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?


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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.