Janet Lawson | Jazz Vocalist
920 Riverside Drive, Apt. #8 | New York, NY 10032
212-496-2568 or 646-369-7207

The Integrated Artist: Improvisation as a Way of Life

By Janet Lawson

I. Art = Self Awareness + Self Expression
A definition of art that examines and reflects on one's evolution in and out of artistic expression.

II. Protecting the Voice - Protecting the Victim
A perspective of connecting with past and present experiences that expands the view and offers new insights.

III. No Mind Practice
Focus on the purpose of internalizing any practice and in particular Vocal
Improvisation through Feeling, Listening, Hearing, and Connecting.

IV. There Are No Wrong Notes
Examples from Jazz Masters and personal experiences of the compassionate and artistic concept of mistakes.

V. Studying with a Master
Purpose of a traditional connection between student and teacher and how it affects the art.

VI. The Bridge
The search for a middle ground within and how that affects one's expression in life.

VII. My Mother
A moment of re-connecting to the impact of mother.

VIII. Awareness
Physical signs of progress and process.

IX. Relationship
A deepening awareness of the relationship within and how it translates to musical expression.

X. Improvisation as a Way of Life
References for exploring new ways of being, including Pema Chodron and Lama Surya Das.

XI. New Insights
Offerings to other singers from my personal development.

XII. Being Heard
Questions on the despairing sidetracks on one's journey.
XIII. Vocal Improvisation from the Heart
A compassionate search for authenticity.

XIV. Pressure
Physical and emotional examples of how pressure on ourselves affects our being and our self-expression.

XV. Yin and Yang of Vocal Healing
Expanded perspective of the Universe operating in a single vocal exercise.

XVI. Sacred Space.
Another example of translating the personal to the Universal.

Connecting -- illness, self-doubts, physics, laws of the Universe, rapture, and freedom within our own soul.

Description of a near-death, transformational experience, reinforcing gratitude and purpose.

Past and Present – in a fight for their lives.

The purpose for my writing this book is to share an experiential conviction of the practical application of improvisation as a way of life -- creating links between spiritual concepts and everyday events as metaphors for those concepts.

Because of my life as an improvisational jazz singer and my parallel spiritual journey, I see the connections, the deeper meanings and truths behind the disciplines of musicianship and the potency of observing ourselves in the process.

Improvisation has served as a vehicle for these observations and, at the same time, has been the catalyst for discovering a significance beyond an intended purpose.

Due to Lyme Disease and Bell’s Palsey, illness that resulted in my being completely unable to express what I’d known all my life - singing and the essence for me of singing, vocal improvisation - I was brought to a place of deeper introspection in order to come to terms with this illness. For one year, I was unable to get out of bed; the right side of my face was paralyzed. Speaking and eating were challenging.

What has emerged from this still ongoing recovery, is this book. For the past three years I have chronicled lessons with my students, practices after sessions with my health practitioners, conversations with family and friends, nature walks, moments of despair and great revelations. And, although not an autobiography, what may be purposeful, and hopefully inspirational to others, from this deeply personal experience is the much larger significance I perceive, from each stage of this ongoing process, of the relationship between musically technical skills for improvising and their relevance to a creative way of living.

For a musician, opening up to the surprises in one’s own life teaches that ability can be utilized in any moment -- that having control of something isn’t necessarily the most important part of our experience of it -- that trust and compassion and non-judgmental thinking are serious elements in the art of being.

This journey into the abyss of my own emptiness, and the rhythmic pulses that resounded in much grander harmony in life’s scheme than my own minor passage, may offer a familiar melody, calling others towards their own authentic self -- musically -- humanly.

Excerpts from the book:
The Integrated Artist: Improvisation as a Way of Life by Janet Lawson

I believe, as I’ve read, that we are spiritual beings learning how to be human. Our learning comes in many forms. Mine has and continues to be as an improvisational jazz singer. This path teaches me how I want to live as a human being. I want to be honest. I can’t lie and improvise. Whatever comes out when I sing comes out. So then it’s up to me to deal with it. Do I like what I hear? No time for that. It’s just pure acceptance. So now what? Ah, Integrity. What do I do with it? Oh, Knowledge. If I know my chords and scales and solos of great masters and my own improvised and written solos, I can draw from that to create from that “mistake” or bummer of a phrase. So, no Judgments. No time for that either. Bottom line -- create music. Let it lead me -- get out of my way -- let go. All life lessons I want to live in and out of the music. Trust -- there’s a big one. Trust whom? What? Sufi Master Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927) said the music is already out there -- listen to it -- let it come to you. It’s also out there looking for you. Nothing to even “do.”

When I’ve asked a student what was going on during their improvisation, the answer usually is, “I was trying to think of the chord, or the scales or the solo I learned.” That’s where the planets of improvisation and the being collide. The whole focus of improvisation is really about FEELING, LISTENING, HEARING and CONNECTING -- especially in practicing. Practice is the place where we set up the environment for performance. My teacher Warne Marsh’s words of “practice at performance level,” like others of his gems, took me a long time to understand.

As I see it now, when we practice, we’re practicing performing. We’re reinforcing the way we’re going to be on the bandstand. So, if we’re practicing and thinking at the same time, we’ll be thinking on the bandstand. We’ll be diluting the creative process, with control and manipulation rather than discovering what comes out of our instrument and then adventuring into the unknown of what it’ll sound like as it develops shape.

Feeling is the beginning of “no mind” practice. Feeling how our body is -- if and where tension lies. Feeling the music we’re singing with -- feeling it in our body. Feeling the music we’re making in our heart and soul. Feeling is the seed of the life of the music. And it’s a variety of feelings that the music offers – joyful feelings, sad ones, surprising feelings, distraught (“I didn’t mean to sing that!”), puzzling (“Now what do I do with THAT note?”) Whatever the feelings are, they’re important to acknowledge and to stay with. Too often we don’t know how to BE with an uncomfortable feeling. Instead, we want to get rid of it. Good thing there aren’t any jazz pills for “wrong” notes. Half the greatest solos in the world would be lost to us. So don’t take them in your thoughts. Stay with all the feelings that come up when practicing and develop the strength to stand in the truth of what your no mind has to offer. Develop muscles from “no mind” aerobics. A key way to practice staying with the feelings is to remove the story about them. If I say, “This note sucks, and that PROVES I’m a terrible musician,” then the discomfort is connected to a fait d’accompli -- a trench I’ve dug fast-motion (like in the silent movies) that drops me in the pits. BUT, if I remove the story line, stay with the discomfort as pure energy, open my heart to that “bummer,” something else can happen -- a line I might not have discovered had I not made that “mistake.” The reason I’m breaking all of this down is because all of these aspects can get lost in the split-second reactions we have. Learning to rewind an experience after the gig, expand that moment and review the feelings as we left ourselves and went into judgments can be enormously helpful for the next time.

Listening. Now there’s an art form. Who has time to listen? We’re too busy “thinking” of what we want to say next. But what if we practiced just listening? Listening to every note that came through us. Listening to the tone, the color, the rhythm, the harmonics, the pitch, the beginning of it, the length of it, to the very end of it. During one of my lessons with Hall Overton, he played me Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain” and pointed out Billie’s attention to every sound she uttered – “Listen to the ‘d’ at the beginning of that phrase and the ‘n’ on the last sound.” Listening while we’re practicing gives us the ability to expand our skills from singer to composer and arranger in every moment. As we listen to what’s happening, we can also develop the essential ingredients for our full expression of: non-judgmental listening; listening with compassion, acceptance of whatever we hear, listening and not abandoning our ideas, (too often singers start a phrase and disjointedly begin another one and don’t string their ideas together with any melodic, rhythmic or harmonic connections), and especially listening without the need to sing. Singing is the last thing a singer needs to do. Feeling and listening are the first. Leave the space for the singing to happen. The spaces are where the creativity takes place -- check out Prez’s (soulful tenor saxophonist Lester Young’s) solos. It’s in the spaces where he takes his breaths that the set up for the next brilliant phrase happens.

Hearing. Hearing is the moment of conception - where the egg and sperm of creativity join together instantly and we hear it. Warne would tell me, “You hear it either while you’re playing or right before you play.” It’s like a special invitation to come into the magical room of creation and witness its birth. What a great gift -- and what a loss when we don’t open ourselves to receive it. But if we’re too busy thinking, judging, hoping, trying, we obfuscate the presence of sound -- the organization of it that we have access to. If, as Hazrat Inayat Khan says, everything that is to be created already exists – and the music is already out there – then all we have to do is listen and hear it. And, it is said, the music is also looking for us. So, actually, there’s nothing to do but remove the clutter from our minds so we can hear it. And how to hear? When we hear as the composer, we can join ideas to create motifs and include sounds we’ve been practicing. That’s how to use what we’ve been working on – practicing, not thinking about them but, instead, hearing them -- again. Hearing as the arranger gives us a broader brush of sounds that includes what the band is offering. “Oh, there’s a spot -- the pianist just played an altered dominant 7th chord -- I can add a reinterpretation of the melody right now that uses a diminished whole tone scale.” That’s different from thinking of what to sing. Very different. Qualitatively and in terms of how you got there.

Connecting. To what? Well, a good place to start is with our selves. Singing is a full-time job. You sign up for life on this gig -- because everything we are we bring to our singing. There’s a wonderful meditation I learned many years ago in which I sit and allow my awareness to connect with first where I’m sitting, then to the body’s sensations, to smells, sights (even behind me without turning around), and then sounds -- to as far as the mind can imagine. Sounds in the room, in the building, on the street, in the city, the state, (connect with them), the country, the continent, the galaxy, the Milky Way, the universe and beyond. Hang out with that connection. And then retrograde. It’s a fine way of developing the skill for connecting with our selves, the music in our heart and soul, the band, the audience and all that is, ever was, or will be. Now sing!

(February 12, 2003)

The relationship we have with ourselves is the same relationship we have with the melodies and rhythms and chord and scale tones of the songs we sing. We bring the same capacity for intimacy we’ve developed within ourselves to the intimacy of being one with the music. And whatever relationship issues are surfacing in our lives are the same issues with our music. If trust is up -- trust in ourselves, in a personal relationship -- then trust in how we express what we feel and hear in singing will be in that mix, too.

The work keeps pointing us in the direction of ourselves -- not egotistically or self-centeredly -- but with self-awareness and consciousness of what we bring to everything in our lives.

Observing becomes the key to opening the door of authentic expression. Expansive awareness broadens the ears to what’s being said in our chatter regarding everything and everyone we connect with. Gossip about someone else becomes gossip in our own mind about us. That chatter spills over into the moment of creation -- an improvisational solo is infused with emptiness so the music can come through us or it’s squeezed into a mindset of who we think we are and what we think we can do. That’s a relationship with our selves. The quality of that relationship is a determinant factor in what we sing and where we sing from -- either our open, compassionate hearts or our judgmental, critical thoughts. No relationship can thrive on smallness -- in mind or heart. No singer can sing the fullness of who they are from smallness in the relationship they hold within.

(January 20, 2004)
Not sure what to call this newest insight - the Lens - Being Known - Feeling Known. It’s not perfection I’m looking for -- maybe anyone is looking for -- I think I’m on to something here – it’s related to my commitment to “authenticity” ---- and with singers, I think it’s not about being perfect or singing the “wrong” note – it’s about hearing your Self -- being known to your Self - feeling known.

So, in relation to this book, I would say -- the addiction to perfection in improvising the perfect solo is really, like in any addiction, a longing to merge, to be one with one’s own soul and the soul of the Universe. To be known by one’s Self requires listening to what comes through and really hearing it. That takes a lot of acceptance, because as soon as it sounds “wrong” it’s thrown out – we’re thrown out by our selves -- and all those tapes of our NO-GOOD-ness start running in our heads. So, the deeper part of acceptance, the first step on this path that leads us to our fullest Self is to be known by our selves - to feel known by ourselves – and that asks for compassion to want to care enough to see, and acceptance as we look, without judgment.

This road of creation includes many avenues that meet and offer explorations that lead back to the Self. Okay, I’ve sung a lousy line - now what? Well, hear it -- know it -- do like Duke said, sing it again -- really hear it -- don't reject it – you’re rejecting part of yourself -- it needs to be heard by you if anything is going to come of it. By rejecting it, by judging it, by judging you, you discard the very essence of who you are. These creations, these solos, these expressions of the Self are parts of our soul. It would be like cutting off a finger if we didn’t like how we stirred a cake batter, or cutting off a leg if we walked on a seed in our garden. It’s that simple, really.

If we’re singing from a place within ourselves that is known to us – if we’ve done the work of soul exploration, of self-discovery, of feeling who we are, then that is what we offer as creators. Our improvisations in a song, with the band, with our partner, our family, the grocer -- can all send out a link from my soul to your soul -- from my known-ness to who you are. We can speak to each other from a real place and not make the demand of having to be right or perfect or the best, or bigger or richer or more famous. The ego can relax in the arms of being known. I hear you, little one. You don't have to make yourself bigger -- I see you -- and I hold you lovingly in my heart.

Illness is the redirection of the energy of our very essence -- unacknowledged, unappreciated by the Self.

When self-criticism and self-doubt are brought into the mix of floating, ever changing ions and atoms, molecular embryos of matter, they stick. They concretize into a form of negation. Their potency is the same - only now, used as a denier of being, violating the laws of the Universe that say -- motion is constant, change is constant. So, self-denial goes against the very laws of nature - and tries to justify itself by manifesting as a THING -- a tumor, a cancer, an obstacle to self.

When we are in the flow, in harmony with the activities of consciousness, we are “naturally” creative - being brilliant in retort, uncovering dormant gifts, finding that lost chord in every aspect of our lives.

It is the natural way to be.

It is said some of us are gifted and others not. I believe some of us tune in to the keys that open those doors to our innate uniqueness.

And, the tuning in has to do with what we listen to. Do we keep putting our ears to the keyhole of judgment, criticism for its own sake, introjections of authoritative THEYs? Do we even hear past that demoralizing din to the melodies of possibility and originality? Do we suppose that wildly imaginative tune isn’t ours to sing?

And whom do we bring with us to listen?
So much of what we hear and how we see is determined by the ears and eyes that witness. We spill over into each others’ receptacles and contaminate the integrity of the event. If negativity is brought to the table it will infect the atmosphere. After all, it’s only energy. It lives -- it moves -- it travels from one bin to another. If our pals are years of supposing LESS THANs, we’ll see everything that way -- including our very core.

What needs to change is not how we do something -- to improve it, make it better -- but rather who we are to ourselves in everything we do.

Do we see ourselves as beautiful? Then what we do will hold that beauty.

Do we hear ourselves as rapturous? Then the sounds we make will ecstatically transform the BE-er in the doing as well as the listener.

It becomes increasingly obvious, with all the accounts of how we create our own reality, that the instrument within ourselves is the vehicle that creates the music. It is my path to continue to heal the niches and wounds of my own spirit so that once again -- or maybe for the first time -- my voice will sing --- without the argument of entitlement, free of the notions that bind, and open to the song within my own soul.