Performance Aftershock

There is a kind of aftershock that tends to hit me after a performance. Immediately following a show, I am quite naturally high as a kite and generally don’t hear a single thing anyone says to me. People may be shaking my hand, they may be congratulating me or sharing how much they enjoyed the show, but I am so far removed from my body, even the miraculously appropriate words that come from my own lips…”thank you”, “I’m so glad”, “so good to see you”…echo off the walls of my vacated self. I don’t know why this happens.

I have also tended to be hyper-agreeable. Give me an invitation or make a proposal for just about anything immediately following a show, and I’d shake my head enthusiastically that that would be lovely having no clue what I’ve just agreed to. Of course, I’m aware of that tendency now and so make it a point to say something like, “let me get back to you.”

I suppose this could all be because half of my brain immediately goes into “performance reflection” mode. Was it any good? Where did I mess up?” And in the worst of cases, “Why are these people being so nice when I clearly bombed?” I suppose it is a measure of my own insecurity how I must instantly assess how something went. I’d much rather hear constructive criticism after a show than a string of compliments of which I usually feel scarcely worthy. The criticism seems to ground me. I know what I can do better next time.

Performance Aftershock is not an enjoyable thing to go through…or at least is isn’t for me.

I developed the Principles of Sacred Performance to help myself overcome stagefright and the “aftershock” which for me was always worse than the stagefright.

Bliss of Being: Lessons from a Bad Rehearsal

This Sunday, the Pure Heart Ensemble launched our new CD, Bliss of Being, at the White Horse in Black Mountain. It was an amazing experience. We played to a “standing room only” crowd and even ended the night with a standing ovation…and not just because people were already standing!  ; )

I felt incredible love and appreciation being both given and received by all present. For me, it was a night to remember.

But I don’t want to write about the performance (er…transformance) so much as I want to write about the rehearsal. There is an old saying that a terrible rehearsal guarantees a great performance. So I guess I should be grateful that rehearsal was such a trial for me. The night of performance, I was so calm and centered, and I know it was because I had totally lost it at the rehearsal.

So what happened? Every self-doubt I have about myself rose to the surface the night before the show. A tornado of thoughts spun in my head. I’m going to make a big fool of myself. I can’t do this. I’ll never be able to do this. I was completely aware of them but not quite able to turn them around. I know this happens to a lot of performers…especially perfectionistic ones.

I was in complete and utter fear. I “knew” I was out of my league, trying to sing with these stellar, well-trained, “real” musicians. I am a joke. They are surely thinking they’ve made a mistake inviting me to be part of this ensemble. I am doomed to be replaced by someone who can really sing and who knows an A# from a G on paper.  I’m going to let everyone down. I am going to utterly humiliate myself, and on and on thoughts flashed through my head.

With each disturbing thought, I then had the thought that I was totally out of control with my thoughts…not to mention my ability to sing through all this. That just compounded the problem. Clearly, there was something going on within me far beyond the situation at hand. What I really wanted to do was run screaming to the bathroom to cry. Instead, I was determined to hold it all together…which probably just made matters worse. Did I mention the whole damn thing was being videotaped? I probably should have just run away crying. I would have surely been fine within five minutes or so. Embarrassed, but fine.

Instead, I sucked it all in to the point of feeling quite the insecure diva and fantasizing that I’d have an accident on the way to the show and not have to sing at all! I wanted to escape my certain humiliation that much. Fortunately, the witnessing side of myself was skeptical of my unfolding inner drama. The mind is nothing if not entertaining.

When I did finally get home that evening, in the safety and privacy of my home, I did cry. I remembered being on TV in the 4th grade and how a group of my peers made fun of me the next day. I felt all those feelings of not being worthy, of not being good enough, and on and on, moving up the spiral of healing to a new place…a place that would allow me to be present for the actual performance, a place that was asking me to hold a higher frequency of self-acceptance and confidence…something I could then transmit to whoever came to the concert.

I came to the point of accepting my fate be it humiliation or whatever else was in store. I would survive. Arriving at acceptance and detachment from outcome, which was possible only from going through the storm (not around it or over it or under it), calmed me completely and delivered me to a whole new level of being…the Bliss of Being. Was the drama necessary for me arrive? Well, it was this time around. Next time, maybe not. So often, we judge oursevles for the way things unfold. We forget, maybe because we don’t like the idea, that we aren’t in control.

I suppose this may surprise some people who think an experienced performer such as myself has already overcome such thoughts and feelings. I am a transformational voice coach for heaven’s sake, a person who helps other people use the voice to purify themselves and lead them into authenticity. But no, I still have these experiences…usually when I’m stepping up in some way. The point is, I go through it. I don’t let the fear, the thoughts, the feelings paralyze me, though they so easily could have. Neither do I buy into the “buck up” attitude many people will prescribe with unwanted advice to make themselves more comfortable. I’m voluntarily and completely in the discomfort of my emotional states until I am out of them. I know too well the gold they hide to turn the other way.

I share this story because I know people do let themselves be paralyzed from stepping out of their safety zones. They believe the thoughts that say they can’t, shouldn’t, and don’t deserve it. They have the emotional fear which seems bigger than they are. Or worse, they think they have to push away their doubts and feign some more appropriate image. What a tragedy of lives unlived and creative expressions never realized. But fear is always a tiny mutant shadow that only looks big and ominous when we refuse to look at it.

When we face our fear and allow the depths of our honest feelings, we discover a reserve of strength within us to accept what is. We step beyond our limitations into new territory. We grow. And then we really have something share…an openness that heals.

From bad rehearsals, to terrible speeches, to botched performances, to humiliating auditions, what lessons have you learned from continuing to step forward and in deeper?

From Performers to Transformers: Principles of Sacred Artistry

I was part of a great conversation the other night between musicians and visionaries. It came up that for a lot of conscious performers, the word “perform” is one that doesn’t quite fit anymore. We are not as interested in getting up in front of a crowd being watched as we are of being part of a crowd being expressed. If you know what I mean, then chances are, you are not really a performer, but a transformer. Whatever your art, be it singing, music, dancing, acting or something else, you recognize that you are doing what you’re doing to inspire, evolve, and transform yourself and others. You are a vessel for something greater than yourself.

Several years ago, I developed for myself the principles of sacred performance. (I used the word “performance” because I didn’t know what else to call it back then.) It was my attempt to bring balance to whatever I happened to be sharing with an audience because I found that “performing” often left me out of whack.

I began to think of performing as a multidimensional event. There is the external dimension at which everything is about the crowd, the environment, our bandmates, our voice teachers, and external validation. It is neither good nor bad, positive nor negative. But if it is our sole focus, our performance is out of balance and inauthentic. If we are obsessed with reviews, heads swelling from praise and guts twisted with criticisms, we are far too impressionable in this dimension.

There is also the internal dimension. There are of course many excellent performers who operate more so from this level at which the focus is on the energy of self, our emotions, the physical self, our training, and our actual voice. It is obvious why this tends to be the dimension of which we are most aware as performers. Our sensitivity is what makes us artists. But if we get stuck here, the imbalance can result in self-importance, and we lose our fluidity.

The dimension that is often lacking or unacknowledged is the one that that adds greater depth to what we bring to our performances. It is the dimension of the secret realm. I’m using the word “secret” here as the Buddhist do…to mean hidden. It is hidden because it remains out of our tangible reality, and it is often dismissed or ignored. On this level, the focus becomes the energy of spirit, the meaning beyond the lyrics or lines or composition, our connection to other, our presence and light, and turning to something bigger than self. This level must be grounded by the other two, or we lack substance. If we are too far out in this realm, we cannot ground and share our vision.

I am now calling this body of work Principles of Sacred Artistry. It brings to light these dimensions as they pertain to performance and expands upon the traps that each dimension contains when we tend to favor one and neglect the others. It is only in moving fluidly though and between each dimension that we move away from being performers and towards becoming transformers…balanced, riveting and magical. It is a practice that can be cultivated with our awareness and the conscious consideration we are willing to give to our art.

I’d love to hear what people think about these ideas. And if you’re a transformer, what makes it so?

Sacred Performance: Lessons in Musical Improvisation

As an improvisational vocalist, I don’t consider myself a musician in the way most musicians do. I am not the one who plays the music. Rather, I let the music play me…at least on a good night. So really, Life is the musician. I’m simply the instrument.

I’ve spent the last 12 years of my life immersed in the Toltec tradition of shamanism. The Toltecs distinguish between what is called the Nagual and Tonal. The Tonal is like everything that happens upon the stage of life. It is matter, what we know and can understand. The Nagual is everything that goes on behind the scenes. It is the mysterious, the energetic. It is yin and yang. It is dark and light. It is manifest and unmanifest, seen and unseen. The Tonal is the paradigm we’ve known. The Nagual is beyond paradigm.

As artists, when we become aware of both the Tonal and the Nagual, we begin to better understand the consciousness or life that exists within our performances. In musical improvisation, I am constantly learning what it means to dance between these worlds. The Nagual is what informs a sacred performance. The tonal is the manifestation of that. The challenge of course is representing the Nagual as clearly as possible. Not always an easy task.

In a recent performance with a group of musicians I had never played with (though I’d played with two of the four separately), some of the things that can get in the way of a pure reflection were revealed.

For example, I had to step into the role of time-keeper making sure each section of our presentation went long enough but not too long. I resisted this task, but rather than listening to that resistance, I ignored it, doing what I told myself had to be done. So every few minutes, my attention was drawn to “are we on time…is this piece going too long”…etc.  At our break, a women expressed to me her feeling that the energy was just building when we took the break; she wished we had kept going. While I didn’t agree, I did take on her opinion in the back of my mind, and it later reappeared and influenced my actions toward the end of our second set: I meant to build the energy again.

In my effort, my “push”, I invited one of the musicians to start some “trouble”. I assumed he would keep that trouble within the energetic framework we had already built. He was taken aback, in part by my poor choice of words (what was I thinking?), and dove headlong into a blues riff slamming the oven door on the ethereal souffle we had baking, caving in it’s light, airy middle. The disconnect with the audience was immediately apparent and, for me at least, incredibly painful.

I tried to ride with it. After all, I know what it is like to go out on an improvisational ledge completely alone just waiting for one of my cohorts to feel it. But my heart just wasn’t in it. And that was perhaps my second mistake. I should have just let it play out, not added to it…hope he would quickly realize he was out there…all by himself. Instead, I forced myself to comply and the result was half-hearted and awkward.

My third mistake came after the vibrational contrast came to an end. I knew recovery was impossible, but I tried to do it just the same, and I found myself out there…alone…overly loud…and taking people where they simply didn’t want to go. They’d had enough. So had I. Ouch. I know not everyone had the exact same experience as a result of the slip. Some people may have enjoyed it for all I know. The point is, I knew something had been ignored; I knew the potential that hadn’t been reached even if no one else did. Although, on the subconscious level, aware of it or not, everyone knew.

Music entrusts itself to me. An audience puts its faith in me to lead it with care. In a moment, I had failed music and the crowd and my fellow musicians. But that’s just one hand of a two-handed story. On the other hand, Life moves in mysterious ways. While it may seem paradoxical, ultimately, our performance that night was perfect; it made me a better sacred performer. I’m grateful it played out just as it did, even if I wouldn’t care to repeat it.

The point of all painful lessons is to learn from them. So, what were my lessons that night?

1) Clocks do not belong in what I do as a sacred performer. A piece lasts as long as it lasts. An offering (show) goes as long as it goes. Breaks come  when they come, not when they are scheduled. This is a challenge in a world run by time and expectations of time.

2) I of all people know how important a word is! But just because I wrote a book about it doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes. If I’m clumsy enough to use the word “trouble” instead of the words “take us someplace beautiful”, then I’d better expect trouble! As our manifestations become more and more spontaneous, it is more and more critical to choose our words with care.

3) Never go where the heart of the Nagual isn’t leading. Silence is better than a cover-up,  an attempt to fix, and co-dependent thinking.

4) Don’t try to please anyone but the Nagual. Release opinions and feedback and stay in the moment.

What lessons have you learned in improvisation?