Category Archives: music & magic

The crazy thing that Jimmy Page said

Today is Jimmy Page’s 70th birthday, so I gotta wish him the very best and give him my respect, because he’s one of my favorite musicians in the universe.

I recently finished reading a new biography of Led Zeppelin, When Giants Walked the Earth by Mick Wall. And it has renewed my deep love for the band, which started way back in grad school. At that time, the ecstasy/pain of Robert Plant’s vocal in “Hey Hey, What Can I Do” set off alarm bells in my head and got me thinking I MUST come out of the closet as a singer-songwriter before it’s too late. It spurred me into action like no alarm bell ever did before.

Now, one big thing that stood out to me in that book was a comment by Jimmy Page about learning music: “Teaching myself was the first and most important part of my education…I hope they keep it out of schools.” (p.60, my emphasis)

This threw me for a loop, of course, because I often beat the drum for keeping music in the schools, and it’s always weird when you discover that one of your idols disagrees with you, even in an innocuous statement.

But how innocuous is it? Is this just something that any rock-n-roll rebel would say, or was there a deeper meaning behind it? Wall’s biography says emphatically that Page was not acting as a rebel in those days, if ever he did. Not in the sense of being reckless, or resentful towards authority. He never acted mindlessly. Page knew exactly what he wanted his music to be, and he hand-picked the very musicians, songs, and stylings that would give him what he wanted. He didn’t set out to go against the grain of what was already popular or standard; he simply had a unique vision in his head that he brought to reality with the help of his band-mates and his manager, Peter Grant.

That vision became Led Zeppelin, and it made him one of the most renowned rock musicians this world has ever seen. He is regarded as the 3rd greatest guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone, although I would rank him 2nd instead of Eric Clapton, with #1 remaining for the OTHER Jimmy of legend – Hendrix.

And how did he get to that exalted position? Not through school.

He played around on his own as a boy, listening to records of the greats of his own time and earlier. He goofed around as a teenager with his buddy Jeff Beck and eventually found his way into doing session work. According to Mick Wall, one of his sessions got a little nerve-wracking when someone dropped a piece of sheet music in front of him. Jimmy joked that it looked like “crows on telegraph wires” (p. 157). But that didn’t stop him from developing deft fingers and a keen ear – both essential for becoming a rock god.

And the thing is, because he didn’t learn music in school, he was free to listen, explore, experiment and discover it at his own pace. He tapped into history by studying blues and early rock-n-roll, striking gold when he heard Elvis. He saw the relationship between music and spirituality and explored it as far as it would take him, even into the occult. He followed his curiosity eastward to the ragas of India and speculated on how to translate that sound to guitar. He wondered what would happen if he played an electric guitar with a violin bow, if he alternated acoustic and electric guitar in a single song, if it were possible to create a reverse echo in the studio….

Who recalls this level of creative experimentation in their own conventional schooling?

If Jimmy Page had been put in a class at the age of 5 to learn about those “crows on telegraph wires” and what they meant, would he have become the same musician? Would he have become a musician at all?

Rock-n-roll was born out of questions: “What would it sound like if I put this chord progression together with this rhythm? What if I did this crazy thing with my guitar?” We can go further and say that ANY revolution in any genre of music was born out of questions – not answers, not pre-packaged explanations of how things were always done, or what was already proven to work. Our current form of mass education takes care of that just fine.

Page understood that the blues – the genre that gave emotional weight to rock-n-roll – was the genre of the unschooled, the vagabond, the oppressed…and the rebel. And the modern school system is not designed or intended to cultivate rebellion of any kind. Such an idea is anathema. Teaching implies authority to which the student submits, and enterprising free-thinkers will have none of that. We think that rebellion is in our animal nature, and thus it has to be tamed if we are to live civilly as humans. But that is a fallacy. Rebellion is NOT the way of our nature. If anything, it’s the way of evolution. The human brain evolved because it became obsessed with questions – “How else can we do this? What is possible with this? What if…?”

That’s not the brain activity of someone trying to conform to what’s already there. That is the mind seeking new territory.

This is, I think, what Jimmy Page was hinting at when he hoped people would keep music out of the schools. The way schools are now, anyway. As much I will bang the drum for music in the schools, I will bang just as hard, if not harder, to have creativity in the schools. That’s the thing we’re really fighting for when we advocate for arts education. Because if the most important thing you learn as a music student is how to play a Chopin Etude note-perfect, or that Mozart was a better composer than everyone else, you might as well stop taking those classes and lessons and start teaching yourself.

It sounds crazy, but that’s the kind of thing we have to do if music is going to be treated the way we treat math and science in the schools – as a bunch of answers waiting to be bubbled in. The great musicians, the visionaries like Jimmy Page and the rest of them, know better. For them, music without questions, without creativity, without the rebellious pursuit of freedom, is just packaged sounds. Way down inside, we all know we want the real thing.

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When goals get in the way

Could it be that I’m in love with practicing piano for the first time in my life?

Oh, I’ve done a lot of regular practicing in my lifetime, but never like this – gingerly floating through Hanon exercises and pages upon pages of beginner’s pieces without a care in the world, just enjoying the discovery of what my hands can do, and how good it feels.  It’s enjoyable and happy – what the hell?!

This happened after I read The Practicing Mind by Thomas M. Sterner. I bought it because I was convinced I had a perennial self-discipline problem. I always hated practicing at the keyboard; I resented it, it was frustrating, and I couldn’t keep my attention on it. Oh, I had absorbed a ton of musical knowledge from my piano teacher when I was young, but I couldn’t sit still long enough to play and master something and feel good about it. I would start and quit and start and quit and start and quit. And the last time I quit, my parents said, “Ok, but this time, it’s for good.”

Then after a few years away from music, I discovered the joy of singing in high school, and all I had to do to get up to speed in Chamber Choir was remember all those theory bits from my earliest days at the piano. It worked; the knowledge stuck with me. Then in college, once I decided to become a professional musician of some kind, I decided to try piano lessons again. I figured, “I’m an adult now; practicing should be easier and better because I know what’s at stake here.”

Yeah right.

I was back on the start-and-quit program, which was to last me throughout my young adult life.

Here’s the thing. Every time I’ve decided as an adult to seriously take up the piano again, it has failed, but not in the same way it failed for me as a child. Back then, I had nothing at stake; but as an adult, I had everything at stake, and that was the killer. My thought pattern was, “I’ll never be as good as I’m supposed to be. I’m a fraud and a fake because now music is my profession and it just seems like hypocrisy for me not to play well. I’ll never be able to sight-read. I needed to learn this years ago; I’ll never catch up.” You’d think that having a goal of being a competent enough player to sight-read at the instrument and accompany singers in most situations would be a great motivator to spur me on to practice, but it wasn’t. Those thoughts derailed me every time. No matter who was my teacher, no matter what method I used, it just wasn’t going to happen like that. I would always be stopped by this unattainable goal.

Enter Sterner’s book. Now, reading this book did not seem like the huge revelation I thought it would be. I thought it would give me something I never had before. But not really; it was full of the wisdom of Eastern philosophies that I was already familiar with: enjoy the process, don’t get so hung up on the results, take a Zen approach to your practice, just be in the now, and so on. Reading that, I was thinking, “I know, I know! I’ve heard all that before! Give me something NEW!” But the new revelation did not happen while I was reading the book. I had read it all in one sitting and the lightning bolt never struck…until after I had set the thing down.

Many times I’ve touted having goals as a motivator for your practicing; it seems like such obvious advice, and it seems to work for a lot of people. But having a goal is one thing; keeping on the path towards it is ENTIRELY another.

After I set the book down, my thoughts drifted back to the time I took up singing seriously in high school. I was spurred on by the choir teacher telling me – prophetically – “you should be in choir.” I followed that out of curiosity, and with an inner knowing that I could sing and enjoy it. I wasn’t thinking about a career or winning contests. I didn’t formulate this big goal in my head that I would be a top-tier vocal student. I wasn’t thinking of being able to sight-sing or harmonize or build a whole skill set as a singer. I didn’t formulate a detailed picture of singing success and map out a plan to get there. None of that mattered. All I did was join the choir.

Over time, my sight-singing skills developed as a by-product of just singing a lot and following my musical curiosity. The only times I experienced disappointment in my singing abilities was when I set hard goals and didn’t meet them. When I simply followed my heart, the skills followed right along. I just kept on singing every day, because we had choir every day and being in choir with all my friends doing great music was just the best time I ever had in high school.

There was only the thought of “I want to do this.” There was never the thought of, “I have to do this,” except whenever I obsessed over reaching a goal.

And I never obsessed over goals more than all the times I clawed my way toward some upright Yamaha in a hot room the size of a closet with nothing but my sense of immanent failure.

The realization of all this hit me like a ton of bricks.

So what now – if all that goes away? Holy wowsers. I can return to the piano – I can embrace it again for the first time. I’m going to completely throw out my old goals, including that of sight-reading. Because I never learned sight-singing that way – why should I learn it that way at the keyboard? Every time I try it, I get frustrated and disappointed because I can’t do it all right now.

I get hung up on the product and think nothing of the process, as Sterner suggests time and again.

So I’m letting go. I’m going to think of piano practice not as a career-builder and something I should have done years ago, but as an opportunity to explore something new and see where it leads. I’m going to re-enter the Beginner’s Mind I had when I was in school, just discovering the possibilities of music and what I loved about it. I want to re-visit that place at the piano to just fall in love with the sound and the feel of it, expecting nothing.

It feels like a great weight has fallen away. I get to come to the piano with nothing, and expect nothing in return except just some quality time with the instrument and my little method books, like John Thompson’s First Grade Book. The first piece in that book is called Music Land: “Off I go to music land / Training ear and eye and hand.” It’s eight measures of whole and half notes, but that’s not all. Next to the grand staff there’s a line drawing of two children mounting the first step on a long, windy staircase. We don’t see the top of the staircase; we don’t know where Music Land is, or what it looks like, or if it’s even a place at all. Maybe in music there is no ultimate destination; there is just the path.

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Win, Lose, or Love.

It boggles me how American culture makes music so competitive.

It must be an accident from our having developed the biggest sports industry in the world, where athletes rise to celebrity status bearing the totems of our culture into ritualized battle every day. People throw things at their TVs out of the passion that our sports culture breeds. There are whole cable networks devoted to each faction of every sport in our country. People draw battle lines between each other over sports rivalries. Parents attack volunteer umpires and coaches in their children’s youth leagues in the interest of their child winning. It goes on and on.

Music has been going the same way.

Witness American Idol and its countless spin-offs. Witness all these young, aspiring singers plowing through auditions nonstop and risking vocal cord damage, some of them even trying for opera before they’re done with puberty. Witness all the accolades people want to throw at their feet, especially if they’re cute, sexy and thin. Some of us remember when students at a prominent music conservatory in the northeast would go into their rivals’ practice rooms to slide razor blades between the piano keys. Witness ourselves in our own practice rooms: demoralized, disillusioned, haunted by inner demons, wondering why in the hell we chose this path even though nothing may come of it financially or otherwise…

Feeling like losers, thinking we should be winners by now.

Let’s stop this for a moment.

What if music had nothing to do with winning or losing?… What would it be then?…

Some of us have come to see our whole lives as either winning or losing, and where has that gotten us? We constantly chase the one and avoid the other, and the result is the proverbial rat race. With constantly moving cheese. It’s become so familiar that we think nothing of it. Until something shakes our consciousness – a loss, a shakeup, a falling-out, a sudden change – and we are suddenly present to how ratty the rat race gets. And we want to get out.

But where is “out”? If we decide we’re sick of winning and losing, what else is there?…

I had to sit for a moment on this one, and the answer emerged out of nothing:

Love.

That was the third way. Not a middle way, mind you, but a way that cuts beyond the paths of winning and losing and into a whole new realm of possibility.

Love. We’ve seen what music looks like on that path. Even though I’m not – repeat, NOT – a fan of the Grateful Dead, they have shown us that possibility in the most optimistic parts of the Cultural Revolution. That’s just one example. Another example is the benefit concert – there’s one gearing up for the victims of hurricane Sandy as I write this, in fact.

But I think it’s best seen as an experience you create yourself. You get to ask yourself the question: What is my musical work beyond the game of winning and losing? And then see what answer comes up. See if that enlightens you. See if it connects you. See if it pulls you forward and fires you up.

For me, it’s love. And yes, that’s a very hippie thing to say, but that’s what it is for me. If this is how I get to express love, let me do it for everyone I can, for ears that are willing to hear. And let them love me back however they will, let it be an exchange and a conversation. Let me do the best I can, and work hard at it, so that the expression is clear. Let me establish good business relationships with people, let there be equal exchange and trust. Let people enjoy themselves, maybe hear something that touches them and overflows into their life. Let what I do make a difference for people. Let it sustain me and everyone I love, and let it have value. Let it do good, and let it outlast the passing moment.

Yes, I would much rather live for that than anything else. And it goes way beyond music. In fact, music works best when it doesn’t just exist for its own sake. Good music points beyond itself to wonders and mysteries we wouldn’t see otherwise. Even songs about the most mundane things can quicken something in us, and make us look at those things in a different way (just listen to Suzanne Vega). Music gives us the lens to do this.

To show people how to see in different ways is an act of love, and something our culture needs more than it needs piles and piles of more and more data faster and faster. And this way of seeing, which is shared by all the arts, is in short supply these days. Some people wouldn’t miss it if it withered away entirely. Others wouldn’t notice.

But if you value it – if you’re a musician or a music lover – if you’re a beginning student or a seasoned pro – if you’re hardcore or casual – I’m asking you to see what’s possible beyond the competition. If you feel like a loser who should be winning, there’s no shame in getting out of the rat race, because I don’t think that’s what music is, and at some fundamental, archetypal level where our spirits exist beyond normal life, I don’t think you believe that, either.

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Six Benefits I Got From Learning Cover Songs

Depending on who you talk to, cover songs are the bane or the blessing of the gigging musician. For a long time I thought they were baneful, because the practice suggests faking it, selling out, or covering up for poor musicianship. But then the torch song project I got involved in last year changed my thinking, because I had no choice but to explore a whole world of music that put me beyond just being the quirky singer-songwriter. And ultimately, it expanded my reach in the music scene and built up a whole new skill set for me. Here are a few things I learned along the way:

1. Cover songs help you test yourself. And not just for skill but for interpretation, artistry and presence. What’s the highest difficulty level I can master while delivering a performance that really communicates something?

2. You get to learn other styles. That way, I don’t have to be boxed in by any particular one, and I expand my skills.

3. You get to learn YOUR style. Cover songs are not meant to be carbon-copied, so I don’t have to kill myself trying to duplicate every nuance of the artist’s original. At worst, I’ll sound like a hack or a fake. Sometimes I’ll more truly discover what my personal style is by learning a song that goes against the grain of it. How would I communicate this idea?

4. You get to generate more listenership. Especially if it’s an open mic or another forum where I get to meet a new audience, I have a much easier time connecting with listeners by way of a song they already know than by throwing out my quirkiest original composition. If I perform well, they will remember me well and probably also dig on my original work if it’s included in the same package.

5. You get to work more with others. One of the easiest ways to get other musicians to play with you is to offer up a cover song you can play together. This happens a lot at open mics, where a handful of musicians will play with each other for long sequences because the whole thing has turned into a festival of songs not unlike a campfire under the stars. And it’s just as magical. Musicians learn about each other best by playing together, and doing so on a commonly known song is the fastest way to experience their magic, and for them to experience yours.

6. Gigs….duh! Many bars, clubs, and restaurants have customers who just don’t prefer new music, and that’s okay; they will still pay to have musicians come and do their favorite songs. Right now I’m working in a cover duo called Windfall Prophets and we’ve had all kinds of fun playing over 50 years worth of popular favorites in more sedate restaurant settings. It helps me keep my chops up, and keeps me connected to listeners.

Ultimately, what I get from learning cover songs is flexibility, the ability to bend without breaking. It’s given me the ability to be more myself, not less, and that sustains me through everything I do in music: playing, singing, communicating, promoting, teaching, networking and the rest of it.

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What it means to be an Artist for Change

I’m excited and honored to be a host for the upcoming One Hundred Thousand Artists for Change in Detroit later this month. But as I start to share what this event is all about, some people may roll their eyes and go, “Oh please; not another one of these hippie music fests that’s all talk and no action. Why don’t you start a soup kitchen and do some REAL helping around this god-forsaken community?”

I know, I know. Those of us who have visions of repeating Woodstock and having an impact on mainstream culture do have a tendency to get caught up in what I call the “musical picnic” part of such events, but that’s because most of us have forgotten what it means to be a live artist, especially now that we’re living in a digital media world where you can get any kind of music any time of the day for free and not think twice about it.

So when I say One Hundred Thousand Artists for Change, I do NOT want us to fall into the trap of thinking this is just an excuse for local artists to spout off or promote themselves so their digital music will fly around the world unhindered. We as artists have to be responsible for how we present events like this.

The first thing we have to get is what it means to be an Artist. Everyone has their own definition, and I know it’s not up to me to create something universal that every artist will rally around. But I will put forward something that might contribute to one’s definition: Ritual. At the birth of civilization artists were known by names such as these: Priest. Shaman. Medicine Woman. They were there to weave the stories about who we were in the form of ritual word and action. I believe that art is a remnant of this. So when the modern artist gets on stage to play music, recite a poem, or present a drama, what’s taking place is a modern remnant of an ancient ritual; at its conception it was never considered mindless entertainment.  That may be why some people are always saying, “they sound better live,” when talking about a band they like. Or why some people will shell out hundreds of dollars to see musicians live, even just once in a lifetime. An Artist is a ritualist.

The second thing we have to get is what it means to be for Change. Change from what? The way things are? Ask ten people and you will get ten different descriptions of “the way things are,” so that’s not useful. Let’s try qualifying that by saying, “the way things are for me.” What change do I want to see in my life? If we forget about society and politics and all those kinds of distractions, what remains is our lives, and I believe that if I can make a positive change in my own life, it will have an impact on the world around me. When Gandhi said “be the change you wish to see in the world,” he was effectively saying “clean your own damn kitchen.” It’s both easier and harder. Easier, because we don’t have to be distracted by the outside world. Harder, because we have to work on ourselves.

So what does change for my life have to do with going to see a bunch of artists playing music? That’s where the artist as ritualist comes in. The transcendence we get from a live performance of music is not there for its own sake, like fireworks going off in an empty park with no one around. People gather, they set aside their busy lives to refresh themselves, they take in beauty and sublimity from beyond their normal world so they can reenter that world a new person. The modern live artist has forgotten this, and so has the listener. We need to remember.

That’s what I’m talking about when I’m sharing One Hundred Thousand Artists for Change. It’s happening on September 29th, from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Spirit of Hope Church, 1519 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Detroit. I will be playing at 6:00, and throughout the day you’ll hear a bunch of hand-picked musicians and poets that are all there to bring some beauty and sublimity to our world. We’ll be live-streaming on the web also, and the rest of the one hundred thousand artists will be having their own showcases in dozens of cities around the world as well. So it’s a global event! And there’s no reason to miss it.

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Beating Stage Fright

Singing is like acting naked. It turns you inside-out; it feels like there’s more of you out there than you could ever show in casual conversation, more vulnerability than you would ever care to admit. But that’s one of the beautiful things about singing; it really is that intimate and powerful, and when the music really communicates, the audience feels something of their own vulnerability and the power of being human.

If only you could get the butterflies in your stomach to calm down!

To that end, I have some helpful ideas:

1. Let the audience be there. There are lots of tricks that performers use to try to block out their audience: they pretend that everybody’s naked, or their heads have been replaced with cabbages, or they simply ignore them and stare at the back wall or the lighted “exit” sign. Many of us also have the habit of closing our eyes while singing. But that doesn’t make the audience go away, and what’s more, you’re leaving them out of the experience. So instead of trying to block them out, let them be there. Acknowledge them and include them in your aura; they belong there, too. Having said that…

2. It’s not the audience’s job to make you feel comfortable. It’s YOUR job to make THEM feel comfortable. You are the one giving the audience the experience they came for. You are the service provider; you need to create the space of love and acceptance that’s necessary for music. They might be bent over their drinks and having conversations with each other the whole time. That’s okay; you have to let it be perfectly okay for everyone to be exactly however they are. If you go out on stage with the expectation that everyone else has to make you feel comfortable or be a certain way, you will never be comfortable singing! Besides, your discomfort will make the audience nervous, and you don’t want that.

3. You have to intend to sing. You have to consciously make the decision to sing, right down to the root of your being, when you go out there. If you open your mouth to sing and the first note cracks or doesn’t even come out at all, that’s a sign that your subconscious has changed its mind. Don’t let it! You can tell it, “thank you for sharing,” and then just settle in, let the breath drop in, and sing.

4. You will feel all of it: The butterflies, the dry mouth, the shaky breath, and all those things you experience when you’re nervous on stage. As many times as I’ve tried to prevent or tamp down those sensations, they always come. A fabulous maestra told me that when I’m rehearsing, I should imagine every possible detail of the performance and actively call up those sensations so that when the moment comes to perform, I will not be surprised by those feelings. I can say, “thank you for sharing,” let the breath drop in, and just go.

5. Practice performing. A lot. Get in front of people as often as possible to rehearse and perform. If it pushes your buttons, keep doing it, because eventually those buttons will break.

With all these suggestions, it’s really about accepting the experience, butterflies and all. If you resist the audience or entertain the thought of “this shouldn’t be happening,” the overwhelm will throw you off your game. You will get a lot more emotional stamina out of dancing with the dragon than with trying to slay it.

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Warming up with James Jordan

As a choral director, I have to admit that I’m not much of a James Jordan fan (the James Jordan of “Evoking Sound” fame). But I’m starting to come around, really! On a lark, I recently dug out The Choral Warm-Up: Core Vocal Exercises by Marilyn Shenenberger and James Jordan and started using it in a voice lesson to good effect. The book had actually been mouldering on my shelf for over two years since I bought it at an ACDA convention, mostly because I thought my own personal collection of vocal warmups was just fine, thank you. But in the interest of self-development and learning, I pulled the book down from the shelf and gave it a fair look. Now I have singers who say they love the warmups, and one who said he met James Jordan and thought he was awesome. So now I’m trying to get back in the groove of digging on Jordan, although it still remains a challenge. Most choral directors would call me a heretic or a hater for having the slightest dislike for James Jordan, but I have to borrow a page from his book and say that it’s in the interest of authenticity that I be honest about my feelings, because it goes deeper than just having read a couple of books.

I first met the man years ago in graduate school, when he dropped in on our Collegiate Chorale rehearsal to help us with J.S. Bach’s immortal motet, Singet dem Herrn. He bounced around like a sprightly little frog, infecting us with his lightness and ease, and that lightness really came out in the singing–anyone who has sung Bach knows that his vocal music is essentially keyboard dance music with syllables, and the joy of mastering Bach as a singer is when you reach the moment of being at once totally mechanized and totally inspired by God. And James Jordan had the knack for getting us there within the space of 45 minutes. Pretty nifty.

Afterward, as a gift, we graduate assistants got copies of his books, and I ended up with The Musician’s Soul: A Journey Examining Spirituality for Performers, Teachers, Composers, Conductors, and Music Educators. When I read it, I thought it was a provocative book, explaining how most conductors’ hang-ups stem from envy–of the perfect sound, the perfect performance or experience. And he talked at length about being authentic and vulnerable with your singers, so as to get to the soft, immaculate heart of the music for an emotional, rapturous performance. A lovely book, though for some reason it didn’t inform much of my practice at the time, and I found myself leaving it on the shelf.

Then I learned why. A friend encouraged me to take the Landmark Forum, a weekend-long self-transformation seminar where you learn exactly how inauthentic you are, and how your envy, resentments, regrets, and other negative self-talk sabotages your life. It completely turned my life upside-down, and not in a bad way. I needed a sort of kick in the head to be a more responsible, grown-up person, and when I saw how others around me were discovering themselves, I jumped on the bandwagon. Yes, I was a self-pitying brat and constantly comparing myself to others. The Musician’s Soul was on the shelf because I didn’t want to confront what it had to say about me. I made the connection between the Landmark Forum and that book. In fact, I was to learn that Jordan’s philosophy and that of Werner Erhardt, the original mastermind behind the “technology” of the Landmark Forum, are not too far apart: a book that used to be required reading in one of the high-end communication courses of Landmark as well as Jordan’s own graduate studies in choral conducting was Martin Buber’s I And Thou. Eventually, I gave my copy of The Musician’s Soul to a friend, because I figured at Landmark I was getting all the self-transformation I needed.

But here’s the danger they don’t tell you about Landmark and other programs like it: They want you to stay involved at all costs. If you’re experiencing challenges in your life, it’s because you don’t spend enough time taking courses or assisting with Landmark. After being involved for months, I shared my concern that my money was slipping and I wanted to create more structure around it. Landmark’s answer? Assist with our finance department. It’s not because you spend too much time here in our expensive courses and volunteer assisting program, it’s because you don’t spend enough time here! And I believed it. If I didn’t say yes to them, it meant that I wasn’t saying yes to myself and my life, because that’s what they hold at stake in their programs. The ultimate redux of this is, Landmark is Life.

Some people who have had contact with Eckhart Tolle and other self-transformation gurus report similar stuff; that is, “if you don’t buy into this philosophy or method (literally $$$), you’re beyond help and doomed to be the slave of your ego forever.” Or they want you to go away because “YOU ARE NOT READY (you unworthy swine).”

Very few of these teachers realize that their programs are just Buddhism in cellophane.

(And Buddhism was never a five-hundred-dollar program where teachers get to emotionally abuse you until you crack and admit how horrible you are, and make you desire this punishment over and over until you become one of their drones and share about how wonderful it is, meanwhile frittering all your time and money away.)

So that became my image of James Jordan: just another Buddhist in cellophane, only this one was holding a conductor’s baton. But is it fair to say that? Is that just my ego getting in the way again? I’m not going to sit around and claim that I know everything there is to know about choral conducting, or say that I’m beyond needing inspiration or direction. Far from it. I still hunger for those things; I’m just not about to sell myself to any one philosophy, especially after nearly paying with my life once before.

For now, I can take it bit by bit, starting with Jordan’s little vocal warmup book, singing “nee-voo-nee-voo” all the way up and down the scale, and perhaps I will find myself at the heart of things after all–but my OWN heart, and not one manufactured by another bookshelf guru.

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We the Myth-Makers

I’m sharing a little Joseph Campbell today, because when an artist’s going gets tough, the tough get to looking for inspiration. And Joseph Campbell is part of that for me, since he was a person who specifically acknowledged artists as the myth-makers of our world, those who hold up the mirror or window to eternity for all to have a look.  (Not clergy, mind you. Artists.) I look at a passage like this and wonder, can my work in music do anything like what he’s talking about?

It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words, beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told.

It’s important to live life with the experience, and therefore the knowledge, of its mystery and of your own mystery. This gives life a new radiance, a new harmony, a new splendor. Thinking in mythological terms helps to put you in accord with the inevitables of this vale of tears. You learn to recognize the positive values in what appear to be the negative moments and aspects of your life. The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure. (from The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers).

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The Magic of “The Music Man”: Of Course You Are That Powerful.

There’s more subtlety in “The Music Man” than I ever realized, as I sat and watched the film version in an attempt to study the choral medley I wanted to present with my choir, the General Motors Employees’ Chorus. The main thrust of the story is that “Professor” Harold Hill cons an entire town into buying instruments and equipment for a boys’ marching band, at which point he intends to escape to the next town with the money, without establishing any kind of band at all.  He himself knows nothing about music; however, he does know enough about human nature to manipulate a whole town into thinking that idle hands are the Devil’s plaything and the only solution is to put them to work in a marching band.

Hill introduces the “think system,” which simply states that if you think enough about accomplishing something, you will eventually be able to do it without any formal instruction. Now, this method may sound familiar to those of us who use positive affirmations, the Law of Attraction, and other popular self-affirming practices for achieving any number of things; in fact, the “think system” sounds like it could be a satire or parody of them. Who knows–maybe a hundred years ago, in the period of the story, the “think system” could have been a real satirical comment on the spiritualist/theosophical/alternative spirituality movements that were just peeking through the cultural veil of the time. (Well, maybe not so much in rural Iowa, but it was out there.)

Nevertheless,

Hill knows that he’s just making this all up, that’s it’s all in his head, and if he gets the idea into everyone else’s head, then he has completed his con job and can move on to the next town. And for the most part, it works: one of his best projects was to charm a group of grumpy old men into a barbershop quartet, melting hearts with “Lida Rose.”  …But then comes Marian the Librarian, who beguiles him with her vulnerability, eventually exposing his own. Some townspeople eventually find out who Harold Hill really is and are ready to blow the whistle on him, when he finds himself in the place he least expected to be: on the podium in front of a rag-tag assembly of young brass players in a do-or-die scenario:

“Think…think!” And guess what happens: the “think system” works… on Harold! All the time he spent infusing it into the psyche of River City, he was doing it to himself. He actually took up the baton and conducted music. He became the band conductor he faked his way into being, in spite his own disbelief. The mothers of the town stood up and beamed with pride at their little boys honking through Minuet in G, not unlike any proud Moms in today’s audiences. The experience actually made him an authentic man.

Now the interesting question: Was he a salesman pretending to be a Music Man, or a Music Man pretending to be a salesman? Maybe he was pretending on both counts, as our real selves are not “real” at all, but just inventions that we build and rebuild over time from our experiences. If you go deep enough into yourself, maybe you won’t find a self at all, but the primal essence from which to build it, that we are all a part of. And so it’s okay to pretend and fool yourself into any way of being you like, because that’s how a self is made. Maybe the art of the con itself is most authentic to the human experience.

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