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.