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Talk the Talk

a blog about communications and life

Lessons from Chuck Brown

This past week we have lost several gifted vocal musicians, ranging from the Prince of Lieder, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau , the Queen of Disco, Donna Summers, and the God-father of Go- Go, Chuck Brown. To spoil it for the superstitious who believe in the Rule Of Threes, let me also point out that Robin Gibb lost his battle with cancer this week.

Vocalists are special musicians: the are their own instruments. The upside is you don't have to pay for extra space in the baggage compartment when you travel, but the down-side is that you can't ever put it down. And that means you have to be aware of everything you are doing, because it all affects your voice. When I first heard a radio clip of Chuck Brown's biggest hit "Bustin' Loose"  I thought "what is he doing with his voice? He won't have it much longer if he keeps making that sound!" When I heard him live this past September he still sounded great - at age 74!

Singers know that everything shows up in the voice: their general health, physical and mental; their focus; how deeply they deep connect with the lyrics; and their need to share that connection with the audience. But the rest of us get lazy; we use our glorious instruments as quotidian tools. When we speak, there is no need to work as meticulously as singers do to produce a good sound. The technical demands are not as precise. You can be feeling "a little low" and still breathe deeply and be relaxed and focused and achieve a ''good enough" spoken vocal tone. We simply are not required to sing our "ah" in the center of the A. It could be a G flat and no one would really notice. 

And we are lucky that way, we speakers. But I think we should take a page from the singer's notebook. We should remember to work on our phrasing, our coloration, our line. We need to make sure we convey our message with all the nuance we can, given the relative limitation of the instrument used in spoken mode. And it is possible; listen to Jim Dale (who so fabulously narrates the "Harry Potter''  books) discuss the artistry of book narration in a 2005 NPR interview. 

I know, there is only one Jim Dale, but his work, and that of many other audiobook narrators (Stockard Channing as Ramona, anyone?) remind that even as speakers, we can play our instruments to astonishing effect! 


Still walking the walk

Since my blog post last week about walking in high heels was such a hit I thought I would continue in the vein. More insight on how to walk the walk. . .

Some women seem to instinctively know how to make walking in heels work. Sofia Vergara's character Gloria proudly totters on her heels during a family outing to Disneyland on last week's Modern Family . Fianlly, she, too, succumbs and hilarity ensues! Of course, that is comedy, not real life. 

Back in my childhood, girls were encouraged by their mothers, as well as their Girl Scout leaders (via whatever merit badge we got from doing so) to take the Wendy Ward Charm School course at the local Montgomery Ward Department store. Years ago, long before it went bankrupt and was sold to an online retailer, Ward's offered a multi-week course that prepared us to be "young ladies".  In the basement of a store in a strip mall.

But, location notwithstanding, we were transformed. We learned to walk -- rather, glide -- across the floor. In imitation of the Hayley Mills movie heroines so popular at the time, we put our heels down 6 inches in front of our toes and walked a straight line, while balancing single slim books on our heads. Certainly something you had to practice. Later in life,  I needed to "walk like a man" when playing Rosalind with my all-female Shakespeare troupe in college. I practiced walking with a wider stance, legs moving from the hip, avoiding the swiveling that set feet in a line in front of each other. A more liberating, balanced way to walk, for sure. But a gait that called out for sensible shoes, not "date night shoes."

At Wendy Ward we also learned very useful advice about how to sit. When seated, we were told, the only acceptable place to cross your legs is at the ankles, never the knees. Moreover, "our knees should be best friends" i.e., we must keep them together when seated. This is still great advice for whenever you're not wearing trousers. Particularly if you're on a panel and seated at a table without a table skirt, or up on a dias or stage sitting in a place of honor. Nothing kills credibility like showing too much thigh, or worse, offering the audience a glimpse up your skirt.

I see many online advice blogs that offer help to girls today. From what I see out there,  I can only surmise their readership is low. And I wonder if any virtual expert or e-communal experience can ever be half as effective as those after-school sessions where we learned to walk like we owned the world in the basement of Montgomery Ward.


Walking the walk

As I was surfing FB I saw that a friend posted she had recently made a resolution to wear high heels more often. I thought I knew why. There are many things a good pair of heels can do. They make you feel taller and hence, more powerful. They slim your overall look by visually lengthening your legs. They create a "wiggle in your walk," that many find attractive. For me, stepping into my heels often signals an imminent special occasion--probably because they remind me of my girlhood "party shoes" that were too impractical to wear everyday.

I know, too, that there are many reasons to hate high heels. The three main arguments against then:
1) Physiological/medical: Are you an orthopedist? If not, heels are no good for your health and well-being.
2) Feminist: What does it say that men find women more attractive when they are wearing footwear that renders them virtually helpless, or at least keeps them off balance?
3) Practical: There are so many things essential to everyday life you absolutely cannot do in heels, why would you want to wear them ? (Of course the women who take part in Amsterdam's Stiletto Run may disagree: after looking at them race in heels I would say they have special skills.)

I have been watching women teetering on sky-high heels for a long time. But I reserve judgement: I am sure they have their reasons. However, all too often whatever image/illusion these women create by wearing heels is shattered when they begin to move. Sometimes I worry they will fall and twist their ankles. Often I witness women who have no idea how to walk in heels clomp about like so many horses. I single out women; any self-respecting cross dresser or drag queen knows that walking in high heels is something that takes a lot of practice.

So - practice. Wear your heel inside to break them in. Slow down. Put one foot in front of the other. As young girls in the 60's we were taught to do this (I believe it was a prerequisite for getting our first pair of heels). Most importantly, extend your legs from your hip sockets, not just your knees. Not only does this put slightly less stress on your knees, it helps you maintain a graceful gait. Walking by kicking your your legs out from your knees results in that unattractive horsey-walk.

You have your reasons for wearing heels, none of which involves a comparison to Mr. Ed!  If you put in a little practice, you will glide like a runway model -- and not the ones who fall off their shoes.


Going to the candidates' debate. . .

If you're not already a fan of Amy Poehler's genius creation, Parks and Rec, you should be! This season we follow our heroine, that earnest cheerleader for local government, Leslie Knope, as she runs for City Council against the doltish heir to the largest employer in Pawnee, Indiana (Paul Rudd). 

Last week's episode featured the candidates' debate.  I recommend it to anyone who is contemplating a run for office or working on a campaign. Leslie was more than holding her own until she was blindsided by a "bomb" lobbed by her opponent right before the closing statements. She talked her campaign manager into letting her go off script so she could speak to the issue that threatened to derail her candidacy. What I especially liked about this interaction is that Leslie, who had vowed never again to disregard the advice of Ben, her manager (and boyfriend), made a conscious choice to do just that. She threw away the playbook and went out on a limb --- but it was very clear that she was not extemporizing, not just speaking "in the heat of the moment." As she has said from the beginning, "I have been preparing for this campaign my whole life."

Now, I know this is TV, and the whole thing was scripted, but I found it instructive. "Speaking from the heart" can be a powerful strategy -- only IF you have been thoroughly prepared and are absolutely sure of what you stand for. That's a big IF! Too often I have heard, "well, I will just wing it" or, "I don't want to be over-prepared, then I will be inauthentic." And the images we see of candidate debates on TV and in movies only perpetuate the myth that it is possible, when you're in a corner, to come out swinging and knock your opponent down with your brilliance. But that doesn't happen. The character of Leslie that Poehler created has never not been prepared. That is why Ben reluctantly gave her permission to deviate from their plan in this episode. And though she is fictional, we can all benefit from Leslie's example. The deeper your preparation, the greater your latitude to "change it up." The pros know that. But they never let you see it!

The other totally goofy plot line in last week's episode provides a brilliant example of the lost art of storytelling. I won't say more, except that Andy's recreations of movies made me reflect on the wildly improbable success of Charles Ross' One Man Star Wars Trilogy. We all relish a good story, well told.


Art as (p)art of your life!

We are all arts consumers.

Whether we realize it or not, our lives are enriched by art every day. And most of us rely on art to keep us going through the tough times. That beautiful song that provides inspiration? The book you turn to when feeling blue? The classic movie that always lifts your spirits, or, conversely, gives you an excuse to cry your eyes out? Yes, many of these experiences come to you via the vast American Entertainment Complex, but don't be fooled. They could not have been packaged and marketed to you unless someone in the beginning had an original vision. And the training to nurture that vision into something tangible.  Sometimes, when the final product reaches us, it has watered down so much of the original creative spark that we have to look hard to find it. But other times, even in a wildly popular sit-coms like Modern Family, my favorite TV drama The Good Wife, or the music of Adele, the unmistakable whiff of art lingers.

But the pipeline that brings us popular works of art isn't an option for the vast majority of artists. How long can we keep growing artists in a country that persistently under-funds them?  According to a 2010 study from the National Assembly of State Arts agencies: "Legislative appropriations to all state arts agencies currently total $297 million, or $0.96 per capita. This represents only 0.042%—less than one tenth of one percent—of state general fund expenditures. Yet the return on this investment is tremendous. State arts agencies support about 18,000 organizations, schools and artists, making the economic, educational, civic and cultural benefitsof the arts available to 5,100 communities across the United States." Think what we could do if we spent $1 per person on arts in this country!

But there is an upside: if the government and politicians are not generous to the arts, individual patrons are! Because the U.S. has always had a tradition of philanthropy (we can thank Andrew Carnegie for our unsurpassed public library system), we have a culture of arts support from private citizens. That support was stretched to the limit by the recent recession, but there are signs it is recovering.

In my own case, I have been the happy beneficiary of individual largesse. After a little over 2 years of fundraising and grant-writing (during a terrible economy), my play Becoming Calvin has gained enough financial support to have its premiere in September 2012! I am busily jumping through hoops as I fill out contracts for the actors and performance space and try to find more members to join my creative team. Lots to do but very exciting! And done mostly through individual contributions: 78% of the money I have raised so far has come from many people writing small checks. I cannot imagine a greater testimony to the generosity of individuals and their recognition of the crucial role art plays in their lives!