Breaking Out in Song: A Creative Distraction
I had to become a New York Times bestselling author, public speaker, and TV/radio commentator before I was ready to take on the new challenge of singing in public.
Trained as a classical pianist from the age of seven, I sang occasionally in choruses at school and other singing groups, but I was never able to play piano at the same time.
For most of my life, many of my piano or vocal performances were conducted alone or in the privacy of the shower, car or living room, until I was encouraged to sing with my partner, Géza Keller, a talented singer-songwriter and a longtime leader of many bands.
But after some unexpected circumstances and several years of rehearsals, I’m now doing what I never could before: I play the keyboard and sing vocals with the four-person acoustic group breakingthecode.
It was a long time coming, but looking back it really isn't all that surprising. I had all the pieces in place, it just took some time for me to break out of the musical closet.
I was born way back when in Montreal, Canada, the daughter of two McGill University graduates. My father, also a Canadian, wrote a play in which my English mother acted, and both won national awards for their roles.
I was one year and ten months old when the three of us moved to California in 1964, first to Santa Barbara, where my parents completed their PhDs in literature at UCSB, then to San Diego, where they got jobs at San Diego State University. In the early 1970s we moved from the College area to La Jolla, to the house where my mother, Carole Scott, now lives with my step-father, Chris Scott.
Growing up, I got quite a rich arts education, exposed to musical and theatrical performances in the U.S., France and England. In London, for example, my mom took me to see the musicals “Annie,” “Oliver” and “Cats,” a classical concert at the Royal Albert Hall, Chaucer’s play “Canterbury Tales” and Shakespeare’s “Midnight Summer Dream.” Years later, I saw musicals and plays on Broadway in New York. But I always saw myself as an arts enthusiast, not a performer.
Like Géza, the founder of breakingthecode (BTC), I grew up with music playing constantly, with most every wall in the house lined with books and records. My dad, James Rother, taught himself to play clarinet, saxophone and piano by ear (he couldn’t read sheet music) along with his records, which also included classical music, opera and Broadway musicals. He often had stereo wars with the neighbors as well as his own family. I, for one, could not sleep with “Side by Side by Sondheim” blaring.
I took classical piano lessons for seven tedious years, playing pieces by Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin. But I hated practicing. I also had tremendous anxiety about playing—and making mistakes—in front of people, so I rarely participated in recitals. I was always a skilled sight-reader, but I couldn’t play without sheet music. I also tried acting in a couple of plays, but was too shy to pursue that any further.
Curiously, as soon I stopped taking piano lessons, I found a new joy in playing and started practicing every day, I grew more comfortable playing for others, especially if a friend had a grand piano. I dreamed of having my own someday.
Meanwhile, I sang with the Muirlands Junior High School chorus as a soprano, and enjoyed singing along with pop, rock, jazz songs or musicals such as “West Side Story” or “A Star is Born.” My best friend, Lori Rubin, and I went to rock concerts and followed local bands together. One night I fleetingly fantasized about being on stage, playing drums with Foghat.
During and after college at UC Berkeley, where I earned a bachelor’s in psychology and discovered my talent for journalism, I kept up my skills by seeking out pianos on local campuses, such as the concert grand in my dorm at Boalt Law School, where I lived my senior year and taught aerobics classes to mixed tapes of Michael Jackson, Santana and funk bands.
While working in corporate communications for a cruise line in San Francisco, I was asked to audition for the UC Berkeley Glee Club. I was accepted, but never went back. I was, after all, a closet singer.
During grad school at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, I discovered a love for the blues (and adventure) at the Checkerboard Lounge on Chicago’s south side.
After completing my master’s degree and Medill’s Washington, D.C., reporting course, I landed my first newspaper job—in rural Western Massachusetts.
When my roommate invited me to join a community theater production of a Noel Coward musical in Williamstown, I wanted a singing part, but I was the only pianist in the group. I couldn’t do both, so I stuck with accompaniment and helped the players learn their solos.
At my next newspaper job in Northampton, I spent my first night in town at an open mic, where I met my future boyfriend, the lead singer-songwriter in a funk band. When he suggested I sing back-up with his band on “Bust a Move,” I declined. Instead, I bought a Korg keyboard, a digitally-sampled grand piano, which I brought back to California when I was hired by the Los Angeles Times.
After spending a year each at the Times and the Daily News in Los Angeles, I finally worked my way back home to The San Diego Union-Tribune. I dedicated days to my news feature writing and investigative reporting, and weekends to crafting a mystery novel and salsa dancing.
In 1999, as a self-care treat after my short marriage ended tragically, I attended the 10-day Bread Loaf writing conference in Vermont, where I made a breakthrough discovery. Every day at lunch I rehearsed with an a capella group that performed several times during the conference. Asked again to play piano accompaniment, I insisted on just singing this time, blending harmonies in the small tenor section.
I looked for a group in San Diego to sing with, however my stressful day job and weekend novel writing discipline did not allow time for another hobby. But thanks to a small miracle, something good came out of the tragedy, and I was finally able to afford my own Boston baby grand piano in 2000 with a payment from my husband’s life insurance. After practicing every day for four months I finally mastered Debussy’s “Passapied,” the hardest piece I’ve ever learned.
When some girlfriends asked if I wanted to sing together for fun, I jumped at the chance and even offered my house as a practice space. But as soon as they saw my piano, I was back at the keyboard, and they were the ones singing.
After publishing my first book, “Poisoned Love,” in 2005, I quit my full-time newspaper job in 2006 to pursue my dream of becoming a full-time author. Thirteen years later, I’m a New York Times bestselling author of 13 books, and I’m working on #14, 15, and beyond.
I had to overcome my initial stage fright to give speeches and promote my books, and I’ve since done more than 200 TV and radio interviews, many of which have aired nationally. I have finally grown to quite enjoy being on stage or live on camera.
But my singing comes from the heart. In 2007-08, I experienced a prolonged flare-up of back, neck and arm pain from long hours at the computer. I couldn’t sit for very long, and was icing four times a day to deal with frequent and prolonged muscle spasms.
Unable to anti-inflammatory meds, singing was the only thing that brought me any relief. As I belted out jazz standards on Linda Ronstadt’s album, “Round Midnight,” I cried and smiled as I felt the pain and spasms let go. The more I sang, the stronger my voice grew, and the more my mood improved.
It was better and more healing than any physical therapy—and it was free.
Once I felt better, I rediscovered my love for live music and often went to see the retro dance band, FakeBook, with a high school friend. She was married to Tony de Paolo, a guitarist and singer in the band. His friend, Géza, the lead singer and guitarist, was always friendly and winked at me every once in a while. I loved that he would ask the band to play “Old Love” by Eric Clapton when I requested it, even when his bandmates didn’t really want to do it anymore.
Tony got FakeBook to play at my book launch party for “Naked Addiction” in 2007, and sometime later, he invited me, Géza, and some other friends to his house for a sing-along. It was fun, but I was still shy and intimidated by the notion of singing with two guys who played together in a band. In public. I, did, however, venture out a few times with musician friends, such as drummer Randy Willert, to sing karaoke songs like “Crazy” or “You Took Advantage of Me.”
Fast forward to 2012. Géza and I started dating. He asked me to sing along with him at a few parties (he brings his guitar everywhere). We also sang together at home or with family for fun, which prompted my stepfather to encourage me to sing publicly.
Géza suggested I pick a few songs where he would play guitar and I would sing alone, or where he would join in on the chorus. When she heard me sing, my mother told me that one of my uncles had led songs at temple as a cantor, and that my paternal grandmother’s maiden name actually was Canter.
Soon, Géza and I were practicing every weekend until he finally asked me to join his acoustic group, breakingthecode, which included two of his FakeBook bandmates, Tony and bass player Tom Borg.
Géza, Tom, Tony and I have been playing together ever since. We play a wide eclectic blend of classic songs and originals, putting our own style and harmonies to them, with notes of jazz, blues, folk and rock. We sing old and new songs, some dating back to the 1920s.
We’ve performed at numerous private parties, the San Diego County Fair, the Athenaeum, the Kraken, Winston’s, Mr. Peabody’s, and have played a regular annual gig in Socorro, New Mexico for the past five years. Due to busy work schedules and travel, Géza and I have also performed by ourselves on Salt Spring Island in Canada, in Sonoma, and here in San Diego. We also play sometimes as a trio with Tom, who is also in another band as well.
For the first few years of playing together, my bandmates urged me to try playing keyboards and sing, but no matter how hard I tried, it continued to be a challenge for me.
Then I ran into another bout of complicated health issues, which, this time caused me to keep losing my voice. Unable to sing much for a while, I put my mind to learning piano parts for most of the band’s quite extensive set list, which includes many of Gézas original songs.
Once again, I managed to get something good out of something bad. Once my health improved, I was thrilled to learn that after all those months of learning the band songs on the piano, I had finally developed the neural pathways (or muscle memory, who knows) to sing and play piano simultaneously.
Along the way, I have taken a number of professional singing lessons to improve my style and to learn how to sing better and longer, however my voice still gives out at times, so I can’t sing for as long or as often as I would like. No one can figure out why, which is maddening.
I guess I won’t ever be able to quit my day job to become a professional musician (or a basketball player for that matter), but I still love to sing so I do the best I can for as long as I can. I’ve never been one to give up on something I love, even when it hurts, especially when it’s fun.
I would never have even thought about singing in a band if I hadn’t gotten over my shyness and fear of speaking in public first. But just like when I give a speech, the bigger the group the better I do, because there is more energy in the room. When I can see on people’s faces that I’m reaching and engaging them, there’s just nothing else like that.
I’m grateful to have this creative outlet, which is a distraction from my daily work as an author. It also helps me writing to have a break from looming deadlines and by bringing some light into the darkness of writing about murder cases. I liken it to acupuncture, where the skin is pierced to let the energy flow in a different direction.
Making music makes me feel more alive, invigorated by achieving a new accomplishment and developing a new skill. It also makes me feel fresher when I come back to my writing. And it’s gratifying when friends tell me they’re inspired by my willingness to take a risk and try something new at my age, because it makes them want to try something new too.
Life is too short to live in fear and hide from new challenges. I’ve already learned the hard way that striving for balance in work and play is crucial to my health and continued success. I’m still working on the stage fright, but I’m doing a lot better.
Here’s the big news: We have several gigs coming up, including the Iron Fist in Vista on June 8 from 6 to 9 PM, and two afternoon performances at the Del Mar Fair on June 26 and July 1. Details are on my Events page. Hope to see some of you at one of them.
Thanks for reading my blog!