Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Tuning Slide: 3.5- Spirituality and the Musician

Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.
-Ludwig van Beethoven

The past two weeks I have been looking at music and the spiritual. I defined spiritual as:
a. Awareness of power and existence greater than one's self.
b. There is meaning, purpose, and direction in this greater scheme of things.
c. Positive, healthy connections with other people as part of a greater community.
This week I want to look at the spiritual and us as musicians. The first quote below that I talk about is, like the quotes the past two weeks, from this website ( )
What we believe, perceive, and respect in life will shine forth in our music and spirituality. For some, spirituality is a scary word reflecting religious thinking masquerading as truth. It does not have to be some esoteric message about magic and mysticism. … Spirituality reflects our faith and values. It represents our response to reality. It is the rippling undercurrent beneath our actions, firmly built on the foundational cornerstone of belief…
There’s a lot in that one paragraph. First it says that who we are will be reflected in our music. That includes our beliefs and perceptions of the world around us as well as what we value. Sometimes those things shine through in spite of us. The whole history of musicians and substance abuse, suicide, and personal difficulties did not completely silence the messages that some of these have had to share with us. In fact for many of them their music was a way of trying to figure it all out, their search for meaning and hope and life itself cries out from their music. At times that becomes very dark and dismal, and at times filled with a bright light of hope, even if they themselves never found it.

Which brings me to the questions that many of us need to wrestle with in our music…

What feeds your spirit? What is it that gives meaning and hope to our lives? Where is our personal search taking us? How does my music reflect the beliefs and reality I live with each day?

Most of us don’t deal with these consciously when we go into our practice rooms or even performances. But the more in touch we are with those questions, the more likely our music will be impacted and transformed. Most musicians know of those times and places where all these come together and we are moved in different ways in the midst of a performance. One of my friends described that in one of his group’s performances with the word- “boomerang.” They were performing at a conference and the audience started to sing along with them turning the moment into one of high emotion and spiritual uplift. Everyone, including the musicians, were surrounded by something greater than themselves. No one left that performance unmoved! It happened because the musicians were very much in touch with their own spiritual lives and it was included in their music.

How then do we feed our spirit.

There are many ways, perhaps starting with your own spiritual history or tradition. In the book Spirits Rejoice!: Jazz and American Religion, Jason Bivins discusses the spirituality of a number of Jazz musicians over the decades. He almost always begins with their upbringing and its possible influence on who they became and the expressions of their music. Most did not stay in those initial traditions alone, but the influence is real and powerful no matter how far the style may have strayed. It is also why Gospel music is part of the deep heritage of Jazz itself. But it is found in all types of music. So be attentive to what moves you musically and what that says about your own spiritual roots.

But then you must maintain your own mindful awareness of yourself. Mindfulness is the non-judgmental attentiveness to your feelings and the events around you. Mindful meditations a way that many people begin to discover some of these depths. Later this year I am also going to talk a little about things like Yoga, Tai Chi, and Qigong as spiritual disciplines for musicians. They can bring together body, mind, and soul in an expression of your own creativity and energy.

Which brings me to a quote that I think applies to our lives as musicians and our spirituality:

Play the music, not the instrument.
-Author Unknown

To get in touch with the spiritual in our own music we have to become comfortable with our instrument. We can easily get sidetracked by the technical aspects of playing our instrument. We can get bogged down by trying to remember the fingerings for the key we are playing in. We can lose sight of the music when we are just playing the notes on the page. The spiritual depth of our playing, our even just the plain musicality of it, gets interrupted by the logical side and we lose the intuitive.

One of my MAJOR pet peeves is when I get a piece of music and find that a previous musician as gone through and written the fingerings for all the notes in a particular section. My mind cannot process the written numbers and the note at the same time. I lose the intuitive knowledge that a G# on the staff is 2nd and 3rd. Numbers don’t represent anything and I wonder what that 2 and 3 mean. Sure, it’s a quirk of mine, but I have spent a long time becoming as comfortable with my instrument as I can be at this moment. Don’t confuse me with data that is unneeded.

Right now I am doing something I have never consciously done in my 55+ years of playing. I am working on changing my embouchure. (No need for details at this point.) That means I must for the moment be playing the instrument first. I am trying to relearn how to play with a good sound. I am developing new muscle memory in my lips and breathing patterns. I am working toward the natural feel the change in embouchure will have when it is settled in. Until then, I am not finding the spiritual as easily as I did before. One of these days I will be back to the music.

To live is to be musical, starting with the blood dancing in your veins.
Everything living has a rhythm.
Do you feel your music?
-Michael Jackson

As I am writing this, I am listening to some music. I am typing and the music is flowing. It is an instrumental Jazz duet and it is working in both the conscious and sub-conscious. Every now and then I am aware that my body is moving side to side in time with the music. Then my feet start tapping. I am in a public place so I am not about to get up and start dancing. But the rhythm is dancing in me. Do I feel that when I play? That is my goal.

That is spiritual. Let it flow.

One of the best examples of spirituality in music is the incredible Jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. He is famous for his spiritual wanderings, wrestlings, and depth. Last week, on the anniversary of his death, National Public Radio posted on Facebook an older piece they did on him in 2012. McCoy Tyner, a member of his band, remembered Coltrane saying:

"I respond to what's around me."

Tyner adds,

"That's the way it should be, you know?”

Coltrane on NPR.

Here’s a video of Coltrane’s “Dear Lord.” With the title in mind, hear spirit blowing through the horn!

And if you haven’t ever done it, go find “A Love Supreme.” Take the time to let it fill you.

A special note:

This year's Shell Lake Arts Center Trumpet Workshop begins Sunday, July 30. I have the boxes of my book ready to go. They will again be free to the students! In order to help me defray the cost I have a Go Fund Me page where those who would like to can make a donation. Thanks!

Here is the link:

Go Fund Me for Tuning Slide books for students

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