Roots of the Sonic Sandbox

The Sonic Sandbox has roots extending to many sources of inspiration. Some roots grow out of the improvisational music and dance community. Other roots reach into spiritual traditions meditation, yoga, and mindfulness, as well as into the support group and recovery movement.

Dance Improvisation

In 1986, I moved to an apartment in West Philadelphia with my then girlfriend. We were invited to a party by our upstairs neighbors — mostly, I think, out of self defense. They wanted to avoid us complaining about the loud music. It worked.

I liked the party, although my girlfriend didn’t seem to enjoy them so much. I think she made an appearance and then went back downstairs to study. I stayed, up in the attic where the party was being held, to witness a form of dance that was both new to me, but it felt like I’d known it for a long time. I asked the party-goers where they learned to dance like that.

The Friday Night Workshop at Group Motion,” I was told.

friday  night workshopI started going to the workshop, almost religiously. I met my wife there. I took the workshop facilitator training in Bermuda. I danced. I played music. I learned about rituals, tribes, and getting out of your head and into your body. Eventually, I figured out that this was my form of meditation, and later on, when I got sick, dancing at Group Motion was the only relief I got from my despair and hopelessness.

Music Improvisation

One of the dancers at Group Motion introduced me to his passions: drumming and a special form of music improvisation that he learned from the cell

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David Darling and Chungliang Al Huang

o player, David Darling at Music for People workshops. Ron Kravitz, creator of Music in the Moment, introduced me to Baba
tunde Olatungi’s
drumming style as well as Music for People. I had the privilege of studying with Olatunji himself, at a weekend workshop in Philadelphia. I also worked with David Darling together with Taiji master improviser, Chungliang Al Huang at a workshop at Esalen Institute.
I played music. I improvised. I danced Taiji to the shapes of the giant pines and played my recorder to the sounds of the birds and the ocean at Big Sur.

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I learned about the hero’s journey and story telling and five minutes before the group performance on the last night, David Darling told me he wanted me to do a solo.

Support Groups

In 2008, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and I started attending both a bipolar support group to learn how to manage depression and a twelve step group to learn how to cope with compulsive behavior. I learned about the power of listening to other people’s stories. I learned how rules can create a safe environment for people to tell their deepest shames openly in an effort to learn how to stop punishing themselves for the imagined and real hurts they have inflicted on others and themselves. I learned that giving back is a very good way to help heal myself.

The Warp and Weft of Root Weaving

Many roots. Many influences. Coming together to inform my life and my true work. It’s all a mass of knotted roots, now. I doubt if I could ever unentangle it, even if I wanted to. There’s much more, of course. Stuff from my family and my childhood. My struggle to feel lovable and loved. My efforts to punish myself for all the hurts I caused others.

These are also my spiritual roots. For me, spirituality is about feeling connections between me and others and our environment in a way that feels as if there is no separation. The magical paradox of being a separate being while being a part of everything. I am weaving all these things together; mostly making it up as I go along; and trying to pass on the things I have learned so they can help themselves recover from whatever it is that haunts them, and to find more joy and fun and love in their lives.

The Rules of Play in the Sonic Sandbox

Making our Sandbox Safe

Sonic Sandbox re-imagines the playgrounds of our childhood. For many, these playgrounds were places where we played without thought, just for fun. For some, they were places where they could be ostracized or bullied. The Sonic Sandbox is dedicated to creating a safe place for playing together without feeling judged or made wrong. The rules are simple:
  1. Listen. Find something interesting in every sound.
  2. Support others by copying them.
  3. Take turns riffing off what others are doing
  4. Make sure everyone gets a chance to develop their solo voice.
  5. Guard everyone else in the group.

The Sonic Sandbox is a place to practice acceptance. There are plenty of opportunities to beat ourselves up in the rest of the world. It is easy to feel criticized and then take that further: to join in and criticize yourself. This is what stops people from playing.

When I was in third grade, someone from the instrument rental store came in to demonstrate all the instruments. When he played the trumpet, I knew instantly that that was my instrument. My parents rented a cornet for me (because it was easier for a kid to hold) and I started taking lessons with a high school student.

Later on, I took lessons from adults, eventually studying with Walter Chestnut, the trumpet professor at the University of Massachusetts. I loved the trumpet, and Mr. Chestnut was a very jovial teacher, who rarely made me feel that bad when I hadn’t practiced.

I was studying classical music, which was the only thing I really knew about in those days. My parents listened to classical music at home. I knew little about jazz or even popular music, except that when I heard “Never on Sunday,” Herb Albert became one of my favorite trumpet players. I still own several of his albums — on vinyl.

I loved playing my horn, and I joined the junior high and high school bands, and was in the local youth symphony. It was great, except for two things: soloing and competition. It was (and still is) the practice for most students of classical music to have to perform in recitals as a part of our training. Another problematic custom for me was having to challenge others in the band for the first chair — the one who always played the melody line and who, on occasion, also took the solos.

I think that all my life I have had a love-hate relationship with wanting to be a star and hating the pressure of trying to be a star. I wanted to take the solos and be first chair because it carried some prestige and because we got to play the most interesting parts. I hated playing in recitals or taking solos in band concerts because if I screwed up, everyone would hear it and know who had made the mistake.

In classical music, most listeners are pretty familiar with the music, and so they know when performers make mistakes. When I was growing up, it became a kind of game to catch people out — especially the more famous people. I guess it might have made them seem more human and approachable. Unfortunately, when it was time to play the solos or the recitals, I imagined the audience and my fellow musicians (especially my teacher) were only listening for my mistakes.

There is a long, complicated, and amazingly common psychology behind this. I’ll simply say that in my family, making mistakes was a really bad thing that would get you a lot of scorn. Classical music just built on the neuroses I learned in my family. The culture of star worship in the United States also reinforced this message, and thus, every solo, for me, became a period of terror, as I knew I would have ample opportunity to make a glaring mistake (or more than one) that everyone would know about.

As a result, I couldn’t really enjoy the music. I was too concerned with not screwing up to enjoy myself.

I’ll tell the story of how I learned to get over this fear another time, but the main thing I learned that has lead me to try to create the Sonic Sandbox is that I need a place where there are no mistakes. A place where people will not be looking for mistakes. That means, I learned in David Darling’s Music for People workshops, that I need to learn a different way of listening.

If we listen for what there is to enjoy in music instead of listening for mistakes, both musicians and listeners will get a lot more enjoyment from it.