Sunday, November 12, 2017

How I Found the Courage to Sing

I was a pretty bad singer for a long time after I found the guts to start officially singing.
abstract angles from lisabmusic.com

How did I stand it? 

How did I tolerate the torment of trying to sound good, of knowing I had failed, and, even worse, knowing I would probably keep failing publicly, over and over, for some upcoming period of time? The embarrassment! The disappointment! 

And I’m talking just about the art of it. Forget the additional travails and rejection and dead ends of the marketing and collaboration required to get gigs and then actually do the shows.

By “officially singing,” I mean taking a Beginning Singers class, many years ago, at the wonderfully welcoming Blue Bear School of Music at San Francisco’s Fort Mason. I could justify this step to myself: I was giving frequent poetry readings, and taking a singing class would improve my performance.

It would be fun, though scary. But the fun part wasn’t enough for me. I needed some kind of productivity angle. I was a bit driven, as my mother would put it – focused on perceptible achievement and problem-solving ever since I was a toddler. As a young woman, I still felt compelled to get things done, make my mark, even while honoring my inner creative impulses.
Blue Bear School of Music logo from lisabmusic.com

Singing wasn’t going to be an art I would dedicate myself to. It was just, I told myself, something I wanted to explore, a basic skill set that would help my career as a poet, which was starting to go somewhere. Singing would be a way to expand my literary performance abilities.

Sure, I had a foundation in music that I could stand on. I grew up hearing jazz and lots of other kinds of music that my parents, and then I, played on vinyl, radio, tapes. I had spent time with some genius jazz musicians who were friends of my folks (Jackie McLean, Cecil Taylor, Elvin Jones, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago actually visited our family home, some quite often). I had studied classical piano playing, gained a grasp of music theory, even written a couple of songs as a child. 


And I had sung along to all kinds of music as a youngster in our living room – musicals like “West Side Story” and “Funny Girl,” singers such as Aretha and Carmen McRae, even the melodies of John Coltrane (“My Favorite Things”). And as I grew a bit older, I sang along with vocalists spanning Billie Holiday, Robert Plant, Elton John, Joni Mitchell, Al Jarreau, the Supremes, and the great avant-garde jazz singer Jeanne Lee, to name just a few.
Aretha from lisabmusic.com

But actually become a singer? Impossible.

I didn’t have the voice. There was a lot about my singing to cringe over. There was no way I could measure up. Especially at the late age of 30. That would be like deciding to shoot hoops in the NBA at age 30. Who did that? Or so I told myself.

In singing, I felt far more exposed than in poetry writing. Even while singing a song by someone else, I felt much more vulnerable than I did writing, and performing, a poem about my deepest secrets.

For one thing, I could show my early drafts of poems to a supportive circle of teachers and fellow poets, then revise them. By the time a poem lay shivering on the page awaiting the judgment of strangers at literary magazines, it was completed. I felt a baseline confidence, because my respected fellow writers understood the work and approved it. Even amid the sting of rejection I could think back to those trusted readers and feel buoyed by their backup.

writing journal from lisabmusic.com

Not so with singing. A performing art, singing had to be done through the body. My body. In that moment. And this body was so damn variable. There was no perfecting a song in private. Practice, yes. Finished product, no. I could sound good one day and bad the next. I could control certain things sometimes and not others. Who knows what would happen that day, on that gig, in that lesson? A song was never finished.

And it took a lot longer, with a lot more repetition, to train the body and acquire the technique I was slowly learning via classes and vocal lessons than it did to use my mind (and other equipment) to write poetry. The body was dumber. Slower. Bigger.

As my longtime vocal coach Jane Sharp put it, there is an initial “cringe factor” period that most singers experience as they develop. It lasted quite a long time, it seemed, in my case. I had musical and interpretive ideas galore, but my “sound” came and went.

Do you remember the first time you listened to a recording of yourself speaking, or, if you’re brave or a professional, singing? A shock, right? This isn’t how you heard yourself in your head as you were blithely vocalizing away. It couldn’t possibly be this bad.

I suffered the torments of the damned whenever I listened to tapes of myself, whether from my early jazz and R&B band workshops at Blue Bear or my actual gigs a bit later. No, I couldn’t really sound like this! I suffered, I cried, I listened closely, I hid out, I worked with Jane and on my own to correct and expand my skills.


How did I stand all this mortification, without much evidence that I would improve?

Well, I had a secret source of courage. An ally beyond what I’ve mentioned. Not just drive. Not just ears filled with excellent music. Not just dedication to acquiring a bedrock of technique. Not just proof via my poetry journey that hard work could pay off artistically and careerwise. Not just knowing that part of what I was here on earth to do was to honor my creative path as an artist.

It was something I had recently learned in the psychic training that I had begun the same year I enrolled in that first singing class.

Kindergarten from lisabmusic.com

“Be in kindergarten.”

That was probably the most crucial lesson of the clairvoyant training I was undergoing. And it was revelatory. Maybe I had never really been “in kindergarten” even when I was in kindergarten – I remember being beset with the buzz of ideas and drive in my own head and body even then.

You see, it is impossible to start accessing and using your own psychic abilities – which, trust me, you too have – without this core technique. And it is a technique. “Be in kindergarten.”

As opposed to “being in effort.” Effort kills clairvoyance. If you try, you can’t see a thing. Try harder, as you have been taught to do in the rest of your life, and you will discover that you are way down in a black hole being blind.

seeing graphic from lisabmusic.com

“Be in kindergarten” also is opposed to “being an adult.” Admittedly, we do want to bring some adult behaviors to a psychic reading or a musical rehearsal, such as taking turns, not running around the room, paying attention to timing. But now that I think about it, we learn a lot of this in kindergarten too. 

I guess what I really mean by “being an adult” is being analytical and serious and highly responsible. Those skills aren’t bad, and you do need them. But you can at least consider complementing them with the very different approach of “being in kindergarten.”

Kindergarten encompasses allowing yourself the spirit of play, adventure, openness. Of entertaining the unpredictable.

And, maybe more important, it means not judging yourself. You don’t have to measure up to anything much. You just get to be. You get to have the freedom of a child (at least, according to the image of childhood I gained in my developed-world, middle-class culture).

Another way to put it is to “come as a little child,” as Jesus is said to have taught his followers as the way to enter the kingdom of heaven (which, by the way, is supposed to be within yourself).

“Beginner’s mind” is another similar idea, from Zen Buddhism. Be open-minded, eager. Stay away from the expectation of being an expert. Be a beginner.



kindergarten class from lisabmusic.com
Armed with this approach, I let myself off the hook. The hook of having to be accomplished as I started singing. Of having to meet certain standards. I could stumble, bumble, screw up, choke, be off pitch, forget the words, forget the melody, have an unpleasant tone. And keep plunging ahead, open my voice, and sing. OK, I would suffer over all this. But it was permissible nonetheless.

At the same time, I was working as hard as I could to sound better by honing various other vocal techniques, and seeking to gain other singerly skills. (Such as being able to learn the melody. Understand who my character was as I was singing. Listen to the band in various ways while singing and not singing. Figure out how to write musical charts and be a bandleader. Blah blah blah. A whole new world.) It was a new kind of fun to do both at once as a singer: be in kindergarten, while becoming more accomplished.


Lisa B (Lisa Bernstein) on a gig early on
The psychic model of relaxing in order to see clairvoyantly had a parallel in singing, where being relaxed was crucial in the making of sound. But you also had to be energized. As both a psychic and a singer, I needed to cultivate a state of energized relaxation. Who knew?

This state turned out to be one I’d been entering for years as a poet too, though I didn’t call it that. I would trick myself into just scribbling something, drafting anything. Then I’d look at my output. Often I found it to be bad and put it aside. But at least I had written something. Then, six months later, I’d look at that draft again: maybe it wasn’t so bad. So I’d draw on my skills and start revising.

So it turned out that “being in kindergarten” was a technique I had unconsciously used as a writer. It was just another tool. Meanwhile, it was a technique among others I was practicing in clairvoyant class. All three of these disciplines – singing, psychic reading, and poetry writing – required me to both act like an adult and to come to them as a little child.

And then there’s the jazz musician part. For that, you really do have to be in kindergarten, because you have to improvise. That requires having integrated a lot of cool melodies, chord structures, and scales. Yet without the kindergarten part, your improvisations would be rote and boring. To create on the spot: the spirit of kindergarten.

music from lisabmusic.com


For me, singing itself was giving myself permission to play, and include my body in that play, and it was reserving a part of the experience for the tolerance of failure. Not merely private failure, as in poetry writing, but semi-public failure. Yet I could melt through the profound fear of failure by trusting in the technique of cultivating a childlike attitude. It was OK to screw up. Loudly. Embarrassingly. Because to be a child was to have the freedom to just play without achieving anything.

The courage to regain the childlike impulse to “just do it,” forgiving myself for not meeting certain achievement standards initially, also meant realizing that I had other inherent things to give while honing my craft in public. I couldn’t suppress those other appealing qualities – because they were part of myself. They weren’t the result of effort but there to be expressed. 

I discovered that my presence, my own wisdom, if truly revealed and expressed in a song, even if imperfectly, were meaningful to others. And I know in my gut that this ability to be present fully on stage is linked to the ability to be “in kindergarten.” The performer, like the child, reveals part of her authentic self, no matter what veneer or costume she also employs.


Lisa B (Lisa Bernstein) and Peter Barshay
To do what we want to do as singers, as creators, as humans, we need all of what I’ve written about here: determination, hard work, talent, trust in our inner talents, a solid set of techniques, the support of teachers and peers, and the opportunity and time to grow and improve.

And we need that other ingredient, which isn’t emphasized much in our culture of achievement: the freedom of the child within each of us, before doubt or shame or outer strictures have corrupted it. We need to be in that space where learning and playing are the same thing.

Try being in kindergarten when you do something you already know how to do. Cooking. Petting a dog. Some activity you do on your job. What does it feel like to revisit that activity in a fresh, more open, un-self-judging way?

And try pretending you’re in kindergarten while doing something you don’t already know how to do. Notice how that feels.


I’m imagining you considering doing this now as if you’re staring up at a rollercoaster. It’s big, it’s rattling, screams of excitement float down from above you. Riding it is risky. It’s playful, it’s unknown. Go buy the ticket.


I did start to sound a lot better, and sing well more reliably. And I learned to get used to (freak out less over) the body’s natural variations, and to keep taking risks as a singer and record producer. 

As I write this, I’m in the middle of a crowdfunding campaign to help launch my sixth record as a leader, “I Get A Kick: Cole Porter Reimagined,” due out on the Jazzed Media label in January 2018. Asking my tribe(s) for help is a risk. But since I now am fairly practiced at being in kindergarten, I put my head down and went forward with it, letting myself enter the unfamiliar territory. 

If you’re reading this before Thanksgiving 2017, I hope you can join me there. I offer many different perks; one of them is a discounted coaching session in which we can work together on making your own goals come trueand finding kindergarten along the way. 


Help launch Lisa B's I Get A Kick: Cole Porter Reimagined at Indiegogo.com


copyright © 2017 Lisa B (Lisa Bernstein) 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Ted Panken's Liner Notes for "I Get A Kick: Cole Porter Reimagined" (Jazzed Media 1/19/18)

A True American Original

            In my booklet notes for Lisa B’s second full-length album, Center of the Rhyme (2003), which comprised her striking original compositions and collaborations, I described the Oakland-based singer-poet as “a rugged individualist of the jazz tribe [who] articulates her accomplished narrative with a tonal personality entirely her own.” Fifteen years later, on her sixth CD, B embodies those same qualities in a distinctive homage to Cole Porter (1891-1964).
Cover "I Get A Kick: Cole Porter Reimagined" by Lisa B (Lisa Bernstein) from Jazzed Media 1/18 (photo by William Duke)
            She places her lovely instrument at the service of ten songs composed for stage and screen between 1929 (“Wake Up and Dream”) and 1954 (“All of You”). With the freewheeling control of the raw materials that only the finest jazz practitioners possess, B (short for Bernstein) takes possession of Porter’s witty, poignant stories. She deploys her considerable interpretative vocal gifts to deliver the message, occasionally interpolating her own spoken word passages for an evocative multilayered effect (on “What Is This Thing Called Love?” [1929], “I Happen to Like New York” [1931], and “Night and Day” [1932]).

            Lisa B’s approach to Porter echoes her remarks about the Art Ensemble of Chicago—a deep if not obvious influence—during one of our first conversations. “Their goal is to create a whole from various sources,” she said. “I love their ‘It's all possible’ attitude, the complete artistic freedom and invention they personify, their incredible versatility and dedication to craft and discipline.”
            B’s first documented immersion in Cole Porter’s work is on her 2006 CD What’s New, Pussycat?, where she augmented a suite of largely original songs with interpretations of “Night and Day” and “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” (1942), presented here in remastered form.

            “I got a lot of positive reaction to both tunes,” B says, explaining her decision to focus on Porter’s songs, and not her own, as the creative springboard for this project. “I feel a real affinity with him; it’s also fun to inhabit someone else’s work and take a left turn with it. Porter was such a brilliant songwriter, both a composer and a lyricist. What he’s doing seems simple maybe, and then you get into it, and just a little half-step and he’s in a whole different place. Also, he was gay or bisexual, but pretty closeted—there’s this sense of longing and heartbreak and isolation, as well as being Mister Society Guy. And there’s the wit, commenting not only on high society but also on the larger society. You always feel he’s the outsider on the inside. His body of work has a more profound doubleness than most of the Great American Songbook.”

Lisa B (Lisa Bernstein) on back cover of "I Get A Kick: Cole Porter Reimagined" (photo by William Duke)
         In culling Porter’s corpus for tunes that could serve as vehicles for “adventurous interpretations that have not been done before” (B’s goal), she relied, of course, on personal taste (“probably it leans towards love songs”), but also on her encyclopedic knowledge of American music canons.
             Consider how she starts the CD-opening “I Get A Kick Out of You” (1934), sing-speaking the verse in duo with Fred Randolph’s conversational bass accompaniment. As the drums enter and the pace ratchets to edgy fingerpopping swing, she illuminates the lyric with luminous timbre and precise articulation, then transitions seamlessly to a pair of original vocalese choruses.
            She signifies on the eternal question posed by “What Is This Thing Called Love?” with a lengthy spoken word declamation over a beguine rhythm, backdropped by a horn section (B’s long-time collaborator and co-producer, Jim Gardiner, executes all the instruments on this track except for Jeff Marrs’ drums).
            And her intense, erotic reading of “In the Still of the Night” (1937) includes Michael Zilber’s keening soprano saxophone obbligatos and a funky rhythmic base inspired by Randy Weston’s Monkish approach on his 1954 debut recording.

            B also stimulates the senses when rendering the songs straight-no-chaser. That’s evident in her clarion reading of the less-traveled “Wake Up and Dream,” which she describes as “a dreamy, inspiring waltz,” and the yearning she evokes on the more oft-covered “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” counterstated by a percolating bossa beat.
            On “I Happen to Like New York” she melds straight interpretation with pure imagination: after a fondly ironic opening vignette depicting the arrival of her grandparents, Sonia and Solomon, from the old country to Ellis Island on July 4, 1923, she morphs into Porter’s heartfelt paean to the “new city” into which they disembark.
            The image of arriving into a new city is an apt metaphor for the fresh, in-the-moment approach that Lisa B, a true American original, brings to every second of this inspired recital.

Ted Panken, Recipient of the Jazz Journalists Association 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award