This week has been a wretched week on both a personal level and the larger global level. Bad news seems to be coming thick and fast from all corners. There is so much that seems beyond our control right now, with demons prowling everywhere. What can we do? Well, there's kindness and compassion both for others and for ourselves. You'd be surprised how little of that it takes to lighten a mood. And beyond that there's music. Good music- the kind that makes you laugh and cry and forget just for a minute that the odds are long and so is the day. Yesterday just when I was at the absolute end of my tether I stumbled across Karen Ziemba & Bill Irwin's version of Stephen Sondheim's Sooner or Later. It didn't solve my problems or spout platitudes, it didn't even do my dishes. But it made me smile, and at that moment everything seemed much better. So,I'm sharing it with you, I hope it makes your day just a bit happier.
I may have mentioned that I have a show coming up...I'm sifting through charts, and recordings and notes mining for musical treasure. As I have been lucky to work with some truly gifted composers and arrangers over the past few years it's never a question of not having enough material, but of narrowing down the list to a show that's somewhat less than five hours long. Along the way I run across all sorts of things that I have forgotten about, like this little gem that Rick Jensen and I recorded a while back. Will it make the list for October 15? Well... you'll have to come to see us to find out.
Here's the thing. I like being in charge. I'm used to being in charge. I'm good at being in charge. I'm one of those hyper competent good in a crisis be it on stage or backstage kind of people. I've spent years learning to be good at what I do. When I step on-stage and pick up a microphone I know what I'm doing. Even if it's an impromptu last minute didn't know I was going to have to perform kind of thing I know what to do. I've produced and taught and directed and run the zoo in various ways for a long time. I am happily accustomed to being in complete control of my world. That is, I was...until I stepped into a dance studio.
Of all the things that surprised me about this adventure none was more unexpected and more difficult to accept than the fact that I was suddenly a complete neophyte at something. That I had to let go of everything I knew for a little while and let someone else be in charge. Not only that but I was going to have to be abjectly terrible at something...in public. Don't get me wrong, there are lots of things I do not do well, but generally I try to do those things only in the privacy of my own home, with the shades drawn and Spouse and Spawn safely out of town. Yet here I was putting my terpsichorean flaws on display for the entire world.
And if that weren't enough...I discovered that all those bad habits I'd worked so hard to overcome as a musician popped up in my dancing. Rushing, anticipating, bad posture, incomplete connection with my partner - things I thought were long gone were merely waiting for me to take up dance so they could display themselves in all new ways. Sort of like that pimple that appears without fail on your chin prior to every major life event. There have been moments of pure pain where I wanted nothing more than to flee the building and collapse in a heap of sobs.
So, why do it? Why put myself though the humiliation of baring my two left feet to the world. Well, first of all, I'm stubborn. My mother used to say I'd argue with the devil if he popped up and said it was nice day. And while I've never quite understood exactly why that was a bad thing, she's right. Once I get my teeth into something I will not let it go until I've beaten it into submission. While some may see this as a flaw, I think it's actually one of my saving graces.
But beyond that I know that the only way to be good at something is to allow yourself to be bad at it. No matter what our level of natural talent when we set out to learn a new skill we have to go through that painful awkward phase where we aren't so great at it. This is how we learn. It's not easy, it sure ain't pretty but this is where we really grow. And if we do it right, as a bonus, we might learn a little empathy along the way.
I have been reminded that a bad class won't kill me. It's not a sign from above that I should quit. Bad days are part of the process. Learning something new, even something you love dearly, is not all unalloyed pleasure. It's hard, it should be. I have discovered I'm not happy unless I'm being challenged. The difficult days are the ones that force me to take a look at what I'm doing and adjust accordingly. I may go home and rant and rave and threaten never to darken the studio door again, but once I get that out of my system my pigheadedness kicks in and I'm back in class the next day determined to master the challenge.
Finally, being a beginner has vastly improved my practice habits. Put simply, if I don't want to look like Bambi on ice in class I'd better set aside the time everyday to practice. Wynton Marsalis said, When you practice, it means you are willing to sacrifice to sound good...time spent practicing is the true sign of virtue in a musician." There are other things I could be doing but if I'm serious about moving past my beginner status there's only one way to do it - through sheer cussed hard work. Fortunately that's another of my talents.
I am not a morning person. Cranky and monosyllabic are the two words that best describe my morning persona. It takes dynamite and a giant hit of caffeine (though I'm working on giving that up) to propel me into motion. Once my eyes have been forced open I scroll through my email, social networking, and the news until I'm able to form coherent sentences. Alas, these days those sentences are usually rants about the sorry state of democracy and the world in general. So, it was a lovely change this morning to be greeted with a wonderful article from Rolling Stone about Bobbie Gentry. Which in turn sent me straight to my various musical devices. From there it was just a little hop to YouTube and this...
Suddenly my morning just got a lot better. Only now I'm wondering where to get my hands on a red catsuit...
For someone who doesn't drink coffee, who can't abide the taste (although I do love the smell), Notes From Hot Coffee would seem an unusual choice of a blog name. But Hot Coffee is a phrase that has a lot of significance to me as both a real and a metaphorical place.
The real place is Hot Coffee, Mississippi, a tiny town halfway between Natchez, MS and Mobile, AL. It is the place where farmers, on their way to or from taking their crops to market, would stop at L.N. Davis' General Store for what Davis called, "the best hot coffee around" . The name stuck, and though Hot Coffee is best known for producing the actors Stella Stephens and Dana Andrews, I prefer to think of it as the place that produced my maternal grandparents Norma Lane Saxon Carter and William Matthew Carter. It is, in a very literal sense, the place were much of my family began.
Hot Coffee is also the place where many of the stories my mother told me are set. It was alive in my imagination long before I ever went to visit the real place. It is the place were stories are born, true stories, that combine tragedy, and laugh-out-loud comedy with a cast of good-hearted yet flawed characters who are just a little odd. You may not have ever been there, but you know these people, you root for them, and in the end you fall in love with them. It's creativity and beauty and real life. It is what I look for in the songs I sing and the stories I tell.
Finally, Hot Coffee is the name of the theatre piece I have been toiling over this past little while. One day it will be finished and see the light of day (or rather a theatre), but until then I will be sharing bits and pieces of its birth story with you.
So, welcome to Hot Coffee! I hope that in reading my stories you will be inspired to share you own. Everyone is welcome here, because everyone has a story that's worth hearing.
Without meaning to at first I sort of took a hiatus over the last eighteen months or so. I stopped booking new gigs, and recording and blogging and teaching and started to explore some other areas of my creativity that I had long neglected. Eleanor Roosevelt said, Do one thing a day that scares you , and somewhere along the line I decided to be an overachiever and do a whole bunch of things daily that terrify me.
It all started with Gretchen Cryer. Gretchen, if you do not know her (and you absolutely should know her) is an actor, director, writer, and teacher who co-wrote the Off-Broadway classic I'm Getting My Act Together & Taking it on the Road. I won a free solo show writing class with her at a theatre event I attended. I had long wanted to take a writing class but was too chicken and this turned out to be just the push I needed. From there it progressed to a weekly group class with Gretchen and two amazing and fierce women that I met at the first class. It wasn't long before that progressed into regular private sessions and the creation of a solo theatrical piece that is slowly but surely working it's way to a stage near you.
Somehow, and I can't really explain how, writing leads to dancing. I had not set foot in a dance class in years. Dance has never been my medium. I'm flat footed, uncoordinated and look like a stork - nothing movement oriented has ever come easily to me. Yet, there I was, willingly entering a dance studio. Soon I was going to class five nights a week and having private instruction. And not only did I find I liked it, but I also didn't completely suck. It has been a long strange journey (that I will share more fully with you in a series of upcoming posts). For now though, I will say it's given me another way of looking at music, and at myself.
Another twist in the road lead me back to theatre. A friend who has a theatre company came to me and said his company was doing a production of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and would I audition for Nurse Ratched. I laughed. For the past few years I have identified as a singer, a singer who was trained as an actor and uses that in her work certainly, but primarily I was a singer. I wasn't sure I wanted to do a straight play. The thought of doing it petrified me. But being me, I couldn't let my friend down either so I stilled my knocking knees and went to the audition. No one was more surprised than I when I was cast. It was great fun to play a woman some people see as one of the great villains. I disagree, and that's another story for another day.
Although at times pursuing all of these things led me away from my first love of singing for a bit, I found in doing them whole new creative possibilities. I can see new ways in which I can combine all of these areas with what I'm already doing, and I am returning to music with renewed enthusiasm. As for doing those things which scare me...maybe it's time to learn to fly a plane...
Nurse Ratched photo by Denise Medve - Penguin Moon Studios
Courtesy of Pioneer Productions