Singing, Performing, Traveling, and Chasing Passion

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Chasing Passion: This is the story of how a little girl who sang into her pillow growing up is learning to sing to the world. (Or maybe just a bigger pillow).

Both of my parents are musicians. Growing up, we lived in a two-bedroom apartment with two pianos; often one parent would teach a student in the living room, and the other parent would teach in the bedroom.

Needless to say, I have had music in me since the womb. I’ve played many instruments growing up; performing concertos on piano, touring with a ballet through China as a flautist, and even dabbling with orchestral percussion and jazz drum kits.

In addition to a piano-heavy household, my mother is a singing teacher and choral director, and my father is a jazz pianist.

So singing has also been a part of my upbringing; I’m now coming to understand this in more ways than I initially realized.

sunset against a cliff with a bright half moon

In one of my “former lives”(!), I hailed as a professional actor/singer/dancer, specializing in musical theatre. But my singing “career” goes back further than that.

My father used to have jazz “gigs” at restaurants and hotels. Growing up, I remember going to see him play, and when my bedtime rolled around, I’d be ushered into a back room at the restaurant to fall asleep and be carried home when Dad finished playing.

As a solo player, Dad played most of the jazz standards. And listening to him practice over the years, I became quite familiar with them. But without a vocalist to accompany him, I didn’t know the names of the songs or the lyrics; only the tune.

One of my favourite things to do when Dad was practicing was to sit in my room and sing along, pretending I was the sultry “jazz singer” in a sparkling dress, standing next to the piano in a dimly lit jazz club crooning to an entranced audience. I sang my little heart out to my dad’s playing.

I scatted like Ella Fitzgerald, and wailed like Billie Holiday. But so I wouldn’t disturb his practicing, I sang into my pillow.

It wasn’t until I was well into my 20’s when Dad was visiting my place for a dinner party that I admitted my little singing secret. After he politely played a few tunes at the bid of my guests, I started humming along to a few. This evolved into a little scat session; me and my dad.

It is something I will never forget.

silhouette of Nora Dunn, dancing and chasing passion in New Zealand

Fast forward 10 or so years. Having been traveling for four years, I’ve not had a chance to perform at all. Prior to leaving Toronto, I was heavily involved in musical theatre, loving the ability to express myself physically and vocally. But on the road, I’ve never stayed anywhere long enough (or in apt places) to work my way into a theatre group or production.

This inability to perform is the one thing I really miss with a full-time travel lifestyle.

Nora Dunn, The Professional Hobo, in contemplation

A few weeks ago, an a cappella vocal group performed at a fundraiser here at Mana Retreat. Having listened to Manhattan Transfer from a very young age, something about the tight closed harmonies of a cappella groups has always sent shivers down my spine.

Listening to this accomplished group sing at Mana was a true delight for me. But as usual, I wrestled with my own desires to perform, and found myself wanting to sing so badly it actually hurt.

Luckily, opportunities to sing have been coming to me in various forms. I’ve been harmonizing for some music tracks for Cybiont, including a sweet little ditty called So Much Work For Love To Do. We’re even starting to develop some tracks together, which is a new process for me, since I’m used to working with pre-written music instead of creating new tunes.

I’m also branching out and singing more myself. I’ve worked out a few tunes on the piano (like Feeling Good sung by Nina Simone) and even performed them at various open-mic nights. (I’ve also realized how difficult simultaneously singing and playing piano can be!).

And I’ve even recorded a track or two myself, including Calling You: a favourite song of mine from my all-time favourite movie Bagdad Cafe.

So what’s next for a budding singer and performer wanting to follow a dual passion for both traveling and performing? Who knows. Maybe the next step for The Professional Hobo is a gig on a cruise ship, traveling with a tv show, or even touring around with a show/band/performance.

Or maybe I’ll just keep singing into my pillow, humming in the kitchen, and enjoying the beauty of music for what it is. Which is okay too, as long as I’m following a passion (ie: traveling). You can’t always have it all. Only time will tell.

How do you balance chasing passion? Are you forsaking a passion with your current life choices? If so, how does it make you feel?

This article was originally published in 2011, and has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.
A few years after writing this I went on to apprentice with a shaman in Peru for two years, followed by some time working as a shaman’s assistant in Ecuador. Those experiences allowed me to use my voice in a completely different way.

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13 thoughts on “Singing, Performing, Traveling, and Chasing Passion”

  1. Hello Nora,

    I’m prolly like most folks, in that, to be honest, I have to sift through several layers of denial and a pile of “I could never because…..”s to realize and appreciate the life you’re living…..

    But admission is the first step, isn’t it? That and I’m transitioning to an income source that IS geographically independent…

    Then next up, to get and master the mobile music recording stuff. Thanks for a being an inspiration angel, because we are all on a shor journey on this planet and putting down roots is optional….

    James “Shoes” Walker

  2. Nora – that ‘Calling You’ piece was beautiful!! So glad that you are finding your way back to singing while traveling, you obviously have a gift that needs to be shared!

    It’s tough being on the road and not being able to follow some passions. One of mine is to be with animals, I really, really miss not having a pet. Our next house sitting job has a dog, so I’m looking forward to that!

  3. If you can do it, so can we! One of the main things stopping my partner and I from taking on perpetual travel is our passions for performing. You were the first person to show me perpetual travel was an option, now this. You show us we can do anything!

  4. @James – We’ve all gotta start somewhere! And to challenge all that we’ve known and grown up with to embrace a different lifestyle is always fraught with peeling off the layers of preconceived notions and sifting through denial. I did it myself when I originally sold everything, and I’m continuing on the journey in so many different ways each day. Good for you in setting yourself on the path! What a trip…

    @Megan – Not many people know the movie Bagdad Cafe…I’m glad you like it! I also like “Brenda”. It’s such a quirky movie…

    @Dalene – Good for you for finding a way to foster your love of animals by house-sitting and pet-sitting on the road. It’s that sort of creative thinking that creates a space to be able to “have it all”!

    @Penny – Like Dalene has shown, and like I hope to do, I believe where there’s a will, there’s a way when it comes to combining passions. I’m open to the possibilities and opportunities for both travel and performing, even if it means redefining one or the other to suit.

  5. I think there are a lot of ways for you to incorporate your love of performing into your travels. I spent a month at a place in Ecuador called La Biblioteca in Banos where they always were looking for volunteers who had artistic talents to share. At one point when I arrived they were having puppet show which incorporated the amazing talents of people of all ages from all over the world. This included singers, dancers, guitar players, art teachers, students and everything in between. Most volunteer organizations want a musical or art background. Here is the Website just in case you were interested I hope you find a way to incorporate your passions together. I am putting my passion for traveling on hold at he moment in order to work for a while. Good luck!

  6. @Chelsea – Yes, I’ve known about La Bib for a while now, and have often thought it would be a great place to apply my acting skills by helping the kids put on little shows. Thanks for the great tip! Is it safe to say you enjoyed your time there and would recommend it?

  7. Yes, I’ve struggled with the same thing traveling and performing on the road for the last 10 years myself. Times I’d play, others I wouldn’t and I’d miss it.

    Found a trombone outside Barcelona when I stayed for 3 months, but not one to be found in the same amount of time in Split Croatia in the off-season. And I really, really looked!

    For me, marketing myself, networking with others, and putting passion out there has helped me create recognize opportunities.

    It’s not necessary to be in a place for a long time to perform there. Here are many things I’ve done to keep playing while on the road (and I don’t travel with my trombone!):

    ** Temporarily change instruments! pick up and drum! or learn what the locals are playing – finger cymbals, a new guitar, castinets or something else fun! I’ve found that performing things that make others happy also makes me happy!
    ** Find a community group that welcomes travelers and rehearse/perform with them
    ** Drop in to theater groups or schools with music programs or music stores and tell them you’re available for one show only! Ask who they recommend you contact!
    ** Book gigs with other musicians from couchsurfing musician groups or want ads of people seeking your specialty
    ** Find local music festivals and call them, offering assistance to the town, organizers, planners, or groups that are participating
    ** Play in drum circles and meet other musicians there
    ** If you know where you’re going next, locate working musicians, bands, or groups ahead of time online and email them a note that you’re coming and want to perform, network, and learn about the local music scene – ask them to refer you to others
    ** Busking and impromptu performances with friends outside may be socially accepted and legal wherever you are: make a list of songs, find a great place, a great sunset, some friends, and do it!

    By sacrificing one passion for another, I’ve learned: how deeply the passion is engrained in me, if I have a strong enough will to be creative about pursuing it, and how wonderful it is when it is re-gained.

  8. @Bonegal – You have some amazing suggestions for staying in touch with music and performing while on the road! I think that I need to redefine how – and why – I sing and perform, and incorporate these techniques into my life. Thank you!

  9. I love this post, and the recording of your singing! Thank you.

    We share this livelong passion for music. In my case it’s flamenco guitar. I went to Spain to learn from the gypsies right after college. That was in 1971. I’m only just now returning to Spain again in September after 44 years away!


    • Hey Bob,
      What a full circle experience – wow! Lucky for me, I can now flex my vocal chords through singing medicine songs here in Peru. So a few years after writing this post, it looks like I’ve found my “stage”! 🙂


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