For the last year-and-change, I have offered a free monthly masterclass to my voice studio as a way for them to get to know each other and be inspired by the work they’re all doing in the world. Most masterclass series in New York are cost-prohibitive, and giving a couple hours of my time a month is completely worth the connections I’m seeing these beautiful artists make, both in how they’re communicating through song, and through their support of each other.
On January 7, I held the first masterclass of the year. At the beginning of each class, I lead a discussion on a particular topic: sometimes technique-related, sometimes about the industry. On this particular night, I suggested we talk about any New Year’s Resolutions we recently made regarding our work as artists.
What came up was probably familiar terrain for most of us: people were already feeling overwhelmed by their resolutions and were beating themselves up for not yet taking action. On day seven.
It’s a known fact that gym attendance spikes in the first couple weeks of each year, then precipitously drops less than a month later. It’s not uncommon to similarly abandon our artistic goals. Why?
I think it has to do with not taking things apart. The work we do as artists is all about process: this small step, plus this baby step, plus this little leap get us to where we want to be. It’s so easy to set a goal like, “By the end of the year, I want to be on Broadway!” and either become overwhelmed by it or not work smart.
We first have to look at the anatomy of our goal(s). Why do we want to accomplish this particular goal over another? What might it take for this to happen? More than just luck, surely. What are the many necessary steps toward that goal?
For my 40th Birthday, I decided to produce a concert of my art songs (poems set to music for voice and piano) at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall. Why? My music teacher, Mary Schroyer (who was my second mother) had recently died after a long fight with cancer. I wanted to produce this concert in her memory and start a scholarship for high school students graduating from my alma mater from some of the proceeds. Also, I had written so much music that had never been heard. I wanted to change that.
I can tell you there were well over 2,000 steps to that process, from securing the talent, arranging travel and hotels, to setting up the scholarship. And the program and program notes, which I designed myself, took forever! I outlined every step I could think of before I started the process, then added steps when I realized there were things I hadn’t thought of. I wrote it all down on lists divided by category (i.e. personnel, rehearsal schedules, marketing, etc…) and delighted when I could cross it off the list! I recognize to some this may seem more like an illness than a mode of working.
The concert is, by far, one of the most memorable nights of my life, thanks to the generous and ingenious work of many creative and performing artists, who collaborated with me. We sold the entire venue out in only 5 days. And it came to fruition by taking one little step at a time over the course of 15 months. Bird by bird, as Anne Lammot (my favorite writer) said in her book on writing.
But lest you think I’m preaching from the mount, let me assure you I’m still struggling with process too. My current Everest is playing the score of My One and Only, which I’m music directing at Wagner College right now. The show is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to play and conduct at the same time. First, it’s Gershwin. Second, the dance arrangements are breathtakingly hard. Third, it’s impossible to read, being one of those old hand-written Tams-Whitmark licensed scores with abysmal accidentals and oodles of mistakes they never bothered to fix. Thank God for the Avioms, a headphone system, which will allow me to talk to my band as we play. There’s barely time for my hand to even turn a page, let allow throw a cue!
Allow me to use the following popular YouTube video to illustrate how much of my practice as been going these days (Warning: this video contains strong language).
We may laugh at this poor little girl, who so desperately wants to belt it out like Whitney, but my guess is it’s more of a laugh of acknowledgement. To quote Maltby & Shire’s beautiful trio from Closer than Ever: “I’ve been there before.”
If we take a closer look at this video, we see the young singer is not taking things apart. She simply repeats the phrase over and over again, expecting a different result. Bubbling underneath are her anxieties and frustrations, which act as a megaphone screaming: “YOU CAN’T DO IT!” And, unfortunately, because of that and her lack of preparation, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
So, let’s briefly consider what to do to overcome these kinds of situations.
Be Kind to Yourself
The percentage of clients I see with proverbial cat-of-nine-tails in their hands as they sing is almost at 100%. We are so willing to whip ourselves for mistakes or “failures” that promote the narrative that we couldn’t do it after all.
Stop, breathe, and practice self-care. I have taken to literally laying a hand over my heart and saying aloud, “It’s OK. Practice means making mistakes. It’s part of the process. You’re doing a great job!” It feels weird to do this, but when I say it out loud, I find my body positively responds and what I call my “psycho-babble” recedes.
I have to meditate daily if I have any hope of taming the negative voices that can be ever-present throughout my day. I’ve found a couple lovely free 10-minute guided meditation videos (like this one) I listen to every morning, and sometimes more than once a day, depending on how things are going.
Find the “Why”
I can tell myself to do something, but if I don’t thoroughly understand why I’m doing it, I either won’t accomplish the goal or I’ll do it half-heatedly. Our passion is the wind beneath the voice of our goals. I have to continually remind myself why I’m doing what I’m doing and how it connects to my larger plans.
It’s easy to develop a Jackson Pollock approach to a goal and simply throw something at a canvas to see what sticks (no disrespect to the artist) because it doesn’t take planning. But that’s not working smart. We have to outline all the steps we perceive it will take to get to accomplish our goals and adjust, when necessary. This will keep us focused and working smart.
Take Small Steps, Everyday
When Laura and I were writing our book, I had a couple hours a day traveling back and forth to music direct another Wagner show. Each day, I created a small assignment to accomplish on the trip. Sometimes I finished it, sometimes I didn’t. But every drop in the bucket got us to a finished product that we’re proud of.
Take small steps everyday toward your goal. The consistency will fuel you,keeping you connected to your passion (or the “why”) of what you’re doing.
My colleague Stacy Alley, who is the Director of Musical Theatre at the University of Alabama, recently posted this quote on Facebook.
Ain’t that the truth! And, if we look at this more closely, we see that this is also the arc of almost every character we love in musical theatre: I’ve got big dreams, wow this is hard, I’m a screw-up, I think I can do this, I did it!
Whatever your goal is: you can do this. It just requires knowing why you want to accomplish it, how to take it apart, and taking baby steps everyday from a centered, loving place.
And here’s the thing: even if, by some chance, you don’t accomplish your goal, the intention and work ethic are never wasted. Life has a way of rewarding us for our hard work, even if it’s not what we planned.
Have a fruitful rest of this New Year, and tell us how you’re doing along the way!
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