Category Archives: Monday Inspiration

Three Points.

There was an article in today’s New York Times written by a professional dancer, Maresa D’Amore-Morrison, that struck me on several levels.

Last May, Eric (San, known professionally as Kid Koala – Ed.) asked us if we would participate that fall in his world tour, which he described as a vaudeville show. He said that this time, besides energetic dance routines, he wanted us to incorporate puppets into the act. My puppet would be three feet tall, the torso of a robot character from one of Eric’s graphic novels.

[…]I didn’t have the faintest idea how to make an inanimate object move on stage. And the challenge was even more daunting since we wouldn’t even see the puppets until hours before the world premiere in Geneva, because they were still being made in Canada.

[…] I wanted to do a good job because I take pride in my work. But I also wanted Eric to hire our group again so we could continue collaborating with him.

The first point that resonated with me is the main brunt of the article – being challenged to tackle a new skill. It’s something that makes changing careers seem, at least at first, daunting…especially when you’ve spent thousands of hours and dollars mastering skills for a primary field. After encountering rejection or friction in the field that has been your passion, well, taking a leap of faith into a new field, learning something foreign can seem to be both ancillary (“but I don’t love it.”) and a huge risk (“How do I know that this will work out for me?” Answer: you don’t. No one does.)

The second point is wrapped up in that last excerpt…being only as good as our last project, performance, piece of work. There’s a delicate balance between wanting to put out your best work because it meets your standard, and wanting your best work to open doors. In the best possible world, the dominos fall and one great performance garners offers: but there’s a big difference between wanting to reach that artistic ideal and cobbling enough opportunities together to make rent.

The third point? Is simply that Ms. D’Amore-Robinson states in the article’s first paragraph that she has three different jobs. Three. Different. Jobs. It’s de rigeur for millions of artists (and non-artists, too), but totally a foreign concept to a wide swath of folks. (It was my norm until I started at my current workplace.)

No big conclusions to draw – just thankful for an interesting performer POV in the Times.

Go big. Or go home.

I work in an office, with supremely civil, friendly people. My industry is largely populated by people who believe themselves to be secondary to a cause – in our case, the cultivation and growth of culture in the general, the preservation and proliferation of classical music and opera, in the specific.

It seems, often, that my job does not require courage.

I went to a great event at the Atlanta Opera – their 24-Hour Opera Project – this past weekend. Five teams had 24 hours to create a short work in its entirety: writing, learning, direction, performance. It was a huge undertaking. Add to that the fact that the event culminated in a juried presentation? As my college choir director would say, that takes cojones. Large steel ones,to be exact.

It was inspiring. Even thought not every piece and/or performance was out-of-the-park successful, it was fantastic to watch people throwing themselves at such a lofty goal. And, in a totally selfish way, it made me wonder whether I’m putting myself out there often enough, challenging myself to stretch beyond my comfort level.

(I already know the answer. I’m not. I’m comfortable, and getting more than a little boring in my complacency.)

So I’m spending this evening thinking about ways in which I can challenge myself in a meaningful way – not to take on additional responsibilities or duties because I feel I should, but to actually take a risk on something that will make me smarter/stronger/more interesting/more helpful/more useful. I’m going aim at something that could be a spectacular failure, but that I hope against all odds will be a great success.

Because, as I saw this weekend? Going big or going home is so very exciting.

From diverse sources.

I’ve recently stumbled across three articles that are swimming around my head in a interesting manner.

This is the first. That’d be a heck of a pie chart! But now, as I look back at the ways in which I’ve spend the approximately 32,000 hours (!) I’ve likely worked, it’s still difficult to characterize much of what I’ve “done.” And, as I let this blog languish and stall on other, non-professional writing projects, I’m reminded that I need to work a few hours a week on the things that make my heart sing.

This is the second. I read it in the print edition, and found it fascinating, mostly because one of the traits they illustrate concerns living in the moment, not projecting…and it sounds a lot like mindfulness, doesn’t it? Here’s a quote:

“I think the problem is that people spend so much time worrying about what might happen, what might go wrong, that they completely lose sight of the present. They completely overlook the fact that, actually, right now, everything’s perfectly fine.

“So the trick, whenever possible, I propose, is to stop your brain from running on ahead of you.”

(Now, if you read that in Yoga Journal? O Magazine? It’d be easy to turn into a mantra of sorts. But the context makes it a bit stickier for me to wrap my head around, somehow.)

This is the third. There’s an clear analogy here for a performing career; the Eagle Scout level of preparedness needed, the brutal slog of little money and an expensive vocation, the uncertainty surrounding each occasion, the crazy desire to fly. The luck that accompanies the right day, the right waft of air, the right conditions for an epic flight.

Happy Monday, all. Hope the week is great.

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New Year, New Mistakes

It’s a new year, complete with soul searching, taking stock, and making plans for greatness. But sometimes those plans can get derailed before we even start them…they seem too big, too silly, too weird.

There was a great article in the New York Times, by Hugo Lindgren, the editor of the Magazine (which is one of my favorite parts of Sunday). He writes about all of the ideas he had, the handfuls upon handfuls that failed to launch because he couldn’t get them written down – or, in the process of writing them they seemed so unworthy of the light.

(Did I recognize myself in this article. You betcha.)

But this quote stuck with me:

I recently saw a Charlie Rose interview with John Lasseter, a founder of Pixar, about the creative process behind his movies. Pixar’s in-house theory is: Be wrong as fast as you can. Mistakes are an inevitable part of the creative process, so get right down to it and start making them. Even great ideas are wrecked on the road to fruition and then have to be painstakingly reconstructed. “Every Pixar film was the worst motion picture ever made at one time or another,” Lasseter said. “People don’t believe that, but it’s true. But we don’t give up on the films.”

Even if it’s good – the voice, the story, the project – it’s going to be dashed to pieces and rebuilt. The rebuilding is an integral part to the process. It’s also painful and embarrassing to expose flaws to the light of day.

That’s where the courage comes in, right?

This week’s challenge (and yes, I’ll be doing it too) is to take one thing that you’re frightened of doing – sharing something you’ve written, singing in public after a hiatus, getting into the practice room – and doing it. Robert Page, a professor of mine, talked about making mistakes by saying “Make a mistake, make it loudly, and make a different one every time.” And, if you’re feeling really brave, tell me about your foray in the comments.

I bet Moriarty was a multi-tasker…

Elementary, my dear Watson!I am a new convert to the BBC Series Sherlock. Being able to (correctly – there’s the rub) infer personality traits, circumstances, travels through observing someone? Well, that’s a superpower that I’d like very much to have.

So, when I ran across an article in the New York Times alluding to my guy Sherlock? It immediately caught my attention. The article challenges the concept of multitasking, and focuses on mindfulness. Author Maria Konnikova writes:

More often than not, when a new case is presented, Holmes does nothing more than sit back in his leather chair, close his eyes and put together his long-fingered hands in an attitude that begs silence. He may be the most inactive active detective out there. His approach to thought captures the very thing that cognitive psychologists mean when they say mindfulness.

Ack! The inactivity! Where is the knee-jerk response, the running out of the room, the mad dash to the crime scene? Sherlock slows – nay, stops – the clock and contemplates before he makes a move. (I find the concept thrilling, as it is so foreign to me.)

Ms. Konnikova goes on to talk about mindfulness having similarities to meditation – that its core principle is to drown out distractions and to focus attention. She cites studies that track mood boosts, greater relaxation during timed tasks, and improvement in memory and cognitive function.

My “a-ha!” moment: isn’t that what we were doing in the practice room??

We spent hours of focused attention, ignoring distraction (well, for the most part) to concentrate singularly on our craft. Afterwards, leaving the small space I remember my brain being exhausted, but feeling good about the work that I’d accomplished. (Again, for the most part.)

My job, while in the arts, is an administrative office gig… I am a slave to email and the phone and instant messenger. I need to drop things at a moment’s notice, and so I’ve become more adept with juggling several things shallowly than really digging into one task or problem.

I’m considering a more measured approach to 2013. One that might make me calmer, happier, and even a wee bit smarter. (Heck, I’ll take any help I can get!)


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Mistakes, and Recovering with Style.

We all make mistakes, right?

I had a professor in college who used to say “Go ahead and make a mistake…but make it big, and make a different one every time.” Words to live by, even if it’s easier said than done.

There’s a lot of pressure in classical music to not make any mistakes – to reach for perfection. It’s a worthy quest, but not something that’s possible for most of us mere mortals.

When I was teaching, my students would often stop when they made a mistake and want to start over from the beginning. At the best, it delayed building the stamina they’d need to get through a full piece…at worst, it actually routined the mistakes and pauses into their performances. I used to play a specific tune for them at the beginning of the year, and would revisit it periodically during the year when the pressure to be perfect caused paralysis-by-analysis. The tune was a live recording from Berlin, when Ella Fitzgerald and her band were taking a first stab at the hit tune “Mack the Knife.”

(Suffice it to say that she doesn’t so much remember all the words.)

The other takeaway? Is that it is a wonderful testament to being in the moment, for committing, for letting go of perfection and embracing spontaneity.


Follow your passion.

Cal Newport, a Computer Science professor at Georgetown University, wrote a great article for the New York Times about discovering one’s passion, rather than choosing and following one. He talks about having doubts when in graduate school:

Had I subscribed to the “follow our passion” orthodoxy, I probably would have left during those first years, worried that I didn’t feel love for my work every day. But I knew that my sense of fulfillment would grow over time, as I became better at my job. So I worked hard, and, as my competence grew, so did my engagement.

I think we do tend to single-track students into finding their ‘passions’ much too early. Isn’t it lovely to have someone advocate on behalf of fulfilling work, without the pressure of calling it a ‘career’?

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More First-Person Advice

Ok, so Monday Inspiration is a little late this week, but it’s worth the wait.

Barry Hessenius from WESTAF posted an essay that is full of first-hand advice from prominent arts leaders. Some of my favorite tidbits?

From Randy Cohen, Senior VP of Research and Policy for Americans for the Arts:

Change is a constant condition. When faced with multiple choices, lean towards the one you fear most—that is usually where the greatest treasure is buried. Be brave!

From Claire Peeps, Executive Director of the Durfee Foundation:

I’ve learned that people are our most valuable resource and that it is in our collective best interest that they be nurtured and sustained. This is true for leaders who must take care of the staff who work for them, and it is true of emerging leaders who must remember to take care of themselves.

From Michael Alexander, Executive Director, Grand Performances, two different pearls:

“When the sea rises, all ships rise with it.” Devote part of your work time and your personal life to the causes that will benefit our field and our world. Your professional life and your personal life will benefit in the process. My most important role models in the arts each practiced this providing leadership by devoting time and resources to our field.

And this:

“To be interesting, be interested.” Former CAC member Fred Sands said he told that to all his employees. I think it is worthwhile for all of us to listen more and talk less. And listen everywhere. Our audiences have remarkable wisdom – even the children. Ask good questions. Remember too that different communities have different ways of addressing challenges.

I find Michael Alexander’s sea image of particular interest. I think that many of us approach the world on two levels, or maybe in two separate spheres: family and work. To treat the larger community as a confluence of those spheres? Well, (aside from being a kickin’ Venn diagram,) it would show the amazing personal power of the arts to transform families, communities…each of us from without and within. And to buy into the idea that one success influences other successes? Call me a Commie, (On a side note, does anyone actually call people ‘Commies’ anymore? Or have I totally dated myself?)but I think that paying it forward in that large a manner can only be a good thing.

(How’s that for inspiration? I hope it was worth the wait!)

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Creativity. Excess.

I have a healthy love for the dramatic…for larger-than-life moments, for the smells-and-bells of religious rituals, for intimate secrets. They can play out on stages large and small, in novels and chapbooks and blogs and photos. (I have less patience for real-life drama, as it’s never as tidily contained as in the pages of a book, or of the opera’s three-acts-two-intermission structure.)

My mother was my gateway to this world – a creative English teacher who would read aloud in thirteen differently-pitched-and-accented-voices, and who fostered a love of reading in her kids with the brilliant idea to censor television programs but not books. (I read every Stephen King book he had written up to the late 80’s. To this day I cannot make it the whole way through a suspenseful movie, and duck and cover as soon as those pesky violins begin.) I love a good story, but I love equally a mediocre story told with flair and verve.

(If you tell my mother that the reason I like to hang with artists is because of her, she’ll be equal parts offended and flattered, depending on the day. Make sure you have your exit paths mapped before you talk, is all I’m saying…)

So, the fact that I’ve found myself in a world rife with drama on all levels? (The High-Horse of Artistry! The Heart-Rending Budget Cuts! The Temperamental Diva/Divo! The Entry-Level Wage Slaves!) Not at all surprising, really. And I’m sure that I’m not the only one who has found my way here due to a love of tall tales and a willingness to suspend disbelief.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Anaïs Nin’s writings, but Maria Popova reminds me that she was a proponent of excess.

Excess. Indeed.

To quote Mae West, another iconic proponent of excess, “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.” Hoping that your Monday is excessively fantastic, dear readers.

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Monday Morning, 8:38am

My usual weekday mornings look something like this:

7:00 hit snooze

7:05 get out of bed. Hope that I remembered to make coffee and set the brew timer before bed last night. If not? Coffee-making-time.

7:15 feed the cat and dog. Let the dog out.

7:18 caffeinate. wish for a faster coffeepot.

7:25 journal/write/doodle

7:35 skim email (and then wish I had waited until the caffeine truly hit) & google reader.

7:45 walk the dog

8:15 hit the shower, blow-dry, spackle

8:55 realize that I’m going to be late to the office. Again. Offer to pick up breakfast as compensation for being late.

I’ve read two articles recently on The Creativity Post about creativity. The first details the ways in which my morning routine might be the very thing that saps my creative thinking.

In a study published in the journal Thinking and Reasoning last year, researchers Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks reported that imaginative insights are most likely to come to us when we’re groggy and unfocused. The mental processes that inhibit distracting or irrelevant thoughts are at their weakest in these moments, allowing unexpected and sometimes inspired connections to be made.

They offer more insight into the positives of non-linear thinking (boy, you know for a long time I thought that non-linear was a bad thing…I’m rethinking) by citing three things that can help with divergent thinking and building flat associative networks (i.e., being able to jump creatively around from one idea to another, loosely-associated one):

  1. Sleep.
  2. Humor.
  3. Alcohol.

Many major breakthroughs happen in the unlikeliest of places, whether it’s Archimedes in the bathtub or the physicist Richard Feynman scribbling equations in a strip club, as he was known to do. It reveals the wisdom of Google putting ping-pong tables in the lobby and confirms the practical benefits of daydreaming. As Einstein once declared, “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.”

If you’re like me, free time almost always becomes To-Do time; errands, chores, things I need to do/should do/ought to do. I’m pledging this week to take a little bit of time to let my mind wander: a half-hour at lunch without being strapped to a smartphone or iPad, a larger chunk of time to doodle in the morning, some time with a blank page and a glass of wine in the evening. I hope you’ll join me.

Happy Monday, all. Here’s hoping your week brings some lovely, surprising insights and ideas!

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