February: Looking back, looking ahead

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God, I love Anne Taintor.

From time to time, performers and creatives undergo periods of intense self-criticism and insecurity.  February was that kind of month for me, which was unfortunate, because despite being the shortest month of the year, I did quite a bit of singing (and, therefore, quite a bit of self-flagellation).

I’ve been at this singing thing long enough to know that these bouts of “Imposter Syndrome” are a natural, unavoidable occurrence, and that (perhaps most maddening of all) they are often the precursor to a new period of creative growth. Nonetheless, it’s all too easy to let the voices of negativity drown out the music, and when that happens, a good talking-to from a wise friend is in order.

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Anne Taintor, YOU GET ME.

Fortunately, a good talking-to from a wise friend is exactly what I got one evening.  My friend Evan, a brilliant clarinetist, laughed when I told him how frustrated I was feeling with myself and my singing. We had a gig coming up in a few days and I was disproportionately anxious about it.

This isn’t that important,” he said. “I mean, think about it: anything could happen.  Next week’s gig could be the last time you see either me or [pianist] Ehud.  Is this neurotic shit what you want to be thinking about while we’re making music together? Just relax.  It doesn’t matter that much.”

When our Mezzrow gig rolled around a few days later, I gave myself permission to not care one whit about being a great (or even a particularly good) singer.  Instead, I decided, I’d just enjoy the beauty of the songs and the exuberance of Ehud and Evan’s playing.  A crazy thing happened: not only was that evening the most fun I’d had on the bandstand in some time, it was actually one of the better performances I’ve given in recent memory.

Now, halfway through March, spring feels closer than ever.  The seeds have been sown for a couple of new projects, and I’m going to do my best to carry Evan’s advice with me into the weeks and months ahead.

In February, I…
Blogged about: Bupkis.  Nada.  No writing whatsoever.  Note to self: stagnation in creative output, however small, leads to neurosis, as evidenced by this entire post.

Read: Immunity, by Taylor Antrim and The Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal, both of which I wanted to enjoy more than I actually did.  The big winner was Vintage, by David Baker, a hilarious, poignant, and extremely well-written debut novel about a down-on-his-luck Chicago food writer on a wild goose chase for an elusive Burgundy.

Watched: House of Cards.  Flawlessly written and acted.  Completely addictive.  I can’t wait to dive into the new season.

Listened to:  Sinatra/Jobim: The Complete Reprise Recordings.  The most iconic male vocalist of the 20th century, singing some of the most beautiful songs ever written, with string arrangements by Claus Ogerman.  Yes, please.

 

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Always listen to the bass player, or: Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)

Truth has a way of showing up in funny places. Some people get flashes of insight in the shower. For me, a lightning bolt of awareness struck somewhere between the best man’s toast and the fish course at a wedding gig a few years ago. I was talking to my friend Paul, the bass player. He was listening patiently to my anxieties about where–or if–I belonged in the New York music scene.

Photo by Gerald Slota

Photo by Gerald Slota

See, I had just finished a long-belated classical voice degree, and while I loved the discipline and power of classical singing, I knew that a career in opera wasn’t for me. When it came to jazz, I loved to experiment with rhythm and phrasing, but since I wasn’t musically or aesthetically inclined toward scat singing, I didn’t feel like a true-blue jazz singer, either.

“Maybe I should just scrap classical and jazz and go audition for Broadway musicals,” I said to Paul. But I wasn’t in love with musical theatre and, while I didn’t think of myself as a high-flying improviser, I knew that doing the exact same show the exact same way every night would make the jazz part of my heart wither.

Wasilla121So what was I supposed to do? Feverishly throw myself into opera and will myself to love it? Memorize Coltrane and Bird solos and be a hard-core jazzer? I really didn’t see myself taking tap classes in hopes of landing on the Great White Way. Was there a place for me in New York’s musical community, or would I have to pack it all in and go back to Wasilla? (Okay, you’re right; I never planned on going back to Alaska.)

ideaPaul listened patiently and then gave me some of the most powerful advice of my life: “Hilary, find the thing that you do. Find the thing that’s yours, no matter how small a niche it might be. And then get good at it. Work your ass off and get so good at it that, whenever somebody is looking for that specific thing, there’s only one person they can call, and that’s you. If you do that, you’ll never stop working.”

If we’d been in a cartoon, a lightbulb would have appeared above my head. I’d had it completely backwards! I’d been making myself crazy trying to fit into my idea of what a classical singer or a jazz singer “should” be. As embarrassing as it is to admit now, I had no idea what I wanted to sing.

weillCoverYou know how this ends: once I stopped second-guessing my eclectic influences and started celebrating the things that made me, well, me, the phone started ringing. I found myself immersed in a jazz-based cabaret project called West 73rd that incorporated elements of classical, jazz and theatre. We made a The Kurt Weill Project - A Song About ForeverCD, got representation, and began performing in some wonderful New York venues, such as Feinstein’s and the Metropolitan Room. More big band work materialized, and most shocking of all, I started hearing from people who wanted to take lessons with me.

Look, I still play weddings. I still work part-time at a restaurant. I teach lessons occasionally and keep a constant eye on my checkbook. Singing for your supper means a lot of hustling, whether you’re in New York or Nebraska. But thanks to Paul’s sage counsel, I’m no longer riddled with anxiety about what kind of singer to be. I just sing and give thanks for the chance to be myself.