Fun: The Backdoor to Better Work

2016 Reading Challenge

2016 Reading Challenge
Jessica has read 15 books toward her goal of 30 books.
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I can't believe I'm already halfway through my reading goal for the year! 30 felt like a very ambitious number based on the average amount of books I've read over the past several years. Once college started, I limited myself to books that I felt were directly functional/helpful in my life in some way...books that I "should" read. But the more I limited myself to what I "should" read, the more I struggled to read as much as I felt I should. But there was a big shift over the past couple of years for me, and now I'm reading more than ever.

This issue with "should" wasn't just present in my reading. It was everywhere. My housework. My practicing. My writing. My studio management. My eating. My exercise. I felt that every spare moment should be spent doing what "should" be done. However I was doing it had to be the "right" or "good" or "efficient" way. I was exhausted all of the time, and I was becoming more and more resentful of everything that needed to get done, while also resenting anyone who was getting in the way of getting things done (including myself). Meanwhile, I watched my partner Andy letting himself have fun while also being extremely prolific. It became more and more obvious that my approach was neither effective nor necessary.

Julia Cameron says you have to satisfy the inner child so you can get work done. Similarly, Jung said, "What you resist, persists." Brené Brown's research found that Wholehearted people prioritized playtime in their lives. Thanks to writers like these and the help of my wonderful therapist and coach, I've been working through the fears that had me dragging along under the whip of responsibility while resisting my playful, childish side.

When I'm resisting fun (which means I'm not really working, either), it often takes the form of mindlessly alternating between social media apps. My well of joy is running dry, and my inner child is refusing to let me work until I go play and refill it with something that's legitimately satisfying playtime...not just another game of Candy Crush. Once I stop resisting that need, I not only have a great time, but I can get work done afterwards with much better energy. I still have to deal with things that should get done, but I'm no longer too exhausted to deal with them. 

One of the best parts of more playtime? There's a new sparkle in my creations. When my notes, words, and rhythms emerge from a place of "Why not? It's fun and I like it!" instead of "I should do it this way because...," the work feels more like me and I enjoy it more. 

I've been using this approach more in lessons, too. When students find their own sense of fun and joy in self-guided projects that seem like a diversion from the path or approach I'm envisioning, the student almost always comes back to things they "should" be doing on their own later because the "shoulds" help them achieve the things that brings them joy. They still have "shoulds" to do in their assignments that they don't really consider fun, but when they have some joy and self-directed goals mixed in, they actually do more of the "shoulds." 

I would previously have labeled this "fun-first" approach "procrastinating," but I realize now that it's completely necessary. It's not just a backdoor approach to productivity. It makes me a more complete, less anxious, healthier, more joyful human being.

What are your experiences with playtime and productivity?

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.

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.

Why do we resist changing the way we sing?

The following possibilities for our resistance to change have been freely adapted from Ethan Kind's "An Alexander Technique Approach to Singing Technique" by my colleague Justin Petersen. I've seen every single one of these issues in my studio, and have dealt with some myself. The sooner we can come to terms with our blocks and deal with them gently and lovingly, the faster we can move on to free, beautiful singing.

Why would a singer RESIST changing the way that they sing?

1. You Fight Change: You're just settled in that way of singing and you don't want to deal with your singing technique ever again. You are DONE with it.

2. You Get Worse at What You Change: As I rework technical issues with singers they crack, or make sounds that they are not accustomed to making. This can cause the defenses to come up and they begin to retreat into the old "familiar way of doing things". The fear of "getting worse" in order to get better prevents a lot of singers from lovingly reworking the way that they sing.

3. It is Too Hard to Change: "I've got my Doctorate in Voice, how could I POSSIBLY think about retraining my singing voice? I know everything about it already!" This is the ULTIMATE manifestation of the ego saying "NO CHANGES, PLEASE!" This keeps a singer TRAPPED in themselves and prevents greater and deeper learning.

4. The Way you Sing is YOU: The sound that you make has now been ingrained into your neuromuscular system and you have "identified" with the vocal sounds that you make. Letting go of inefficient ways of singing would threaten your "core self".

5. You are Addicted to the Struggle: Sometimes, it's just more rewarding to hold on to the fact that singing is a struggle for you. It gives you a sense of "pride" to have to struggle with something that is "so hard". No one says "You know what would be cool? To live my live doing everything the hard way." When you struggle to get things done, you feel a great sense of accomplishment.

6. You have a "Not Good Enough" button: No matter what anyone says, you have a deeply felt sense of inadequacy in your singing, and making changes to sing better threaten this low sense of self.

7. If You Become Too Good, You'll Lose Control of Your Life: What would happen if you were to transform into the singer of your dreams? Will you be overwhelmed by the demands of being a great singer? This also keeps most singers from changing the way they sing: they don't want to "stick" out in the crowd.

8. You are Holding On to Technique that Doesn't Work: The fact that Madame X or Signor Z taught you to sing the way you do (despite the fact that it is functionally not working) causes an immense threat to your ego, and you don't want to move vocally against the instruction that you have received. It's THREATENING to move against everything you know and have been taught to embrace an easier and more loving approach to singing.

9. You Are Being Loyal to Those Who Set Your Limits: Your parents said, "You have a nice voice, but don't think that you can sing for a living." Or a teacher said "You have a nice voice, but it's not really professional quality"....and you BELIEVED them. You are being loyal to those people that you loved and respected, despite the fact that there ARE NO LIMITS on anyone's development or growth!! If you want to remain loyal to those who say "You can't," then you will struggle with developing your voice.

10. If you Tell Yourself You're Limited, You Get to Be Easy On Yourself: If you can ONLY BE SO GOOD, then why bother? If everything is up for assessment and evaluation in your technique, then you get to develop a technique that never fails, because you will know what "feels right" and what isn't working in your singing. These limits will not threaten you, but will expand you!

11. Discovering that Singing is Easy can be a HUGE Threat to What You Believe: If you've got that opera degree or considerable stage experience in Musical Theater and you have struggled with your voice - it can be VERY hard to convince yourself to work in a way that is fluid, simple, and loving. You might have to work through a lot of anger and grief over the struggles that didn't need to happen vocally, and the years that have been lost singing in a hard, dysfunctional way.

12. You'd Rather Be Right Than Happy: All limits that you put on your singing are psychological in nature. When you play this card, you ALWAYS lose.

13. You Never Want to Go Through What You Went Through EVER Again: If you worked like a DOG to put your voice together and you struggled, cried, sweat, and bled to be better, it can be a really really HARD thing to look at revamping or reworking the way that you sing. You may "run away" because you don't want to face that "struggle" ever again. Your perfectionistic mind will just not allow you to "let go" and learn a new way to sing.

14. You Shouldn't Have to STILL Be Dealing with Technique Here and Now: Here you are - you've got that music degree, or you've sung in the church choir for 20 years, and are STILL struggling with singing on a daily basis. The basic component of this is ANGER. You are ANGRY at teachers, directors, coaches, friends that have made singing such a laborious enterprise. This is very common in graduate students, and long-term singers.

15. You Aren't Taking Responsibility for How Well you Sing: You aren't taking the time to "put in the work" to be the singer you want to be. You are not "in control" of your singing, and thinking about gaining control FREAKS YOU OUT.

16. Being Complete is TOO Scary: Being the singer you've always wanted to be is scary. So much of society wants us to conform, fit in, don't rock the boat. This cultural attitude could keep you "in place" and prevent you from finding the open heart of singing freely and with the maximum amount of love.

17. You Don't Want to Admit that what you've learned as a Singer ISN'T TRUE: If you have taught singing and are re-evaluating how you think about singing and learning more about pedagogy - it can be a VERY threatening task to say to yourself "What I have learned and am teaching is WRONG." If you can learn to sing with more freedom, more ease, more love, and more flexibility , why can't your students?

18. You Tell Yourself It's Too Late, and You're Too Old: If you are 90 years old, and you find a better way to sing that is free, easy, and liberated, doesn't that make it worth it to find that? You are NEVER too old until you're dead.

Thanks for sharing this, Justin. Great thoughts.