Friday, February 17, 2017

Life: It Is!

Yes, life just is. Put about any word that fits for you right now and it will be right.

Life is.

  • A friend's wife has cancer.
  • A retired friend, an iconic person in my years in ministry, is in hospice care.
  • A college friend, who later was a colleague of mine in a clinical practice, died suddenly only months after retirement.
Life is.

For this week, then, is a reminder that life is precious and fragile. Perhaps the fragility is part of what makes it precious. This is not a surprise. I have dealt with death since my parents died when I was a teenager. As a pastor I have officiated at funerals of an 8-year old and a nearly 100 year old.

Life is precious, fragile, and unpredictable. Of the three things this week, only the hospice care is less of a surprise. The other two- unexpected, out of the blue, a break in the fabric of my life, if only for a moment.

Yet a reminder that the break in my fabric of life will also happen one day. It is not an easy thing to think about when you feel happy, healthy, and younger than the calendar tells you. It is not easy, even when you are now older than just about anybody you knew in your immediate family. The mask of immortality that we all wear gets a little ragged around the edges on a week like this.

Which is good. We need that balance between mortality and immortality. We need to maintain that awareness of the shortness of life, yet without allowing that to infect us with defeatism- or fear. What is, is. What will be, will be.

So this week I am also grateful for what my life has contained- more than I can even make a dent in recounting.
  • Family! 
  • Friends! 
  • Career! 
  • Fun! 
  • Meaning! 
  • Joy! 
  • Health! 
  • I have been granted the opportunity to continue the best of both my personal and career worlds in retirement. 
  • I have had the chance to become the musician I have always dreamed of wanting to be. 
  • I work in a job that is rewarding, challenging, and never dull- but 
  • I am also "retired" so I can balance that work with my other passions.
That is only the surface.

For today, I am filled with these words attributed originally to a Confederate soldier, but as real today as they were a century and a half ago.

Most Richly Blessed
by an Unknown Civil War Soldier 

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do great things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might become wise.
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need for God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was given Life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for, but everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers and true needs were fulfilled.
I am, among all men, most richly blessed.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

A 50-Year Memory: News from February

I decided that posting music videos on the first of the month from 50 years ago wasn't enough. I will continue that. But I will add a mid-month roundup of some of the news items that strike me as interesting from that month. So, with no further ado- the news headlines from February 1967:

  • The federal minimum wage in the United States increased from $1.25 an hour to $1.40 an hour for 30,000,000 workers. An additional 8,000,000 additional workers in retail work, hotels, restaurants, construction, laundries and hospitals were guaranteed at least $1.00 an hour, to increase to $1.60 by 1971. [BTW, $1.40 in 1967 would be the equivalent of 10.06 in 2017.]
  • The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour made its debut on the CBS television network. [These guys deserve many thanks for a truly remarkable series. Videos to come!]
  • U.S. President Lyndon Johnson sent a letter to North Vietnam's President Ho Chi Minh, by way of Moscow, that began "Dear Mr. President: I am writing to you in the hope that the conflict in Viet Nam can be brought to an end," and outlining his proposal that "I am prepared to order a cessation of bombing against your country... as soon as I am assured that infiltration into South Viet Nam by land and by sea has stopped." [American public opinion had not yet turned against Johnson and the war, but it was quickly heading that direction. Needless to say this letter did no good.]
  • The 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution, governing presidential succession and disability was ratified. [From what I can gather, this may have some interesting things to say about how some may try to remove our current president from office.]
  • New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison announced at a press conference that he believed that the assassination of John F. Kennedy had been a conspiracy, and that his office had been working on the seeking an indictment. Later in the month he claimed to have solved the crime. [I had the chance to interview an author who said Garrison was correct. Never did get any concrete information from anyone.]
  • The American space probe Lunar Orbiter 3 sent back the first detailed pictures of the far side of the Moon, not visible from the Earth. [Again, thinking of the amazing women from "Hidden Figures"!]
  • Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. began speaking out at length against American involvement in the Vietnam War, starting with a speech in Los Angeles. [As I said, the tide was turning and this was a huge step for Dr. King and the country.]
  • President Johnson sent a message to the U.S. Senate, asking for the introduction of what would become the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. "I am convinced," the President, said, "that a vital and self-sufficient noncommercial television system will not only instruct, but inspire and uplift our people." [An important part of our American culture for the past 50 years. Thank you, LBJ!]

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Tuning Slide: 2.24- The Magic in the Music

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

I said last week that, as usual, Bill Bergren had opened a new thought pattern for me in my post on his teaching a non-trumpet player how to play. Here, again, is his response from last week:
Everything I did was in reaction to the student. It's all about understanding the concept then articulating/communicating in your own words and style. IMO this can't be expressed in the written word and is the reason Mr. Adam never wrote a book. Imagine the master in Zen In The Art of Archery writing a book on his methods. I don't think so.
I bolded the part I want to talk about this week. It is, in essence, a challenge to the written word as the sole way of learning how to do something. He mentioned an older book: Zen in the Art of Archery that was written in the early 1930s and updated in the late 1940s. It is the first of many books that have taken the teachings of Zen and applied them to any number of other activities. The classic from the 1970s, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was one of the more famous. Such books, to oversimplify them, are philosophical discussions based on or around particular subjects. They take “Zen” ideas and apply them to life.

Here’s Wikipedia’s description of the archery book:
[German philosophy professor Eugen] Herrigel has an accepting spirit towards and about unconscious control of outer activity Westerners heretofore considered wholly to be under conscious-waking control and direction. For example, a central idea in the book is how through years of practice, a physical activity becomes effortless both mentally and physically, as if our habit body executes complex and difficult movements without conscious control from the mind.

Herrigel describes Zen in archery as follows:
"(...) The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull's-eye which confronts him. This state of unconscious is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, though there is in it something of a quite different order which cannot be attained by any progressive study of the art (...)"
It is a short book and an easy read, unless you want to allow it to work on you. Then slow down and listen to it. I could do a number of posts on what I wrote down, but let me take a few ideas.

Part of what this boils down to is that learning “technique” is not always enough. For the archery master Herrigel studied under to have given him a step-by-step description of the way to become proficient at archery, would not have produced a master. For us to simply know that pressing a certain valve or combination of valves produces a certain note does not make a good trumpet player. The “inner game” books by Timothy Gallwey and others present the same ideas in a different form. But I want to stick with the “Zen” idea for this post to give a slightly different perspective from the inner game. This perspective may actually prod us further into being less conscious about our playing and more in-tune (intentional phrase!) with ourselves, our playing, and our fellow musicians.

So what might “Zen and the Art of Music” be like? I found this description from David Michael Wolff, founder and conductor of the Carolina Philharmonic with that very title:
Music has a certain magic to it, a magic infused with zen. If you start to see the energy underneath music instead of dwelling on the surface emotion, you see that lines of energy and rhythm guide the architecture… How can you work with the flow of energy instead of against it? Just as a great martial artist can defeat the opponent using his own energy, so a zen music master learns to bend musical energy to his will, or better, ride it effortlessly by bending himself to the will of music. -Link
Bend yourself as the musician to the will of music. But in order to do that you must also “see” the energy in the music and that there is a structure, an architecture to the energy and rhythm. Somewhat like the inner game except this clearly says that there is more to being a good musician than getting “self one” to be quite so “self two” can get in the flow. It is saying that together, self one and self two can get in the low with that is already in the music waiting to be released. Yes, self one will attempt to shoe-horn and pressure the music to fit its ideas, but sooner or later self two will say “Relax! Hear and feel the power underneath!

Personally I love the idea in this. I know there is “magic” in the music that is waiting for the musician to share it. The technical notes on the page or the strategies we learned in Arban’s or Clarke are the starting points, but they only work on the surface. They help us feel familiar with the technical aspects of playing, but if they don’t move us to hear the music energy, we will simply be playing the notes and not the music itself. I find that exciting. That means for me that in each piece of music I am working on, whether an etude in Charlier or an old band favorite for a concert, there is something more than meets the eye. We can call it the architecture, but that is made up of the rhythms and energy connecting with us.

Bach is one of the best examples in this for me. It is precise, almost mathematically correct. It is some of the most “logical” music ever written. But that isn’t why Bach’s music remains as unique as it is. Logic and precision can get pretty boring. If you hear the “metronome” in the performer’s head, you know the performer has missed the point of the music. But listen… there’s the amazing love of Anna Magdelena in the notes or the soaring craving for God that sings like heaven in Bach’s variations on what we know as “The Passion Chorale.” Yes, it can take technical skill (i.e. years of practice) to get that into a performance, but it’s the emotions that make it a real musical event.

How do we achieve this zen-like attitude?

Many of these are what you would expect.
You have to know your instrument, its feel, its balance in your hands, the way it centers your sound. Think playing the lead pipe along for this. That’s one of the ways we begin to connect with our instrument.

You have to build your strength or endurance. Think long tones centered and improving as you feel the center.

You have to breathe with your instrument and the music. Think long tones and the Clarke exercises.

You have to practice. Herrigel is told by the Master, “Don’t ask- practice.” There are aspects of practice that are important like singing the piece, playing it slow enough to know what the notes feel and sound like, recording yourself, listening to other recordings. All of these are not a prescription to zen and music, they are simply part of the practice. A classic zen idea is to realize that you will know it’s happening when it is time. Until then wait with patience- and keep practicing.

One way I have found that seems to be working for me is moving beyond simply playing scales to improvising on them. I have never been able to improvise, except when singing along with a song, alone, in my car. I am a jazz lover and am empowered by listening to it. Since Shell Lake’s Adult Big Band Workshop two years ago I have been moving toward experiencing what improvising is life. I went through the technical stuff of scales- major, seventh, and minor. They began to feel familiar under my fingers. I was accomplishing several of the things I mentioned above- the instrument, endurance, breathing- technical skills. I just kept practicing. I had difficulty playing with the Aebersold CDs, so I stopped trying. It wasn’t time. I did slightly better with the iReal Pro app on my iPhone, but still struggled.

Then, one day, it was time. As I finished playing through my scales one afternoon I decided to play around with the scale. I started improvising. By ear. (It’s amazing how much faster we can play a scale or a riff if we don’t have to look at the music. I was flabbergasted!) I played with scales and chord arpeggios. I then added a structure of rhythm. Finally I started adding structure of chord changes. I started working on 8- and 16-bar blues changes, then some ii-V7-I changes. I started playing them in different keys. I wanted to look in a mirror to make sure that it was still me playing the horn. The freedom that gave me was nothing short of miraculous. I started composing melodies across the changes. Sure, they were very elementary and quite dull, but I was doing something different.

I was experiencing the zen.

I then started applying all this to a song I have been wanting to arrange for our quintet- the folk song Sloop John B. I worked it out by ear, then I started playing with it, checking different rhythms and chord changes, descants and the like. All by ear. I began to experience the zen of this song. I then heard new things that I could play and ways to truly move beyond simple improvisation to some slightly more interesting variations. As I did this the power and energy of the song became apparent. I could feel it in my horn and embouchure. (I know that anyone who loves technical stuff will probably give up at this point. That’s okay. It is working for me!)

Each time I play through the song now, I get a different insight into its structure and energy. I am almost ready to be getting the composing part going. Because I know the music, the song’s zen, it will be more interesting than if I had simply done some technical study and fit that to the song.

Be careful, of course, that you don't get into some bad habits. It could be easy to get used to doing things some incorrect ways. More on that in another post. For this week, Zen works. Go with the musical flow- it's energy and rhythm, its architecture and texture.

Bill, as usual, you’ve done it again.

And as usual, thanks.

Monday, February 13, 2017

An Interlude- Dark Night Reactions and Actions

Time for another interlude post in the Dark Night of the Soul.  It has gotten darker for me.

We were sitting in a diner the other evening, the evening the circuit court upheld the stay in the immigration ban. Fox News was on the TV and, while the sound was off, the trailer and closed-captions weren’t. You could see in the faces where some of the news people were going. At the same time the trailer was telling of an Iranian official calling it the “blessed ban” because it proves that the United States hates Muslims.

“The judiciary will save us,” my wife said. The separation of powers that is a basic of our governmental life will hold Trump accountable.

“Unless there is a terror attack by someone from one of these countries before it is resolved,” was my pessimistic response. “Then it will all be the fault of these, as Trump calls them, ‘so-called’ judges.”

“Yes,” was all she could say.

I put my forehead in my hands and wondered if I could give up news for Lent this year?

I am tired. Sick and tired. Sick and tired of being sick and tired. This just can’t be happening.

Corinna Barrett Lain, a professor at University of Richmond School of Law, had an opinion column in the Richmond Times-Dispatch last Monday. It started this way:

Let me guess — you are physically and emotionally exhausted. You aren’t sleeping well. You find it difficult to concentrate.

And you are stressed by a torrent of events: attacks on the press, the appointment of a man associated with neo-Nazis as chief strategist to the president (and now as a member of the National Security Council), the endorsement of torture, a ban on all refugees and citizens of select majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States, the firing of the acting attorney general who refused to defend the ban, a Holocaust remembrance statement that omitted any reference to Jews, fights with our neighbors and closest allies, and most recently, denigration of a federal judge.

So. Many. Things. It’s enough to suck the lifeblood out of us — and that may be the point. (Link)
These are what have been called “shock events.” They are things that happen too fast for us to process them and cause us to become worn down. We can’t keep up with the seemingly endless series of “shock events” that make us forget the one that came before. It feels like being buried alive.

There are two types of “shock events” and both cause disruption and change. The first is the event that comes out of  nowhere, the “black swans” of history. Pearl Harbor and 9/11 are two examples. They cause things to happen because they are so raw and unexpected. Wise (or cunning) politicians can use these type of shock events to get change to happen- quickly. The Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964, whether actual or turned into more than it was, could be seen as one as well. This is where my concern about the next potential terrorist attack comes from. Under current settings, such an event could easily turn into a need to set up some form of martial law, extreme police measures or the like in order to protect national security. Fingers will be pointed- at Democrats, at liberals, at judges, at Muslims. It could be very devastating to American democracy.

Which leads to the other type of “shock events.” These are purposely done in order to keep people off-balance. That exhaustion Professor Lain spoke of comes easily from a string of events, any one of which is unsettling, which when taken together become overwhelming. Like a dark night without end.

I had been doing well until this week, until now when it all piled up again. Last week in the post on the Dark Night I talked about the series of conversations I was having with a supporter of Mr. Trump and his policies. I felt positive about the way we had both handled it.

We both were open to trying to move from stereotypes and talking points to at least a little more substance. For example:
Trump Supporter: Democrats didn’t win. They are mad that a Republican is in office.
Me: No. Much of what is happening is not because a Republican won. Many feel Trump is not qualified to be president. It’s not that Democrats lost- it is the nature of the person who won! We are afraid of what he says he will do- and what he is doing. This would not be happening this way if any other GOP candidate had won, except maybe Ted Cruz.
TS: A nod of agreement about Cruz and then of some type of understanding.
 Another discussion:
TS: What about these liberals sitting down in the middle of highways. They deserve to get run over. What they are doing is against the law.
Me: (Admittedly a little sarcastically) Yes, but so was dumping tea in Boston Harbor illegal.
TS: That’s different.
Me: No it’s not. By definition civil disobedience is illegal. If you do it you have to be willing to go to jail.
TS: Ok.
Me: But running the protestors over with a car is also illegal. (He had thought that was what the drivers should do.)
We spent time reviewing what for me is Civics 1- the separation of powers- co-equal branches of government. He didn’t know what I was talking about.
TS: The constitution gives the president the right to protect national security.
Me: Yes, but not if what he is doing is either illegal or unconstitutional.
TS: But the president is the one who decides that. Not the courts.
Me: But the courts decide if what is done is illegal or unconstitutional. That's the way our system works. We have three equal parts of the government. The president is not free to do whatever he wants. He can be challenged in court.
TS: That way the president can’t become a dictator. OK. (It was a statement, not a question!)
I was always honest about my own personal opinions of Mr. Trump and what he has been doing. I didn’t go into all the sordid details as a way of pounding my listener. I was not out to overwhelm him, I was out to listen to him and respond in helpful ways, not pushing him away. We were not debating. We were discussing the issues in real time and with honesty.

I expressed my concerns about Trump- and he responded with his. He said that what he wants most is for Obamacare to be fixed (not repealed!), that we as a country are safe, and that we regain some of our jobs that have been lost to other countries. We did not go into depth on the jobs issue, having had other events come up that sidetracked us.

I saw this as a good paradigm for what I could possibly do in my own one-on-one conversations with other Trump supporters. Unfortunately I don’t know many of those. Of the few I do know, only one couple has been open to these conversations before this. But maybe that’s good enough for now.

But as all that has gone on, we are still only three weeks, repeat only three weeks, into the Trump Presidency. We will not survive the continuing onslaught of shock events. We will be tempted to roll over and give up. Which is why I continue to write this series on the dark night.

What happens when I am not able to control the events that are causing this dark night? What am I to do to keep myself from gong crazy? What am I to do to prevent my physical and emotional energy from being sucked dry by events and situations like the past three weeks?

One obvious direction is one I have talked about many times before, and have lived for over 28 years- accepting my powerlessness and doing what I can do in my own way. Yes, but….

There is always that damned “yes, but…” In those two words I am taking back my control over things which I ultimately have no control over. Which is what I will try to get back to in the next Dark Night post. The causes of our Dark Night may be beyond our control, but if it is to have a meaning and hope, we must find the ways to keep moving forward.

But that’s next. For now let me return to Professor Lain:
How to fight back? The first step — and it is a critical one — is to recognize that the phenomenon is happening. That would explain why we have heard politicians sympathetic to Trump telling us to take a chill pill, “stay off the caffeine,” relax. We are starting to catch wind of what is going on here, and those perpetrating the chaos and invested in its success are threatened. They need us to stay distracted by the upheaval. They need us dazed, divided and confused.

The entire point of shock events is to prevent people from coming together, to prevent the democratic discourse from working.

So it is time to recognize that reality, and resist it — that’s step two. It is time for progressives to stop viewing conservatives as the people who voted us into this mess. And it is time for conservatives to stop viewing progressives as poor sports who are just mad because they lost the election.

Wake up, America. The real enemies are not one another. The enemy is the emerging autocracy of Donald Trump, and that should scare us all.
I respond to that. It was what I was trying to do in those four weeks of conversations with a Trump Supporter. I kept trying to stay focused on the fact that we are all in the same boat. We are all Americans and we need to see what is happening to all of us. When some Trump supporters get “buyer’s remorse,” when they realize they have been hoodwinked by his promises, when things (hopefully) become clear, we need to be together! It will not be helpful for an I told you so to come out of our lips. It will need to be something we have been unable to do in this whole divisive campaign now going on for a number of years; we need to say to each other, “I understand! Let’s work on this together."

One final comment from Professor Lain, her closing paragraph in her article:
 I know you are tired, that’s the very point. But even in our highly polarized polity, what unites us is still much greater than what divides us. We are in the twilight moment, shaken by shock events and fearful of the shadow they are casting. Our task now is to recognize that fact, and come together to avoid becoming unwitting victims of the dark.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

The Tuning Slide: 2.23- Beginning With Air

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

I had a request a couple weeks ago for an idea for the Tuning Slide. It came from one of the students at last year’s Trumpet Workshop at Shell Lake, WI. Not one to ignore one of my one or two fans, I thought I would give it a go.

One of the days at camp Bill Bergren taught one of the permanent Shell Lake staff how to play a trumpet. The staff member had never played trumpet before. He was a musician, played bass as I remember it. But had never played a wind instrument. Bill is an excellent teacher in the Bill Adam tradition and is a former student of Mr. Adam. It was quite a “demonstration.” Perhaps some of the high school and college-age students can remember their first struggles with the trumpet. I cannot. It is a dim and clouded place in history, fifty-five years ago, somewhere between the space flights of Alan Shepherd and John Glenn. But I am fairly certain that I was not able to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” as well as this volunteer did- after only 20 minutes.

Bill used no music, nothing about the musical scale or notes. That was not because the volunteer already knew music. If so, Bill would have said what notes were being played so the student could have a frame of reference. He was not told, “Now you are going to play a ‘G’, second line of the staff.”

He did start out by telling the student that it was all about the “air.” He did not even have the volunteer buzz the mouthpiece, an act of heresy to many band directors or teachers. He simply demonstrated what to do and then told the student to do it. [Any error in this description is due to my poor notes.]

I’m not going to go into any greater detail about the specifics of what Bill did, which I realize will disappoint any of us who may want a step-by-step description of what to do in what order. I will not do that for the simple reason I can’t. I can’t because first of all, my notes were not clear about what he did. I was more interested in watching and only recorded thoughts, not the steps. The second reason I can’t is that Bill wouldn’t tell me. I wrote him an email, and true to his style of teaching didn’t give me any such plan for instruction. Instead he wrote:
Everything I did was in reaction to the student. It's all about understanding the concept then articulating/communicating in your own words and style. IMO this can't be expressed in the written word and is the reason Mr. Adam never wrote a book. Imagine the master in Zen In The Art of Archery writing a book on his methods. I don't think so.
As usual, Bill nudged me into thinking about this in a different way. First, it is not about the method, it is always about the student. A good teacher in a situation like that must be ready to pay attention to the student and what the student needs. The good teacher must be able to read the student’s responses and adapt to what is needed at the moment. Not that the teacher doesn’t have lesson plans or a toolbox filled with ideas and methods. The good teacher knows which to use and when and is also on the lookout for new ways as new students are encountered.

Teaching is communication. So is learning. It is the receiving and reverse direction of communication.

With this in mind, I did look back in my notes to see what I could now learn from the little bit I did write down. What I found was two things.

We have taught trumpet as if the student is deaf. For example we tell them to push the 1st valve and you will get “F”. It becomes a technical exercise as opposed to musical. They learn that if you push this you will get what you are looking for. We don’t pay attention to what it sounds like. Bill had the student sing the note in imitation of what he did. With that we begin to enter into the realm of music and not technique. What does it sound like, is as important as what valves do I have to push to get that note on the page. Reading the music is very important (Doh!) but so it what we hear. We are not deaf.

I am sure we have experienced this when working on a scale. We push the wrong valve and the sound is wrong. We know by hearing that we have played a note that is not normally a part of that scale at that point. (Note that I didn’t say it was a wrong note! It just doesn’t fit what the scale sounds like.) We don’t know it because our brain tells us we pushed the wrong valves, we know it because it didn’t sound right. It is important to try to develop that sound awareness from the very start or build it back if you have lost it.

Playing music is more than just the right fingering, it is the sound! Which brings me to the other thing I learned from Bill’s demonstration lesson:

It’s the air that makes the sound, not buzzing. From he very beginning Bill talked about “air”. He used various techniques to have the student experience “air” including submersing the bell in a bucket of water for the student to see when his air flow changed. Can you feel the difference, not just see it in the water? That’s also at least part of the reasoning behind the Bill Adam technique of playing through the lead pipe without the tuning slide in place. It’s about the sound of the air. We learn by listening when the air is going well, when it is centered. You can hear the difference. We then learn to play that way with the tuning slide back in. I do notice I have a better tone in practice when I start with the lead pipe air exercise!

I had a quick example of how this works the other week in band rehearsal. I was talking with one of the other trumpet players about some of Mr. Adam’s ideas and things I have learned from Bob Baca and Bill Bergren. I mentioned the lead pipe air exercise. He asked me, “What does that do?” So I showed him. I didn’t tell him. I pulled the tuning slide out and played. I had not warmed up yet so the sound wasn’t centered. I showed what I knew how to do. I explained what I was doing. Then I did it one more time. “The goal,” I said, “is to have that same air no matter where on the scale you are.”

The result of all this in particular is back to the three things we should always have:
  • Great not good sound
  • Great not good rhythm and
  • Great not good ears.
Listen, imitate, put it together. The sound will follow if you listen, imitate, and put it together.

Those are the basics, and I have a hunch that no matter where we are on the skill development journey we will be able to learn from them. Oh, and a reminder to myself that if Bill does this demonstration at this summer’s trumpet workshop, I will record it.

That’s not all I got from Bill’s brief note. But that will take another whole post, so I will save that for next week.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Just Thinking Out Loud

Not to make too fine a point of it, or raise the black movie issue again, but have you noticed;

1) Yes, there are some excellent movies with strong casts of African-Americans in all kinds of roles.

  • Moonlight- black writers and director, powerful coming-of-age story in a whole new way. Great Oscar buzz for a while.
  • Fences- a marvelous adaptation of African-American playwright August Wilson's play. Mesmerizing to watch.
  • Hidden Figures- a true story of three African-American women who truly did get Americans into space through their mathematical skills. Made me want to make sure we don't lose the gains we have made.
2) Yes, there is also another excellent movie, Lion starring Dev Patel, a British actor of Indian heritage, a person of color. The most moving and epic of these four. My pick for Best Picture!

3) Yes, there are all kinds of nominations for people of color and these movies. Any one of which is highly qualified for Best Picture, Best Acting, Best Direction, etc. This is not in reaction to the previous years missing many good performances. All these movies have been in production long before that and are truly great movies on their own and should stand up to any of the excellent movies, past or present.

But here is where I am cautious, yet just thinking out loud....
With all these utterly amazing movies and cast, the movie that seems to be taking the world by storm is an admittedly top-notch musical about Los Angeles, a white jazz musician, and an update of the "golden era" movie musicals, called La La Land.

Monday, February 06, 2017

5. Dark Night of the Soul- Purpose and Meaning

In this week’s post I want to explore the purpose and meaning of the “Dark Night of the Soul”. I’ve already talked about this in various ways, but I’d like to focus on it in a little more breadth this week. As we do this, it is important to remember, again, that the “dark night” is not dreadful and dreary, a place with no hope. As John of the Cross understood it is an exciting and possibility-filled journey.

Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined
Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!
The journey is one that is not to get something, but to become something and someone. A person is changed as the dark night continues, if one is willing to be open to what is happening. A website called Neomysticism had this to say:
The main purpose of it all is not to attain something. Rather, there's a certain consciousness — an awareness — that grows in the person who experiences this night. This will later lead to a full awakening — living from that 'higher mind' that Jesus refers to in his use of the word metanoia. [Often translated as repentance. Literally “change of mind."] God's presence is not something you attain, but something that's already there. You just become aware of it. You realize it... often through unlearning and getting rid of obstacles. That's why the journey of true spirituality is often referred to as a path of descent. You have to become less.
The last stanza of John’s poem presents this union with God this way:
I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.
Okay. Let’s bring this down to earth, to a way that we can understand it, not because we are less open than John, but because such poetic language needs to be unpacked. Even John wrote two books expounding on the short poem. For me, in line with what I have been writing before, I return to the Twelve Steps as developed by Alcoholics Anonymous. In particular, the concluding step, number 12:
  • Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps,
  • we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and
  • to practice these principles in all our affairs.
So the result of the dark night’s pilgrimage is:
  • Spiritual awakening
John described it as “all ceased and I abandoned myself.” A spiritual awakening is not necessarily, nor very often, a moment of blinding experience. Most of the time it is the result of the path of a spiritual journey that opens us to a new way of understanding ourselves and our world. What was important is no longer important. John can say that after abandoning himself he could leave his cares “forgotten among the lilies.”

As we lie awake wrestling with the night and the issues swirling around us and our country, the idea of being able to leave the cares forgotten feels unreachable. Yet, as John said, “oh happy chance” that this would be possible. After all this IS what started us on this journey in the first place- the wrestling with things seemingly too big and too out of reach for us mere mortals. One day we come to new understandings as a result of these and we realize that we have awakened from the night. We are more spiritually awake than we were when we began. It is ongoing, to be sure, but we are different.

It is now a new spiritual day- even if the world itself still looks dark and uncertain.

The second thing about the 12th Step is the natural continuation of the awakening. We have had a spiritual awakening. Therefore we:
  • Carry the message
In the 12 Steps the people who the message is taken to are of course others with the same issue- alcoholism. It makes sense then that the message we carry is first to those who struggle with the spiritual issues we have faced. It is a message to those seeking direction or answers, hope or support in what feels like a time of being lost and alone.

The world of 16th Century Spain was one of great change, difficulty, and disagreement. The worst of the Inquisition was a still fresh memory; the expulsion of the Jews from Andalusia after the “reconquest” of Spain from the Muslims was complete; Roman Catholicism as a whole was in the midst of dealing with the Protestant Reformation and its own counter-reformation. St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila were tireless in living what they had discovered in their own dark nights. They carried the message by being who they were in spite of persecution and even time in prison.

A short biography of St. John says this:  
It was not long before the exemplary lives of the small community of reformed friars and nuns that had gathered around St. John and St. Teresa respectively began attracting vocations [i.e. others who wanted to join with them in their work.]  -St. John of the Cross
When we have a spiritual awakening, the world has not changed one iota. John says that the “heart lit me from inside':

It [the heart] guided and shone
Surer than noonday sunlight over me.
We have changed. Which means for us that everything has changed. That's why we carry the message. But how do we do that? Back to the 12th Step. The best way to carry the message is to:

  • Practice this new way we have learned.
Practice these principles (the way of the soul and spirit) in all we do. Speaking is not enough. It is more important that we live these principles in all we do. A phrase that has come to mean a great deal to me in the past year captures the essence of this:
How you do anything is how you do everything.
There are many ways of saying it-
  • practice what you preach; 
  • actions speak louder than words; 
  • I’d rather see a sermon than hear one; 
  • faith without works is dead.
It has to do with personal integrity and self-awareness. (More on that in the next post.) We can’t compartmentalize our lives, living one way here and another way over there. At the worst that means we are being dishonest or uncommitted to anything. At best it is being wishy-washy.

Let me give an example I have wrestled with over the last few weeks. I have often said that dialogue is important in this time and place. We need to talk with each other, not throw slogans, engage in name-calling or stereotyping. (Sarcasm can take us a long way- but in the wrong direction.) I have also said that we need to learn to find ways to express support and care for each other. Liberals, like myself, for example, can be great at standing up for the least and the lost, but overlook the least and the lost among those on the other side of the issue. We end up ignoring them, calling them ignorant or uninformed. (Note: Do not tell me that “they” do the same. I can’t change them- I can only change me.) That is NOT what I preach and say I believe. How I do anything is how I do everything.

Guilty as charged.

So, three weeks ago I was given the opportunity (by my Higher Power?) to sit next to a staunch Trump supporter. He was joyous about the new president and what was going to happen. I tried to ignore him. I’m tired of this crap. He talked about what he liked about the new president’s agenda. I tried to ignore him. I made some comments back, mostly negative. But that damn still small voice kept bugging me- how you do anything…

So I began to listen. I still heard the Trump-supporting party line. But I also began to hear the both uncertainty and hope mixed in with it. This acquaintance is best described as part of the white, male, middle class- a group easily”demonized” in these very polarized and divided times. I was able to hear, for perhaps the first time, his pain, his fear, and his reason for hoping that the new administration will do something positive.

Once I made a conscious decision to listen, really listen, things began to change. I tried not to place him in a stereotyped box, even when he made such statements about “liberals” or “Muslims”. I did challenge the generalizing and engaged in some dialogue about the issues, pointing out differences between talking points and what is happening. He began to listen to me and took in what I was saying. I hope that was because I was treating him as an equal in the dialogue. The other evening, after three weeks of this weekly conversation happening in bits and pieces, I thanked him for his willingness to talk and listen. He sat back and told me what he really hopes for in this administration, also admitting his concerns, something he would have been unwilling to do when we were on “opposite sides.”

How we do anything is how we do everything. If we spend time stereotyping others, we will not see them as individuals.If we spend time seeing those with opposing viewpoints as “the enemy” we will always be at war with them, even if we agree on more than we disagree. It took some real effort on my part to move to a point of really listening. But when I managed to do that more often than not, I found myself in real conversation about some very important things. (These are not directly related to the Dark Night discussion.  I will talk about them in another “interlude” piece in the next week or so.)

What this whole episode has done is bring to the front for me the essential work of dialogue, conversation, even mediation if needed. It means that when I stand up for certain values, I have to be willing to apply those values to those I might be in opposition to! If I believe all people are loved by God and worthy of my attention, then I cannot place some people outside that love just because I disagree with them. I can’t not love them or care about them just because I might find some of what they do as immoral, reprehensible or downright wrong. I remember when the ACLU went to court to help a white-supremacy rally occur. They value free speech and civil liberties- even when it might have been unpopular with their own constituency.

For people who are seeking a spiritual way through this time, it is always, always, always fundamental that we begin with our values. What is it that I am called to do? How am I called to do it? What are my values that guide me in all these actions? The Dark Night helps those questions become clarified and answered as we become more and more spiritually awake, these ways become clearer.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

The Tuning Slide: 2.22- You Gotta Have Grit

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music
“Grit is about working on something you care about so much that you’re willing to stay loyal to it.”
“It’s doing what you love. I get that.”
“Right, it’s doing what you love, but not just falling in love—staying in love.”

(Grit, p. 53)
Back in November I did some posts on “deliberate practice” as one of the most significant keys to developing skills. It isn’t 10,000 hours, it's how you spend those 10,000 hours. That was taken from the book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. They clearly believe- and can show- that there is not such a thing as “natural talent. It takes work- and lots of it.

Another book from last year takes this to a different level. Angela Duckworth, in her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance asks the excellent next question. “How do you stay motivated to practice all those hours?” Ericsson and Pool raised the same issue when they noted that this “deliberate practice” is not always fun or easy. You have to keep working at it. Duckworth digs deeply into what she calls “grit.”

Like Ericsson and Pool she demythologizes “natural talent.
Nietzsche said. “For if we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking. . . . To call someone ‘divine’ means: ‘here there is no need to compete.’  In other words, mythologizing natural talent lets us all off the hook." (Grit, pp. 43-44)
Great quote, and right on target. I can never be as good as [fill in the blank] because they have natural talent. Even trumpet players, known for our supposedly over-sized egos, may try to imitate Doc, Miles, or Maynard, “but you know- those guys had natural talent. I can never do what they do.”

Malarkey Nietzsche says. As do Ericsson and Duckworth and many others. There may be other reasons why we may not end up at the level of the greats, but natural talent isn’t one of them.

After showing her reasons why she doesn’t accept “natural talent, Duckworth went on to study “grit”, stick-to-itiveness, motivation in many different areas. When she got to music she affirmed Ericsson’s ideas. She then lists four barriers, “buzz-killers” she calls them, that keep us from sticking to the long haul.
“I’m bored.”
“The effort isn’t worth it.”
“This isn’t important to me.”
“I can’t do this, so I might as well give up.” (Grit, p. 80)
I don’t know about you, but any one of those can- and does- crop up on a much too regular basis. These are the questions raised by the inner voice that tells us we aren’t good enough or that fears failing. In the book The Inner Game of Music, Barry Green calls this voice Self 1. It is the voice of interference. On the other hand there is Self 2, the voice of our talents, abilities, desires, grace. The trick is giving Self 2 the go-ahead and bringing Self 1 along. Duckworth then writes (with my comments in between):
…the research reveals the psychological assets that mature paragons of grit have in common. There are four. They counter each of the buzz-killers listed above, and they tend to develop, over the years, in a particular order.

First comes interest. Passion begins with intrinsically enjoying what you do. Every gritty person I’ve studied can point to aspects of their work they enjoy less than others, and most have to put up with at least one or two chores they don’t enjoy at all. Nevertheless, they’re captivated by the endeavor as a whole. With enduring fascination and childlike curiosity, they practically shout out, “I love what I do!”
I love the phrase enduring fascination and childlike curiosity. Remember last week and the discussion on mindfulness? This fascination and curiosity is part of what we are building when we practice mindfulness. (By the way, how are you doing at developing that? Just thought I’d ask.) Not everything we do is exciting and adrenaline producing (think- long tones.) There are aspects of every job that are mundane and, yes, boring. But there is that initial interest. Don’t lose it. Stay mindful
Next comes the capacity to practice. One form of perseverance is the daily discipline of trying to do things better than we did yesterday. So, after you’ve discovered and developed interest in a particular area, you must devote yourself to the sort of focused, full-hearted, challenge-exceeding-skill practice that leads to mastery. You must zero in on your weaknesses, and you must do so over and over again, for hours a day, week after month after year. To be gritty is to resist complacency. ““Whatever it takes, I want to improve!” is a refrain of all paragons of grit, no matter their particular interest, and no matter how excellent they already are.
For some of us the capacity to practice may be greater than for others. If you have a 40-hour a week job, you won’t be able to put in four hours of practice every day. But there has to be a discipline of doing it- and seeking to do it better than the day before. This goes on month after month. There are days when we don’t want to pick up that horn and go through the routine. But I have never met anyone who was sorry they did when they finished.
Third is purpose. What ripens passion is the conviction that your work matters. For most people, interest without purpose is nearly impossible to sustain for a lifetime. It is therefore imperative that you identify your work as both personally interesting and, at the same time, integrally connected to the well-being of others. For a few, a sense of purpose dawns early, but for many, the motivation to serve others heightens after the development of interest and years of disciplined practice. Regardless, fully mature exemplars of grit invariably tell me, “My work is important—both to me and to others.”
Why am I doing this? I am sixty-eight years old. I will never be at the level of my trumpet heroes. Why is it important for me to get out that horn and practice every day? If I was just doing it for my ego reward of sitting in my practice room and hitting a high C on a regular basis, I would soon lose interest. Even (finally) being able to play Al Hirt’s Java never kept me going. But ever since I have been playing in groups- concert bands, big bands, a quintet- I have begun to (re)discover the joy of playing for others, of watching an audience respond, and yes, the ego reward of playing more challenging music. I may never play the Charlier etude in public, but it gives me the skill to play Copland or Gabrieli.
And, finally, hope. Hope is a rising-to-the-occasion kind of perseverance. In this book, I discuss it after interest, practice, and purpose—but hope does not define the last stage of grit. It defines every stage. From the very beginning to the very end, it is inestimably important to learn to keep going even when things are difficult, even when we have doubts. “At various points, in big ways and small, we get knocked down. If we stay down, grit loses. If we get up, grit prevails.” (Grit, pp. 80-82)
Again, a great phrase- hope “defines every stage” of grit. Yes, I have blown solos with the band, or missed entrances with the quintet. Yes, some days my embouchure just doesn’t want to cooperate. Does any of that mean I have reached the end of my skill development? I HOPE not. When I have gone as far as I think I am able to go, grit will lose. I have always wanted to be a skilled musician. Other passions, such as my career vocation, were more important. Now, with time and practice, I have the hope that this dream will continue to be fulfilled.

Could I have done this earlier? Sure, but I wasn’t ready I guess. The old saying- when the student is ready the teacher(s) will appear- is true. I didn’t know it was possible. Now I do. I have lived this way in my vocations, however. Those four things of interest, practice, purpose, and hope led me through over 40 years in my careers of choice. No matter what you or I do for a living, we can apply them there- and in whatever else may be important to us.

Just don’t quit.

A 50-Year Memory: Video for February

I'm a Believer by the Monkees still had two weeks of its six week run at #1 this month. In mid-month that would change to

Kind of a Drag by the Buckinghams for two weeks. Another teen love-lost lament song. That's what was kind of a drag, other than this being their only #1 song and, well, the song itself.

[Sidenote: According to Wikipedia, The Buckinghams were
an American Sunshine pop band from Chicago, Illinois, United States. They formed in 1966, and went on to become one of the top selling acts of 1967, charting their only five Top 40 hits in the U.S. that year.
In my book their best song was the cover of the jazz classic, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy for which they wrote lyrics. It topped out at #5 later in 1967. But that's me.]

Monday, January 30, 2017

An Interlude: Dark Night Fears

I know that some of my conservative friends will accuse me of fear-mongering from my side of the fence. Or perhaps that my highly over-active imagination has gotten the best of me. Or even that age has finally caught up with my sense of reality and rational thinking.

Any of these may be true, but I don't think it is my goal to increase the level of fear in the world. In the posts on the Dark Night of the Soul that I have been doing my goal is to alleviate the fears and present ways that I, as a person of faith along with others of faith can find the light through what feels like a dark night. I will get back to that development next week. For now I wanted to take another interlude and talk about some of the issues that bring about fear. After 9 days in office, Mr. Trump has shown some clear directions.

What I see is an almost perverse style that wants to create chaos. The immigration orders from Friday are an excellent example. It appears on the surface that he simply put this executive order out and signed it without thinking through what needed to be done to implement it. Did it go into effect at that very moment is pen lifted from the paper? Was there any process of informing immigration points at busy airports what they should be doing? Was there any earlier consideration about what happens to individuals who are already here on green cards? What about those who had been here and were now overseas? Or those that were in the air at the fateful moment of signing? So far, I have not seen any information about that. (I hope we will get some answers to that!)

What happened was that somehow or another customs agents at places like JFK airport in New York just went ahead and implemented the order. The result was the chaos and fear at the airport. People who had already been upset by the order itself were mobilized through their networks of friends and family and protested. The court stepped in and put a stay on the order, as the courts had done with Obama's immigration order previously.

So, hold on to that image of chaos for a moment.

Something else has been happening in D.C. A pattern seems to emerge that when a highly public-impacting order comes out, there is also one that is more shadowy, that will get less publicity. In this case Mr. Trump also signed an order changing the personnel make-up of the "Principal's Committee" of the National Security Agency. Dropped from the committee was the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Huh?

Added to the Committee was Mr. Trump's controversial chief strategist, Steve Bannon. Double Huh?

Even George W. Bush knew better than that. He clearly instructed his chief strategist, Karl Rove, to never attend such meetings. It is not the way things should be done. Oh, I am sure Mr. Bush shared information with Rove. Of course he did. But Rove did not have a direct voice at the NSA table.

So then, these two things happened in the past 48 hours. In the midst of the uproar and chaos from the immigration order it may be hard to see the slippery move with the NSA. The immigration order impacts many, many people. It goes against the law passed by Congress over 50 years ago. (That says if the President doesn't like a law, he doesn't have to follow it?) It is probably unconstitutional even though it may not be as obvious as we think it is.

Hence, the NSA order doesn't seem to have the greater impact. Some might even be able to argue that removing the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs enhances the civilian control of the military. Sorry, but national security is one of the important aspects of the military.

Some have used the word "coup" to describe what this means. I am not ready to go that direction yet.

Let's add another request by the President. He wants data that shows how criminal refugees and immigrants are. He wants a weekly report on that. Legal or illegal immigrants or refugees? It doesn't matter. These foreigners are a threat, is the message, even though statistics readily available seem to indicate that these groups have a lower crime rate than the national average.

But there have to be "alternative facts" and the President wants them. I am sure there may be those who can "find" them for him. This announcement came under the radar of his order to build the wall that Mexico will pay for- by Americans paying 20% more for goods made in Mexico due to a tariff. The wall made the news; the request for criminal data was secondary.

There are a number of possibilities of what could be at work here. He could be as clueless as these things indicate about what the repercussions of his orders are. I doubt that. He could be ignoring any advisor who warns him about these repercussions, because, Damn it! He IS the President of the United States and whatever he does is "legal."

He could also be attempting to satisfy his followers and will one day "pivot" and begin to make sense. We have been waiting for that since the nomination. I will be surprised if it happens in any significant way. Maybe he will step back some on the highly public issues and the other ones will have been slipped into place. Hardly noticed. Maybe he will "allow" his GOP Congress to turn these into some more sensible law as they seem to want to do in their own way with the Affordable Care Act. (By the way- I think all Democrats and Progressives should always refer to it as the Affordable Care Act. People don't want to repeal that. They want to repeal Obamacare!)

Here then is where the shivers begin to creep up the spine of many of us who know history, specifically the history of Germany in the early- to mid-1930s when Hitler could conceivably have been stopped. Some of this looks all too familiar. Most clearly the demonizing of a group of people. Hitler had his police report to him with all the crimes of Jews and these would be  posted. The Jews were not safe. They were criminals- even when they weren't. Before you knew it "everyone" believed that the "Jews" were bad for Germany.

The result was Kristallnacht.

But before that even happens, let's think for a moment about chaos. As protests increase- and they will- chaos will become more common. Already some state legislatures are eyeing laws to curtail the right of protest- even peaceful protest. Some of that already exists as a friend fond out when he and others were protesting the death penalty at the Supreme Court. They were in a very public area where no protests are allowed. He spent a night in jail. More of that will happen.

Chaos will increase because, as we have seen too often, there are those who use a protest to cause trouble. Riots make the news; they increase fear; laws will be enacted; protests will increase; etc.

The answer to chaos?

Martial law.

When will something occur that will be our equivalent of the burning of the German Reichstag?
I know that I am sounding like some of the more extreme critics of Mr. Obama over the last 8 years. I am very aware of that. As such, I DO understand where their fears came from, even though they were clearly unfounded, as history has shown us. These things did not happen. I hope and pray that in the end I am just as far off base as they were.

Okay, but now that I have gone this far down this dystopian road, let me make a few things clear.
First, I am not ready to say these things will happen. History, though, does have a way of following patterns and events. These are all way too much like what we saw in Germany in the 1930s. As such they can become a warning to us, not a prophecy. These events do not have to happen, but it is up to us, the people, to work as hard as we can to make sure they don't.

Second, a couple of my thinking conservative friends will tell me that this can't and won't happen here because of the way our laws and our checks and balances work. In theory I am in 100% agreement with them. Our Constitution and governmental form is set up to make sure these things do not happen. We have seen how it does work- and work well- many times over our 241 years as a nation. We came close in the Civil War. We came close in the 1960s and early 1970s. In the first it took a war. In the second it was a free and independent press and peaceful protestors being attacked that woke the nation up. In political theory, we should be okay. But theories can never take into account the insane ways we humans can find to screw things up!

I come back, then, to why I am working on the Dark Night of the Soul. This seemed like as good a place as any to enumerate some of the fears that underlie my search for direction. For me, any response and approach to these issues must be based in my spiritual life and my following the God I believe in, who can restore me to sanity if I trust that God with my will and life. The principles of the spiritual life must have something to say to how I respond to the concerns of the world I live in. If those principles are irrelevant to these, they are probably not relevant at all.

I believe they are. Thus the spiritual crisis, wrestling match, and ultimately pilgrimage of this series of posts.  I am working this out as I go along; I have no idea of where and what I will discover. I expect to be surprised when the light grows and I awake to what has been in front of me all along.

Back on the journey with another post in the next week.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

What is Required of Us?

Since I don't preach any more, I don't usually look at the Sunday lessons. But I thought this week would be a good one to do so. There are many things that have happened in this first week of the Trump era, I wondered what wisdom and guidance might be found in Sunday's lectionary. I wasn't surprised or disappointed.

The Hebrew Bible Lesson: Micah 6: 6-8
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you but to
  • do justice, and
  • to love kindness, and
  • to walk humbly with your God?

The Gospel Lesson: Matthew 5: 1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
  • “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
  • “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
  • “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
  • “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
  • “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
  • “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
  • “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
May we hear and then heed.

Friday, January 27, 2017

In Honor of A Fine Movie

We went to see the wonderful movie Hidden Figures last week. It is nominated for Best Picture and is a moving story of what went on behind the scenes in the early days of our US manned space program. Specifically it is about three African-American women who helped make it possible.

Yesterday I was at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola and came across these two remembrances of history. I thought is would be appropriate to post them in honor of the movie- and the women who helped make it work!

Capt. Alan Shepherd, first American in space

The original Mercury 7 astronauts

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Tuning Slide: 2.21- Growing Mindfulness

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

As you begin to realize that every different type of music, everybody's individual music, has its own rhythm, life, language and heritage, you realize how life changes, and you learn how to be more open and adaptive to what is around us.
-Yo-Yo Ma

Becoming open and adaptive the what is around us is a goal for every musician. A good word for it is mindfulness. In the ongoing spirit of this blog where tuning ourselves helps us be in tune with our music- and vice versa, I am going to step away from music for most of this post and talk about being mindful. Don’t forget- how you do anything is how you do everything. Therefore if you do anything with mindfulness, you will learn to do everything with mindfulness. The result will be that you are a better musician and a better person.

Let’s start with a reminder of what mindfulness is. The person who has introduced mindfulness to millions is Jon Kabat-Zinn. His classic definition is simple and to the point.
Mindfulness is awareness that arises through
⁃ Paying attention,
⁃ On purpose,
⁃ In the present moment,
⁃ Non-judgementally. It’s about knowing what is on your mind.
How can we learn this? I found a web site called Zen Habits that lists some possible “rituals” that can help develop mindfulness. Here are a few of them that can be important for our developing musician mindfulness.

It’s good to start the day being mindful. Zen Habits suggests two mindful actions. (Original comments in italics; mine within brackets.):
Sit in the morning. When you wake up, in the quiet of the morning, perhaps as your coffee is brewing, get a small cushion and sit on the floor. I will often use this opportunity to stretch, as I am very inflexible. I feel every muscle in my body, and it is like I am slowly awakening to the day. I’ll also just sit, and focus on my breathing going in and out. [I’ll have more on breathing and mindfulness meditation again in a future post.]

Brush your teeth. I assume we all brush our teeth, but often we do it while thinking of other things. Try fully concentrating on the action of brushing, on each stroke of each tooth, going from one side of the mouth to the other. You end up doing a better job, and it helps you realize how much we do on autopilot. [Here is a good example of how we do anything can impact everything. Just being mindful of brushing can train us to focus the mind.]
As you go through your day, take time for these:
Walk slowly. I like to take breaks from work, and go outside for a little walk. Walk slowly, each step a practice in awareness. Pay attention to your breathing, to everything around you, to the sounds and light and texture of objects. [Slow walking is great for feeling the body in motion. It can help us begin to “feel” what our body “feels” like. That is an important part of playing music- knowing what how our body is feeling and responding.]

Read in silence. Find a quiet time (mornings or evenings are great for me), and a quiet spot, and read a good novel. Have no television or computers on nearby, and just immerse yourself in the world of the novel. It might seem contradictory to let your mind move from the present into the time of the novel, but it’s a great practice in focus. [Just an “Amen!” to that! Note, though, that this isn’t studying or reading to learn- it is for enjoyment.]
As you think about your day, Zen Habits suggests practicing your ability to focus. This one might be helpful if you have a significant concert or performance coming and you need to get the feel of it.
Work with focus. Start your workday by choosing one task that will make a big difference in your work, and clearing everything else away. Just do that one task, and don’t switch to other tasks. [Then apply this to your music practice. Simple, yes, but it takes practice.]
Dr. Amit Sood, one of my mentors from Mayo Clinic suggests that we should have a specific “theme” for each day of the week and stay focused on that through the day. His weekly list is
Monday: Gratitude
Tuesday: Compassion
Wednesday: Acceptance
Thursday: Higher Meaning
Friday: Forgiveness
Saturday: Celebration
Sunday: Reflection
If you start each day aware of the theme and learn to work on that for the day, in a few weeks all of the themes will be woven into the fabric of each day. It’s just like highlighting one part for each day. Then, with another few weeks practice you will know which of these is needed on any given day or even part of the day.

The goal of all this is that non-judgmental awareness- mindfulness.

As you develop these skills they will have a positive impact on your musicianship. Your musicality will be more even and not as dependent on “getting in the right mood” since you will have more awareness of how to focus on what is in front of you. It won’t be pulled down by other people as acceptance and compassion will be there. You will find yourself more balanced as you discover the greater meaning in your day and your music, celebrating with gratitude what you are given the chance to do. Reflection on your life and music will help you be more forgiving of others- and most importantly of yourself.

There is a comfort, peace and joy in deepening the ability to mindful. It gives each moment the possibility of new discoveries. It keeps us focused on what is in front of us, and it allows us to build today what will be good for us tomorrow. No judgement. Just start with what is and move from there.

Monday, January 23, 2017

4. Dark Night of the Soul- Path of the Dark Night

A couple weeks ago I was talking with a friend about this series. I commented that the impetus to explore the role of the Dark Night of the Soul was the fear and anxiety I and many were feeling after the election of Donald Trump. His first reaction was, you don’t believe this is the worst it’s going to get, do you? Isn’t that what the dark night means- that it will get better from here on?

An article I found online addressed this issue. From Our Sunday Visitor:

The dark night of the soul is not an evil to be endured; it’s a good for which we should be grateful. Of course, it doesn’t always seem that way. The thought of plunging into a spiritual abyss and losing all the sweetness in our relationship with God strikes few as appealing.
A Protestant writing in Christianity Today put it this way:
One lesson we can learn from the ancient mystics is that dark nights are not problems, but opportunities. Grasping this reality moves us beyond "How do we fix this?" to "What might I learn in this?"
--The purpose of the dark night, of course, is to strip us of our futile attempts to find God on our own terms and awaken us to a much simpler desire for intimacy with God
--Chuck DeGroat
With the awareness that this dark night is going to be helpful let us also remember that darkness IS frightening. Think about how much we are aware of things in the dark- even things that aren’t there- except in our imagination. Every creak and bump in a dark house is multiplied. The old Celtic prayer for protection included “things that go bump in the night” right along with “ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties”. Darkness, sometimes described as “wilderness”, however, is almost always seen as the path to spiritual growth.

Traditionally, spiritual directors identify three primary stages (or ways) of growth in holiness.
  • The first is the purgative way, where we break habits of vice, acquire habits of virtue and learn to live a Catholic life.
  • The second is the illuminative way, where we grow in virtue, charity and the life of prayer.
  • And the third is the unitive way, where our wills and hearts move in perfect harmony with God’s.
In the dark night of the senses, God purifies us of our attachments to the things of the world — physical comfort, physical pleasure, material success, popular acclaim — as well as even the comfort we seek in prayer. Sorrows afflict us, and things that used to ease us — food, sex, shopping, compliments, even the liturgy — no longer do. Through this dark night, God prepares us for the illuminative way and a deeper, more contemplative life of prayer.

The dark night of the soul occurs at the end of the illuminative way, as we prepare to enter the unitive way. During this dark night, God roots out our deepest attachments to sin and self, and the desolation that accompanies that rooting out is overwhelming and crushing. - Our Sunday Visitor:
Let me talk about these stages of moving through the dark night. As we walk these steps it is important to remember the wisdom of Winston Churchill:
If you're going through hell, keep going.
It is tempting to stop, to "give up", or "give in" to fear, cynicism, anger, or reprisal. We have seen all that and experienced all that in many different ways over these weeks since the election. Those are not the ways to get through the dark night; they do not help us- or anyone- move forward. We easily get stuck in these and don’t move anywhere helpful or healthy.

What then do we go through? As in that quote from Our Sunday Visitor the first part is the purgative way. Purgative means cleansing, intense purifying, even liberating. We are talking about the path of the dark night moving us away from our attachment to things of our own doing and making; we are realizing that we are powerless over people, places, and things; we become aware of how we cling to things that are not helpful or productive in order to gain fame, fortune, or even at times a sense of calm and peace. Does it really make us feel better when we revert to angry, nasty comments? Does it help us- or anyone- when we lash out at those who differ from us? These are all the ways we act when we don’t know what else to do. “Well, they started it,” is not a good reason.

But in the dark night nothing positive seems to be working either. As John of the Cross describes it, even the deepest and most sincere prayers and rituals seem to lose their effectiveness. God seems to have abandoned us. We may cry, “How can God let this happen?” We feel lost and lonely.

At that point we have two choices.
  • Admit we are lost and nothing can help us or 
  • decide there has to be a power greater than ourselves who can get us through this. So we go searching in a sense of desperate hope. The Catholic Dictionary says we discover that as we detach from the things we have trusted we move closer to God and
the will becomes more firmly attracted to God and more securely attached to his divine will. This purification, however, is only a means to an end, namely, 1. to give greater glory to God, who is thereby loved for himself and not for the benefits he confers; 2. to lead the one thus purified to infused contemplation and even ecstatic union with God; 3. to enable the mystic to be used more effectively by God for the spiritual welfare of others, since the more holy a person is the more meritorious are that person's prayers and sacrifices for the human race. -Catholic Dictionary
This is the seed of the illuminative way- the second phase on the path. Down in the depths of that dark night, as we struggle and wrestle and seek beyond our deepest longings, we also discover some light. Enlightenment. In Twelve Step language, we come to believe that there is a power greater than ourselves. This is a power that can make sense of what is happening to us, that can lead us into new understandings of the world we inhabit- as well as the inner life we each can develop. We can be restored to sanity. We do not need to “give up” or “give in” to the world, our fears or desires, even our personal ideologies, political or religious positions, institutions. In our search for comfort and release of fear we have often relied on these. It is time to move on. We need to “surrender” to the Higher Power.

One would think that such a surrender would be the start of something wondrous and bright. And at first it does seem so. It is like a “pink cloud” where everything is hopeful. That is but the beginning. We are so used to hearing that all one must do is “trust God and all will be okay” that when it doesn’t happen that way we get upset, angry, or lose faith. What has happened is that we have experienced part of the joy of cleansing of the senses and physical issues. We must then, as John of the Cross guides us, also be cleansed of the spiritual issues.
It may be necessary for us to give up warm and fuzzy religious feelings, or have them taken from us by God so we can draw closer to Him. Catholics United for the Faith
The action of surrendering is not as easy as we would like; we are not done with the cleansing. Or more to the point, simply coming to believe is not the end. Much still can block us from the light at the end of the dark night. As part of the spiritual growth ahead of us we must also take a serious look at who we are and what has led us to this point. In the Twelve Step programs this is the “housecleaning” stage.
  • We take a searching and fearless moral inventory and share it with a trusted mentor. (Twelve Steps, Four and Five)
  • We discover our shortcomings and ongoing character defects and become willing to surrender them. (Twelve Steps, Six and Seven)
  • We become aware of those we may have harmed or had difficult relationships with and make amends. (Twelve Steps, Eight and Nine)
  • We learn how to take a regular self-inventory and be quick to make amends when we have hurt another. (Twelve Steps, Ten)

These are deeply spiritual steps.
  • These force us to look inside and be honest about ourselves. 
  • They make us confront the ways we may still cling to the old ways of self-centeredness, anger, resentment. 
  • They lead us into finding new ways to relate to the people in our lives and the world around us. 
  • They are preparing us to be awake in our spirit and in the Spirit of our Higher Power.

This may seem like a long way to get to what is happening in the world in these early days of 2017. We now have a new president, one who has arguably been the most controversial and disliked candidate-now-president in modern politics. Many remain fearful of what he is going to do. Many have seen him do things that they find unacceptable and promote values they have difficulty accepting. Many are ready to stand up to him and challenge him in the face of his supporters who tell us to “get over it.”

I believe what we are facing is an ongoing spiritual journey. We have only been at this specific journey since early November. It took many by surprise. Too many of us were complacent, almost sluggish. The election was a shock to our system. It told us that we didn't know our country as well as we thought we did. It told us that there is more going on here than we were paying attention to. Many of us have felt like we were swimming in quicksand, being pulled down and out. That is how, for me, the dark night began this journey.

Spiritual can be a confusing term. I am using it here in both the traditional "mystic" sense of becoming unified with a Higher Power (being part of something greater than ourselves) and in the awareness of being connected to those around us- our fellow human beings. These must always be together no matter what spiritual tradition, or lack of one, we may have come from. The journey will be unique for each of us, based on who we are and what we have experienced. It must also be in connection with others.

Marks of the spiritual can take many forms:
  • love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control
  • humility, forgiveness, and acceptance
  • honesty, openness, and willingness.

to name but a few.

For us to be prepared for a spiritual journey, one must have been spiritually prepared. That is where we are now. We are at a beginning. These stages of the journey, or the Twelve Steps as a paradigm, or your training and direction and how that happens. We are less than 90 days into this particular journey. We are preparing.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

January 21 Thoughts- Inspired and Empowered

I was inspired and empowered today. I watched the Facebook posts of friends and family who were at some of the marches around the country. I was excited that so many people were standing up for their rights and the rights of others.

I watched the news and saw more people on the Mall in Washington today than there were yesterday. I watched a little of the feed on Facebook from back home in St. Paul, MN. A crowd of 60,000, three times the expected turnout, was exciting.

I saw several posts about people feeling empowered by the activities they participated in. They know they are not alone in their feelings and reactions.

THESE are the people that the press should be covering, in depth, and not the few who "riot" and are nothing more than destroyers of hope. But a peaceful protest, even of this size, is not "news." Or more to the point, it's not big news. It does not grab attention.

Even though it should. It is BIG news. THESE are the people who can- and will- be able to make a difference in the next four years. THESE are the people who will stand up for what is right. THESE are the people who have already made America great.

Let us learn to work together to maintain our dignity and wonder as a nation. Let us learn to work together as "we the people." In the end it has to be us, or we will never make it.

Friday, January 20, 2017

January 20 Thoughts- In the Midst of a Dark Night For Many

Acceptance of the person as the President does not mean

  • That I will be silent and acquiesce to what I disagree with,
  • That I will not actively protest against what I find offensive to my values and the values of democracy and freedom, or that
  • I pray for him to fail, except at those things which will harm our nation. 

Acceptance of Mr. Trump as President means
  • that he was elected and I am willing to maintain my peaceful opposition to him and policies that I will work to change if I feel they are harmful.

It means that, as I have done with every President I have lived under in my 68 years, I will pray that he IS successful at
  • keeping America great, 
  • restoring that which may need restoring,
  • supporting the least and the lost whether they be in poverty or forgotten middle-class workers, and
  • that peace may reign thanks to our stance as a country to be fair to all.

Do not tell me to "Get over it!" Yet,
  • I am always willing to discuss and civilly debate the issues. 
  • I am willing to listen to reasoned arguments. 
  • I will not denigrate those who voted for him. 
  • I will maintain my acceptance of the peaceful transfer of power that we celebrated today.

I continue to wrestle with the dark night of the soul and will post the next installment of that series in the next few days. For today, I know that these may be difficult days ahead for many people. I have still not come to terms with what this can mean. As an American citizen, I rejoice in the peaceful election process. I hope we do not learn of more problems with the election than what we have already heard.

For today, I go to bed with a sense of
  • weariness over the divisions, 
  • compassion for those who lives may be made more difficult by the actions of the new administration, and 
  • hope that we will discover ways to work together as the country we claim to be.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Tuning Slide: 2.20- Playing Together

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

◦ Steve Carlton was one of the premier pitchers of the 1960s to 1980s. In 1972, with the Philadelphia Phillies, Carlton had a win-loss record of 27-10 and a remarkable earned run average of 1.97. When Carlton did not pitch, the team was 32-87. No pitcher in the twentieth century has won as high a proportion of his team's victories (45.8%).
◦ In 2016 Brian Dozier had 42 home runs, the best of his career. He was tied for 3rd in major league baseball. His team, the Minnesota Twins floundered at the bottom of the league.

As great and wonderful as these statistics are for the individual player, they show something else. It is very difficult for a team to make it if they only have one great player. Carlton, Dozier, and others like them stand out because they have a great deal of talent that can surpass the teams they play with. But the team needs more than they are capable of giving.

I thought of this again as I looked at those four things we as musicians are supposed to pay attention to:
  • Music was #1
  • Fellow musicians #2
  • The audience is #3 and
  • You, the individual musician, are #4.
In other words, it isn’t all about me. It is “us.”

Jason Bergman, in the October 2016 Journal of the International Trumpet Guild, interviewed the trumpet section of the Dallas Symphony. Ryan Anthony, principal trumpet said,
You know, a principal player is only as good as the section. Specifically, he’s as good as the second trumpet allows him to be. It’s always up to Kevin how well I’m going to do. I always trust Kevin and know that any time I sound good it’s because he’s right there with me. (ITG Journal, October, 2016, p. 90)
Music is #1, but who you are playing alongside is #2. In order to perform the best that you can, and do justice to the music itself, you have to be aware of what the other musicians are doing. You have to know your place in the piece and your role in the group. I said earlier this season that a composer writes a fourth part for a reason- she wants a fourth part; it does something for the music. Whatever part you are playing can seriously impact the other other musicians, the music, what the audience hears, and finally your own feelings about what you are doing. See how all four of those fit together?

It happened to me again on Christmas. The quintet was playing a really fun and exciting piece as our final prelude number. Somewhere, somehow about 8 measures into the piece I had a very brief moment when I defocused. My ADD had a “squirrel” moment. In a piece like that, even a brief mini-second is enough to get lost. I got lost. Because it was a newer number I was not as clued into the whole sound of the group as I could be. It was not a big disaster, but it was enough. For about 16 or so measures the group was relatively lost. The congregation listening to us might have just thought that it was a kind of weird arrangement. As a group, though, we had some difficulty getting back together until what was obviously a transition point in the piece.

It ended well. The brass accompaniment to the opening and closing hymns was superb. No one but us will probably ever remember the prelude falling apart. But I re-learned several things in the process:

1. Focus is essential. Maintaining it can be tough. I have come to realize that a significant part of what used to be “performance anxiety” has become more like the inability to stay focused. I can get distracted by a movement in the audience. I don’t usually get distracted by my own thoughts, although it does happen. When I think of it as “performance anxiety” then I do get distracted by myself. But it is usually that other movement. It is one of the things I must work on. I am better, but I am still working on it.

2. Rehearsal is essential. As we have heard, practice is for us to learn our part; rehearsal is to learn how our part fits with everyone else’s. Obviously I have gotten lost before in a performance. (See #1). In a number of our pieces we all know the piece well enough to get back without a train wreck. For me, this incident showed how important those rehearsals are for the sound of the whole group together! If I know my part well enough, I can then stay focused at rehearsal and know the rest of the parts.

3. Don’t panic. I have learned not to react when I get defocused. When I was younger I tended to feel like the world had just fallen apart and was only going to get worse. It is impossible to regain any focus when that happens. The fight or flight syndrome will automatically kick in. Mindfulness, stress reduction, centering can then be used to stop the panic. With enough practice of doing this when panic isn’t happening, just a quick breath, switch in thought, or some internal cue can being things back to center.

4. Listen. When I am no longer on the edge of some form of panic, self-induced or other, I can take a moment and hear what’s happening. If my time in rehearsal has been effective, I can more easily find my way back to where I’m supposed to be. The feel of the piece, the forward movement of the song, the groove at work will guide me in the right direction.

5. Get focused again. With all things back in place- or heading in that direction, it’s back to focus and move on. The music regains its #1 place, I am in tune with the other musicians (#2), the audience gets to hear the music (#3), and I’m in the right place in my head. (#4)

It takes longer to write or read this than it does for it to happen. Like all else in what we are doing, we need to develop the skills. Next week I will look at some of the ways we can learn and develop those skills. That is important since performance is not the only place where we can get defocused, lost in our thoughts, issues, problems, or stress.

How we do anything can become how we do everything!