The tenor of my expectations. #singerslife #actorslife

Since I was about 12, I’ve been singing in church and school choirs, and had done a few solo performances. I was a solid bass/baritone and thought I had a good feel for my range. I left the tenor stuff to others.

About 5 years ago, I decided to take vocal lessons to try something besides 4-part choir. After talking a bit and doing some scales, my Seattle coach said she was surprised at my low range. Her experience was that the speaking voice usually mirrored the vocal range and she would have guessed me to be centered a bit more “tenorly”. I found that amusing and for four months didn’t have any cause to see things differently. Tenor parts and vibrato were things I knew I couldn’t do.

Work forced me off lessons eventually, but at our last session I locked into a previously troublesome note in a part of my throat that felt strangely easier. I mentioned it and she encouraged me to try and remember how it felt and duplicate it. 4 years went by and no real change came of it, though, while singing on my own.

Then after moving back to California, I got the bug again and went looking for a new coach. More importantly, I made a deliberate effort to ignore what I thought I knew about my personal mechanics for hitting notes. I was back in acting classes at the time and re-learning how to let go of the need to control, which put me in exactly the right mind set.

What happened was an explosion of range into the tenor realm, and the appearance of vibrato which I had never been able to pull off before. We keep picking songs to challenge the top end and, after some struggle each time, I keep finding another comfortable half step. It’s like being given a brand new instrument with a bunch of new keys, levers, and holes. You’re excited about the new capability, but set back because you’ve no experience playing the new parts. I’m also finding that the stuff in my comfort zone is becoming more nuanced, sophisticated, and soulful.

Bottom line is it was a great object lesson in how belief in our limitations can be flat out falsehoods. If you want to do something you don’t think you can do, you might be fundamentally and objectively wrong about your ability. Try stuff. Mess it up. Play. You will be surprised.

“Our Evita today absolutely would have been Hamilton”#HamiltonMusical #actorslife

Robert_Perkins_56When my four sisters and I were kids, it was an everyday occurrence for some record to be on playing musicals in the house. We knew them word for word and belted them out at the tops of our lungs. We created dance moves, improvised props, and made up our own harmonies. I can’t remember them all, but I still remember “Evita”, our vinyl version brilliantly headed by Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin. I can still sing along with most of the lyrics even 40 years later (although I gotta hang more with Mandy now than Patti these days).

After my fifth or sixth go-through, I am certain if we were still kids our Evita today absolutely would have been “Hamilton”. I knew nothing about it except the hype when I picked it up last month. My first thought was “Come on. Who out there thought they could top ‘1776’”? Hey, I don’t claim to be the most tuned-in person on the cutting edge of modern musical theater, so a small break please? ūüôā

Anyway, like many of you, I learned my lesson. But it’s not my intention to write a review. I’m just feeling grateful for having it in the world right now and wanted to share.  So let me just leave it at the top 10 things that keep me playing this over, and over, and over.

  1. Perfect overlay of overtly revolutionary themes on a historical backdrop, ones that urgently resonate with vital current issues. I’m sure there are ‘establishment’ people everywhere singing along enthusiastically, yet wondering why such great music should make them feel vaguely nervous.
  2. Brilliant use of rap and hip-hop at one of the things they do best: create rich, lyric-dense story telling power that can dance back and forth between elegant fencing duels and sledgehammer brawls.
  3. At least one lovely and not-quite gratuitous Gilbert and Sullivan reference.
  4. Casting cabinet meeting debates in the form of freestyle rap battles. (Yes, I know what those are, and yes I learned about them from 8 Mile. Sue me).
  5. A tour through a plethora of musical styles that typically get snubbed by musicals. (Yes, jefe, I know what a “plethora” is)
  6. Homages to a multitude of artists that helped create the aforementioned musical genres. I wish I knew them well enough to call them out by name, but I heard them in there. If you don’t know, now you know.
  7. An utterly heartbreaking epilogue.
  8. The most sincerely cheery royal death threat I have ever heard set to music. Almost made me feel bad for leaving him. Almost. (I didn’t need it to love this show, but part of me was delighted there was a role in my wheelhouse if I ever got a shot at it.)
  9. A French privateer rap. No, really.
  10. Finally, that the architect of this masterpiece, Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel), tweeted all through his vacation back to Puerto Rico, and shared like he was talking with family. (I had to look up Boricura, and Dale Duro, but I’ve got a bit of a read on his uncle now).

As an aspiring creative artist, a work like this is both profoundly intimidating and profoundly inspiring. It is no coincidence that I am pushing harder into my writing and acting now. A work like this produces gale-force winds, torrentially blowing energy into your soul that you wouldn’t have created on your own. I’m not the hurricane, but I can be some of the waves crashing on shore.

So go get it. If you don’t like history, go get it. If you don’t like musicals, go get it. If you don’t like rap, go get it.

I’m serious. Just get it.

 

All lives matter, but all are not taken equally

I saw this picture posted on Facebook recently and it struck a chord with me. It was uncited, so if anyone knows the artist, please comment so I can credit it. (The original is a Norman Rockwell called “The Runaway”)

Just to recap if you don’t know, when you adjust for their proportion in the population, it is fairly unambiguous that black lives fall to police gunfire more frequently than others in the US. The debate is spirited and evolving (see this article on the premature report of a  Harvard economist refuting the claim). I’ve also read some compelling research that claims little (if any) of this is due to higher levels of crime in those communities. Are there racist cops? Of course. In a country of 400 million or so, every side to every story is probably true, and sometimes broadly so. Are they the main reason we are where we are? Probably not. Are people who get shot just not obeying fast enough? Also doubtful, and here’s why I think that. Any allegation that any shooting is unjustified is intrinsically frightening. The “just don’t resist” argument lets us quickly shut that fear up, and is therefore suspect. I think other explanations are more compelling, and this photo illustrates one of them.

I don’t think the officer on the right intended to present this image. I don’t think he understands or even sees the reaction of the boy. I don’t think wearing this gear was his idea. Police have been swamped with surplus military equipment over the past 15 years of overseas warfare. As in many professions, I believe your uniform in subtle ways shapes your behavior, your attitude, and your fears. At a time when police are generally safer than ever before, and crime is lower than ever before, many have come to believe in their hearts that the opposite is true.They get this message from their bosses, the media, their friends, and perhaps also by their training.

I’m convinced this belief is bolstered when you are issued surplus military hardware, something all too common over the course of two Gulf wars (see John Oliver’s excellent piece on Last Week Tonight). Just issuing the gear and training police to use it carries an authoritative assertion that the risk in the community warrants it, even if no leader says that explicitly. From there, it’s a short step to incorrectly believing that subgroups in this dangerous community are even more dangerous than others. From there, it’s becomes easy for the trigger decision to be unduly influenced a predictable fraction of times and, without any racist cops, you arrive at disproportionate use of lethal force.

Since it can happen without any overt racism, it remains even after reasonable  measures have been taken to keep racists out. It completely breaks rational discussion on the topic, since much of white resistance to the idea that there is a problem is rooted in the fundamentally incorrect notion that racism must always be deliberate and conscious in order to kill someone. It can simply be embedded in the structures built around officers, where it is very hard to detect. It can be as simple as what we make them wear.

In most cases I don’t think people purposely walked down this path. But we all got sold a giant fear ball after 9/11, and we’ve been too scared to scale down our defenses even faced with overwhelming evidence that the country has by and large gotten safer (I understand how not universally true that has been lately). When presented with an option that increases our subjective sense of safety, we still desperately lunge for it and spend little time asking what it will cost us.

Police training, far more than personal safety decisions, needs to reflect the most realistic view possible on the risks inherent in the communities it is assigned to protect. It cannot be responsive to the “fear of the other” that has been pervasive since 9/11 and which, while perhaps initially justifiable, has grown vastly out of proportion to any rational view of our current state. Just like the military in which many of them served, police are a cross-section of us, a product of the same society, with the same rational and irrational fears. Yes, bad cops need to be prosecuted (and I hate that I feel like I need to include such a ridiculously obvious point). The rest need a system that does more than it does to protect them from subtle inflation of risk when they are looking down their gunsights at another human being, making that horrific choice: my life or his. 

It’s a noble profession because they do this, because they put their lives on the line for us. They trade their safety and security for ours. They sometimes give their lives defending us. We can’t let that nobility be tainted with fear and doubt that isn’t based on truth, and that causes them to afford their protection and service differentially. More specifically, we can’t allow the structure of police leadership, training, and equipment to falsely inflate their sense of risk in the use of lethal  force.

Performance anxiety is your ego being passive aggressive

I’m in a series of wonderful acting classes at Anthony Meindl’s Actor Workshop. His first rule is “Check your ego at the door” and I thought I knew what that meant. 

I know about ego. I have one. It is a bit of a pain in the ass. There is a line in “Hamilton” (fabulous work!) asking the lead why he always thinks he’s the smartest person in the room. I’ve been guilty of that and I thought that Tony’s rule meant to leave that shit outside and cultivate a bit of humility. I’m sure that’s still part of it. But it just occurred to me that he might have had another motivation to make that statement. 

Actors can suffer tremendously from performance anxiety, “getting in their own way” and losing the organic expression of emotion that is so critical to resonant drama. But if you agonize over performing “right”, are you not focusing on how proficient you are, not how honest? How others esteem your performance, rather than the willingness and courage to bare yourself? 

And if that is the reason you overthink your scenes, calculate your beats, and berate yourself for failing yet again to inspire, isn’t that your ego talking? Not in a narcissistic, condescending, smartest person in the room sort of way. But it’s still more about the boost you get from being seen doing well, than it is fascination with the human experience that is the actors job to portray. It’s the subtle underside of ego, a feint it uses when we don’t allow it its usual, more overt tantrums.

I know there is still a lot in me that is doing this because I want people to think I’m good at it. That thought was so compelling and discouraging that I’d have quit altogether if I thought it was my only motivation. But I won’t for two reasons. First, as much as I tried to leave it behind, acting is in my bones and actors are my tribe. Second, and far more importantly, when I internalize and reflect other people’s emotions and experiences, it adds depth and breadth to my own. In a one-time, solitary, and maddeningly short slice of existence, it’s a life multiplier. A way of borrowing more understanding, experience, compassion, and empathy than I could have otherwise managed myself.

Shedding ego means valuing the joy of how  the scene brings me that all by itself, even when no one is watching. It’s about desperately craving each chance to get up there and open the box, to see what’s in there, to see what our human hearts make happen.

Ban racists from your social media! (or why that’s a stupid idea)

  Several years ago I was in a medical school gross anatomy lab, working with a fellow student with whom I’d been teamed for months and who I considered a friend. The hours were long, the work hard, and hey, it’s a dead body between you. Humor was a vital retreat from time to time.

I’m not a natural comedian by any measure, but I think I have a decent sense of humor. I can also drop passable comic impressions when the mood strikes me. I once derailed an entire Biochemistry lecture with a Colonel Jessup impression that burst past my filters (You have to ask me nicely). So late one evening in the lab, carried away by some mutual comic banter, I dropped a Foghorn Leghorn comment, terminated by his stereotypical “boy!”

My friends eyes went double wide and, although I had never actually experienced it, I was pretty sure I was seeing someone getting ready to jump across the table at me, dead body or no. “Who you calling boy!” came across the table instead, and my brain raced to figure out what sort of land mine I had just stepped on.

I was a wannabe beach bum from Southern California, of mainly British and Irish descent, using a term that I thought ranked somewhere around “laddie” in its potential for offense. My friend, on the other hand, was African-American and from the southeastern US. In the fraction of a second I had to process this, I still had time to wonder if his reaction had something to do with race, and experience the beginnings of a horrified realization about how it must have sounded.

I don’t remember exactly how we calmed the situation down, but I can tell you very clearly what didn’t happen. He did not call me a piece of shit cracker. He did not proclaim to the room that his no tolerance policy on racism required him to unfriend me on Facebook. He did not organize a Twitter campaign to publicly vilify me, get me fired, kicked out of school, or otherwise ruin my life.

What I do remember was watching his face as he clearly made a decision to let it go. And with that small moment of restraint, he gave me time to realize that I had offended him, and a moment more for it to occur to me in what way. That allowed me to do what decent people everywhere manage to do without any sensitivity training at all. We apologize. We feel sorry for being unintentionally offensive. We try to understand the why.

This was ignorance, not racism, and I think he was thoughtful enough even in the heat of his reaction to understand the difference. If social media is any indication, it’s a quality quite beyond many people out there, most of whom have far less grounds to claim offense than he did. If their stated desire is truly to make the world a more tolerant place, they need to remember that exactly zero people in history have been persuaded to a better way by public shaming and a vicious enumeration of their faults (it’s actually more of a 17th century white Puritan Salem kind of thing.)

I’ve lived a little longer now and in many different places, including the deep south. I have a little better understanding of what my friend may have experienced with those words before we ever met. I may make other mistakes in my treatment of folks around me, but hopefully I have a solid flag planted on this particular mine. Although we never spoke about it again, I’ve carried a persistent gratitude from that day, that he chose to give me a little space to learn and recover from a mistake. It’s the necessary maneuvering room that any society needs to grow and change.

Creating vs. consuming: It just feels different

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I did something last weekend that I haven’t done in more than 25 years. I went to a rock concert. Now understand that I am not a fan of any kind. It’s just not in my DNA to like¬†anything so much¬†that it starts getting in the way of liking other things I like. So while I have lots of favorite music and can normally name the band, I rarely can come up with the names of individual band members. I can almost never name the album, and I despise fan clubs, branded merchandise, bumper stickers, and anything else that serves only to make sure the world knows of your steadfast commitment and refined taste.

So why am I telling you this? Well, it’s about this concert I went to. The experience hit me with some insight about the difference between creating and consuming, insight I thought might be cool to share. To do so, however, I was going to have to tell you that my fairly recent exposure to the Foo Fighters had profoundly changed how I looked at music. I was going to have to tell you about the connection I began feeling with the band and the impact it had on my own very late entry into drumming. I was going to have to mention how much I love their music, the connection I feel with their musical roots, and the gratitude I felt when I watched their recent and very popular documentary, Sonic Highways.¬†In short, I ran the risk of coming off as a fan and I just couldn’t have that. Cause I’m not the fan type, right? So as long as we have that clear, let me tell you what happened last weekend at the Gorge Amphitheater.

The Foo Fighters have an outstanding reputation as live performers and this show was everything I expected. Not the big stage extravaganza that has become the rule for pop performers, but a visually and sonically optimized platform to keep the focus on the music and the fans. I enjoyed songs that had become my favorites, got introduced to wonderful material that my late-comer ass had missed, and was treated to a ridiculously magnificent fracture boot guitar solo. Even more amazing, I actually got sucked into the one thing about live performances that I despise above all others: the singalong.

But as the concert progressed, I found that my enjoyment of each song came up a little short of my expectations. In terms of creating emotional connection, none of them hit my ten on a ten scale. I was ready to write it off as my general resistance to enamored artist worship (I’m not a fan, remember?).¬†But after awhile I realized it wasn’t that at all. The problem wasn’t my inability to connect with the music. My problem was my definition of a ten on that ten scale.

About 2 years ago, after a lifetime of failure to connect with any musical instrument, I finally overcame my snooty attitude about percussion and gave it a try. Drums hooked me in a way that nothing else ever had. By blind luck, I also found something I never had in any of my previous attempts, a music teacher who really got where I was musically, and who quickly figured out how I learned (thanks Larry Mahlis!). Instead of starting out with the mind-numbing technical exercises that had put me off other instruments, we picked a handful of fairly challenging pieces and worked on them for months at at time. It was in those pieces, especially in the weeks where it all started to come together with the music at full tempo, that I found myself emotionally amped up in a way that listening had never managed. I hit a new ten on the ten scale and I think it really kind of ruined me for listening.

So Dave, Taylor, Nate, Chris, and Pat (you too, Butch), thanks for an awesome show. Just don’t take it wrong that it didn’t do the same for me as when I struggle to lock in with “Days Go By” from The Offspring, or your own “Outside” in my makeshift bedroom studio. I would have had to be up on the stage with you for the feeling to come even close, and time and talent is not on my side for something like that. This does not discourage me. On the contrary, what I get on my own little DW kit (especially when I come up with something new on my own) is putting some real¬†drive on me. ¬†Most days playing is way better than sitting around with headphones on.

So go ahead and be a fan if you want, folks, but please don’t miss out on the bigger buzz to be had by investing time in whatever inspires you and by putting some of it out into the world yourself. ¬†You might get yourself a new ten.

When everyone is special, no one is…

I have talked and written a lot lately about my struggle with career stagnation and professional alienation. Over several years I have become more and more emotionally detached from my trained profession (medicine), and more and more drawn into my avocational pursuits (music, writing, film). With each passing year I understand better and better that these things are choosing me, as the saying goes. Yet as much as I’d like to tell you all an uplifting story about my courageous and bold leap from the safe to the fulfilling, it simply hasn’t happened.

Part of my stasis has been some very legitimate and necessary considerations for my family’s financial, educational, and geographic stability. But deep down I’ve suspected and feared that,¬†even if those considerations were eventually covered, I still might not have the fortitude to make a change. Today, one of those suspicions surfaced long enough for me to really grab hold of it and take a long look.

Its roots go way, way back. Long before the years of clinical practice, before the rigors of residency, before the chaos of medical school, maybe all the way back to a kid who was forming his first sense of personal identity and ability. Somewhere along the line that passes through all these stages, I really started grooving on being special. And letting go of that groove may be the biggest hurdle between me and moving on to something that fits.

I’ve learned a lot along the way, but I haven’t been a rank beginner at anything for two decades and almost everything I had to do before that didn’t really make me suffer for it. ¬†Not, at least, in any way that would make a meaningful and compelling story. This isn’t a boast of universal competence. ¬†It’s just that when I’ve chosen things, I have regularly steered myself to the ones that came easy (with one notable exception, thank you dive school).

But when things choose you, you not free to steer anymore. You either get at peace with going somewhere off the charts, or you drop anchor and go nowhere. Most days I think I am¬†probably standing at the gunwales, anchor in hand. ¬†The thought of a new project or role that might¬†highlight my ineptitude sets off something deep under the surface that makes pitiful excuses about how I don’t really want what I want. ¬†It is a miserable sophistry hiding two simple truths. That the opportunity for most growth comes before you are ready to pay, and that you have to pay for things to matter. The issue isn’t whether I am ready for and brave enough to change. It’s whether I am brave enough to pay,¬†ready or not.

Not sure how this will all turn out, but I will tell you that the anchor drill is getting kind of old.