The Artist's Way


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.

Books: The Artist's Way


I recently posted that I’m working through The Artist’s Way with a group of artists from various mediums. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the book helps people remove blocks to their creativity. Blocks can prevent someone from doing creative work or they can prevent an already prolific artist from making art that connects to their most genuine self. I use the tools in the book to get help with both kinds.

The Artist's Way
By Julia Cameron

Author Julia Cameron summarizes the concept:

“In order to work freely on a project, an artist must be at least functionally free of resentment (anger) and resistance (fear). What do we mean by that? We mean that any buried barriers must be aired before the work can proceed. The same holds true for any buried payoffs to not working. Blocks are seldom mysterious. They are, instead, recognizable artistic defenses against what is perceived (rightly or wrongly) as a hostile environment.”

My goals for this reading

  • Compose more.
  • Play more, as in the childhood idea of play. 

My favorite things to do

  • Morning Pages, which are the three pages of stream-of-consciousness brain drivel you dump into a journal every morning. I’ve been doing these things for almost 10 years now, and they’re more consistent than most things in my life. They help me translate my worries, anger, jealousy, and frustration into do-able, manageable actions. When I don't do them, it's hard to hear through the jabber to the more important and enjoyable things I could be doing that day. 
  • Reading the week's chapter and doing the assigned tasks every week. The tasks in particular are super helpful, plus I have a genuine love for anything that involves reading and writing. I also love organization, goal-setting, and time-management stuff, so those things always get a big jolt of action when I work through the tasks. I’m also fascinated by the “why” of behavior, and the tasks help me answer that question about myself. I’ll never tire of self-analyzation. Thankfully, there’s plenty of “so now what?” exercises to help me develop a new behavior once I get to the bottom of an old one.

Things that are challenging

  • The weekly Artist Date, which is playtime with your inner child. I don’t think I went on a single one the first time I did the book. I didn’t do much better the second and third reading, either. Historically, I haven't been very good at playtime. As a kid, I dreaded recess, PE, role play, etc. I get a little better at incorporating more Artist Dates each time, but they’re still a struggle. You’d think the thing that’s supposed to be the most fun would be the easiest to include, but, for various reasons, it hasn't been. 

My biggest revelations so far

  • I’ve made a lot of progress since my first reading of the book in grad school almost 10 years ago. Tasks that were really difficult before are much easier now. I’ve incorporated a lot of activities into my life to the point that I'm finding I've already done some tasks before knowing they were assigned for the week. Also, Cameron’s regular encouragement is now more like a pleasant reminder than a life-changing revelation.
  • There’s almost always an irrational, imperfect something-or-other in someone else’s art that seems to attract me to it. This is freeing me to not only be illogical sometimes, but to not freak out when something’s not perfect. 
  • I can like or want stuff without always having to analyze or critique or defend it. Sometimes I don’t like a piece of art despite it having all of the “right” elements. This reminds me that people will have a gut reaction to my art no matter how “right” or “good” it is. Some will like it. Some won’t. It’s not always about perfection. Sometimes it's about imperfection.
  • I can and should be willing to be childlike and make mistakes and look silly at any age. It is the only way I can get better at things that I’m not very good at. This is one of the roots of my issues with play and fun.
  • I want to write a lot more. As soon that thought peeked through, there were a bajillion memories that flooded in and made me realize, “Of course I want to write!” But it hadn’t really occurred to me that it was something I needed to unblock until this time through the book. I'm not ready to say, "I want to be a writer," but I know I want the process to be a bigger part of my life.

Concrete things I’ve done since starting the book

  • I’m writing a lot more. 
  • I identified wasteful spending of time and money and cut back on both. 
  • I’ve spent some of that previously mis-spent money on inexpensive luxuries that are good for my body and my soul.
  • I’m taking care of my body more.
  • I’ve unearthed projects that went dormant.
  • I’ve thought of new projects.
  • Most importantly, I’ve taken steps to get those old and new projects moving. Calls have been made. Emails sent. Practice time increased. Compositions are emerging. Gigs scheduled. 
  • Singing or playing or composing involves more smiling and dancing and laughing lately. 
  • Mistakes are less embarrassing and paralyzing.
  • My partner and I have learned new ways to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of our time and resources, both together and apart. We’re getting more done, spending more time together, and having more fun.

As I re-read all of that, it seems like a ridiculous amount of good stuff that can come out of one book in such a short time, but it’s all true. This is why I’m doing it for the 4th time.

If you’re curious, check out what people have highlighted from the book through Kindle.

Have you read The Artist’s Way? What did you think? Leave some thoughts in the comments.

my thursdays: creative cluster

I tell people often that The Artist’s Way might be the most important book in my life so far. I'm currently reading it for the fourth time. Author Julia Cameron’s words, tools, and exercises have helped me deal with things that can block my creative life....things like perfectionism, fear, anger, jealousy, and shame. They have helped me develop healthier self-care, relationships, confidence, and time management. This stuff has been a part of my life for almost ten years now, and its power invites me back every couple of years to seek a new level of authenticity and artistic output.

In the past, this process has been very private for me, but this time around, I decided I wanted to try sharing it with a group. Cameron actually gives guidelines for something like this, which she calls “Sacred Circle” or the “Creative Cluster.” In January, I put out an open invite to join me on Thursday nights for a Creative Cluster at our house to discuss thoughts while working through the book. Twelve people responded. 

That first Thursday after my last music lesson, I brewed a pot of coffee, opened a bottle of wine, put on the kettle for tea, lit some candles at the dining room table, and put some music on the stereo. I continue to do those same things every week. Those little rituals help me center after a long day of focusing on my students. The artists start trickling in one by one, sometimes with a treat or a favorite beer to share, and always with a week of experiences in their hearts to bring to our table. We check in a bit over a drink of choice, then settle into seats around the dining room or living room. We talk about the chapter, the tasks, the basic tools, our work, our triumphs, our struggles, and a mish mash of other interesting stuff. 

Our first few weeks were a bit awkward in terms of conversation. Since we weren't really there for small talk, we were all learning to navigate different conversational styles in the midst of diving into nitty-gritty ideas and issues. It took us a few weeks to adjust to each other. Also, people struggled with Cameron's word usage (the word "God" in particular carries a lot of baggage), and it was easy to veer off into theology rather than talking about our own work with the tools and the tasks that week. Once we got through that group block, we were able to talk more and more about our actual work. We each respond to the chapters differently, and one week's tasks will be extremely exciting for one person while they may be neutral or even scary for another. Needless to say, conversation is always interesting.

I think I can safely say that everyone is seeing small, important changes with the use of the tools and tasks, and hearing about their changes always makes me want to try new things. Serendipitous situations are happening that are helping people take new steps with their art, and those steps give me hope. Having a weekly meeting is forces me to reflect and acknowledge those changes I'm making each week...changes that may have gone unnoticed otherwise. I see that everyone has weeks where they don’t get as much done as they’d have liked, and yet progress is still happening. Hearing about someone else’s failure can dissipate the paralyzing shame surrounding my own. Hearing about someone else’s success can fan a dwindling flame of enthusiasm. If I do nothing that week but come to the meeting, that in itself is an action that usually leads to something else.

As of last night, we're 2/3 of the way through the book. Hard to believe we only have one month to go. Each artist who sits at the table each week is shaping me, challenging me, and encouraging me just by sharing their own process. It is indeed sacred time. I'm already thinking about the next books I'd like to work through with others.

Have you been part of an artist group of some kind? I’d love to hear about it 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.