B B King died this week. In an earlier interview, Terry Gross asked him (he was in his 70's at the time) about getting nervous before each performance. King replied:
"It's an audition each time...(I remind myself that) I'm never any better than my last concert."
I found this confession comforting, as I have wondered over the years at my persistence in having nervous anticipation before each class I teach. I have come to realize that this is how I prepare; by continuously walking over the line of what I have done before, or what I know. I like to imagine that B. B. King and I are aligned in an uncertainty about the work we are doing– and that this doubt keeps the music, the teaching, the painting, and hopefully, the audience, alive.
B B King told the story of how he developed his style, his singular "trill" of one note on a string of his guitar. He described his trill as evolving from endless attempts to imitate the steel guitar– the sweetest sound he knew. More than anything he wanted to replicate this sound he heard in Hawaiian music on the radio. He developed his 'trill" by trying and failing, again and again, to imitate those he most admired.
This is what we do, reach for what we love the most, and practice everyday. What we are striving for emerges as something singular to the creator– your own song.
"Until the song that is your life falls into your own cupped hands and you recognize and greet it." Martha Postlewaite, Annunciation
When B B King got his first gig in NYC, he was anxious about being in the company of the musicians he most admired, and they could do things he could not do with their guitars. He had a manager who gave him advice that stayed with him the rest of his life:
"Don't go to New York trying to be Nat Cole, or anybody else that's trying to be slick. There are people sweeping floors that are better than you'll ever be. The best thing for you to do is to go there and be B B King...they can do other things but they cannot be you."
This states better than I am able to, what I strive for in my life as a maker and teacher. I remind myself that I also am better off not trying to be clever or slick, but to explore further what it is that I do. In teaching as well, what I am reaching for, more than any technique, is for each student to find their own "trill".
Steven and I had a lot of fun teaching at Cheerio, in the Smokey Mountains. One exercise that Steven gave the students was to pick "a word for the king", and write it as beautifully as possible.
Once the students had completed this task, they were told that the king had died, and the new king wanted all their words destroyed, one letter at a time!
Letters Destroyed, Anne Cowie
Here is another piece from our class created in the act of destroying:
It is the willingness to fail, to give up being savvy or slick, to strive for what we love– that reminds me of
this stanza from Mary Oliver's
I do not want to be frisky, and theatrical.
I do not want to go forward in the parade of names.
I do not want to be diligent or necessary or in any way
From my mouth to God’s ear, I swear it; I want only
to be a song.
To wander around in the fields like a little reed bird.
To be a song.
What gets you on the edge of your seat, feeling awkward or nervous? How do you become a song?