I normally like airports. I like the conveyor belts that move luggage like hot dogs in a factory, I like seeing vending machines and convenience shops that recur every 50 ft or so. I especially like large airports, where the terminal corridors shepherd travelers into winding routes, queue after queue.
Waiting brings out the best and worst in people. You see levels of kindness, greed, and creativity that are rarely exposed in the wild. We all have our different destinations and motivations, but airports level the playing field. In here, we’re all prisoners of time.
That said, even I have my limits, and the time I’ve spent in airports today is certainly stretching them. I’m in my eighth hour of waiting to return home, after an eight-day adventure in Quebec City for the 8th Estill World Voice Symposium. On August 8th, no less!
EWVS is a bi-annual gathering of voice professionals who meet to share ideas, practices, and passions for all things voice. This is the third one I’ve attended since I started studying Estill Voice Training six years ago, and each time I feel more alive and inspired than ever.
So it may sound strange that while I’m waiting, the thing I find myself itching to write about is the improv class I took eight months ago.
Although I am occasionally clever, I am rarely quick-witted enough to be considered “funny”. Writing came naturally to me; speaking did not. Like many writers (and humans in general), I spend most of my time replaying the past and rehearsing the future. For a long time, the present seemed to be a tiny sliver just in front of my nose, too skinny to see and too slippery to touch.
So back in January when I was rounding up a new flock of resolutions, it felt like the right time to try improv comedy. Maybe it would help me learn to live more in the elusive moment, or at least learn to deal with the person across the piano, replacing every other word in his song with “dong”.
The class was eight weeks long, offered by Arcade Comedy Theatre just two blocks away from Howl. Their philosophy has three main components: Play, Team, and Truth. The last part especially resonated with me. I could release some of the pressure to be funny if I focused on being truthful; after all, we know how often things are funny because they’re true.
I loved improv comedy while it floated around as an abstract idea in my mind. It only took me a couple hours to discover I practically hated it. I hated not knowing what would happen next; I hated the unpredictability of my scene partners and the inability to carry my ideas to fruition. Trying to imagine and move at the same time felt clumsy, like speaking a foreign language. Even once I started to get the hang of the games and prompts, I never felt like I could relax enough to have fun. I managed to stick it out for all eight sessions, but improv comedy was decidedly not my thing.
Now as I sit slumped into the benches at gate F88, daydreaming to fill the vacant space of waiting, improv comedy is safely back in the sepia-toned romance of the past. And hindsight can shed some light on hidden lessons.
Of all my singer-songwriter-artist friends, I am easily the most analytical. I like the strictures of perfect rhyme and practicing with a metronome. In cowriting sessions, I am often the person repeating “no, no; there’s something better, something perfect” ad nauseam. No wonder the improv comedy arena of “yes and” felt so unnatural.
But having spent the last eight days among the world’s most science-minded singers, I am reminded of my equally strong hippie-artist side. The part that doodles songs with random vowel sounds and cats dropped on the piano, and secretly translates sound into shape and color before she can sing*.
I’ve heard a lot from creative coaches who preach the importance of silencing your inner analyst so that your artist-self can come out to play. Inspiration is a fickle beast; if you hesitate to follow when it appears, it’s going to run off without you and sniff around for someone else. But the truth is, we need both halves to make a song. Your artist-self finds the patterns of melody and imagery in life that would otherwise go unnoticed. Your analyst-self makes it real; pushing through and working even after the inspiration is gone. The rough, raw edges are whittled down and polished into the perfect time capsule of emotion.
Creative people tiptoe on a tight rope between the two extremes, and the balance doesn’t come easily to us all. It certainly doesn’t for me. Most of the time, it feels like I’m clinging onto a pendulum and screaming my head off. Sometimes, I’m flicking back and forth so fast it looks like I’m standing still.
If you’ve been hanging a little long on one side and you want to live more creatively, here are some exercises that have helped me reconnect with the other:
Exercises for the Artist-Self
- Write for five minutes about any object you see, letting your ideas wander freely.
- Mashup two random words into metaphors. What might it mean?
- Take a beginner’s class in anything. Try improv comedy, if you’re really courageous.
- Talk to a child under eight years old. Ask them any “why” question they can’t possibly know the answer to, and keep asking without answering.
Exercises for the Analyst-Self
- Read something and sort each phrase by sense modality: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell.
- Write in a restrictive form. Haikus are my favorite, but sonnets and limericks are good too.
- Take apart a simple machine and put it back together. My grandfather uses clocks.
- Talk to your most critical family member. Ask them how they might do things differently if they were living your life, and listen without interrupting.
Which side do you tend to spend more time on? Comment below, and be sure to share any of your own exercises. I’ll need them when I’m bored of my own tricks, next time I’m waiting. KM
*For any Estillians who may read this: Thick TVF is square for me, Thin is round. Tilting Thyroid or Cricoid will make the body of the shape broader or slimmer; FVF will shrink or grow its size. The filter figures change color and shade, like temperature/tint/saturation sliders. I know it’s odd, but hey – maybe it’ll be meaningful as a prompt one day.