Tonglen (Sending and Taking) in the Sonic Sandbox

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of Lojong or “mind training” there is a special form of meditation called Tonglen, which is a practice of thinking of sending and taking. On the outbreath, you imagine sending the things you want in the world out into the world. The things to think about add benefit to the world, so they probably include compassion, love, gentleness, getting what you need to live, and so on. On the inbreath, you take away the things in the world that you don’t want to be there; things like pain, pollution, isolation, unmet need and so on.

In the Sonic Sandbox, the basic improvisation exercise (also called toning) is a practical demonstration of the experience of dynamic (or interactive) sending and taking. We all take a breath together and initiate our own sound together. This sound is an expression of our feelings in the moment. It can be made either with or without intention or much thought. It really doesn’t matter what the sound is. All that really matters is that everyone contributes. Each person’s sound is a gift to the group, without which, music cannot happen.

I ask that people hold their sound for the length of one breath. I also ask that they listen to their sound in combination with all the other sounds, just letting them be, without needing to judge the sounds, instead noticing what happens when all the sounds coexist, and if they like, noticing interactions that interest them.

We do this two times for the length of one breath. Then, the third time, I ask people to keep making sounds, which means they have to continue to take breaths in order to be able to make sounds. I also ask them to start copying the sounds that interest them, and to move back and forth between making their own sound and copying the sounds that interest them. I ask them to do this on their own time, following their own impulse to either offer sound or copy sound. We need make no attempt to consciously or deliberately try to coordinate ourselves. If we just follow our impulses, that coordination seems to start to happening without effort.

Making sounds is sending. Copying is sending. When we breathe in, we are taking — offering a cessation of sound production (which also makes a small sound that can be heard if everyone is doing the same thing). The taking is the preparation for the sending. But the sending can be something primarily from our own impulse, or it can be something primarily taken from another’s impulse (copying).

The copying is often experienced as support by those who are copied. By switching between sound initiation and copying each of the others who make sounds, we can create a group where everyone feels like they are a part of the group and are being supported by everyone else. By doing so without a plan to do so, the support feels fortuitous, which is different that if we deliberately take turns copying everyone else, one after the other. However, whether we plan the support or it happens fortuitously, being a leader supported by other people’s copying often gives people confidence in their sounds and that makes them more willing to both lead and follow, solo and support, all of which add interesting changes when improvising music.

Meditation is typically practiced with a primary focus on one’s own experience, even if we are meditating in a room full of other meditators. When we add sound, we create another form of collective meditation, where we can observe the impact of our actions on others. We can observe all kinds of different ways of interacting with others.

In most social interactions, people take a lot of care to make sure they do not harm others with their behavior, and the Sonic Sandbox is no different. However, when making music from nothing, where we have no instructions about what kind of sounds we should make, people often crave instruction. We want to fit in. But how do we fit in when we don’t know what we are doing? How do we fit in when we have no prior agreement about how we are going to fit together?

Traditionally, most social groups have a history, and it is a settled issue of who will lead and who will follow. But in the Sonic Sandbox, we have no prior agreement — except that the facilitator will provide a signal (a breath) that indicates we are to start. Other than that, the facilitator is no different from any other member of the group. In a group where everyone is pretty much equal (other than the agreement about who will start the effort), we have to quickly solve the problem of leading and following, giving and taking, if we want to connect with others and build trust with them and create a sense of cohesion of the group.

Sonic Sandbox is a dynamic experiment in the solution of that problem that is based on the principle that everyone can lead and everyone can follow and be supportive and that all roles are equally important and that everyone is equally capable of filling any role at any time. All we need to do is figure out, for each moment, who is playing what role. The amazing thing is that if we all listen, and we all have faith that the process will be equally supportive for all of us, we quickly find ourselves making amazing sounds that can, indeed, be labeled as “music,” should we choose to do so. Of course, by that time, we’re having so much fun, it really doesn’t matter what label we apply to our efforts.

Once people learn that the process is trustworthy, it stops being necessary to agree that someone should play the role of the facilitator. All that is required is that we agree we get together for the purpose of sonic giving and taking. As soon as we get together, people are aware that the process depends on listening and copying, and so they start doing so, even without instruction or permission. It becomes the process of the group and people move into awareness of and implementation of actions consonant with these rules at the agreed on time and place.

The consequences of playing by these rules include fun, but aren’t limited to fun. Some of the consequences have an effect on the way we think. I can’t describe these changes at this point. I know they’re there, but I’m not exactly sure what they are. However, one impact this work has on me is that I feel a sense of connection to others that feels very close and is quite surprising compared to the way I feel most of the rest of the time.

The toning exercise seems to create invisible and satisfying bonds between people. These are not restrictive bonds, but welcome bonds. I think they are welcome because we know if they start to seem restrictive, we can easily introduce some new sound and that will quickly change what is going on. Others will copy and the music will change and it will always be a collective reflection of what is going on individually for each person. No one will ever be stifled and no one will ever be dominant for very long, and this is the closest we can get to collective self actuation.

I love this process and I love playing with people this way — and then, my mind often takes another step, and I wonder what it would be like if this way of interacting with others could be incorporated in other ways that humans organize themselves. What if these principles of dynamic leadership and supportership were applied in other kinds of organizations, such as community groups or corporations? Could these principles help organizations of people become more adept at reaching their goals? Could these principle ameliorate some of the more dehumanizing aspects of corporations and other organizations? Could they make relationships more satisfying in any group of people, no matter what its purpose — whether organizations of people who are blood relations or organization brought together around projects or for social purposes?

Let me know what you think. Let me know if you would like to try these techniques. At this point, I would be happy to go anywhere and work with any group to see how this form of play affects trust, connection, creativity, problem solving and cohesiveness within that group.

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.

Last Act for Poetry Night at W/nw/n

We were the final act at the W/nw/n coffee bar tonight. This is the second month in a row. The people there are really nice (Hail Miguel, Tony, Rosie and Unity)! They’ve been really supportive of us.

Normally, we meet on Tuesday night to play together, but this week, it got moved to Wednesday. Then we realized it was the last Wednesday of the month, and wondered if we should try to play at W/nw/n again. I texted Miguel and we kinda sorta made an arrangement, in an improvisational way. Making it up as we go along. Not that it’s always so easy for me to sit back and enjoy the ride without being certain where we’ll end up. But I’m learning.

I picked up Bob and Kurt, and then it occurred to me that we might be spending a lot of time listening to poetry when we could be playing together, so we decided to go over and check out the scene and if we had to wait until the end of the evening, we might just bag it and go back to Bob’s to play.

There were three stools at the end of the bar closest to the place where the poets stand. So we sat there, to see what was happening. Miguel was just announcing the first poet.

At first I was feeling annoyed about listening to the poetry, but as the poets started doing their thing, I got drawn in, and after a while, I was happy to listen, although I was still itching to play. At the break, we went to get our instruments. Kurt must have spoken to Miguel, because when I came back in, he told me we would be doing the same thing as we did last month.

I sat down and did a bit of drumming with Unity. They have a lot of percussion instruments to play — djembes, congas, some really neat vibraphony sounding things. Those vibraphones created some really nice spaces for the poetry. Not all the poets wanted musical accompaniment. But it was a nice vibe when they did. I found myself keeping beat very quietly on my Djembe. It was really interested how all the poets read with a very regular rhythm, no matter how many syllables they had to speak. Sometimes, I felt like I knew their rhythm even before they started. I’d love to play with poets more, and get into the musical aspect of poetry.

There were traditional poetry styles as well as more energetic hiphop and poetry slam styles. Some of the poets just made it up on the spot, and that went pretty well. Impressive. Some of them had poetry handles, like Number X, who I believe was the one who claimed to be bipolar. Hail fellow bippie!

I started thinking about how it would go. Last time we had to fiddle around setting up after the last poet, and the audience started talking, and we didn’t really interact with us the way I had imagined. I felt like we were background music and I had been hoping we could get a closer listen.

I decided I would use the Kalimba and sing about us while Bob and Kurt were getting set up. I tried not to think too much about what I would say. I just reminded myself that I’ve been writing a lot about us for this website, so I could use some of those ideas. Maybe tell a bit of our story. Maybe sing about how to listen.

So I started singing in my own way. Telling our story, using the kalimba. I started right after Miguel introduced us instead of waiting. I was almost weird how comfortable I felt. Last month, I felt so hot and I sweated an awful lot. This time, I was much more relaxed. No sweat. Literally.

I got a few laughs, but most importantly, I kept their attention. They weren’t drifting off to their own conversations. There were even some guys who were nodding their heads and making eye contact with me and smiling, which really helped. At one point, I looked back to see if Kurt and Bob were ready, but they were still setting up, so I said something about that, which got another laugh.

Then I got the idea of doing a music game with them. I decided to do toning, so I explained what toning is in my song, and got them all to do it. Twice. The second time, Kurt joined in on the guitar, and it turned into our jam. Perfect! I love how ideas can come to you in the moment, and you don’t even have to think twice. You just implement them, and it works.

I stopped singing, and picked up my horn, and came in as if there was a head to the song, and we were off. It was a lot of fun, and I can’t believe how comfortable I felt. I was dancing and playing. I invited people to move, but either they didn’t hear me, or they didn’t really want to. I didn’t push it. Maybe next time.

It’s all about acceptance. Me accepting myself. We all practice accepting ourselves in the Sonic Sandbox and then we practice accepting others. I was teaching the crowd our ethos. How to love the one true sound they make, and people got it, and we were all together for a few moments.

We asked Tony about having a night of our own, and he seems into it, now. So we got to figure that out, and then get our people to come. I’ve got the website now. And a template for flyers. Just gotta print them up and maybe make up some cards. Maybe print out a few CDs and try to sell them, although I really want to do it online. Just get a paypal payment and give them the link.

It’s been really healing. Kurt and Bob are really enjoying it. I am, too. It’s all about practicing acceptance and stopping all that second guessing and worrying about how I come across. It’s great to play for others. It’s one of those off-road trips you might have on vacation when you turn off the highway and stop driving with the GPS. Who knows where you’ll end up, but you see a lot of stuff you’d never see otherwise. That’s what happens in the Sonic Sandbox. I just gotta let myself play and I’ll have fun. It’s a choice I can make. Just keep myself from thinking all those obsessive, ruminative thoughts, and focusing on the play.

….note to self: take pictures next time. They might help give more flavor to this blog! Yeah. Just a note. Don’t beat yourself up for not thinking about it before. Just do it next time. Remember, we’re just playing. As long as we’re playing, it won’t become a job. And there won’t be any judgment.

How I will use this Blog

From time to time, I will post my thoughts about playing in the Sonic Sandbox. The charter membership is made up of three or four of us. We all met in the “recovery rooms,” which is jargon for the rooms where people meet at twelve step meetings. Because we met that way, we may or may not actually know each other’s names. The key to twelve step recovery is anonymity. Most of us only feel safe enough to talk about what is really going on inside when we have some measure of protection about our deepest shames becoming public knowledge.

For that reason, I only know the first names of the people I play with in the Sonic Sandbox. I will also not be able to provide any more details about what kind of twelve step group it is, nor what troubles we are dealing with that brought us together. I hope that won’t matter. What is important is that playing in the Sonic Sandbox has become a part of our recoveries. It is a coping technique that helps us learn to change our habits from ones that are destructive to both us and the people we love to ones that, we hope, will be a lot healthier.

The idea of making music together, I believe, was first discussed by Bob and Kurt. Bob plays electric violin and Kurt plays electric guitar. Bob also told me that Kurt was a singer. When I heard they were going to do some music together, I decided that I wanted to crash that party. I wanted to play with other people, because I had stopped playing for over a year, as a punishment to myself for harming people I loved. This was an opportunity to get together in a way that wouldn’t contribute to my problems. In the past, music had opened the door for me to get into trouble.

I knew I needed music because of what it does to my brain. I helps me access my sense of connection to others. As such, it directly counteracts the feeling of loneliness and isolation I was living in. It gave me respite from despair and hopelessness. It provided a few moments of relief from what felt like a black hole in the pit of my stomach, that was slowing down light as well as weighing me down. My life, for a time, felt slow and miserable and impossible — except for those moments when I was connected to others, primarily through music.

Then, I decided I was such a bad person, that I didn’t even deserve any relief at all. I stopped playing music. I stopped dancing. I stopped socializing. I stopped talking to friends and family members. I stopped working. I stopped using the phone. I simply couldn’t.

Finding people I felt safe to be with and to make music with was a miracle for me. It started at my house. Kurt and Bob and Ralph started coming over on Tuesday evenings to play together. Not all of them every single time. Sometimes it was only two of us.

I used my background in improvisational music to come up with games that would help us develop a practice. At first, we didn’t know what we wanted to do. We thought about writing music or songs. We thought about being a rock band. We’re still open to any ideas that anyone wants to bring to our practice, but mostly we started playing together using these improvisational games I either borrowed from others I have learned from, or that I made up myself.

I started recording our sessions, and then listening to the recordings, and after a while, I started thinking that maybe we had something that other people would enjoy. Maybe we were developing a process that could help others gain the benefits we were gaining. Maybe we could play for others and with others in more public situations.

To date, we’ve played for others in a formal way three times. We’ve given the workshop once in a formal setting (a twelve step group retreat). We enjoyed ourselves on each occasion, and we also got some positive feedback, which felt good. The workshop went over very well, and our last performance generated an amazing amount of energy. It got a group to get up out of their audience roles, and some played music with us, while others danced. It was a regular party!

I am beginning to see a future for this play for us. We can do the workshop at parties, or for people interested in learning how to make music together (no experience required). The workshop is also good for people in recovery, both from addictions and from mental illnesses. It provides a coping technique that gives people relief from the pain these things can bring.

Performing also brings people together, both as audience members and participants. It provides another way to connect with others, and, I hope, it helps to break down judgmental barriers that often come between us. It is great fun for us to be the spark plugs that generate the energy of connection within groups of people we do not yet know.

So, from time to time, I will post my descriptions and reactions to these events — our practices and our outreach to others. This may primarily be my thoughts, but I hope that other members of Sonic Sandbox will also want to post their thoughts, too. Until next time… I hope we can play in the sonic sandbox together one day soon.

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

huang1

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.