Impasses

We teachers sometimes hit impasses with our students. 

I used to think students were lazy or had bad attitudes when they would suddenly become resistant to progress through different tactics, including not practicing for a little while. Then I learned something profound from Jeanie LoVetri: “Always assume they are doing their best, even when you think they're not.” At the same time, I was delving into The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. In it, Julia says, “Being blocked and being lazy are two different things...Do not call the inability to start laziness. Call it fear.”

Now when a student suddenly seems lazy, defensive, belligerent, forgetful, etc., I recognize that it may be because we've finally found the locked door we’ve been searching for on their journey of development...the door that has been preventing them from sounding the way they want. Chances are good that they’ve either tried to unlock that door already with no success, that someone else has told them they can’t open it, or that they’re terrified of what will happen if they do open it. It’s my job to help them craft a key and to help them believe it’s safe to go through. (Help is an important word here. Almost always, the student needs other support and knowledge to fully unlock the door. Help often means referring a student to books, activities, therapists, medical professionals, and avoided conversations that are needed for them to take the next steps after they get through the door.)

Assuming a student is doing their best forces me to keep asking questions that will help me create a better solution and forces me to keep believing they will ultimately choose to go forward, even if they don’t choose that today. It’s my job to lead them to the truth, but I can’t force them to swallow it. Trying to force progress prematurely only seems to amplify the voice of whatever is keeping a student from moving forward. They’re ready when they’re ready. In the meantime, there are always plenty of things we can do to work on other things that aren't so scary to them. (The value of working indirectly is another post for another time.)

Assuming that the student is doing her best has saved me from wasting a lot of energy resenting my students and assuming the worst. They wouldn't be studying with me if they didn't want to get better on some level. Even if they are holding themselves back from success due to other reasons that they need to explore, I have to teach them under the assumption that they will eventually deal with those reasons, and when they do, they will need the tools that I am teaching them to use.

I’ve learned to look forward to those difficult “brickwall” lessons because it means we’re almost on the other side. They’re, by far, the most uncomfortable lessons, but some of my best and most rewarding solutions for students have been created there. If students never get through the door, they see these lessons as the worst ones, and sometimes quit lessons altogether if they’re exceptionally afraid of taking the next steps that would follow. If students do get through the door, they tend to see those lessons as profound experiences of clarity and hope about the progress they’ve made up to that point and the progress that is yet to be made. 

Eventually, if a student decides that they will not take the steps needed to finish forging the key to unlock the door, I have to let them go. It's very rare for me, but it does happen. There is a limit to the amount of solutions and help that I can give without the student putting their share of work into the process. It’s a difficult decision, but these students tend to sap more than their share of the limited energy and creativity that I have to give…energy and creativity that needs to be shared equally among all of my students. When I realize that this is happening, I have to let them go for the sake of my other students.

I’ve found many powerful solutions by first assuming that there’s more I can do, and the lessons where I see a student finally open the door make it all worth it. Do you have similar experiences? What were they like? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Journaling to Release Fuller Artistry

I'm a huge fan of The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. I've been using her tools since grad school, and I can't say enough about how much they've helped me. One of those tools is Morning Pages, which is about 30 minutes of putting stream-of-consciousness thought on paper first thing in the morning. No editing. No judgement. Just writing down whatever's on your mind. Morning Pages are for you and you alone.

The morning pages are the primary tool of creative recovery. As blocked artists, we tend to criticize ourselves mercilessly. Even if we look like functioning artists to the world, we feel we never do enough and what we do isn’t right. We are victims of our own internalized perfectionist, a nasty internal and eternal critic, the Censor, who resides in our (left) brain and keeps up a constant stream of subversive remarks that are often disguised as the truth. The Censor says wonderful things like: “You call that writing? What a joke. You can’t even punctuate. If you haven’t done it by now you never will. You can’t even spell. What makes you think you can be creative?” And on and on. Make this a rule: always remember that your Censor’s negative opinions are not the truth. This takes practice. By spilling out of bed and straight onto the page every morning, you learn to evade the Censor. Because there is no wrong way to write the morning pages, the Censor’s opinion doesn’t count.
— Julia Cameron, The Artist's Way

I was surprised by how helpful Morning Pages were when I first started using them. There was less mental chatter and clutter. I was better able to focus on the important things in my day. I could better separate the Censor from helpful thoughts. I was less stressed. I got more done. I got past hurdles that had been present for a long time, many of which hadn't been obvious to me until I started doing the Pages.

This past year, as I read researcher Brené Brown's book Daring Greatly, I constantly ran into data that strongly supported what I had been doing with Cameron's tools.

Though Brown has a different name for The Censor ("Shame Gremlins"), she confirms that those voices are paralyzing to our artistic work, and their weapon of choice is shame. Shame doesn't want us to connect with our truth, and it doesn't want us to connect with people. This is toxic to great art, which is all about connecting with people. Shame tells us that we're alone, that we deserve to be alone, and that no one wants to hear what we have to say. When The Censor creeps in, it tells us we need to either hide, run away, or put up our defenses...anything besides just being present and vulnerable.

I think a quick summary of shame vs. guilt is necessary here for those of you who haven't read Brown's research and may feel that shaming is good for us. Research says otherwise. Guilt is good for us. Shame is not. Our bodies and minds process shame differently than guilt. When we've done something that wasn't so great, the Censor/Shame Gremlins tell us we're inherently bad and unworthy of human connection. In contrast, the more rational Voice of Guilt tells us we did something bad, but that we're still worthy of connection. The difference is immense. Shame makes us want to hide or deny what we did so we don't lose the human connection we all need. Guilt allows us to take responsibility, apologize, and change behavior because we believe human connection will still be there when we do, and will likely be even stronger as a result. 

So here's why all of that's important to me as a performer and a teacher: an artist can't move forward with the parts of their work that have shame wrapped around them. Here are some examples of shame experiences I've witnessed:

  • I'm ashamed of being loud. Being loud is obnoxious and not ladylike. Being loud means I'm a failure as a woman. (This student resists singing loudly.)
  • I'm ashamed of being soft. Being soft is weak. Being soft means I'm a failure as a man. (This student resists singing softly and uses excess tension to make a "strong" sound.)
  • I'm ashamed of my body, or a particular part of my body. Being on stage draws attention to it. Moving it draws attention to it. Thinking about it draws attention to it. (This student can't feel that part of their body. They either move it too much or too little.)
  • I'm ashamed of having an opinion. My opinion isn't important enough to share with other people. It's selfish to say what I think and feel. (This student holds back their sound by any means necessary: shallow breaths, frozen body, constricted throat, etc.)
  • I'm ashamed of a particular idea being heard. That idea will make my friends and family turn their backs on me, and I don't want to be alone. (This student holds back their sound and avoids singing material with themes they fear will jeopardize their important relationships.) 
  • I'm ashamed of being wrong. I feel like no one will like me unless I have the right answer. (This student puts undue pressure on themselves to avoid mistakes. They rarely try new things unless they're sure they'll be good at it. When they're given feedback, the student will either deny the problem, run away to a situation where they think they won't have to deal with feedback, or try to hurt anyone who gives them feedback.)
  • I'm ashamed of being successful as a musician. My loved ones deserted me around the time I started experiencing more success in music. (This student self-sabotages so they won't risk being so good that their so-called loved ones desert them again.)

While I use many physical tools to help people with technical elements like volume, tone, movement, tension, balance, and alignment, I have found that shame is a wall that I can rarely break through with vocal exercises. In fact, as soon as an exercise I've created begins to deal with an area that has shame surrounding it, the student's body will often go into the fight-or-flight-or-hide mode. It's a tightrope act to guide a student through those moments. I take cues from the body and voice to determine whether the student is ready to experience a release from whatever is holding them back. Sometimes they are. Sometimes they're not. When they're not, the technical issue will often get worse or the student will shut down, in which case I know it's time to change focus. Once a student has started addressing the shame around that area/issue, gentle exercises will lead to a much-needed release in the body and sound rather than shutting down or armoring. 

Breaking through shame requires breaking our silence, and that's ultimately up to the student. As Brown says, "Shame thrives in secrecy." Twelve step programs have often said, "You're only as sick as your secrets." Research is proving this to be true. In fact, it's showing that keeping it hidden can actually be more damaging than the trauma that initially triggered it. Thankfully, the data also shows that people who break their silence about trauma and shame experience improved physical health, decreased doctor's visits, and significant decreases in stress hormones (Brown, Daring Greatly, p. 82). 

So what do Morning Pages have to do with all of this? Well, writing can be a great way for students to work through their thoughts and feelings outside of lessons.

Psychologist James Pennebaker and his colleagues have done research on the phenomenon of writing in relation to healing from trauma and shame:

Since the mid-1980’s an increasing number of studies have focused on the value of expressive writing as a way to bring about healing. The evidence is mounting that the act of writing about traumatic experience for as little as fifteen or twenty minutes a day for three or four days can produce measurable changes in physical and mental health. Emotional writing can also affect people’s sleep habits, work efficiency, and how they connect with others.
— James Pennebaker, Writing to Heal

Connecting with others is exactly what we do as artists, and when our shame gets in the way of connection, our artistry is muffled. Morning Pages (or whatever you prefer to call them) are a way to begin to break the silence of our shame and release a fuller experience in our artistry, and they are a great way to do that privately. I also highly recommend reading Cameron and Brown's books for working through shame issues. The books contain many other very helpful tools, as well.

Finally, I believe it's important to say that while I think Morning Pages and books like these are a great place to start, I believe that finding a good, trusted therapist is extremely important if you're going to make good art. If you're thinking, "I don't need a therapist. I not crazy," please know that just like trauma and shame, therapy isn't just for people who've been through extreme experiences. We all need an unbiased guide who has a bird's eye view on our journey, who can support us when we're terrified of feeling our emotions, and with whom we can celebrate when we emerge on the other side. 

Have you experienced beneficial effects in your life and art from Morning Pages / Journaling / Writing? I'd love to hear about them in the comments.

Getting to the root of procrastination

I don't know about you, but "procrastination" and "laziness" are words often used by my students when we're trying to get to the root of why they aren't spending time with their instrument. 

Procrastination was a personal favorite of mine for a long time. "I'm a procrastinator," I would say, very matter-of-factly. I didn't say it proudly, but it didn't feel much different than saying something like "I have feet." It was part of my identity. And whenever I would procrastinate, deep down I began to fear that I was innately "lazy," like a genetic mutation for which there was no cure and whose symptoms could be temporarily lessened only by shame and guilt. 

Thanks to Raleigh-area voice teacher Joyce McDonald, I was introduced to The Artist’s Way after grad school. It was life changing. Two of the most important ideas I took away from the first reading (of three, so far) were about the words procrastination and laziness. I learned to start calling them what they actually were: fear. Author Julia Cameron also calls these fears "blocks." She says, “Blocks are seldom mysterious. They are, instead, recognizable artistic defenses against what is perceived (rightly or wrongly) as a hostile environment.” 

I uncovered fears like...

  • If this can't be amazing/perfect/the best, I don't want to do it. 
  • There are already so many people better than me. What’s the use? 
  • There’s already someone doing the same thing as me. What’s the use? 
  • I’ll be abandoned by certain people if I fail.
  • I’ll be abandoned by certain people if I succeed.
  • Since there will be people who don't like it no matter what I do, I should keep it to myself. 

I started recognizing these fearful patterns in my students, too. The closer we would get to a solution to their practicing woes, the more they would want to wave it away with some version of "I"m just lazy/incapable/hopeless." To take a solution and run with was initially scarier than hiding behind those words. Real solutions mean we have to face our perceptions of hostility and be willing to experience a paradigm shift. Ultimately, I learned it's much more painful to be blocked than to just do the art, no matter the potential hostility. Some of the hostility is real. Some is not. We each have to learn how to deal with both kinds and move forward. 

Some of the most helpful practical ideas for me and my students have been...

  • Stop setting paralyzing, impossible, perfectionistic goals. It’s okay to take baby steps. They’ll take me a lot farther than I think, and they deserve rewards when they’re accomplished. 
  • The only way to get better is to do it, not to sit and stress about it. Any bad sounds I make are a necessary step to the good ones. 
  • The process is the point, not the product. As soon as I start focusing on the hypothetical audience’s reaction, the process loses its joy. My art will connect with the people who need it. Trust that this will happen. 
  • There is helpful criticism and damaging criticism. Learn to tell the difference. It’s helpful if it makes me think, “Yes! That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out!” It’s damaging if it leaves me with a general sense of shame and no specific next steps. Seek out helpful criticism. (Side note: The more I connect with full-time artists, the more I learn that they are often the most skilled in knowing how and when to provide helpful criticism.) 
  • Distance myself from people who use damaging criticism or yell at me in general. There is nothing admirable about being motivated by cruelty. Identify hurtful inner voices/thoughts and where they came from. The critics I fear the most often turn out to be more blocked than me. Learn how to defend, protect, and heal myself. Reclaim power by replacing cruel words with loving, encouraging words. 
  • Find ways to make the work feel like play. Play keeps me coming back to my music with a cheerful heart. Be wary of people who mislabel this as being silly.
  • Find people who already do all of the above and spend more time with them. 

What experiences have you had in regards to fear in your creative life? Share some helpful tips in the comments section.