Tuesday, February 2, 2016

I Am

Anne Civitano and I went to the Delta Arts Center Friday night to see the Biggers exhibit and Nathan Ross Freeman's Authoring Action. I go to see Nathan's teenage authors whenever I can and always marvel at their high  level of performance.

Friday night was a bit different. 4 authors who had chosen one of the paintings to study, and then written lyrical essays or poetry that applied what they found there to their own lives in contemporary society.

Each performer began by saying, "I AM . . ., in a voice that resonated throughout the gallery. We in the audience were so stunned by the passion in the first girl's piece that we didn't know whether to applaud. But with each performer the applause grew longer and louder.

We heard some great ideas, some great phrases, but what Anne and I talked about on our way home were the "I AMs." We think of the teenage years as a troubled search for identity—wanting to fit in, trying to find where we belong. And we had just seen and heard 4 young people who knew who they were, who believed in themselves and in what they had to say. Believed in their right to be and to say. Believed passionately.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

What Is Creativity? - 32

A few decades ago, I had a voice student who had a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and worked at RCA Labs (back when that company existed) on the high resolution camera that now allows us to see the stitching on a baseball thrown at some huge mph. A most rational man, he had developed a logical plan for creative thought. Before he went to bed, he thought about the problem he was facing at work. The next morning, while shaving, he consciously opened his mind to any wild thought that passed through it. That was often - not always - the solution to his problem.

My morning routine isn't intended to solve problems in my writing - I often get those answers right after I've quit writing for the day - it's just a routine required by old age. The thyroid pill 1/2 hour before breakfast; hot compresses and drops for my aging eyes; a few sips of last night's cold coffee to just get me going. But during that half hour, I often get wild ideas. And I know if I don't do something about them immediately, I'll later dismiss them as stupid.

I had one of those ideas Sunday morning. Last month I had contacted Sarah to ask if I could use her name and age to illustrate a point in an application I was writing. She did give me permission, but said she now had Parkinson's and had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Then early this month I met Christina Soriano, who teaches a dance class for those with Parkinson's and wants to add Alzheimer's patients. Loved her approach because she's able to counteract the smallness in steps, personhood, and voice that is so often a Parkinson's patient's response to the loss of balance. I emailed Sarah about this, wondering if there might not be such a program near her in Philadelphia.

Sarah replied that she could no longer drive. Of course, stupid me. I replied that I'd ask Christina's advice soon, but knew she was going through a particularly busy time right now. Then Sunday morning, with the hot compresses, I remembered that Kristina (I know, confusing, but this other friend's name is with a K), a friend who lives near Sarah, is a massage therapist who used to benefit from lots of different dance therapies. Then I remembered that I'd heard or read the day before that this particular Parkinson's dance program had originated at the Mark Morris studios. And I knew, from research for my dance book years ago, that he often took non-dancers into his troupe. Then I remembered that Christina (with a C) had said she had studied or interned at Mark Morris.

Bingo! I emailed Kristina (with a K), subject "A Wild Idea", with the above information, thinking she was close enough to NY to look into possible training at Mark Morris. The idea seemed so preposterous that I didn't look up the proper website for her, as I would ordinarily do.

Ten minutes later Kristina (with a K) emailed back with the info that there was such a dance program for Parkinson's at a hospital not 5 miles away and she and Sarah would be checking it out.

What amazes me is the process. A bit of research from 30 years ago, something I heard on NPR or read the day before, a memory of Kristina's (with a K) enthusiasm for dance therapy, all of this zip-zapped around the brain and collected into an idea that turned out not to be so wild after all.  

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Poetry in a Tractor Shed

I had wondered, when I first saw Molly Rich's drama students perform in Hickory, why they were wearing T-shirts with Tractor Shed Theatre across the front. Perhaps a nod to the rural nature of that part of North Carolina?

No, their classroom/theatre is a converted tractor shed behind the high school. Here are Molly's driving instructions to the judges of the district Poetry Out Loud competition:

"You will turn in left and ride past the front of the school - go through the gate and around a sharp curve into a student parking lot. Go towards the greenhouse and the red barn-looking storage unit. Go through the wee area at the greenhouse and drive up and you will see the tractor shed and my tan/goldish van. Stars are on the ground and the front door is black and stenciled in white tractor shed theatre." 

Tiny, as theatres go. Warm and full of life, as classrooms go.

9 of her students who had won at the school level were competing for the chance to go to the state competition. Each chose 2 poems, one of them pre-20th century, from the list of 150 poems provided by this National Endowment for the Arts program. 

First up was Howe's "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Ai-yi-yi, I thought. Why would this wisp of a girl choose something so problematic? So easy to slide into that sing-songy rhythm that we all know, so difficult to make distinctive the repetitive last line that ends each verse. She avoided both pitfalls and when she got to the last verse, "In the beauty of the lilies" (a silly, sentimental line), she created a hush in the room. 

We heard "Dover Beach," we heard Dunbar and Emerson. We heard a stunning contemporary poem recited by a wrestler and football player with a magnificent voice—one of those difficult poems in which the individual lines made no logical sense, yet he, and therefore we, understood its meaning at a deep level.

Two great, thoughtful performances, but the winner was even better. 

All of this richness in a tractor shed behind a small school in the hills. 

How far into the hills? After the competition, Julie Kolischak, one of the other judges, and I headed for what Siri said was the nearest restaurant, the Roadside Diner. When we asked to use the restroom, we were directed to another building across the parking lot. Yes, on the corner of that darkened building was a hand-lettered "Restroom" sign. The door to the accommodation was made of unframed boards nailed together, so a bit of a struggle to open and close it. But, hey, I grew up using an outhouse until I was in my teens.
smile emoticon"

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

What is Creativity? - 31

I've been working on a chapter of The Creative Experience for the last three weeks, a chapter about the body. During the process, I wrote out an exercise that I use with voice students. But much more detailed because I wasn't there to watch or listen to the result of the posture changes I was suggesting. That's how I came up with the ideal posture in the first place—by noticing how a shift in a student's hips affected the voice.

When I'm teaching my attention is on the client's body, not mine, which I only use sparingly to illustrate. But as I wrote out each step, I was using my own body to double-check that each shift in position would produce the effect I was looking for.

I was awed, as I am at each lesson I teach, by how beautifully integrated the body is. A slight change in the angle of a foot released tension in my hips that I hadn't noticed. A shift in the position of the torso over the feet released tension in my neck and the back of my head.

After I'd written the last step, I had a teacher-teach-thyself moment.  I was fully inside my body, and fully present in the now. The judgmental tapes from childhood  that I still carry around with me fell away. I've been experimenting with experiencing my life from inside my body instead of my head ever since. It's quite different from any yoga or meditation exercise that I'm aware of. I'm not in my head observing my body, I'm in my body experiencing it and the world around me.

It's not been all fun and games. I discovered an old terror that's been hiding in my body for more than 60 years. A mild case of jealousy that was completely unexpected.

And, yes, I get the irony of learning so much about my own body, after 35 years of teaching other bodies.


Tuesday, December 29, 2015

What is Creativity? - 30

A friend sent, in her Christmas package, a 3-page clipping about  Random International's Rain Room, an art installation. Very popular, with a wait time of up to 13 hours to enter. And to "experience" rain without getting wet.

My friend reminded me, with a note, of an installation we'd gone to at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York a decade or more ago. Neither of us can remember its name or the name of the artist or why there was a sign warning people with a heart condition not to enter, but we both remember the experience. We were instructed to walk into the room barefooted. The floor was covered with 6 inches or so of a sand-like material. The only object in the room was a lighted fat candle on the floor at the far end.

The experience was profound and inexplicable. To describe a piece of art is impossible. I can tell you what was in the room; I can tell you that the effect on me was deeper than meditation. That I was very aware of my feet and their connection to the ground through the medium, and that the candle flame, because it involved the eyes, seemed to bring my entire body into the present. But I can't share the experience.

You had to have been there. And even then your experience would have been different from mine.

I haven't experienced the Rain Room. Perhaps being "in" rain without getting wet would also be profound. The inspiration of the Room was a quote from Thoreau as he saw and heard "the unaccountable friendliness" of rain from inside his house. But do we ever stand in rain and experience it as friendly? Or are we always looking for shelter - the next doorway, an umbrella, anywhere to get "out" of the rain?  

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

What is Creativity? - 29

I've heard some thought-provoking comments recently about discovering creativity.

A friend told me that, when she retired, she deliberately set out to find the parts of herself that had been hidden. "I knew there was more of me, I just didn't know what that 'more' was."

She joined a writing group, made a lot of new friends, was elected to the board of directors. She began to write poetry, setting herself a biweekly deadline to produce a poem or two to read at open mic.

She enrolled in a painting class. That's were she found herself. Painting has become a major part of her life. She looks at the clock—2:00 a.m., and she's still at work. Her work sells. It's selected for juried shows.

Another friend told me she had found her self during one of my workshops. "Presenting Your Work"was a workshop for writers who had finished a book and needed to take the next steps, from writing query letters to agents and publishers to appearing at bookstores to read from their published work.

She was terrified of that last step. She had had a humiliating teenage experience that had convinced her she should never perform in public. Although she had lots of good ideas, she refused any committee work. She even dressed in neutral colors to become move invisible. Now she was expected to read aloud from her book? In front of other people?

She's now agreeing to be part of a panel discussing aspects of her work, and finds she enjoys engaging with the audience. Yes, she'll talk to aspiring high school writers. And she's acquiring a brightly colored, flowery new wardrobe.

It's the use of the word "self" in both these comments that I find so interesting. The implication from both these women was that they hadn't known who they were. And that they now have new identities, new self-images.

Is it possible that we are not who we truly are until we unblock our creativity?  

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

What is Creativity? - 28

Yesterday Steve Mitchell and I were working on our book, tentatively titled "The Creative Experience." We were discussing early experiences of singing, both from the standpoint of singer and listener. Certainly we hear and feel sound vibrations while we're still in the womb. We moved on to early childhood, and the child who sings while playing, not a song she's heard, but her own song, one she's made up. We posited, from our own memories, that the vibrations themselves may have been comforting, almost a subconscious tuning of the self.

Then today I received this message from Meredith Holladay:

"I was grumpy and irritable from my day and had a literal pain in my neck that felt as though vertebrae were catching somehow, preventing me from turning my neck. So I went outside and laid on a blanket under the stars and started toning and making buzzing noises, directing the sounds to the different parts of my body that felt tight and angry. Also moved a little--micro movements with the sounds. In about 30 minutes the pain was gone in my neck and I had free range of motion again. And, without forcing anything, I suddenly had more energy and a desire to sing. So I came inside and just started doing free form vocal exercises and had so much fun that I sat down and started practicing songs again!!

The power of vibration!"

I intended to write a post today about a study which found that singing had a measurable positive effect on the immune system, but why bother with boring studies?