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? 🙂

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.


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.