Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Releasing Hand, Holding Hand

379 - Tile Clock - Texture

An interesting Alexander Technique session with David Jernigan tonight. As he worked with me, he came out with the notion of my releasing hand and holding hand. I did not understand this at first, until he explained that my right hand releases the string,  and was thus my releasing hand.  What David had noticed was that my left hand, the one that "holds" the note, had a tendency, perhaps even a habit, of assuming a position.  This is in contrast to my right hand which tends to just be a hand.  But this holding of the left hand in a "position" even when the hand is not doing anything was what he was working to release.

As we worked with this release, I could sense the freedom that came from this letting go of the position.  From years of focused work with my right hand, I find it easier to come into a relationship with this hand.  As we worked tonight, I saw that I was developing a new relationship with my left hand.  A basic Guitar Craft principle is for the left hand to release the finger(s) from the string, rather then take them from the string. I have worked with this concept extensively, yet there appears to be a greater release that is available to me.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

An Efficient Practice

Wind turbines at Greenway parking lot, Chicago

Earlier this week, a friend Curt Golden commented about taking a walk while internalizing and audioizing the set for a gig he had coming up soon.  Quite an amazing feat, and am inspiration to me today.  The last two nights I have played through and recorded a set for the Sangha Performing Arts Evening next Saturday, and have decided I like the flow, the musicality, and the challenges of this set.

This afternoon, after a very mindful morning with my wife, I sat down to practice.  Thinking about Curt, I decided to work with a variation on internalizing the set.  With guitar in tune and the amplifier on, I set the guitar in the stand.  I auralized the first piece in my mind, Dancin' Free, and then I picked up the guitar and played through the piece.  Please with the results of this, I noticed a desire to end-gain, and just get on with the set.  Fortunately I inhibited this notion.  Putting the guitar back into the stand, I worked briefly with the Alexander Technique and then auralized the next piece, Gathered Hearts.  Again picking up the guitar I played through.  I continued in this fashion of auralizing and playing through six pieces, each time giving myself some AT work in between.  Not surprisingly after the third piece out of six was completed, I had difficulty with the auralisation of the fourth piece, Matka Boska.

Knowing the hazards of the middle of a process, I gently took a few breaths and returned to the internalizing of this piece.  There was one section that I just could not auralize.  So I moved to the next section and then picked up the guitar and played through the piece.  Paying particular attention to the section I had just had difficulty hearing.  The next piece Stepping Stoned may have been my best performance of this piece to date.  Continuing in this fashion through final piece, I found that my attention was still strong at the end of these six pieces, my playing very relaxed and accurate, and that overall my body was very relaxed.  There was a quality of my playing on each piece that was sustained throughout.  If I could sustain this quality for a set, I'd be most happy.  I suspect the answer lies with more practice.  Further investigations to follow.

                                 Photo by John Picken

Friday, May 20, 2011

To Play Beautifully


After dinner this evening I was tending to online matters and I came across this blog post by Alexis Del Palazzo - Retake: Musical Perception - Developing Artistry within Technique.  A good read which reminded me to clarify my intention(s) when I play.  The evening was beautiful in my yard, and I decided to play outside.  As the sun was setting the birds were doing their evening serenade, and if I had not felt pressed about practicing I could have just enjoyed listening to their songs.

Looking at the tall trees, I mimicked their connectedness with the world.  Trees are just trees, can I just be a guitarist?  Using the Alexander Technique and my breath to connect with myself, the moment, and the beauty around me I began to play.  Quickly I was distracted by the birds, listening to them, but not myself.  Why can't a play like a bird sings?  Their songs are  so beautiful, just a part of their being.  Beginning again and again, as I continued getting lost.  Reconnecting again via the AT directions, my shoulders feeling wider as I took in the panorama around me.  My length reflecting the trees.  And then I remembered to connect with my intention.  What is my intention as a player I asked?  To play beautifully was my first thought, so for tonight and I suspect beyond, this was my intention.

As I began to play, I simply listened to myself within the gesalt of the songs of the birds around me.  The trees being trees, the birds being birds, and for 30 or so minutes me just being a guitarist.  In a subsequent exchange with Alexis via twitter I was reminded of my post on Why I Play Music.  A very good reminder indeed.  Healing, beauty, love, joy, peace and wonder - life itself - are available when I am connected with the moment.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Lengthening the Passage

dole center cloud

Beginning with an AT lie down, I noticed a tightness in a muscle in my left arm close to the shoulder.  This is not new information, I usually notice this particular tension, as well as some in my left forearm.  I suspect this has arisen from how I have played the guitar.  The great news is that the major issues I used to have with my left shoulder and wrist have not manifested in a very long time.  During the lie down, I spent most of the time contemplating my left arm.  Looking to release these muscles to their full length.  Just thinking thoughts of lengthening, and not "doing" anything with the arm.

Deciding to begin my practice where I left off last night, I played the first three chords of the passage and then inhibited the move to the next chord.  Pausing to direct, and then another play through.  Part of me wanted to see if I could introduce the next chord, but I continued to inhibit.  Then beginning with the chord in the sixteenth position I did transition to the next chord but while I was making the changes with my left hand I was only strumming the strings with my right. Pausing and playing, I was looking to see if I got in my way.  When the left hand motion was  flowing, I let go and took a short break.  No need to push forward at this point.

When I returned to the guitar, I began playing the two chords with the right hand arpeggios. Continuing to pause and give myself the time and space to be free via the AT directions.  When these changes were comfortable I began at the beginning of this passage.  An ease of playing was now present and this part of the passage was being played well at tempo.  Then I began the transition for the descending line of this passage. This next chord was easily added and then I moved onto other guitar work.  Tomorrow I'll resume with the descending line.

I took a break and thought about the set list for my upcoming gig.  I've made a few attempts with a list for this gig, but none of them have felt right.  I discussed this with my wife who also happens to be my number one fan.  I've had a first piece, last piece, and three pieces that have to be included.  After our discussion, I jotted down a list, and then played it through.  Felt good while I was playing through, and I am grateful I had the recorder on.  I'll listen on my way to work tomorrow and see what I think about the flow.  Of course the Alexander work I had been doing, nourished me as I played the set.  A few conscious directions were made and when I began playing the piece with the difficult passage I've been working on, I had a sense of my shoulders widening. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Finding Freedom, Finding Space

jungle or sky

Tonight I was again working with inhibition in the Alexander Technique sense, to examine and understand how to play a difficult section of music.  This section comprises a jump from playing an arpeggio in the sixth position to the sixteenth position and then onto a yet different chord shape in the eighteenth position.  Generally my arrival in the eighteenth position is where the problematic playing manifests, yet I had a sense that my actual problem was beginning before then.

I began by only arpeggiating the chords in the fifth, sixth, sixteenth positions and then inhibiting myself from playing any more.  Pausing before beginning this sequence again, I would give the directions to lengthen and widen, with the aim of beginning with good use.  At one point I noticed a slight moving forward of my right shoulder as my left hand made the jump to the sixteenth position.  Why am I doing this I wondered?  An answer did not arrive, but it seems as if somehow my right hand was attempting to help my left hand.  As the right shoulder moved forward, this also causes my right wrist to arch.  Unnecessary tension was being introduced at this point.  I began to work with making this jump while allowing my shoulders to remain wide and free.  This took quite some time.  I noticed there was a bit of anticipation arising as I finished the arpeggio prior to the jump.  Was this emotional entanglement intensifying as the passage continued and also confusing my use?  As I was not playing the full passage I could not observe this, but have a strong hunch that it was.  When my concentration faded I let go of this work.

After a short break I returned, and played with making the three shapes in the sixteenth position with my left hand and merely strumming them with the right hand rather than playing the arpeggio.  Then I introduced the move to the eighteenth position with it's various variations, while continuing to just strum each chord.  As I did this, I noticed that while the area between the frets is narrow on this part of the guitar, I was finding greater space to move my fingers within.  Nothing had changed about the fretboard, but my experience was one of space.  I decided to leave this particular exploration at this point.  Both hands and arms had gained new information, and rather than end-gain and attempt to put the section together, I wanted my body to assimilate the information.

As I resumed practicing, I began to play through a few pieces.  Happily I noticed that the AT attention I had given to my earlier practice was continuing to manifest with good use.  Time to return to playing.

Monday, May 16, 2011

There is a Season

I enjoyed my first practice session in days that was both qualitative and quantitative.  The allergy season has been upon me for over a month now and my energy drained.  Each year, I forget the toll that this season takes on me, until I remember that I just need more rest.  Early Saturday morning, I let go of my list for the weekend, and dedicated myself to rest without guilt.  I was at the point that rest was a necessity.  I played some and enjoyed what I did, but no big demands.

Tonight after a nap, dinner, and a walk, I was able to play and practice.  Sections that are weak were taken apart and worked on, and a possible set list presented itself.  Playing through Here We Are, I decided I needed to work on varying the intensity of attack of my right hand fingers.  Particular attention was given to a combination that begins with a dyad and then an arpeggio in which I want the notes played by the "m" finger to be softer than "i" and "a."  The rhythm of this section appears to be making this more difficult, but deep down I know that I need to work on the independence of the right hand fingers.  I've always enjoyed these types of technical exercises and tonight was no exception.   And now, I shall rest.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Letting In, Letting Go, Letting Up

Let's ice skate to New Jersey

A very low energy morning for me today.  One good for reading and taking time to rest.  The sky has been gray all day.  Time to rest, to take in, knowing the sun is above the clouds and soon my energy will return.

We had our third session of the Collaboration Laboratory today.  A smaller group with one new addition who is a dancer.  Good that she joined us our others dancers were either performing today or ill.  She added a good spark to our work.  Five poets and three musicians, two of whom are also poets.  We were keys, flute or sax, and guitar.  Lots of talking today about what where we have been, where we are going, and how we might get there. Craig has taken time to consider our work and came in with a framework called Umbilicals of the Heart. He illustrated his thinking with a diagram, considered the flow of energy in a performance context and created one or two word descriptors for each part of his vision.  His presentation of the idea took courage, was open and non-attached.  A powerful example for me.  There was not complete agreement on his idea, yet his contribution was valuable to begin thinking of our performance.

We worked with and explored two poems from our previous sessions.  Musically, there seemed to be an agreement that we were developing our vocabulary and supporting one another.  No clear musical leadership has emerged, and may or may not be needed.  The improvisations were engaging, with poets exploring movements and words.  Wondering where this may lead me and us.  Remaining open and supportive to the process.

Having spent much of the day inside, I took a walk along Sligo Creek when I returned home.  The gray sky coupled with the fresh green of spring, somehow reflected my mood.  Noticing how the trees are so rooted, yet so up reminded me of the Alexander Technique.  Taking a few moments to think up and to let go of my neck.  Allowing in the sights and sounds of nature as I walked, enjoying the moments and ready for a quiet night.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A busy and challenging professional week which culminated in a 12 hour day today.  After a shower I sat for 20 minutes to enjoy a cup of coffee and to rest from a totally "on" day.  I moved to the practice room and knew I needed an AT lie down.  As soon as my back hit the floor, the week's tiredness flooded my consciousness.  My legs so tired that I noticed them twitching as my body began to let go.  The relief was so delicious.  When I rose from the floor, I no longer cared if I played, but I knew that I would.

After tuning, I sat quietly, directing myself via the Alexander Technique.  Noticing the lengthening, the letting go, and overall feeling lighter.  I decided that I would just play through a few pieces and enjoy and be nourished by the music.  After the first piece, my mind a bit quieter, I again went through the AT directions.  Connecting with my body, that has been pushed all week, and bringing my mind together with my movement, began to generate an energy of it's own.  An energy allowing me to play, despite my physical and mental tiredness.  An energy that eventually urged me to improvise and see what the moment might reveal.  The moment was fun and musical.  I felt so good to be reconnecting with myself, my guitar, and with music. 

Glad that I opened the door, and did made myself available.  Just sitting on my stool, aware of myself, guitar in hand, and then the gentle vibrations of the strings bring me back to life.  The awareness deepening and then the vibrations wake me further.  Simple, though not necessarily easy.

                         Photo by Jackie Dervichian

Monday, May 9, 2011

Take a Different Path

Vulture Peak (Grdhrakuta) in Rajgir where the Buddha inspired Avalokiteshvara to give The Heart Sutra - the Prajna Paramita Hridaya SutramĀ  requested by Sariputra, rock that looks like a vulture; upper right, facing left. India

While I was stuck in traffic, I began visualizing a section of music that I am having difficulty playing.  At one point during my visualization, I had a sense that I did not understand what my right hand was doing nor what my right hand needed to do.  I noticed I was tensing a bit, even though I was not actually playing.  Employing the Alexander Technique, I found length and width within myself.   As I began the visualization again, I only went as far as the bar where the confusion was.  Now I at least knew where the issue began.

After dinner in the back yard on a beautiful spring evening, I decided to practice out on the porch.  Between the breeze and the singing birds, I just had to be outside.  I played through several pieces that I'll use in a performance at the end of the month. After taking a break, I began to investigate the right hand confusion that my morning visualization had revealed.  Deciding to incorporate the AT practice of inhibition,  I played the four bars leading up to the confusion and then paused.  Doing this several times I saw what my right hand was actually doing.  I continued to play these four bars and then inhibit playing the next one, until I had a sense of how to proceed.  The issue arose after arpeggiating 3 bars in the same pattern, then strumming four strings, and following this by playing two different artificial harmonics.  By inhibiting the movement to the artificial harmonics, I found where my right hand was, and then could think about how to attack the harmonics.

Once I worked out the movement, I began to play the part through.  Pausing between parts to direct via AT, I began again, and decided to skip the third bar.  I played the harmonics well, and then continued to play with skipping bars and adding bars and varying the bars leading up to the strum in a myriad of ways.  By taking these different paths to the transition I was practicing, I was hoping to obliterate the muscle memory that had become associated with this particular transition. While gaining confidence, I was also enjoying this impromptu approach immensely.  Grateful that good work had been done, I completed my practice in time to watch the second half of the Celtics/ Heat game.

Happy that I stumbled upon this photo of Vulture Peak in India. This is where the Buddha inspired Avalokitesvara to give the Heart of the Prajnaparamitra Sutra, which in the words of Thich Nhat Hahn is "Avalokitesvara precious gift to us, the gift of fearlessness." Amen.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Matka Boska - Blessed Mother

Happy Mothers Day

Happy Mothers Day.  Where would we be, where would I be without my Mother's love.  When Mom listened, I never played a bad note, at least not one that she heard.  She worked hard for us, very hard.  She loved us to the best of her ability, even when I was less than worthy.  She passed from this physical world over two decade ago, yet the warmth of her hug can comfort me to this day.  Her smile and her fire continue to nourish me.  Mom was Polish through and through, so much so that even though I have Irish & Dutch heritage from my Father, I have always identified myself as being of Polish descent.

Mom bought me my first guitar in 1969, a Fender Jaguar.  She got my amp a few months later.  I found the receipts about ten years ago and still have them.  She always encouraged me to follow my dreams.  I miss her to this day.  A couple years ago, I was improvising one night and a piece began to emerge.  Immediately I recognized that this piece was her, for her and I knew the title then - Matka Boska - which is Polish for Blessed Mother.  When the children upset her, she would intone Matka Boska, invoking her faith to find a way to deal with us.

Today, I played Matka Boska for my mother, for my wife' s mother, and for a friend's mother.  With candles lit and incense freshening the air, we quietly held and were held by the spirits of our Mothers.  The very best spirit that humankind can bring to bear on this life.  May I be as gentle and loving as my Mother.  She loved roses and our yard had a beautiful rose garden.  Today as we celebrate Motherhood, may we all water the gardens of love tended by these great beings.  May we grow to be more like Mothers today and always.

Saturday, May 7, 2011



Where is home?  The venerable Thich Nhat Hanh teaches me that home is in the present moment.  Where am I?  Am I in the present moment or wandering about in my mind?  When I notice that I am wandering, how do I find my way back home?  While the noticing is key, there then comes that moment of choice.  Do I continue to allow whatever habit du jour is distracting me - usually my mind; though this can also be my emotions, or my physical cravings?  Or do I gently turn my attention back to the task at hand?

How do I turn my attention back to the present moment?  Throughout the day - my breath - is my most frequent ally in noticing where I am and bringing me back to the present moment.  This is very useful when my monkey mind has begun to race while I am playing, as I do not have to stop playing but can just find my breath.  In a sense I suppose this may take me a bit further out of the act of music making, but only until I can establish my connection once again. When I find my breath, the breath flows through the music.   Listening is another way I can bring myself back.  This sense should be an active part of making music, yet my mind can be such a powerful distractor that I am merely mechanically playing the notes, and not hearing what I am playing.  With my listening engaged the music comes alive, as do I.

Connecting with myself through the Alexander Technique has also proven to be a powerful way to bring me back.  As I direct my use via AT, I am harmonizing my body & mind in a manner similar to meditation.  When I first met David Jernigan and he referred to AT as a mindfulness of the body practice, was when I really began embracing the technique. 

Frequently I intersperse any of these actions with my playing.  Noticing the body or the mind provides an opportunity to engage my consciousness with what I am doing.  From this notice I may make a choice to more fully enter into what I am doing, be it making music or washing dishes.  Present moment - only moment.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Great Day

I had an hour tonight to just play.  A little improvising, and playing through pieces, some of which I have not played in a while.  Fun to just play, to not be working to learn something, to just let the music out.  I probably need more of this, but I do what I can with the time that I have.  I have a gig at the end of the month, so I need to look through new and old pieces and construct a set.  Great to have this opportunity, great to be alive.

We went out to a friend's celebration and on the way we listened to Supper's Ready by Genesis.  Still a powerful and moving piece of music nearly 40 years later.  A great ending to a great day.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Collaboration Laboratory Session 2

Very tired after work today.  Had a quick turnaround after getting held up at work.   A delicious dinner of BBQ Tempeh & oven roasted potatoes & carrots was followed by a 10 minutes nap.  I had to grab my gear and get to the Collaboration Laboratory.  Tonight we were joined by two more poets and dancers.  After introductions of the new people and a taste of their work we dove in.

The musicians were two guitarists, a cellist, keyboards, and a wind player with a flute and a sax.  A few percussion instruments were also available.  Six poets and four dancers rounded out the team.  Three of the musicians are also poets.  Following the format of last week, a poet read a line or a few lines and then the musicians and dancers responded.  We were off and running and after the second collaboration I realized my tiredness was gone.  Sparked by the creative juices flowing about the room, I was ready to go all night.  The 2 1/2 hour session flew by.  So much was going on that it was hard to take it all in, but what I did take in was creative, funny, mysterious, deep, engaging, and much more.  Something real good is happening in Takoma Park.

Monday, May 2, 2011

When All Else Fails

Carbide Trails 2

When all else fails - do an Alexander Technique lie down.  So simple and so powerful.

Many demands today and much was accomplished.  Wanting to play but finding myself a bit overwhelmed after work, I had a moment of clarity which said - lie down.

With my paperback books underneath my occipital ridge, I began releasing into the floor.  As my body slowly but steadily let go, my mind calmed.  As my spine lengthened, my demand on myself to practice lessened.  There is a reason I usually take Monday nights off from practicing, but I am juggling two additional evening activities this week and felt that it would be good to practice.  As my shoulders widened I contemplated not just my body, but of letting go of practice anyhow.  Calmly on the floor, sensing my body, and noticing my breath was slower and deeper. 

Sitting on my stool with my guitar, I enjoyed the relative freedom that was now present in myself as a result of the lie down.  Tuning and then playing through a Journeyman's Way Home - I decided that this would lay the framework for my practice tonight.  To work as effortlessly as I can play Journeyman's. To play without concern; yet to be in the playing.  To practice in such a way as to balance the difficult with grace.  Moving onto Senseless Loss, I was able to play through with relative ease until I noticed a bit of chatter in my mind.  Pausing to breath and renew my aim of effortless playing I began again, and then again.  Enjoying the act of music making, keeping a sense of my length and width, I continued with this piece for another 15 minutes.  Noticing my right arm was fatigued, I paused to write this.

Again and again I must approach my practice with a real beginning.  No matter how many times I pick up the guitar, if I am not present when I do, something is lost.  With a harmony in body and mind, my practice is efficient.  And then, when I loose the harmony, will I begin again and establish the harmony, or plod through to the end?  The choice is mine. 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Maintaining Freedom

angels call

The more I study the Alexander Technique, the more I see what an amalgamation of habits I am. Working with a section of Senseless Loss this morning, I began using the Alexander practice of Inhibition. Several times instead of playing, I would pause and do another action.  Giving myself the AT directions, offering myself length and width.  After playing the section I would inhibit again. There is something about stopping an action, that keeps me present within my body.  In this presence there is the possibility of a release of a habitual way of using myself.  Then when I allow myself to move, there is a certain freedom.  I sense this freedom, I can hear it if I am sounding notes, but then at some point, the mother of all habits end gaining kicks in.  Happy with the results I want to get on with it, and then this gradual devolvement of my use occurs. Is this a habit of my learning process?  Two steps forward with one back?

When I just went to return to the guitar, I disrupted another habit.  As I was ready to put the guitar on, instead I just held it and began to walk around the room.  I switched the guitar from my right and to my left hand.  Smiling, wondering how much subtle habit my be triggered by the very act of putting on my guitar.  Writing this now with a certain lightness inside, wondering what might come next.

Moving back to the guitar, this time I did about 30 seconds of shaking Qi Gong to introduce a different element of freedom. Just because the walking was a successful disruption, I do not want to just create another habit.  This time I played the part with an ease and grace that has eluded me to this point.  Playing it one more time, I then played through Here We Are.  My intent was twofold - to allow this ease to penetrate an older work and to not keeping playing the difficult section of Senseless Loss and dilute the experience.

I was going to play through the section one more time before breakfast.  Instead, I visualized myself playing through this section with ease and grace.