How Music Can Rekindle Your Creative Sense of Wonder

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post.

I spent an entire weekend in Miami among thousands of people who claimed to be music lovers.

And they behaved in many ways like music lovers – gathering with excitement, talking about the artists, getting dressed up to go to the concerts, etc.

Over dinner, I overheard some talk about the concerts.

“Dude, those fireworks were awesome!”

“You gotta follow that band now, they crushed it last night.”

“There must’ve been a couple of thousand people that showed up.”

I think of myself as a music lover.  But there is an enormous difference between them and me.

If I shut the sound off in my head, what I see are crowds of people eagerly chasing something that will dazzle them, wow them and take them to a heightened sensory experience of life.  Something that is anchored by 3 days of solid music, but to my eye, is designed to stimulate the senses, and does not engage them beyond encouraging stadium sized frenzied crowd responses.

Is that music, really?

While I do share their love for music, I am drawn to another kind of experience.

I pulled out a playlist I have been working on to hear the music that never fails to open up a world of wonder for me.

After many years of not listening to classical music, I discovered recordings and photos of Vladimir Ashkenazy, a Russian pianist my piano teacher adored.  In my memory, he was one of a group of older pianists, always pictured in a grand concert hall by an elegant grand piano.  And always playing Chopin.

Something in one of his photos fascinated me.  He was not by a piano, he was simply looking up at something and smiling, as if he was about to laugh.

It was his eyes.  I wondered what he was seeing.  And what he was hearing.

I found a few Youtube videos of him talking about music, about Rachmaninoff and the mysterious Russian soul of his music, about Western music, what great music gives us, and finally, his recording of a Chopin Ballade I have been tinkering with on and off since I was in music school..

What I heard brought tears to my eyes.  It changed my world.  Again.

What moved me?

He delivered on his promise.  To bring out the highest expression of what it means to be human through music created by great composers.

He understood his purpose.  He could play a piece by Chopin, Beethoven, or Rachmaninoff a hundred times, and there will always be something he will find that he could express in a new and different way.  Something he insisted on doing with a freshness in his approach each time to share with people.

He knew who was listening.  

“For some people, it means nothing.  You try to bring something to them and they say, ‘Oh, that’s very nice, but I like this one, I like that one, I like some popular piece, this or that…’ ” he said, “Nothing happens.  So it is not everybody that would and will respond.

But those who do, will never regret it.

Those who begin to understand how much it offers you from a person whose height of our existence – of knowledge of our existence – was so high, so important, those people, say from Bach to Shostakovitch, they gave us so much of the understanding of what we are, what we are for, what is it in us, what we are trying to do with our existence.

People become musicians or go to lots of concerts, become music lovers, because it gives so much to our lives.”

What brought tears to my eyes?

I also found myself feeling a sense of despair.  Of wondering if I was doing what I was destined to do with as much clarity and success as he did.  Of sensing regret for making decisions that led me away from what my purpose is.  Of doubting myself.

But here’s what changed my world.

Vladimir Ashkenazy spoke very simply about music and the beauty in his life.  He practices the piano every day.  He is married for a long time to his wife, also a pianist, with whom he has a wonderful family.

“My wife is Icelandic.  We’ve been married 55 years by now. Not bad, 55. Good number.”

And his eyes are always open to discover new depths, new expressions of the fullest human experience with all of its emotions in the music he loves to share with people who are listening.  Even if it is one person, what a wonderful gift that is.

That person, in this moment, is me.

And rather than be despondent about what I think I should be, could be, would be doing if only……. I am grateful for this beautiful music illuminating the beauty that is in my life, my daily art practice, my family and sharing my rediscovered creative curiosity as a gift every day.  Like Ashkenazy and all creative people, my work is to share that experience of wonder with someone else.

This is my purpose and it is for you, who are listening with an open heart.

Here’s the Chopin Ballade, No. 1 Op. 23 from my playlist. Close your eyes and let it light up your soul.

Share it with someone you love.

 

 

How to Redesign Rejection into Success

NO is a tough teacher

 

Has this happened to you?

Someone says no to you.

A foundation turns your proposal down.

You get a bad review, negative comments on your work.

You get no response to your work.

Nobody is coming to your show.

You can’t sell your work.

 

Getting a NO or a rejection letter is lousy.

Rejection can have serious implications for an person’s psychological state and for society in general.

Researchers say, the rejected should seek out healthy, positive connections with friends and family.

That recommendation squares with the neural evidence that shows positive social interactions release opioids for a natural mood boost, says Naomi Eisenberger, PhD, at the University of California.

 

At our recent awards ceremony, I spoke to an artist who invited me to his upcoming performance.

“Please send us information about this so we can put it on our promotional calendar, “ I said.

“Oh, but I didn’t get a grant this year,” he said.  “I came because I want to support my artist community and to feel what it is like to be among the grantwinners.”

He smiled and disappeared into the crowd.  

I expect to see him at next year’s awards ceremony as one of the grantwinners.  What he did was a positive step in getting beyond the NO and doing some strategic networking and marketing for his career.

To be an artist and put your work out into the world, you have to accept a reality that is polarized by a spectrum of human interaction with acceptance on one end and rejection on the other end.

We are hardwired to crave acceptance, belonging, being part of something. Perhaps that has something to do with our instinct for survival. Isolation and death are persuasive incentives.

When we are faced with rejection, we let NO destroy us because we have attached our sense of self worth, esteem, accomplishment to a decision someone else will make.   We fall hard, crushed by the weight of everything we have attached to this decision.  We have given up our power.

Unless you have a very tough skin, you will feel terrible when you get a NO.  Add that 2:00 am voice of self doubt and your own inner critic – you know that you are your own worst critic – and you will probably not sleep and wake up ready to chuck your dreams out the window.

Dealing with rejection is not easy.  It can be made worse by the words and behaviors of others and how you deal with it.  But, being mindful of how you control your thinking and experience of it can restore your inner strength and sense of well being.  

There are many reasons behind a NO that have nothing to do to with you or your self worth.  Here are 3 common examples:

Not yet – Sometimes foundations prefer observing you before they fund you.  This is a usually an internal decision that may or may not appear in their guidelines.  

Not the right fit – It is not what they are looking for.

Not this time – A funder may have given a grant award to a project similar to yours last year.  Their priorities may have changed so they will, for example, choose to fund artists like you but in a different part of the country.

Think of it this way: “you” personally, are not being rejected, it is the other person that is declining what you have to offer.  Don’t personalize rejection.

Take each NO as a chance to learn a little more about the decision maker.  A NO is a perfect opportunity to pick up the phone and ask for panel comments.  I do this as a matter of course for every grant I get as well as for every grant I don’t get.

Here’s what works for me:
Crumble up into a ball

Take whatever time you need to absorb NO.  Let your body and your mind take it all in.  I like to think of it like the beginning of making a pearl.

Just how does a pearl get started?

An irritant enters the mollusk either when it is open or sometimes it actually burrows through the shell from the outside. As the irritant enters the mollusk, in order for it to be the cause of a new pearl, it must pick up some of the mollusk’s mantle tissue on the way into the inside of the mollusk. It’s the mantle tissue that forms a pearl sac.

So…do you think you could start taking irritants in your life and turn them into beautiful pearls? What a challenge! And the humble, lowly mollusk’s lead the way in this miraculous process.

 

Take lots of deep breaths

Energize your inner mollusk

 

Re define No

I spoke to a group of MFA students recently and asked if any of them had success in writing grants.  A few raised their hands.  Then, I asked, “What did you write the grant for?”

“I needed the money.”

“I wanted to get famous.”

The usual answers.

One student raised his hand and said, “I wanted to focus my writing.”

He wrote grant proposals because they forced him to distill his thinking and be clear about everything that goes into making art like putting together a reasonable budget, marketing, a workplan, etc.  

I admire his understanding of the grant process as a long term game and his willingness to use this process as practice.  If he continues to do this, 2 things will happen: he will become a better grant writer who will win grant awards and he will gain more focus and clarity in developing his business skills as a working artist.

He wins whether he gets the grant or not.

No can be many things including:

Not you personally

Not yet

Not quite

Not for you

The most important thing to do is to lighten the weight of NO by detaching your sense of self worth, your self esteem and your belief in yourself.  Redefine what that NO is.  Maybe it is just a writing exercise for an MFA student.  

I take rejection as someone blowing a bugle in my ear to wake me up and get going, rather than retreat.

 Sylvester Stallone

Move on

When someone asks you how you are, simply say, “I’m fine.”

If pressed further, I suggest you take some advice from Austin Kleon and say,

No, everything’s fine. Why do you ask?

(When one is distressed, one either has to take a walk, or do like Paul Klee and “take a line for a walk.”)

Get out. Get some fresh air.

Repeat as needed

You will be just fine.

…And Why is That Important?

Why does your art matter? . #hylsnaps #hylsketchbook #hylartboss #animation

A post shared by #hylartboss #hylsketchbook (@hoongyeelee) on

 

Most of us don’t know what to say when faced with this question.

Especially for the 4th or 5th time.

Most of us have never thought to ask ourselves more than once.

I suspect it is because we haven’t really figured that out ourselves so this question would expose that.

The reason to ask yourself this over and over is to make you think deeply about why you are doing something and reveal what you are thinking.  And why your work is important enough for other people to pay attention to it, fund it or buy it.

Your answer to this question is the seed of your mission.  From this, you build your tagline, your pitch, your grant proposal narrative.

I asked one artist to tell me why his art was important.

“I create art because I have a message to share with the world,” he said.

“And why is that important?”  I asked.

“Well, I have something important to say,”  he said.

“And why is that important?”  I asked.

A moment passed.  Then, he said, “It could help people, maybe show them something new.”

“And why is that important?”  I asked.

He shifted restlessly in his seat, thinking.  “Seeing something they never saw before, or even imagined… it could change them, make them experience things differently…”

“And why is that important?”  I asked.

“If my art could give people a new experience, it could change them, make them feel and connect on a deeper level.  They would change how they go through life.”

“And why is that important?”  I asked.

“Life,” he paused, and finally said, “is too short not to live every single moment deeply and fully.”

Now that is very different from his first answer.

Millions of people have something to say, a message they want to share with the world.  If we allowed ourselves to receive all of these messages, we would be in a constant state of bombardment and overload.

We decide what we are going to pay attention to.

To get a grant as an artist, it is not enough to have passion, skills or a message.  But by asking yourself this question over and over, you will discover something else: impact.  You will know why your work is vital, why it has to happen now, and why the world will be better for it.

You will have a reason for someone to take note of what you are doing.

And this is important because…

 

How Your Focus Can Change Your Life

 

People don’t read.

If you are lucky, they will scroll slowly.

People don’t listen.

If you are lucky, they will eavesdrop.

Is this a consequence of being surrounded by relentless noise in our daily universe?

Is this a sign of a deteriorating intelligence?

Is it simply bad manners gone viral?

What is lost is an unimaginable amount of meaningful connections, synergies, serendipities, and masterpieces.  By not investing fully in the moment you are in, whether you are talking to someone, tying your shoelace, writing your novel or talking a walk, your energy is dissipated leaving you with a fleeting shell of an experience.

What if you didn’t carry around a hundred thoughts in your head or multitask your way through your day?  What if you just did one thing and told yourself that was OK?

I did an experiment years ago to see if I could devote 30 days, one month, one entire January, to memorize one Beethoven piano sonata.

Piano Sonata in D major, Op. 28 “Pastorale”

Composed: 1800-1801, dedicated to Count Joseph von Sonnenfels

To make that happen, I had to rearrange a few things in my life.  I found myself practicing 2 hours a day.  I didn’t realize when it happened but soon I found myself at the piano 4 – 6 hours, comparing recordings of Vladimir Ashkenazy (the Bruce Springsteen of the classical piano world in my opinion), and Maurizio Pollini, and humming the melodies from each movement in the shower.  To get the music into my fingers and my muscle memory, I played the music over and over by rote, starting from the last section and working my way backwards to the beginning.  I felt the shape of the music in my hands, the sound of it in my ears, every note became a familiar vibration.

An odd thing happened during this month.  As the music deepened, it filled every part of my life, everything else became a background.  I had a big purpose, a wonderful goal and something inside of me squared its shoulders and said, “You can do this.  You must do this for every sonata, every thing you want to make your own.”  I loved what I was doing.

That was the true gift of those 30 days.  Knowing what it takes and actually living it, doing it, breathing it and making space in my life to make it happen was a life changing experience for me.

People are capable of doing anything they want to but are often so unwilling to do the one thing it takes to make it happen.

What is that?

Focus.

This way of being will take you deep into the one thing you choose to do.  You will be tempted by distractions, friends, a million excuses to abandon your solitary pursuit.  You will be thinking about lunch, bingewatching something on Netflix, knocking off a little bit earlier to go to the gym.

“Focusing is about saying No.” Steve Jobs

But like most things in life that are worth doing, turning your focus inward, tuning out the temptations and taking yourself deeper in your work will bring you to that place known as “the zone” or “flow” where you will love being and doing what you are passionate about.

 

“The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus.” Bruce Lee

Here’s 3 things you can do to get started:

Choose one thing.

What is one thing you would love to do?  Give yourself the gift of making that happen.  Choose something you feel you can accomplish in a set amount of time.  I love all of the Beethoven piano sonatas but there are a lot of them so I chose one to memorize,

 

Give yourself a number.

For me 30 days was a good amount of time and January was a good time of the year – post holiday, pre spring. It is easier to convince your mind to do something for a limited amount of time.

Tell someone what you are doing.

Once your project is outside of you, it becomes a stronger reality.  The person you share this with will keep you accountable, cheer you on and pick you up when you fall.

“The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.” Alexander Graham Bell

Focus is your superpower.  You can do anything when you use it.

 

Grantwriting, Fundraising & Driver’s Ed

You ask me about how to write a grant.

You ask about fundraising.

My question to you is: Can you drive a car with no gas?

You have something that you are passionate about, something you believe deeply in.  It may be something you feel you were meant to do and share with the world.  

It can be a series of paintings, a book, a play, a desire to make the world a better, a more beautiful place.  Something you are uniquely positioned to do.

Maybe you are building your practice, you may be in a MFA program or both.

The most important question you have is: How will you create a life around making art or your passion project that can sustain you?

Which brings me to grantwriting and fundraising.

Learning how to write a grant that gets funded or creating ways for people to donate money to you is like learning how to drive a car to get someplace.  It is understanding how to navigate the world of foundations, philanthropy and donors.  Conceptually, it is not too different from mastering the rules of the road behind the wheel of a car.

Picture yourself in the driver’s seat after you have just learned how to drive.  You will need a few things before you get going:

  • A destination – do you know where you are going?
  • Directions – what is the best way to get there?
  • Gas – have you got what you need to power your car?

The same is true in grantwriting.  Knowing how to put together a competitive proposal is only part of the process.  To turn that proposal into a successful grant award you will need to do a few other things:

  • Give the funder what they want

Think of it this way: You want something, they want something.  A grant, like most human interactions, is a fair exchange between people. Give funders what they want first before you start asking.  Do your homework. Answer the questions clearly.  Respect word limits. Address the criteria. Granting an award to someone is like saying yes to the right partnership. Understanding what is important to a funder and positioning yourself as the one who can deliver that is what you give in exchange for a grant award. Make it about them.

Tip: Always give first.

  • Give the funder a place to jump in

Why just ask for money?  If you create an experience where you can invite the funder to see themselves as a part of beyond funding it, you will open up the door for so many other ways you can work together.  

Tip: Give something bigger.

  • Give the funder confidence

What do you need before you invest your money or your time into something?  You will probably do some research and talk to people you trust.  

A grant review panel is no different.  They will be looking closely at your background, your letters of reference.  They will scrutinize your budget to see if your numbers reflect fair market values. You need to give them everything they need to give them the confidence to invest grant dollars in you.  

Tip: Create trust

Approach your grantwriting and fundraising efforts with these mindsets and you will get much more than success and confidence in achieving your grantwriting goals.  Get to your destination and enjoy the ride.