it will help you!

4. I try to be patient! This is really hard for me as well, but unfortunately the saying is true, Rome wasn’t built in a day. It takes time to get to know people in your area, to build a network, to get gigs, to make money and to even find what you really want to do. Don’t give up!

5. I treat myself with kindness. This means I stopped criticising and belittling myself in my daily life.  So for example, when someone asks you what do you do, state with conviction that you are a singer or writer or what ever and don’t continue with the buts… meaning no more: but I’ve not have yet a record deal or but I don’t really make money from it and so on.  (yup, I used to do this a lot) This is also about your inner monologue. You can change the way you think, your thoughts are actually deceitful, choose what you want to believe and what not.

6. I  do the work! Most of the times. I’m also human, I do want to watch crap form the telly. But I do the work too! First it might be terrifying to think of the fact that you quit your job to do what you want. It does sound funny doesn’t it? It’s kind of like, you finally opened the correct door but you are too afraid to enter. I approach this singing business by narrowing it down to small bits. Like okay, 15 minutes of warm up, 1 hour ear training, half an hour learning a new song and so on. Make an appointment with yourself for various tasks and just show up. It’s actually simple. Don’t over think it!

7. I do things out of my comfort zone. You can start with small things, like talk to strangers. Or go bigger. Learn a new skill. I recommend snowboarding, you’ll be out of your comfort zone most of the time. Move to another country. I don’t know, anything that feels uncomfortable, you should do it, after a while it gets easy and your world grows bigger with it.

That’s about it.

Lastly, I was asked a question last week that I feel that every artist should think about, for whom is your art? I don’t know yet, but I know that, that answer is the key to unlocking my true potential. What is your true potential?

Just do it!

Okay, yes, it is a cliché, but I do learn from my mistakes and if I’m smart enough I learn from other peoples mistakes as well.

Yet, I do remember the times when I thought there is no room for error. I had this horrible creature in my head that was shouting things like: You gotta strive towards perfection! Better yet, you got to be perfect the minute you start doing something (for the first time!) or else, well, there is no point doing it, and so on. That’s just baloney! I don’t know whom I should go blaming for the idea that you either have a skill or you don’t and that you should be on the top of your game the minute you start something. Perfection, the definition in the dictionary is more or less the state or quality of being perfect, or the action or process of improving something until it is faultless. I’ve found that the idea of wanting to be perfect is crippling. How can you do anything, how can you start anything when you know that the outcome will not be perfect? Who can be perfect all the time and yes again the writer in me says that the thing or person with a flaw is much more interesting than the perfect one. It is perfect in it’s imperfection.

How does this relate to singing? I’ve noticed many times that no matter if I was attending a singing lesson or practising alone or performing,  I’ve felt that there is no room for error, I should be perfect all the time. For a few years now, I’ve been working hard to let go of the idea of trying to achieve perfection and just do it.  Yes, Nike nailed it with their slogan!

I read the other day an article about a pottery class, the point was about quality vs. quantity. The basic idea was that the group was divided into two, where half of them were focusing on quality and the other half on quality. Meaning that the ones in the quality group had to turn out just one perfect piece of pottery. After a month of pottery class all their products were evaluated. Guess which ones turned out more perfect? (You can read the entire story here: http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2008/08/quantity-always-trumps-quality.html)

I encourage you to allow yourself to make mistakes. To even try and do them intentionally. Allow the possibility to fail. Trust me, it’s such a relief! You might surprise yourself! And guess what, yup, you made a mistake, the world didn’t end!

You can start with this exercise. It’s from Keri Smith’s book Mess.(http://www.amazon.com/Mess-The-Manual-Accidents-Mistakes/dp/0399536000/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1379357928&sr=8-1&keywords=keri+smith+mess)  You’ll need a white paper, glue or honey or anything sticky, cocoa powder or flour or any powdery substance. Cover the white page with the sticky substance. Drop the powdery substance onto the page, blow off excess. Admire your creation!

Let go of perfection and just really do it! It is the journey after all, not the goal.

History

Briefly, singing has been around probably long before speech. That’s about that, that’s not what I will write about. I’m not going to write about music history either. Please, go to the library, there are plenty books and CDs on that.

A while ago in a song competition one of the lady singers got complimented on taking on Michael Bubblé’s version of Feeling Good. The judge said that it’s so hard to sing songs that are originally performed by male singers. What?! Originally performed?! Feeling Good? The song was written in the 60’s and it was Nina Simone that made it famous. Okay, it can be that I misunderstood what was said and the person was aware that it’s an old song. My point is, please know the history of the songs your singing. It’s not that hard nowadays, just google it!

Why should you know the history of the song? For me it helps with connecting to the roots and ideas that the composer intended. I might or might not use them. But surely the world was very different, let’s say in the 60’s. I’m not saying that you should do a 60’s version of Feeling Good and no other versions are allowed. I’m saying it’s good to know from where the songs are coming from.

There is also another side to this. If you find Adele is your idol, listen carefully, can you tell by her singing who are her idols and influences? And nope, Make you feel my love is not Adele’s original song, it’s Bob Dylan’s. Don’t get me wrong, she did do a pretty great job with it.

Now I don’t need you to learn when exactly which song was written or even by whom. All I’m saying is that I find it valuable to know the history behind songs and from where do they come from. That leads us to styles and genres. If you really want to be a great singer, learn about genres. What influenced jazz? How about rap? Pop, r&b, can you hear the roots? Listen to all kinds of music, be open.

You can start widening your classical music history knowledge by listening to this:

Fighter fit

I noticed that most people who don’t sing much or at all, don’t seem to realise what singing is and how much strength it really requires. It’s not just opening your mouth. Don’t get me wrong, you don’t need to be a body builder or win any ironman/woman championships, but you gotta be in shape physically and preferably mentally too. You gotta be healthy in mind, body and soul.  All that should come together.

I do think that singing fully a 45 minute to a one hour gig by yourself equals the running of a marathon, seriously. It takes a lot. In case you sing like I do, using your whole body. How can you not use your whole body while singing? Well, it’s possible, I’ve seen plenty of singers that seem to sing only from their neck up, no connection to the rest of their body. But this is another topic that might need to be addressed later on.

But how do you get in shape? I’d say anything that works for you that strengthens your body, from yoga to Pilates, running (yup, I hate running), snowboarding, roller skating, really anything that you can come up with that helps strengthening your core. The inner muscles. I guess there is no harm in going to the gym, but working only on the big muscles, might not help you in the long run. But at least you’ll look good with that six pack! Maybe combining both is the key, yoga and the gym. (yeah, I don’t like the gym either).

Here’ s the good news, this is not enough. I mean it’s great that you are in good shape, but being physically fit it’s not only depending on exercising. You need to sleep enough, eat right and keep yourself fit vocally too.

When I was about 20 or so I really thought that I was invincible. I still think the same, but now, being 30 something I know that if I don’t sleep enough that invincibility might get a few blows. Back then I didn’t understand why shouldn’t I use dairy product or drink coffee or worst of all, eat chocolate! How can you not eat chocolate? Are you crazy?

Seriously speaking, they all effect your vocal folds. The caffeine in your coffee dries you, the milk leaves a funny layer(mucous) in your throat, and the chocolate, well, the same as with the coffee. And that’s not all of the stuff that you should avoid, you can find more info from these two articles.

1. Advice for care of the voice from the Texas voice centre:

http://www.texasvoicecenter.com/advice.html

2. Care of the Voice from the University of York:

http://www.yorku.ca/earmstro/journey/care.html

Needless to say you shouldn’t smoke. I’d even say eat all the chocolate in the world, but stop smoking if you are really serious about singing, or about your life for that matter. Yes, I used to smoke when I was 17, why? I really don’t have any good reasons for it. I can’t even say that I was stupid. Maybe I was trying to rebel against nothing…Anyway, I was smart enough to quit long time ago.

What am I saying? That you should immediately stop drinking coffee and eating chocolate? No, I’m not saying that. I am writing this while drinking my morning coffee. It is more about the saying that too much of a good thing can be harmful. Be aware of the side affects. Simply put, if you drink coffee, drink water with it too.

Take care of yourself. It’s not just about singing, but in general, know what’s good for you and what doesn’t work. I know it’s hard to get rid of bad habits, I am continuously working on it.  But do give yourself a break, treat yourself kindly and get in shape. It will benefit your whole life.

 

What is your story?

I attended a Masterclass last Friday held by jazz saxophonist Lew Tabackin.  (http://www.lewtabackin.com )

He reminded me of a very important thing that we, well I, tend to forget when we focus too much on technique. Music is storytelling. It is not really about having the correct technique and playing the correct notes. It is about telling our story.

I don’t remember exactly when, but at some point in my life I realised that I have A purpose. Yes, just one, pretty simple. My sole purpose is to tell stories. It took a while to understand that, but now that it’s clear it surely makes my life easier. I mean seriously, what else can it be? I’m a writer and a singer.

Maybe because of the fact that I am a schooled writer and musician I find that the media I use for storytelling is not important, meaning that I already tell stories through two different medias. What I mean is, we should be able to tell our stories regardless of the media or the art form we choose. You can tell stories equally by painting, writing, singing, or just by playing an instrument.  Stories don’t necessarily need words, you can paint a picture in my mind by simply playing a song. If you are telling your story, I’m sure I’ll hear it.

But what is storytelling? For one thing, it is surely universal, everybody loves a good story. A good story is something that awakes feelings inside us, it takes us to new adventures, new worlds. If it is really a good story, it teaches you about yourself things that you didn’t know existed. Yes, it is also a tale that has a beginning, a middle and an end. (except in open ended French art films)

But how can you put that into singing? Easily. Normally I do sing with words. I tend to choose songs that mean something to me. I ask the question why? Why is this song with it’s lyrics speaking to me? I try to find my own story, not the one that the songwriter intended necessarily.  But you can do the same without words. With music. Forget the lyrics and listen to the chords, what do they tell you? They seem to have a life of their own so to speak and sooner or later I start to hear what I want to tell. And then I just improvise. Sounds, words, anything that comes into my mind. Most importantly, I try to feel.

Music and singing is really powerful. The thing we have to realise as singers is to sing our own stories, even when we sing someone else’s lyrics. The story starts from the first note, not from the second verse. But how do we get there, how do we become great storytellers? I find that the key is to be brave enough to share a piece of you with others.  I don’t care if you are technically the best singer in the world, if you don’t reach me with your story, your feelings, I will stop listening to you. Be brave! Find your own story to tell with every song that you sing!

Lastly, here is a great song from the late, great Donny Hathaway, that speaks a language of it’s own: