Safety Measures

I admit it. I am one of those…more sensitive types. Certain people, situations and conditions have always had a big impact on me. Growing up with two more outspoken sisters, I tended to internalize rather than outwardly express my reactions whenever I was fearful or confused. Feeling unsafe, I withdrew into throat-fisted, tummy-tight silence and rode those moments out alone.

My young life was particularly complicated whenever someone said I was ‘overly’ sensitive or moody. Those words only fueled my constant struggle to balance my own vulnerabilities and perceptions with my empathetic, engaging nature.

After five years of trying to be a good student, I stopped taking private piano lessons in 7th grade. Between the impatience I endured from one teacher to another who insisted on clipping my fingernails down to the bloody quick, I was chronically humiliated. I was self-conscious; I wasn’t having any fun. I’d often improvise on the spot rather than try to read all those tiny black circles and stems on the page. Piano lessons were a bust. I didn’t feel safe.

It wasn’t until I reached my mid-thirties that I finally recognized how essential sensitivity was, and is, to creativity. Regardless of the form, ideas often emerge from that deep (and sometimes dank) internal chamber where core sensitivity resides.  Artmaking, in its broadest sense, relies on the powers of sensitivity, attention and perception to trans-form a fresh idea into an original song or play or dance or painting or scientific discovery.

Being an artist and teacher has really helped me embrace and channel my ‘overly’ sensitive response to the world.  My confidence blooms as I am drawn to the nectar of transmuting something/someone unseen or uncomfortable into something/someone more fully measured, transparent, and stem-strong beautiful.

Measure is an interesting word in our language. In a musical composition, each measure is defined by a particular number of beats. A majority of Western pop, country, and blues songs feature a specific number of measures comprised of a 2/4, 3/4 or 4/4 time signature (meter) with a steady rhythm that remains predictable throughout the song; other genres and cultures often contain more complex, changing meters and rhythms in 5/4, 7/4 or 9/4 time – adding layers of complexity to the sound and feel of a piece.

In addition to its role in appropriating structure and rules, a measure can also refer to the amount or magnitude of something. A thermometer measures the temperature; a rain gauge measures precipitation; a speedometer measures velocity; the Richter scale measures the strength of an earthquake.

How do we measure human behavior? Not as tangible as seismic waves, is it?

I learned my lesson about this difficult and slippery terrain when I was in college.  After asking several of my female colleagues about their experiences in class with a seemingly disengaged music professor who had inappropriately wandering eyes, I made an appointment with one of the deans. I tried outlining my concerns about this person’s questionable teaching style. It backfired, and I was chastised in front of my peers a few days later by the accused professor who, uninvited, burst into the middle of our choir rehearsal.

I definitely relate to the current drama unfolding at a secondary public magnet school here in Colorado. An ongoing investigation is underway, based on accusations from a number of enrolled students (and their parents) regarding a small group of allegedly abusive dance and vocal music teachers. Bullying, invalidation, passive-aggression, intimidation, and fear-based methodology are some of the actual words used to describe the atmosphere in these classrooms, according to those raising the issue.

For the record, many of the gifted children in these classes have defended these teachers, as well. They appreciate the high-pressure intensity and rigorous agenda that motivates them to strive for personal and artistic excellence. Nonetheless, the voices of those who have felt violated and unsafe are loud and clear. Two teachers recently resigned, and the jury is still out on the others.

Are those whose emotions are negatively impacted by the challenges of this kind of environment simply too sensitive to handle the tough-love that so often accompanies these performance-based disciplines?  Are they destined to fail in the ‘real world’ as artists because they can’t take the pressure?

It is imperative that we all understand the faceted face of sensitivity, and how it manifests differently among us. Where some, under duress, find the inspiration to risk, respond and reveal, others become disoriented, distressed and disappear. How we connect with our own sensitivity throughout our lives impacts our sense of personal safety and reality.

I believe in safety first. As an artist, coach, friend and fellow human being, I aspire to create a safe place inside myself and hold that same space for those I encounter, regardless of our roles or positions in life.

Inhaling and exhaling is a great way to break ground in this context.

My wish is this: that we all learn to more deeply relax; to trust ourselves and one another; to practice patience and kindness; to offer, receive, listen and connect; to open up and explore unfamiliar ground on a regular basis; to expand, grow and shine, regardless of the path we choose.

These are safety measures that will make our hearts sing.

©2018 Lynn Skinner

 

 

 

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Dropping Hints

What a weekend! First it was the glass of water. I was picking it up from the kitchen counter for a sip, and it slipped out of my hand in a flash. The liquid surged out of the tough little tumbler and raced under the cutting boards, paper towels and box of crackers. Nothing was broken or damaged, but I still mumbled some self-chastising words before cleaning up the mess.

Hours later after a shower, I was opening my prized, large-sized bottle of skin-loving jojoba oil. It slipped out of my hand and exploded on the bathroom floor. Caramel-colored, oleaginous goo oozed across the tile, forming an archipelago of scattered shards and jagged glass. The floor mats instantly grew birthmarks and were jabbed into the trash. With rubber gloves, towels, a broom, surgical precision, and a cascade of expletives, I cleaned up yet another mess.

The next morning, I was standing on a stool to reach inside a high cabinet for my daily dose of vitamins. I opened one of the plastic bottles and it went flying out of my hand.  Little gel caps bounced and skidded – in concert with my cussing – on the kitchen floor, traveling several feet from the point of impact. With my butt in the air and my other cheeks pressed against the floor, I scanned the room until I retrieved every single jellified pill.

“What the hell is going on?” I vented. “Three times in less than 24 hours???”

In the mid 90s, I visited my beloved sister, Leigh, in Los Angeles. She managed to set up a time for me to meet a great arranger/composer/producer and former head of A&R at Verve Records. I hadn’t heard the name Buddy Bregman before, but was certainly familiar with some of the great artists he had helped (Crosby, Fitzgerald, Astaire, Lewis, Lee, Merman, Sinatra, Garland – you get my drift).

The day of our meeting, Buddy set aside 30 minutes to chat and then listen to me sing. I enjoyed our conversation, gave him a lead sheet, and sang the Gershwin standard, A Foggy Day, as he accompanied me on piano. After the song, Mr. Bregman looked up at me with a half-smile on his face.

“You have a very nice voice. You really do. Where do you live?”

“Denver.”

“Oh. Yes. Right. That’s a good place for you to be. You could become a big fish in a little pond, but you will never make it big.”

With that, he shook my hand, wished me luck, and escorted me out of the room.

His words ricocheted off my ears and shattered into shards on the floor. With no rubber gloves or towels or a place to dispose of the debris, I simply swept the pile into the recesses of my startled heart and, chin up, moved on.

That is, until this recent slippery slope of flying objects broke open that latent memory. A flicker of recognition illuminated the fragmented remains of my fateful time with Buddy Bregman and beamed them squarely into the palm of these mindless mishaps in my home.

In each of these situations, including my vocal showcase, I hadn’t been present when my very own carelessness heedlessly turned those particular moments upside down.  I was not in my body.

When my mind is full-plated, doing the simplest of tasks gets messy when I am preoccupied with an idea or concern. And, of course, when I sang for Buddy, I was so damn busy thinking about future possibilities (the wiser ones call it being distracted) that I didn’t set my compass on singing a song that highlighted my artistic strengths and originality. I had unconsciously dropped the ball: I had chosen a ‘safe’, well-worn standard, went through the motions, and WHAM! What could have been an authentic and compelling performance smattered into smithereens.

Mr. Bregman could detect the humdrum whiff of my brief exposé a mile away and implicated, in no uncertain terms, what he thought of it.

I believe the universe is dropping us hints all the time. It is our responsibility to notice them. In doing so, we have the opportunity to more fully embrace each moment and pour ourselves effortlessly into our lives.

I guess I’m still learning how to pay closer attention to everything from opening bottles to revealing myself and sharing my true voice.

Coming clean is a good-hearted start.

©2018 Lynn Skinner

Listening

Distractions are a way of life these days.

From cell phones to social media to 24/7 news cycles, our society is barraged with the marketplace, cyberspace, information, defamation, updates, dictates, rumors, consumers, pings, rings,  snaps, apps, weed, greed, projections, elections, collisions, decisions, push backs, security hacks, emotional extremes, corny rhyme schemes…

With so much stimulation, we are actively pulled to the brink of sensory, temporal overload. The tempo of these times has dramatically increased; the meter of our minds is all over the place. The rhythm of our rituals is often slammed and crammed with 32nd notes flagging, nagging, dragging, beating, bleating, repeating, tapping, slapping and clapping us into internal, diurnal cacophony.

I am a person who likes space. When there’s room in my song of life to breathe easily, I’m a happy camper. When I’m rushed or flushed or crushed into a lengthy, intense, distracted and compressed measure, mounting demands and expectations override those all-important quarter rests. The silent spaces they create are gone. My body reverts to survival mode and I forget to breathe.

When we are conscious of our breath and breathing, we have the opportunity to experience our bodies at a primal level. We become the observers of our own physical energy and heartbeat by listening to the rhythm within us. With every breath, we learn more about ourselves at that particular moment. We can shift the tempo, rhythm and vocal line of our being.  The very tone of our existence may change, as a result.

When we breathe, we listen. When we listen, we breathe.

I have given myself the assignment lately to listen more deeply to the tone of my speaking voice. I know myself to be a caring, open person. However, when I say something tinged with judgment, irritation or impatience, I am not listening to the way I sound. I am too busy making my point, dammit, because I want to be heard.

I believe we all want to be heard, in one way or another. Some find a pulpit, a pen, a performance, a protest or a party. Many push their voices in all of these settings by exaggerating their tempo or spin or tone or pitch – simply to establish and maintain a space and place in which to be heard.

When we hear something or someone, sounds are orchestrated through the pinna and ear canal (the outer ear), the ear drum and ossicles (the middle ear), and the cochlea and semicircular canals (the inner ear). Imagine! What an amazing dance of fluids, cartilage, soft tissue, moving bones, hair cells and electrical signals.

Hearing is waaaayy cool, isn’t it?

Listening is the next step in this process. It requires us to pay attention to the sound or words that travel through our ears and, for that matter, all our senses. In fact, those who are hearing impaired can still listen quite well with their other senses and keen attunement to vibration. Dame Evelyn Glennie, the profoundly deaf drummer, is a perfect example of this.

An active listener will focus, participate, experience and respond to everything from the sigh of a waterfall to the thrilling trills of birdsong; from a child shaping sentences to the previously unheard words of an elder.

Listening is a thoughtful, considerate act.  It takes time, curiosity and receptivity to listen well. What once was a communal oral-aural activity, which stored and shared the evolving wisdom of life, has now mutated into the one-sided sport of sound bites, texts, tweets, memes and emojis.

My musicianship has been such a gift. Among other things, it has taught me so much about the rich landscape of listening to myself and to/with others – on and off stage. Listening to the beauty of a voice blooming in my studio is one of my favorite sports. I am so grateful to be in the business of listening.

Beyond time and space and rhyme and place, when we listen patiently and wholeheartedly, we can surely hear the clear songline of everything, everywhere.

Feel the beat. Have a treat. Make your life much more complete.

Take time to listen.

It is good medicine, and the best sonic tonic I know.

©2018 Lynn Skinner

Energeia

1967 was quite a moving year, and here’s just a glimpse of what transpired:

The first human-to-human heart transplant in Cape Town, South Africa; the Six Day War between Arab Forces and Israel; the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is established; the bloody Detroit riot/rebellion lasts four days; the Beatles’ release of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; the 25th Amendment is ratified; Muhammad Ali is stripped of his heavyweight title; the first issue of Rolling Stone hits the stands; NASA launches the Lunar Orbiter 3; the first pulsar is observed two weeks before the great Otis Redding goes down in a plane crash.

Rewind a couple of millennia. In the 4th century BC, a Greek philosopher/ scientist/teacher by the name of Aristotle is immersed in the world of physics, biology, logic, ethics, poetry, theatre, politics and government. Among his forward-thinking beliefs, he holds that time has a value of its own. In his mind, time is not somewhere between the past and the future. Time is decidedly a form of perpetual motion.

Aristotle embraces the active principle of energeia (derived from the ancient Greek word ἐνέργειᾰ), in which the primary role of movement is to actualize something that has potential. As a man of great virtue, Aristotle naturally includes such qualities as pleasure and happiness in this definition of energeia, adding a more metaphysical light to its meaning.

Energeia is an amazing force, whether stored or released, and is often referred to as a ‘power in action’. Whether we know it or not, we are continually influenced by kinetic, magnetic, gravitational, electric, atomic, elastic, chemical, thermal and radiant forms of energy. Sometimes energy is seen or heard, like waves crashing on the shore. Sometimes it is felt, like an emotional tide inside us or a dirty look someone throws our way. Sometimes it is ineffable, like the spirit of a deceased loved one nearby.

In his quest to understanding the principles of energeia, Aristotle was quite fascinated by the mechanics of, among other things, animal locomotion. He studied bipeds, quadrupeds, polypods and footless creatures. He researched red-blooded and bloodless animals alike. No crab, snake, wing, tail or fin was left behind under his steady gaze.

Cesar Milan, the renowned Dog Whisperer, is a master when it comes to working with the energy exchanged between humans and dogs. He has revolutionized the nonverbal language that exists between these species, teaching countless people to practice “calm, assertive energy” to restore leadership in the pack and help resolve the traumatic issues of canine aggression, fear, separation anxiety, and unpredictable behavior. In essence, Milan is underlining the importance of someone’s vibe (a term coined in 1967, by the way) when dealing with these issues.

We’re talking about the presence and power of emotional atmosphere, here.

In our lives, we often mark the passing of time and recount the events of a particular day or chapter or year that is engraved in our individual/collective story.  If we accept Aristotle’s thesis that time is actually perpetual motion, we may be more willing to let go of those more difficult times (experiences, really) that haven’t served us by releasing the mental/physical/emotional energy that has contained them.

As an artist, I am constantly searching for the most open, receptive and responsive relationship I can possibly find while I listen, sing, perform, risk, stumble, write, teach, learn, love and live my life.  It isn’t always easy. I’m vulnerable and exposed in the process, but the energetic depth and power of actually unveiling myself – particularly through music – is worth the cost. When the spirit of energeia is spun into a beautiful tone, a moving interpretation, and a weaving of universal truth, something intangible becomes real.

Living is more than a craft. It is a work of art, teeming with energy that moves through, in and around us. Experiencing true livelihood takes us far beyond occupation. It energizes us with waves of creativity, innovation, leadership, interplay and change.

We all have a choice about how we store and release energeia. These whispering, wise philosophers might be on to something.

Appreciating the present moment with calm, assertive energy has a mighty fine tone to it, don’t you think?

©2018 Lynn Skinner

 

 

In A “Scentimental” Mood

I thought I’d surprise my hubby this year with two dozen roses for Valentine’s Day. I went shopping; I saw an abundance of beautifully displayed flowers. Velvet-hued with relaxed and willing petals, they certainly looked and felt like roses.  I flared my nostrils and buried my nose into bouquets and arrays of whites, pinks, yellows and reds. I inhaled deeply. Up and down, up and down, inhaling and exhaling,  bundle by bundle.

Regardless of color, there was simply nothing there to smell. Nothing.

I stopped inhaling and eventually left, empty-handed and disheartened.

In recent years, many of the roses sold in this country – from florists to grocery stores – are imported from our neighbors in South America. To cultivate their merchandise, these particular growers have created an overly-hybridized rose that is larger in size, longer in stem, and enjoys an extended vase life. These are great selling points. Who cares (or even notices) if the scent has been bred out of them? They look mahvelous. Isn’t that good enough?

I love Duke Ellington. Some of his compositions are as fragrant and complex as a Double Delight tea rose. Whenever I sing his succulent ballads, I swoon over the voluptuous melodies, thorny intervals and bittersweet drift. They float in the midnight air like an evocative, musically mulling memory.  Petals in the wind…

When I hear the recording of a perfectly-pitched pop singer, the original scent of that highly produced performance feels unnatural.  The singer’s voice has been altered or distorted in order to become more controllable, measurable, viable, and marketable – often at the expense of a more organic, less exacting sound.

Industry standard, I suppose.

Love isn’t always predictable or convenient. Sometimes it’s curled around the edges. Sometimes the prick of its uncertainty draws blood. Sometimes it wilts, falls flat, and doesn’t last very long. C’est la vie.

Love, roses and music all have the exotic scent of something living, breathing and real. They are not meant to be fabricated or misrepresented; they exist to be experienced for what they truly are.

On this Valentine’s Day, take heart. Draw in the nectar of roses. Listen to something fresh and untouched. Savor love and all its senses.

Here’s a heartfelt dessert: a clip for you of a sublime Ellington song, performed live by the Lynn Skinner Chamber Ensemble.

https://tinyurl.com/In-A-Sentimental-Mood-Clip

©2018 Lynn Skinner

 

24-Karat

I have flirted with an interest in alchemy for decades. There is something quite seductive and mysterious about the potential of one element transmuting into another.

As I understand it, alchemy is a kind of experimental dance, both scientific and philosophical, between what is now known as chemistry and physics. Alchemy most likely started in ancient Egypt and later peaked during the Medieval and Baroque periods. It has lured scientists and mystics for centuries into an often secret web of curiosity and wonder under the guise of decoding how certain things happen in our human world.

Several historians assert that these alchemists experimented with wax, liquids and powders, transforming “base metals” (i.e. lead) into “noble metals” (i.e. gold).  Others insist alchemy was a more spiritually-based means of distilling and converting select elements (physical as well as metaphysical) into an elixir, whose shining intention was to shift thoughts, open hearts, cure disease or prolong life.

In both camps, the goal was to consistently create a transfiguration in a controlled environment, whether between mercury and sulfur or body and mind.

I recently went to two vocal performances I’d been looking forward to seeing for months. Both groups were highly acclaimed on the world stage. The first production was quite a disappointment to me and my friend. Both of the lead actors were uninspired. Their voices sounded nice enough, but they lacked that… je ne sais quoi …chemistry. That spark. Maybe it was an off night, but it felt like something much bigger than that.

A few days later, I went to hear a jazz singer who had great ideas, innovative arrangements and a lively ensemble. All this said, the vocalist didn’t have much tonal or emotional range, and was a little too casual for my taste. Consistently shuffling sheet music, it was as if the woman out front was in a studio session rather than playing for hundreds of willing listeners. My hubby concurred.

The alloys of matter, energy, breath, sound and soul didn’t fuse with these particular voices at either venue. The consequence?  Not much…je ne sais quoi… molten, magnetic appeal.

I admit I am a professional vocalist and voice coach, but I do my best be completely open and leave my opinions in the studio when I attend a live performance. I love to love other artists. I crave the visceral joy shared by performers and audiences alike when something transcendent happens.

What is this fascination with gold? Why do I seek the purity of this ancient alchemic dance in life, love and the arts? Maybe I expect too much.  Nonetheless, I am secretly looking for ways to explore, create and experience the metamorphosing power of magic all the time.

I believe the attraction to alchemy (from The Golden Rule to a mesmerizing voice) is still alive and well in modern times.

I hope you do, too.

©2018 Lynn Skinner

 

Winter Light

The human voice continually transports us through natural cycles. When we experience the darkness of anger, shame or loneliness, these dispirited emotions scatter through our voices like broken leaves on a river. When exuberance, joy, or gratitude flows through us, light shimmers on the banks of our words.

In the northern climes, today marks the winter solstice.

Here in Denver, we will have daylight for 5 hours and 38 minutes less than we do in June.

Dark times for some of us, eh?

Be mindful of the wavelengths of your tone and how they mingle with the mist of your breath. They can turn language into icy stone or healing vapors, depending on the season of your heart.

Let’s take care of ourselves. The sun isn’t going anywhere.

Here. Enjoy this new solstice haiku I offer you, in quiet celebration of renewal:

Cloaked groom of darkness

Drops the long-shadowed handle

Daylight stirs again

 

©2017 Lynn Skinner