Category Archives: Creativity

Choral Singing is Good for You!

choral singing

I’ve been singing in choirs for years thanks to a fortunate twist of fate during college. I needed to satisfy an arts requirement during the general education portion of my journey, and a friend suggested I join the university choir to do so. By simply showing up for all the rehearsals and performances, I’d score an A in the class. Sold! I wound up loving it so much that I stayed on and joined the Chamber Choir, too.

Over the years, I’ve performed with a number of groups to the extent that my work schedule would allow it. I’ve sung with large ensembles that performed with the symphony as well as small auditioned groups that covered an eclectic mix of music. I’ve also sung with church choirs and taken turns at directing them when called upon to do so. I have absolutely loved making music with others. There are few things more joyful than situating myself amidst a sea of voices and lending my voice to the collective sound. And I’ve forged great friendships through choir; they’re my “peeps.” Our bond of music supersedes any differences we might have… something for which I am especially grateful in this polarizing time.

Beyond my personal witness, it turns out that singing in choirs is demonstrably good for you. According to a 2019 study entitled Singing for a Lifetime by Chorus America, 54 million Americans sing in choruses. Participants cited numerous benefits to singing in groups:

  • It helps them feel connected to others and encourages socialization in other parts of their lives.
  • They display above average optimism, mindfulness, and resilience.
  • Three-quarters of the participants report being better team players, and 61% report being better listeners as a function of choral singing.
  • Sixty percent of choral singers credit choir for making them more open, flexible, and adaptable in life.
  • Singers are much more involved in their communities than members of the public at large. Moreover, they tend to serve in leadership positions across a wide range of need.
  • Older choir members report better quality of life and better overall health than the general public. And being in a choir makes them feel less lonely.

The Centre for Performing Science took these findings a step further in its Sing With Us project. A pilot study with 193 participants demonstrated that a single choral rehearsal reduces stress hormones and increases cytokines, proteins responsible for mounting an immune response. Regular participation also decreased anxiety and improved self-efficacy and self-esteem.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 disrupted all of these wondrous benefits. The Skagit Valley Chorale in Washington State made the national news when one 61-person rehearsal resulted in 53 cases and 2 deaths. It’s not surprising. Singers expel a lot of aerosolized particles when producing sound. Masking quells transmission by degree, but it engenders a far less pleasant experience for the singer. Fortunately, with widespread availability of vaccines, reduced case rates, and sensible operational protocols (i.e., stay home if sick!), most choirs are back to business as usual.

COVID has made me a little bit anxious about singing in community, but I get so much out of being in a chorale that I’m willing to take the risk. Singing is simply too good for body, mind, and soul.

The Artist’s Way

the artist's way

“Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’”
– The Talmud

Prevailing wisdom tells us that artists are born, not made. If you happened to win the genetic lottery and scored all those creativity chromosomes, you had the potential to become a great director, actor, painter, photographer, musician, writer, and such. Otherwise, you might as well get used to living an ordinary life. Right?


There’s an artist in all of us waiting for the opportunity to find expression. Our mission – should we decide to accept it – is to give that artist the time, energy, attention, and encouragement to flourish. Julia Cameron just might be the person to help us do that.

Julia is an award-winning poet, playwright, filmmaker, composer, and author who has written thirty books. Most noteworthy among her writings is The Artist’s Way, a collection of essays, inspirational quotes, and tools to help readers nurture their creative gifts.

According to Julia, the starting point for creative recovery entails commitment to three foundational practices:

  • Morning Pages, or three pages on standard sheets of paper written out long hand immediately upon awakening. These are streams-of-consciousness designed to empty out whatever’s in the brain. They’re written as fast as the hand can move across the page without thought or editing. In my practice, I find that they help me release stuff on which I’ve been ruminating as well as get me to pay attention to topics and issues that seem to crop up repeatedly.
  • A Daily Walk to help the brain experience a bounty of sensory experience and allow time to fill up on creative thoughts and impulses. Ideally, one takes a particularly long walk weekly in an extra special place.
  • A Weekly Artist Date to spend time with, and nurture, the artist within us. These dates do not have to be lavish or spendy, but they do need to be pursued without companionship. Just you and your artist!

The book proceeds with a 12-week process designed to kick-start each reader’s creative recovery. While there’s no substitute for reading the book and going through your own process, here are a few “a ha” moments that I had while taking this journey:

  • You cannot become a good artist unless you are willing to start out as a bad one. Give yourself time to take baby steps; support yourself emotionally along the way. Negative self-talk is the artist’s enemy.
  • Don’t let blocked artists and/or crazymakers disrupt the artist journey. Create a safe space and protect your budding artist from shame.
  • Take seriously the fact that the Universe has your back. Be willing to take the leap of faith and trust that it will be there for you.
  • In order to have self-expression, you must have a self to express. Morning pages introduce you to the “real you” versus the one put out for public display.
  • Be generous with downtime; the artist needs time to recharge. Say “YES” to yourself.
  • Serious art comes out of serious play.
  • Art is not about thinking something up; it’s about getting something down. Show up. Take small and simple creative steps daily.
  • Learn to survive your creative injuries by mourning the losses, learning from them, and moving on to the next act of creation.
  • Procrastination is not laziness, it’s fear – fear of a dry well, fear of tedium, fear of failure, fear of disappointing oneself or others. Counter that impulse by making the creative process fun.
  • Art needs time to incubate, to sprawl and be ungainly before settling into itself. Don’t get fixated on the finish line; enjoy the journey.
  • Creativity is a spiritual practice. It brings its own rewards.
  • We cannot chart our artistic process or try to control it. As author André Gide tells us: “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”

Portrait of an Extraordinary Artist

They first met in 1966. Malka Marom was a wife, mother, and popular Canadian folk singer in the duo Malka & Joso. Her seemingly idyllic life was unraveling as she walked into a dimly lit coffeehouse in Toronto. As she listened to the young singer, Malka felt as though this woman knew her. “And the more she sang, the more her voice became my own.” She was amazed to discover that the woman wrote her own material. She felt certain that she’d become a star. She was right.

joni mitchellAs a journalist seven years later, Malka landed the first of three in-depth interviews with that young woman. It marked the beginning of a close friendship that spanned decades. Joni Mitchel: In Her Own Words allows the reader to sit on the sofa while these two kindred spirits reflect on the life of an extraordinary artist.

As I read through the material, I took note of several themes that characterized Joni Mitchell’s artistic journey.

She didn’t get caught up in the world’s judgment; she held to her own inner compass. As a young child, Joni was labeled a mediocre student by her teachers. Yet Joni noticed that the “good students” were those who simply spit back what the teacher told them. Joni was interested in the unasked question, or the question that didn’t have an easy answer. So their labels didn’t mean much to her. Years later, Joni drew criticism when her work didn’t attain the expected level of commercial success. She didn’t get worked up about it. She accepted the fact that people wouldn’t always appreciate her artistic growth. She takes pride in her “experimentiveness.”

She identified with being an artist. While her grades may not have inspired enthusiasm, she discovered her skill as a painter by winning an art contest. (She drew the best dog house.) That discovery provided another avenue to distance herself from her banal education. She also leveraged her gift to quell anxiety. When a teacher suggested that she could also paint with words, a poet was born.

She was endlessly curious and inventive. She didn’t want to learn the masters when playing piano; she wanted to write her own material. She played London Bridge is Falling Down backwards to yield a far more interesting sound. She kept fiddling with the tuning on her guitar so that she could continue to explore and re-discover the instrument. She craved freshness and never wanted to sound like anybody else. When asked if she ever feared that the creative well would run dry, she responded: “As long as you still have questions… the muse has got to be there.”

She plumbed the depth of her experience and her emotions to create authentic material. She deemed herself ultra-sensitive, perceiving things that others do not. When writing a song, she was open to the encounter, giving herself the space to experience the miraculous. “The muse passes through you as you allow yourself to experience.” Recording was a process of discovery, searching more and more for reality, not an affectation. She was also keen to experience her songs as she performed them. If she felt that she’d gone on auto-pilot and started thinking about 100 different things, she’d stop.

She made difficult choices in service of her art. Joni and her first husband became a successful folk duo. When she realized that she couldn’t grow with him, she set out on her own. She refused to be a formulaic recording artist who produced derivative material (even of herself!) for the sake of fame or fortune. She turned down highly lucrative performance gigs if the venue, material, or vibe didn’t align with her artistic integrity.

She was never addicted to applause or honorariums. She was driven by her muse, by the need to explore. She felt it was important to “keep a carrot in front of your nose for growth.” At the end of the day, the art was the thing.

“Freedom for me is a luxury of being able to follow the path of your heart, to keep the magic in your life. Freedom is necessary for me in order to create, and if I cannot create, I don’t feel alive.”
– Joni Mitchell

Big Magic: The Creative Force That Awaits Us All

“Creativity is the hallmark of our species… Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart.”
– Elizabeth Gilbert

In 2006, a relatively unknown writer published a memoir that captured “one woman’s search for everything across Italy, India, and Indonesia.” Eat, Pray, Love catapulted Elizabeth Gilbert to international fame, landing her on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. In her 2016 New Your Times Bestseller Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, she offers sage advice for the world-be explorer in all of us.

Ms. Gilbert rejects the notion that some people are simply born with creative talent and others are not. She believes that the Universe buried creative jewels in each and every one of us. As such, the creative life is a treasure hunt through which we unearth and polish our hidden gems.

we are all creative

Inspiration plays an important role in the creative process. Ms. Gilbert envisions it as an external genius (“Big Magic”) that’s looking for a willing partner to bring something intriguing and interesting to life. As she says:

“Ideas are alive. Ideas seek out the most available human collaborator. Ideas have a conscious will. Ideas move from soul to soul. Ideas will always seek the swiftest and most efficient conduit on earth.”

Spurred by curiosity, we tap into this consciousness by showing up daily to do the work. Inspiration may come and go. It doesn’t show up on cue. Yet when we trust that it is always nearby, we’ll reap the rewards of its presence.

I find the idea of collaborating with Big Magic appealing. It suggests a process that has more to do with nourishing and birthing embryonic material than bringing something forth out of nothingness. It keeps the ego in check when adulation threatens an inopportune growth spurt, and provides support when the fear (or reality) of failure might otherwise prove crushing. It keeps light and lightness in the creative process.

Ms. Gilbert claims that artists do not need to have special training or credentials to do their work. Even those whose talents have been shaped under the tutelage of master artists must fashion their own creative existence. They must discern which discipline and/or subject matter so deeply touches their souls that external failure or success becomes irrelevant. The creative life simply asks for the courage, enchantment, permission, persistence, and trust to pursue it. As she says: “You must keep calling out in those dark woods for your own Big Magic.”

Creative living can be an amazing vocation. Each project offers the opportunity for personal growth while igniting one’s passion and curiosity. To that end, Ms. Gilbert kept her day job to give her creative instincts the freedom to flourish until she achieved a measure of financial security. She also chose not to give power over to her critics. She recognized that everyone has his or her own inner truths. She simply puzzled out her own truth no matter what the world said.

Creativity is to be enjoyed, not judged. The measure of the creative lies in one’s devotion and ability to endure the highs and lows and all points in between. It’s about bringing forth the work with the right blend of seriousness and lightness.

Big Magic may remain a mystery, yet Ms. Gilbert declares:

“This is how I want to spend my life – collaborating to the best of my ability with forces of inspiration that I can neither see, nor prove, nor command, nor understand.”