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After years on the fence about Facebook, I realized last week that Facebook is whatever you make it, and I posted two questions that happened to be foremost in my mind that day.

One was about musical notation and the other about the ‘maggot scene’ from “Mutiny on the Bounty.” 

From the flurry of comments, I learned many things about both, including these:

“Toasted they taste like pine nuts (I accidentally discovered once when I didn’t sift flour…)” (Thank you for that one, Mimi)

A recipe for Maggot Crisps, written out in full by Kristine (thank you Kristine)

The lyrics to a 70’s band ‘worm song’ (many thanks, Clem)

Also how singers like to see rhythms notated — at least in one specific situation — which is the subject of this blog.

The specific situation is a passage from “Songs of the Pyre,”  a 5-movement dramatic song-cycle for soprano, harp, piano and cello.

I premiered the song-cycle in NYC back in the ’80’s and it’s been on my “Prepare for Publication” shelf ever since — because given the choice between “Prepare Finished Piece for Publication” or “Write New Exciting Piece,” guess which I choose?

This year I’ve committed to releasing the works on that shelf, and I’ve hired composer-and-copyist Noah Brenner to help. So Noah is taking old hand-written versions, digitizing them and standardizing layouts and notation.

But standards aren’t always clear, and sometimes what makes sense to composers doesn’t read sensibly to performers. Facebook gave us the chance to provide two examples and let performers weigh in.

Noah made an A-B comparison chart and I  asked singers to weigh in,  choose between two ways of notating the same line – and to tell me which they preferred and why.









And the comments were all illuminating.  The kind of feedback you could normally only get in a classroom.

And the last one, especially, made me realize that this was an excellent tool.

So, I take back all that stuff I said about Facebook (don’t bother looking for it – I mostly said it to my cat).

If you’re already my friend on Facebook and you’re thinking, “But, hey, I don’t remember reading anything about maggots OR music notation!” it’s probably because you are only my friend, but you do not officially “like” me.

I do most of my posting on my “official” fan page, so please join the conversation here – and if you have a recipe for maggot mousse, I’m all eyes.


So last Sunday…

… after a ridiculously early Sunday morning flight, jazz harpist Susan Ottzen picked me up at the Atlanta airport and brought me to the Atlanta Harp Center, where I immediately took a nap on the floor of the Harp Storage Room (it was like bedding down in a forest of towering harps – really).

Then I spent a rollicking afternoon with 13 intrepid harp players, singing and playing the Blues.

This was a workshop that mixed four things: passion, Blues, adult beginners and professional musicians. And here’s what I love about that:

As adult beginners, the adult part of us has a choice:

We can use our adult mind to strategize a path for the beginner … or we can revert to being a tantrum-throwing juvenile. Both are fun. But if you go for the first, as a musician, you can use your strategic adult mind to simplify music so that you can enjoy playing with others even if they’re “way beyond you.”

Unlike running with people beyond your ability. Trust me, I know.

If you’re a slow runner, like me, you can’t really run “with” a fast runner and both of you be challenged,  engaged and comfortable. Even if you start off at the same time, they’ll be ahead of you within a few steps (did I mention my husband is a marathon trainer?).

But music moves at the same rate no matter who’s playing.

So if you’re a beginner who knows the secrets of simplifying, then you can decide to play fewer notes and still play music together with people of far greater technical ability. Sure, they may be playing 10 times more notes than you (or 20 or 30 times) — but you’re still playing the music together.  The strategy comes in knowing which ones to leave out.

And, by the way, I learned this many times in my life, once from the great bass-player, Rufus Reid.

So I was really excited to have players with a huge range of skills – from Susan Ottzen, who teaches jazz harp – to a student who’d only just had her first 3 harp lessons. So how did this all happen?

I’m working on two education-type projects right now:
One’s called “Blues by the Dozen” and the other is called “Strings of Passion:”

The Blues project is about creating simple, immediately playable structures and the Passion project is about revealing underlying principles.

So one is about learning through doing, and the other is about deconstructing an idea — the idea of passion in performance — so we can find it, practice it and explore it everywhere in our lives.

In “Strings of Passion,” the point is to create an “Enhancement Loop” (I just made that up, so don’t bother Googling it),  where exploring the expression of passion in life gives us insight and connection to performing with passion as performing artists – and exploring passion in performing arts enhances how we live with passion.

In the Blues project, the point is to just get your fingers on the notes, sing, play and have a rollicking good time.  You learn a ‘technique’ and immediately put it into practice.

‘Til now I’ve always thought of “technique” workshops and “concept” workshops as – well, basically as opposites — even though I use a lot of physicalizing in concept workshops.

I wanted to see what would happen if I put these two ideas together in a workshop: I wanted to combine a simple playable structure with concepts of passion and performance — within a fairly short amount of time.

And, judging by the experience of 12 harpists belting out the Blues on harp and voice, the experiment was a success!   

What I discovered was that by describing principles of impassioned performance before we even started learning notes, and by telling just a few stories to put the principles into context, the level of performance in people’s playing was so much freer right off the bat, in terms of physical investment and energy. (And remember, this was a mixed group of professionals and adult-beginners – each of whom have different issues when it comes to freely expressing themselves through music).

So I’m excited to continue exploring this in future workshops and I’ll keep you posted!

It turns out I’ll be doing a lot of this in March at the “Beginning in the Middle” retreat near Richmond, VA.  This is an entire learning retreat just for adult beginners on harp.

I’ve heard about this festival for years, loved the idea and always wanted to give my workshops at it — and 2012 is the first time it’s worked out with my schedule.  So if you know an adult-beginner harpist or a harpist wannabe, tell them about “Beginning in the Middle” – or, heck! Buy them a registration for Christmas!

Me, I’m off to begin in the middle of dinner …

I had a radio interview yesterday morning on WPAZ, Pennsylvania’s  tiniest radio station (“with the biggest heart!”). The station had been struck by lightning the night before so they had to create an alternate tech set-up for my phone interview (see  below).  You can listen to that interview here:


I love the mic placement  at the speakerphone, and especially love that even though I wasn’t there … they still provided morning coffee.

Hey, it ain’t called “The Morning Show” for nothin’!

Radio host Betsy Chapman will also be hosting my “Fireworks for the Creative Spirit” workshop on Tue. Sept. 27 at the Tri-Country Performing Arts Center.  There are a couple of spots left as of this writing.  Here’s where you can get more info about the workshop is and how to register.

DHC & Betsy Chapman on live radio

It's nice to know that even if you phone it in, you still get coffee

RELATED POST:  Betsy sent me questions ahead-of-time (most of which she didn’t ask in the interview) but I experimented with writing out the answers in advance.  You can see the first question “Why the Harp?” here.

Line drawing of DHC playing harp (artist name: "Friday")

Line drawing of DHC by audience/artist "Friday"

I got a set of questions from Betsy Chapman, who hosts “The Morning Show” on WPAZ, a tiny station (“with a big heart!”) in Pennsylvania. WPAZ is co-sponsoring my “Fireworks for the Creative Spirit” next week, so Betsy interviewed me on air. But first she sent her questions, starting with the question I most dread and am most often asked.  So I started writing to find out what my  answer would be this time:

Q: So … why the HARP?

A: This is a question I ask myself over and over.  Did I play the harp as avoidance for writing musical theater, which is my first love?  Because it was an incredible physical challenge, a way I could be both an athlete and a musician at the same time?  Is it because it was an underdog instrument?  Is it because it was so identified with women, and so marginalized in the music world, that I felt like I wanted to liberate it in some way?

If someone had told me it is THE traditional storytelling instrument through history, that might have made me choose it.  But I did NOT know that.

If someone had told me it’s the missing link between the piano and the guitar, with all the double-handed dexterity of the piano but the ability to get right in on the strings and bend them and snap them like a guitar – that might have done it.  But I didn’t know that either.

So I honestly don’t know why I STARTED.  But I kept going for many reasons.  First, the challenge.  Practicing the harp completely enveloped my mind.  The dexterity between hands and feet, it calmed my mind and focused me in a way that nothing else did.  I think that my brain and my body needed something to connect them in that way: something complex and intricate, that required huge physical coordination and physical strength.  I found that very satisfying.

I also loved the excuse to get dressed up in long gowns,  high-heels, rhinestones and red-red lipstick, and I loved that I could pay my way through school by playing in dining rooms — PLUS I got free food.

When I started focusing on jazz, then again was the physical challenge I loved, and the understanding that by practicing a structure, I could eventually have huge musical freedom.

Then, later on, I fell in love with the international community of harp builders and players.  Which is good because a few years after that, I developed this idee fixe: the idea that it must be possible to strap on the harp, play it like an electric guitar.  And that was something I couldn’t make happen on my own.


To start at the beginning of this blog series: AGT Blog 1

If you’ve read the previous blogs in this series, you’ll know that I was invited to compete on”America’s Got Talent” last March in Seattle, I played James Brown “I Feel Good” on electric harp,  was rejected with lightning speed, and received a comment from one of the judges that completely rocked my world, solving a huge personal conflict and leaving me feeling utterly liberated.  But that personal revelation didn’t happen in a vacuum, and if not for one of the other contestants, it might not have happened at all:  

Marylee & me in the holding tank

The day before the taping, we — all the contestants — arrived from various cities to a single hotel in downtown Seattle.  On the day of the show, we met in the hotel lobby and were shuttled in vans to the Paramount Theater, where they directed us to a curtained-off corner of the theater lobby.  This was our ‘holding tank’ and it was filled with hotel function-room chairs jumbled into 20 or so different groups, each of which defined the territory of one act.  Some were only two or three chairs, some were big groups, circled together like Conestoga wagons, some were half-circles or just clumps.

Getting anywhere in the room meant tripping over costumes, instrument cases, food containers and other performers.  All the performers for our segment were there – and were all totally different:  a little kid was sitting nervously with her father, a Punk-haired magician checked his flight case, a transvestite stood in half-drag next to a rack of clothing whispering loudly to two assistants, a dozen or so men in tuxedos lounged on the steps of the descending staircase, a pair of acrobats was practicing on the stairway landing, a young girl lounged on the floor with her computer, talking aloud to herself and then typing, as if she were taking dictation from herself.

Everyone was preoccupied, and anxious and bored.

I walked around meeting people for an hour or so, and then went out to the bathroom and when I came back I saw a woman fanning herself on a folding chair at the foot of the staircase.  She had not  been there before.

Marylee Hause

She was plump, looked to be about my age, seemed dazed, and was gazing around with an almost giddy smile.  Most everyone in the room was in some kind of costume, but this woman wore a plain lime-green blouse, black pants and no makeup.  She looked completely out-of-place and utterly inviting.

I thought, “Oh, there’s someone my age.” Like when I was a kid, and every summer we’d move to a different town (don’t ask why – I don’t really know) — but my job, while the movers carried boxes and furniture, was to go house-to-house, introduce myself and ask if there were other kids my age to play with.  I guess I still do that, so I introduced myself,  sat down next to her and we started talking.

She told me her name was Marylee Hause and her talent was writing songs for dead people.  She said the first song she wrote for a dead person was in high school, when a girl committed suicide in the bathroom.  Marylee found herself writing a song both about and almost in the voice of this girl, and the song helped her deal with the death.

After that, she said, life continued, she got married, became a real estate agent, continued to write songs, but secretly.  Then, the night that Michael Jackson died she had a dream that he came to her and told her to follow her passion.  (OK, I might be misremembering this part – I just looked at her website and that’s not exactly the story that’s there — but hopefully she’ll correct me if I’m wrong.)

That night, the night of the Michael Jackson dream, she realized she had a gift, and she had to dedicate her life to it.  So she started a business writing songs for dead people – songs to give a voice to people who no longer have one – and to give the people left behind a sense of comfort and connection.

She sang me one of the songs she’d written and I – honestly – gasped.  This person she was singing about – and I mean just singing acapella in the middle of this crowded room — this person came alive for me in the time it took for Marylee to sing the song.  I suddenly remembered a girl who had committed suicide in my own school — and the song gave me a sense of that she had been a real person, instead of just a ‘suicide.’   I thought, “This woman could be writing musical theater!”  Her talent seemed effortless, sincere and surprisingly effective.

But what blew me away was that Marylee Hause really cares about “America’s Got Talent.”  She told me she watches it regularly, and when she talked about the show, she talked about the judges like she knew them –  like they were her friends.

When she heard I wasn’t going to perform my own original material, she was very upset.   It just didn’t make sense to her.  Why would a person who has their own voice, compete in a voice that really isn’t them??

Good question.   But if you’ve read the previous blogs, you’ll know why …

So for the AGT audition, Marylee had composed a song as if judge Piers Morgan was dead.  “How brilliant is that!” I thought.

I asked what she was going to wear and she said these clothes were all she had, and she didn’t normally wear makeup. So I offered to put some makeup on her, “Not to change you,” I said, “Just to make it easier to see where your features are.” (This is my personal makeup theory, nothing specific to Marylee).

When it was time to go on, she and I were brought backstage at about the same time, since she’d be performing shortly before me.  By then we were friends, and I was excited I could watch her performance on the backstage monitor while I stretched out.  Well, excited and nervous.

So I actually saw Marylee walk out on stage – which was unusual because most of the time the performers were basically sequestered in the holding tank. She talked with the judges — I swear –  like she was their next-door neighbor.  Then she sat down to play the piano and sing her Piers Morgan post-mortem tribute.   As she sang, a video with excerpts from his life played on a screen over her head.  It was totally sincere, funny, personal, compelling — like a tribute to a man she seemed to know and love, and which — from what I could tell — she’d written in the last week or so specifically for this audition.

You could see Piers morph from almost offended to deeply moved, and you could feel the audience completely taken by Marylee’s sincerity.  And when she was done playing, the audience leaped to their feet, screaming, cheering, and Piers Morgan did, too.  (You can see it all here on Marylee’s website

And as I stood there watching on that tiny monitor backstage, I thought, “Please … do not … make me go next.  How could anybody follow that level of ‘real?'”  This woman had a personal relationship with each judge, with the show, with Michael Jackson and with the dead people she writes songs about.  And that personal relationship was completely her choice – she’d never met any of them.

And she’d only performed in front of people once before in her life (a troupe of Boy Scouts, I think, the weekend before the show). She just went out and did what was most important to her, and the audience fell completely in love with her.

Was she a polished performer?  No!  Was she a young, svelte beauty?  No!  Had she practiced this over and over ’til it was flawless? NO! Was she a real person with a huge talent capable of inspiring and moving an audience?? Absolutely, totally, completely yes.  But only because she was truly being herself.

Which was the one thing I was having trouble doing.

When Marylee’s “Critique Session” started, the judges argued back and forth, not about her talent, but about whether they liked hearing songs about Piers Morgan or not.  In the end they voted “No.” Not “No, Marylee isn’t talented,” but “No, we don’t want to hear another song about Piers Morgan.”  I wanted to race onstage yelling. “No! No! You don’t get it!  The next song will be about YOU!  And you DO want to hear it!!!”

But they didn’t.   She was rejected and she walked off.

Fifteen minutes later I walked on stage and you can read what happened in the previous blogs.  I was buzzed, and the judge’s comments hit me like a revelation and resolved a huge personal conflict about my own authenticity.  But if I hadn’t seen Marylee Hause, Howie Mandel’s comment about my playing would never have had the profound effect it did on me.  In the space of fifteen minutes I got to see a raw talent being true to herself — and professional making bad choices based on fear.

And there was no contest.

In the end, we both were buzzed.  But what that audience saw of Marylee was truly who she is, and what they saw of me was a brief, awkward model of who I thought I should be.  But because of her, I could see the difference, and that’s what I needed.

Later, Marylee and I sat in the hotel restaurant, she very glum with her rejection and me elated by what I’d learned from mine.  I tried to tell her how her authenticity helped me see where I’d gotten lost, but we were both in that zone where it’s hard to see outside your own experience.

I swear I have many times since then thought:  “OK, wait, she’s really a successful songwriter, who’s doing this incognito, right?”  Or, “Oh, I get, it, AGT made up this person and asked an amazing actress to impersonate her on the show …” That’s how unreal it is to see someone so completely real.

As I write this, I have a twinge of anxiety – that maybe she didn’t come across on TV the way she did in person, that the editing might have undermined and diffused what everyone there experienced live — and that someone might question my judgement about her. But frankly, it’s not about judgement.  Life ISN’T a talent contest and we’re NOT celebrity judges.  We fall in love with someone or we don’t, because they speak to our spirits through their art or they don’t.  That entire audience, me included, fell in love with Marylee Hause.   And the person they fell in love with is really who she is.

We were both rejected, and we both went down, but Marylee went down as herself —  and I saw that  if you do go down for who you really are,  you’re still shining the whole the way.  And that’s a light that people can see you by.

Marylee … Thank you.  You can pretend I’m dead any day.

(You can watch the video of Marylee at her own website or on the ‘official’ AGT Video site.  I don’t know how long they’ll stay on line, so apologies if they’ve been removed)

Marylee on AGT

UPDATE: On Oct. 1, 2011 – Marylee Hause joined Deborah for a special cameo appearance on Deborah’s show in Denver, CO. 

Deborah & Marylee after the concert in Denver

Marylee & DHC On-Stage

Marylee & DHC On-Stage

To start at the beginning of this blog series: AGT Blog 1
To read previous blogs in this series: Blog 1    Blog 2   Blog 3 (the first part of this story)

The story so far, in a nutshell:  I was invited to compete on “America’s Got Talent” last March in Seattle, I played James Brown “I Feel Good,” was buzzed to rejection with lightning speed, and the show aired a few days ago.  The previous blog tells about how I prepared for the contest, which started as an adventure and a creative research project, but quickly became conflict-in-microcosm for a serious conflict playing out bigtime in my ‘real’  life.

Listening to Howie Mandel lay in on the line for me

We lose ourselves and we find ourselves in the most unexpected ways.

By the time I walked onto the AGT stage, my 90-second performance of James Brown’s “I Feel Good” represented the entire struggle between buying the idea that who I am as an artist is fundamentally unmarketable — and believing that “sellable or not –  this is who I am and this is what I do.”

It hurts that I still struggle with that after years as an artist, and that I still find myself at times unable to stand up for the artist I am — notwithstanding the fact that I still can’t articulate what that is.  But this is why artists have managers in the first place: the greatest managers – like the greatest directors, or producers or teachers – fight fiercely to keep revealing who that artist really is, particularly to the artist — but also to the public.

Without that support, there’s a constant conflict between trying to maintain (while still discovering) ones’ individuality — and thinking that each glitzy new mold we could pour ourselves into might bring us ‘real’ success, not the fake kind we have.  Maybe other artists are more self-realized.  Me? I struggle with that every day.

But why play that conflict out on National TV?

If I was a more cosmic-type, I’d say that I needed that kind of floodlight to see it myself.

In any case, there I was, backstage at “America’s Got Talent,” deeply conflicted, unable to even verbalize the conflict to myself, and wearing blue-sequins.  By then, I’d totally committed to trying it my producer’s way – actually, I didn’t think I had a choice – I’d bought the idea that performing the way I actually perform was not only certain to fail — but was actually against the rules.  And I was only vaguely aware of my original purpose, which was to go through this as research for my musical.  I had totally bought in to the game.

So, I walked out on stage and launched into my James Brown routine, which started intentionally bland and underwhelming, and which would build over 90 seconds to a spectacular climax.

Only I never got beyond the first 10 seconds.  All 3 judges buzzed me almost simultaneously, which meant, that the power to my harp was also cut.   “Woah, that was fast,” I thought.

But it wasn’t over, because now the judges had the microphone.  “Well, first of all,” one of them said – and I can’t remember who — “first of all, you’re not a singer.”

“Right,” I said, wondering why anyone would think I was, not realizing that right there was a huge disconnect.

Then Howie Mandel leaned up to the mic. “You say,” he said, “that you want to show the world what this instrument can do.  But what you’re doing is just a gimmick.”

And the second he said that, all the chatter in my head stopped and the whole struggle became clear. Every bit of it, from the reason I was playing this piece to the way I was playing it.  “That’s it!!!” I thought. “That is the WORD! This approach IS a gimmick!!”

And the next second I was flooded with relief. “My god,” I thought “My god! I just got saved from a year of going down the wrong road!!!”

So I floated off the stage, and into a bank of cameras, with interviewers asking, “Is there anything you regret? What do you wish you’d done differently out there?”  And all I could think was, “‘America’s Got Talent’  just saved my life!!”

So anyone who thinks that I felt bad being rejected on National TV, has it completely wrong.  That moment was transcendent.

Later, when I started realizing how caught up I’d become in my own self-doubt, and that I’d still have to explain to my producer-friend that the Classic Rock Orchestra Harp show wasn’t really me;  and when I knew I’d be on national TV in a way that was less-than-impressive  – OK, that didn’t feel so great.  But the moment of revelation was exquisite.

I wanted to write about it.  I wanted to talk about it.  But of course, I couldn’t.  We all had to keep completely mum until the show aired, which was last week.

When it did air,  I kind of hoped my entire performance would be cut – but it wasn’t – there was still enough there to disappoint the people who love what I do — and it hurt to know that they were disappointed.   But now that it has aired, and I can finally write about the experience, it’s a huge relief.  And I realize that that moment of clarity, that was so strong when Howie Mandel laid it on the line, that clarity has blurred a little in the past months, and writing about it brings it back into focus.

So … as a research project for my ‘ultimate game show musical’ (see blog #1) my experience on “America’s Got Talent” went beyond my wildest hopes.  And in the next few blogs I’ll talk about the amazing, committed people I met on the show.

I also know now that this experience will become part of my own shows. But there won’t be any judges in that audience, just a whole lot of human beings who have all, at some point or other, opened themselves up to ridicule by reaching imperfectly for who they are.

And you know what I’m going to do?  You guessed it – pull out my harp and play my 90-second version of James Brown “I Feel Good.”

We lose ourselves and we find ourselves in the most unexpected ways.  And it does feel good.

Stay tuned for next AGT blog:  Standing in Stark Contrast (or whatever I end up calling it) – The Authenticity of Marylee Hause.

If you haven’t read the first parts of  this blog series about my adventure on “America’s Got Talent,” they’re here:   Part 1,   Part 2

To recap the story:  I was  invited to compete on  “America’s Got Talent”  last March in Seattle, played James Brown’s “I Feel Good,” and was buzzed (rejected) with  lightning speed.  The show aired a few days  ago.

Malik Williams coaching me on James Brown

So, yesterday a friend  sent me the thread of a blog forum about my AGT performance that read:  “Yes, it’s important for  a professional musician to be flexible, but also to know where to draw the line so that one’s dignity is not compromised.  For example, singing and  playing James Brown’s “I Feel Good” on a national televised talent show may  actually make you feel not so good afterward…”

Hmm… well … in fact, I felt elated afterwards.  And my dignity … I’d compromise it  any time to get at the truth.  But I probably need to put this all into context, so first off, here are the 3 things that wove the backdrop for that moment:

1. Years ago I was signed to a record label, GRP, that had a specific ‘sound.’  For three years we struggled, them trying to make my music sound more “GRP” and me trying to sound like myself. When I looked back years later, I often thought, “If I did that again, I’d put myself utterly in their hands, just to see where the ride would take me.”

2. Since 2009 I’ve been working on a musical called “In the Wings (or “What the Hell are you doing in the Waiting Room for Heaven?) about the ultimate game show — to win a place in the heavenly choir (see AGT blog #1)

3. For the past year I’ve been in conflict with myself about a project a producer-friend wants me to do.  He wants me to develop of Classic Rock harp program for orchestra, something that would take at least a year to put together, with no guarantee that it would be either artistically or financially successful  His motivation is that it would be easier to sell me in that package, not that the project would deeply resonate with my own artistic values.

These all form the background of my experience with AGT which began earlier this year with an email from my agent saying “America’s Got Talent” invited you to audition” — and not just to audition, but to skip over preliminary rounds and go straight to the TV round.  My first thought was, “Why would I ever want to do that?”  My second thought was, “What an incredible opportunity to learn about high-pressure talent shows.”

So to my agent’s surprise I said, “Sure, what the heck?”

Malik straps on the harp himself

Once I realized it was actually happening, I started calling other friends who’d been on the show to ask for advice.  They told me to expect a lot of pressure from AGT producers to “game” the show by playing familiar music (subtext: DON’T play your originals) —  and a lot of hype about how good my chances were.   I’m not great in situations like that so I asked this producer-friend (the one in #3 above) to run interference for me,  and play the role of manager during the negotiations, which he kindly agreed to do.

I thought I was really smart to buffer myself like that, until my next phone call with him.  Because suddenly HE was pressuring me to put together a list of pop-tune covers for AGT, HE was telling me I was being difficult and unreasonable, and HE was seriously questioning the validity of my insistence that I should play an original.  So instead of dealing with pressure from an unknown AGT producer, I was dealing with it from someone I really like and care about — and NOT dealing with it well.

When I said I couldn’t come up with a list of five current pop tunes I could convincingly play on electric harp in a nationally -televised contest, he said, “What’s so hard about that???  It’s easy!  Look, I’ll sit down with you and tell you what tunes to play. I could do it in five minutes.”

And before you fault him for this, remember he really thought he was doing the best for me:  He saw what I’ve been able to do with the harp.  He saw the rock energy in my playing and — I  gotta love him for this — he thinks I can do anything.  It’s not his fault that he loves rock, wants to see me play it, knows how to promote it, and would have LOVED for me to get National TV exposure successfully playing a well-known cover.

But I didn’t know how to hold my own in the face of his certainty about what I should be doing.  I didn’t know how to articulate the fact that embodying the artistic spirit of an art form is totally different  from being able to convincingly play standard repertoire.   Yes, my performances are informed  and inspired by the spirit of many genres and artists from Jimi Hendrix to Guiseppe Verdi, but I play very little standard repertoire from any genre, and when I do it takes  years for me to make it my own.

So HE was saying, “Here’s what you have to do to win.”

I was saying, “But … but … but … but ….”

And NOBODY was saying:  “Look, just be as genuinely YOU as you can be – and if you fail, fail as YOU.”

I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t say that for myself, since it was the first and most important lesson my teacher John Swackhamer taught me over 30 years ago  at U.C. Berkeley (along with “If you play faster than you can, it just sounds like mush, so slow down.”)

We just start having fun

And while it’s easy for me to see all this now, in that moment – a week before the show, when I finally knew for sure I was going to Seattle to compete, and that I’d play James Brown (and, trust me, it was waaay closer to anything I actually can do well than the other options I was given) — by then I’d lost my center:
– I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to go on the show because I knew it was a precious research opportunity for my musical.
– And I knew I was miserable, but I didn’t know whether it was because I’m unwilling to make the sacrifices that would make me a more marketable musician, or because I was being expected to do something that simply isn’t me.

The truth is that knowing “who I am” as an artist seems to be taking me a lifetime, and figuring it out sometimes means taking on roles that don’t ‘feel’ like me for a while.  It’s hard for me to decipher the difference between the discomfort of molding myself into something I’m not, and the discomfort of pushing myself to greater authenticity. They’re both uncomfortable.

And since I often can’t tell which is which, the difference between getting lost and finding myself isn’t immediately clear to me a lot of the time.

I want to be clear that I really enjoyed working on James Brown, once I committed to it.  I loved the process of  trying to figure out how to translate a full James Brown ensemble onto solo electric harp, I loved working on my singing with producer Malik Williams, and working on the structure of the audition piece with a performer-friend who’s been on AGT several  times and with whom I’d agreed on a consciously risky strategy to build the 90-second competition piece from something that was intentionally underwhelming in the first 10 seconds, to something bigger-than-life at the end.  All of that was great, fun.

But when I walked onto the “America’s Got Talent” stage — the real competition was in me, churning and  unarticulated — the competition between being the artist I am and trying to be a ‘marketable’ artist; between ‘doing what I uniquely do’ and embracing the opportunities of a new experience.

So there I was in the belly of the  beast.  My beast.  And it was time for me to step out onto the stage ….

Stay tuned for “The Path to Revelation” (part 2)…

To read the first blog of this series: Start Here.

Now that many people have seen my 10 seconds of infamy on “AGT,” I’m hearing chatter about why a professional musician would even put themselves in such a situation.  For the many who haven’t seen it (and I guess that includes me, as I’ve been too chicken to watch) – here’s what happened:  I was invited to compete on “America’s Got Talent,” played James Brown “I Feel Good” and was buzzed (rejected) with lightning speed.

Why would I put myself in that position?

Well … of course there are many reasons for it, “Wanting to experience…” being high on the list, and “Hoping to win…” NOT being among them.  

Doing things like this is part of my job:  I’m committed to becoming a better, deeper, more authentic composer, performer and teacher.  That’s my bottom line.  Sometimes that means making huge ‘blunders’ or simply putting myself in situations where my ego is at huge risk.  Sometimes it means going through something awkwardly so that I can guide others with more insight.  I don’t think there’s any way to do that ‘carefully.’

Is it painful sometimes? YES!  Am I going to stop doing it? No.

I’m not in this – the life of an artist – to be liked or to be well-thought of.  I mean, it’s wonderful when I am — but when I’m worried about that (and I do get obsessively worried about it at times) I can’t do my work at the depth I need to.

I need to experience the things I do – to find the deepest truth and connection I can and put that into my work the best I can.  If that means I experience complete failure, scathing reviews, and utter rejection — well, that comes with the territory.  Am I embarrassed or hurt by it sometimes? ABSOLUTELY!  Am I going to stop? No.

Experience is essential.  I don’t always get to choose how that experience will pan out: Was it incredible to stand in front of thousands of people, singing my own music, backed by orchestra when I filmed my DVD “Invention & Alchemy”?  YES!  Was it incredible to do something I’m not particularly good at in front of judges who didn’t like it, and honestly told me so on AGT?  YES!

These are both incredible, rich experiences that are open to me because I’m a performer.  Was it a deeper, richer experience to get a Grammy Nomination than to get rejected on AGT?  No! They’re both incredibly rich.  And … I’m sorry to admit … they’re both painful in their own way.

But why would I only want some of these experiences and not the others?  How can I help students reeling from rejection if I haven’t experienced it myself?   How can I connect with audiences who have at some time experienced humiliation themselves if I’m not willing to put myself there, too, as an artist?

The experiences that make us better performers and artists are not always the same ones as those that give us accolades, or make us appear successful in the public eye.  What illuminates our lives and our work isn’t always – maybe isn’t ever — the glory.  And we need that illumination to deeply express ourselves as artists.

So first and foremost – AGT was a hugely rich experience, and now that it’s aired and I can write about it, I’ll try to paint as much as I can for you of how “America’s Got Talent” saved my life and why I would do it – and many other things you might not think I should  – again … and again.

Next: The Path to Revelation (part 1)

There’s no way I can fit this into a single blog, so I’ll try to write as many as I can  in the next few days.  First of all …

Yes, it’s true I was on “America’s Got Talent.”  Yes it’s true I was buzzed after about 10 seconds.  And no, I wasn’t trying to lose.

Last March I was invited to go to Seattle to compete on America’s Got Talent.  My first reaction was: “You’ve got to be kidding! No way!”

But then I started re-thinking …

3 Contestants in my game-show musical - Bela (Emily Rostykus), Gabriel (Janelle Nadeau) & Eden (Meg Mann).

I’ve been working on a musical called “In the Wings  (or What the Hell are you doing in the Waiting Room for Heaven??)” It’s about the ultimate game-show: auditions to get into Heaven.  I realized I couldn’t pass up the chance to actually experience a talent show like this first-hand, to meet competitors, to see what it’s really like.  Ego be damned – this was a chance to be in the belly of the beast.  The beast I’m writing a show about!

There were other mitigating factors, like it meant I got to go out to the Seattle area three weeks before my show with the Tacoma Symphony, so I could rehearse with the “HarpBreakers” and do some in-person PR — all of which helped sell out my March 27th show.

But actually competing on “America’s Got Talent” was priceless in terms of first-hand experience – learning about the personalities backstage, what people did to prepare, how people responded to rejection, how some people were so deeply sincere and authentic and others were trying to ‘game’ the experience; the many hours of interviews, the second-guessing about repertoire, the people who really hit their mark, and how some utterly and authentically made the audience fall in love with them – and were still rejected.  There’s no way I could possible get this kind of visceral experience except by being there.

And then there was my own personal journey … but all that is to come.  This was a rich and deep and truly iconic experience.  The rejection?  That was good too — deeply good.  But I’ll write about all that in the next few days now that I finally can.

To listen to a song from the musical, click the play button below.

This song happens at the point of the musical when casting coach, Aubrey, begins to realize she’s spent her life coaching others to win, while she, herself, is still watching from the wings.

And to read the next blog in this series click here.

Alewife Station - Bikes Down - Trying the Harp

Alewife Station - Bikes Down - Play a Scale

This morning I jumped out of bed and rolled my harp down to the Alewife subway station to serenade the morning commuters and pass out flyers for my show this coming weekend.

Lately, I’ve been busking in Harvard Square, but since my goal is to promote my May 7th show in Arlington – and since most people in Cambridge think that Arlington is a foreign country and not just one town over — I decided I’d  get my message to people who at least  know where Arlington IS – and the Alewife T Station is right on the cusp of Arlington and Cambridge.

I had to roll my gear down the bike path for a ways and I almost stopped right on the path near Magnolia field – the morning was so glorious – but my goal was the cool carved wooden benches outside the subway station, so I kept going, and I set up near the benches and started playing.

My premise with this street performing is to have one-on-one contact with people, not to get big crowds.  That means I  stop playing and interact with people whenever I want, and don’t worry about ‘missing’ a crowd or a potential audience member – or anything.  Just get to enjoy whoever I’m engaged with at that moment.

A lot of people simply want to avoid me, some eye my setup but completely miss any eye-contact with me, some smile and say “Good morning,” some say “Thank you” when I hand them the “World’s Smallest Posters” for my upcoming show, some say, “Hey! I heard you on the radio!” or “Wait a minute! Didn’t I see you on TV?” or ” I LOVE your shows!”   And a few stop and clearly want to engage.

This morning it was two girls who rode up on bikes with their mother.  The kids were not only fascinated with the harp, but the older one knew that the colors of the strings were significant, played a scale with no coaching, and had … what can I call it … “Good hand position!”  Kind of like … well, kind of like she was born to play the harp.  She then showed her little sister how to play a scale as her mom took this picture.

For me – a great way to start the day.

My Mother’s Day Eve show in Arlington is this Saturday, May 7th at 8pm at the Regent Theatre in Arlington Center. For more show info, click on the image at left.

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