The Taste of Restlessness

Every two years. Well, every two years on average. I have to get unstuck. Where’s the next leap up? I’ve been right here for a while and I want a new view.  The feeling always starts with a sudden readiness to move, physically, to a new location. I don’t know if it’s wanderlust or just a timer that goes off in my memory that says, “we’ve always moved after this long, it’s time to go!” But what starts as a simple state of curiosity quickly descends into frustrations with my work, being blind to opportunities, and questioning the smallest details of daily life.

To be clear, there is nothing mundane about my life. I work too many jobs to have a regular routine and each job changes its schedule after a few months. I exercise by standing on my head and climbing things. I even infuse my water with a different flavor every day. So the sensation of being restless is entirely self-realized. This present reality might be easier to deal with if it manifested in a concrete way. Start walking until you’re through the all-encompassing smog. Start changing your goals and when you find the one you should settle on for the next few years your front door will unlock. Gah, wouldn’t that be nice. Of course, the dark cloud of being ready for a new challenge is highly palpable, so it’s really just the unlocking strategy that is generally elusive for a few months.

It is, of course, timely that I’m ready to admit to feeling this way at the start of the year. While everyone is setting resolutions, my present outlook on 2016 is similar to getting on a rollercoaster I’ve never seen. I assume it will move when I get on, but who knows where it’s going. In my attempts to figure out what I should look forward to next, I’ve knocked on every door that I can see clearly and have no idea which ones will open. If any of them will. I am old enough to know that it will most likely be a door I’ve never seen and that I will probably be stepping through it before knowing it was ever locked. Life is grand, isn’t it?

But all of this basic quarter life pondering has got me wondering about restlessness in general. Some researchers talk about the need for boredom (I am aware that boredom and restlessness are not the same, but hear me out). They say that the mind needs time first in calming silence and then in frustrating silence in order to stir up its most lucrative juices. Creative types find their projects in the idle, albeit trying, moments. (Cue the subtle but exciting new musical theme in the movie where our lead character seems to have landed on their big idea.) I’m working on some lines from Proof by David Auburn where mathematics is described as “slogging”/”coming in from the side.” You have to be willing to sit back for a minute before the option that will work appears.

A poem by Leopold Staff:

I built on the sand

And it tumbled down,

I built on a rock,

And it tumbled down.

Now when I build, I shall begin

With the smoke from the chimney.

Who knows if it will work, but it’s certainly forward momentum.  I’ve had some wondrously lucrative time to rest. I’m ready to approach daily life from a different angle. My restlessness asks what angle it will be.

Our heart is restless until it rests in You. –St Augustine


Willing Escape.*

[*two word phrase found in Freeing the Natural Voice (K. Linklater).]

I’ve been enjoying the image of a miniature version of myself bouncing on the “trampoline” of my diaphragm flying out of my mouth and over the top of a playground, soaring past a section of trees, and then diving into a mountain of leaves. Not the most traditional way to find freedom in my singing, but certainly an affective one. This pic from; the non-instagram instagram.

jumping off the swing

The running theme in my teaching this week (and of course my own practice) has been: in order to speak or sing with freedom we have to be willing to actually say something with abandon. Why do my students and I have so much trouble with that?

In truth, we all know why. Because our voice might be criticized, or laughed at. Or it might not live up to our expectations. Or Ann Marie, my teacher, might give me another direction which is obviously a thinly veiled correction (I’m working on it guys, I’m working on it.) Or the age-old reality that someone told me to shut up once and I, scared and hurt, never unlocked the doors again.

The frequency with which this discussion comes up in lessons has me thinking about the other things that don’t generally get a “willing escape”:

-Being honest about how I feel. (And, since I’m a highly sensitive person, I am usually feeling something rather strongly. Which leads to another example: )

-Being emotional in public. I have a theory that a lot of us have actually redefined crying as the attempt not to cry. Actually letting tears flow is a rather foreign (and less active) experience.

-Telling a manager/director/teacher that I have a question. Isn’t that what they’re there for?

-Asking for something I truly need. The scarier version of this is “asking for a favor.” But how else is it going to happen? Why not dive in?

-Saying things like “you’re making me frustrated,” “that just made me day,” “I’m smiling like a goofball at my computer because of your e-mail,” “I don’t like that: I don’t want it in my life,” or “I love you so much I can actually feel my heart skip a beat.” Aren’t those important pieces of information that ought to be communicated?

I’m playing Lizzie in The Rainmaker right now and there’s a certain line that is quite applicable here. (Well, the whole play is applicable here… be honest, trust yourself, know your beauty, but I digress). At one particular moment, Lizzie, who has become the subject of even her own jokes, has been put down in the worst way possible. Then, to top it off, Starbuck says that her name doesn’t stand for anything. Suddenly she responds a phrase that has been aching to fly out of her and over the playground and into a pile of leaves: It stands for me! ME!

How much more we would all understand and support each other if every word out of our mouths was a willing escape of who we are and what we stand for. Maybe we would experience what it’s like to speak with abandon.

Why do my crayons have to be in a box?

Without boxes life would be rather chaotic. My sock drawer would be a sea of cotton. Moving would be a nightmare. The shadow box display on my wall wouldn’t be very aesthetically pleasing.

Plus: learning tends to be easier when it’s organized. How can I box all of these items up so that they make sense? I’ll separate and re-categorize information until it is logically process-able and for that, I need mental “boxes.”  One perspective on a teacher’s role is that s/he should help draw those lines. “Keep this idea separate from the previous one so that you don’t get confused.” Integration and synthesis might be the ultimate goal of a course but only after a whole lot of parsing has already occurred.  (Clearly, I’m not a neuroscientist. I’m not studied up on how the brain stores information. BUT, this has been my personal experience of many student-teacher relationships. I could write 500 pages on why we should always be in student-student mode and how all knowledge is processed through integration but back to the point. )

What happens when I, as an artist, have drawn boxes around myself because of the way I learn?  Or just because I like things to be organized? There’s a box around the way I practice. There’s a box around how I form an [i] vowel. There’s a box around how to learn a Shakespeare monologue vs. how to learn a contemporary opera aria.

At what point do the boxes I have formed in order to process huge amounts of information become caps/limits/walls/barriers?

I have watched myself, and often my students, get stuck inside a box. We suddenly run out of room to grow and find ourselves frustrated.  I’m doing everything I’m supposed to! I’m doing all of the things that are in the box marked “techniques that work.”

Without knowing it, our need for freedom has increased and the only way to move forward is to take the box away. Leave the map behind and try something that has never worked before.

Then, of course, the inner monologue has to grapple with the intensity of our resistance to change. With a willing mind we might get curious and explore some uncharted territory but then…

Each time change threatens, something pushes the barriers back in place. –Eloise Ristad

This something is my current query. What is it?

-The inner critic

-The paradigms that are guiding our creative experience into what has always been done before

-A teacher from our past who has always served as our “authority”

-The overwhelming desire for the result to be right/good/predictable/safe

In my own creative time and space, I speak to all of these forces in my mind and then shout “let me take my crayons out of their box!” and practice by skipping around my studio and rolling on the floor and laughing or playing or doing the opposite of right/good/predictable/sage. And that always works.

My opening question, then, is for all the teachers and directors and coaches that encounter frustrated students and go to open their “toolbox.” What would the studio look like if, instead of seeing options in a box, there were different colored crayons constantly available and never stowed away, waiting to be picked up/played with/tried out until another color caught our attention and pulled us in a new direction?

In this room. With you.

There is a certain type of person. In my experience of life thus far, the person looks a lot like me. S/he picks a destination, studies up on the way to get there, and avoids (sometimes at all costs) taking a detour.

I usually pride myself in knowing the most efficient way to get to an endpoint or to the answer to a question. I speed through steps and instructions checking off boxes and feeling like a champion racer.

Being this type of person has deemed me “goal oriented”/“career minded” /“focused.” There are “achievements” seemingly garnered at a very young age and some acquaintances will, with a quick glance, place me in some category marked “successful.”

I tend to feed those generalizations because I feel the need to prove that my mind moves fast. I skim the surfaces of things (read: work, classes, books, important events, even performances) in order to say “What’s Next?” (Thank you to Aaron Sorkin for establishing that beautiful phrase in The West Wing.)

So, for me, “Being.” And “in this room.” Are highly unlikely to exist in the same sentence. My mind is more likely to be elsewhere. Dealing with some anxiety. Being sure to solve that math problem faster than the person next to me. Writing a cover letter for an upcoming application in my mind while I’m sitting across from you and am supposedly listening.

My, oh my, how much of life I have missed by skimming. I’ve missed the taste of food. I’ve missed the joy of watching a tiny plant grow from a seed (“wouldn’t it be faster to go buy one that’s already grown?” my fast-track self would say). But most importantly, I’ve missed the fact that doing work thoroughly takes time. Even my second grade report card said something like “Ann Marie gets her work done but tends to skip checking it for errors.”

So my piano and I are beginning a new relationship. When I’m practicing (or when I’m on stage for that matter) I’m going to be present. In the room. With every breath I take.

Hill Jumping: Divergences

When I was nearing 18, I attended a conference where a panel of three renowned opera directors spoke about their careers. One started as a choral singer and moved through music direction to stage direction. Full of inspiration that I could have such a position one day, I approached him timidly and asked :

“I want to be a singer and a director. Is it possible to do both?”

No, was his immediate and curt answer. You’ll need to choose. Once you’re seen in one position you’ll never be seen in the other.

I left disheartened and choosing to leave any such choice to fate (hoping that fate would prove him wrong). I allowed every rejection I got on one side to sway me to the other. If I didn’t get a role but was offered a choreography job, it was a sign. If a directing internship didn’t come through, I’d delve into my singing practice. Constantly hopping from the downward sways of one career to the upward sways of another, I was constantly moving forward and seemingly full of motivation. Whenever one side got too stressful, I could hide by pursuing a different dream until I was ready again.

My bios are a testament to my (remarkably interdisciplinary experiences yet the) clear choice to never choose. During my undergrad I divided my time between two departments. My graduate TAship was split between two departments.  When people ask me what I do, I have to pause. [what am I doing right now? what title would make the most sense to this person? Musician, actor, director, accompanist, dancer, teacher, administrator, advisor….”artist,” “interdisciplinarian,” “performing-teacher”]

For the most part, this is an incredibly good thing. It leads to phrases like “I can do that for you” and “I can always do both.” It keeps me constantly employed as a freelancer and stops me from being bored.

But what happens when being free from boredom means never honing one of these skills to its greatest extent? What if I’m constantly allowing myself to tell actors I’m really a musician and tell musicians that I’m really an actor or an acrobat or a director? What if I keep myself from the peak of one hill by avoiding its valleys?

This comes to the fore as I consider the upcoming year. I currently work six jobs. (Another bi-product of saying yes to all disciplines.) All six jobs will be asking for more time in the fall. As I ponder and consider and make lists and sway back and forth, I realize that I don’t have a choice to make between these positions.  I have a choice to make about my “path,” and this time fate isn’t going to do it for me.

The answer to the question posed by my 18 year old self (dearest nameless opera director) wasn’t “no.” You most certainly can do both. You can do more than both. But I think I was asking the wrong question. Perhaps he heard the smaller voice saying “why do I want to keep both options open?” And his response was for myself today; If you constantly see yourself as two different things, will you ever see yourself as an undivided being?

The brain in my belly

In choosing between 1) holding on to that no-longer-visible six pack of an abdomen every second of every day or 2) releasing the abdominals in order to be fully available to the breath process, the brain in my belly chooses the former and somehow tricks the brain in my head into thinking the latter is occurring.