A Householder’s Practice
On any given morning, I may be in my yoga class at the Y, awkwardly arranging myself into some nice, juicy, seated asana in celebration of having arduously completed my standing poses. With a sense of relief, I close my eyes to settle in.
Without fail, my wonderfully aware teacher immediately hollers out, “Eyes open! This is a householder’s practice!”
I sigh, open my eyes, and pay attention.
He is referring to the concept of the “Householder” in Buddhism, the term that distinguishes the layperson from the wandering ascetic or monastic in their spiritual practice. He means that we are not monks dwelling in a secluded cave up a mountain somewhere, devoting the entirety of our days to meditation and austerity and the pursuit of beyondness. We live in the real world, with real jobs to rush to after class, real diapers to be changed downstairs in the Child Watch, and real trips to the coffee shop drive-through next door, because we really forgot to eat breakfast on the way in. As such, our practice needs to be eyes-open, so we can pay attention to the very real things that we need to pay attention to, while we pursue – with the resources we have left to allocate – however much beyondness is accessible in a 75 minute yoga class.
You’re probably thinking that this is all simply fascinating. But what does it have to do with singing?
As is my wont, I shall introduce my point with a story…
A couple of years ago, I started teaching a woman in her late 30’s with a very important and high-stress job, a husband and two young children, and a mortgage and a car payment and a life that she was quite fond of. I opened our first conversation with my usual query of new students, because I like to terrify them right off the bat with my expectation of employing some critical thinking in their voice lessons: “So, why are you here?”
She didn’t really know.
But she had a good idea.
She had just attended a work conference, and they had brought in what many companies would consider a dangerous speaker on work-life balance. This dangerous speaker told the assembly of desk jockeys, code monkeys, and varied and assorted suits that they should figure out what they love to do, and then do it. It doesn’t matter if what you love to do makes you money. You do not need to justify doing what you love. If there is something you love to do, why wouldn’t you do it every spare second you had?
That was one of the best reasons to be in my voice studio that I had ever heard.
This student, earlier in her life, had loved to sing. But life led her in a different direction, and she had not sung in any official capacity since her early 20’s. How had this happened? Now on the cusp of 40, she wanted to incorporate music into her life, without abandoning the life she had built. And specifically, without having to sleep on friends’ couches. 40-year old backs can be persnickety.
If I had a nickel for every time I hear a story like this in my studio, well, I’d have a lot of nickels. As a 40-something myself, I have been slowly observing a redefinition of the mid-life crisis in our current society. It’s not that we want to run off in a hot car with a hot 19 year old. I admit that I personally would rather run off with Sting, and have for 15 years been laying the groundwork for some latitude with my husband, in case the opportunity ever arises. But that’s not the mid-life crisis we’re having. We are simply wondering how we got so far away from the dreams we had in our 20’s, while we spent our 30’s creating sustainable realities of home, career, and family. And we find ourselves here in our 40’s, with two very different, disjointed versions of ourselves – one very ethereal and idealistic, and one very grounded and realistic. If we are lucky and healthy about it, we attempt to figure out how to integrate them into one. If we are unlucky and unhealthy, let’s just say that Sting might be somewhat alarmed by my contributions to his Twitter feed, and there could be a cease and desist order headed my way.
So my question is, is it possible to resolve this creative dichotomy, regardless of age, by incorporating the idea of a Householder’s Practice into our pursuit of Musicianship? Can we craft a way to do what we love, without losing all the foundations we have laid into crafting a sustainable life for ourselves?
Just Get In the Pool
Yes, yes, it’s good to set goals. I am in complete admiration of people who carve time in their day to be disciplined and focused about working on their creative pursuits. But I’ve got a young child and 2 dogs, and some days my greatest achievement is just being allowed to go to the bathroom without an audience. The key to a Householder’s Practice is to set realistic and attainable goals. And sometimes that means small goals. Sometimes you can’t get that 2-hour slot to sit down and write, or practice guitar riffs, or memorize lyrics. Sometimes you have to do that stuff on the fly. I often have students come in to their lesson quite hangdog, with the caveat of “I haven’t really practiced this week.” Listen, if I waited for my students to PRACTICE to come to their lesson, I’d be sitting in an empty studio all day. Have you thought about songs you want to work on? Sung along to the radio? Read over the notes from your last lesson? Congratulations! You’ve practiced.
Just do something. Just get in the pool.
As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, I swim unapologetically with a snorkel to balance my inhalations and exhalations while I do something cardiovascular to expand my lung capacity – in fact, far from being embarrassed about this, I’m something of an ambassador about it at the Y, and lately I’m noticing that I may be starting a trend with the triathletes I formerly thought were judging me for using swimming props. In a perfect world, I would set a weekly exercise goal to swim for 30 minutes 4-5 days a week. But I’m a working mom with a busy voice studio, a band to manage, and two very furry, needy dogs and a family who prefers a clean house and having clean clothes to wear. Sometimes I can find time to accomplish 100 laps a week, but sometimes I just really can’t. And when we set up our goals for constant failure, it becomes very discouraging, to the extent that we don’t want to even try to meet them. If I can’t do all the swimming, what’s the point of doing any?
So here’s my new goal: just get in the pool. I am 100% serious about this. When I find myself thinking, I don’t feel like it today, I don’t have enough time to be productive, I’m too tired or hungry or cold…I say to myself (Self, sez I), just get in the pool, see how you feel there, and then you will have met your goal. And the funny thing is, I do it! And the even funnier thing is, once I’m there, I rarely check it off my to-do list and leave. It usually goes more like, eh, I’m IN here, let’s do a lap and see how that feels. And one lap turns into two. And two turns into five. And I end up putting in however much work I have time for. And I feel like I’ve accomplished something. Not everything. But something. And that’s really something.
Practice in the car on your daily commute. Jot down an idea or two on the voice memos on your phone. Make a playlist of songs you want to learn, and listen to it whenever your 9 year old daughter hasn’t commandeered the Alexa to 95.5 The Party Station. We live in a world of distractions and responsibilities, of smart phones and softball games – use these to your advantage! Hell, I’m writing this very blog post on my laptop from the waiting area of my daughter’s karate class, using my phone as a hot spot in case I have to access the Internet to fact check some hugely presumptuous statement I have pulled out nowhere. I refer to a list of bullet points I have texted myself over the course of however long this topic has been percolating in my mind, of concepts I want to cover in this piece. Other than the time spent correcting the typos I make when I jump three feet in the air every time 9 children scream “HAI!” at the top of their lungs, I’d say this has been a pretty productive use of what would normally be a useless 70 minutes.
Know yourself. Know your strengths and challenges. Know your instrument. What are you capable of? More specifically, what are you capable of today? And in my case, what are you capable of in the remaining 23 minutes of your daughter’s karate class. Dang it, I can get this blog done if I really buckle down.
So what about my student? Well, we sang. And after some singing, feet firmly planted on the ground, we began to explore the possibilities. We started with getting her voice into shape – not necessarily the voice she had at 20, but the voice she had at 40ish, which like most parts of us, acquires both increased depth and increased challenge with age. We discussed and dismissed several options for performance opportunities – choirs, musical theater, bands – as too time-consuming for a working mom, so we had to dig deeper for goals. And what unfolded over the course of time, was that she wanted to learn guitar so she could sing for friends and family and, eventually, extended audiences, and maybe put some of the lyrics and melodies that were floating around her head into musical reality as a singer/songwriter.
So learn guitar she did, both by herself with YouTube tutorials and with a teacher, to the extent that she could accompany herself at a Performance High Showcase. Her debut may or may not have started with an S-bomb exclaimed directly into the mic as she faltered on the first chord of her first song, but she recovered quickly as 40-ish women usually do in life, and her performance was heartily enjoyed by all – both the songs and the authentically profane expression of effort. And even more importantly, she met other student performers in a similar place in life, which has led to musical collaborations, and group open mics, and incorporating music when and where she has the feasibility to do so, within the confines of the afore mentioned Very Important Job and her responsibilities as a parent, wife, and general grown-up. And to both our surprise and joy, she realized that she had always had an interest in pursuing Voice Acting, with an eye towards a later-in-life career shift.
She said the other day in her lesson that she feels like she has found a stage. I call that an accomplishment.
Not everyone who enters my studio wants to be a rock star. But they all kinda are, whether they are killing it in their college voice juries, or summoning the courage to sing a song they wrote to their mom, or just showing up from week to week until opportunities present themselves. With enough desire, a firm commitment to doing what we can, and our eyes open to all the untapped possibilities that come with our unique instrument and persona, maybe we can write our own personal job description of what “rock star” means, to correlate to our own personal needs and life situations. Maybe we can all find a stage and a practice, in order to cultivate a lifelong habit of creativity and musicianship. A Householder’s Rock Star.
I think Buddha would be on board.