Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Next Steps

Latent - present but not visible, apparent, or actualized; existing as potential.

I am still vibrating positively from an Alexander Technique/Music Lesson I had with Pedro de Alcantara yesterday.  Much was given to me; yet he made me reach for what he had to offer.  Grateful that more steps towards love were made in the hands of a master.  Much information and experience to process, develop, and embrace.  Over time these latent abilities will inform and allow the next steps to be found, the next steps to growth.  Not enough words to adequately explain the experience, but if you ever have the opportunity to have a lesson with Pedro seize the moment, without thought.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Low Energy Raised

Sunspot 1121 Unleashes X-ray Flare

A low energy afternoon.  This seems to be becoming my norm on Sundays, in keeping with a day of rest I suppose.  Began my day with a sitting while it was still dark, followed by Qi Gong.  After breakfast I had to meet with some friends, and then ran errands.  Cleaned up items on my to do list at home, and then the energy plunge began before lunch.  I fell asleep reading Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaataje, a great based on the story of the cornet player Buddy Bolden.

Phone calls and chain saws interrupted any chance of a long nap, so back to reading.  I've been keeping up with the pauses to direct my thinking with the Alexander Technique.  Time to move onto improvising, perhaps a low energy improv is the place to begin.

As soon as I began to improvise in a gentle way, I noticed I was waking up to the moment.  I had paused and directed before opening my case, intoned my guitar gatha, and moved right into playing.  As I continued to improvise, I continued to notice my energy rise.  I moved onto a deconstruction of Kinnara, and followed this with an inquiry into dyads.  After this I quickly found a short melody and followed where I was led.  Pausing to find myself, I closed this portion of my session with a spirited rendition of Gathered Hearts.  Grateful that the act of music unleashed energy into my day.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


View of the entire near-infrared sky

With this commitment to Creative Pact 2011 along with my investigating improvisation, I am also allowing the Alexander Technique to facilitate my use in the act of playing.  This is subtle and frequently below the surface of my ability to capture in words.  In general, I have been thinking and thus using AT more and more in the course of my day.  Many efforts of the application of AT to my guitar practice have been captured in this blog over the past two years.  Yet those smaller moments of returning to direct my thinking while brushing my teeth, walking at work, sitting in traffic, and all the mini pauses throughout my day has intensified this month.

As I completed my sitting today, I thought of my upcoming AT lesson with Pedro de Alcantara on Monday.  How might I best prepare for this I thought?  Practice of course, I smiled, yet this is a question that is larger than one lesson.  How might I best prepare for life might be the real question.  So for this weekend I decided to pause every half hour and direct my thinking with the Alexander Technique.  To cultivate this freedom and ease of use and perhaps be in a place where I am present to absorb what I can from this lesson with Pedro.

As I approached my case after writing the above, I inhibited my action to open it.  Directing and finding myself in the space before the case, I allowed my right hand to unclasp one clasp and then while thinking to keep my neck free, I opened the rest.  Reciting my guitar gatha as I took hold of and removed the guitar, I kept the directions alive.  When I placed the guitar on my body I was free.

 I played through Gathered Hearts to set the mood and then played three short improvisations.  I was a bit amazed how easily three ideas came to me, the last one with a Bach feel to it.  I noticed towards the end of the third one that I was holding my jaw.  How often do I do this when playing, when living?

This afternoon, I began by improvising on my piece Gathered Hearts.  I was amazed at the music that could easily be generated by playing with and expanding the framework of this piece.  I then moved onto an exploring an idea generated by Pedro de Alcantara's exercise called the Cat's Leap.  Then I improvised on Gathered Hearts again and then played with Pedro's idea some more.  I noticed a bit of tension in my neck as I was playing this last improv.  Old habits die hard.

My wife arrived home and I improvised on Gathered Hearts and another free idea while she listened.  Then as she took a call, I continued improvising with various ideas for another 15-20 minutes.  Feeling free and comfortable, happy that there has been a shift in my approach and confidence. The directing on the half hour fell  apart while I was at a film with my wife and for some time before and after this.  C'est la vie, we begin again constantly.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Strength Through Clarity

Thinking about beginnings in relationship to improvisation. A clear strong musical statement is as vital to moving an improvisation along as the beginning of a composed piece of music. Tonight I focused on generating clarity in my beginnings. The first improv began with staccato notes in A major ending with a staccato fourth chord. Variations on this ensued. After turning off the tape for this first effort, I found a compelling opening in D minorish. Pushing record I was off, having fun, varying the tempo and dynamics and dropping in the occasional surprise. Noticing that I was arriving at en ending, I found a satisfying end around 2 minutes and 20 seconds.

Loud short bass notes alternating with loud staccato high notes found me delighting in the next twist and turn. Before long this felt as if I might be getting too many ideas that was sacrificing a sense of unity. At some point I stopped. Returning to my question from last week - What does mystery sound like? I began exploring dyads, allowing space and tension. I was engaged and following where I was pointed. Again I found myself where perhaps too much was being put out there, but I'm not sure. One day I may listen to all of these efforts, but the important aspect of this evening was to focus on the beginning. With these clear strong beginnings, I found the process of improvisation to be stronger and better focused.

Returning to the guitar for 6 or 7 more improvisations, I realize now that there was very little judgement of my work tonight while in the act of playing.  Accepting what was coming out as the notes played.  This is a definite quality that is vital for me to cultivate.  I recognized the end of one 'piece' because of the sense of silence that was enveloping the music.  One very sweet moment for me.   All in all a good nights work.  

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Threads of Belief

Throughout history how many wars have been fought because of beliefs?  Throughout my life how much has been accomplished because of my beliefs?  How much left undone because of my beliefs?
Always good to examine our beliefs; good to question and maybe even let them go.

I believed I had performance anxiety so I did. Until one day I was told to trust that music would be there if I was.  I believed that the Alexander Technique was something that was valuable when done to me.  Now I know that I can direct my thinking and achieve freedom and better use of myself.  I believed I was not an improvisor, even though most of my compositions began with improvisation.  Now I know I can also take this a step further and I am.  Why?  Because I believe.  What do you believe?  Are your beliefs holding you back?  Or moving your forward?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Something Happening

Something Happened

              There's something happening here ....

Day 21  of spending most of my practice sessions improvising, thinking about improvising, and writing about my thinking and improvising.  Tonight I dove in, no warm up, no playing a couple familiar pieces, just into the deep end. And I swam for 40 minutes. Ideas emerging from the ether, playing them, playing with them, and moving on.  Stopped dead twice because I was "trying" too hard with my left hand.

Both of these pauses I allowed the Alexander Technique to connect me with myself, the space, and with my aim.  How did this happen?  I've been preparing the ground for years with the guitar.  Lots of working on my thinking about this aspect of music making and my ability to play and enjoy the creative act.  And tonight I let go.  No thinking, no preparing,  just playing notes and following.  Mostly the tape was running. Without listening I know there were clams, I know I got lost, and I know there was magic.  That's enough.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Long Tones Lead Listening in Improvisation

long ago ...

Last night I aborted a short, late, and tired session.  My entire day I was "cruising in overdrive."  Neither my body, mind, nor spirit had anything left to give, so rather than discourage myself I let go.  Tonight I was able to begin earlier in the evening, after resting from work. After my AT lie down. For some reason I took my trusty old Ovation 1867 out of the case.  Though I'm not sure when I last played her, she was really close to being in tune.

Smiling as I noticed the stickers my granddaughter had placed on her, I played through Gathered Hearts.  This piece began while we were playing around with the Ovation.  The stickers always remind me not to take myself too seriously.  Then I played Kinnara.  The thought to begin an improvisation with long tones arose and I did.  Almost instantly I realized part of why I like to begin with long tones is that I can just listen as they unfold and follow where this leads me.  I played through four more improvisations all around the 2 minute mark, all satisfying in the moment.  I don't know if it was the long tones getting my listening in gear or the reminder of the stickers to drop the seriousness that made this relaxed and fun.

After a break and a lie down I returned to the guitar.  The Breedlove this time.  The tone so lovely and so much more responsive.  Setting the mood with Here We Are, I turned my attention to improvisation.  The first one was  with fourth chords and I played with a confidence that shows me the work done here is paying off.  Onto exploring dyads and then long tones.  The thought to play what FEAr might sound like had me beginning with an Fm7 chord and moving to Em and Am before it took on it's own life. I noticed I was using myself poorly in this improv and directed my thinking while playing looking to allow release.  For the final improvisation I began with wide intervals.  Again I found myself collapsing on the guitar and again directed my thinking to lengthen and widen while continuing to play.   A good nights work completed.

Photo by Rosemary

Saturday, September 17, 2011

No Mystery

Is this a pike?

For ten minutes I sat and held the question - What does mystery sound like?  The usual answer's arriving and being let go.  As I moved to open my case I looked out the window and realize I certainly know what mystery looks like.  Trees, flowers, buildings, and people.  All arising from the unknown.  The sound of a child crying arises in my mind; letting go of this and I think of laughter.  Then I am flooded with unrelated thoughts.

After tuning I sit and again ask myself the question - long tones, Gregorian Chant arise.  Suddenly I am hypersensitive to the sounds outside.  Long tones arrive again, I know I want to begin with long tones, a certain anxiousness arrives and I continue to hold this question.  Am I a madman arises in my thinking.  I begin to play and do so for nearly 4 minutes with the tape running.  Again I sit and wait,  thoughts arrive and go, and I play again for 3:45.  I did notice some collapse as I played and directed to release this as I could.  This second take 'felt' real good to me.  One more take in a similar manner and again this felt right.  A part of me wanted to listen back to the tape, but I did not.

A session later with three more improvisations all of which felt like shit. Perhaps this improvising a musical answer to this question is beyond me.  Doubts arising about my ability to undertake this challenge of spontaneous composition period.  Yet I know I'll persist with this commitment, I know this.  Discouraged, I wanted to listen to the early tapes, but decided against this for now.

Chuckling as this title for this post arrives - No Mystery.  The associative leap to Chick Corea electric band's funky masterpiece is instantaneous.  The thinking continues ... can I direct my thinking?

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Middle and a Question

The middle of the Creative Pact 2011 process is upon me.  Can I stay true to investigating how the Alexander Technique can influence improvisation for the rest of this month? So far I have and it's always nice to have help.  Morning bike rides and Qi Gong in the surf.  No demands from colleagues, patients, or their families.  More time to devote to meditation and reflection. The real bonus is time with my guitar when I'm in a refreshed state without undue time pressure to get my practice time in.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I've been using Pedro de Alcanatara's book Indirect Procedures.  I have also begun rereading Understanding Our Mind by Thich Naht Hahn and just today reopened Creative Thinking by J.G. Bennett for the first time in years.

The first couple pages of Creative Thinking framed my practice session's today.  Improvisation is a big world, and while I doubt that in this life time I'll take up a study of jazz, there is still plenty to explore and learn.  Throughout my musical process, improvisation has always been a part of my practice, and has been the stimulus for the pieces that have come through me.   But this month, I am spending more time with improvisation.  Exploring and examining different aspects for me.  Today, I began with a simple frame of using C major.  Then I expanded this to begin with a rhythm in five.  Three different times the rhythmic aspect was quickly abandoned, as was the restraint of C major.  The music was gentle as was my use.  Even though the constraints were quickly let go, I find it good to have a beginning point.  I then moved onto improvising arpeggios in seven using fourth chords.  Lots of spirited fun here and I was able to maintain a good sense of my use.

How to enter into new improvisational spaces though?  Ask questions perhaps?  This thought was inspired by Creative Thinking.  What would mystery sound like?  What would gratitude sound like?  What would the process of moving from anger to peace sound like?  I played an improvisation on using each of these questions, with the tape machine running.  Using AT prior to beginning each improvisation entered the unknown.  During the third one, I had a greater than usual awareness of how I was using myself to play.  Each of these improvs were longer than the earlier more basic musical explorations.  And there was something about the third one that woke something up in me.

This is where Mr. Bennett's book became useful with his approach of holding the question.  During my second session of the day, I began with exploring the "anger into peace question" again.  But this time I sat with the guitar and the question, but kept rejecting the answers that I thought of - tritones, fast & intense, loud, abrasive and so on.  Sometimes hearing notes, but still inhibiting my playing.  Allowing a space to form for something new.  When I did begin to play, I just went with what came out.  Smiling when a quote from the Stone's Paint it Black arrived at the end. 

I moved onto the question of what does mystery sound like? Again, I worked with holding the question and again many thoughts arose. Eventually without an answer I allowed myself to play.  And then I repeated this process, at times aching to play, but waiting and rejecting the ideas that arose and looking for a quiet but active space to emerge.  The third time I worked with this question, the mysteries of the church of my youth came to mind.  Without thinking further I began to play.  My playing felt different.  I should add here that during this process, while rejecting thoughts I was also working to keep the AT directions alive.  The AT work was supporting the effort of holding the question, by keeping me grounded in the sense of my body while my mind was at times quite active.  Another exploration of mystery was undertaken.  I simply played open strings for a while as I held the question.  Simply listening to the stacked fifths, as thoughts came and went.  When I did begin to play I was quiet, accepting of my playing, focused in my use.  At the end of the piece, I began thinking that maybe this was a way to record a release of improvisations.

Another effort with "mystery" and the thought -<i> I don't know what mystery sounds like</i> - arrived. I have no idea how this sounded, but again I was exploring new musical areas for me and played with a confidence more akin to a composed piece.  One final effort yielded a similar result.  All told this exploration os the mystery question took me close to 40 minutes.  Each take was taped, but for me the musical outcome is not as important as the process I undertook to arrive there.  More explorations to follow.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Savouring the Unknown

Three-Day Kayak and Hiking Tour of the Channel Islands (San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz) After my sitting today, I improvised on an idea that arose yesterday in Amaj/Cmaj.  No measurable progress was made, but I did do the work and then enjoyed a bike ride and Qi Gong in the surf. Later I read a snippet from Pedro de Alcantara's great book on the Alexander Technique called Indirect Procedures.  Regarding fear of improvisation Pedro states:  This universal fear always manifests itself in misuse of the whole self. To learn to improvise is to lose fear and, consequently, to stop misusing the self.

What happens when I improvise?  I engage the unknown in music and in myself.  Fear ever so subtle, even manifest in playing guitar which I so dearly love.  In an Alexandrian sense what happens to my use when I play "wrong" notes or find that I do not know what to play next?  I begin to rush and I tend to collapse my upper body.  The judgement voice usually in a negative tone arises within me.  How can I use AT to help my savour the unknown?

Today I decided to improvise in various styles for just four bars.  Maintaining an awareness of my use while improvising was paramount.  If I completed four bars without collapsing the improvisation was a success.  I paused between playing through various ideas and directed my thinking via AT.  A sense of letting go emerged as I continued to play in this way.  In my use certainly, but also in my thinking about myself as an improvisor and in the music.

After a short break to write notes, I returned to this notion of improvising four bars.  A piece was developing and a moment arose where the slight fear of the unknown manifested.  I paused very briefly and thought of openness.  Bold confident notes came out and well past the four bars I found an ending.  The pause was momentary and if an audience had been present could have been perceived as a musical rest.  The pause was significant for me, showing me the power of slowing down and being open.

Another attempt yielded overall positive results.  As the improv developed and became tricky, I noticed my upper left arm was tensing and I had begun holding my breath.  I am certain that the tension had been developing beneath my level of awareness as I played.  I did not find a way to release this tension as I played.  Getting excited now I was ready to rush into the next exploration.

Sensing that I may be end gaining, I choose instead to do a lie down.  As my back hit the floor I noticed the tension in my spine.  Letting this go, I was still eager to proceed.  But I stayed with the lie down and released my neck, spine, leg, and arms.  When I did begin again - loud intense notes played at a tempo much faster than the others.  At times I felt as if I was holding on,  while at other times I felt free.  Towards the end I again noticed I was holding my breath, the very breath of life.  These three improvisations all proceeded past the four bars I had originally established and the all had a sense of music to me.  May the learning continue as I approach the middle of this month long exploration inspired by Creative Pact 2011.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Changing My Thinking About Improvisation

Shanklin chine at night 

Walking to the beach, my wife reminds me to have thoughts of openness and freedom.  I meditate on this while walking in the surf.  Breathing in - I am free, breathing out - I am open.  Some of my steps are easier and lighter, as the ocean ebbs and flows around my legs, just as some thoughts and habits are easier to walk through than others.  As I continue to meditate on openness and freedom, I also allow these thoughts to be held:  I can improvise music.  I am free to create spontaneous compositions.  I am free to create music in the moment. Happy as I notice how these thoughts which just a couple weeks ago made me twitch, are now being received with ease.

      I sit and watch the ocean continuing to meditate on openness and freedom. Just as the soft breeze blows across my skin, I imagine my fingers gently caressing the strings of my guitar.  Waves of sound rising and falling, riveting and soothing.  Any note can follow any note.  Any chord can be the sound of freedom. Release the mental, confining constraints, and just be with the sounds as the music unfolds.  Be the inspired and the inspiration.  Just BE.

    What is changed when we observe our breath?  What is changed when we sense our bodies?  Coming alive to the moment of our doing, we may become open to a choice beyond our habits, a choice beyond right and wrong.  Freedom arrives, is glimpsed excitedly and then I am lost again.  If I direct my attention, freedom may again become possible.  We begin again constantly, as the Guitar Craft aphorism so aptly enlightens.  Waves of presence, followed by waves of absence, until the splash of waking up arrives once more.

    Will I allow my sands of time to be eroded by habits?  Or will I act from principle?  Train the mind?  Release the unnecessary?  Cultivate the positive?  Be open and partake of the help that is available?  Understanding that my habits are subtle and obstinate, I must have help to release them.  Habits developed over a lifetime, perhaps over many generations, do not yield overnight.  Except for the occasional, extraordinary event, habits usually unravel in a gradual but persistent release.

    This release requires discipline and dedication to principle, an intentional approach, oftentimes aided by the divine.  In any case, I have to ask for help.  Ask myself, what am I willing to commit?  Ask others who have trudged the path before me for guidance?  Plead for assistance from the unknown.  And then I practice, as often as I remember.

    When the sun rises once more, with my first waking breath, I ask again.  Grateful for another chance to train my mind and change my life, I align myself to a higher principle.  Being gentle and generous in my approach to myself and to others, I breathe in good thoughts.  And I smile as I breathe out.  Alive again, I take a step into life...and then another.  The Breath is always with me.  Am I with the Breath?  Release the unnecessary and arrive in a new place.  The present moment.  Home of the known and the unknown.  Arriving at a castle in heaven, that, for me, is made of sand.  Begin again constantly...act from principle...breathe in...release the sand.

Photo by Andy Buckland

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Release the Unnecessary

    I began my practice by playing Where We Are, moved onto an improvisation, then played through Kinnara, and followed with another improvisation.  There was something about the energy of music flowing with a piece andcthen alternating with improvisation that I liked.  The Crafty aphorism Release the unnecessary came to mind.  I was prepared to play through Gathered Hearts but decided to inhibit this action and work with the AT directions instead. 
    I came up with a new improvisation based on the AT directions: 
    *release my neck and allow my head to flow like a cloud
    *allow my spine to release upward into the heavens
let me back be as wide as the cosmos
    *allow my legs to release from the pelvis and my feet to kiss the earth
    *my shoulders as wide as the ocean
    *my arms lengthening to the horizon, allowing my fingers to release music as the ocean releases a wave.

    As I returned to improvising on the guitar, I quickly found myself thinking and judging about my musical choices.  I realized another release - unnecessary thinking and judgment was in order.  Not only is this a good musical practice, but it can serve me well in other circumstances as I improvise my life.  As I moved on in the improvisation, I smiled.  I also realized that I needed to release the unnecessary thinking and judgment that approved of how the improvisation was unfolding.  I do not need to get swallowed and lost in my thinking, but simply remain present to what I am doing.  “Accept, allow and play” could be my mantra.  Release the concept of right and wrong and instead focus on movement in the musical moment.  On a larger scale, focus on the movement in my thinking...focus on the movement of my life.

Screenshot from Brian Eno's 77 Million Pictures.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A day of preparation                                          and consolidation.

When I did get to pickup my guitar, I began to improvise


dyads & nearby notes.

minor ninths


minor thirds.

Something happened. I went deeper. Cared even less.




Appears my preparation and consolidation is now complete.

Screenshot from 77 Million Paintings by Brian Eno

Friday, September 9, 2011

One That Almost Got Away

Another tired Friday evening.  I was trying to convince myself to take the night off.  One good decision I made was to at least begin with my AT lie down.  Once the energy began to flow, I reasoned I might as well play a few pieces.  I could take the night off from my improvisation exploration, just have a little fun with music.  Let the strings sooth my soul.

I placed the partial capo in the second position ready to play Gathered Hearts, and instead I began to improvise.  Gently probing, listening, and my thinking turned again to Eno.  A dyad caught my ear, followed by an arpeggio and we drifted along.  As one fragment followed another, I arrived at an ending.  No tape was rolling, so I began again.  My SD card is full and I did not want the distraction of making room, so I kept playing.  Eventually I decided to notate the beginning.

While doing this I turned on 77 Million Paintings, writing, playing ideas on the guitar, watching the images unfold.  The musical fragments grew and while the sense of the 'piece' remained, I took more chances.  As I did this, my legs began tensing and I found I had lost all sense of myself.  Pausing to direct my thinking with AT, I returned to the images onscreen and to the images being drawn by the notes.  The primary ideas are on paper and I trust the spirit of the piece is in me and will return. I'll resist pushing hard and prepare myself for another day.

Screenshot from  77 Million Paintings.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Oblique Improvising

Long day at work today followed by a long wet commute home.  I had a brief time available to play guitar before I went to a friend's celebration.  I languished a bit with my AT lie down, enjoying the release this simple but powerful practice offers.  Reinforcing the thought that improvising is easy to do, I began.  Flat, uninspired,  more flat - simply the reality of where I was.  The judging thoughts tried to impose themselves on me, and to a degree they did.  Returning to what worked last night I did enjoy improvising around the arpeggios in fourths and sixths again.

Returning home at 9:45 pm, I was ready to call this a night.  Yet I felt as if I had not made an effort with my commitment to the Creative Pact 2011 project.  I know the value of honoring commitments, and tiredness is not a reason to let go of what I needed to do.  As I thought of what to do, Brian Eno came to mind.  What would Eno do, to find a way past his habits and be open to music.  The thought that arrived was to fire up my copy of 77 Million Paintings and improvise a soundtrack.  Sparse, simple, and Enoish moments came and went, replaced by other moments.  Watching the changing  collage of color, lines, shapes offered me a focus.

The time flowed gently.  I thought that I was not thinking about the Alexander Technique much.  Smiling I let this pass, and played on.   Very occasionally wishing for my neck to be free. Just releasing the notes from within this space the images and overall influence of Eno created.  Yes, improvising is easy to do ...

Screenshot from Brian Eno's 77 Million Paintings.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

False Starts With Faith

"String Web" woven sculpture by Machiko Agano

Found my notes earlier this week that David Jernigan had taken from what may be my favorite podcast about the Alexander Technique.  Pedro de Alcantara, an AT instructor, was interviewed by Diana Rumrill on her wonderful series on Musician's Health called Harmonious Bodies.  David's notes were taken in a rich text format and the first one which appeared to float off the page after I completed my practice last evening is

                  ** things are easy to do ** 

Yes they are, especially when I am present to the task at hand.  The next line on the notes reads

     put yourself in the frame of mind to do so;
                     work on frame of mind.

Certainly sage advice.  Mindful breathing and the Alexander Technique bring about a harmonization of my body and mind.  As the Dhammapada tells us All that we are arises with our thoughts.  If I tend to the garden of my mind and water the seeds of music, improvisation, peace, or anything that I wish to manifest, I am laying the groundwork for bringing this into being.  So today I reflected on the thought - improvisation is easy for me.  Over the years I have watered many positive seeds in my thinking and I know that changing my "frame of mind" takes time.  So I practice watering positive seeds.

When my guitar practice time arrived, I was in a good frame of mind to begin.  After completing my AT lie down, my energy was flowing, my body and mind engaged.  While opening the case I knew I was opening my case, picking up my guitar, I was present.  And tonight, music taught me patience, showed me a couple areas to study.  I began a few different improvs and they quickly fell apart.  These false starts began to concern me, but I reminded myself this is part of the process.  Wondering how am I to sustain this for the month of my Creative Pact 2011 commitment?  Can I continue to blog about improvisation and the Alexander Technique without becoming redundant?  The simple thought - have faith came to mind.

Smiling, I began to alter an arpeggio exercise in fourths and sixths.  Concerning myself with the quality of the notes I was playing, moving slowly and without concern I quieted my mind.  Simple melodies emerged along with a few surprise twists.  Pausing to check in via AT, I began again with a different chord and slowly explored the possible.  One more time and I took a break to write this.

Now for another lie down to re-harmonize myself before returning to the guitar.

I reminded myself that improvisation is easy as I completed my lie down. Three more efforts, two with clearly defined beginnings and the third began with abandon.  Moments that were musical emerged in all three, with surprise and horror also arising in the third.  By pausing and directing my thinking via AT between each improv, I was able to maintain a sense of myself while exploring the various musical situations.

One more lie down and this variation on the AT directions came to me.  Improvisation is easy when my neck is free.  Improvisation is easy when my spine is lengthening and widening.  Improvisation is easy when my back is long and wide.  Improvisation is easy as my legs release from my pelvis to my knees, from my knees to my ankles.  Easy when my feet are long and wide.  When my shoulders are away music flows through me.  When my arms are long all the way through my fingers I am better able to touch music. 

I hope that my improvisation with the Alexander Technique directions does not offend nor misinform anyone.  What transpired after this lie down was sublime.  Nights like this I want to go into the wee hours of the morning, but I have my responsibilities at work tomorrow.  Something tells me that I will play more once I publish this post.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

One Small Step

Teotihuacan - tempel van de zon

While driving to work today, I was reflecting on my work with improvisation last night.  I began improvising a melody in my mind, when I realized I could sing an improv instead.  Fairly quickly I realized the limitations of my singing wide intervals, but I persisted nonetheless.  I returned to this a few times during work today, gently singing a melody created in the moment.  While I have done this before,  and have even consciously work on a developing piece in this way, I'm not sure why I have never thought of this as improvisation.

Tonight I had my Alexander Technique lesson with David Jernigan who also happens to be an accomplished jazz bassist,  plays guitar and piano.  I knew that I would have to continue my work on the Creative Pact 2011 commitment I made to work with improvisation and AT with David tonight.  As it was raining I began to use this as an excuse to leave my guitar at home.  I did have an AT related question for us to work with tonight.  A tendency I have to "hold on" with my right leg & foot, and a similar tendency with my left hand.  David has shown me how to apply AT to release my left hand, and this has happened markedly in the past two months.  We worked with the sense of lengthening along the diagonal between the left shoulder and the right leg.  Releasing the lower back to release the leg.

David put me on the table and with gentle manipulation and direction introduced a greater release and length in me.  As I went to get up we talked about the habit I noticed a couple weeks ago, of always rising from a lie down to my right side.  This came up as I had began to roll to the right.  I did choose to continue in this direction, but at least now it is not always just a habitual response to rising.  As I sat on the table, he asked if I was ready to play guitar.  A part of me did not want to get the guitar out of the case and improvise, even though this was the intention I established last night.

A short improvisation followed by a short discussion. And then another, which was moving along and then I was lost as to where to go and stopped.  A bit more discussion about vulnerability and stepping out into the unknown.  I mentioned that I was not using my body to withdraw away from him and hide.  Then David asked me to play again.  This take began with a tritone and had a sense of musical direction throughout.  A bit varied in intensity, and I followed with what developed until I found an ending.  The duration was probably less than two minutes and at one point self-judgement slipped into my thinking, but overall I remained free.  This is major progress.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Density - Intensity


While resting after dinner tonight, two ideas to explore as launching points for my improvisations tonight arose.  This is in line with my commitment to Creative Pact 2011.  I was fairly certain that the ideas were from Ralph Towner's book Improvisation and Performance Techniques for Classical and Acoustic Guitar.  Flipping open my copy to search for these ideas I came across this gem: Density and intensity are not the same thing.  The sparsity of notes and again the coloring can maintain and even increase the drama.  Suddenly I was letting go of my ideas for a different evening, even though I was unclear as to what I would do.  Gotta love stepping into the unknown.

Armed with a vague sense of how to proceed, I hit the floor for my AT lie down.  Towards the end of the lie down, I began improvising in my mind.  This began with a tri-tone and gently took off.  The thought arose that I could begin to improvise in my mind and then play what I was hearing, which would also challenge my ear and fretboard knowledge.  So once again, my sense of what I would do this evening had a slight change of course.  I began improvising in my mind, and almost as soon as I began playing, I let go of the notion.  The hands took over and I allowed them to.  What came out was pleasing to me, but I'll never know if it was the act of improvising that was pleasing or the subsequent music.

Because of this I decided to up the ante and break out my mp3 recorder.  At the very least I could listen back during my commute to work.  I know that listening back is a double edged sword.  Harsh judgement could sidetrack otherwise good work from developing.  Yet not having a tool for evaluating my work is delusional.  Five improvisations followed - two based on Mike Vargas's concept of Zone's; one with an emphasis on dyads; and one with an emphasis on chords based on fourths.  The final improv was an effort to vary the intensity of quick burst of dense notes.  One thing I noticed in the act of playing with the final improv was that when I focused on intensity of notes, my playing slowed down.  More work to follow with all of this.

My work with AT was not as active this evening.  I did do another lie down after the first three improvisations and paid attention to myself in between the improvs.  Reflecting back on this though during both of the lie downs, I did have thoughts that were pertinent to my musical work for the evening.

Density - Intensity. Wherein lies the balance?

Note: I was pleasantly surprised to see that only a used copy of Towner's book is available on Amazon at a price of $142. Glad I've held onto this.  I suspect we'll never see this happen with digital works.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Quality of Active Rest

Soon I will rest

This morning as I was journaling. my thoughts turned to improvisation.  Suddenly as I have joined the Creative Pact 2011, improv is taking over.  One valuable tidbit that came out in my journaling is that when I am present with the disconnect of the musical flow when improvising that some type of learning will be possible.  This may be an area of musical knowledge that needs to be deepened, the information that I was using myself poorly and/or end gaining and lost my awareness of what I am doing.  Or that once again I was distracted in my thinking.  My intention while improvising will be to be present with my playing.  Always a challenge to maintain, and a bit more so for me when improvising.

Most evenings when I begin my guitar practice, I do an Alexander Technique lie down.  Tonight I was very physically tired from having had fun for 3.5 hours at a splash park with family.  As my back hit the floor, I noticed a bit of tension in my spine begin to release.  Usually I am tired emotionally and mentally from having been at work during the day, but tonight was as close to a pure physical tiredness as I get.  As I rested with my neck on the books, I was replaying parts of an important conversation I had earlier.  Examining it, wondering about actions and repercussions that will follow.  At one point I found myself thinking, that perhaps because I am so physically tired, I'm not going to register that energizing affect of the lie down.

As I began to roll over, I just felt tired.  The usual charge was missing.  And then I paused - yes I had been laying in a semi-supine position with my neck supported by paperback books.  But that was all.  I was not present with the process.  I was not directing my thinking, I was just laying down and rehashing the past.  Before I got up from the floor, I began my AT lie down again.  This time I did direct  my thinking and lo and behold my energy began to regenerate.  In my first lie down, the "active" part of active rest was not present and thus neither was I.

As I moved to the guitar, I choose to begin with a known piece of music.  I wanted to get the energy of music alive in me and to allow my hands to play with confidence.  Then I began with an idea that arose in an improvisation on Friday.  Taking it a bit further,  while enjoying the act of improvising,  I was pleased with the musicality of what I was playing.  Pausing to reconnect, I began again.  Varying my responses, and working with maintaining my awareness, slowly the music developed.  Taking my hands off the instrument to direct my thinking via AT, I began again.  This time just letting the notes come out, listening, taking chances, and working to remain judgement free.  At one point a fast run leapt from my fingers, followed by another one.  I pulled back a bit and then let loose with another flurry of notes, this one a bit hesitant.  Resting a second and reestablishing my connection with myself I continued to play.  Part of what transpired was uncharacteristic of me.

After a short break I explored a zone, as described in Friday nights blog.  This had more space than my earlier improv, perhaps even more of an emotional connection.  The beauty of some of the notes was surprising to me.  Pausing to play through Gathered Hearts, I then explored this zone one more time.  Something is happening, I just need to trust and allow the process to unfold.

Saturday, September 3, 2011



On my second active day of participation in the Creative Pact 2011, I sensed that working with dyads was appropriate.  As I began thinking of the various ways I could improvise with dyads, I knew I was on the right path.  While doing my Alexander Technique lie down, as I was thinking of a wide back, the notion of using wide intervals to begin my investigation arose.  I choose to use only intervals larger than a minor ninth.  There is something about the minor ninth that has always captured my ear, probably the same attraction I have to the sound of seconds.  Working my way around the fretboard, I would pause and renew the AT directions.

Again my intention was to work to keep myself free as I improvised.  Moving on to using dyads interspersed with single notes, and then dyads and arpeggios, I continued to pause and pay attention to my use. Eventually I found a short progression of dyads that really caught my ear.  I began to play with and develop this progression.

After dinner, I returned to this progression, and found that I still liked the musicality.  As I continued to improvise with this progression as my springboard, I became excited and decided to notate what I had.  The act of working with the guitar, paper, & pencil generally triggers a strong tendency to end gain in me and to loose any sense of myself.  Frequently I paused to once again find a pencil in my mouth, my upper body slumped on the guitar, and one or both of my feet pressing off the floor with my toes to "balance" me.  Why do I loose my sense of myself as I play and notate?  I have observed this on too many occasions in the past.  When I did pause tonight to reconnect with myself, I would let go of the desire to capture anything and instead look to free myself.  Returning to the moment in this way, had me go down some unfamiliar musical paths.

Smiling now as I recall my thoughts this morning of how am I going to proceed with incorporating Alexander Technique and improvisation for the month of Creative Pact 2011.  A day at a time, of course - just one note, one release at a time.  Trusting that music is there when I am.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Allowing Alexander Technique to Influence Improvisation

Cupid Considering

Tonight found my wife invoking my two times to practice rule on me - when I want to and when I don't want to.  So grateful for such a supportive presence in my life.  While doing my AT lie down before picking up my guitar, I marveled at the complex systems which we call our body.  Bones, tissues, and an energy system the power of which I have only glimpsed.  Numerous biochemical processes adapting to the sustenance and abuse we absorb.  I recalled the sense of awe I had when I first held DNA in a test tube during biochemistry lab. And then I came back to my body.

Allowing my thinking to touch various aspects of the Alexander Technique as I continued to lie down, I sensed the freedom that is available to us.  Can I practice tonight with the aim of maintaining this freedom, rather than becoming concerned with results?  After playing through two pieces I paused, recalling a project a couple of online friends are participating in Creative Pact 2011 which began yesterday.  I know the value of support, but finding out about Creative Pact on the day it began, I was unsure of how I might participate.

As this project is hosted by a group called Inclusive Improv, I did have a sense that working with improvisation was a way in for me, but how to share the documentation.  I do not want to get bogged down with recording/editing of improvs to share with the project.  I also thought of Alexander Technique and my writing related to application of this to my musical practice.  So tonight in the spirit of joining the creative pact 2011, I improvised with the intent of being quiet in my thinking and free in my use.

The first improvisation came to a halt when I noticed that my judgemental thinking had begun it's dialogue.  Coming back to myself and quieting the thinking by observing my breath, I then directed my thinking with the Alexander Technique.  Beginning again, I soon faltered with judgement thoughts impeding the flow.  Centering myself again, I simply enjoyed sitting on my stool, and then began to play with a sense of space between the notes.  Allowing this sense of space between the notes to inform the sense of space within my body.  Directing via AT, in between snatches of playing.  I continued in this fashion for 15 - 20 minutes, occasionally pausing to reconnect.  Noticing that my mind was quieting and my energy rising.

I took a short break and then resumed in this manner, exploring and playing with different ideas.  One idea I borrowed from my pianist friend Mike Vargas was to restrict myself to a particular "zone" on the guitar.  In this case the notes between the 6th and 15th frets including open strings.  Little judgement surfacing now, just playing and following where I might go.

Deciding at one point to play through Gathered Hearts from this space I was in, I did so.  Then with the partial capo in the second position, I resumed improvising.  Finding an idea that I will return to, I now had my bridge to begin my practice tomorrow. 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Pushing Hard

Water in Blue

Monday night I was playing around with the Alexander Technique directions while I was brushing my teeth.  Having a sense of myself I slowly extended my left arm toward the mirror.  Then I brought the hand towards my body as if I would be moving to the guitar neck.  There was space within and beneath my shoulder that I do not usually sense when I habitually bring my hand to the guitar from my lap.  I was excited and played around with this a few times.  Though the hour was late I wanted to go and check this out with my guitar.  But I was tired.

I had already let go of blogging that evening because it was after 10 pm and I was beat.  As I felt the pull in me to go back to the guitar I recognized an old habit of mine.  The ability to push myself hard.  In general, I and others, have seen this as an admirable trait.  But this "pushing myself" is a habit.  Looking at this from an Alexander Technique perspective I began to wonder about the effectiveness of "using" myself in this way.  What are the long term affects of this "pushing hard?"  Certainly I have sustained injuries from pushing too hard with the guitar.  What has been the psycho-physical toll from a lifestyle of "work hard/play hard?"  This is a habit I must look at deeply.

While I did not go and play my guitar that night I did jot down some notes before turning in.