Routines: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Reinforcing your daily life with healthy habits can help set you up for long-term success. Media is rife with examples of various titans of industry and their quirky rituals or structured schedules.

The famous scene in The Wolf of Wall Street of Matthew McConaughey’s character teaching Leonardo DiCaprio’s character how to amp himself up, through beating on their chests and humming, was inspired by McConaughey’s actual pre-shoot ritual. Another anecdote, which I have yet been able to confirm, attributes Luciano Pavarotti’s great vocal power to his propensity for eating entire pizzas during the course of the show. It’s beyond dispute, however, that the late maestro loved to indulge in (and discuss) fine cuisine.

Routines are strange, multi-faceted things. Certain personal MO’s can be easy to fall into and hard to break; while others can be exceptionally difficult to maintain, requiring months and years of practice. At a glance, it seems like it’s easy to guess which habits often become counterproductive, but the truth is it’s not always so easy to see what’s best for your life. Being close to a passion or vision can cloud your better judgement when it comes to what is right and what is wrong. Sometimes the best vantage point, is the one we take from a distance. 

Just like Drake, let’s start from the bottom.

The ugly:

Ugly refers to all of those little habits (and sometimes disastrously misinformed designs) which can lead people down a path from which it is difficult to recover.

Photo by goashape studio.

Drug (over)use is one of the more obvious tropes that comes to mind when assessing where things eventually go wrong with the world’s great talents. Many wonderful artists swear by the otherworldly creative vigor that, they find, only accompanies the rush of their drug of choice.

“Scheduled substances” have contributed to the immutable styling of so many beloved performers, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, The Weeknd, John Belushi, Whitney Houston, Johnny Cash, Dr. Dre, etc. ad infinitum. While some argue that the art flourishes as a result of these experiences, there is no doubt that the artist can, often, personally fall apart because of them. Sometimes, with prolonged exposure to the heavier stuff, these drugs become the main focus/inspiration around which people order their lives. When that happens, everything else can take “second fiddle”, so to speak.

Why this happens boils down to topics you will read a lot about throughout this blog; personal judgement, individual life experience, and biology. You have to do a cost/benefit analysis with every decision as it relates to your health and artistry.

Certain people are biologically vulnerable to addictive behavior, and different drugs have varying capacities for addiction. When it comes to health, I don’t believe that any severe cost can warrant a perceived artistic benefit. You can’t make art when you are dead.

Idleness/”action paralysis” is something that I have personally struggled with every year of my life. In me, it is brought on by my ADD, and by my inability to see the bigger picture while I am doing smaller, ancillary, things.

Sometimes there are so many options, so many distractions, that it can force a person into inaction; for fear of making mistakes or losing opportunities. Failure to start a project because you haven’t figured out how to market it, failure to move past something difficult because it’s easier to do nothing, waiting for the perceived “right time” to spring into action. These are all ways people can trick themselves into not getting anything done at the end of the day.

Sometimes being comfortable is too easy, and you convince yourself that you can push something off until later. That error in judgement can compound and mutate into years of your life if left unchecked.

No matter what you do, as you get older, opportunities are going to start passing you by. Don’t let yourself become paralyzed by all the things that might be/might have been; focus, instead on the singular purpose of what is/or what could be.

“Part-time world class” or the unflappable ego are terms that I have come up with to classify an individual who, over a reasonable amount of time and education, isn’t capable of honest self-assessment.

In the course of an audition season, I found that I would get great feedback/contracts in some auditions, and bomb, or receive no/negative feedback in a few others. In a word, I didn’t feel like I was consistent; even though I would get one or two fairly good castings in shows per season. I call this phenomenon the part time world class phenomenon. On some rare occasions I was able to technically draw upon everything I had learned in my life to provide an excellent product, but not always.

When you are part time world class, it also follows that, after you receive a contract, you end up going to execute it and performing less than the expectation set by your audition. This could be for whatever reason; idleness, some physiological problem, or perhaps some psychogenic reason. The standard of professionalism in any industry is that you provide a high and consistent quality of good or service. This goes doubly for the arts, because, quite often, you are the product that you are trying to sell.

Sometimes the assessment isn’t necessarily a personal one, but a realization of what your value is in relation to the industry as a whole. Are you talented enough to be viable in this industry? Is money more important to you than expression? Is this something you could see yourself doing forever? These are all important questions that you will be asking yourself after you get out of school and into the big, bad world.

The inability to see one’s self for who they are/who they could be has put innumerable lives on hold.

The bad:

The bad aspect of routines centers around errors in process. They are typically problems that derive from one’s emotion or from a miscalculation in “personal logistics” (planning and coordination of daily events with their respective needs).

In a professional/artistic setting, permitting emotions to dictate routines can be a disaster scenario. Emotional motivation shifts the focus from what is professionally beneficial, to what is comfortable. They often inform our instinct to seem compassionate, or to avoid confrontation. It’s not to say that being considerate of other people is always detrimental; to the contrary. In order to form lasting relationships in an industry, it is important to be well-liked/respected by the members of that community.

Where emotions can get in the way of growth and development usually creeps up with our mentors, coaches, managers, PR collaborators, or any relationship that has direct executive power over your professional life.

As a singer, I cannot count the number of times I have had a colleague come up to me and ask something like, “I have been with my current voice teacher for x number of years, and a I love him/her but I don’t know if I am getting what I need from them. Do you think I should start looking for someone else or stick with it?”

If a performer has been feeling that way for a while, and have gotten to the point of inquiring about it, they already know what they need to do. It can be difficult when faced with the task of switching up your educational routines, replacing the instructions of one mentor, coach, or confident with that of someone new. Making that decision can be one of the best things an artist can do for themselves, and not making it can hold you back from your true potential. If your old mentors really value your relationship, they, too, will understand this (and sometimes even recommend it).

Bad practice leads to bad results at worst, and no progress at best. Practicing, across any spectrum in the arts, should be something that is done with intention. Determining what the best methodology is up to each individual, but once you discover what works for you, make sure to try and replicate the conditions under which that kind of practice happens. 

There are a number of things that can affect the efficacy of your practice: when is the day it occurs, when did you eat last, what is the order of the practice, your warm up, even the location of the practice.

The major mistake I would make, going into a practice session, is that I would have very little order or objective attached to it. I practiced whenever I felt inspired to do so, and I warmed up according to my prerogative for the day. I would sing whatever project I had coming, or whatever generally suited me at the time. This led to an artistic purgatory that my teachers, coaches, and I had to very diligently choreograph our way out of. I found that the best routine for me was to practice in the late morning, with a structured warm up (specific to opening up certain area of my technique), then to practice my audition repertoire, then projects, and finally monologues. Whenever I came to a particularly difficult passage of music, I would practice it measure-by-measure from the end to the beginning. When I acted, I had similar MO’s for tricky dialogues, monologues, soliloquies, etc. The point is that I found out what conditions yielded the best results, and I made sure to stick with them.

For some people, the best path to artistic expression is to try and be an empty vessel, or to be spontaneous. But there is always a lifestyle or a routine that can help someone be conducive to spontaneity. Perhaps that just means making sure to keep you schedule open and unstructured during part of the day.

The good:

In reading about some of the pitfalls listed in the prior categories, it makes sense that all of the opposite reactions to those would be good. You’re right. However it is important to highlight especially useful routines that people might take for granted.

Eating and sleeping well:

This might go without saying for many of you, but it isn’t uncommon, when the creative juices are flowing, for me to forget to eat a meal (or eat a bad meal) and lose a significant amount of sleep. And I get it. A singular, clear purpose can give an artistic this kind of tunnel vision.

But I find that in the long run, if I step back a bit to make sure that I give my body adequate nutrition, and a reasonable amount of time to rest, that I have more opportunities for inspiration. The mind is sharper when it is nourished.

Moreover, lack of sleep and nutrition can lead to some of the types of bad and ugly routine crutches that can hold an artist to stagnate. If you feel tired, but want to continue finishing that script, maybe you do a little bit of cocaine or (worse) drink 7 red bulls. Sure, you might be able to stay up a few days to finish that project, but opening that box puts into motion a vicious cycle of events; dependencies that you didn’t need before.

Photo by Roman Kraft.

Constant self-education:

Reading, consuming media, talking to people, making it to events…an artist should constantly be soaking in the ideas of the world around them. Seek out the performances in your area and support the efforts of your peers.

Not only to be relegated to the arts, it’s important to understand a wide-range of various topics. Art doesn’t happen in a cultural void, and if you are hired to play Richard Nixon in a play, it might be beneficial to know, beforehand, what he believed, what the political climate that brought his administration about, how government works, etc. The more worldly an artist is, the more valuable the artist becomes on the market.

To use a simple, ridiculous example, a painter who understands what the color blue is, is going to be more valuable than a painter who doesn’t.

Sometimes education can lead to entirely new opportunities for careers; outside the realm of the performing arts. Retired actor Daniel Day-Lewis has all of the makings of a fantastic shoe cobbler; a skill he picked up when he was preparing for the movie Phantom Thread.

Nurturing mental health:

While this category of routine can be quite vague, it is, nevertheless, important. It is whatever comes to mind when you do something that helps you get into a constructive mindset. Positive, constructive reactions to stimuli don’t just reflect/affect you, but they can color the moods of everyone around you.

I have my own ways to get into a good state of mind before a show. Usually I like to go out on the stage 20 or so minutes before curtain call, and just walk the space and smell the air. Right before I make an entrance, I usually say the same mantra to myself:

You are a professional, everyone here wants you to succeed, the worst that can happen is that you won’t sing well. So just have fun.

Reminding myself that I have all of the tools and that nobody is going to die if I have a bad night really helps get things in the right perspective for me to succeed. Find whatever that is for you.

Do you have any issues or comments that you would like highlighted on this blog? Let me know, at!

Ciao for now…


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