What Kenny G taught me about energy

Ok – full disclosure: this isn’t strictly about Kenny G, but he’s involved. This morning, I heard a human interest story on NPR about who held the longest note on a wind instrument. It seems fitting for me, since I’m just about to wrap up my 8th consecutive day of VO work, and I’m definitely feeling like there should be some kind of Guinness record for it.

In this story, each of the contenders for this record were able to play the same note on their chosen instrument for over 45 minutes! Take a listen (2:30), and I’ll share some of my takeaways below.

Breaking records is nice, but in my mind, it’s not quite the point. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from these musicians and from the past couple of weeks:

  1. It’s about energy. If you can sustain the energy, the time and performance follow. It takes a lot of mental and physical energy to sustain a note for 45+ minutes. According to the news story, your lungs and lips start to hurt after a while. As an actor, your voice gets tired, maybe dry or scratchy. Your body gets tired from flailing around the booth, or maintaining a posture or placement to stay in character. It’s especially true after a vocally taxing video game or animation session. Like a marathoner, you have to pace yourself, but you still have to maintain energy for the work. The big lesson for me here was about proper hydration, vocal rest and communicating with my directors so we could get great performances without killing my instrument.
  2. Your technique matters. Fundamentals will get you every time. John Wooden, the UCLA basketball coach known as the “Wizard of Westwood,” used to spend hours teaching his players how to put on their socks and tie their shoes. (And it would drive his players nuts!) In order to carry a note in tune for that long, players learn something called “circular breathing.” In VO, we learn similar techniques borrowed from music and theater: breath support, placement, dialects and accents. We also lean on our acting chops (A LOT!!!). Proper vocal technique = efficiency + accuracy. Proper acting preparation = performance prowess. And that allows us to sustain characters across multiple sessions. All those drills you do in class or in practice become muscle memory. Training those muscles properly will make you more efficient. Then you can focus on other things.
  3. Your strategy matters. This comes from knowing your discipline so well that you start to see the pros and cons of different approaches. For Birchfield, he chose to play the same note (C#) becuase it was physically less demanding. Then he could channel his energy and focus on sustaining the note. For voice actors, we tend to put the voice shredding work at the end of the session – any screaming, efforts, grunting. If I had a director who wanted to move in order of the script, I would ask if we could move the more vocally taxing work to the end.
  4. There will be a grind. For these musicians, there are physical and mental games you have to play in order to get this far. Their fingers cramp from holding down the same key. Lips get numb, lungs hurt from the constant pressure of circular breathing.  You might get bored in your own practice. After reviewing the same techniques, day in and day out, you may start to wonder: why is this not clicking? You might feel frustrated and want to quit.  There was a point in these last few days when I stopped knowing what day it was. My only focus was: which gig am I going to now? What do I need to prepare (creatively, mentally and physically) to be ready for it? There are moments when the body is so tired it urges you to give up. It tells you that it’s okay to leave with just a participation trophy and a juice box. And that’s when (at least for me) the tiger mom in my brain has to come in and say: “Nope, you’re not quitting now. You’ve got this. Read this line one more time – with energy!”
  5. When the body starts tire, it’s the heart that will carry you through. Kuti chose to hold the A note because was excited enough about A to play it for over 45 minutes. He was excited about a music note!! I was able to play my way through session after session because I absolutely freaking love what I do. I feel so lucky and fortunate to be able to do it. The characters I played each had a unique quality that I could connect to and play with endlessly. And when I got tired, or felt frustrated, or needed take a little break, I would remind myself of this. You see this all the time in sports: the winded, injured runner nearing the end of a brutal marathon, just limping his way to the finish. He gets his body over the finish line and despite all the fatigue, the toll on his mind and body, he flashes a happy, grateful, weary grin and waves his arms in triumph.

Not everyone wants to break a world record. Not everyone wants to sustain this much work. But chances are, you’ve had a project that required you to dig deep in order to finish it. Maybe you were trying to perfect a product launch, or prepare to apply to your dream companies for a job. Or maybe it’s more personal: like finding the energy and time to support a loved one going through a medical crisis, or preparing for a major life milestone like getting married or having a baby.

We face our own “world record” challenges all the time. The truth is we can get through it if we choose to. We can even thrive in the face of it. We can dance with joy during it. The real lesson is: What are we choosing? How are we choosing to feel about the work we are doing? In my case, I chose gratitude. There’s a reason why I call the VO booth my “happy place” – and I’m happy, gleeful and grateful every time I get to play there.

Who knew you could get so much from a story on saxophone players?

And btw, for those of you curious about who holds the records I mentioned for “Longest Note Held on a Wind Instrument” (SPOILER ALERT):

3. Kenny G: 45:47

2. Femi Kuti: 46:38

1. Van Birchfield: 47:06

I’d love to hear what your “world record” moment is right now: What is your personal “world record”? What are you doing to sustain your energy and excitement through it?

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