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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.