Sunday, August 31, 2014

Making Time for Play

I have to work hard to carve out time for practicing, and sometimes I lose track of the fact that I play music because I love playing. I don't know how it is for other people, but, especially when I'm playing alone at home, I have to remind myself sometimes to just play. Play for fun. Play for playing's sake. Sit on the front porch with my instrument and mess around.

It makes me feel guilty to have free time and not use it to practice. So I tell myself that, yes, it's fun, but it will also help me improve. That makes it OK.

Maybe I should just pay more attention to my cat...

Thursday, August 28, 2014

And Now, for Something Completely Different!

Seeking a Curriculum 

I've been struggling for several weeks with a new approach to playing piano jazz tunes. It involves taking an approach I was comfortable with and extending it: more notes in the left hand, adding more color tones, bringing out the bass lines, etc., etc. My brain was exploding. That's when my teacher said, "OK, let's work on something completely different." One of the things I like about my current teacher is that he follows a curriculum — it's one that's tailored to me, but still, there's a plan. But sometimes, I guess, completely changing gears is part of the curriculum.

When I started practicing Kokikai Aikido, I wasn't paying much attention to whether or not there was a "curriculum." Lost in a beginners' fog, I never expected to feel accomplished at any single technique, since we seemed to practice new techniques in every class. Like most Kokikai practice groups, the class had everything from first-nighters to black belt students, and techniques were never labelled "beginner" or "advanced." But the first time I was invited to test I realized there was a set of techniques I was expected to know! This was a big contrast to my son's karate class, where, at each level, students focused on practicing what was needed for their next promotion exam. It took me a while to realize that practicing a wide variety of techniques was a deliberate teaching method.

What kind of a curriculum is this, that keeps sliding the rug out from under the student?

Benefits of Avoiding Too Much Routine

I've often noticed that if I take a break from working on something I've been hammering away at,  that when I come back to it I've improved in some measurable way. A tune is easier to play, a scale is less probematic, a technique makes sense. It's as if my brain kept working in the background to smooth out my little issues.

Another benefit, in my view, involves "mind-body coordination." Neither music nor martial arts is purely mental or purely physical pursuits. They involve the coordination of the mind with the body — plus some additional element of getting beyond either — to respond to a situation on a higher level, acting without conscious thought.

If I'm training to be able to respond to changing circumstances with equanimity, then I guess I'm ok with the fact that changing the curriculum has to be part of the training. Plus, it's more interesting that way.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Making Mistakes - with One Point

I roomed with a fellow accordionist at a recent music camp, and she asked me about my favorite subject: Kokikai Aikido and how it helps me in playing music. I think I said something like this:

We sometimes practice a partners exercise or drill in aikido, using wooden practice swords (bokken). The concept is somewhat like the tai chi practice of pushing hands. I've described it before, but here it is again:

Leon Brooks Sensei (L) - Shuji Maruyama Sensei (R)
Maruyama Sensei has pushed Brooks Sensei's bokken
aside and is completing the thrust.
Two people face each other holding crossed bokken in a guard position. Each person applies some pressure. Theoretically, they are at a standstill: If one tries to thrust, the diagonal positioning of the other's sword will foil the strike. If he takes the pressure off his opponent's sword (for example, to go around the guard), the opponent can thrust. The only way out of the impasse is to quickly slap his opponent's sword aside, and thrust before she can recover.

But, with correct technique, his opponent can defend against this attack. The key is to retain a relaxed, one-pointed focus. Using muscle to resist the sideways slap is completely counterproductive. What does work is to stay relaxed. With a relaxed focus, the defender can return to her guard position with lightning speed, before the attacker can complete his thrust. You are attacked, but so what? It doesn't penetrate your defense.

How does this relate to playing music?

I make a million mistakes when I play. I would love to make no mistakes. But if I focus on not making mistakes, I make more! Instead, if I stay relaxed and centered on listening to myself and my fellow musicians, I make fewer mistakes. And when mistakes happen, so what? Everybody keeps playing and the music is great!

Friday, August 22, 2014


Recently I took a few violin classes with Patrick Ourceau. Most of our time was spent learning bowing.

When I first took up the violin I soon learned that the way you use the bow is the way you bring out the soul of the instrument, and bowing techniques are very distinct in different styles of music. Good bowing requires a really delicate touch, and a lot of practice. Actually I think if I had known how daunting the bowing aspect would be, I might have been frightened off.

Patrick talked about bowing and musical phrasing in relation to breathing: up-bowing is like breathing in, and down-bowing is like breathing out, a release. He talked about the down-bow being extremely relaxed, letting gravity draw the arm and the bow downward. Making your bow strokes with minimum effort brings out the best sound, and allows you to play in a more relaxed way, so you can play for hours without getting tired.

In a recent aikido seminar with Shuji Maruyama Sensei we practiced a sword exercise from the most basic sword strike: shomenuchi, an overhead strike to the head. Watching senior students doing both the exercise and sword attacks, it was obvious how natural it is: sword up: breathe in. Sword down: breathe out.  Most bokken weigh under two pounds, but lifting and lowering it 100, 200 or more times is impossible unless you are relaxed, coordinate with your breathing, and let gravity do the work.

A violin bow weighs about 60 grams. But it's still a lot like a sword. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Posture and a Smile Will Get You Everywhere

True fact: Good posture and a genuine smile will make you look more attractive than fancy clothes, one-of-a-kind jewelry or cosmetic dentistry. For confirmation, don't look at yourself! Look at others.

(Wait, don't look at me! Drat, too late!)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Information Overload: Like Eating Too Much Cake

Illustration Copyright© Allie Brosh Hyperbole and a Half

"There's too much sh*t going on in the world, it's easy to get sunk in a slough of despond."

These words from a friend are echoed by many others I communicate with lately. Sometimes it seems the news is so horrifying that it almost demands we respond with support, anger, something!

Francis Bacon famously said, "Knowledge is power." But for many of us, knowledge just makes us feel more helpless and frustrated.  The ability to hear and share news and commentary — with 24-hour news, websites and social media — leads to an overwhelming level of information, much of it bad. Sharing posts and signing online petitions give the impression that we're taking action, but the reality is just an increase the amount in our inboxes. It's as if I said, "Wow, I love cake," and someone said, "Great, you can have all the cake you want!" Now I'm completely sick from eating all the cake in the world.

In 2012, when the Dalai Lama was interviewed by CNN, he said he thought the world was a more peaceful place now than when he was growing up. That's a pretty powerful statement coming from a Nobel Peace Prize winner, who makes a life study of peace. Maybe the sh*t going on in the world was always there, and the difficulty for us is that we know more about it.

Here's my strategy for dealing with bad news: I wear blinkers. Even in my 20s, I knew there would always be way more suffering in the world than I could deal with. I looked at what was important to me, and made logical choices about the types of causes I would support. I reassess periodically but I've mostly stuck with those choices for a long time.  Those decisions also help me ration my emotional expenditure on issues of the day. Of course I'm upset when there is war, disease, injustice. But I can remind myself, this is not my fight. And when it is my fight, it helps to know that I'm already doing what I can, and what I want to do.

Related Posts:
Oh Well

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Correct Posture (In Everything)

In Kokikai Aikido we use four basic principles as a way to express the core ideas of our practice, in a way that's easy to remember. One of these is:

Correct Posture (in everything)

Good posture makes everything easier. In class we usually teach correct posture while standing or sitting. But the wording of the principle is Correct Posture (in everything). How many of us forget to have good posture as soon as the instructor stops talking about it? I think the part in parentheses is the most important part! 

Sensei often says, "Habit is second nature." We want to make good posture a habit, so that it becomes second nature. For me, it took many years of practice to unlearn my habit of poor posture. 

Making good posture a habit meant thinking about posture on the mat and off:  while walking, sitting, talking, playing music and working. I make use of any trick that may help me be mindful of my posture. An experienced aikidoka friend used to unobtrusively reach over, as I watched class during camp, to tuck my chin and straighten my back. My piano teacher would correct my posture, which invariably collapses, especially while I improvise. When I walk past my boss's office I remind myself "head back, chest out!"

Recently at Kokikai Aikido Summer Camp, one of my favorite instructors sat next to me as we watched Sensei's amazing technique. I don't think I was particularly paying attention to my posture as I watched. She leaned over and said, "Your posture is much better!" Perhaps good posture is finally becoming second nature to me!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Beware of the Dark Side

Traveling in Montreal, my husband and I ate at a noodle shop called Saka Ba! We sat next to the window facing the kitchen (our favorite seats when eating in a ramen shop) and there was this little Jedi warrior. I got back to my room and started looking up Yoda quotes.

"Yes, a Jedi's strength flows from the force, but beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression: the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark side, forever it will dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan's apprentice."

It's so easy to agree with this, and to claim that this is how we practice. Yet, when we find something that really makes us angry, how difficult it is to let go of that anger. As Yoda says, "Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight." How easy it is to believe that our anger is fueling a righteous motivation to act and that without it, we would not rise up to do good in the world.

Looking back at the times I have acted while angry, I can say that every single time, if I had just waited until I was still motivated but not angry, fearful or aggressive, I would have acted more effectively, alienated fewer people, and caused less fallout. Yoda was a good teacher. 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Learning Violin-Playing Posture in Kokikai Aikido

I'm at Kokikai Aikido Summer Camp this weekend. I'm very happy to see people I've known for many years and to work with instructors, including Maruyama Sensei, who are able to give me advice that really applies to my body and my practice. One great nugget of teaching came early in the weekend, when Veronica Burrows Sensei, (my teacher's teacher) talked about a way of moving my arms that makes throws both softer and more powerful.

It's a bit hard to explain "on paper," but I'll try. I learned in yoga that if you hold your arms over your head with your thumbs pointing towards the back of your body, and then rotate your arms so that the elbows come toward each other, you are externally rotating the shoulders. When you do this you can feel that your shoulder blades settle over your back. Most of us sit, stand and walk with our shoulders hunched i.e. internally rotated.

So, as you stand normally, if you lift your arm with your shoulders externally rotated (think of letting your shoulder blade settle nicely over the back of the ribcage) it allows the chest to be more open, and you can lift your arm more softly and naturally. Then the movement of lifting your arm can more easily originate from the center of the body rather than the top of the arm.

Roni Sensei then held her arms out as if she were in position for ballroom dancing, saying "You can hold this position for a long time, because it's comfortable."

Aha! (Music-Aikido moment!) I have difficulty holding the violin for long periods of time and her posture gave me a clue as to what to do to help that!

I knew I was on the right track when, a short time later, Sensei stood up in front of the class, demonstrating a completely different throw, and held his arms out in the same way. Then he made the motion of playing a violin with his arms.