I’m taking flying lessons.
Actually, I have been for about eight years, I just didn’t know it.
Obviously, it helps to have a good flight instructor and in my completely objective, impartial and in no way biased opinion, I have the best there is. Lynn has been gifted with a laser-guided, insight capable of skewering a defensive lineman to a brick wall, yet she wields it with the exquisite precision of a sunrise, the solid patience of a mountain stream and the timeless gentleness of an early summer breeze. She will never force the issue; she will never make you, as a student, follow any path you don’t want to explore. Personally, I think that would be a little bit like booking a first class trip to Paris but never actually getting off the aircraft, but what the hey.
For all the wondrous things Lynn has taught me, and helped me to discover for myself, there is one lesson that I have had to revisit time and time and time and time again. And I’ll probably have to revisit it time and time and time and time to come.
Surrender. Trust. They’re pretty much synonymous for me.
Lynn has told me often enough that music makes no judgments, that it is we who bring our own preconceptions and biases to the work. For the longest time, I believed that was true, but I had never trusted the truth of it. Or what the implications might be if I ever could learn to trust the truth of it.
Until September 25th.
From time to time, Lynn has had me try to improvise, vocally.
Think about some of the great jazz singers – Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Cab Calloway. They wove improvised melody lines into the warp and weft of song in a way that recreated the human voice and human body as instrument, as loom, and as tapestry. That is vocal improvisation elevated to stratospheric levels of mastery and artistic excellence.
Me? I’m not even on the same continent, but you get the idea. And the ideal.
Vocal improv has been Lynn’s invitation to play and to explore. It has been her invitation to fly.
Now I have a confession to make: I am a grade A, first class, dyed in the wool control freak. There are few things I can “wing” and music has never been one of those things. My lack of theoretical facility hasn’t helped much but the truth of matter is that I don’t trust my instincts. It is a subject for another day, but I don’t trust my intuition not to lead me into a danger from which I cannot escape. Crazy, I know. Especially when it comes to music – I mean, what’s the worst that can happen, right? But there you have it. I’m a control freak and I don’t trust my instincts.
It has been said that if you step out in faith, one of two things will happen. Either you will find solid ground beneath your feet or you will be taught to fly.
But here’s the thing. When it came to the whole improv thing, I knew there was no ground on which I could step and as for wings? Nope. I was an earth-bound misfit, I. There was no doubt about that.
Lynn knew, though. Don’t ask me how, but she could see – I had wings. Not a hummingbird’s wings that allow for precise movement. Not a swallow’s wings built for
make breath-taking aerial acrobatics. I had big wings. Strong wings. Wings designed to catch creative thermals and soar. Wings that could mold and shape wind columns like a sculptor working marble. Bad-ass wings.
And so she asks me to test them. “Don’t think too much,” she says to me. “Better yet, don’t think at all.” But I couldn’t fly. If I do have wings (and I thought Lynn was more than just half a bubble off plumb on that subject), surely they are weak, crippled even. “There are no mistakes in music; only time.” I seriously doubt that either one of us has that kind of time.
So, we begin. Lynn begins playing through a chord progression I know very well, particularly since I had been singing over it for about 20 minutes. I take a deep breath and start to sing. I wipe my hands across my jeans – I hate having clammy palms. I can’t get air to move around the snarl of nerves in my stomach. My voice begins to shake and NOT in a good way. My throat feels so damned tight.
And that’s all in about the first 15 seconds.
Lynn keeps playing, changing things just a little bit, subtle variation, patient, waiting. I take some more to-the-tips-of-my-toes deep breaths. “C’mon, Robinson. You can do this.” Another deep breath. Find a single note. Sing it. Acknowledge the shaking in my knees but don’t focus on it. Breathe again. Feel the support in thighs, belly, back. Feel the ground, solid beneath my feet. Good. Keep singing. Keep breathing.
I don’t know where I’m going. I have no idea what Lynn will play next. I am scared to death.
Do you trust Lynn? Of course! What kind of ridiculous question is that?
Do you think she’s going to let you get yourself into trouble? Huh?
Think about the times you tried to get too ambitious, too complicated with song. Yeah? So?
What did Lynn tell you? Keep it simple. There’s no need to get fancy or clever.
What makes you think she’s going to change now?
I go back the foundation Lynn has helped me to build. Breath. Support. A framework. A solid place on which to land.
A solid place from which to leap.
Another deep breath. Close my eyes. Feel my ribcage expand. Feel my shoulder blades flare, just a little. Put together a very simple melody line. Follow Lynn’s lead. Rise and fall. Just like breathing. Breathe again. Better. Relax. You’ve got this. Now . . . try something a little different. Not entirely successful. Says who? You? And you can say this why? Don’t think. Breathe. Try it again.
Lynn begins to play part of my melody line back to me. Oh HELL no! The knot in my belly tightens again. And then. . . .I keep singing. A new arrangement, a new melody. Time. Time to examine the colours in this new melody. Time. Time to notice new textures. Keep breathing. Rise and fall. Rise and fall.
My throat tightens again, but this time it is a knot of pure joy. Tears prick the back of my eyelids and sting my nose. I have to stop singing a moment, breathe. Just breathe. Those bad-ass wings I didn’t think I had? They stretch, flex and catch air. I pick up the melody again and follow it. Lynn keeps playing and for the first time in my life it doesn’t matter one bit that I don’t know where I’m going. I know that I know that I know that I know that I am not going to fall. And right now, I could happily die from the bliss of knowing that I am being held aloft.
It isn’t a long flight. My wings are a little under-developed. They need strengthening.
But they aren’t crippled.
I can FLY!