07 Aug Creating a Life of Peak Experiences, with Valerie Vigoda
My guest today is Val Vigoda. She started to sing and sight read at a very young age, and then started to play the classical violin at the age of eight. She wound up joining the Army ROTC to pay for school, so she rocked Princeton and went on to serve in the military.
Then she actually made a switch. She continued with the music but began playing the electric violin, and that lead to her touring the world with well known artists like Cyndi Lauper, Joe Jackson and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. She went on to form her own band called Groove Lilly and continued to tour the world with them.
Next, she decided to take some time off from the road so that she could focus in on raising her son, Mose. That’s when she spent about ten years writing music for Disney.
Then, most recently, she has won awards for additional musicals, including her most recent called Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.
If that were not enough, she’s been touring the country as a speaker, sharing the stage with people like former First Lady Michelle Obama. She speaks with audiences about facing your fears, rising to challenges, pushing your edges, and thriving in uncertainty.
- Website: ValVigoda.com
Thank you so much, Mitch. I’m delighted to be here. Thank you.
Absolutely. I can say, watching some of your performances, it’s just so captivating to see you play, and see you sing, and then see you inspire the audience.
I want to hear about all of it, but as I was doing my research, this question kept coming to me; you were classically trained on a standard wood violin. You now use an instrument that is, let’s just say, technologically advanced. What was it like when you made that transition to go from that classical, classically-built wood instrument to something using this level of technology? What was that transition like?
Well, it was actually a gradual thing. The violin that I play now is actually called a Viper. It’s a six-string flying V-shaped violin that’s sort of strapped onto my body with a guitar strap.
Of course, it’s called a Viper. Of course, it is.
Growing up as a classical violinist and also a singer, those two activities were always very separate for me, and I loved both of them. I loved playing the violin. I loved singing. I loved singing in choirs and singing by myself. As I grew up, I realized that what I really wanted to do was combine those two. I wanted to write my own songs, and I wanted to sing, and I wanted to use my violin in that way. So I started experimenting with that. Playing an acoustic violin in more of a pop setting, in a band, can be challenging regarding projecting sound.
You can put a pickup on the bridge, and there are many different ways to amplify an acoustic violin that way, but there are also some trip-ups, especially if you’re singing. If you have a mic on the bridge, your breathing can be picked up by the violin mic.
There are many feedback issues, and the natural warmth of the instrument is hard to capture when you’re doing it in an electric setting, so I started looking at electric instruments. The first couple that I used were sort of like regular violins but just electrified, so it’s a resonant chamber on the hollow body. It would be a solid body instrument, and it would be sort of like an electric guitar. You plug it in, and sound would come out. As I started experimenting with that, the violin was sounding pretty good, but I couldn’t very well sing and play at the same time. I saw someone very inspiring when I was living in New York. This woman played at The Bitter End. Her name was Allison, and she was amazing because she could play and sing at the same time. I said, “Oh, she can do it. I can do it,” so I started working on that.
Then I heard about this amazing inventor, a violin maker named Mark Wood, who makes a bunch of different styles of violin. The one that I fell in love with as soon as I saw it was this V-shaped instrument that took away the whole chinrest problem; the awkward way of having to put your neck at an angle in order to hold the instrument. It opens up that whole neck vocal area, and suddenly I was able to sing and play my instrument at the same time, as soon as I started playing the Viper. It changed my world. And it also had more strings. Instead of a four-string instrument, it was two extra strings. It’s like a violin, plus a viola, plus almost as low as a cello goes.
Now, I have this instrument that I can play like a violin, I can play it like a cello, I can play it like an electric guitar, I can run it through effects, and I can play power chords. It’s just a whole new world of being able to accompany yourself as a singer playing the violin.
That had to be really exciting, but scary too because you’re bringing in all this experience, but I’m guessing you also had to let go of some of that. I’m guessing you had to bump up against and let go of some of the training that you spent so much time cultivating.
Absolutely. It’s a much heavier instrument, so I had to start using different muscles. I had sore shoulders for about a year.
When you play classical violin, you also have the risk of certain forms of other muscle problems. Tendinitis, problems with your neck. It was relaxing a whole set of muscles and then strengthening a whole different set. But the instrument helped me. It makes such a visible statement when you walk out with this thing; it does look like a Star Trek.
It’s super cool, guys, we’ll put a picture up on this post so you guys can go check out the website and see what she’s doing. It is really cool. It made me want to learn how to play the violin, and nothing has done that before.
I spent a lot of time bumping into things with it. It sticks out of your body pretty far, so I’ve learned to be careful about how wide I am when I’m walking with this pointy thing that could really hurt someone.
I bet. It’s amazing. This had to be something where, as you started to do it, probably people thought, “You’re nuts. That hasn’t been done before.” That had to be an interesting journey to continue to push, because most people think, “I want to try something,” and then they bump up against, “Well, it’s not plausible, not possible, nobody’s done it.” So they quit, but you stayed the course.
I was very discouraged trying to do it because it was hard until I saw that one awesome woman playing. I was like, “Oh, there’s somebody that can do it. So I’m going to do it.” Now, years later, every year I have the privilege of going to teach at the Mark Wood Rock Orchestra Camp. The guy who invented that Viper has created this gathering; it’s the largest gathering of electric string players in the world. Every year, I get to co-lead with an amazing electric violinist, Joe Deninzon. The two of us lead a class in simultaneous playing and singing. That class is packed every year. The more people do it, the more people know about it.
I love it. I mean, when you were getting a little discouraged, starting to lose hope, you see one artist and see her do her thing, and that inspired you. One has to wonder how many different times have you inspired somebody? That person that goes after the dream, you don’t even know. Allison probably doesn’t know how impactful that one performance was for you, but that was a game-changer for you. We never know the ripple effects of us just walking out a dream, going after it.
Every so often, I remember with my band, we would be on tour, and sometimes we would play some discouraging gigs. We drive for 12 hours, and we set up all our gear, and we play, and there’d be eight people in the audience. I realized after a couple of tiny audiences like that and then hearing back from those people to say, “You really inspired me. I was one of the only people in the audience. I am having chemo treatments, and I was on my way, and I took your CD with me to the chemo treatment, and it inspired me and made me feel better.” A couple of those. I was like, “I don’t care if I’m playing for one person.”
It’s so true. I love it. You’ve come a long way since then. Now you teach about overcoming fear and finding flow. I wondered with all of your experiences in front of audiences, touring the world, all of that, what’s something that now you still have to be aware of? Where can fear kind of creep in for you? I know you teach the world how to break through those fears, but for you, what’s an area that you still have to watch personally?
I have to be vigilant about this all the time. I think that we are drawn to teach our own struggles, things that we are handling and dealing with. Maybe we’re just one step ahead of the people that we’re teaching. In my case, I feel like the circumstances of my life, my sort of odd, quirky upbringing, which I’m very happy that I had; It made me very cautious. I wanted to make sure that I knew what I was going to say before I said it. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. I ended up not saying that much, and I became such a rule-follower that my big act of rebellion when I went to college was to join the Army.
Right. One set of rules into another set of rules. Right?
That experience helped me find my voice. I had to not only take orders, which I was good at but also had to give orders. That was much harder for me to do. I had to face those fears because I had no choice. The commander would take me out back to the parking lot for remedial command voice training, where I would have to yell orders at him until he believed me.
Yeah. That sort of discipline helped me when it came time to audition and be part of the music business, which has many difficult personalities. Then, there I am, I’m with my Viper, and I’m on tour with Cyndi Lauper. She gets on the mic, and she tells everyone, “Hey everybody, this is Valerie, she’s a classical violinist. She plays very polite, very proper. I want her to play like a barbarian.” She shoves me down to the front of the stage, and it was super scary. I grew up as a classical player, not improvising. That’s still a little bit of my pain point, but at the time, I was like, “Okay,” I raise my bow, there are 20,000 people there. Somehow, I didn’t worry about what I was going to play, I let it flow, and the audience went wild. I felt so alive right then.
That is so great. I love that story. Wow, that is amazing. Credit to Cyndi Lauper. What a gift. It probably was scary, but what a gift for her to just thrust you into it.
I count her as my best performance teacher and my best vocal teacher. She was terrific.
At those moments though, at that time, everything aligned, and I felt this peak moment, and it was fantastic. But I didn’t feel it every time. That started me thinking, how can we feel this more? How can we live in that feeling not just of a thrill, but freedom and deep connection with what we’re doing? That was in the back of my mind for the next 20 years as life accelerated, and I got married, and we started touring more and then writing for Disney. Just trying to make it all work, and juggling 1000 projects. It wasn’t until 2014, much later, when at that point we were working on our latest musical, which was the show Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.
Ernest Shackleton was an explorer who set out in 1914 to cross Antarctica by land with his crew of 27 men. They sailed from England, and they got almost all the way to Antarctica when their ship was trapped by the ice. It didn’t move for seven months. Then when spring finally came around, instead of the ice thawing and letting them move, it began crushing the ship and destroyed it until it eventually sank. Then, Shackleton spent the next two years getting himself and all of his men out alive.
It’s one of the best stories of sheer tenacity and leadership I’ve probably ever heard of in my life. It is hard to even fathom. When I heard that was your musical I needed to know more. It’s just awesome.
Yes. As you know, this incredibly inspiring story of optimism, and just grit, survival. In our case, we decided to make it into a two-person musical. I was going to be in it, and I would play a composer, an electric violin playing musician surrounded by all of her equipment with a baby. The other actor would play Ernest. We did our readings, and our workshops and the show was getting some buzz. We were going to take it on the road. Right in the middle of all of that, one morning my husband came to me and told me, “I’ve fallen in love with one of our best friends, I don’t want to be married to you anymore.”
I didn’t know that part of your story. Oh my gosh.
I did not see this coming. I was devastated for months. Eventually, we got divorced, and we dissolved our writing partnership. But this Shackleton show was still moving forward.
That was one you created together, right?
Yes, exactly. This is going forward, I’m still going to be in it, I’m still going to be writing it, but for the first time in two decades, I’m doing it without my writing partner. That was hard for me. I tried to get down to work. It felt awful; I was so used to running everything by my husband. Every idea, every lyric, everything. As I was creating without him, I realized that, yes, we had been incredibly collaborative and productive. We had made beautiful things together. But in that, there was an element of me still being that cautious, approval seeking person. I wanted validation. I wanted to follow the rules, and get it right.
Having to face that was a big deal for me.
I bet. I did not know that part of your story. That’s amazing. You had to first learn these things that you now teach and apply them to yourself. That was a Shackleton level journey you were on.
Yes. I think that’s right. I think that it is, it was perfect. I was forced. I would go to work and like a fraud. I wanted to just quit and go eat ice cream and watch Netflix.
But that was not an option. This show was going forward. It’s a million dollar production. There were tons of people depending on me. I couldn’t let them down, or myself. The facing into that was probably the hardest thing I’ve done. But what I was forced into was this beautiful story, this incredible real-life hero who just never gave up, he was able to always be in the present moment. He had this belief, this relentless belief that optimism is a form of moral courage. Living in that every day was a godsend. It really helped me. So every night, months later, we’re in performance, and the show is going well. It was very well received. We’re going to re-open it again for an unlimited run sometime very soon.
But during that New York run, every night at the climactic moment of the show, where Shackleton and my character are standing at the top of this mountain peak, we hear the distant whistle of this whaling station, which means we found civilization. We’re saved. We don’t know how we’re going to get there, but we know that we will. I realized I was having that same feeling, that peak aliveness feeling. Except it was consistent. It was happening every time. I knew I was really onto something with being in the moment and facing into your fear, and being in service of something bigger than yourself. I was having a blast.
I love that story. I always love to talk with people who have found a way to teach or show others how to do something and how to break through fears, and how to push through and persevere. That’s one of the greatest gifts you can give to someone.
After that experience, what are some of those things that you do to guide people to break through and find that flow?
I had kind of an epiphany about the word “peak.” The practices that have helped me are what I put into the acronym P-E-A and K. First is Presence. That I think is the ground, fundamental state that we need to be in, to accomplish anything. I pretend I’m a tree and my feet are roots, and they’re going down 20, 50 feet below, and feel the strength of that. Then, from a place of being grounded, then feel as tall as possible. Take up space. One of the problems with fear is we often sort of collapse into ourselves and don’t feel worthy. We feel insecure. We don’t want to take up space; we’re not sure of ourselves. This is a way to physically be deserving, to know that you are taking up space, that you are bold. You’re grounded, you’re tall, you’re taking up space all around, every direction, outside your body, so you’re larger than your physical body.
Then, from there, hands on your heart, something that I work on with the orchestra students a lot is pretending that everything you want to communicate to the world is coming directly from the center of your chest, from your heart out, so we can do that with our violins, which really help, like opens up our whole physicality. But even if you’re not a violin player, just being present in that way and having your heart available for whatever you’re going to do is very crucial I think.
Then, the final element of the physical presence for me is breathing. Like a deep belly breathing through the nose, and doing it sort of slow and calmly. This is what I do backstage before a show. I’ll go through this, and stand on the side of the stage, and make sure I’m grounded, and tall, and taking up space, and open-hearted, and breathing.
Yeah. That really helps, that’s presence.
What you shared there in that two minutes or three minutes I think was pure gold. That’s five chapters in a book. That’s awesome. Absolutely. Totally understandable too. I appreciate that. That’s the P, that’s presence.
What comes next?
E is edge. We know that we should be fully present, not only physically present but also present in the present moment, in the now. Which means letting go of the past right away. In music, my dad is a jazz pianist, and he taught me this my whole life. He would say, “In music, you can not dwell on your mistakes. You have to instantaneously forgive yourself.” Which is hard to do, but if you’re dwelling on the past, you cannot be present for what’s going on next.
Once you’re physically present and temporarily present, then you can face into your fear. We know that we should be doing all of these things to be present, and what stops us is our fear. We tend to run away from them. If there’s a real fear, like if a tiger is chasing you, or you’re being sexually harassed or something like that. Then, fight-or-flight is a natural response; those are absolutely appropriate. But 95% of the time, the fear that we feel is just internal. It’s just fear of the unknown. If we’re nervous before we’re going to publicly perform, or if we feel that we’re not good enough, or we’re worried about confronting somebody and ruffling somebody’s feathers; We get that same physical reaction.
The way to handle it is to curiously go forward, right toward it, right to where it feels uncomfortable, and then explore that edge. If we’re practicing music, that means going to the difficult passages that feel awful to play and spending most of your time there. Where it’s just uncomfortable. This is not new, this is not a new idea, but it’s easier said than done.
Absolutely. But at the same time, though, sometimes it may not be revolutionary, but putting it in that order helps. I always say order creates value. So at the edge – often the exact place we need to go is to the edge, and to be able to say, “All right. I want to avoid this, but change happens at the edge. Learning happens at the edge.” You know, pushing to those new levels, that Cyndi Lauper call to, “Be a barbarian.” Right? That all happens on the edge. I love it.
I call it the juicy edge of resistance. I think the way to get there is with reframing, just telling yourself a different story. It’s like, “Oh my stomach is turning, and my throat is tense because I feel these symptoms of anxiety and fear.” Then just tell yourself a different story. This is what I was able to do with the Shackleton musical. When I had to get to business on the show and wasn’t feeling up to it, I reframed it. So, “Okay, my stomach is turning, that isn’t nausea, that’s excitement. I’m excited to go out there.” Then, “My throat is choked.” Okay, that’s expression, that’s where speaking comes from, that’s where singing comes from, and that’s where I get to communicate. It was turning, “I have to do this scary thing,” into, “I get to do this wonderful thing.”
Wow, that’s awesome. Talk about changing then your ability to perform from your heart. Let that come out from who you are as opposed to feeling like you need to hide something or be an impostor. What follows can then come from a very real place. I love it. Now you got me; I’m like totally leaning into the mic here. I need to know what A and K stand for. Let’s keep going, what is A then?
A is for Awe. That feeling of being part of something larger than yourself. A great example of this with the Shackleton was when they were really in terrible shape; they had abandoned their ship, they’re in lifeboats, they were rowing for some tiny little god-forsaken rock island. They didn’t know how long it was going to take to get there. They didn’t have enough food. They were thirsty, frostbitten, suffering from dysentery, and open sores, it was horrible. When I was writing lyrics for that part of the show, I had trouble getting into the mindset of Shackleton and his men. I went back to the journals that they wrote. They have these awful descriptions about what was going on.
For example, the navigator had to spend almost six days in the same position at the tiller. After that amount of time, when they went to relieve him, he couldn’t move. They had to open him up like a jackknife his body. This is like typical; the horrors that they were going through. Shackleton didn’t just describe the misery, though. In the midst of the misery, he was able to eloquently appreciate and describe the beauty of the Antarctic, this place no human person had ever seen before. The fact that he could go there, and talk about the beauty of the sunrise, and the ice and how it refracted, and how the seals would bask on the ice.
It just pointed toward how important it is to feel part of something larger than you. So that feeling some people associate it with God, some people associate it with nature, just being in nature and feeling your scale, the smallness of you within the vast universe. I like to tell people, have you ever seen the movie Powers of Ten?
It’s nine minutes long, and it’s on YouTube. It starts up with a family having a picnic on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Oh, yeah, I have seen this. Go on.
The camera zooms out by a power of 10 every 10 seconds. You see the whole Soldier’s Field; then you see Chicago, then you see America, then you see the Earth. It goes all the way back to 10 to the 24th power, which is the size of the observable universe. We can’t see anything recognizable; it’s just so vast, we are lost. Then it comes back all the way. It zooms back in, quick, quick, quick until it gets back to the family on the blanket. Then it goes in. It goes ten times magnified. Then you see the hair on the hand, and then you see the epidermis cells, then you go in and in and in. You see the electrons, and the quarks, all to the tiniest particles we can see.
All of this within nine minutes. At the same time, you’re thinking of yourself as an insignificant spec in the midst of hugeness. And you’re also an inconceivably huge, giant compared with an electron. You feel so connected. It’s the connection to our larger world that is associated with happiness.
As a recovering worrier, DREAM THINK DO-ers know that I’ve had a lifelong peaks-and-valleys relationship with worry, better today than I was yesterday, but it’s always an ongoing thing, right? I think that awe, it’s such a great tool, such a great weapon against worry. I love that. I love each of these steps. Listen, I’m going to encourage you, but I don’t BS people, so this is awesome, I love it. Very, very real, very practical. K, walk us through what is K. Bring us home.
K is for Kick. Getting a kick out of life. It’s about playfulness; it’s about enthusiasm. Sometimes it’s also about kicking yourself in the ass. To me, it’s the final element of finding the fun in everything you do. As somebody who spent a long time compartmentalizing. Maybe it has something to do with my army training, but work was always a grim set of obligations. Then happy hour. One hour of happiness.
Right. That’s the only time you’re going to have fun is way on the other side, once everything is done, all of that, as opposed to enjoying the journey?
Yes, exactly. As opposed to integrating a sense of fun and playfulness throughout the day. Just being a mom of a really fun, loving kid who prioritizes humor helps me a lot.
Playfulness is a serious thing. There was a study done where scientists took a group of rats, and they divided them into two groups. The first group was allowed to play freely, do all the things that rats like to do and wrestle, and squeak, and pin each other down, and all of that.
Then the other half of the rats were not allowed to play. They were stopped from doing any of those behaviors. Then the scientists brought in a collar that had the odor of a cat on it. All the rats in both groups were confronted with this scent of the cat, and they all fled, they ran away immediately, and they hid in the walls. Then, the scientists took the cat odor away, and the environment was safe again. The rats that have been allowed to play slowly came out from the walls, and they looked around, and they started their lives again. The other rats, the rats that were not allowed to play never came out. They died in the walls.
So for them, playfulness equals survival.
Right. Wow. We’ve all been in those organizations. We’ve all experienced that organization. Wow, that’s amazing.
Yeah. In the world of Shackleton, he valued it so, so highly. When he would interview people to choose who his crew was going to be, he asked them, “Can you sing? What kind of fun things can you do?” He chose the meteorologist, Leonard Hussey, a young man who had zero experience doing meteorology. He did not have the skills for the job.
Many wanted to be on this voyage. It was highly competitive. But Shackleton would spend about five minutes only interviewing people, and he just got a gut feeling of how optimistic the person was, and what they would be like, you know, are they a fun person? He looked at Leonard Hussey and thought, “He just looked fun and funny to me.”
He hired the guy, and he turned out to be one of the most valuable people on the ship because he played the banjo. He kept everybody’s morale up by playing music. During the seven months when the ship was trapped, when they still thought maybe in the spring they could sail away in their ship, they wintered in 79 days of complete darkness. Shackleton knew that if they didn’t have some fun, they were going to go crazy. He organized these nights. They would listen to the gramophone; they would play the banjo, they would have talent shows. They would dress up in costumes, sometimes even women’s costumes. Yeah, and they would write songs about each other, and insult each other with these songs. If somebody got upset, they would write a worse one next week.
So in the darkest, most hopeless situations, he just kept reminding them to have fun. They did, they survived.
Wow. That’s great. I’m going to have to have you back now because I feel like this is so much gold, and we’re just getting started. How can people find out more about you? What’s the best way for them to track you down and find out some of the new projects and the things you’re up to?
Well, my website would be a great place, it’s ValVigoda.com.
I love it. I love it. We’ll look forward to having you back because this was fantastic. I love your personal story, and then Shackleton story and how those weave together is such a beautiful thing. Plus the fact that you put it then into a musical, it just breaks my brain. I’m so excited about it. I love it. Thanks so much, Val, for sharing your story as well as the insight and the wisdom, so appreciate it. I know the DREAM THINK DO-ers do as well.
Thank you, it’s been such a pleasure talking with you. I love what you stand for, and your whole mission. You’re just a blast to talk to as well.
Thank you. All right DREAM THINK DO-er, what did you think?
I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. I’d love to hear from you. Let me know, leave a comment.
What’s something that stood out to you? What story… what strategy… did you connect with?
I can’t wait to hear from YOU!