Sound Stories #019 – Identifying and Honing your Creative Strength

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    While it can be tempting as a creative to pursue obvious success, there’s something to be said for finding your niche and being creatively fulfilled. Tyley shares his insights regarding setting yourself up for that kind of success, but also getting involved in the creative process and figuring out what you want your creative legacy to be.

    Read more about singing in the MRI.

    TRANSCRIPTION SOUND STORIES #019

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Hi there, and welcome to another episode of Sound Stories, an inspirational podcast for creative professionals and storytellers who want to improve their lives at home and at work. I’m Stephanie Ciccarelli, your host and co-founder of Voices.com. It’s hard to sum up Tyley Ross’s amazing experience in a nutshell, but just to give you a taste, Tyley is a Grammy nominated recording artist, the co-founder of the East village Opera Company, a Dora Award winning musical theater actor, a teacher, a vocologist, a coach, a husband, a father, and probably too many other things to name. But in short Tyley Ross is awesome and he’s busy. So, we’re so very grateful that he could join us on the show today to discuss working through a common roadblocks that we all face as creatives, identifying and honing your creative strengths. Welcome Tyley.

    Tyley Ross:

    Thanks for having me on.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Yeah. So to kick things off, in the intro, oh my goodness, did I cover all of the various roles that you have?

    Tyley Ross:

    Yeah. I think you covered the most of it. I do have a pretty diverse way of making living and I think I’m basically just following my interests in all directions. I constantly have new projects that I’m building but I have a great private voice clientele, I also work at a laryngology center working with pathological voices who are being rehabilitated. Everybody there from worship singers, to pop singers, to music theater performers, to opera singers.

    Tyley Ross:

    And then I get contracted in for Broadway shows as well, so I will go on and work with the performers. In a show in that case I’m between the director who’s requiring something, the conductor or a musical supervisor who is trying to get something out of a singer, but is not successfully getting what it is they need. So, I come in to translate the acoustic aesthetic that is being pursued by the creative team and translate that into actor, singer language so that we can get out what’s required.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Amazing stuff in vocology. Tell us more.

    Tyley Ross:

    Vocology is the science and practice of rehabilitating and habilitating voices. So in the speaking world, the hierarchy is you have a laryngologist, an ENT, you have a speech language pathologist and a theatrical speech coach say at the bottom. In the singing world, you have the laryngologist is at the top and then there’s nobody really to take the place currently of the speech language pathologist. So, the vocologist takes that role basically of, how do you take somebody whose voice is in good shape and actually get them to a heightened level of voice use? So, it’s a bit broad because sometimes it has implications for speakers and sometimes for singers. But for me I’m pretty uniquely a singing voice specialist within the vocology field.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Well, it sounds like you’re working with a lot of wonderful creative people and a lot of cross pollination going on it would seem. So, one topic of interest of mine, and is yours as well, is to help those creative people, voice majors in particular for you or performers along the way in their careers. So, when you’re speaking to someone who’s trying to develop their career, would you say that it’s better to focus your efforts in one area? As in be known for a particular I don’t know, signature voice or a brand notoriety. Or is it better to be diverse?

    Tyley Ross:

    Excellent question. And I think that every singer is their own, and I will extend that to every creative, is their own puzzle. As a teacher, you have a roadmap of where you want people to go. And you may have a really good view of where they are on the map, but there’s a couple of things. One, they might not be where you think they are on that map and they might not be going where you think they ought to go. So, you need to get a really good sense of where are they for real? Are they aware of where they are? And where do they want to go?

    Tyley Ross:

    There’s an onboard program that I think performers have, which is just to pursue the success that is out there and obvious in front of them. A lot of people want to become a Broadway star and they want to go until they win their Tony awards. Or they want to record their music and they’re going to do that until they get their Grammy Award. But ultimately I feel like people need to identify a thing that they do, that’s where they can be a specialist.

    Tyley Ross:

    And I actually have them visualize themselves as two things. One, is a gambler and two is as a farmer. So as a gambler, they’re a specialist, they are going to pursue this business of becoming a performer. And hopefully that they’re going to succeed, they’re going to get the roles that they want, feel artistically fulfilled and they’re going to make money and they’re going to win awards if that’s what it is they want to do. But being that creative, you’re not really that much in charge of what you do.

    Tyley Ross:

    You can be the very best at all of the things that you need to do and you can be ready and you’re not going to get hired. Maybe you’re too tall, maybe you’re too short, maybe you are too wide, maybe you’re too skinny, maybe you’re too bald or blonde. Or all of the things that you can be that just somehow don’t resonate with what the casting director and the director’s idea of what that character was going to be when they started the casting process. So, that person doesn’t get the role. I think it’s important to be ready for that.

    Tyley Ross:

    So as a gambler, you need to make sure that you buy your lottery ticket and you buy it every week that you handy up. And so as a performer, that means that you’re castable And that means being aware of what your casting type is. So, if you are the American hero, you’ve got to be going to the gym and you got to be taking care of your hair. I could grow my hair out all scraggly and put on 50 pounds and I could be the crazy next door neighbor. There’s things that I could do for myself that would make me more identifiably, iconically a character type that would not challenge a casting team when they’re looking for to fill a role.

    Tyley Ross:

    So, knowing what your character type is and actually nailing that is important. So being ready, that’s part of being a good gambler. Making sure that your audition pieces, your monologue and your audition book, every music theater performer has to have a dozen or 20 songs in their book that they’re ready to perform at any moment. So, being sure that all of your knives in your drawers are really sharp in that regard. Making sure that you’ve got a beautiful headshot, that your resume looks good, that you’ve got a good agent, you’ve got a good manager that you know how to take an interview. That you audition well, that you know that, if you get a part, you’re going to be able to do everything with it that you feel like you’re going to be able to do. So, you already know that you are as good as you can possibly be.

    Tyley Ross:

    And then you sit there waiting. There isn’t much you can do beyond that. There’s lots of talk about networking and all the rest, but my feeling is you turn yourself into an excellent performer. And then it can be very depressing for a performer because then you sit and wait for your phone to ring. So, that’s when I say, “Okay, you’re also a farmer you’ve taken care of your gambler side, you’ve got your lottery ticket, you ready to go. And now you’re just waiting for your number to come up.” But that’s depressing and I find that for a lot of performers, and I’ve got a lot of friends who had everything necessary to become big stars and be extremely successful. And then for one reason or another, their number just didn’t come up.

    Tyley Ross:

    So, my advice is to also think like a farmer and you take a look at your metaphorical artistic field and you ask yourself, “What do I want to become as an artist? What will be my artistic legacy? If my lottery numbers did come up and I was hired to do the greatest show, like my perfect show, what would that be? What would I like to create?” Or maybe your question would be, your end goal question is, what would be my artistic eulogy? What will people talk about when I’ve left this earth? What will I have liked to create? So, what can I plant in this field? And that is a daunting thought for a lot of artists, because we thrive on being given a script and being given some choreography and the costume and a little piece of tape on the stage that we have to stand on. And you sing that song there and you look in this direction and you have… You’re told what to do. And in that you find creative freedom somehow.

    Tyley Ross:

    But if you then take all of those constraints off and you just say, “Okay, here’s your field, it’s your life and you can create anything you want there.” What are you going to plant in your artistic field? And then, once they actually get to the point of thinking, what it is they might like to do be it for a performer, it might be that they want to write a one person show, or they want to, they also are a song writer, and they want to write some songs. And it’s going to be a lot of hard work. And they have to go out into that field every day, they have to plant those seeds, they have to tend to those seeds, they have to weed, they have to water, they have to fertilize. They have to do all those things and be patient and continue to go out every day even if they don’t see things poking through the ground yet. They need to continue to plant, they need to continue to harvest and water and tend to that field.

    Tyley Ross:

    And then maybe what they might find is that what they planted something else is going to grow. And then they might decide to go, “I’m going to follow that.” Because it turns out in my artistic field, my vision actually creates this. So, I came out here to become a comedian, but it turns out I’m a serious monologist. It turns out I’m not funny, I’m profound. And then you must allow for a certain amount of flow, discipline and play in that field where you encourage whatever is underneath the surface to come out. And then having grown something, this is another difficult part, is you have to harvest it. You actually must take it to fruition and that might involve getting some other people on board, getting a producer, getting a director, getting some various coaches to help out with your work.

    Tyley Ross:

    And then finally the last part is to take it to market, which is difficult for a lot of artists because I think a lot of the reason that a lot of creatives become the gambler side of the art is because they want to be wanted. We want as artists for audiences to enjoy what it is we do. And in order to get there, we need for creative teams and directors to like what it is we do. And each time I go out in the field, something different grows out there, which is exciting and fun. But I do find that there is a cross fertilization between being a gambler and being a farmer, if you will, I’m really expending this metaphor. But I find them apt is that as a gambler, you’re trying to appeal to the director ultimately, and the producer and the casting person, the people who are going to get you in the door and put you on the stage.

    Tyley Ross:

    But they don’t really like auditioning people. Most casting people, most directors hate having to sit through auditions, they would rather just have people that they already knew. And where do they know people from? Well, because they go to the market and they go to shows and they see people doing their one person shows. They see people doing comedy, they see people posting their videos online, they see people actively taking their art and putting it out. And the likelihood of your lottery number coming up as a winner increases exponentially.

    Tyley Ross:

    If you are also developing your creative self and marketing that creative self in such a way that directors are going to see what it is you’re doing, you’re finding your own voice. And you’re figuring out what it is you want to do in this world, which people are going to want to use. You should just do something even if it’s bad. You don’t need to worry about it if it’s bad, because even if it’s bad, people are going to be astonished that you did something. Because most people are waiting around to be hired. So, if you actually go and create something and put it up for people to enjoy and say, “I did this.” People are going to celebrate it. And then in the process, it will become better and better.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    I love all these. It’s basically you need to be prepared in order for that opportunity when it comes up to actually come to fruition. So, I know we’ve talked a little bit about this before on the show just about you do preparedness when combined with the opportunity will result in something wonderful. Now you did mention something else in here and it’s the idea of artistic freedom. And to some people this can be really scary. When you’re working with your students, how do the students perceive the idea of artistic freedom? Is it scary to them? And then how do you help them to overcome that?

    Tyley Ross:

    That’s a tricky one. Artistic freedom is an interesting conundrum. I think it’s really important for people to take artistic freedom, but each person in the measure that they are temperamentally set up for it. There’s some people who are rebellious and really want to cast off the chains that bind them artistically. And there’s some people who really want to conform and will find beauty and freedom and a sense of being self-actualized by conforming musically. And I think that’s, both tabs and all, it’s not even binary. It’s we find ourselves probably somewhere between being really rebellious and being conformists. And I think you can split that arguably between being an artist and being an entertainer.

    Tyley Ross:

    I think an entertainer more is trying to do what it is the audience wants. And I know a lot of artists who will gauge their own success by, did that go over well with the audience? Did the audience like it? Did I sell a lot of tickets? For me I like quite a bit of artistic freedom. When I was younger, I was very happy to sit quietly in a rehearsal hall with all the creatives and act when I was pointed at and told to go. Now I’m a bit of a curmudgeon, I have too many opinions, I’ve done far too many creative projects to sit happily silently. Although I will sit silently because I know that’s the gig of the performer, when you’re hired to be in someone else’s piece. And it can be relaxing too just to go, “You know what, you do what you want. And I’m just going to observe how you create.”

    Tyley Ross:

    And I do find myself. I do some workshops and workshops are development workshops for in due plays, so these aren’t workshops that you take for yourself development. Although I do take them for myself development, I’m actually a resource actor and singer for new shows that are being developed for Broadway. And these are a lot of fun, they’re kind of high pressure because what happens is you have a week or two weeks, as much as a month of rehearsal for a new show that has never been performed before. But you’ve got the creative team and you’ve got the producers and you’ve got the writer and the director and the proposer all in the room. And you’re actually, they’re sitting around, really you’re in the forge. They’re really trying to be what the show is.

    Tyley Ross:

    And every day you come back from lunch and there’s rewrites for your script and you have to put in 20 pages and pick out 20 pages. And then there’s a new song or there’s a cut to a song and you have to switch these pages around. I find that very stimulating if only just to overhear what these brilliant people are doing creatively. But in that case, I have to really tame myself. I’m not there as an artist I’m there as a resource for them and I’m there for myself. I’m there as a student just to be mentored, although they don’t realize they’re mentoring me. But I just want to see how these great artists work. And I’m lucky working in the Broadway sphere, I get to work with some of the very best in the business at the height of their careers. And I get to see how they work.

    Tyley Ross:

    So that for me is I find myself both, I have to constrain myself and be the good soldier, if you will. But then I take that knowledge and I take that inspiration and I take that the awareness of the creative process there. And I take that and I transplanted into my own creative ventures. So for artists, I think it’s important to have a little bit of both, to have the soldier and the rebel all rolled up in one and know when to be one and know when to be the other.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Exactly. And to be laser focused on an end result and to be fluid both important. When you’re working with other people, you have to be open to what their styles are. And also, if it’s not your one man show, then it’s somebody else’s production and you got to fall in line with some of that too, so that’s awesome. No, I want to switch gears a little bit here and just talk about something I know you’re really passionate about. And so am I, as someone who’s come from a vocal background and really loves her instrument and understanding it, so want to take the idea of visualization from the figurative to the literal. Because I know that you’ve just created a really interesting piece of video content. Can you tell us more about what you’ve been working on?

    Tyley Ross:

    Yeah. So I was really fortunate, and I continue to be fortunate, I worked at a laryngology center and it’s a very science based center. It’s a a voice care center, the Langone and Voice Care Center at NYU. And there are some speech language pathologist there who are really active in research. And the laryngologists there are really active in research and they have access to an MRI after hours. And MRI is the magnetic resonance imaging, it’s like a, for those people who don’t know it, it’s like an X Ray, but it uses some magnetic resonance to see through images.

    Tyley Ross:

    But instead of seeing the whole three dimensional image, what you get as a thin slice, just a thin in plain of an image. And in fact, once the MRI is complete, you can actually scroll through the three dimensional image, plane by plane. So, what it meant for me was the technician from Siemens was wanting to learn how to and better calibrate the machines. They’re really squeezing a new function out of the existing MRI machine of getting moving images out of an MRI. Because up until now, basically what you’ve had is static imagery that you can get out of these machines.

    Tyley Ross:

    And so, I was used as a guinea pig and my agreement was I get the video from this session. Then I’ll go and lie in this MRI machine for a couple hours in the middle of the night and do what it is they want. I just wanted to see what is going on in my vocal track. I spend all my time visualizing what’s going on inside and helping my students to visualize what it is that’s happening. And I’ve had as a teacher more than as a singer, but it certainly helps me as a singer, but as a teacher, I have to understand physiologically biomechanically, what is actually moving in the body of the singer. And it’s all really, mostly I should say, invisible.

    Tyley Ross:

    It’s all the inner spaces of the vocal track and the vocal track, basically starting at the vocal chords in the throat and moving up through the pharynx, the back of the throat, and then coming out the mouth and the sinus when the velum is open it to be a little technical. So, I have to be very sensitive to what’s happening in there, but we don’t really have evidence about what is actually moving and how they are moving. So, I wanted to get in this MRI machine and audition, if you will, what it is I think I’m doing and compare that to what it is that’s actually happening.

    Tyley Ross:

    So, I was able to get in there and I spent a couple hours singing in the MRI, and I was given that footage and I’ve put together a four and a half minute video of the footage showing myself and profile in the video. And then I cut into the inner world of the vocal tract shown through the MRI. So, I call it the Singing in the MRI, is the name of the video. And I sing the end of Nessun Dorma, Puccini’s aria. And I sing that in four different vocal styles. And you can really see the different shapes that the vocal track needs to contour and posture itself into in order to actually do these different duties, different vocal strategies, or vocal styles.

    Tyley Ross:

    And I certainly there’s no hard science in it so much because there’s, no blind study, there was no other singers in the room. We just had one shot really with me doing each one of these things. But what we can definitely say is that things are moving and moving differently from style to style. And my next, I’m going to continue with this study, I’m going to get a range of singers into the MRI to sing and I want to do some comparative analysis of what is moving. And can we start to objectively say, what is moving in the vocal track when we’re making these changes in vocal styles and vocalism, if you will, different vocal aesthetics.

    Tyley Ross:

    How are we doing that? How is the tongue position differently? How is the velum? How has the jaw? How are all of the movable parts of the vocal tracks? And you can say that virtually the entire vocal tract is moveable. It’s an extraordinary piece of extraordinary instrument. We are an extraordinary instrument, each one of us.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    I agree. Yeah, I’ve watched the video. It was amazing. And I loved how you can actually see the tongue and how it moved, or the soft palette and how it would be elongated and raised. But there’s just so many amazing… Oh my goodness, being able to see inside the human body is amazing, but to know how your instrument works, to better understand how those words in the colorings come through. And just the various styles you went through, people will definitely need to watch this, just check our show notes. But obviously Singing in the MRI is the name of the video by Tyley Ross. But yeah, pharyngeal voice. I’m sure that that was in there somewhere too.

    Tyley Ross:

    Can I add one other thing that’s been very inspiring and transformative to me is becoming a father. I have a beautiful four-year-old son who is just the absolute light of every moment of my life. And I’ve found when I was a younger person, boy, did I ever want to become famous? And that was my driving force. I just would have done anything and been in any one show and done whatever was required and I didn’t care what it was. I just really wanted to succeed and to have people say that I was great, that was my motivation. And then I wanted to satisfy myself. Having had a certain amount of success and been other people’s walking, talking actor on their stage, I wanted to create my own work and plumb the depth of my own soul and figure out what was in there artistically.

    Tyley Ross:

    And of course, somewhere along the way, the reality hits the road, whatever it is you’re plumbing for has to actually find its feet in the world and it turns into whatever it’s going to turn into. But I find as I’m creative now, I find myself asking the question, “How is this relevant for the world that’s being built for my kids?” And I feel like as a young person, we just want to succeed as maybe a young person, but as a developing artists and creative. We become really hypnotized by it, and mostly out of necessity, but how do I monetize this? How can I get somebody to buy this? How can I get somebody to endorse this? How do I get an advertisement to get on board of this?

    Tyley Ross:

    And we become really obsessed with that. And I think it’s an important time right now in the world, and for me personally, to do work that I think is relevant for art’s sake, for humanity’s sake. What can we say? What is the message? These things, maybe a hundred years ago, the likelihood that an artist would actually make money or even a writer would make money was just so beyond the pale. That work was made for its own sake, because people had something they needed to say. When we find ourselves in the creative arts serving the needs of commercial needs, and of course that is a viable and important concern. But if we are only chasing the end result of making money and entertaining somebody or getting an advertiser dollar, I feel like somehow we lose our soul and we lose our way.

    Tyley Ross:

    And it’s important for us to continue to ask, “What are we doing this for? What do I really want to say?” Go back to the field and ask yourself, “What would I plant here? And what can I plant that will benefit the generation of my children and their children?” And that’s been a really important force for me and consideration for me as I create now in my life.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Well, so eloquently said, where can people go to learn more about you Tyley and get connected?

    Tyley Ross:

    I have a website, tyleyrossvoice.com. I’ll spell that because it’s an unusual name, Tyley, T-Y-L-E-Y-R-O S-S voice.com. And then through there, you can go to visit my videos up on YouTube. I’ve also got a few albums up on iTunes, Spotify under my name as Tyler Ross. I’ve got a few singer-songwriter albums, I’ve got three albums with my group, the East Village Opera Company and another album with another group that I have called the Aria Electronica. So, people can hear me there and if you’re ever in New York City, I coach voice here too.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Oh, that’s amazing. Well, thank you so much for being on Sound Stories Tyley. I can’t wait for everyone to hear this episode.

    Tyley Ross:

    Thank you so much for having me.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Thank you for tuning in. And if you haven’t already done so, I’d like to invite you to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, as well as give us a rating. We love hearing from you and gathering your feedback. Once again, I’m your host, Stephanie Ciccarelli. And I hope you can join us for our next Sound Stories podcast.

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