Sunday, April 20, 2014

An Ocean of Directions

Playing guitar in our hotel room overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.  The Ocean so long and wide, gentle but strong, the entire rhythm of the Universe being played out before my eyes.  Drawing inspiration from the width of the Ocean I ponder the Alexander Technique direction of wide.  During this pondering I notice I slight shift in my torso of "up."  Another example of interdependence; of how one thought influences all.  This shift up then reinforcing the direction of wide as freedom arises in my torso.  Suddenly I sense the legs releasing long from the pelvis.  One thought releasing all.

Watching the undulation of the surf, I find my breath and direct the thought of freedom.  Again a sense of 'up' arrives. The area about my ribs releasing 'up and wide.'  Something appears right about this and though not a sensation that I usually observe, I make no effort to "fix this as the way the rib cage should be,"  I just allow this to be so for this moment.

Playing "Opening" watching the sun rays play on the breaking surf.  Can I just ride the waves of vibrations coming from the guitar?  Can I be free to let the vibrations lead my being?  Will I surf the notes with joy and allow my body to just be?   I notice my legs releasing up and out of my ankles, a sense of length arising from the earth that I am seated upon.

Reflecting on Easter Sunday, I think of those family members who have passed on.  I decide to play for them.  To hold them while releasing them.  To remember their love and joy and to hope that I can pass this on - with notes; with my actions; with freedom.  Freedom of the mind allows me to direct and explore how I use myself in an Alexandrian sense and beyond.  But first the one thought. 

As I begin to play Forget-Me-Knot, the piece that was born in remembrance of my Brother, I notice a stirring in my chest.  Can I allow my heart to swell with these notes while allowing my neck to be free?  Can I allow this swelling to free the knots of relationships as easily as the ocean waves are released to the shore of understanding?  Will I perhaps is the larger question.  Will I return to the source of my thinking and direct my thoughts to freedom?  Knowing that just as the earlier thought of wide led to subsequent AT  thoughts, that any thought positive or negative influences all thoughts.  The crash of this wave of seeing, inviting my to take care of my thinking; to direct my thoughts as much as possible to freedom, to love, to life.  Pausing to listen to the surf, to listen to the tide of my thinking, to just be here now.

My chest stirs again, the rib cage gently allowing a glimmer more of freedom.  This stirring resembling the roiling surf, offering a momentary glimpse of the possible.  A momentary assurance to continue to plumb the waves of thoughts, feelings and habits to their depths.  Knowing nothing remains the same, but is a manifestation of what has come before and of what needs to come.  Thus I begin again.

Photo by Mehul Antani

Monday, April 7, 2014


Yesterday while practicing Qi Gong in the park with Master Li and others, I was amazed at the relative ease of remaining focused within the movements while standing on my feet for an hour.  I know this is the result of several things.  First we were in the presence of a Master.  Second, there were nine other practitioners besides myself, several of whom have practiced for many years.  The movements themselves are not only familiar to me, but are graceful and gentle.  Qi Gong movements are organized to stimulate our energy systems which has an innate pull to unite our body and mind.

Still we are consistently urged to bring our attention to the physical actions we are performing, else this only becomes a physical exercise.  The use of the mind must be active for the exercises to be effective.  I did find my mind wandering at times, but then I bring my attention back to my hands moving through space or back to my dan tian or energy centers.  And of course the energy of the group supports any of us who has wandered and invites us back to the present moment.

Our practice together lasts at least an hour and frequently goes beyond.  During our teacher training sessions we would go for two plus hours.  Always I walk away refreshed and nourished.  So why does 90 minutes with a guitar and standing on my feet become such a challenge?

The movements in the act of playing are precise and the range of motion with the arms is limited.  Energy blockages form.  While there are repetitive motions, the changes in notes and rhythms place a demand on the brain to recall and execute complicated coordinated movements.  I react to miscues and mistakes, fortunately not to the degree I did at one time, but the mind does get derailed.  Plus there is nothing innate about assuming an asymmetric position to play a guitar nor most instruments.  Finally I am alone so the energy must be generated and maintained from within.

But the good news, though I practice alone in preparation,  I will be joining the Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists for these performances.  The energy of the group will be alive, nourishing and supportive.  And we will be in the presence of a Master. 

For more on the Orchestra of Crafty Guitarist Performances.

Photo by Artondra Hall.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Establishing the Possible

This morning on my way to Qi Gong practice, I thought about what to do with the information I garnered yesterday.  How can I develop this ability to play while standing for an extended period of time?  In Guitar Craft we have an aphorism - Establish the possible and move gradually towards the impossible.  What is possible for me?  Sure I can tough it out like I did yesterday, but a session like that on an ongoing basis perhaps will lead somewhere, but not to musical & performance skills growth.

Today I decided to begin with a 25 minutes session.  The intent of this was to see how I could use the guitarist in a combination of walking & standing playing experiments.  I knew that it was around the 70 minute mark yesterday where I noticed the suffering was affecting my use and performance, so I know the issues began to arise earlier. Twenty-five minutes seemed like a reasonable place to begin to establish my benchmark.  Years back after developing a nasty case of tendinitis I began to take more breaks in my practice.  Generally these occur around the 25 minutes mark, though I do go further when a compositional idea is presenting itself.

Now having established a time period is a good thing, but how to measure my effectiveness as far as to how I am using myself?  Once again the Alexander Technique provided an approach.  I began with a 10 minute AT lie down, to allow myself to begin in a state that is desirable for me.  Utilizing the practice of pausing to inhibit my habits throughout my practice period is an ongoing effort of mine and would also be incorporated.  Other practices to address awareness and breathing would also be practiced.  I began processing through the rooms of our home while playing, working to maintain & extend  my awareness these combined activities.  Arriving in front of a mirror I addressed some technical concerns.  I completed the session by processing while playing again.

Then I did another AT lie down.  My intent with this lie down was a bit skewed in a pure AT sense.  The lie down is a vehicle to connect with ourselves and to allow the postural muscles to relax.  This is a very powerful act for me, but this before and after lie down was an attempt to check how my body had fared through the process.  I did not notice any unusual nor excessive tightening in this second lie down, so I sense that I can maintain some degree of good use for this period of playing on my feet.

After a break, I choose 40 minutes for the second session.  Again I began with an AT lie down and used the various practices of maintaining awareness as I am able during the session.  Around the 32 minute mark I noticed there was tension in my right hand.  I paused and directed via AT.  Should I let goof the session now?  After the pause I decided to resume practicing, but moved onto a rhythmic exercise which placed a nonphysical demand on me.  This challenge was engaging and I ran the practice period over by 3 minutes.

When I hit the floor for the lie down I noticed the effects of this session .  My right elbow was stiff and an area of my back which used to actually hurt when I would lie down had a degree of tightness that was not there before the session. Towards the end of the lie down I noticed that my right shoulder was also a little sore.  Was this purely the result of the 43 minutes or a cumulative impact from both sessions?  Probably both.  Tomorrow I can begin with the 40 minutes and have more information.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A Golden Opportunity

At the suggestion of Curt Golden I began my practice this afternoon on my feet.  Walking through the various rooms of my home, arpeggiating a Dm minor chord.  Can I walk softly as I play, not adding anything nor taking away anything from the chord that is sounding?  What happens to my attention as the sound changes from room to room?  What happens to my attention as I am drawn to different object or aspects of the different rooms?  Do I react when the floor boards between the living room and dining room creak?  Yes actually, not in any major way but there was a reaction.

What happened next was not planned, but I did embrace the notion.   On Thursday Curt practiced 90 minutes on his feet.  When I found this out it was too late in my day to undertake this, but I did file the idea as one to investigate.  As I will be part of the Orchestra of Crafty Guitarist IX next month in 4 performances in the Pacific Northwest, this is roughly the amount if time we will be performing.  Other than with my engagements with the OCG, I do not spend this much time on my feet with a guitar.  I prefer playing seated.  Thus less than 5 minutes into today's practice I decided to go for the 90 minutes and to see what I would learn.  Almost immediately the excuses began.  I would have taken a drink first if I had planned this, maybe even used the rest room.  Tough.  Decision made.  I know that unplanned obstacles will arise within a live performance context so I'll deal with these two if they arise.  Then what if Joann calls?  My wife is traveling and our opportunity to connect will be limited.  I did decide that if she called I'd answer.  Twenty minutes into the practice she did.  I removed the guitar and remained standing.  Four minutes later she needed to go, so back to the guitar.

Part of the time I was working on Eye of the Needle and observing my right wrist in the mirror.  Just as I noticed one evening this week, when my right elbow is relatively free, my picking improves.  If the right elbow is tight against the bout of the guitar this translates into unneeded tension in the wrist.  I practiced pausing and directing with the Alexander Technique to address this.  I moved onto an arpeggio exercise and when I noticed an error, I would pause and direct.  As my upper torso gained a measure of freedom, I noticed I was "holding on" in my hips.  Particularly in the left rear area of what I call the hip, though the exact musculature may be something else.  I have not noticed this before, but by this time I'd been standing with some degree of directed attention for 35 minutes.

Is this related to my old knee injury?  Some type of "lifting or holding" of a muscle to compensate for damage in another part of the limb?  Could this have led to my bone spur?  Directing my Qi through this region I noticed a letting go of the hip and a slight shift in how my left foot was meeting the floor.

At this point my left hand was getting fatigued after nearly 40 minute of continuous playing.  Certainly there will be part of the performance where I will need to stand quietly, so this is a valid and necessary part of the process to address.  Standing quietly I wondered how long should I do this?  Certainly there could be 10 minutes of more of this required at any given point, so I choose 10 minutes as a period to practice standing with my guitar.  My right hand muting the strings and gently holding my pick.  Realizing that the I was now in the middle of this practice period, I wondered what distracting struggle might arise.  Then the pick slipped out of my hand.  As I was practicing alone, not in any performance mode I did not have an extra pick on me.   Ahhh the mind began to race, whatever poise and presence had been cultivated, was now disrupted by judgements and how to get out of this.

This lapse of attention made the remaining 6 minutes of standing almost frantic at times.  If this truly arose during performance how would I resolve this?  Bending over within a group of 60+ guitarists in motion could be dangerous.  Doing so while standing quietly while others performed, a selfish distraction.  Better that this mistake arose in an unplanned practice session.  My habit is to carry one pick with me and to have one in each pocket in a performing context, I think this will now extend to practice.

Around the 70 minute mark, fatigue was established.  Should I abandon the practice goal of  90 minutes?  My mind began to rationalize that this was a form of end gaining to put it in AT terms.  To push on, knowing my use was suffering. But was I end gaining?  I was seeking information.  Fatigue could arise in performing despite the energy of the group.  Noticing that my head was looking down much more of the time as I played now, I paused to direct.  Allowing my neck to release and to direct my head forward and up and relieve my spine of the strain I was noticing.  Now I wanted to just stretch my arms out wide, certainly a valid exercise, but could I do this in a performance context?  Better to continue with directing my thinking along AT lines or to  follow my breath.  Standing and directing, releasing and learning that yes today I am not prepared for this.  Around the 78 minute mark as I was playing a piece, I noticed the area around my bone spur begin to ache.  A sign that I should stop, or was it a sign to practice alleviating what was causing the stress?

Directing energy there, can I allow my foot to be wide and long?  Can I gently approach the end of this practice, knowing that there is still time to address stamina, and that within the context of the OCG, there will be the energy of the group to support my efforts.  Just that thought allowed me to continue, to come back to listening and playing; to be gentle with myself..  At 4:10 pm EST, I stood quietly and completed my practice.

For those interested in more information about the OCG IX course or for the tour of the OCG IX.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Mother Nature's Alexander Technique Lesson

This evening after I work I stepped into the back yard at dusk.  The birds were chanting their evensong and I took in their music.  Realizing it was warm enough to play outside, I got my guitar.  Sitting on my stool, I sat with my guitar, noticing the space about me.  A gentle breeze giving me a sense of width and the trees directing me up.  My presence encouraged by the beautiful directions provided by the birds.  Smiling as I realized I was receiving an Alexander Technique lesson from Mother Nature.

As I began to play the breeze invited me to come back to my breath.  Just play.  Just breathe.  Stay wide and allow my guitar space about her, don't crowd her.  Let her sing out and allow music to be.  As the breeze stilled so did my thinking.  More generous direction coming to me from the Earth.  Just playing - an aspiration I seldom arrive at.  Do nothing but invite the guitar to sound, invite music to play.  When I do arrive there, I am grateful.

I began to play Stepping Stones, a piece dedicated to seven men who were very important to me in my twenties.  Six of them have left the planet, but their care & wisdom still guide me to this day; always will.  As I played awash in memory and sound, I drop fell onto my right cheek.  A tear - not from me.  A sign - perhaps.  Smiling as a bit of joy found it's way to my heart.  Playing for my friends, playing with my friends.  Playing far and wide.

                              Photo by Zabara Alexander.

Five Animal Play Qi Gong Haiku


                          Qi moves night within,                           

Balance agility grows.

Life plays on, stays on.

For more information on our Five Animal Play Class.