Monday, November 16, 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:
  1. Start with absolute confidence that it was possible
  2. Practice 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, and sang on my way to work
  3. Focus on thinking ahead. Often - very often - most of the time - when I make a mistake it’s because I lost my focus on “what’s next?” My ability to think ahead definitely improves with attention and practice. 
  4. Practice relaxing. Relaxing is a technique you have to practice. When I get tongue tied (Say this three times fast: “She flashed her feathers in frosty fright”) I relax, let go of the little voice that says “can’t, just...can’t” and try again. 
  5. Use visual, kinesthetic, and auditory memory techniques. When I get to a sticky bit, I try speaking it out loud. I make a vivid mental picture of what the words are describing. I even imagine how it smells. I visualize the actual words. I say it really really slowly, feeling how it rolls over my tongue. I write the words really big on a piece of paper and stare at them while repeating them out loud.

It worked. I’m going to sing this song at an Irish music seisiún on Sunday. Wish me luck!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

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 next
  • It's a great focus practice, because, oddly, you're going so slowly that it's easy to lose track from one chord to the next
  • You are going slowly enough to expose your (beneficial and not-so-beneficial) thought processes - you can see exactly when you fumble before finding a note, and when you know exactly where to go next. 
  • You can get very, very detailed about rhythm. You can set the metronome to beat on eight notes and really listen to how your triplets fall. You can hear that you are rushing the beat, and then just lagging so you will hit the last note when the metronome clicks - instead of slowing everything down to be correct
  • It's a really great practice to try to be musical and evocative with a tune at a very slow speed.
I'm really looking forward to trying this in my martial arts practice! I know, I know, it's the basis of Tai Chi. But how many other martial artists seriously practice that way?

Related Posts

Monday, November 9, 2015

Using Rhythm to Create "Lift"

Photo by Doug Heacock
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 Aikido Sensei often talks about the importance of rhythm in aikido practice. He says that the rhythm shouldn't be stiff or mechanical. He makes his point by singing like a robot with no variation in speed, tone, or dynamics. Obviously not natural and, according to Sensei, not effective.

We take advantage of our opponent's natural movement in order to make aikido technique easier to apply. If the attacker's body moves a certain way naturally, why fight against that? That's rhythm.

Part of a technique may involve drawing the attacker forward so that their natural reaction will be to right themselves by backing up. When we do this, we have to adjust ourselves to the rhythm of the attacker's movements. A large person may take longer to right himself; a slight person may bend at the waist more easily and therefore go down farther, taking longer to come up; a muscular person may not go very far and may move back quickly. When we match our rhythm to the attacker's natural movement, we don't have to use much energy to move them - we use the rhythm to get the attacker to lift herself.

If you can affect how heavy people feel by scratching a bow across a string, you can certainly create "lift" using rhythm and timing in aikido. The less "muscle" you need, the easier everything will become!

Friday, November 6, 2015

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 about Tara 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 world becomes a less fun place to be.
I am saying this as someone who has experienced it. I used to be described as "prickly." I thought it was sharp and cool and intelligent to criticize people and things. I was the master of the "acerbic, slightly funny, but with a germ of honesty" comment. I thought I was so clever at coming up with these zingy remarks. Maybe that was true, but people stayed at arms distance. 

I have far more friends now, and I'm happier, since I've "reformed" to make my speech more positive.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

No, no, no, no.

Photo by Bill O'Neill
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 of suggestions - I was in the same position as you a few years ago and this is what I did - there's some jam sessions in this area you could attend. Where do you live?"

"No, no, no, I couldn't do that. I need to start playing at home, I would embarrass myself playing with other people."

"Trust me, they won't mind, these musicians are very encouraging of people of all levels, they were in that position themselves."

"No, no, no, I would just be too horrible, I just couldn't."

"Well, if you want an easier start, there is a great weekend event you could attend, it's called Folk College, in central PA, where they have workshops for people who are getting back into music, they'll teach you how to jam, it's a really great thing to do."

"No, no, no, I think I just want to find a teacher,"

"OK, sounds good, in my experience a teacher is important but playing with others is also really important, and probably much easier than you think."

I realized I had heard "no, no, no," a lot of times, and I realized how scary it really is to try doing something new as an adult.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

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.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

I'm Not So Great at Taking My Own Advice

I had an aikido student a while back, who mentioned that he often missed class because of stomach problems. I asked a bit more, he said that he had been thoroughly checked out by his doctor and a couple of specialists, and they couldn't find anything wrong. I suggested that he try mindfulness meditation and breathing - it could possibly help, and it certainly couldn't hurt, and it's free. He later told me that it had helped him a lot.

A few years passed, and I found that I was often experiencing acid indigestion. I tried several over-the-counter medications that didn't work, and after a month or two I went to my doctor. "This condition is often associated with stress. Are you under a lot of stress lately?" No. What, me? No!

Lightbulb = On: Time to get out the meditation cushion.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

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 into safe and comfy slow mode. But I'm working on it, and it's helping - there's a lot less tension, and things sound a lot less messy.

Part II - The Martial Arts Connection

A few months ago I attended an annual camp for Kokikai Aikido. One of the senior instructors pointed out that Sensei is able to respond incredibly quickly to attacks without seeming like he's hurrying at all. She said: "He moves sooner, not necessarily faster." Once I noticed this, I could see it every time.

I've started to implement this idea in my own practice and teach it to my students. "Sooner, not faster" is making a huge difference in my ability to stay relaxed, get where I need to be quickly and be able to respond efficiently and calmly - hallmarks of Kokikai Aikido that make it an incredibly effective martial art.

So, now that I've applied this idea to music and to aikido, I'm sure there's some way I can carry it through to my daily life...hmmm.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015


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.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

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.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

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 the subject." 

What that means is, when I remember an interaction, I may remember it based only on my last thought. What if I had a lovely time with someone all day, except my final thought when I was leaving was "I shouldn't have said X"? In the back of my mind, instead of remembering the good stuff, I now have this lingering thought that I was a jerk. 

Now I'm working on consciously making that last thought a good one, because that's what I'll remember.

Saturday, September 26, 2015


image copyright 2015 Judy Minot
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 Tony Robbins. He practices yoga. He’s experienced the way a change in posture can change your mental state. I saw him unconsciously straighten his hunched shoulders and lift his head. His stride lengthened naturally. This had the effect of letting us both walk more easily and puposefully. Crazed commuters melted away to either side.

"Next, relax. When we feel threatened, we all get tense. Our shoulders tighten,  things like arms, stomach, back, or legs get tight and our faces harden. People react to that by being more likely to fight with you. Relaxing your body can help you let go of your own emotional tension as well, so you can react more effectively to whatever happens."

As we waited to cross the street, I looked at the tight lips, the steely eyes, the furrowed brows of the people negotiating this awful commute.  A frustrated pedestrian hurried out just as a truck turned the corner. At the last second he looked up, saw the truck inches away, and barely avoided being crushed.

“Now," I continued, "think in terms of having a positive mental state. Good posture and physically relaxing help in this. Draw more attention to feeling capable and in command of your situation. You also want to feel 'positive' in the sense that you’re not only focused on yourself: on your thoughts, how your body feels, but instead be actively engaged with what’s going on around you."

We were now walking along a crowded street in the financial district. People in suits with briefcases acted like the fate of the world depended on their getting somewhere, fast. As I spoke, a woman with a wheeled briefcase rolled it over the toes of a young woman in sandals. The crowd closed behind us as we finally reached the railroad station and made our way to the platform.

"The final idea, Ben, may be the most difficult one to relate to. Find your physical center of balance. Become aware of where this is. It should be somewhere below your navel, close to your spine. But when we're upset or anxious, or not paying attention, it moves up. Maintaining awareness of your center can bring you back to a position of strength when you're threatened or actually attacked."

We boarded the train and squeezed together to stand in the aisle as the doors closed. "This is great advice," Ben said, "and It's really not what I expected you to say." I noticed him experimenting with keeping his balance as the bumpy tracks jostled us into the stanchions, other passengers and each other. I grinned inwardly. When I started practicing aikido I used to love trying to stay balanced in a moving subway car. There were some mishaps, as I remember...

"But doesn't your aikido practice talk about breathing?" Ben asked.

I came back to the present moment. “Sure. Breathing's important for two reasons: first, you're naturally stronger while you're exhaling. Second, slowing and lengthening your breath immediately calms your body and mind. But when you're being attacked isn't the time to think about that. If you want to form a habit of breathing deeply and calmly under stress, the best way to do it is to have a regular practice."

"OK. But what about techniques? What should I actually do?"

“If you’re looking for a 3-minute lesson, better to think about what I said and not worry about remembering particular techniques or ‘moves.’ Your response will depend entirely on the situation. There are so many possible threatening situations and even more possible responses. If you’re aware, you may even find out that you’re not being threatened, you’re just pissed off or fearful. That may help you avoid an unnecessary conflict.

"But the best thing about these four ideas is you can practice them any time you’re in conflict - whether it's with the ticket agent because the machine didn't take your credit card, or a client who wants you to do more work without paying, or, even more importantly, people you love."

Who knows, maybe my brother will listen to my advice. I know I have asked for his advice often enough!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

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 more easily activated the related feelings become."
It can be hard to separate negative thoughts and emotions from the things we are reacting to. Once we've got into the habit of "wiring together" a situation with an emotion or a thought, it's hard even to imagine they are really two different things.

I've been able to use a technique (called positive mind) borrowed from my Kokikai Aikido practice, to "rewire" at least some of my emotional reactivity. I actively practice reacting positively to situations that upset me. When I can't make an aikido technique work, or I flub a note on the piano, instead of thinking, "What a failure I am!" or,"I look so stupid!" I seek a positive reaction and repeat that: "There is something I can do to get this right, and I know I can figure out what it is!" "Remember how much better I did this today than last week! I can fix this!" or just, "Anything is possible!"

I feel that I can take an active part in creating my inner dialogue, by "rehearsing a looping set of thoughts and emotions" and "creating deeply grooved patterns of emotional reactivity" - but doing so with thoughts and emotions that benefit me, instead of short-changing me.

I've used examples about music and aikido practice here, because that's the main focus of this blog, but I use this technique constantly in all aspects of my life. It has made me happier. And it has made me more like the person I believe I can be.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

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 are morally superior, or just can't see the point, or we're not sure it would help the person, maybe we should give him money, since it is the charitable thing to do, goodness knows we do have it to spare, but once you start, where does it stop, and we don't know this man, but it seems that he might not spend it doing good for himself and what are social services for, this is a socialist country anyway, and can't we just enjoy our cup of tea in peace???

"Oh, come on, just 60 pence. Have you got 60 pence? You must have 60 pence. Or even 50."

"No, sorry." (Won't this man just go away? I'm trying to have a conversation with my friend. Now that I've said no, I can't very well say yes, can I? I have to hold my ground.)

The man had been gradually acting more aggressive in his requests and now he gestured at me, five feet away. "Ask her if she has some money."

"Why don't you ask her yourself?"

"No, you ask her, I don't want to ask her, you ask her."

"Ask her yourself."

He turned to me. "Excuse me,"

I looked him in the eyes, trying to see a person behind the deeply lined, unhappy face. I'm no saint. I was as uncomfortable engaging with this guy as the two women at the next table. I had decided, listening to their interaction, that I didn't think money was what he needed. I didn't know what he needed and I didn't think I could help him with that. But I could stay calm and look him in the eyes.

"You want some money, don't you?"


"No. I'm sorry."

He held my eyes for two long seconds. Then he said, "No, you probably shouldn't give it to me." He got up and wandered off, muttering curses at the two other women.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Keeping it Fresh - Blue Man Group-Style

I was listening to The Moth, one of my favorite podcasts, and heard a story told by John Grady, a former member of Blue Man Group. He talked having the "best job in the world" in a hugely successful off-broadway show that even, one could argue, has real artistic merit. And yet, after eight years in the production he found it was getting impossible to stay interested and enthusiastic.

He told a story, which you really should hear for yourself, about asking an audience member to come up on stage. The unexpected result forced him and his fellow blue men back on their toes, so they could engage and be present with the audience.

When I've been doing anything for a long time it can be really hard to keep the enthusiasm I had when I started out. The easiest thing, at least my mind tells me so, would be to make a big change: Quit practicing aikido and look to yoga, tai chi, or MMA. Learn a new instrument, or even turn away from music and take up bird watching. It seems that when you begin a new practice, as frustrating as that is, there's also more sense of excitement as you try new things. It can be really hard to get that same excitement out of the deepening that comes with attentive practice over many years.

There are times when quitting is the right thing to do. And it's not always obvious when it's right and when you should continue. The thing that I loved about the story John Grady told was that when the moment happened that bumped him out of his groove, he was ready, he was listening. He wasn't wondering whether he had forgotten to order dinner to be delivered after the show.

Friday, July 17, 2015

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 daily life with kids, relationships and work, it can be hard to do the things that feel repetitive, boring, frustrating - especially when the results don't seem obvious. Those are the times we're most likely to give up, do something else that's more fun, more engaging, that seems to have more immediate results. It can be even harder to "show up" mentally at these times: to be present, listening and attentive.

I think it could be that the hardest part of getting the black belt, at least sometimes, was to keep on showing up.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Training Trumps Talent

Photo ©2014, Stewart Dean,
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, complex, moving, delicate, passionate performance without consistent, attentive practice. This goes for anything you want to get good at.

I've met people who were incredibly talented who didn't apply themselves to their art. They were good, but never achieved mastery. In fact, sometimes the fact that things came so easily made them less motivated to work hard.

On the other hand I've known many, many more people who probably consider themselves "moderately" talented, but who were passionate about their art and worked hard on improving. Those people always achieve results. Many of them are downright incredible. My aikido Sensei talks about himself as someone with "no special talent." He's hands down one of the world's greatest living martial artists.

My conclusion: Training Trumps Talent. 

Forget about whether you're talented. Keep practicing.