Showing posts from 2015

Five Steps to Achieving the Impossible

I recently decided to learn a song. It’s one that’s typical of a certain Irish style of singing which is very wordy, often humorous, with lots of alliteration and internal rhymes, and is sung quite fast.

I’ve always been crappy at memorizing pretty much anything. For all that people call me talented and artistic, poetry reading and acting were never options for me. My aikido students know that I can’t even remember the four basic principles: I get to three and then get stuck.  Memorizing a nine-verse song with long words that have to be exactly right or the rhymes don’t work, and no room for breathe or think? Out of the question.

But I wanted to.

And I was armed with some new tools for mastery that I've been using really successfully in my aikido and music practice.  So here’s what I did:
Start with absolute confidence that it was possiblePractice S-L-O-W-L-Y.  I have a cool program called Amazing Slow Downer. I set it up in my car to loop the verses one at a time, at 80% speed…

Metronome - Part II - The Tai Chi of Music

This entire post is pretty much paraphrased from my awesome piano teacher, David Leonhardt.

Most people, when they begin to play with a metronome, start by setting the metronome to slow. They practice until they are proficient at that speed, then they gradually speed up the metronome. Very seldom do people start the metronome at the speed they would like to play the tune, and then step by step, slow the metronome down.

This is kind of like a Tai Chi of music.

When you slow the music down to the point where you have big gaps between the chords or notes you have to play, a lot of really interesting things happen.

You can no longer play "automatically." It's just too slow. You actually have to know what you're going to do nextIt's a great focus practice, because, oddly, you're going so slowly that it's easy to lose track from one chord to the nextYou are going slowly enough to expose your (beneficial and not-so-beneficial) thought processes - you can see exac…

Using Rhythm to Create "Lift"

Learning to play the violin has been great for me, because it brings another perspective to things I experience in aikido (and vice versa). One of these is how you can use rhythm to move peoples' bodies.

Using rhythm to create "lift"in music I play a lot of traditional music - Irish, American, Scottish, English, French Canadian, and more. Much of the traditional music repertoire is written for dancers. Of course, dancers need to know where the beat is. But musicians can also help make the dancing more fun by adding something called "lift." "Lift" makes the music feel lighter and more energetic. Some people do this unconsciously, but sometimes you have to focus on what you're doing or not doing to get it right. It might mean emphasizing the up-beat, or lightening up certain repeated notes, or even by creating spaces or rests. The most important point is that it's dance music and it should make you feel like dancing

Rhythm in self-defense?  My Ai…

I'm not complaining, but...

I often think about the way that our habits of speech change our personality.
I have more than one friend who always seems to speak in complaints. They are wonderful people. They are my friends. But here's what I've noticed: When you complain a lot, you make a frowny face a lot. I know that I look better when I smile than when I frown. I want to look good. So I try not to complain.When you complain, people around you may react by getting defensive, or they may mentally distance themselves from you. They may even start to avoid you in general. I think that most people who complain are looking for community - they want someone to agree with them. Unfortunately complaining often has the opposite effect. Habitual complaining messes with your head. I've already written aboutTara Brach, who says that "Neurons that fire together wire together." If your brain is used to complaining, you start to look for things to complain about. You'll find them. Slowly but surely the…

No, no, no, no.

In August I played at a fiddle contest. No, I didn't win. My goal was to make it through both tunes without stopping. And I achieved my goal. After all, I've only been playing for a couple of years.

In fact, before I played, I said something to the effect of: "I've only been playing for two and a half years - I'm saying this not to get your pity, but to tell you that if you want to try something that seems really hard, even at an 'advanced age,' go for it!"

After the contest was over, the musicians were starting a little jam session. Someone came up to me and told me how much what I said had inspired him. He said, "I really want to play again. I played when I was in high school, and everyone really thought I was good then."

"Well, why don't you come and play with us now? Someone will loan you a violin!"

"No, no, no, I couldn't do that, they would laugh at me!"

"OK. If you want to play as an adult, I have a couple …

Plays Well With Others

I often play music in "jam" or "session" situations where we play tunes that some people know, others may be trying to pick up by ear. I've noticed that musicians react to the group setting in different ways.

Less experienced players often seem to be performing for the other musicians, showing off what they know, playing difficult stuff and playing it fast. They don't notice if anyone else is joining in. More experienced players, while definitely trying to play their best, also work to fit in - for example, they try to make sure they're playing in rhythm with everyone in the room. They'll play quietly at times and leave space so others (especially singers) can be heard. They may play very simply to help others follow, or choose simple tunes so that more people can participate.

My first jazz music teacher used to say that music was like a conversation. I see more and more ways that he was right.

Sooner, Not Faster

I'm a pianist and I practice the martial art of Kokikai Aikido. Lately I've been working on speeding up.

Part I - Music Usually I'll practice a tune till it sounds great when I play it slowly. Then I turn up the metronome. As soon as I do that I can feel my shoulders getting tense, I can't hit any of the notes, I forget what I'm doing and everything sounds like h*ll.

I've come to realize that what's holding me up is not lack of technical ability, but my own mind. My brain is stuck in "slow mode." I'm used to hearing the music slower in my head. So when I play fast, it feels like I'm always trying to catch up. My brain is a half step behind what my fingers are doing.

I realized that instead of just going "faster," I have to think "sooner." I have to think ahead, and then I'll be ready to move my fingers at the right time.

I can tell you that takes a lot of attention to do that. My brain constantly wants to slip back…


Lately I've been trying to balance my desire to improve with appreciating what I have. It's human nature to want more. But I easily get out of whack and forget to pause and appreciate how good things are right now.

It reminds me of the way I relate to eating and hunger. My Aikido Sensei likes to say, “Hunger is the best sauce." His little adage has taught me to pay attention when I am eating. When I'm hungry and I start eating, the food tastes wonderful. There's nothing like that first bite! So I eat and eat, based on the memory of that bite, often not realizing that the food has stopped tasting so good. Nothing changed about the food. My body's just suggesting that I don't need any more. If I would only listen!*

*I've noticed that both sugar and chocolate really keep my body screaming for "more" even when I'm quite full - but even then, all the other associated tastes are less satisfying as I eat more.

You Have To Practice Taking a Rest

Today my piano teacher (who is awesome) was trying to help me improve my mediocre improvisation skills. We were talking about the fact that the improv sounds much better when you leave intentional gaps, spaces, or pauses in the music. They add a rhythmic component, they focus the listener's attention on what they heard, prepare them for what they're about to hear. They help me gather my thoughts before I come up with more ideas, and they just make the whole thing sound better. But even though I know this, I don't do it.

"You have to practice it," Dave said. "You have to practice taking a rest."

I wrote that down.... BIG LETTERS.

Your last thought...

I was an editor in broadcast TV for about 20 years. One thing I noticed was that when you cut from one shot to the next, your eye focuses on the last frame before that cut, and you remember it. It was really important to know, because if a woman is being interviewed, and you edit to something else, and she starts to stick out her tongue or close her eyes before you cut, you really notice that frame. If she's smiling and starts to frown, you remember that. But if you cut just before the frown starts, you remember the big beautiful smile.

I used to edit a lot of music videos and documentaries, and sometimes it was really fun to try to make that last frame before the cut something memorable. 

I've realized that the same idea holds true for my thoughts. If I'm thinking about something, working on something, turning something over in my mind, and then I switch to thinking about something else, the thought that lingers is usually the last thought that I had before I "changed …


My brother Ben lives in a big city that definitely has its dangerous spots. Recently he asked me for some advice on how to stay safe.

"I'm going to give you four things," I said. I could see I'd already impressed him by having a ready answer. He knows I’m a martial arts instructor, but that stuff is never real to your own family.

At that time there was a subway strike in the city, and everyone was seeking alternate transport. Overground trains and buses were jammed, the roads were packed with private cars, taxicabs, bikes, and the sidewalks were overflowing with hurrying, disgruntled pedestrians.

"First," I said, as we jostled along a sidewalk blocked by a huge bus queue, “just improve your posture. Stand up straighter." This caught Ben's attention. I think he figured his sister the black belt would demonstrate some primary aikido move or teach him to stick his keys out between his knuckles. Posture? As self defense? But Ben listened. He reads Ton…

Connecting Experiences with Emotions: Neurons that Fire together, Wire Together

I encountered a fantastic blog post by Tara Brach, a writer I recommend highly for her insight into how we can be happier and be the person we imagine we could be.

Here's the opening paragraph:
"In the book My Stroke of Insight, brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor explains that the natural life span of an emotion—the average time it takes for it to move through the nervous system and body—is only a minute and a half, a mere ninety seconds. After that, we need thoughts to keep the emotion rolling. So, if we wonder why we lock into painful emotional states like anxiety, depression, or rage, we need look no further than our own endless stream of inner dialogue.  Modern neuroscience has discovered a fundamental truth: Neurons that fire together, wire together. When we rehearse a looping set of thoughts and emotions, we create deeply grooved patterns of emotional reactivity. This means that the more you think and rethink about certain experiences, the stronger the memory and the mo…

An Aikido Story - The Cup of Tea

I recently traveled in Ireland for a couple of weeks. Irish people have an undeserved reputation for drinking a lot. People there do spend a lot of time in pubs, because pubs are social places where everyone gathers to catch up on the news, chat, and hear music. I think I saw more drunk people during two weeks in Japan.

During my trip I only saw one person who might have been drunk. But then again, he might have been mentally ill, or both.

I was having a cup of tea at an outdoor table. There were two young women sitting at a table near me. A man sat down next to them. He was obviously living a rough life - his face had deep creases, he had some facial ticks and grimaces, and he looked very sorry for himself. He started to harass the two women for money.

"Have you got a Euro? I need it to get the bus."

They said that they had just run out of cash, in the polite way we do when we don't want to admit that we just don't want to give someone money, whether we think we ar…

Just Keep Showing Up

I remember one time I was in the locker room at the Y with my friend Jan. We were putting on our aikido gi (uniforms) before class. There was a little girl of about seven in the locker room with her mom, changing after a swimming class. As we put on our black belts and tied them, the girl's eyes lit up with wonder.

"You're black belts?" she asked.

"Yes, we are!" said Jan, smiling.

I guess no matter how jaded you are, when you can impress a 7-year-old, it feels really good.

As the girl and her mom left, Jan looked at me and said quietly, "...and it's not as hard as you might think. All you really have to do is keep showing up."

Of course Jan was underplaying the hard work she's done to achieve a high level of mastery. However, she made a great point. There are times when the most important thing to do is to show up.

Whether you're writing a book, running a marathon, entering a violin competition, or just trying to get through your dail…

Training Trumps Talent

The other day I was talking to a friend about the incredible performances we've seen on YouTube.

   "Ah," he said, "Some people just have so much talent."    "Those people work really hard at it," I said.
   "Yeah," said he, "but they're just talented to begin with."

To me, that kind of thinking can make you want to give up practicing or playing. If you think you can only be good if you already have "talent," why begin?

It's not always obvious how much training goes into being great at something. Most artists downplay the amount of time they spend practicing: it's not interesting to hear about, and it's so much more impressive when it looks easy! Why ruin the image? When we watch YouTube videos, we only see the results, not the hard work.

After years of knowing, working with and playing with many musicians and artists, I'm convinced that nobody, not even talented people, can give an impressive, comple…