A Story from a Friend

It’s been a long time since posting, but I couldn’t resist the urge to share this inspiring story from my friend Benny Hsu. He writes another blog called Get Busy Living, and he’s been a huge encouragement for me for quite some time. I hope he is to you too…

Chinese Bamboo Tree

When you start to make positive changes in your life, it is not easy. You want results right away. When you don’t, you easily want to give up.

I like the story of the Chinese bamboo tree: You take a little seed, plant it, water it, and fertilize it for a whole year, and nothing happens.

The second year you water it and fertilize it, and nothing happens.

The third year you water it and fertilize it, and nothing happens. How discouraging this becomes!

The fifth year you continue to water and fertilize the seed and then—take note. Sometime during the fifth year, the Chinese bamboo tree sprouts and grows NINETY FEET IN SIX WEEKS!

Life is much akin to the growing process of the Chinese bamboo tree.

It is often discouraging. We seemingly do things right, and nothing happens. But for those who do things right and are not discouraged, things will happen.

It might take years, but if you are persistent enough, you might have “overnight success” that others will see. But in your heart, you know the results came from doing the right things over a long period of time.

The situation you are in right now is the result of the seeds that you planed 5 years ago. Are you getting the results you want? If not, begin today to sow the seeds of what you want 5 years from now.

Remember, if you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll get the results you’ve always gotten.

Get busy living,
– Benny

Trading My Guises for Gifts in Tableau ~ 169

Old and new friends and acquaintances reunite, familiar music resounds, as Sarah Small and her brilliant cast and crew come together once more for another, more private tableau vivant. Set in the Bathhouse Studios in the East Village, this version has both a more intimate audience, set, and feel. The same challenges arise as each of the models hold their static poses, sing, and watch in our peripheral vision to catch the tempo, the changes in harmony by the stringed instruments, and the moments when Sarah Small might float in to signal our poses to come alive and interact.


Original Photo Copyright Cecilia De Bucourt
Original Photo Copyright Cecilia De Bucourt

Earlier in the day, after a few hours of rehearsal for the tableau, interviews, hair, and makeup, Sarah also floated about the set, this time in a Tim Burton-like white dress and half upswept hair. We took our places afresh, this time for a new video concept involving Sarah as an obsession rivaling social media’s love of Justin Bieber, as we literally fall lifeless at her feet. Upon the long-awaited final entrance of a baby in the final shoot, lifted up to the heavens, we all breathed a sigh of relief at the prospect of a little rest and dinner before the performance.

Reminding me of my days of high school marching band, I felt a bit lightheaded but excited after our, “do it again, just one more time” (all lies!) kind of day. What could have possibly energized me so much after a truly exhausting day with little time to stop to eat or rest? With such a different venue from our DUMBO Arts Festival performance, a seemingly small change provided me the first and most profoundly personal inspiration from this tableau vivant.

Rather than enter through the crowd, the house opened to a space full of “sleeping” models, each of us frozen in static poses for twenty-five minutes until a Bulgarian wool-clad Kamala Sankaram powerfully sang “Caro nome” from Rigoletto to bring us to life. Amusingly, Kamala actually made the dynamic a bit louder than usual on her first phrase in case any of the models actually had fallen asleep, but having to hold a perfectly static pose for twenty-five minutes makes sleep fairly challenging. Although I have spent some time considering the prospect of life modeling (posing nude for artistic endeavors, usually classes) in the future, I never quite grasped the difficulty in maintaining even a seemingly comfortable but perfectly still position for twenty minutes or more.

Somewhere between odd but unresolvable back pain and moments of Zen where I actually almost dozed off despite the discomfort, my thoughts began to compare the sensation with the reality of living my life in a static pose of inactivity. Like many Americans, I struggle with the temptation to hide from the cold or the challenges of life in the comfort of my warm apartment, in front of the anesthetizing influence of the television, computer, or other media. Only after I stand up and attempt to participate in living do I perceive the alternating pain and sleepy haze into which my paralyzed state has thrown me.  Doubtless this observation provided the motivation to move slowly away from the television, one muscle at a time, and back to living my glorious life.

Although I’ve re-discovered a much fuller existence these past six days or so, since my first day of braving the hazy shade of winter relentlessly blanketing the city, I have yet to act on another gigantic impetus to change, once more inspired by my performance at Sarah Small’s Tableau Vivant. Somewhere between each palpably quickened heartbeat before singing “C’est l’amour vainqueur” from The Tales of Hoffmann, a familiarly impish spirit of adventure washed over me as I decided to wait longer than I could seemingly bear in the silence before beginning my first note in the nude. Similarly, at the end of an ever-present and confidently sung aria with no clothes nor poorly-acted pretense, I enjoyed my final high note in suspended time, without fear or reservation, before coming back down to end the piece and tableau.

Afterwards, as we descended past the grateful audience down the frigid staircase to return to our fully-layered lives, I chuckled with an unusually cogent confidence upon the realization of a truly impressive feat. “Why,” I thought, “would I ever feel afraid or self-conscious at auditions when I know I can do something this amazing so expertly?” Those of you who have read my writing more than once or know me personally understand that while I must regularly promote myself as a performer, such self-assurance does not greet me readily when I rise each morning. For this I have to work so hard, such that I failed to attempt a single audition last month, even after agreeing with colleagues to apply for at least five monthly.

Yet somehow, performing with a roomful of dedicated and similarly vulnerable humans, without a single pretense or guise of fabric to call my own, the Tableau Vivant gives me the strength and faith to perform honestly and without apology, as the very best version of myself. In my life, I believe I have never received a greater gift; however, the offering each performer and creator lays out at the feet of their audience materializes into a much more profound treasure of creation. About this community at large, the performers within, and the message Sarah Small’s Tableau speaks to humanity, I have far more to say over the next few days. My thanks to those of you who have decided to join us.

Whose Life is This? Day 123

After only eight months of revising the role of Yes Man, pursuing like Alice the white rabbit down his hole, I find myself seriously asking, “Whose life is this?” Tonight, I stood soaking wet on a crowded bus to the Bronx, surrounded by screaming passengers as lightning struck nearby on my way to discuss modeling for a body art and face painting workshop at Frank Bee Clown Studio. Before dying, my phone delivered to me an email from Chrissie Rouse (Program Manager for Sarah Small), informing me that Sarah wants to use me as a nude singer in her Mini-Tableau Vivant next weekend. Losing the blog post I had written for Thursday (now Friday) when my phone died, it seemed every odd accident happened around me this evening. When we finally passed an MTA bus on fire on the third leg of my trip, my mind exploded simultaneously, landing somewhere between feeling overwhelmed and unbelievably blessed.

Somewhere in the midst of the madness of embracing change, I’ve stumbled upon a surprising stability previously unknown. Sleep sometimes escapes me as I try to balance learning new skills and abandoning excuses in my life with actually earning a living and paying bills. With little room for recollection of upcoming events, I rarely know what tomorrow holds for me until just before bed when I remind myself with Google Calendar. Strangely, it doesn’t matter; I feel safer, stronger, healthier, and happier than ever (knock on wood), not in spite of my newly open-minded and action-packed lifestyle but as a direct result of it. I even felt more confident at an early music audition on Wednesday because of the nude audition I performed on Friday for Sarah Small.

Moving to New York City three years ago, I felt a certain desperation to land a full time job or a lasting relationship. When I couldn’t seem to achieve either goal, I maintained the expected “young opera singer” appearance physically and relationally and felt uneasily unlike myself spiritually, emotionally, and mentally. Now even I sometimes don’t recognize my life on the outside! Yes, actor and singer still dominate my career definition and personality, but nude model? Skydiver? Puppeteer who likes to frequent social media events? Musical theater singer and member of Actor’s Equity?

I love it! Internally, I have never felt better, and the energy I’ve gained opening up my life to so many new possibilities leaves me breathless and yearning for more. A chronic abuser of excuses, I used to fear the unfamiliar and sometimes still do; yet, somehow change has become my constant, and that gives me more peace than I could have ever expected to feel. My advice to anyone still afraid of change (including myself as I prepare to sing, nude, for an audience on the 25th of September):

  • Acknowledge your weaknesses (including fear)
  • Realize that you can almost always find a way to overcome or subvert them.
  • Make a plan that will inspire you to seek change beyond your excuses. I chose writing with a goal each day to leave my comfort zone. Milton Sheppard started a clown studio in the Bronx to teach others how to bring joy to their own lives and the lives of others while earning a living. My talented friend David Michael continues to learn to master photography and creates a new business for himself on top of his opera career while helping to raise his family. To each his own. Find yours.
  • Keep going. Phyllis Greene, at ninety, writes a blog to keep life joyful and productive during hospice care.

I have a lot to learn. Life presents its difficulties, and one never knows the future. Somehow, direction changes everything though, and optimism enters my mind even at the end of this bizarre and never-ending day. May tomorrow always be as fruitful .

Pressure vs the Talent Code, Day 106

For those of you following the New York Circus Arts story, the general manager has decided to revise the intro course to again include a trapeze introduction as advertised, until the expiration of all purchased Groupons. Score one for Groupon’s customer service department and the little people! Seriously, many thanks to NY Circus Arts for respecting your customers so much to have made this change.

Meanwhile, I have worked vigilantly to respect my voice during a rigorous rehearsal, recording, and performance week. The first step? Letting go of foolish pride and allowing a good friend to help me install my air conditioner. I hate the cold almost as much as electric bills, but when allergies threatened my vocal health, I caved out of desperation. How else could I visit with friends, sing a ninety-minute Beethoven masterpiece several days in a row, record a song tomorrow for Leat‘s puppet film, perform a Duruflé solo on Sunday morning, and carry out four consecutive opera rehearsals, all before next Friday?

Thankfully, I have a wonderful teacher whose technique has kept me singing incredibly well during allergies that years prior would have once forced me into vocal rest. Since he also recently recommended Daniel Coyle‘s book, The Talent Code, I now also see each ninety-minute Beethoven performance as the perfect opportunity to deeply practice the ideal breath flow and vowel production to keep pressure off of my vocal cords while producing an optimal sound and volume at each moment. Although I don’t at all agree with one point in Tommasini’s review that concert master Glenn Dicterow ever sounded shaky, I definitely agree that this sometimes feels an “exhausting and treacherous work.”  Not so with a newfound deep-practicing perspective.  Best of all, it keeps me connected and creating in each moment, and I actually feel better by the end of each performance!  Craziness.

The pressure cookers of summer in New York City, the path I’ve started with my blog, and even an unusually productive period like this could threaten my health and my sanity.  Instead, I’ve decided to take a page from The Talent Code and push myself just past my limits so that I could possibly fail or make a mistake, within reason.  According to Coyle, opportunities for heightened focus and challenging moments create opportunities to learn well and achieve greatness in one’s chosen field.  Vocally, I definitely see results.  In my life, I just have to decide in which areas I can go beyond the boundaries and in which I should concede to my well-being.  For tonight, first write, then sleep, then puppetry and Beethoven.

A Discipline-Paved Awakening, Day 88

Who has a healthy way to lose six pounds in eight days?  Hopefully, eight days from now I’ll have the ability to prove that I do.  Medically necessary?  No, not at all.  On the other hand, I will shortly continue opening up my career even further into the realm of, “Oh crap, if I really want to be competitive here, I’d better lose some weight.”  Despite my best intentions to increase the number and scope of my auditions, I have only attended a small handful of them since receiving my first Actor’s Equity union card almost six months ago.  When I opened my mailbox this week to find my renewed card, I realized how much I really do need to speed up the process and take some serious leaps.

Deciding to begin the jump by flying out to my photographer to get new headshots, I booked a trip for next Thursday, realizing only in retrospect that I hadn’t reached the weight loss goals I’d set for myself for theater and potentially film or television work.  I could have postponed until August.  Instead, I picked up some protein powder last night, hit the gym incredibly hard in a way I haven’t in years, and started a very strict diet that had me seriously appreciating tonight’s dinner when I finally sat down to a moderately full meal.

Surprisingly, the intensity I reached over the last two days has already energized me and made me more optimistic about life and people in the city in general.  Perhaps the increased exercise-induced dopamine has helped.  As much as I love living here, I do feel overwhelmed often and occasionally judgmental when some unaware stranger walks into me in the street or sits practically on top of me on the subway.  My crowded gym provides no exception, and I usually try to exercise in the morning or early afternoon so as to avoid the crowds.  Because of my still pathetically late sleeping schedule, I forced myself to Planet Fitness far later than usual both nights and happily discovered at least a temporary preference for the crowd.  Instead of waiting alone for my next set on the weight machines, I took turns with willing strangers happy to alternate sets with me.  I even discovered the free fitness trainer on the floor and introduced myself to Juan, who seemed willing and able to give me and anyone else appropriate advice about certain exercises or machines.  I never noticed him before, under the din of my focused exercise and ipod listening.

Thanks to an inspired friend, I also turned off the din of my television in lieu of a great Skype call.  Usually preferring to chat or text to “save my voice,” I perhaps have distanced some of my friendships more than I would like.  Television provides a false sense of connection to the world, so I tend to seek less real communication as a result.  I know I need to reprioritize, but it rarely lasts.  On this occasion, I have made a deal with this friend that if he cuts down on the number of cigarettes he smokes in a day, I will shorten my TV-watching time and talk on the phone or on Skype more often.  That to me seems a worthy goal I will not likely neglect.

Since partying with and then mourning Lost (has it really ended?), I really did pick up the torch of discipline in a very fervent way.  Please don’t worry or think I’ve leaped into the twilight zone or off the deep end.  Tomorrow, I have every intention of jumping in the other direction, but with friends and a crazy party in addition to my serious fitness and food regiment with less television.  Which party?  For that we wait.

How Can I Keep from Singing? Day 76 (16 of 25)

I did something tonight that I haven’t done in a very long while.  Why did I stop for so long?  Perhaps because I live in New York City, perhaps because I aged.  Either way, between cramming a South Pacific song in my head all day for an audition, seeing a bold and moving performance tonight, and generally a recent thorough enjoyment of life these days, I sang – outside in Washington Heights.

As a child, I used to walk, skip, or run around my neighborhood singing random songs.  Having lived in village in Ohio at a young age, I doubtless developed a sense of freedom around the mostly empty streets and carried that to my next neighborhood in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, more populated but still suburban.  Actually making up songs, I had a fantastic outlet for emotional expression, and no stranger ever really seemed to notice or complain.  In fact, I might have preferred it otherwise, since I specifically remember singing “On My Own” from Les Miserables, convinced that one day some Broadway director might drive by in his car and “discover” me.

Thankfully, it would appear I have discovered myself these days, and I have felt more stable and happier than ever this year and even more, as of late.  Apparently allowing that joy to creep in tonight, I prepped for tomorrow’s audition with a very silly, mostly quiet rendition of “A Wonderful Guy,” truly feeling as “corny as Kansas in August.”  I tried to avoid singing within one hundred or so feet of anyone, but that involved walking around the circumference of Bennett Park on a very funny path.  A little uncomfortable and potentially embarrassing, yes.  Silly?  Definitely.  Nevertheless, seeing the Empire State Building in the distance, singing South Pacific, I felt happier and more inspired than I have in a long time.  If I can carry that into tomorrow’s audition, I can imagine no better preparatory exercise.

For this I owe a debt of gratitude to my dear friend Nicholas Hay who brought me to see an incredibly inspiring Thomas Quasthoff in recital at Carnegie Hall tonight.  Thomas Quasthoff, an amazing bass-baritone with a stunning voice and a physical disability due to his mother’s use of Thalidomide, reminds me so much of recent readings from Eckhart Tolle‘s A New Earth.  Specifically, he once said in an interview with The Guardian, “In any case, who is really not disabled? I am in the lucky position that everyone can see it. But if you are never happy, if you are only concerned about money or success, this is in my opinion also a kind of disability.”

Tonight, in my opinion, Thomas Quasthoff had no disabilities in the least.  First and foremost, he had no reservations.  This man performs as himself, addresses the audience directly, genteelly, and with a fantastic sense of humor as if we were to attend a concert in his living room.  Oh, that we could all perform so truly as ourselves!  When the audience inappropriately applauded between songs within a set, he said, “I would be very pleased if there were no applause between the songs.  After, yes.”  Later, returning from the intermission to see several people crossing in front of the first row of seats after he had already taken the stage, I watched as the performance briefly turned into a comedy routine.  “Take your time.  Anybody else want to cross here?  Okay, my flight leaves tomorrow, so you can relax.”

Relaxing indeed, and so musically executed, his concert charmed me into an instant fan.  With an elegant performance of Schubert, Brahms and the Frank Martin Sechs Monologe aus Jedermann, Thomas Quasthoff and his stunning pianist Justus Zeyen delivered a moving and enlightening program of song.  Quasthoff’s first low note shocked me, as his higher register seemed so skillfully approached that I didn’t imagine he might also have such a full and unimpeded lower range.  Indeed, his overtones rang as clearly as his masterful diction through Carnegie Hall with utterly resonant depth.

Admittedly admiring his fantastic breath management, I listened intently as Thomas Quasthoff caressed every phrase in tandem with Justus Zeyen, both of whom had such a mastery of phrasal tension and release.  Zeyen supported Quasthoff with an energy that never overpowered, even as he perfectly placed even the syncopation in a way that wholly complemented the line of the phrase without ever interrupting the singer’s expression.  Overall, I could not have enjoyed myself more and agreed with the enthusiastic masses as we stood and applauded gleefully after his third encore (before the second, he said, “If you want to go home, tell me.”).  In truth, how could I not sing in response to such a lovely day and an inspiring concert, even if in the streets of Washington Heights?

A Lesson from House, Day 74 (13 of 25)

In the first episode of the current season of House M.D., Dr. Gregory House bitterly replies to his therapist, “Successes only last until someone screws them up. Failures are forever.”  When a smart performer looks back at even her incredibly fortunate and blessed life, doubtless she will discover more auditions than jobs, countless days of falling off the wagon of disciplined practice, an actual fall or two onstage, a forgotten line, and perhaps even a nightmare about arriving to an audition or recital unprepared.  I actually once attended a party with a group of actors who went around the room taking turns to tell stories of their performance anxiety dreams.  Few events have amused me more.

We all make mistakes.  Later in that same episode, entitled “Broken,” House also says, “We’re all pathetic. It’s what makes everything interesting.”  Indeed.  When we honestly commit to our character, our music, and our lives, we take an incredible risk of opening ourselves up to the possibility of failure.  Perhaps I might miss a note when daring in a newer piece of music to follow the conductor intently.  In listening to your scene partner, you could possibly take the action to an unexpected place and accidentally derail the performance.  We all might enter into the wrong relationships or friendships now and then and get hurt or unintentionally cause someone else pain.

Occasionally, I have wondered if fear of failure or even success has kept me from pursuing my career with the fervor that ought to follow a lifelong dream of acting and singing.  I have often found myself lingering upon my prior failures in times of less discipline or more numerous rejection letters, rather than allowing myself to rejoice in my accomplishments.  So tonight, I attempt the unthinkable and rejoice in my accomplishments from this week.

Replying diligently to my emails, I have scheduled auditions and opportunities to network and have completed requests for music and bios prior to their deadlines.  Still attempting to lose a little weight but not quite on schedule for my original June 7th goal, I went back to the gym in full force this week, exercising for at least an hour every day beginning Tuesday.  I also practiced voice, working on my repertoire and my technique for two to four hours each day since Tuesday.  In utter honesty, creating and keeping a permanent rehearsal schedule for myself has escaped my grasp thus far in my lifetime.  Nevertheless, between this blog and a much more determined outlook as of late, I optimistically see my week as a harbinger of healthy habits to come.

Does this mean less adventure, less social activity, and less sleep?  Well, this week did add a little stress to my step, as I fought to maintain adequate levels of sleep and necessary amounts of both diversion and productivity.  Admittedly, when other rehearsals begin again and new schedule requirements fill my life, I will have to adjust.  Usually at that moment, the excuses enter into the equation, I miss the mark, and the habits don’t quite have the opportunity to fully form or last.  So what’s the difference this time?  Sure, I still naturally have some fear about failing and perhaps some irrational misgivings about success.  On this particular occasion, however, I have only one thing I intend to give up: excuses.