Spotlight On…Andrea Wolper

Vocalist Andrea Wolper is a fellow Brooklynite. We met through mutual singer friends a couple of years ago, and I was immediately drawn to her warmth and keen intelligence; she and I spent a lovely afternoon last spring walking and talking in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. In addition to her singing and teaching, Andrea is also a curator, activist, journalist and poet, a fearless improviser, the past president of International Women in Jazz, and a black belt in Shotokan Karate. All this to say, I have no idea how she found the time to do this interview for my little corner of the internet, but I sure am glad she did!

Andrea’s thoughtful responses to these Spotlight On… questions hold a lot of wisdom, as well as evidence that she and I both love the Oxford comma. In particular, I find her remarks about building on one’s strengths and making peace with one’s limitations very timely and powerful.

Thank you so much, Andrea (and I’ll join you in a stationery store any time)!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
It started with my mom, who had been a semi-professional singer before she got married. I have a picture by my desk of us singing “Sonny Boy” together when I was about five, and I was always singing, making up songs, putting on little shows. Skipping ahead a few years, I started as an actor, took an overlapping side road as a freelance writer/author, and eventually added music back into my life just because I really missed singing. I didn’t have a plan at that point; I didn’t know that music would become my primary professional focus. I just wanted to sing. So I took some steps and found myself on a path, and at some point I realized it felt like MY path.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
Just singing is what came most naturally. Learning what to do with that, and always trying to be braver, freer, more honestly myself is a lifelong process that’s challenging and exhilarating. Learning music theory as an adult (who didn’t go to music school) certainly has been challenging. Identifying and building on my strengths and making peace with my limitations has been a challenge, but that balance shifts over time. And even after all these years I find the business aspects of being a professional musician extremely, sometimes excruciatingly, difficult.

How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song?
I often have a strong yes or no reaction to songs. But I’ve learned to keep an open mind because there are two songs in my repertoire that I reflexively, vehemently rejected when they were suggested to me. They’re actually great songs; I just had to find my way into them, and when I did, they ended up being favorites. I always want to feel an emotional connection to a song, to bring something genuine and personal to it. And I want songs to make sense in the context of what I’m doing. I’m also a songwriter, and a couple of my own aren’t good fits for me, even though they’re decent songs; and some feel right for certain gigs, but not for others. I’m lucky that I get some sideman work, and singing music written or chosen by other people is a whole other thing. Or is it?

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
There’s a Cole Porter song, “Which?” that touches me. It goes, “Which is the right life, The simple or the night life?…Should I read Euripides or continue with The Graphic? Hear the murmur of the breeze or the roaring of the traffic?” I want to experience everything.

I’m like a kid who says, “I want to be an astronaut, a teacher, and a movie star,” only I’ll say a doctor, an investigative journalist, and a dancer, and a human rights lawyer, and a shop owner…and a movie star!

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
“Just keep working.” I moved to New York to attend the Neighborhood Playhouse. One day I went to ballet class in tears over some silly drama. The teacher, Mrs. Cole, floated by me and very quietly said those three words. They may not sound like much, but they held a world of meaning. I shifted my focus away from how upset I was and onto pliés, and everything changed. It was a powerful moment.

When I started out doing gigs, I used to worry when someone in the audience asked me to do a song I didn’t know, or told me I reminded them of a singer I didn’t relate to. The guitarist Michael Howell told me it wasn’t so much about that song or that singer: “They like you, and they’re trying to connect with you.” Again, simple words of wisdom that helped me a lot. Oh, he also told me, “When you’re writing your charts, make the chord symbols big enough that the musicians can see them.” That was some good advice!

Fun fact:
I get excited in stationery stores. I earned a black belt in Shotokan Karate. And I am very serious about coffee.

Andrea is performing a concert dedicated to her late mentor, pianist/improviser/teacher Connie Crothers, at the Renee Weiler Concert Hall (Greenwich Music House) on Saturday, June 3 at 7:15pm. There is no cover and it promises to be a beautiful and moving evening of music. Don’t miss it–more details can be found HERE.

La donna e’ mobile, cambia col vento, or: It’s my mind, and I’ll change it if I want to

guarnaccia_busy_busy1Beginning first thing yesterday morning, I was inundated with phone calls to return, emails to send, errands to run, and songs to practice. So it’s not surprising that, by the time I took the stage at my gig last night, I felt like I’d been digging a ditch all day. My body and voice were exhausted, and my concentration was shot.

Yesterday’s post concluded with the revelation that, if I’m going to accomplish anything at all as a musician or a writer, I have to start taking better care of myself as a human being. Knowing that productivity is impossible without adequate self care is hardly an earth-shattering epiphany. Yet actually writing the words I need to be much more territorial about my time forced me to take a long, hard look at my scheduling habits and make some changes.

I set out to write a blog post daily, yet I’m finding that, in the process, I’ve been neglecting my music and some other responsibilities. So to that end, I have changed my mind about writing a new post every single day. I’ll be writing on Tuesdays and Fridays from here on out. Of course, the Type A voice in my head is telling me I’ve failed completely as a neophyte-blogger, but I’ve stumbled upon a quote by Edward de Bono that makes me feel a little better:

Buddha+Of+Compassion

If you never change your mind, why have one?

In other words, why should I stubbornly cling to my original plan of a daily blog entry when I can scale back and have room for writing and music?

Yet again, the same lessons have presented themselves: Balance. Focus. Gentleness. Patience. Equanimity.

See you Friday.

Time Out

Mini Mom Agenda-ChocolateI am quite possibly the last person in the Western World who is still using a day planner. Rather than using a slick little electronic device to keep track of my life, I write down my every appointment and obligation in a cocoa-colored, leather-bound book.

There’s something a little dangerous, though, about those creamy blank sheets of paper, waiting patiently to be filled up. I see an empty page and am all too willing to fill it. I’m forever over-scheduling and over-extending myself.

taz51Today, for example, my little day planner is scribbled with errands to run, appointments to keep, practicing to do, and a gig tonight. Until 11:00 this evening, every hour of today is allocated to a specific assignment, and already I am feeling unequal to the task. I am feeling frenetic and scattered just typing these words.

Adding to my adrenaline-fueled quest for productivity amid fears of inadequacy, the superintendent knocked on the door this morning. He wanted to know if he could bring a painter through the apartment to assess the damage from a recent leak. I felt a surge of annoyance. Why couldn’t he have told us in advance that the painter would be in the building today? Why didn’t he make an appointment? I have too much to do, I wailed inwardly.

But outwardly I smiled, opened the door, and ushered the super and the painter inside. After inspecting the damaged area, the two men conferred and told me, “Be ready tomorrow mornink. Vee come beck then to feex sheetrock.” And just like that, I gave away my tomorrow morning, too.

Why didn’t I say, “Sorry, guys, you didn’t tell me you were coming and tomorrow won’t work for me. Can we pick a time next week?” I suppose I was afraid of coming across as “difficult.”

lottie1I don’t, however, attribute the tendency to over-schedule solely to a desire to be accommodating. Women are natural multi-taskers, so perhaps a certain hubris permeates my sense of what is possible to accomplish in any given day. I do so much juggling in order to feel “productive”: exercise, writing, practicing and performing, not to mention the far more mundane (but just as necessary) tasks of laundry, dishes, grocery shopping, and errand-running.

Most troublesome of all is that I (and most women I know) can do a pretty good job of keeping all those balls in the air. We function so well under stress that we often don’t realize how much we need a break until we catch that nasty cold, or find ourselves short-tempered and exhausted, unable to enjoy our free time when it (finally) arrives.

If nothing else, I realized this morning that I need to be much more territorial about my time. I’m a singer, not a juggler.