You were a perfect ten, lover
I can't do that again, not another
rambling, soulful man
dead set on executing a plan
(Be real in the void with me)
I got up in the middle of the night to look at the moon
half circle in the sky
shining planets all in line
too early or late for a little more wine?
You were a perfect ten, sweetheart
I won't do that again, can't start
losing myself in the shrapnel
sweet-bitter sounds of your luscious mouthful
Something was off, down at the bar
My storm was brewing in your stars
First very quiet, then deafening loud
I came apart, you closed me down
The strange thing is this sweet relief
I can't do a ten again
But I just might catch a second wind
(Be real in the void with me)
I’m sensitive to stimulation to the degree that I suspect a diagnosis of ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) is warranted. It can be excruciatingly overwhelming. My sensitivity feels like a lethal fire standing between myself and conventional models of relationships and career. At 41, having spent the past 5 years mourning the traditional milestones of American-defined success that I never achieved, I can say with celebration emanating from the marrow of my bones- Fuck Convention. Who needs it?
Fuck seems like a very apropos term here, with its double entendre of pleasure and desire. I harbor an earthy desire for acceptance. I didn’t fit in, so I tried to blend in by disappearing from view with drab clothes and silence. I watched with awe-struck eyes as I watched the socially normal easily interact with each other. Once I discovered the looseness of alcohol in my mid-twenties, introduced by a friend even more shy and socially clumsy than I was, I let it make me louder, and brasher, and more aggressive. The results were mixed. It’s empowering to be a bull in a china shop, until you walk out barefoot over the smashed shards of friendship.
To fill in the blind spots of my social understanding, I relied on art and creativity. Raised by a public music school teacher, with a mother who loved English literature and poetry, I was immersed in music and language arts from birth. I slept in the middle of a circle of Northern California Hippies singing and dancing to Balkan music as a baby. My father had me playing musical call-and-response games on the fiddle as young as age 6. We sang family rounds on ecstatic drives down Highway One on the way to visit family in Santa Barbara, where my grandfather was the caretaker of an apartment complex. The music industry had broken his heart long ago. He no longer sold used cars. He managed the complex for a rich boss, and tinkered with bicycles that he’d sell at local swap meets on the weekends. My cousin, raised by my grandparents after my aunt committed suicide in her mid-thirties, told me that he and Victor would sell fixed up bikes at the swap meet all morning, and then blow all of the money on ice cream and donuts in the afternoon. His mother died when I was very young, but I believe she must have possessed the sensitivity and creative eccentricity that runs through our gene pool. Perhaps it drove her to madness.
I inherited these legacies of heartbreak and hedonism. I chased a career in music that broke my heart time after time. Still- the high of performing carried the ultimate reward for an awe-stuck introvert like me. Singing and writing songs circumvented my social blind spots and allowed me to connect intimately with strangers in the audience.
When you touch someone with your voice, you make a friend forever. You can sing to people in a made-up musical language, and still manage to communicate the common essence of both of your human experiences. It’s all delivered in a handy, neatly-structured package called a song.
I thought I was going to tell you about how breathing makes you high when you sing, because you have to take in so much more air in order to sing well. You end up over-oxygenating to keep a full tank of gas, so-to-speak, and it lights your brain on fire. Singers look like they are just standing there moving their mouths, but there’s a small marathon being run on the inside. It’s a rush.
But here I am going on about the art of song instead. That’s what made me stick with music. It made playing music alone, and with others, a hell of a lot more fun than singing classical arias. My grandmother once commanded an acapella vocal performance for our Oklahoma cousins when I was taking classical lessons. The only piece I could remember by heart was an unfortunate English piece about bubbles and saccharine love. It was awkward for all of us except my grandmother, who thought I was showing off the rewards of her own pursuit of education and intellectualism. I don’t think anyone else in the room saw it that way. The real fun came later when my cousin pulled out his banjo and started singing songs.
But I promised I’d teach you some things in the midst of this ramble.
Singer’s Breath: Increase breath capacity and control by practicing these steps.
Strong, controlled breath support enables good pitch and tone.
Singing saved my life.
Expansiveness. What a wonderful feeling. The wide expanse of an open view. The fields, beaches, and rolling hills of Northern California. The deep blue sky. Melodies and harmonies that build and build upon each other, a choral piece by Bach that continues to add voices until you have 18 different parts all playing incredible melodies and somehow weaving together to create a unified whole. The expansiveness of ideas, the ones that continue to grow and wind and connect random creative dots until a graceful, if somewhat chaotic, web is formed. Stories that build up to a climax.
My parents used to take me on an 8 mile hike at Pt. Reyes National Seashore. We’d hike for hours beside a creek, under the cover of Bay and Buckeye trees. At the midpoint, we’d stop at the wide expanse of the meadow to eat lunch. Then we continued on, back into the trees. At the very end of the hike, we would suddenly come out of the trees to find the ocean waiting below a steep drop. After walking through dappled green shade for hours, the shock of the ocean meeting the blinding sky was glorious, thrilling. We finished our sandwiches at the edge of a rocky outcropping on the cliff. My Dad cautioned- “DON’T GET TO CLOSE TO THE EDGE!”. I’m glad I snapped a picture from the edge of the cliff anyway, to the turbulent waters below, because a few years ago Arch Rock collapsed. The form has forever changed. You can’t escape through the arch at low tide to access a pristine and isolated beach below. Someone died in the collapse. It just doesn’t seem like a huge hunk of rock that’s been there since long before you were born could be unstable, so they ignored the park’s warning signs. Things you think will always be there are in fact completely unpredictable. The world has other plans. Time plays out in unexpected ways.
Mastering the breath technique for singing trains your body to stay in a state of expansiveness.
We are normally not in a state of expansion. Some of us have never experienced it. We sit at desks, slumped, our shoulders pulling our collar bones closed around our hearts. We stand, move, present, run, walk. We are in a constant pattern of expansion and contraction. This is how our bodies are designed. To expand and contract is the natural rhythm of our being.
Singing is a function of breath, speech, and movement. When we sing, our bodies expand and contract. Instead of our whole torso being involved, the energy is focused in the diaphragm. The solar plexus. Our place of personal power. The shoulders, collar bone, and rib cage expand in the first preparatory breath, and then stay open.
You get to live in a place of expansiveness for the duration of your song. The heart is exposed, shining through your stretched rib cage. You open the doors of your heart first to yourself, and then to those you choose to share your voice with. When you commit to the heart-opening process of learning how to sing with consistency and strength, you’ll find things in your heart’s depths that were previously lurking monsters, buried shards of glass, a rusty nail in a fence post. Hidden dangers cause unexpected injury. When mined from the depths, and transformed into the poetry of song, they become beautiful. They assume their rightful place as pieces of creative expression. We are embraced as part of the whole.
Long Tones: Practice the art of maintaining consistent breath support through the whole phrase.
2. Be aware of the expansion of your ribs when you take this full, relaxing inhale. Let the breath connect your throat chakra to your solar plexus. Feel it expand into the second chakra of creativity, in your gut. Imagine that the breath is flowing down the back of your body like a tropical waterfall. Hold the expanded space in your body with exhilaration.
3. For 9 counts, sing one note on a neutral syllable. You might think of the sound “Muh”. Don’t think of a vowel you already know, like “Ah” or “Ee”. Try to create a new vowel you may have never experienced before by relaxing the lower jaw and tongue while you lift the soft palate to create that lofted church ceiling in the back of your mouth. Be curious about the sound that comes out.
4. As you sing one note for 9 slow counts, resist the urge to let the ribs collapse as you support the tone with your breath. Engage the natural strength of the diaphragm as well as any other abdominal muscles that want to join the party. The goal is to sing a warm, resonant tone with consistent breath support from start to finish. Pick a note that feels comfortable in your range. Try a few notes above and below that note. Explore. Stay curious.
Sing in a place of expansiveness.
We connect with music in order to connect to our own stories. Music shows us how all of our stories are connected. When we experience music collectively, our hearts and souls unite through the musical language of melody, harmony, and rhythm.
I attended the memorial of a young artist who’s life was taken too soon by an accidental drug overdose. A friend of his who spoke shared the vision he had as he was preparing to attend the memorial. In reflecting on the idea that we are all perfect in heaven, or on the other side of life, he was gifted with a vision of his human flaws and struggles being a giant ruby that tethered him to this earth.
In my life-long journey with music, the process of singing and writing songs has been the elixir that transforms my human flaws, struggles, and grief into jewels of wisdom, growth, and compassion.
The journey is love.
In working with me in your musical journey, you will not only learn how to play and sing your favorite songs, or the basics of musical theory. You will learn how to sing through your whole vocal range, and how to adjust your physical technique to sing at your very best from low to high.
We will dig out your deep inner love of music so you can share it with the world through musical performance.
If we encounter musical fear, anxiety, shame, doubt, or regret, we will face them head-on. Perspective and compassion mitigate the ill effects of these wounded inner voices, and allow you to move beyond them to sing your story.
Time and time again my students have shown me that this approach of combining deep physical, musical, and emotional elements really works. The goal is a creative and expressive breakthrough every session. We are going for those “ah ha” moments of enlightenment.
We sang long before we spoke.
Delve into the roots of your soul by learning to express the songs that live inside of you.
Student Spotlights: Savannah and Claire
Savannah and Claire both came to me with similar stories of having had a little experience with piano as kids, and a love of singing. They wanted to learn to sing and play, and feel more confident playing songs with other people. They knew a little bit about chords, but didn’t know all of the major and minor chords that are necessary to learn the songs they love.
It’s strange to me that the classical style of teaching piano trains the fingers and hands to play scales, arpeggios, and chord progressions, but does not define for students what they are doing musically.
One of the reasons I chose the language of jazz based chordal theory over classical sheet music fluency is the incredible amount of creativity used in arranging your own versions of the songs you love.
I fell in love with singing, songs, and songwriting early on. It made sense to focus on a piano style that would allow me to accompany myself as I sang, and understand the chordal techniques being used in the songs that moved me.
It’s surprisingly simple to learn all 12 major and minor chords, as well as a few basic accompaniment patterns that give you immediate access to playing and singing thousands of songs.
Within the first one or two sessions, Savannah and Claire had the tools to start singing and playing songs, and felt empowered to begin exploring songs on their own.
There’s nothing more gratifying and thrilling than sharing the craft, art form, and expressive power of song with my students! It took 20 years, but I finally created a form of musical work that is energetically sustainable, and that I love wholeheartedly.
Thanks Savannah and Claire for showing up courageously to dive into the art of song.
I have lesson spots open for my Spring Session, affordable and flexible rates, and a unique scheduling approach that is designed to make this learning available to a wide variety of folks. These sessions are effective in both in-person and virtual formats.
Please reach out if you are intrigued or know someone who might be. I’m happy to spend some time listening to your musical story and dreams.
I write to process experience and feeling. For 10 years when my daughter was young, I gave up the daily journaling I had always relied on to sort through my thoughts and feelings. A nine month long women's circle based in ritual and clearing energy blocks reintroduced me to this practice. Now, I can't imagine my mornings without my journaling practice. I sit in my sun room with a strong cup of coffee and write.
This morning I woke with a line of poetry in my head, so I journaled in poem-speak and let myself play with each line. It was a nice way to write, because I allowed more free drift of thought and the random association of creativity.
Please enjoy this reflection about the solitary artist's heart. As Joni Mitchell sang in "A Case of You"-
"I am a lonely painter
I live in a box of paints
I'm frightened by the devil
And I'm drawn to those ones that ain't afraid"
Back to the fortress of my heart
Cover the walls with Mexican tin
Impressively bright, deceptively thin
Covered with names of past lovers, and the shapes of the stars
Poems to decipher the ways of the heart
My heart and yours, dear
Why I’m alone here
I’ve chosen my songs, I suppose
And men seem to be in rooms of their own
Running scared from the depths below
But that’s where I’ve built my castle, my home
I’ve planted a watery garden with seeds of the sea
The light through the depth is enough for me
Here I listen, dream, and feel
The ocean is big enough to contain
All of my hopes, and each drop of pain
The rocking waves soothe me, they sing me to sleep
I don’t think I’ll ever leave this place
When you come into my heart
You’ll have to face these watery depths
In the life of a siren, the singing comes first
If you sense the danger- I’ve under-rehearsed
So alone here, with bright walls of Mexican tin
I’ll sing to these walls so deceptively thin
And wait for a sailor so foolishly brave
To cut through this fortress to see what I sang
Heat up my body in carnal embrace
Only a dead man will be able to stay
I don’t mind living with ghosts
Seekers and sayers, spiritual hosts
Do you see the-in between?
Will you chase beyond what we see?
A scorpio moon lives in me
Infused with utter intensity
Bring me brave fools, the ones who feel beyond what they should
Who dive like seals
To play in the depths, bask in the sun
My lover and I have just begun
"It’s a message from our subconscious, a place far beyond the capabilities of our analytic brains. . . So, when you start writing a song, treat it like a lover you are trying to seduce, a stranger who you are infatuated with and must learn everything about. Take your song to different places, meet with it at different times of day. Invite your song along to a wide variety of experiences. Stay curious about it."
I’m helping someone write their first song.
She’s a fairly new student and we’ve already had tears and laughter and witchy wu-wu moments together in our lessons. She’s healing some vocal pressure and tension that runs deep, related to a neck injury and some severe anxiety.
Amazingly, as unique as her particular story is, this isn’t an uncommon story line for the people who come to me for music lessons.
Vocal work and musical creativity are healing arts. They can open a portal to the hidden layers of our bodies and souls. I wasn’t surprised to find that we were going to be exploring more than the technical work of freeing the physical voice.
I had a feeling that she might enjoy songwriting. She has a creative mind and naturally collects and creates ideas and impressions. She had written little song snippets before, mostly as jokey jingles she’d sing to her dogs in the kitchen. I believe that if you can write a song snippet- any piece of a song- you can develop it into a song with some basic knowledge of song structure.
I suggested she try to write a whole song.
She took off with it. She started writing song snippets to process deeper and sometimes difficult emotions. I showed her the beautifully concise and precise structure of songs. She began to see how the snippets she was writing could come together to form a whole song.
She even found an app to help her play with a chord progression for the song.
We’re slowly exploring what this song will turn out to be.
I joked with her that she was having her first song baby, and I was the midwife.
We have a first version of the song, but there are still plenty of mysteries to solve.
What will the feel and tempo turn out to be? How will the different sections end up relating and transitioning into each other? What chords match with her melody? Does the melody in this section go up or down? Where does this song start, and where does it end, in terms of the key? Does it modulate?
What does the map of this song look like?
I started helping map out the chords and connect the melodies of the different sections together. My student, understandably, got super excited and for a moment wanted all the answers at once. Does this chord work here? What note do I start on? Is this the right chord for this section?
I thought about my grandfather, who wrote songs during the golden age of Hollywood. He wrote completely by ear. He’d literally dream an idea. He’d spend a year slowing drawing the song out of his imagination and into the piano keys. Then he’d take it down to the club where Nat King Cole was playing and ask him to take a look. The great musicians of that era appreciated my grandfather’s music because he was writing outside of convention, from a dream, with total surrender to imagination and creativity.
The structural and mathematic elements of songwriting are helpful when finishing a song. There is a strong mathematical component to music, which is why many musicians become doctors.
I believe that the most important function of a song is the mystery of its depths.
When we write a song, we don’t always understand where it’s coming from, or the story it’s trying to tell.
It’s a message from our subconscious, a place far beyond the capabilities of our analytic brains.
A song is a dream, the spontaneous energy of laughter or sobbing, the timeless quality of intimate pleasure.
When you start writing a song, treat her like a lover you are trying to seduce, a stranger who you are infatuated with and must learn everything about. Take her to different places, meet with her at different times of day. Invite her along to a wide variety of experiences. Stay curious about her. Let her glow with mystery before you try to figure out exactly what might be going on beneath the surface. Long for her form before you touch the shape of her body.
After all, chemistry requires a bit of mystery, the deliciously uneasy thrill of not knowing.
Eventually you’ll discover all of her secrets, but it might take years. Just when you think you know her, she’ll reveal something you didn’t know.
A song in progress. . .
I finally have a home recording set up again. I've been wanting to play around with this song in 3 part harmony for MONTHS, so I did a casual home recording and laid down some harmonies. It was SOOOOOOOOO fun! This is me basically playing live in my living room. Enjoy!
Love this Phillip Glass inspired piece by Rufus Wainwright. I don't have a Euphonium player handy, but I've got my lips. . .
A song about the ultimate longing. The 10 year type. The one that ties in other songs and melodies along the way. Complete with Coastal Views, Wurlitzers, Stellar Coffee. . . you know, all the good things. It's Chemical. . .
Chemical- Words and Music by Alison Harris
You flew away, freeing my heart
I finally know, it isn’t the start of something beautiful
Oh what a love, oh what a day
Baby to think I was ready to give it all away
We’ll meet again, high as the stars
when you’re fighting to win, the need for a victory is Chemical
I fought for your heart, I fell down with ease
Scraped up my elbows and tore up my knees
Oh what a love, oh what a night
If you’re trying to find me I’ll be in the last dream on the right
Someday you’ll say, give me the key
When the lock has been rusted away and your heart gives in to Gravity
I don’t know what it is about you
I just can’t get enough of the view
Fell so hard, I got proof in the scars
This love is adrenaline, it’s Chemical