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Jury Duty

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I reported for jury duty recently. I’ve been called in a couple of times before, but I’ve never actually gotten impaneled—I’ve always had to wait in the jurors’ room for several hours, only to be eventually dismissed. This time was no exception. Before being sent to the waiting room, we were all taken to the courtroom so that the judge could instruct us on how to be effective jurors. I found what he said interesting, as some of it seemed to connect directly to my mindfulness practice.

He told us to form our opinions on the case solely from the evidence presented in the courtroom. We should not read anything about the case in the newspaper or online. The reason for this, he explained, is that journalism is rarely, if ever, truly objective. Digesting any journalism or media on a particular case can lead a juror to take a side before considering the evidence of the trial. Also, we should not discuss the case with anyone until the case has been ruled on. He warned us of the risk of being swayed by other people’s opinions. Additionally, the mere act of discussing a case can stir up emotions, which can lead to a subjective viewpoint.

The judge’s sage words got me thinking. I often use my emotions, my internal chatter, and my subjective likes and dislikes as “evidence” in forming an opinion on something or someone. I now know that this “evidence” would not hold up in court. Yet I trust my mind’s chatter far too often.

I’ll share something that rears its head far too often for many performers, especially myself. After a performance, I often do a little mental review of what happened. Unfortunately, I sometimes get stuck on the things that didn’t go as planned rather than all the things that went well. I can be very hard on myself, and the mental critic can easily color the entire evening’s proceedings based on some small slips. The chatter might go something like this: “That concert went well, but I missed that shift to the high A. Dammit, I never struggled with that part before. Ugh, it must have sounded really out of tune. Why can’t I rely on myself in those moments? My technique is just not that good. I’m sure everyone heard it and winced with pain. I guess the concert wasn’t as good as I thought.” On paper, this internal narrative seems silly and out of touch. I’m not sure why mental chatter tends to negative and highly critical.

If our goal as a performer is not to make mistakes, then we are bound to be disappointed. What if our goals were focused around how we communicate and connect with our audience? This takes the focus off of those tricky spots and makes the experience about the connection between performer and audience. This interaction can only happen if both performer and audience member enter into the conversation with mindfulness.

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Flow-Andreas Burzik

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Last week, Ealaín brought a workshop to my attention on the concept of “flow” in music practice and teaching. It was presented by a German violinist and psychologist named Andreas Burzik at New England Conservatory. I only saw the posting a couple hours before the workshop began, but because I’ve been on sabbatical, I had the flexibility to just jump in the car and drive up I-95 to Boston to see it.

“Flow” is a psychological state very similar to mindfulness. It has been studied and written about extensively by the eminent psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me-hi Chik-sent-me-hi), author of the book “Flow.” From what I understand, flow is a state of reduced thinking, or even non-thinking, in which the participant is fully absorbed in a given activity, and optimal experience just happens. With this single-pointed focus, one’s physical actions are executed with ease and enjoyment. Flow is often described by athletes as “being in the zone” or “being unconscious.” Conservatory-trained in Germany, Mr. Burzik has been teaching the practice and concepts of flow to musicians around the globe since discovering the writings of Csikszentmihalyi fifteen years ago.

The workshop was great, but rather than give you a play-by-play, I’d like to share two concepts that were touched upon that I found especially relevant to my sabbatical.

We started the workshop exploring the idea of “doing vs. non-doing,” or in the context of flow, intense effort vs. fluid ease. To illustrate the difference, he had us air-bow on imaginary violins. Once we started “playing”, he barked at us to play faster and louder. As we picked up the pace, he continued to get in our face to go faster still. The tension that built up in my body and mind with this drill sergeant approach was immediately palpable. (Perhaps this is how many music students feel, particularly in orchestra?) Then Mr. Burzik changed his approach and calmly asked us to play our instruments in a loose and fluid manner, not for the purposes of speed and volume, but just to move our bodies without effort. It felt easy, relaxed and dance-like. This was a vivid example of “doing,” with it’s striving, tension, intensity and anxiety, vs. “non-doing”—allowing things to happen in an organic way and paying attention to the body’s balance. Since the workshop, I have been paying more attention to my body in my practice. It’s amazing how much easier tricky passages can be with non-doing. Just playing things with much less tension makes everything work better.

The other powerful idea I took away from the workshop was about teaching young children: “One of the biggest mistakes we make with our students is when we start to instruct them,” Mr. Burzik told us with Yoda-like pithiness. Yes, our students need to be taught the fundamentals of good technique in any instrument, he explained. But when we try to relay information in a way that is too verbal, we risk making the process of learning a cognitive experience rather than an experiential one. New information being taken in by a student is often more easily understood if it is felt and experienced in a relevant way rather than thought about abstractly. He suggested that we could teach the rudiments of set-up and technique with imagery, games and sensory experiences. For example(my example), rather than telling a student to “keep your violin up” over and over and over, we can ask the student not to let any dishes fall off the table, or we can place a little finger-puppet (Bruce the Posture Moose) on the violin and tell the student not to let him fall off. Or when teaching a bow hold, rather than tell the student to keep their thumb bumpy, tell them to keep their mouse hole round so that Morris the Mouse can get through. To a young student just starting, a tall violin or a bumpy thumb on the bow are abstractions; to them, it makes little difference if the violin is tall or not. Not letting the dishes fall off the table or not letting Bruce the Posture Moose fall off the violin gives them something they can relate to and experience rather than process intellectually. It got me thinking that perhaps almost everything a student needs to learn can be taught in an experiential, sensory way. Whether it’s posture, rhythm, intonation, phrasing or anything else, the less verbal the teaching, the more experiential it is for the student. This makes things easier to process and more open to flow. It made me think of my own teaching and how wordy I can be sometimes. It also made me think of when I’ve tried to learn a new skill from a book or an overly verbose instructor. I can easily get lost and frustrated and see Easter-Island heads floating about in a confused haze. Certainly there are students out there, even young ones, that respond well to abstractions. Every student has a unique learning style after all.  And when a student is older and able to understand and process why a tall violin is important for sound production and alleviating tension in the arms and hands, Bruce the Posture Moose would be perhaps unnecessary. However, I would say in general: Less talk, more Bruce.

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Avaloch Farm

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I was lucky enough to spend last week at the Avaloch Farm Music Institute, a new initiative led by Deb Sherr, director of Greenwood Music Camp, and Alfred Tauber, Professor Emeritus of both Philosophy and Medicine at Boston University and an Avaloch Farm resident.

The Avaloch Farm Music Institute is a retreat center for professional chamber music groups. Located in Boscawen, New Hampshire (about 20 minutes outside of Concord), Avaloch is a brand new facility boasting hotel-quality rooms (sans TV), gorgeous rehearsal studios, running trails, canoeing, and an amazing staff that takes care of everything so that your group only has to worry about how to play in tune with a blended sound. On top of all that, the food is ridiculously good. Five-star stuff. I’m a little ashamed to say that I put on about seven pounds that week. Call it a complete break of self-control. But aside from this temporary loss of self-respect, my experience at Avaloch was incredible and I can’t do it justice in words. I’ll include a link to their site so you can find out more about it.

http://www.avalochfarmmusic.org/

Ealaín, Emmy, and my old pal Heath went to Avaloch to prepare a program we played this past weekend in Boston and Newport. The concerts benefited Ealaín and Emmy’s new initiative, the Newport String Project. We rehearsed three works: a sweet arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” Haydn’s D major quartet op. 20 no. 4, and Beethoven’s E-flat major quartet op. 127 (the first of his great late-period quartets). Here is a link to Ealaín and Emmy’s new program.

http://www.newportstringproject.org/

I decided to take a slightly different tack in rehearsals: I tried to pay as little attention to my own part as possible and to simply listen to my colleagues. As a classical player, I am so accustomed to making sure my intonation is pure, my rhythm is accurate, and my sound is beautiful, that there’s often not much room left to listen to anything else. While those basic building blocks are always important to address, paying too much attention to them can get in the way of connecting with your partners and can take you out of the experience of making music.

This was a difficult approach for me. Anytime I would hear myself make a sound I didn’t like, my attention would be drawn back inward. However, when I was able to keep my ears focused outward on Ealaín, Emmy, and Heath—while allowing my own playing to flow freely, trusting that I had already put in enough work on my individual part—the music making was very satisfying and uplifting. To stop thinking, even for a few lines, was wonderful.

I was less successful in the concerts maintaining this state of mind, as nerves and the underlying desire for accuracy became more of a factor. But there were some stretches of liberation from the Ears of Sauron (if I may be permitted one Lord of the Rings reference), and I have to say it felt pretty wonderful.

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Lorrie Heagy

Two days ago, I made an exception to the unwritten “don’t-step-foot-inside-CMW-during-a-sabbatical” policy to see a workshop led by pedagogical guru Lorrie Heagy. Lorrie was a member of the first class of Abreu Fellows at NEC five years ago and is a music teacher at Glacier Valley Elementary School in Juneau, Alaska. I had heard nothing but great things about Lorrie, and I am so glad that I attended the workshop. She is an extraordinary educator.

Lorrie worked with us for a couple of hours on teaching group classes. She showed us several games and exercises we can use to set the tone for a class as soon as students walk through the door. She also stressed that transitions from activity to activity within any given class are always the danger zones for behavioral problems, and she gave many excellent suggestions and games to help streamline these transitions. There were so many golden nuggets of information, it almost made me wish I were going straight to All-Play Day at CMW to teach a group class. (Almost…I want to soak in this sabbatical a little longer.)

While there were many highlights of the workshop, two things in particular stood out in the context of my sabbatical. The first was the concept of modeling. Lorrie stressed that our students will take away what we model to them in our own behavior and presentation. If I can teach with the same soft-concentration, warmth, and mindfulness that Lorrie embodied so beautifully in the workshop, I know it will help my effectiveness as a teacher tremendously. I was Lorrie’s pupil in a group class setting for two and a half hours, and her mindfulness, warm energy, and knowledge were completely compelling. I felt nurtured, encouraged, and realistically challenged as her student. I really wanted to go practice and come back for more lessons!

The second thing that stood out to me was the concept of breath. She told us that when she notices a student exhibiting frustration and having a tough time, one of the first things she does is to approach the student calmly from the side (not head on) and make sure that they are breathing deeply from the belly. When frustration levels rise, the location of our breath tends to rise as well, from the belly to the chest, exasperating the problem. Only when she feels that the student is breathing mindfully, and that she herself is breathing mindfully, does she talk to the student about how they can traverse the roadblock together.

This practice made me think. The breath is with us from our first moment of life to our last, but it is also so easy to take for granted. Just bringing our focus back to our breath for even a few seconds can help stabilize us in a stressful situation and can help us see things more objectively in an emotionally charged moment. If reconnecting with the breath for only a few moments can transform a frustrating moment in a violin lesson, what might be possible with a more structured mediation practice? I’d like to find out.

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Mindfulness?

If mindfulness is awareness of the present moment, then one of the things I have discovered on my sabbatical so far is how distracted my mind can be. I have monkey-mind: A mind that swings from thought to thought.   I say this not in self-flagellation, but as an observation.

As an experiment, today when I got my violin out to practice, I paid attention to my mind.  I mean, really, really paid attention.  When I played my finger exercises to warm up, I tried to only think about my finger exercises.  Within 10 seconds,  I noticed my mind wandering onto something else.  A noise from the street took me away from the exercise,”Why do people have to honk their horns?  I would look down at my cat sleeping in my violin case and think, “Oh, how cute.  I should take a picture.  Maybe I should join facebook so I can post cute pictures like this.  But everyone says how facebook is a big waste of time.  I want to be one of those people that is proudly not on it…” etc. etc.  Suddenly I realized not only was I a million miles away from the finger exercise, but I was caught up in some ego-driven narrative that somehow makes me better than other people.  Perhaps I am being overly critical of myself.  I am merely being honest.

I am realizing why training concentration on the breath is so important.  If one cannot follow one’s breath for even a few minutes, how can one truly pay attention to what they are doing? Whether one is driving, vacuuming the rug, showering, much less practicing the violin, the mind one needs to stay with any given task is mindfulness mediation.

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A Zen Koan

 

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Bill Hopkins loaned me a book of Zen koans for my sabbatical.  I was dipping into the book this morning and came across one that I found especially pertinent.

The Master Kosen drew the words “The First Principle” which are carved over the gate of the Oaku Temple in Kyoto.  He drew them with his brush on a sheet of paper-later they were caved in wood.

A pupil of the master had mixed the ink for him, and stood by, watching the master’s calligraphy.  This pupil said: “Not so good!” Kosen tried again. The pupil said: “That’s worse than the first one!” and Kosen tried again.

After the sixty-fourth try, the ink was running low, and the pupil went out to mix some more. Left alone, undistracted by any critical eye watching him, Kosen made one more quick drawing with the last of the ink.  When the pupil returned, he took a good look at this latest effort.

“A masterpiece!” he said.

 

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Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

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One of the central questions I will be thinking about during my sabbatical is the concept of the beginners mind versus the so called experts mind.  In his modern classic, Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, Zen master Shunryu Suzuki writes, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

I think this concept is demonstrated amazingly well every time I start a new student at CMW.  When the student comes in for their first lesson, anything and everything is possible. In their mind’s ear, they can hear all the songs they want to play performed fluently and with ease.  In their mind’s eye, they can see themselves playing fluidly and without tension.  It is only when I step in and start to tell them things that they realize that playing the violin or viola is not that easy.  It is at that point that they hold the fiddle with a death grip, and their bow-hold takes on the shape of a lobster claw.  Now, admittedly, learning to play ANY instrument is difficult and requires a teacher.  This is especially true of the violin, as the player is required to shape their left arm in a not-particularly organic position in order to get their fingers on the strings.  My question is this: Is it possible to teach an instrument in a way that does not extinguish that sense of possibility and freedom that the student comes in with at that first lesson?  Is there another entry point to musical excellence besides breaking a student down, telling them everything they are doing wrong, then building them up again?  This method all too often creates tension, anxiety, and stage fright in the performer.  Unfortunately, this method is utilized far too frequently.  I know because I have done it myself.

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Away we go…

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Hello good people of the shire,

This is a blog to track my CMW sabbatical project of looking at the intersection of Buddhist Mindfulness and teaching and performing music.  In recent years, I have become quite interested in Buddhist Mindfulness and have wondered what effect  on my teaching and performing.  I don’t think I will come to many conclusions, but I am very interested to see what happens if I travel into this relatively unexplored territory.

After 12 years of teaching and performing at CMW, and continuing to teach and perform every summer in between, I didn’t have too much energy when I finally started my sabbatical last Wednesday, Sept. 4.  Yes, there was some reading of Thich Nhat Hanh and Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, some practicing, some running, but mostly I felt very tired.  It took a few days for my body to realize I was on sabbatical, and over this past weekend I came down with a bit of a cold.

I am feeling better this evening, and starting tomorrow, I will be attending a two day conference on mindfulness up in Boston.  One of the things I am most looking forward to is that Thich Nhat Hanh will be leading the conference on day two!  One of my plans for the sabbatical was to go to France to see Thich Nhat Hanh at Plum Village, but when I went to the website, it said that Thich Nhat Hanh would be in the states for a good chunk of the fall.  Luckily, I was able to get a ticket to the conference to see the man himself.  He is only a commuter train away instead of a trans-continental flight.  I am also going to try to talk to the guitarist David Leisner who is going to participating in the conference.  He wrote a very nice article on performance anxiety that I like a lot.