May 142008

I have been thinking a bit more about the feeling of not fitting in I wrote about the other day.

A day later I went to another one of Rhiannon’s fabulous improvisation workshops for singers. (I’ve been to quite a few and have written about a few of them in these posts). I was early. (That’s the beauty of going by train, you’re either too early or too late.) By the time the workshop was supposed to begin there was a small cluster of singers standing around in front of the building. Since this was a different location than usual I didn’t know anybody. The other workshops I had attended were all held in the big city, and over the years I have come to know quite a few of the regulars. So, there we stood, nobody quite sure what to do or say. Then Rhiannon arrived by car. She emerged from the car, carrying a basket full of strawberries, greeting me enthusiastically. And that was the first moment where I found myself both in the situation, inside myself, feeling slightly lonely and a bit scared about the workshop and my singing, and outside myself, seeing the scene through the eyes of the other singers who hadn’t met Rhiannon before, who probably were feeling even lonelier and more scared. What they saw was that I was the only one getting a hug. That I was the only one whom the teacher knew.

It didn’t stay that way though. Later there were more singers who had been to workshops before. Most of those I knew. And they knew me. And I’m still surprised when that happens. I’m very used to not being recognized by people. Maybe it’s because I changed my look so much, I don’t know. The workshop itself by the way was marvelous. I had had my doubts before because I have been to so many of these workshops but I went home inspired and much clearer about what I want to do.

A few days later it happened again. I went to the concert Rhiannon gave with two other singers. I was very early because I wanted to have something to eat there before the concert, and I wanted to write the story I had to finish the day after for a writing group assignment. That I went there alone is nothing unusual for me. When I came to the venue I was greeted by a woman coming towards me from the other side. (I think that maybe singers are especially prone to greet people from something like 20 meters away.) It took me about 15 meters of going towards her to realize that she hadn’t greeted somebody behind me. And that I know her. (I’m sorry, she used to be blonde, and now she’s brunette. Also I couldn’t see her face at first.) But the same thing happened to me three or four times in the course of the evening. Somebody was saying hello to me and every time I’d think they meant somebody behind me.

I entered the jazz club where the band was doing soundcheck. As I went down the stairs I heard, “Hi! It’s Susanne!” from the stage. Amplified. I sat down, I had my dinner, I wrote about half of the story, and I met a lot of singers that I know. It was the same thing over again. I knew about a third of all the people in the room. But to me I was there alone, spending a lot of time sitting at my table with nobody to talk to. To the other people sitting at my table I probably was part of the “in-crowd”. Going here and there, hugging people, and talking. Telling stories of other concerts and other workshops. This seeing myself from the inside and the outside at once confuses me. The images don’t quite match. What’s the truth, me being part of a group amidst friendly faces, or me sitting apart, taking something to read with me because I’m on my own with nobody to talk with?

Two days later I went to a meeting of my writer’s group. Again, a group that I know, people that I like. And then there were the many nice comments on my blog. And I realized that though I feel as if I never fit in I am part of this friendly little corner of the blog-world nonetheless. And I had another moment of seeing myself from the inside and the outside at the same time again that week when I stayed in front of kindergarten to chat with another mother. I suddenly realized that I looked like those mothers I had seen standing there before, the ones of whom I thought they were big friends and had known each others for ages. Well, it seems that if you just stay somewhere for a bit of time you’ll get to know people and then you look like you have friends.

So, I’m not as lonely as I often feel. But then I still don’t have many friends. I’d still love to find a friend who loves the same things I do but that might be a little difficult. Even my husband has interests different from mine. When we first met we were pleasantly surprised about the similarities (of course). We both love Brazilian music, jazz, and the same piece of Anton Webern that nobody else loves. (Op. 22, you know, the saxophone quartet. What, you don’t know? Well, never mind, nobody does.) Even other Webern-lovers – of which there aren’t that many – regard that to be one of his inferior pieces.

I remember, back when I still studied musicology, how much I longed to have a friend to share everything with. Webern, classical music, Brazilian drumming, jazz, rock music, science fiction novels, and baking. But now I think that maybe that’s a bit too much. (And in all this I really shouldn’t forget to mention my real life friends who are reading this blog. All they hear me yammer about is how I don’t have friends. But they aren’t living nearby. And our interests only intersect so far.)

This whole thing might be a case of unrealistic expectations. But then I really long to find people loving the same things as I. And through the internet that has become much easier by the way. These days I’m spending quite a bit of my time over on ravelry (where I’m creativemother, by the way) discussing various aspects of sock knitting.

So I learned two things: 1) Other people might feel as lonely and isolated as I even if they don’t look like it, and 2) my quest to find people interested in the same things as I has been more successful than I thought. Only there weren’t any interested in exactly the same things or in all of them.

And now all of a sudden I feel the urge to make a list of the things I’m interested in. It might be a long list. And a bit unfocused.

May 162007

Thank you for all your kind comments on my last post. And I’m sorry to have let you hang with the suspense, it is really not nice to tell the world, “I’m nervous, I’m nervous.”, and then vanish from the blogosphere for days. The workshop was in some ways the best I’ve ever been too. To get a feeling for how exceptional Rhiannon’s workshops are I first have to tell you what most jazz singing workshops look like:

Usually there are about 15 to 30 participants, mostly female. Or to be precise, one rarely meets a male singer. Each of the participants then takes a seat, the famous singer enters the room, and talks about singing and warming up and technique. Then she proceeds to do some warm-up exercises that leave everybody slightly hoarse. Then she introduces the pianist, or the band if there is one, and asks the first singer to come up front to sing his first song. “Which song?” the singer replies. Well, the one that we were asked to prepare for, including lead sheets for the pianist or band. It said so when we signed up. The singer doesn’t have a song prepared. She doesn’t quite know what a lead sheet is. Somebody produces a “real book”, the bible of jazz standards. The singer doesn’t quite know which song to sing. After much thinking she decides to sing “I got rhythm” (I don’t know why, but they always do). She doesn’t know which key she wants. She decides to sing it in the original key. Bad decision. The original key is too high (it always is because it was written for an opera singer). After about half an hour of this she is finished. On the second day of the workshop it’s my turn. I stand up, get in front, tell the band, “I want to play “I should care” in G, please give me an eight bar intro, I’ll do a solo after the first chorus then you can solo if you want. Then I’ll sing it all through again, and in the end we slow down on cue. A one, a two, a one, two, three, four.” I sing my song, the band doesn’t look at me when they should for the ending but otherwise all is well. I finish. The very famous singer from the United Stated looks at me and says, “Nice voice.” And that’s it.

That was the workshop where I decided not to go to singing workshops again. But that also was the workshop where I met Laila, the woman who organizes Rhiannon’s workshops in Munich. She told me to go because it would be totally different and she was right. When I went to the first of Rhiannon’s workshops in Munich about eleven years ago, it went like this:

There were about fifteen women in the room. Rhiannon entered, said, “Hello, I’m Rhiannon. please sit in a circle.” Then she stood in the middle, closed her eyes and started to sing. Five minutes later everyone in the room was singing with her. And not a song from the “jazz bible” but one that she made up in the moment. This is called circle singing. We pretty much kept up singing for the remainder of the workshop. We did other things too. Stream of consciousness-like exercises with language, dancing, looking at a picture and then singing whatever came to mind. Singing in small groups, singing with everybody, one of us singing and all the others listening. Scores of different exercises all designed to get our creativity and music flowing. We even learned songs. Like “Throw it away“. (The link leads to a recording of me singing it.)

At the first of her workshops there were exercises that I dreaded. Anything to do with language, with moving and singing at the same time and especially the picture-thing. But over the years I have come to love all of them. Of course I’m getting used to this. And then Rhiannon started adding more structure into her exercises. In addition to all the wild, free-flowing, bursting out into song-stuff, we had tasks like soloing for four patterns and then stop. Ah, I love those. That’s quite easy for me.

This workshop of course was different because there were two other teachers. Men! (I don’t mean what you think. No! But male singers. Wow. That’s like finding a female bass player or drummer.) And we even had three male participants. This time we learned a lot about mouth percussion and singing bass. Which I never had done before. Having studied drumming really helped with that.

Oh, and nobody said anything about my weight. And I wore green on Saturday and orange on Sunday. Jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers really is the look for the fashionable singer these days. On Saturday I lacked the really cool and artsy necklace but on Sunday I changed that. And answering some of the comments about why I was so concerned with the way I looked, I’m always concerned with how I look, especially when I’m feeling insecure. When I have to attend something I feel nervous about, my thoughts go to what to wear. At least that’s something I can control. Thanks to limited funding I didn’t turn into someone who buys a whole new wardrobe when feeling anxious, and I totally know that it’s futile and silly. And I don’t have that much clothes anyway. Since I have about three pairs of pants and two skirts, and all my t-shirts look alike, all my thinking and wondering gets down to: orange, red, green or brown?

The two days of the workshop felt very different too me. On Friday evening me and my husband had been at the concert the teachers gave. They were great. The only thing I didn’t like about it (apart from the fact that the waitress forgot my husband’s beer twice) was that the audience was a little over-enthusiastic. I don’t know why but the minute somebody next to me gets all “Ooh!” and”Aah!” with admiration and applauds even when the singer is only taking a sip of water my experience gets tainted by it. Nonetheless I enjoyed the concert tremendously. But when the first day of the workshop came I had decided to stay in my body and concentrate on myself as much as I could.

So I felt a little distant that day, also I was very, very tired. After that day I was mildly happy and knew that the decision to make my own music by myself had been the right one. The next day I felt quite different. I felt safe and open, I looked forward to spend the day with all these great singers. (The evening before I was less enthusiastic and briefly thought of staying home. But this is how these workshops always go for me. The day before last I’m ready to quit.) I went there and sang and was happy, and content. When the workshop was over I was sad to part, and we all hugged each other and (as every time) we promised to meet again and sing together soon.

I’d like to, but for the eleven years I have been attending these workshops I only once met with another of those singers to improvise. It was real special but a little complicated to set up so we never did it again. On Sunday evening I barely could go to sleep I felt like music was bubbling inside of me all the time. When I taught my first singing student on Monday I almost blew her away because my voice was so strong.

So here i probably have it, the answer to my question if I’m really a singer. Yes, I am and my urge to do it is fairly strong. I’d like to close this post by giving heartfelt thanks to the three teachers: Rhiannon, David Worm and Joey Blake. They are touring Europe right now, as a trio (check out their blog) or with Bobby McFerrin’s voicestra.

May 112007

Despite the headline this isn’t one of those birthday letters. No, I’m going to a singer’s workshop this weekend. To an improvisation workshop. And I’m totally nervous. Stage fright. You thought one could have stage fright only when performing. Oh no. Singing solo in front of about 15 singing teachers and professional singers can be quite intimidating.

The last time I went to one of these workshops was exactly two years ago. Same date, same place. And I’ve been thinking about my life then and now. Of course the obvious change is in my son. 2 1/2 is quite different from 4 1/2. And since he’s in preschool now I have my mornings to myself. That’s an improvement for sure. This hasn’t made me as productive as I thought it would. But then two years ago I didn’t have a blog…

But the main change for me (apart from the blog which is really more important to me than I would have thought) is that now I’m about 22 pounds lighter. Of course that’s the most important thing when you go to a singing workshop – the way you look. I can’t believe that this is so much on my mind. Of course it’s totally realistic that most people won’t even notice since they maybe have a mental image of me that’s dating back to ten years ago when I went to the first of these workshops. And if they notice, I feel a little weird when somebody says, “Wow. You sure have lost weight. How did you do it.” Because let’s face it, nobody turned to me two years ago and said, “Wow. You sure have gained weight. How did you do it?” (If you’re interested in how I did it I’ll point you to my “spring dieting“-series which is quite incoherent but trying to cover the topic in length. And no, I didn’t diet, I’m just eating like a healthy person. And meditating.)

Then of course there is the question of what to wear. You know, it should be something that says, “I’m a real cool artist, and fashion conscious but cool enough not to worry overmuch. And although I am a singer and used to be center-stage, my ego isn’t inflated at all.” Do you know where to shop for clothes like this? Well, I’ll go for the same clothes I wear everyday. Though they rather say, “I like comfortable clothes. Stretch jeans and a tee. With sneakers.” When dressing for a workshop it is very important to wear somethings that allows circulation and doesn’t leave you exposed when bending over or dancing.

So apart from my insecurities about that, which are ridiculous, there is my stage fright and the fact that I feel like I’m slowly going nuts. Which is quite normal at this point. I know it, the minute I set foot there and start to sing, everything will be alright. It’s neither the first singing workshop nor the first of Rhiannon’s singing workshops that I’m attending. I’ll probably know a lot of the attendees. I will probably know a lot of the exercises. And since there are three teachers this time (that’s really exiting and new) we will be doing a little more group singing I suppose. Which suits me fine.

Like two years before I have the feeling that I don’t really belong there. I’m scared. When I read about the workshop and that it was for advanced singers only I momentarily panicked. Would I be allowed in? That was only my fear speaking. When I phoned the woman who’s organizing the workshop she laughed and said, “You have been part of these workshops for so many years. Are you crazy?” I suppose I am in a way. Last time I kept telling people that there were only professional singers and singing teachers there. Wow. I constantly have to remind myself that I am a singing teacher as well. That though I’m not working as a jazz singer nowadays I could if I wanted to.

I feel like I am changing sizes every other minute. One minute I know what I can do and feel proud for it. The other minute I fell insecure and frightened. In the end it doesn’t matter at all. It isn’t for me to judge. Music is not a competitive sport.

But I have to constantly remind myself about this because when I learned to play the piano it seemed to be about being better and faster and competition. Like when I started studying musicology: There were about 120 students in the room and the professor said, “Only twenty of you will have a job related to music. Only two will work as musicologists.” The funny thing is that I know of at least four other people who were in that room with me, all of them working in some music-related field and three of them working as musicologists.

So why am I writing about this. Nobody wants to hear me debating things in my mind, right? Well, I do because I know that I’m not alone in this. Especially when it comes to creative endeavors we all feel like we’re changing sizes all the time. At least I have the advantage of knowing that everything will feel fine when I’m actually there. And there will be moments when singing will feel like soaring high, and there will be moments when singing will feel like finding a path through the woods with a torch, stumbling over roots and being hit by branches. There will be amazing women there and very few men, there will be people I’ve met before and people I haven’t.

Going there is always very special since singing mostly is quite lonely. There is only one singer in a band. And to meet so many amazing singers (they are always amazing) in such an atmosphere of cordiality and warmth is a privilege.

So while I’m trembling and feeling like I’m going nuts I’m at the same time filled with joy to the brim.

Apr 212007

I started dreaming about becoming a singer and writing my own songs at the age of 12 or so. I even did some improvisational attempts but my problem was that by the time I pinned something down on paper it had changed beyond recognition. That’s something I’m still struggling with but years of training have made me a little better and the marvels of modern technology let me record my ideas and then I can take my time.

In my twenties I played with the idea of song writing again. There were one or two ideas, things in my head and that was it. Despite this long history of longing the first song I ever wrote was a started in 1998. At that time I played in a Brazilian band with my husband, I wrote my dissertation and had just spent the whole year working on a paper for a music educator’s conference that should have boosted my academic career. I started teaching freelance only. And I went to one of Rhiannon’s workshops. I think it was my third or so. At the workshop we did an exercise to write lyrics. Then we got homework: to go home and make a song or an improvisation out of those lyrics or part of them. I loved that. I always thrive when presented with homework like that. Having someone external setting the frame frees me from my inner censor, perfectionist and procrastinator. I went home on the train a melody trilling away in my head.

At home I got the message that the paper I had worked on for nine months and that had been well received at the conference was rejected for publication. I was devastated. I phoned a tutor, I phoned my advisor and I was totally freaked. Then I sat down and wrote a new melody and harmonies. Since this was written for a singer’s workshop it requires a choir. The next day at the workshop I sat down at the piano and taught the other singers the harmony. I was said that I had only part of a song. For the next years it sat in a drawer waiting to be finished. I must have pulled it out from time to time and then put it back. In 2005 I decided to get serious with my music and to record the few songs I had. Since I don’t have a choir I worked again by overdubbing. I’m not entirely happy with the sound, and I’m still not sure if there shouldn’t be other instruments. So this is like a sketch:

I remember

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The lyrics were inspired by a trip we had made the year before to the Greek island Crete. We went there at the beginning of November when tourist season is over but the weather is still mild. Especially when you’re coming from the beginning of German winter.

[Update: I just listened to the song again and have to warn you, the beginning really is out of tune. See, I said it was a sketch. It is getting better later though.]

Apr 092007

Today in the morning I listened to a CD I haven’t heard for a while. It’s called “Out of the Blue” by Rhiannon and Bowl Full of Sound. I wanted to listen to something cheerful and also this was part of my preparation for a singing workshop Rhiannon will be teaching here in May. Since it’s still easter and this is one of my favorite songs from this CD, I wanted to post the lyrics to “Start Again” here. I’m quoting the liner notes of the album, the song was written by Rhiannon and Frank Martin. You can listen to part of the song, though this recording is from the album “In My Prime” and slightly different.

Start Again

(Rhiannon wrote: Written for Terry Dobson as he lay in state on David and Nancy’s deck under the great trees with all our prayers for him in the air. Also for Rikki Moss, his partner, whose face told me everything I wrote in these lyrics. Blessed be.)

Start again,
trust your memories to last you
Start again.
Trust your beating heart to open once again,
in the silence,
Start again.

One more time
Wait until the night is over
You’ll still be here
Living out the dreams the dark has brought to light
Trust your wisdom,
Start again.

When the snow, when the chilling snow comes down,
All of life dies down to the ground
Be sure, you can be very, very sure
life will come back once again.

Open up your eyes,
Ask for all you can imagine,
It might just come to you
give in to it, take all that love inside
Of your precious body
Start again.

When there’s trouble,
more than you can bear,
all around you, like a fire,
Let it burn.
I know it’s easier to say than to do,
but what choice can you make but to move,
Move mountains,
Move your body, you can move your mind,
Repair this world,
and forgive.

Trust your heart, just one more time. Take all that love
inside and start again.