Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Go to the Mirror Boy

                                  Photo by Sukanto Debnath

The themes of this piece by The Who crashing through my mind, those power chords urging my body to move as I title this post. Like Tommy I have recently had to go to the mirror to find something about myself. Looks as if this search will take more than one trip which is fine, especially since the message I found in the mirror tonight was one of process. I must be with the process and trust the process. Then the freedom I am looking for becomes possible.

David Jernigan the Alexander Technique I have been studying with has a wide full length mirror in his practice studio where he gives his lessons. Three weeks ago I turned to face this mirror during the lesson as I was preparing to play. There was David and another student in the room and me in the mirror. I found this experience of performing in front of the mirror very unnerving. Very difficult to look into my eyes with others watching me. I eventually turned away from the mirror at David's suggestion that evening. A little too much was going on and I was lost.

Last week I again confronted the mirror during a lesson with just David and myself. I can no longer accurately consult this particular experience but I was eventually able to play through an entire piece in the mirror. David's hands guiding me, showing me possibilities of lengthening and widening.

Tonight in class with two other students I again choose to turn to the mirror. I was attempting to give the directions but wanted badly to pull this off. And of course I did not. Began a different piece but still too much. David worked with me on lengthening and drew my attention to the room, but still the ability to play eluded me.

I stepped to the side and began again. Finding my body and my breath. While directing my neck to be free I connected with my guitar and began to play Here We Are, a piece that begins simply enough. I could now hear myself playing and then slowly I moved towards the mirror. I played. By going stepwise through the process I was able to accomplish the task.

My earlier efforts were grasping at the music. My mind was wandering, instead of either being quiet or thinking constructively. I realize now I always have the permission to take the time I need to become present while in the class, yet my end gaining takes over. I want to be able to manifest my awareness and take off.

As David was working with another student I heard him say " If the mind will not be empty, it is better to direct our thinking constructively." He went on to add to "use only as much thinking as necessary." Focus on the music and trust the Alexander process to support your playing.

This last comment on trust helped me recall a conversation I had with Robert in October of last year. He told me of an experience where he knew that he could always trust music to be available. The question remains can I be available to music?

As the song from Tommy said: " No machine can give the kind of stimulation needed to remove his inner block." With this I agree.  I am finding through my meditation practice, Qi Gong, and the Alexander Technique there lies a range of possibilities that previously have been hidden. Back to the mirror.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Night Before

A gentle evening of practice and tasks for the performance tomorrow night. Began with a 20 minute AT lie down, particularly directing my shoulders to widen and my arms to lengthen. When I began playing there was a new freedom in my arms for a while. I will continue to explore this.

Played through the pieces in no particular order. I was just enjoying playing. There is no need for an intense practice tonight. The pieces are ready and it is best not to strain my body on the night before a gig. I changed my strings, played them in a bit and assembled the gear to take.

Time to rest and trust.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


I received notice from the New York Guitar Circle this week regarding their meeting this evening from 7:00 - 9:30 pm EST. While I could not be there in person I could align with their energy and commitment and practice guitar during this time period. Usually I send the team good wishes, but this week I knew I needed an extra boost so I said yes to joining them from a distance.

I began at 7pm with a 10 minute Alexander Technique lie down. For the next 20 minutes I focused on working with my right hand. I paused frequently to reconnect with the AT directions and allow them to inform my right hand. The aphorism states "we begin again constantly," and this was certainly the case during this period. As I noticed my right hand drifting into habit I paused and re-established contact.

A 5 minute break to stretch and then a brief improvisation in C hijaz. I played slowly so that I could notice the right hand at work. I played through Here We Are and Kinnara, two slow pieces, again watching my right hand. Giving brief directions during the rests in Kinnara. A few more minutes of stretching and then I looked at the opening section of Dancin' Free.

I turned on the tape machine and played Dancin' Free, Gathered Hearts, and Dandelion Wish as I will be playing them this friday at the Voice from the Heart Community/Unity Variety Show. My playing felt good.

A ten minute break to take out trash and then I choose to not listen to the recording of the three pieces. I heard the rough spot in Dandelion Wish and worked with it. Then I moved on to working with Aftermath. Progress being made in the section and I was tempted to play through the entire piece. But I recalled my decision at the beach this weekend to inhibit that desire to see how it is fitting together. Just work on the sections this week. So that was what I did. But it was tempting. Was this habit at work? More likely my ego, wanting to see how quickly I had relearned this challenging piece. When in reality it is not yet in my hands, so just follow my own plan.

After this I played through Stepping Stones as I had not played this in over a week. Enjoying this piece very much. The time was 9:15 pm and I was tempted to call it a night. Much good work accomplished and I am tired. I rationalized that I could write the blog post. But I had made a commitment to myself. So I played through Livin' the Dream and completed my guitar work with A Journeyman's Way Home.

A few minutes of quiet sitting and sending good wishes to my friends in New York to complete my evening. Throughout the evenings practice I returned to the AT directions. I did not detail that throughout this post, but took the opportunity to comeback to the AT work in the various transitions of this practice session.

                              Photo: When the Stars Align

Monday, June 21, 2010

Work at Hand

Another beautiful beginning to the day with Qi Gong on the beach followed by a cold dip in the Atlantic Ocean. So invigorating, so wonderful to share with my beloved wife. Yesterday was the first night in a while that I was not totally exhausted when I went to bed. A bit of a rough night sleeping due to noise outside, but the moment I began Qi Gong I could feel myself coming alive.

After breakfast I dropped J. at the beach and came to practice a bit. Today we return home so there is a bit of lag in my energy. I would love to stay longer, but my responsibilities must be honored so we will leave. I did another Alexander technique lie down before picking up my guitar. I had a sense of my neck lengthening into my chest area, not just these muscles perched on top of shoulders. As this sense developed my shoulders seemed a bit wider.

I reviewed Journeyman and Gathered Hearts. Worked with the ending of Scattered Hearts a bit with the mirror. Then onto Aftermath. Reviewed the form with the metronome to move between sections but leaving out the tremolo. Did this twice to loosen my left hand. Then began working on individual sections and transitions with the tremolo. Around 12 minutes into this I began to notice my enthusiasm for practice begin to take hold. I was also sensing I need to use "inhibition" in the Alexandrian sense as I work on this piece.

For one I can 'inhibit' my urge to play the piece in it's entirety to see where I am with it. I know the transitions that are problematic and I know the left hand fatigue that sets in. How much of this fatigue results from a poor use of my self? I can build the stamina in section work and put the piece together later. If I begin running the piece while the stamina is lacking I'll begin to practice mistakes, truly a poor use of my self.

A made minor strap adjustment to allow my right arm to lengthen above where the elbow rests on the guitar. I inhibited my desire to use the right hand and eventually found the sense of my neck lengthening into my chest cavity again. When I allowed myself to slowly play the right hand tremolo pattern. I introduced the left hand to add variety of pitches and was pleasantly surprised from the tone I was producing. I continued to slowly play from the section I began on through a few sections. Then I let go. My sense is that another small shift occurred. Now to let this ruminate in myself and enjoy the beach.




Sunday, June 20, 2010

Laying Down the Practice

Photo by Engin Erdgon

For a change I am actually rested on a Saturday morning as I have already had two days off from work. Been enjoying extended Qi Gong in the surf, long walks, and playing with the Alexander Technique while in the ocean. So invigorating to share this precious time with my favorite person in the entire world.

After another delightful and inspiring beginning to my day today, I did a 20 minute AT lie down. I am increasingly becoming convinced that this is the best way for me to begin my guitar practice. The lie down relaxes my body, quiets my mind, and allows me the opportunity to begin this detailed work with my hands from a place where I am ready to observe how I am using them. Today I played through the first piece I ever wrote which is also the title of this blog - A Journeyman's Way Home. Playing this allows me to touch the innocence of the first time I experienced music coming through me. Today as is true of most times I play this piece I also feel the joy welling up in me.

I began looking at Aftermath again today, gently playing through the different left hand positions with out adding the tremolo. This allowed me to warm up my left hand, review the structure of the piece, and continue to exercise good use of my body. Also worked with the crescendo that completes the piece. After a short break  I found a metronome setting to work the piece. I am paying careful attention to allowing my body to be free as possible as I relearn this piece. By applying the AT principles throughout this learning process, I can be more efficient in bringing this piece of music to life, while also not over straining the previously injured tendon in my left wrist.

Paying attention to the quality of my breath will also allow me to see when I am 'trying' too hard. When I can play something my breath is gentle and relaxed; when 'trying' my breath is shallow or worse yet - I am holding my breath.

I have decided to break the piece down into sections and slowly work the transitions before attempting to playing the piece through. Especially at this slower metronome setting, my left hand will be subjected to having the fourth and second fingers anchored at an interval of a fourth while the the index and third fingers dance around playing the bass line. I also can break this down further by practicing just the movement of the anchored fingers as they move through the piece. If I can allow them to release from the strings I will avoid the 'screeching' string noise caused when left hand fingers drag across the positions. I also worked out a tempo where I can practice the right hand tremolo patterns.

As I look at this process I am undertaking I realize what is different for me is that I am usually writing pieces on the guitar and not learning pieces that are already complete. A problem with writing the pieces with the guitar is that as the piece evolves I tend to move through it looking for options and transitions. While doing this I am not paying attention to what I am playing and begin practicing mistakes. Frequently this takes a lot of work to unlearn. 

Thus relearning Aftermath is offering me a different approach to my practice. Stay tuned!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Why Practice

                                 Photo by Dionne Hartnett
This morning after a thoroughly delightful beginning to my day I was ready to take my guitar from the case. As I often do I was doing gentle Qi Gong movements to stretch my hands and to allow my energy to move. Many times I remind myself why I am about to practice. Today I found myself replying to this question of Why am I practicing with these words.

- To bring glory to the creative spirit.
- To harmonize myself.
- To prepare a gift for others.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A Viable Option

One of the things I love about Saturdays is that I can practice guitar either in the morning or the early afternoon while I am still fresh and focused. But there are those Saturdays when the duties of being a homeowner beckon and must be addressed. Today had me laying sod for five hours to restore the pieces of the yard that had been damaged when our oak tree fell down recently. Hot and hard work on this summery day.

A nap and some lovely time with my wife and granddaughter had me heading down to the basement at 9:30pm. Motivation was practically non-existent. I desired to curl up with a book, perhaps one on the Alexander Technique was my clever rationalization. But as I have done on so many nights before I was prepared to follow through with my practice, in spite of my motivation or desires. While I was taking a few moments sitting on a chair to clear my mind,  I thought of Sandra and one of the recurrent themes in her AT lessons with me.

There is always the option to not do the desired action which I am preparing to undertake. Sometimes choosing a different action or no action, thus finding ways to disrupt our habitual use of the self. I played with this thought, telling myself that it was an option to not practice. But this was just a small con game, I knew I would open the case and at the very least play through a few pieces. So I stayed with the thinking, giving myself permission to really make this an option. If I did then, in the future this choice would then be a viable one as I looked at how I use the self. Of course the thought "with commitment all the rules change" echoed in my mind. While I know the power of honoring commitments, this was not just an excuse to 'not practice,' but an exercise of another flavor.

So I choose to not practice tonight. Even though I had given myself the night off on Thursday and then had a wonderful practice last night. I stood and contemplated my body, allowing the spine to lengthen, shoulders widen, legs to connect with the planet. Though I was ready to go upstairs, I then choose to do an AT lie down and release the strain of the day. After a fifteen minute lie down I rose and was prepared to go upstairs. Suddenly I smiled and realized that I could make a new choice. I could  pick up my guitar and play a few notes. I began exploring C hijaz and then moved on to playing Livin' the Dream. A few minutes with the power pull offs in Steppin' Stones and then I completed a brief qualitative encounter with my guitar, music, and myself.

Now where is that AT book I've been reading ...

Saturday, June 5, 2010

What Can I Learn From Listening to the Birds


One of the joys of living in an "urban forest," is the amount and variety of birds that we attract. As we approach the summer solstice their song is loud enough to wake me at 4:30 am when the windows are open. Their song so lovely with crescendi conducted by the almighty. I am content to listen with wonder, frequently surprised at the melodies that take the forefront.  The occasional train or plane in the distance providing a drone to support the harmony. Then when I think their play has come to an end, I am pleasantly surprised as new song begins.

One morning a few years ago, during a period of financial concerns, I was listening to the birds. Delighting in the days musical selection, a small useful insight emerged. The birds were singing joyfully with no idea where their next worm would come from. With nothing more than a hodgepodge of twigs and vines for shelter and their lovely song as warning to steer clear, the birds were just being birds. Singing away, distracting me from my concerns, and still surviving.

Looking up I see one struggling with a longish thin leaf that has dried. He is resting on the fence and trying to take this precious housing material to the nest. After his third effort he lets go and returns to his perch just above me to sing of his trials. Or perhaps to celebrate still being alive in this moment. The trio of squirels dancing in the tree tops not ruffling his presence.

I  marvel how such a small animal can produce such volume of sound. I envy how effortlessly the prized possession for the nest was let go of. Can I let go so easily? Sing my song so confidently? Just be who I am?

Thursday, June 3, 2010



Art begins with resistance - at the point where resistance is overcome. No human masterpiece has ever been created without great labor.
                                                                  Andre Gide  

How much effort is required to move a guitar pic 0.32 hundreths of an inch?
To vibrate the piece of metal known as my A string this is all the resistance that need to be overcome.

Or is it?

What doe it take to pick up the guitar on a regular basis? 

Most mornings when I wake I resist my practice of Qi Gong, which astounds me to this day. Just a few minutes into my Qi Gong practice and my body comes alive, the energy begins to enliven me and I think how could I not do this?

Yet the next day, my resistance surfaces.

So I move my body to the living room and begin my practice again. Within 15 minutes I am happy. On days when I have more time to devote to this practice, the benefits  continue to increase.

Yet the next day a minor amount of resistance surfaces again.

Fortunately I do not experience resistance to playing my guitar. However for me to practice certain aspects of music there is resistance. Oftentimes I find it hard to gear my practice to aspects of music I find  difficult. Yet when I do, not only this  area of musicianship, but my playing in general improves. 

Am I listening?

While The Borg say "Resistance is futile," I counter that resistance is inevitable, but not insurmountable.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Few Small Steps

In art there are only fast or slow developments. Essentially it is a matter of evolution, not revolution.
Bela Bartok 

I might add that slow development is better than no development. This has certainly been the case for me. Persistence pays handsomely. Day in, day out, I pick up my guitar.  By exploring and  refining my technique and my use of my body, I am finding freedom in my playing. 

And then sometimes the obvious is shown to me. During my Alexander Technique class this evening I was working with a part that I have struggled with for a long time. I detailed some of the work I have done with Dandelion Wish here. While looking at this with David he saw how my right hand forefinger which is the one plucking the artificial harmonic on the 13th fret was slightly off. Tonight when I came home I watched myself in the mirror but realized I could not see my right hand in action clear enough. By moving a few steps closer I found where my right hand forefinger was missing the sweet spot for the attack of this note. A few small steps and clarity is achieved.

I wonder how many other small steps I could take in my life and where they would take me.