We all have multiple facets of our lives, and we learn from all those facets and other activities, so why not bring that learning into our work (and general life?).  In my extracurricular life, I’ve been a professional singer, and still perform occasionally.  It is scary and fun, and pushes me beyond my comfort zone. It has also helped me learn a lot about myself, about getting things done, and about letting things go. So, here are 10 lessons performing taught me. These are some of the big reasons I call singing my “free therapy.”

  1. Work hard and then let go.  I have to find the venue, let people know when and where the show will happen, maybe develop and distribute the marketing materials, learn the songs, practice with the musicians… and then relax, focus, roll with it, and have fun at showtime.
  2. Every time is a little different I can sing the same song two nights in a row or two years apart; it’s the same message, same notes, but because of a million little and big reasons, it comes out differently.
  3. Different situations require channeling different parts of ourselves – each song has a different story and set of emotions. My “job” is to convey that story or goal. Just because it’s not my favorite situation or how I’m feeling right now in life doesn’t mean it’s not authentic.  Which emotion and skill set do we put front stage, or in supporting roles, to manage each situation?
  4. Sometimes you have to act a certain way or say a certain thing to get things done – this is closely related to the above. I may or not personally be feeling fear, or excitement, or pride or playfulness in that moment, but others are, or expect it; and we have to say or do things in a way others can hear and act on them.
  5. Sometimes unexpected magic happens –  Working hard doesn’t always work. Sometimes inspiration strikes and the idea really catches on; sometimes, we have to find the flow.  I learned this version of “Nature Boy” just three days before performing it.  The song is one of those haunting favorites of mine. I was used to the classic version and my pianist colleague/friend Nelson really wanted to do this calypso version, but I was having problems adapting to the rhythm. I kept going over it, almost trying to force the timing, worried it was too much in too little time. On the day of the show, I was tired. I knew the songs, knew I couldn’t do any more, and I just let go… and surprise surprise, it came out and became one of my favorites!
  6. Creativity is both inspiration and perspiration – sometimes I have a great idea about a new way to do a song, eg “Cry me a River” more angry than sad – believe me, it can be powerful… and especially moving! But the idea only came because I know the song, have worked on it, memorized and internalized the story, “made it mine.”
  7. We don’t always read the crowd right, for better or for worse – I remember one performance several years ago, where a man in the front row was scowling the whole time.  This was an intimate, supposed-to-be fun, home-concert, so I poured on the charm (for all)… but was very aware of the scowling man.  Afterwards, to my surprise, he sought me out and enthusiastically said he loved the afternoon and my performance.  Sometimes we do the things the audience needs and/or loves, and sometimes we don’t.  A little detachment and doing our best in each situation keep the focus and momentum.
  8. Energy and demeanor are contagious  When you listen to the words of a song, really listen… you hear and feel the story.  When you perform well, you embody that story and communicate the experience and emotion, and others live it with you. When you are listening, your mind will wander to a time you felt similarly and you dwell a moment within that memory and its emotions.  I know when I hear the song “How Insensitive” (Insensatez), I always think about the melancholy  I felt leaving my first love, or when I sing “Part of Your World” I feel my travels, exposure to and excitement about other realities, the restlessness and yearning. And Natasha Beningfeld’s “Pocketful of Sunshine”  or  Pharell Williams “Happy”  never fail to make me smile (and dance).
  9. Music is therapeutic — this one is pretty obvious. When I immerse myself into listening or especially performing certain pieces, I become those stories, I channel them… and afterwards I am cleansed. fMRI scans have also shown that performing and listening to music activates multiple parts of the brain  (and so many ideas and solutions do seem to flow after listening).  In addition, when you’re sad, the Moonlight Sonata or sad songs just feel right…  Sometimes, we have to acknowledge and “be where we’re at” to then move forward. On a related note, who doesn’t feel powerful with “Eye of the Tiger” or Alicia Keyes “Superwoman” (what are some others?)?
  10. Growth happens out of your comfort zone – being on stage is public, it can be vulnerable, people see I’m nervous, they often know when I make a mistake. But all that prep work on my own and with the other musician/s, plus the leap of faith…. and I see how audiences respond to this or that way of presenting a piece, and I get more comfortable with being on stage…and making mistakes.

And here’s the valuable p.s. — trust and this TED talk.

What are some other things you’ve learned from performing? or wish I’d included?