What happens at a Sonic Sandbox Improvisational Music Workshop?

Having Fun, Creating Meaning, Doing What I Love

I teach improvisational music and I support peers. For me, everything is about improvisation. My job is to understand where people are, and take their impulses and channel them into a learning experience using my knowledge and ability to make stuff up on the spot.

Last night, I was talking to someone from a support group. He told me that he felt like he was having trouble feeling things. He would touch something with his fingers, but it didn’t seem like it was really there. I asked him if he thought there was a way he could learn to feel things. He said he had this idea that he could have a bunch of things in a bag, and he’d stick his hand in, and see if he could identify them.

I asked him how he could get a bag of things he could do this with. He had the idea that he could collect things while walking around. I used his idea as an opportunity to talk about being present, and how he could practice expanding his awareness of the present by trying to notice things as he walked. I then took him and gave him a mini tour of my garden and talked about the things I noticed. I ended up talking about the grass that grows under a tree where nothing else seems to be able to grow. Not much water gets through the tree to the ground there.

I asked him to pick a piece of grass and just try to notice things about it. I picked another grass stem and started doing it myself. I was expecting him to start at the top, because with this kind of grass, there’s a kind of furry, pussy-willow shape at the top, which is why I let that kind of grass grow there. It’s a lot more specific than other kinds of wild grasses.

Instead, he started feeling the roots he had pulled out, and talking about how they felt kind of undifferentiated to him. He couldn’t really describe them. I asked him to feel the stem part. He told me it was harder and smoother. We then felt a leaf, which surprised me, because it was soft and floppy. I wasn’t expecting that.

I believe there are opportunities to learn how to be present at every place and time. It’s all about noticing things. A lot of people don’t seem to notice things, or the things they notice are not things they necessarily believe. Sometimes they hear things, but they aren’t sure those things are there, so they nervously ask someone else if they hear it, too.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to do an improv workshop. I was expecting maybe ten people to participate, but when I walked in, there were more than twenty-five people there, with more arriving. This made me a bit nervous because it meant I couldn’t follow my plan, which involves a rather time intensive exercise where people take turns making up a song and movement with their name. There’s a lot of repetition, and doing that with twenty-five people would take up a lot more than the time I had. Plus I had to introduce them to the topic and get them out of their chairs and moving around before I could get to that exercise.

I always start by telling my story so they understand how I developed the workshops — how they come from my background in music, but were developed to help me cope with depression. Then I lead a meditation designed to help people relax and feel more comfortable with themselves and what we are doing. Normally, I ask them to focus on a few parts of their body and imagine their breath flowing through those parts.

However, I noticed a few people laughing uncomfortably, so I incorporated that into my meditation. “Notice the laughter. Notice the sound of the fan.” It was actually kind of amazing. The people noticed their own laughter and stopped making sounds, and I felt like they started being more present instead of being uncomfortable about being present.

Then, after we did the toning exercise, someone asked me about the laughter. This reminded me that there are laughter meditations, and that I had just seen a role model of mine, Mike Veny, do this laughter meditation as an ice breaker. He had told me that it really helps to get people out of their chairs to move around. It helps them get past their fears and get involved.

So, never having done this before, I decided to answer the participants question about laughter by mentioning the laughter meditation or laughter yoga, whatever it is called. People hadn’t heard of it, so I just started them with fake laughter. I had them walk around the room, make eye contact, and go “HA HA HA,” in a fake way to each other. Before I knew it, it transformed into real laughter, and the energy in the room completely changed.

For me, that was using whatever was available to me to achieve my goals. I matched an interest of the group with an exercise I knew about to take them from where they are gently to another place. I had had no plan to do that, but the group gave me the idea, and I was paying attention enough to notice the idea and then go with it.

I think that education, at its best, uses what they call “teachable moments” as a way to provide information in a way that is responsive to the students’ curiosity. You’re not really abandoning the lesson plan. You still know the goals you have for your lesson, but you aren’t attached to how you reach that goal. It is far better to take students from where they are to another place, than to try to force them to stand in two lines, like Madeline, and make them walk there in lock step.

That’s because students are much happier to do something if it is their idea. If it satisfies their curiosity. Many teachers, I think, are afraid to improvise. They are more concerned about controlling their students, because they know that when students are quiet and appear attentive, then it looks like the image most people have of education.

In fact, there is a huge difference between the appearance of attentiveness and actual attentiveness. Actual attentiveness is usually a lot more messy. Students are each pursuing their own way along the lesson plan. Perhaps everyone isn’t doing the same thing at the same time. Yet, if you honor their curiosity and respect them the way adult learners are accustomed to, then it becomes much easier to teach them what you want to teach simply by matching their curiosity to your lesson plan.

Children are not so different from adult learners. They also crave respect, but are generally used to not getting it. They’ve been told children don’t know enough to guide themselves, so they have to be guided and regimented if they are to learn anything. This probably feels pretty bad for most children, but they are good at sucking it up and conforming because they know their lives depend on being able to get along.

Some adults know better. Some expect respect. Perhaps that is more difficult for teachers, because it means they can’t write out everything they are going to say, and then say it.

It’s even worse with the kind of teaching I do. I want to give people experiences that they can learn from. I’m not going to tell them what they are going to learn. It’s not that I don’t know what I want them to learn nor how I can teach them. However, I know that they guide their own learning. They will tell me how best to teach them, if only I find a way to listen. So their questions guide me. Their behavior guides me. I just need to notice how people are acting, and then use their energy to guide them towards the lesson. Their behavior tells me how to formulate the experience so they can then evaluate it, and learn what they learn.

Some people say the work is relaxing or fun. Some see a little bit about listening and connecting. Sometimes the most surprising students are those who seem to have the least attention. Once, there was an older man in a workshop, who didn’t talk much, and when he did, he slurred his words and spoke slowly. I figured he was on heavy duty medications.

At the end of the workshop, he said the most amazing thing. He said, “This gives me meaning in my life. Most days, I sit in front of the TV all day and nothing else. Making the music makes me feel like there’s something to look forward to. It’s meaningful.”

In the end, that’s exactly what I want to teach. Accepting yourself as you are, and making your own sounds while listening to others. That’s meaningful. That’s connection. That’s both speaking out and being heard, as well as feeling like you’re part of something larger than yourself. That’s meaningful! That’s the work that makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile while doing what I love to do.

Setback

So here’s one of those things that happens that makes me wonder whether my responses to reality are inappropriate or not. Am I crazy?

They like my workshops, but they tell me I can’t continue unless I get cleared by the FBI.

Cleared by the FBI???

WTF?

I’m trying to volunteer. I’m not getting paid. I’m taking my own time and resources to drive all over the city to help people have fun improvising music, and in order to that I have to get FBI clearance? Get my fingerprints taken and put into that vast black box that our justice system uses to blackball anyone they don’t like for any reason they want?

When I grew up, the cops were being used to suppress opposition. They thought nothing of shooting at young people who were merely protesting a war that seemed to have no purpose and was killing so many of their fellow youngsters. When I was young, the feds were killing students everywhere from Kent State to Philadelphia Mississippi. It was so clear to me that the police thought like bullies and had little compassion.

Have things changed that much since then? How many people have been killed by cops in the last few months just because of the color of their skin? They were totally cooperating but it didn’t matter. They were killed because the cops couldn’t control their own fear.

My first job after college was canvassing for the equal rights amendment. We were trying to engage in political speech, going door to door, asking people for financial support, and the cops were always trying to stop us. They didn’t care about speech. They just wanted to keep strangers from knocking on their neighbors’ door. I never got arrested, but I’ve spent more time than I cared to sitting in police lobbies while they try to sort out whether we have a right to speak or not.

Nowadays, the “justice” department and the security departments have vast advances in technology that they can use to bully and intimidate people into behaving like normal people. Unfortunately, I can’t behave like a normal person even if I wanted to. I’ve got a diagnosis. I’m certifiably different from most people. Supposedly, there’s something wrong with my brain that makes me behave in ways that are against my own best interest, as other people see it. Who knows? Perhaps I am doing that now, writing this.

I’ve been a data librarian. I’ve dealt with large data bases. I know how much one can learn from seemingly innocuous data. Do I want to give away information to vast bureaucracies that engage in group think and are afraid of their own shadows? Do I want to let people have an easier time punishing me and forcing me to conform if they should ever have a desire to do so?

I can’t imagine that they would ever have such a desire. I’m a good person. But then, people have weird ideas about the mentally ill. They want to take away our right to own guns. Personally, I don’t think anyone should have a right to own a gun. I don’t think the cops should carry them around. So many people would still be alive if we didn’t have such easy access to guns. So many people would have had to find another way to kill themselves if we didn’t have such easy access to guns and guns weren’t so easy to use.

I don’t want to make it any easier for cops to make me change the way I live. Even if the chances are very low that this will happen, I don’t want to make it any easier.

Furthermore, I don’t believe that doing background checks actually make us any safer. I think using vast databases to make decisions is the lazy person’s way to evaluate others. So many people get caught up and punished forever for doing silly things. Getting drunk and getting caught urinating in public can get you banned from  working with children, forever. It’s a sex offense that can get you on public lists. That’s just plain stupid.

The best way to evaluate people is to pay attention to them; to work with them; to see how they interact with the people they work for or with or who they serve. Bureaucracy is supposed to make it possible for vast organizations to control the workforce and this is supposed to be more efficient.

It isn’t. It discourages creativity and innovation. I don’t want to get caught up in these kinds of supposedly benign but secretly destructive social mechanisms.

So I don’t want to get my background checked, even though there’s nothing there to worry about. Or maybe something could show up, simply because these systems make a lot of mistakes. How many times have bill collectors harassed me on the phone because my name is so common. Never mind these other David Fords have completely different addresses. They  can’t even be bothered to use the data easily available to them to figure that out. Laziness, venality and bullying seems so much easier than doing a good job, and doing a good job means nothing if you don’t fit inside the regulations that don’t accomplish what they want to accomplish. All they do is allow people to act as if they conform, thus covering their asses, while not actually improving security one whit.

Am I cutting off my nose to spite my face? Is there some kind of fear of success thing going on here? Am I letting this bureaucracy become an excuse to not try, and not take on responsibility?

I don’t know. I can’t tell. Maybe others would make those judgments, and then I could succumb to those judgments and make myself into a horrible person again, and get depressed and all that comes along with that.

All I know is that this really bothers me. It feels so wrong. If I have to do something that feels so wrong just to volunteer, then maybe I’m not really going to be able to help either myself or others this way. So maybe I just need to find some other way to do music with people. Maybe I can’t help in psychiatric rehabilitation facilities. Maybe I have to start my own operation, and try to run classes where people can choose to come to me, instead of being forced into attendance because that’s what they have to do to get their meals and SEPTA passes. I want people to do this work who want to do the work, not because they have to satisfy the unthinking rules of big bureaucracy. Maybe that’s not the place for me.

That’s my case for myself. That’s my case against myself. I really have no idea whether I’m fooling myself or this is just the way I feel. I’m so used to not being able to honor my feelings that this throws me. Should I contort myself to be good and be liked or will that send me back to place that made me depressed?

The irony, is that these organizations are trying to help people with mental issues such as anxiety and depression. I need therapy, too. This work is my therapy. But do I have to submit to their rules, and thus shove myself down again, in order to be allowed to be helpful to others and to myself? Would that even work? Or would it all be counterproductive?

I don’t know. My therapist says “I don’t know” is a part of myself that I use to avoid my feelings. I’m pissed off. Does it matter if my anger is justified or not? I’m angry and that comes from fear that these systems will squash me yet again. I don’t trust these huge bureaucratic systems. The individuals in them are surely well-meaning, but the systems they develop take on a life of their own, and that’s dangerous, particularly to marginalized people like the mentally ill, or people who aren’t white or especially, people who are both.

“Strange how paranoia can link up with reality now and then.”
Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly

“Who’s they?” He wanted to know. “Who, specifically, do you think is trying to murder you?”
“Every one of them,” Yossarian told him.
“Every one of whom?”
“Every one of whom do you think?”
“I haven’t any idea.”
“Then how do you know they aren’t?”
“Because…” Clevinger sputtered, and turned speechless with frustration.
Clevinger really thought he was right, but Yossarian had proof, because strangers he didn’t know shot at him with cannons every time he flew up into the air to drop bombs on them, and it wasn’t funny at all.”
Joseph Heller, Catch-22

“Anyone not paranoid in this world must be crazy. . . . Speaking of paranoia, it’s true that I do not know exactly who my enemies are. But that of course is exactly why I’m paranoid.”
Edward Abbey, Postcards from Ed: Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast

 

Edit: I went to a meeting of the West Philly Icarus Project tonight and told this story.

The Icarus Project is a support network and education project by and for people who experience the world in ways that are often diagnosed as mental illness. We advance social justice by fostering mutual aid practices that reconnect healing and collective liberation. We transform ourselves through transforming the world around us.

There were fifteen people there and three of them came up to me afterwards to tell me that they had been required to give their fingerprints in order to work in the mental health field. One of them had been fingerprinted seven times. None of them felt that the process was anything other than busy work. They didn’t seem to believe that anyone was safer because of it. I’m not sure they shared my indignation about big brother, but in any case, it was nice to know I’m not the only one who has problems with this.

Maybe it is worth trying to fight this senseless and worthless bit of do-nothing, feel good legislation. In any case, I’m sorry I won’t be able to work with people who could probably really benefit from what I’m doing. Maybe there’s a way around this. If anyone has any ideas, please add a comment.

The Music Workshop Live!

It works!

I’m kind of high right now because the response to the first two workshops I gave was so enthusiastic. I’m so excited right now, that I did a bunch of research and correspondence in the last few hours. I really, really don’t like passive engagement, just interacting with a screen and my imaginary ideas about the people I’m writing to. I’ve done too much of that in my life and it leads me far away from the kind of human connection I really want.

Leaving these workshops, I’m feeling so open, I can talk to anyone. After each one, I had a pretty intense conversation with people on the street! Yesterday, right after I crossed the street from a support center on Germantown Ave, I looked into the eyes of a man, something I would ordinarily never do. He looked so interesting, though, that I felt like I knew him, and weirdly, he thought he knew me, as well. Maybe it’s that we were both feeling open to the world at the time.

He was about my height. Skin the color of light chocolate. A big, almost Muslim beard, but a bit bushier. His brown eyes were intense, and he engaged my gaze directly, but without threat, nor urgency. He was present. He had that aura of a street person, but his clothes were clean, and he didn’t ask for money — not right away, anyway.

“Don’t I know you?” He asked.

“I don’t think so.” It was a strange feeling, feeling like you know someone, but not recalling ever having seen them before.

“Do you drive a red Cadillac,” he asked?

“No. That must be someone else. You’re the second person today who thought he knew me. I just gave a music workshop across the street,” I pointed down the street to the entrance to The Wedge.

“I did an improvisational music workshop,” I said. Then, volunteering, “It’s for people with…” I jabbed my finger towards my head. “I have bipolar disorder.”

“I have bipolar disorder, too. I’ve got a lot of problems. I need some help — finding some place to live. Could you help me out?”

Oh the struggle in my head. I dearly wanted this to be one of those cool encounters where you just meet a kind of kindred spirit. Giving him money would make me feel like I was paying him to talk to me. I fished out my wallet, anyway, and gave him a dollar.

“The music helps with the depression and the self-hatred. It’s like a mini-vacation from all the crap that goes on in my head.”

“I play the guitar.”

“Do you know about the center across the street?”

“No.”

They have a lot of services there. They help you get a place to live. They get you medical care. They’ve got a bunch of things for people to do. Like the music thing I’m doing.”

We talked a little bit more, and then said goodbye with a handshake and a little “bro” hug.

Today, the workshop at another location of the support center was a lot more energetic. I tell my story about how this workshop came to be, and then I enter into the first exercise, which is a short meditation designed to ease people’s fear of what others might think of the sounds they make. Even before I asked people to start making sounds, some of the people were. It made me relax, because I knew I wouldn’t have to do much coaxing.

A lot of people were making a low, guttural sound, like an idling motor boat. It felt like it was coming from deep inside, without any filters. There were a few self-conscious laughs here and there, but there were just as many people who were already lost in the sound.

The next exercise generated most of the high. It’s the name game, where we each take a turn singing our names together with a movement. Later on, I recall the movement and I can recall people’s names. Normally, I would forget their names right away — maybe even before they said them.

The person on my right was a staff person. Maybe a ringer, but she was so genuinely enthusiastic about this exercise that she was free in making up her song and movement, as well as improvising later on when we repeated her name. The group developed a rhythm and even the reluctant people were encouraged to step up and after that, everyone was on board. I got back so much energy from their enthusiasm that I’m still buzzing hours later.

Out on the sidewalk after the workshop, I struck up a conversation with one of the people from the workshop. He ended up telling me about how tough his life had been. How dangerous it was; how many people had died; how he’d spent time in jail; in the shoe, and so on.

It was like the music totally opened him up. He started telling me about his brother.

“He was in the hospital with a stroke. When I went to pick him up, I had to carry him to the car. His legs were paralyzed.” He was choking up as he remembered this scene, and as he struggled to hold back his tears, he turned away from me a little. I stood there, letting him be. Remembering my therapist telling me to feel my feelings. You feel them, and they start to dissipate. They’re no longer something you run away from and do all kinds of stuff to keep from feeling them.

“Will you be coming back?” I asked.

He shook his head. “Those people,” he said, pointing back inside, “They don’t get it. They hear what I’m telling you and they’ll use it against me.”

I think he was expecting me to judge him for the things he’d done. I just wanted him to be able to tell his story, and I’m a little bit amazed at how powerful music can be to help people have fun and open up the things they’ve kept hidden, if they feel safe enough to do so. I respect that as a sacred trust. I’m not going to name names or share too many details about what happens. Just enough to give an idea of how powerful this work can be.

I am gaining confidence about it. I’m a bit in awe. I know that people are lonely and isolated and desperately want to be their true selves and share the real stuff with others. I know that because I know how isolated I’ve been. I know where that has led me.

By sharing that with others, and by teaching them a way to create the safety they need, perhaps this can help them heal. At the least, it can help them cope, as it has helped me. I can’t guarantee that anyone will be safe. But I hope that I can teach folks methods to create that safety for themselves. Perhaps they will learn how to build trust with each other.

 

Improvisation and spiritual connection

I studied classical trumpet as a youth. While I loved my horn and its sound, learning to play musical compositions perfectly eventually became a terror for me. The problem with performing classical music for me, is that everyone knows what the music is supposed to sound like, and if you make a mistake, everyone knows, and they can do a “gotcha” afterwards. It is extremely unpleasant and I know I developed a defense of pointing out my mistakes before anyone else could. It’s not a good way to enjoy performing.

I quit playing trumpet for about fifteen years, and I only got back into it through circumstance (including back injury from a car accident and a chiropractor who was also a trumpet player) and because I was then involved with groups that were pretty much entirely improvisational. When you improvise, I felt, there are no wrong notes. I could believe this enough that I was able to play comfortably for audiences.

I was brought up on perfectionism, and it has caused me great pain in my life. I am only able to play as long as I believe that right and wrong don’t apply. The key, for me, is to have fun, and now I live to teach others to improvise and to have fun — to listen for what they love in music, instead of listening to criticize or feeling that they have no right to make music because they aren’t good enough.

Composition is the process of inventing and writing down music. Improvisation is making up music in the moment. Unless someone listens to a recording of an improvisation and transcribes it into music notation, it is never written down.

The process of writing is quite different from the process of improvising. It’s the same as the difference between writing a story or telling a story during a conversation. When you write, you usually revise and revise many times over. When telling a story, you tell it once for the audience, and then it is gone. Whatever you bring to the performance is never going to be seen or heard again, even if you record the event, or transcribe the improvisation.

Each performance of a composition is unique, just as each performance of a play is unique or each reading of a story is unique, yet there will be a marked similarity in the performances, since they are trying to enact the composition as accurately as possible.

In improvisation, anything might happen. An improvisation can sound “wrong” but if you make a “mistake” you merely have to repeat it to make it sound like something you meant to do, and if you repeat it, then it becomes an acceptable part of the experience. There are no wrong notes. Wrong doesn’t make sense in improvisation.

Composition is not completely about setting music in stone, but, except for matters of interpretation, musicians are expected to play compositions note for note, without any room for improvisation. While jazz compositions do have room for improvisation, you are still expected to play the heads in a way that will be recognizable. You’re allowed to put it to a different rhythm or time signature, and even to modulate it, but these are variations, that must leave the melody recognizable. Even in the improvisational parts, you have to stay within the structure of the composition, because playing too far outside that composition can rattle your bandmates, unless they are prepared for free improvisation.

Free improvisation can start from anywhere with anything, and can become anything it wants. People often wonder how music develops in free improvisation, if there is nothing composed at all. This is possible because music is essentially about repetition, and you barely need to repeat a few notes, for others to pick up on what you are doing and help you build it. Free improvisation is about listening for the recognizable motifs, supporting them and building them into larger patterns. If you play with musicians who listen well and are generous in supporting each other, this is easy.

It’s also easy with people who don’t consider themselves musicians. Set a few ground rules, and people can learn to improvise quite happily with each other very quickly. See Improvisation Games for more about the Sonic Sandbox improvisational instruction process.

Improvising music is built into human beings, I believe. It is a part of our natural pattern recognizing abilities. We do it instinctively, the same way that birds can flock together in amazing formations with millions of birds, and they never hit each other in the air. We know much more about rhythm and melody and harmony than we are aware of. We have been unconsciously analyzing these patterns all our lives, and so if we are allowed to play together without judgment, we can do it easily and intuitively.

It is only judgment that turns musical improvisation into musical composition. Someone writes down music, and makes critical choices about how they want their music to be performed from here on. Others make judgments about how well performers interpret that composition.

After writing this, I now believe it is fair to say that improvisation is about working with what we know, intuitively. Composition is about taking intuition and making judgments about it. For me, that takes a lot of fun out of music making. Music making is for fun and play and for bringing people together in a way that connects us without using our linguistic minds. Some people call this spiritual. I don’t care what people call it, so long as we can share that experience and feel more connected.

My practice is to find something to love in the sounds people make together. This helps me suspend judgment, and reach an altered state of consciousness that is not possible when my critical mind is engaged. This altered state helps me accept myself and others, and perhaps most importantly, it helps me feel connected in a way that I crave most of the time.

West Philly Porchfest

Thirty years ago, give or take a month, I arrived in West Philly to look for a place to rent. I looked at a place on Windsor avenue, across the street from where I live, now. I had just graduated with a degree in Labor Relations, and I was moving to Philly because my girlfriend was going to Grad school at Penn. I was looking for work with a union.

One of the things that I thought would help in locating a good place to live was to interview people living on the street about what it was like. The person I interviewed is now my next door neighbor, and her husband was working for a union. What more did I need to know about the block?

That decision changed my life forever (not that every decision you make doesn’t change your life in the same way). It led to me finding a cool place to dance, which led to meeting my wife, which led to more dancing, which led to music returning to my life when a car accident made it impossible to dance. Which led to…. And led to…. And so on.

When we moved into this house after we married, 48th Street was the edge of the gentrified area. Now, I have no idea how far it extends, but it’s a lot further out. 50th? 52nd? When we moved in, it was a pretty quiet area that focused on each block, in terms of most community activities.

In those days, the neighborhood was not only seen as edgy, but also not very cool. It might still be edgy in a different kind of way, but now, as my daughter said on returning from college last week, “The neighborhood is a lot cooler now than it was when I left.”

This was even before Porchfest. How cool are we now?

The band that eventually became Sonic Sandbox started a little over a year ago, when I started jamming with a few friends. When we started, the others weren’t sure what they wanted to do, but I had an idea about how we could improvise together, which is what I wanted to do because playing music that other people know makes me feel judged, and feeling judged makes me not want to play.

I don’t want to be compared to anyone, because I’m convinced I won’t compare well, and I’ve used that feeling to hurt myself a lot in the past. Instead, I wanted to get together to improvise because when you improvise, nobody can tell you that you didn’t do it the way it was supposed to be.

I had a few musical games in mind that we could use to start us improvising, and we started using them to jam together. We tried doing other people’s songs once or twice, but we kept going back to the improvisation, especially as the others came to understand the process better.

Playing at Porchfest was perfect for us, because they just wanted people to make music. They didn’t care about your experience. No one was getting paid. We were all on our own to make things go. But is was a community thing. Strength in numbers. The intangible feeling of support you get knowing that everyone knows this is happening and a lot of other people are out there playing or listening. It’s such a West Philly thing for me.

One of the things I like to do sometimes when we improvise, is to sing a story that I make up as I go along. I just picture some events from my life in my head, and do a musical play by play as the internal movie plays in my imagination. I sang the story that I am now writing.

In the end, I started talking about what I find so cool about West Philly. Porchfest is a perfect example of that kind of thing. It’s all about people not judging each other. It’s about setting up community, connecting to others and not judging. Not criticizing. There’s an awful lot of creativity in this community, and that’s no accident. Creative people locate here because it’s a safe place to play, to express ourselves and to live the way we want to without others judging us. I’m not saying there are no limits, but the limits are a lot more flexible here than in many other communities. West Philly is an oasis for many people who get stigmatized and judged for being who they are in a lot of other places.

I told myself that playing on our porch was just like any other time we get together to jam. We’re just playing, and we’re doing it so we can get out of our minds and into that place where we become part of something larger than ourselves. It doesn’t matter if others like it or don’t. We’re doing it for fun.

Of course, having support does make a difference. So when an audience started filling the chairs I had put out, it gave us a lift. It’s nice to be able to play for others as well as ourselves, and we knew people were there by choice. They could get up and leave any time they wanted, but they could also stay, and stay they did.

I think we were all grateful for the people who listened to us having fun playing together. They were fellow players in the sonic sandbox, and some of them even joined us. We take inspiration from any place we can, and once we started like a pack of dogs, because my neighbor’s dog was barking. Listen hear:  It may have started in an unusual way, but what it turned into had a lot of energy, and that’s true for most of what we do.

I think it helps to understand our process when you listen to us. It’s not just about pretty sounds. It’s about accepting sounds. When we accept the sounds we hear, no matter how we might judge them if we were in judgement mode, we can take them to places we’d never go otherwise. That means we have to ask an audience to give us a chance. Don’t give up in the first couple of minutes. It might take us a while, but we will find some place cool, musically speaking, to go. It’s just that we have to wander around in trackless spaces for a while before we can agree on what path to follow. I have fond hopes that people will enjoy listening to us wander, and then be amazed at the incredible scenery we find when we agree on a trail to follow.

Whether or not people listen to us that way, we can still have fun wandering around together and creating a path through the places we’re exploring. We can do that, and we can lead others in doing that through our workshops, and others can watch and listen to us doing that in our performances. What’s important is that we do it. It’s a spiritual practice for us, and as long as we do it, we’re better off, and if we can share it with others, either as participants or as audience, there’s a chance that others will be better off, too. That’s my hope.