Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Holding On When I Want to Rise

Hold on As I sat down with my guitar tonight, I recalled a statement or direction of William Conable from a workshop I took two years ago.  He was quoting Marge Barstow and said to "allow your spine to rise up out of your pelvis."  I held this thought tonight as I began to play.  After tuning my ear with singing intervals, I began to play a piece.  Pausing as I did not care for my beginning, I again used the direction for the spine to rise up.  I began improvising and a phrase tinkled out that had me. I continued exploring this and was drawn into the whisper from the muse.

A solid beginning was in place and I continued to explore where this might go.  I was excited when the next section came alive. As I played with this I noticed I was holding my breath.  Pausing to let my breath flow and to direct my thinking via AT I began again.  Before long I found that the notes were coming out, but then I would catch my breath and dampen the musicality.  Another pause to direct and center.  The third time I noticed this catching of my breath, I also noticed that my left shoulder was pulled up and did not need to be.  Blocking the energy within my body, making it harder for this piece of music to enter our world.  Why hold on when I want to be free?  Why hold on, when I need to open to the musical moment in before me?  Why hold on to habits of poor use?

Suppose there is a piece of music out there waiting to come into the world.  Tonight I heard the opening of a piece and was able to follow the lead.  I have both musical and technical liabilities that can dampen these moments of revelation; but I am also very patient and persistent in my pursuit of music.  Be quiet I told myself, remain within the body and breath.

I would have been perfectly content and happy to continue this work, but needed to leave for Qi Gong class. I hesitated for a moment, but knew that the work we do in class would be good for me and that I needed to trust that when I am available again, music will be there.   With that trusting spirit, I let go and had a great class.  I made a connection during the class with something I learned during an AT session with Sandra Bain Cushman years back, but that will need to wait until tomorrow.  By the way - Are you holding on?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Where Does Fear Reside?

Skeleton Jack-O-Lantern
A rare morning, home alone, I noticed as soon as I woke that there was still a certain freedom present in me from my AT work last night.  Very similar to the day after a good AT lesson or an hour's worth of Qi Gong under the direction of Nianzu Li.  This sense was heightened by my personal Qi Gong practice and then as I practiced my sitting meditation, I noticed how alive and still my body was immediately.  As I scanned my body, I became aware of that area of my back that habitually holds tensions.  Is this where fear is stored within me I wondered?

Breathing into this area, directing my neck to be free and my spine and back to be long and wide.  The thought arrived may my neck be free of fear.  Where did this come from?  Then I sensed those muscles of the neck that go much deeper into my chest and back then I ever realized prior to working with AT.  How many times in my life have I flinched at mistakes or had my startle response triggered by real or imaginary actions?  Have these episode been completed and released or do they still reside within my body/mind complex.  Of course they do is the quick answer, but I know these fears are not as omnipresent as they once were.

As I noted last night Clouds Never Die, and neither do my experiences.  Transformation is possible though.  The Clouds of my life frequently obscure truth and may even be buried deep within.  Patient, deliberate and directed practice will continue to yield positive results in a slow incremental fashion.  Then the occasional leap arrives.  Dancing across the sky with abandon, fears shed and light shines. The potential for a leap is always present, but the causes and conditions need to be nourished.  How are you nourishing your self right now?  Where is your awareness right Now?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Clouds Never Die

the man who fell to earth
Photo by Robert Couse-Baker
It is Friday after all.  I collapsed into bed after work today, followed by a quiet light dinner.

I was ready to practice, but felt it prudent to begin with a lie down.  Sure enough as my body relaxed into the floor, I felt the tension in the middle of my back and spine begin to release.  Grateful for this simple powerful tool of constructive rest.

I placed my guitar in the stand and sat for a minute to decide what to work on.  What principle might I apply to my work with the guitar I asked myself?  Always good to be mindful of my use and certainly the Alexander Technique provides a succinct and powerful means to this end. I decided that when I noticed I was using myself poorly I would pause from my activity and direct my thinking via AT.

Beginning with an improvisation with long tones, a melody began to emerge.  As this evolved, a certain energy began to build.  Suddenly I felt as if a certain emotional surge was needed and noticed how my shoulders were pulling in and I was adding tension, but not necessarily energy to the piece.  I paused to direct my thinking and moved onto working with the opening of Clouds Never Die.  Playing some more, I noticed I was tense in my upper body, so I paused and directed. Soon I again noticed tension in my shoulders and paused once again.

As I sat there, I thought can I float my hands to the guitar?  Can I allow my shoulders to float above my chest and ribs?  Can I allow the notes to float by like clouds? I played with this a bit, and then remembering our work with slow movement in Qi Gong, I just let my hands move even slower.  I sensed the lengthening particularly of my left arm as I did this.  I set the guitar down and played with this some and then resumed with the guitar.

I abandoned working with the new piece and began to play Gathered Hearts which I know so well to  allow me freedom to pay attention to my use.  Then I decided to change the question  - Can I float my hands to the guitar? to a statement.  I can float my hands to the guitar.  I can allow my head to float atop my spine. I can allow my shoulders to be back and wide and my arms releasing from them.  There was something very powerful with this shift to using statements as they are positive and the questions have a sense of hesitancy and doubt.

As I played and directed my thinking again after the piece, I noticed the area of my back behind my sternum release a bit.  Somewhere in this area are muscles of the back or spine which are habitually tense.  The lie down or the hands of an AT teacher always brings freedom and release to this area, but this may have been the first time I have ever sensed this release while siting with a guitar.  Then I thought of a cloud inside of my torso.  Gently but surely moving through life, providing us with beauty and nourishment.  Yes, as the venerable Zen Master Thich Nhat Hahn has taught me - Clouds never die.  Truly I am a cloud, we all are  - may music rain down from us to those who need to hear it.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Thought By Thought


The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. ~ Marcel Proust

Observing the thinking process can be enlightening, but more often is frustrating, elusive, and challenging.  Most of the time observation is absent, going about my day, my habits keeping me going on auto-pilot. Occasionally what I see is downright terrifying.

I have been away from the guitar since Sunday morning which is rare for me.  Family obligations and personal choices were attended to yielding much joy.  Monday evening I wrote in my journal - No Guitar and No Guilt.  This is good, the brief holiday from music making.  I was contemplating what to work on with the guitar.  Would I incorporate some principal of AT and write an insightful post.  Laughing, I knew I must just play.  Leave the profundity for greater minds.  Is the blog now driving my guitar practice I wondered?

My thinking was active as I took my instrument in hand.  Playing a few phrases, I paused to begin again,  and notice my breath.  My mental chatter increased again as I began to play.  I heard myself thinking "it's going to be one of those nights."  I chose to just play one note, an Eb, and listen to this in various octaves.  Next I decided to focus on one phrase that I am in the process of learning.  After a few passes, I narrowed my work to three arpeggios and then I noticed how I was leaning into my guitar.

As I directed my thinking via AT,  I noticed a slight release in my back or spine.  My chatter slowing as I came into the moment.  Thinking I am free, I played with this thought as being enough to maintain my good use in and Alexander sense.  I must credit Jennifer Roig-Francoli's recent blog post  for inspiring this.  Frequently in my mindfulness meditation practice I have used "I am free" at the suggestion of the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hahn, but after reading Jennifer's post the flavor of this changed subtly.  Certainly the use of this thought tonight, kept me coming back to the moment, and in that very indirect Alexander Technique way introduced freedom in my playing.  What more can I ask for?

And then the idea that Thought by Thought we change ourselves and hence the world arrived.  What are you thinking right now?  How might you direct your thinking right now?

Photo by Joost J Bakker

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Energy Rising

“There are seasons we walk with others.  Then there are the times in our lives we journey on our own.  It’s in those days we hear and learn more because we talk less.”

                       The journey is the path.  - Zen saying

Finally I had the time, energy, and space to devote to music today.  As the accumulated stress of the past months has dissipated and the tendonitis in my right elbow is healing, I was ready today.  Practice sessions in the early morning, late afternoon, and this evening has my spirits soaring.  Amen.

After a break in the evening session, I hit the floor for an AT lie down.  My back letting go, my spine releasing, and my arms lengthening as I lay there and let my muscles rest.  Watching my breath assist the release, I was happy to just be on the floor.  When I returned to sit with my guitar, I recalled these words from Kit Racette earlier this week "Imaging there are mountains behind my back to give me support and oceans in front to give my expansiveness."  Smiling I allowed these images to inform how I was in that moment.  Imaging my head floating to the stars and my legs going deep into the earth like the trees I could see outside my window.  Frequently when practicing Qi Gong on the beach, I have related the thought of the AT directions of shoulders wide to the horizon, but the idea of support of the mountains at my back added stability.  I noticed the energy seeming to rise within me.

I began looking at the fast section of Clouds Never Die which begins with an arpeggio in five played three time and moving to an arpeggio in seven across all six strings.  My right hand was still confused even though I had been looking at this transition earlier.  After spending time working on just the right hand, I added the left hand back.  Still confused.  The life of practicing an instrument.  What to do?  Recalling one of my favorite exercises from Pedro de Alcantara wonderful Indirect Procedures: A Musician's Guide to the Alexander Technique (Clarendon Paperbacks)  I inserted a rest on the second beat of the second arpeggio.  This simple act of pausing and inhibiting my movement allowed my hands to slowly coordinate the needed movements and hopefully no more.  At the end of the second arpeggio I frequently released my hands from the guitar and quickly directed again.

Work and rest, work and rest in this manner allowed my energy and focus to sustain at an efficient level.  I always marvel at the work involved in training four fingers on the left hand and the thumb and three fingers from my right.  As my attention began to fade I played snippets of arpeggio exercises that I know well to support and inform the activity of learning.  Then I resumed in the deliberate manner outlined.  As my attention waned again, I paused to write this post.  Sensing once again the mountains supporting my back and seeing the horizon of possibilities ahead of me,  I need to return to the guitar.  Wishing this helps someone in their own musical pursuits.  May we one day realize that we are all one musician in many hands.

Photo by Ian Sane.

Monday, February 13, 2012



         Transistor Radio
Sound Intruding Everywhere
    john cage set us free.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


Leaf in the snow
As I went to bed last night a light snow began to dance in the night sky, the wind howling, all of nature celebrating this February night. Awakening at 1am, I looked outside to see whirling snow, whipping about and covering the ground.   Finally the beauty of winter brightening the dark skies.  As I slipped off back to sleep I wondered if we would have our Qi Gong session in the park.

Arising at 7am, I noticed that not much more snow had accumulated since I had last looked out.  An internal debate ensued about should I stay home, anticipating that the instructor may not be there.  The temperature was cold outside, 24 F to be exact, yet we decided to go to the park.  Anticipating the cold we were well layered.  The sun was shining as we arrived at the park and as I walked over the bridge I recognized one of the shapes jogging around with someone else.  Moving closer I saw that the other person was Nianzu Li, our Qi Gong instructor.  We joined in the jogging to warm up a bit and then when another brave woman arrived we began our class.

Nianzu faced the wind so that we had the wind to our backs as he led us through some gentle Qi Gong breathing exercises.  The snow had grass, and dried leaves poking through, and was delightful to behold as the sun danced across the ground. Then onto the Man Dong animal walking forms, occasionally punctuated with some "monkey jogging," to help keep us warm.  My attention wavered between the cold and the movements, until the Qi began to flow and I felt energized.

Arriving back home I felt strong and happy.  Practicing like this outside for an hour is invigorating.  My usual 10-20 minutes of Qi Gong in the morning certainly improves my life, but I yearn for the day when I can devote an hour to this more often.  After breakfast, I moved to doing an AT lie down.  Smiling as I noticed how relaxed my back was as I hit the floor.  All of the gentle Qi Gong movements had already aligned my body and mind.  After practicing gently for 25 minutes I paused and did another lie down. 

As I was ready to get up from this lie down I noticed an anticipation about getting back to playing.  I was excited, my right arm feeling good after recent issues.  Excited about playing from this good place, I paused and inhibited myself from getting up. Is anticipation a form of expectation I wondered?  As I let go of the anticipation, I saw that anticipation takes me out of the present moment.  This morning the anticipation of the cold almost kept me from a delightful and nourishing experience.  If I aim to be in the moment when I play, then each moment of awareness  is precious and informs all others.  Can I embrace each moment as an act of music?  Can I just be the musician?

Saturday, February 4, 2012


When I'm tired and begin second guessing work that I have been happy with, I now know it's time to sacrifice myself to the gods of sleep. Or at least to a good novel.  So simple, but so easy to forget.

Photo by pasukaru76

Friday, February 3, 2012

Where is the Edge?


Today I had a luxurious morning of reading, journaling, Qi Gong, and sitting which inspired my thinking about habits.  Afterwards I had a  leisurely breakfast with my wife.  We spent some time together, and then she departed to be with friends for the weekend.  I relished the precious time I had with my guitar in the afternoon.  So invigorationg to be rested and feel that there is an expanse of time in front of me to devote to music.  I worked on the fingerings for the opening section of Clouds Never Die, and then worked on the progressions in the second section.  Then a new take on the third section materialized.  A light lunch followed by a brisk walk in the bright sunshine.  Such a treat to have done all of this by 4pm.  Back home for reading and a nap.

While reviewing the revised second section, I was still not satisfied with how this develops.  Brian Eno's Oblique Strategy - Where is the Edge? came to mind.  The logical initial answer is where the music stops flowing for me.  A bit deeper thinking about the edge however led to the possibility of the issue being earlier in the section. That the harmonic development was dictating a particular direction.  Or is the edge a result of my guitar technique or knowledge of music theory?  Perhaps I had reached the edge of my imagination in this musical situation?  Maybe the space that the piece is creating had an edge that needed a broader view?

As I played more I asked myself - Do clouds have edges?  Are edges distinct or fuzzy?  Not surprisingly, as the initial inspiration of this piece arose when I was playing around with Haiku's last month, this arrived:

                            Edges leading where?
                    Clouds obscuring then uncover
                             Music whispers by.

I decided to play the piece from the beginning and listen for the musical edge that needed to be explored.  As I began playing and I came to the end of the first section, my hand moved to a chord from the third section.  Suddenly a new take on the first section was unfolding and I was moved by what I was hearing.  After playing with this for about 40 minutes, I was unable to find the chord that would resolve the section and my left hand was fatiguing.  A little house ordering, and then I decided to do an AT lie down.  My back was happy for this and after a few minutes I heard a possibility of the resolution.  When I returned to the guitar this new chord completed the section.  The issue still resides in the next section, but I'll leave this for tomorrows work.

Ever so grateful for the time and space to devote to the guitar.  I could get used to this.

What edge are you exploring? Describe it, poke it, expand your view field of this edge, of all edges.